Just a few miles south of Juneau, Alaska's state capital, mighty glaciers run down from the interior icecap to meet the sea. The meeting place of ice and ocean is at the head of long, narrow fjords, too narrow for cruise ships, and too dangerous for standard yachts. Fortunately, small, steel-hulled tour boats fill the void, giving visitors the chance to witness this wonder of the natural world.
After a couple of hours motoring along the coast, the anticipation mounts as we turn off the broad waters of the Inland Passage, round the first bend, and find ourselves enclosed by steep, rock walls. Like a coastal version of Yosemite, colossal domes and cliffs soared overhead. Delicate waterfalls traced their way down thousands of feet, leaping off the rocks then crashing back in clouds of spray. (Beneath the surface of the sea the valley actually continued down for another thousand feet.)
The observation deck soon filled with people dressed against the icy wind, searching the rock faces for a glimpse of mountain goats or black bears. Less hardy travelers stayed in the salon, which had an equally good view through the large observation windows. Bears were easily seen close to the water's edge, but binoculars were passed around enabling everyone to scan the cliffs for the elusive goats.
True to their name, they appeared only as distant, white specks, high above our heads. At reduced speed we proceeded inland, surrounded by the grandeur of high, snow-capped peaks. Deep in the fjord we encountered the first floating ice, and the ship began to follow a slow, meandering course. Eventually we came to a halt, still short of the glacier's twin arms, while the captain assessed the situation.
We were close to a small island, where the crew pointed out a nesting bald eagle, surveying us from the only tree for miles around. Slowly the catamaran began to work its way into the pack ice, carefully pushing small icebergs to one side. Clearly Captain Jeff Bentley had done this before and was not about to disappoint his passengers!
For half an hour we inched forward, passing seals and their pups basking on ice floes, until we reached an open pool of water. There we drifted before the magnificent ice wall of the North Sawyer Glacier. We were close enough to catch the deep blue refraction of old ice, now exposed to daylight for the first time.
In an earlier age, this glacier had carved the entire valley, now it was slowly retreating back into the mountains. The glacier's journey from the ice field high above had taken hundreds of years, but its slow advance would eventually cause part of the gleaming wall to break off and float away. The question was when?
We waited patiently for this event, called a calving, but in vain. After some time had passed we reluctantly turned back through the ice floes leaving the silent glacier behind. With the fjord now in shadow everyone retired to the warmth of the salon to listen to the Parks Service naturalist give a short talk on our surroundings and answer questions about the wilderness area.
The renowned naturalist John Muir had visited Tracey Arm in 1879 and marveled at its desolate beauty. Nothing has changed since then--it remains uninhabited and untouched. As we retraced our journey to the outside world the barbecue on the aft deck produced the fine aroma of cooking salmon to add to the buffet dinner. With appetites sharpened by the time spent on deck, we now sat back and ate as the sunset over the peaks of Admiralty Island National Monument.