Several whales are asleep on the surface this morning as we cruise down Stephens Passage. Our destination is a tiny cove unnamed on the nautical charts but referred to as Tracy Arm Cove by boaters. This will be our staging anchorage for our 44 mile round trip exploration of Tracy Arm, a beautiful deep water fiord with two glaciers at its head. We experienced our first trip into glaciers last year in Glacier Bay. Navigating through the ice makes us a little uncomfortable. A collision with an ice berg could do much damage to our hull, prop, or stabilizers.
As we approach Holkum Bay, we see several big bergs floating in Stephens Passage. They have escaped past the shallow terminal moraine that we must now cross. Our depth shoots up from over 400 feet to just 70. During the last ice age, the glaciers deposited boulders, rocks, and scree here marking their furtherest most advance before receding to where they are today. This shallow bar can cause currents to reach up to six knots on both the ebb and flood. Reaching our anchorage, we see a large iceberg grounded on the shallow bar leading into the cove. This is only a small sample of what we will experience tomorrow.
We are anchored less than thirty minutes when four brown bears appear onshore. It is a mom, a pair of two year olds and a yearling cub. They are all busy feeding on the sedge grass and clams. Not wanting to disturb them, we admire them from afar.
We awake the next morning to a beautiful cloudless day. This is the first time we have seen the sun in over two weeks. Looks like it will be an amazing day for going into the ice. Mother bear and her three cubs briefly appear on the beach at 6 am for a breakfast of clams. As we cautiously exit the anchorage, an Eagle is standing guard on one of the floating bergs. We take a northern turn into Tracy Arm this morning hoping the ice will allow us to reach both North Sawyer and South Sawyer Glacier. The southern Endicott Arm would have brought us to Dawes Glacier. We will save that for another trip.
Just after leaving the anchorage, The Nat Geo boat Seabird calls a “Securite” as she is crossing the bar and entering Tracy Arm. It could get crowded today as there are already two cruise ships in Endicott Arm. With 12,000 passengers a day arriving in Juneau, the commercial tour boats will be bringing many of these tourists to the glaciers this afternoon.
The steep forested mountains plunge dramatically into the icy water and continue for another thousand feet to the Fjords floor. The water temperatures continue to drop the further north we proceed. We had 45 degree water in the anchorage and are now recording 43 degrees and falling rapidly. We remind ourselves of the dangers that this cold water presents. A person could survive only minutes at these temperatures.
When John Muir Traveled here in the 1800’s, he compared the rounded mountain headlands and u-shaped valleys to those of Yosemite. He theorized that V shaped valleys are formed by rivers while u shaped valleys are created by glaciers. As we wind our way northward, the forested slopes give way to bare granite cliffs recently carved by the glaciers and we see first hand evidence of Muir’s theory. Each turn brings a new and amazing view. Small and large ice bergs start appearing more frequently. As we are watching a brown bear on shore, an Orca surfaces on our port side. This is the first Orca we have seen this season. We suspect it is heading up to the glaciers to hunt newborn seal pups on the ice bergs.
The farther north we go the denser the ice bergs get. We especially have to watch out for the smaller clear pieces lurking at the surface which are known as growlers. The name refers to the sound the ice makes when traveling down your hull. These denser bergs come from the bottom of the glacier. Having had all of the air compressed out of them they barely float and are hard to see. Nat Geo stops about two miles from South Sawyer Glacier and deploys their zodiacs. Soon these grey speedboats carrying orange clad tourists zoom past us and disappear around the corner towards the face of South Sawyer Glacier. We begin to feel very uncomfortable as the density of ice and tour boats rapidly increase. With the glacier only partially visible we decide to retreat. We had hoped to make it a little farther but today it is not meant to be. We quickly head towards North Sawyer and find the waterway much less congested with ice and not a soul around. Several seals are hauled out on small bergs enjoying the bright sunshine. We hope the Orca doesn’t find them. We soon reach the glacier snout and spend our time hovering and admiring our surroundings. We feel extremely privileged to have reached the glacier and have this magical place to ourselves.
With a falling tide the ice flows start to close in and we wonder if there will be a path out. We grimace as several small bergs crunch against the hull as we navigate through the ice field. Once through this icy maze, the tension aboard Idyll Time eases. Our 22 mile return trip is equally stunning as the voyage up but without the tension of dodging ice bergs. However, we are met by over a dozen unbound tour boats along with the massive cruise ship, Carnival Legend. We wonder how far this hugh 3000 passenger ship can go in the restricted waterway. A few minutes later, the Holland America ship Amsterdam appears on the AIS. We hug the shore as we round Big Bend giving her plenty of maneuver room. It looks like our decision to leave early this morning was a good one. We wouldn’t want to be dodging ice bergs and cruise ships at the same time.
Rounding the bend back to Tracy Arm Cove, the two familiar ice bergs stranded on the bar are a welcome site. With the anchor down we can relax and resume our bear watching activities. Overall the day was a success and Idyll Time remains unscathed and ready for another new adventure. Thanks for following along.