The Glaciers of Tracy Arm, Alaska

At any point in my trip to Alaska this past summer, I could have left a happy woman.  I had spent time with my father and with my family, taken a flight seeing trip into Denali National Park, eaten birthday cupcakes on a glacier, spotted several moose, ridden the Great Alaskan Railway, caught several halibut out of Homer, eaten amazing fish and drank delicious beer (yes, the Kodiak Midnight Sun Nut Brown Ale was a highlight), taken a water taxi to the picturesque Halibut Cove on a morning where the water was dead still, and experienced an overnight ferry ride.  I had no idea how much more I had in store.  As I reported in my last post, Ruth, my AirBNB host in Juneau, had highly recommended a trip to Tracy Arm Fjord with Adventure Bound Alaska.  Tracy Arm Fjord is a classic fjord, framed by massive granite cliffs and dramatic mountain peaks.  It’s about 45 miles south of Juneau, and it is about 30+ miles deep.  Along the way, you see icebergs, waterfalls, and lots of wildlife.

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30+ miles end, you find the twin Sawyer Glaciers.

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These glaciers are active tidewater glaciers, which mean that they are valley glaciers that flow out into the sea.  They are known for calving or, rather, large chunks of ice fall off the face of the glacier.  So, not only do you get to view a glacier up close and personal, you often get to see it calve, representing the glacier’s advancement into the ocean.  South Sawyer Glacier is a bit more interesting in that the water at the face of the glacier is very deep, which allows the ice chunks to remain intact after they calve, leading to enormous icebergs drifting afield.  Here, these pieces of ice seem small.  Keep in mind that what we see at the surface is only the tip of the iceberg.

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South Sawyer Glacier

What is a glacier?  Glaciers are fields, or rather rivers of ice formed by years of fallen snow that compresses into enormous masses of ice.  Why is glacial ice so blue?  When ice becomes dense, it absorbs all off the other colors in the spectrum and reflects blue.  Years of compression make the ice denser over time, thus bluer over time.  The more air bubbles the ice contains, the whiter the ice.

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Here, at South Sawyer Glacier, we found hundreds of harbor seals and their pups.  Apparently, the ice in the fjord interferes with the sonar of whales, providing the seals with a safe refuge.  And, seriously, these seals are too cute; I couldn’t get enough.  I’ll admit that I missed a few small calving events, because I was distracted by the seals.

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But, after my second missed calving event, I got it together and started focusing on the glacier face.

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Not too long later, Captain Steven called out, “Look over there!”  He’d heard a snap or a crack, and within no time, there was a roar and a massive piece of ice broke off and fell into the water.  I was too stunned to capture it in photos, wanting to spend that time to pay attention to the subtleties of what was really happening to the landscape of icebergs in front of us.  But, then there was another snap and a smaller calving event followed, which I caught.

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The icebergs were starting to move, so our captain got us moving out of there.  He told us, “We leave now, or we stay here overnight, because that iceberg is moving.  It’s pushing those other icebergs, and before long, we are gonna be trapped up against that cliff.”  Ok.  Convinced.  Time to go.

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We slowly made our way out and headed over to North Sawyer Glacier, which does not sit in the background of a field of icebergs.  This area seemed more open, less enclosed than the last.  But, what it lacked in seals and icebergs, it gave back in coloring, texture and sheer height.  It seemed to tower above us with a face marked by deep crevices and several different colors.  I found these tidewater glaciers and their more obvious movements and changes very interesting contrasted with the seemingly stagnant (but not!) ice field of Glacier Ruth in Denali.  None disappointed, that is for sure.  Glaciers are majestic entities.  Like so many other places and things, there is no way to really convey how awe inspiring they are without actually being there to experience it yourself.

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We saw a small calving event here.  The captain told us that we had been extremely lucky that day to see the calving activity that we had.  Time was a ticking, and we had a a long boat ride ahead of us.  So, we headed back.  To read more about my day in Tracy Arm Fjord, read more here.

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