Tracy and Endicott Arm 2012

Located fifty miles south of Juneau on Southeast Alaska’s inside passage, Tracy Arm and Endicott Arm are two ruggedly beautiful glacier carved fjords that extend far into the Coast Mountain Range. A visit to the Tracy Arm-Fords Terror Wilderness, whether by boat or kayak, is an outstanding opportunity to closely observe several active tidewater glaciers surrounded by soaring mountains on all sides. Though not as well known as nearby Glacier Bay National Park, this area offers a very similar tidewater glacier experience with far fewer visitors and without government regulated access. 

During the summer months, daily excursions to this magnificent area are provided by the 56 foot M/V Adventure Bound or the 65 foot M/V Captain Cook, both operated out of Juneau by Adventure Bound Alaska. Their experienced captains will get you closer to the glaciers and points of interest that any other commercial vessels. Adventure Bound’s price for the trip is very reasonable, and for a small additional charge they can drop off and pick up kayakers for multi-day excursions.   

After several hours of travel down Stephens Passage, we turned the corner into Holkham Bay and immediately encountered ice by Harbor Island. This massive fragment had grounded itself on a submerged gravel bar many miles from where it originated, an iceberg emissary from the frozen world within the fjord. 

We passed under Mount Sumdum and its small hanging glacier that is named after the Tlingit village that once stood at the base of the mountain. Today, little remains of the village, but when the explorer and naturalist John Muir visited Sumdum in 1880, it was the principle village and winter quarters for the S'awdáan wáan (Dungeness Crab Town Tribe).

As we entered Tracy Arm, the steep mountainsides began to close in. The fjord was carved out in a U shape by the glacier, and many of the surrounding rocky cliffs have been polished smooth by the relentless grinding ice. Along the way, Brenda and I scanned the cliffs and ledges for Mountain Goats, one of the few large animals comfortable with this vertical terrain.  

The bedrock geology of the area is polymetamorphic.  Exposed and barren, it offers scant opportunity for vegetation to take hold.  Where ever it is possible, though, the rainforest advances where the glaciers have retreated.  Fresh water cascading down from the surrounding snowfields is plentiful; but spots to land and make camp are scarce.  Kayakers might find it useful to talk with the Forest Service Rangers who have a base camp located on Harbor Island about potential campsite locations before entering the fjord. 

All around, waterfalls plunged into the rising tide as we motored up the fjord. Our brave captain maneuvered close enough to this one to give folks in the bow of the boat an icy shower, a refreshing diversion on a hot summer’s day!  

After many hours, the face of the South Sawyer Glacier came into view, shining like a temple in the midday sun. Icebergs choked the upper bay; it would require the captain’s keen eye and skill to get us through for a closer look. With our speed greatly reduced, the bergs could be nudged out of the way like floating boulders. Collisions with some would make the whole boat shudder, and I prayed the hull was sound, since this was no place to go for a swim.  

After weaving our way through the smaller ice and open leads, we were able to observe large numbers of harbor seals basking on the floating ice, seemingly unconcerned by our presence or the huge chunks of ice calving from face of the glacier. The captain cut the engine, and we floated quietly for an hour, eating our lunch and taking in the amazing spectacle that surrounded us.  

Safe from predators, a mother nurses her calf on the ice. According to our captain, the seals are more comfortable with the approach of a motorboat than a kayak, perhaps a genetic memory from a time when they were hunted by humans.  We do know that they seek the protection of the ice pack because it disorientates the sonar of the Orcas who still hunt them today. 

For the next leg of our adventure, we headed south and then east into Endicott Arm, the larger and longer of the two fjords. Our first objective was a smaller side fjord called Ford's Terror that should only be entered at the top of the ebb tide. This narrow canyon was named after a naval crew member H.R. Ford who in 1889 foolishly rowed his dinghy into the narrow entrance of the fjord at slack tide and was sucked into the turbulent and "terrifying" currents and whirlpools waiting on the other side, barely escaping with his life.  When we passed through, however, it was calm and serene, with barely a ripple, a testament to our captain’s knowledge, skill, and excellent timing.

Once inside, we had only a brief time to explore the steep canyons and secluded grottos, like this little waterfall, making our way back out before the force of the outrushing tide could prevent our escape.

When we returned back into the far wider Endicott Arm, we again saw icebergs and marveled at the multicolored rock walls on the surrounding mountains. The farther down the fjord we went, the more the vegetation thins and trees disappeared, until all that was left were patches of sub-alpine plants and lichens. The effect was as if we were rising in elevation while still remaining at sea level.  

At the end of the Endicott Arm, we arrived at the Dawes Glacier, the final stop on our journey before beginning the long ride back to Juneau. We noted right away how few icebergs surrounded the face of the glacier and upper bay. Perhaps the outgoing tide had washed them away, or calving was not as active as at the face of the South Sawyer Glacier. Brenda and I both agreed that the Tracy Arm-Fords Terror Wilderness area is well worth a longer look, and that we should bring our kayaks the next time!

"Let the beauty we love, be what we do."- Rumi