ALASKA: 2016 LEG 6 – TRACY ARM FJORD TO TRACY ARM FJORD | NW Explorations
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ALASKA: 2016 LEG 6 – TRACY ARM FJORD TO TRACY ARM FJORD

Tracy Arm Fjord is grand on a scale to defy nearly any superlative you might try to use. A yawning chasm of polished granite walls slowly narrows the view of the blue sky down to a stripe as the fjord snakes east and north into the heart of the mountains. Waterfalls rocket off the precipices, tumbling hundreds of feet, transforming into billowing mists that swirl sideways as the breezes catch the stream. Neatly attired black and white seabirds called Pigeon Guillemots dive from the surface, their orange feet flashing as they slip under the water with a stroke of their compact wings.

Formed over millions of years by the erosive forces of ice, rain, wind; and the tortured wrenching and crushing results of the eternal tectonic tussle between continent sized plates, these fjords stand as a stark reminder of the constant conflict present in nature as opposing forces seek balance. As soon as the mountains were thrust up from the surface and exposed to the elements the forces of erosion went to work trying to grind them back into dust. The sea whittles away at the advancing nose of the glaciers that carve the fjords even as snow in the high mountains beyond is slowly transformed in to downward flowing ice. These processes are carried out in slow motion far greater than the scale of human lives, but smaller illustrative moments occur constantly.

Our first stop takes us towards the South Sawyer Glacier, whose slow retreat back up the fjord has accelerated dramatically over the last year. Ice from the shattered glacier thickly blankets the surface of the fjord from wall to wall, and halts our progress at a rushing river outlet a mile from the face of the glacier, which is just visible around the bend.

Stymied by the tick pack ice, we tried our luck in the north arm of the fjord. To our delight, it was almost free of floating ice, and we advanced easily up to the face of the glacier, which sits aloof in a deep cleft in the granite. Its upper surface is shattered and jumbled, marked here and there with dark stripes of stone and grit, called moraines, which are the tattoo left behind when the rocky edges of two streams of ice converge uphill, sealing the rock into the body of the glacier. Towards its base, the ice shown a deep cobalt blue, a product of its density. The tremendous weight of the overlying ice squeezes all pockets of air from the ice, leaving behind a pure, ancient ice that seems to glow with and inner radiance. The lack of ice in the water led us to believe that it was perhaps not a particularly productive day for calving, which occurs when the erosive power of seawater and in inexorable forward momentum of the ice conspire to shake loose blocks of ice form the glacier’s face. We had nearly given up hope for a show when a resounding roar issues from the left side of the glacier and an absolutely massive block broke free. Perhaps a quarter of the glacier’s width, the block slammed into the still waters of the fjord and sent up an enormous splash, followed by a set of equally enormous swells, which sent coffee mugs skittering across the table tops as we whooped and cheered with excitement at the awesome display! The block broke apart and a great flood of ice began to drift south towards us as the swells settled, so we soon turned around and cruised happily back the way we entered.

The trip down proved exciting as well, as the sharp-eyed crew of Koa Lanai spotted a black bear happily foraging on one of the narrow beaches below the cliffs. Everyone was able to stop and watch the fascinating creature, and only a couple more minutes had passed before the crew of Deception spied a solitary mountain goat high on the slopes above us, a tiny pinprick of white against the green and grey beyond.

By midafternoon we anchored again in No-Name Cove, where the crew of Ajax kindly invited us all over for appetizers and a drink. We returned to dine on our own boats as the light turned soft and golden and the ice capped mountains glowing in the setting sun. Another great day in Alaska!

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