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Ice with Everything

September 4, 2012

Aug 25 and 26

From Kake it is fifty miles north through Stephens Passage to the Tracy Arm, a long fjord at the head of which the Sawyer Glacier calves directly into the sea. I had not planned to come here–sailing Murre into ice is not my dream–but then I had not planned on Sitka. One step farther always beckons for one step more, and with glaciers all around, it felt a crime against adventuring not to take the one hundred and fifty mile detour.

Our first target is No Name Cove, a tiny indentation on the northern lip of the entrance to Tracy Arm. For its entire length the fjord is abyssal; ice carved cliffs drop into water and keep going for a thousand feet. There is no anchoring once inside, and so this cove serves as base camp for visiting cruisers.

The run up from Kake is eventless–the sky clear and the sea calm. The southerly wind predicted for the afternoon doesn’t develop, and I loll in boredom as we motor until unusual specks on the horizon turn out to be our first icebergs. They float off Holkham Bay like asteroid, a striking white against the background of black rock and green forest. Then just off the cove, another berg has run aground on the entrance shoal and serves as a temporary navigational marker. I drop anchor on the shoal’s edge as the sun sets.

Next morning we are underway by seven. Tracy Arm is twenty-three miles long, and for boats of Murre’s speed (5 knots) an early start is required in order to get to the glacier by noon and then back to the cove by evening.

And right away it’s obvious that the day I’ve chosen for our ascent is a bad one. As we motor past the cove’s berg, thick fog pours out of Tracy Arm and comes with a chill breeze; cloud is low and drizzly. I don three layers of fleece and then oilies and am still shivering within an hour.

The fjord is relatively ice-free before its big right bend, and the fog dissipates just after. And even here the bergs are separated enough that I can keep Murre on autopilot while I huddle behind the cuddy. Rain pours now and waterfalls are in such number and variety that one might think they are beings with their own biology, their own speciation, like their neighbor fir trees or the brown bear in the next valley. Some drop thick and heavy, frothing as they turn, pounding the sea with their cannon fire. Others starting far into the summits are thin tendrils, spider silk sliding continuously over slick rock for thousands of feet. I start counting waterfalls but quickly give up.

I am passed by a small excursion boat from Juneau making fifteen knots, the Chinook. She is steel, and her bow is deeply cut away for climbing over ice; her decks are lined with passengers in parkas, all huddled into the boat’s covered spaces. We exchange waves, and she is soon around the next bend.

As Murre and I climb into the fjord the water begins to change color. Infused with silt, it turns a milky-green, reminding of the Chicago River a few days after St. Patrick’s day. And here the bergs are more numerous. Sizes range from that of an ice block one might buy at a grocery to bergs the size of houses. Some are snowy, while others are a pure ice of the densest blue. Many have been melted by the warmer water of the fjord into fantastic shapes–swooping pinnacles, delicate arches–suggestive of flight while others are pitted, dirty hulks with all the grace of floating boulders. From a pilotage perspective the most worrying are the “black ice” bergs, small and almost entirely submerged but still as big as travel trunks and more than capable of holing the boat. They are difficult to spot until the last moment. Sometimes I see them only as the faintest difference in the water’s ripple as we approach. Twice I don’t see them at all until they pass our quarter. At this I reduce Murre’s speed. The height of the walls in Tracy Arm means there is no radio contact with the outside world. This is no place to get into trouble.

Still five miles from the glacier the ice thickens. A cold drizzle continues but at least the wind has calmed. I switch off the autopilot, taking over the wheel and begin to choose my way carefully as if steering between rocks at low tide. The path is obvious when looked for, and if I follow a kind of race-driver course around the inside bends of the fjord, I can miss most of the larger bergs, which seem to swing to the outside as they migrate toward the bay.

Now I can see the small island that defines the terminus of the fjord, and near it, a small cruise ship, the National Geographic Sea Bird. Then there is the barking sound of big diesels from aft and Murre is quickly overtaken by another fast excursion boat, the Captain Cook, swinging expertly between bergy bits. Its decks are entirely enclosed and apparently heated; I see a man in a t-shirt near one window. I would boil with jealousy, I think, if I weren’t so cold. I haven’t felt my feet in an hour.

A few minutes later the radio calls.

“Captain Cook, Sea Bird.” It’s the voice of a young woman. No answer. “Captain Cook, Sea Bird.”

The sound of a microphone crackling as if being fumbled for. A lazy voice: “Is someone calling Captain Kirk?”

“Captain Cook, please switch and answer channel one three.”

On marine radios all hailing is done on channel sixteen, but this frequency is monitored by the coast guard and reserved specifically for emergencies and brief outreach. So Sea Bird’s request to switch to another channel for conversation is standard protocol. It is also a little strange since no one can hear us outside the fjord.

I switch to thirteen.

“Captain Cook, Sea Bird.”

Long pause, then sighing, “Captain Kirk.”

“Captain Cook,” it’s still the woman’s voice, “this is a request for no wake as you pass. We have kayaks in the water. We don’t want them getting upset.”

Long pause.

“Is that really what you called me for?” replies Captain Cook. “Kirk out.”

I can now see the kayaks, small slivers of yellow that look like banana peels floating amongst ice cubes.

“Captain Cook, Sea Bird,” says a male voice. “Thank you for NO WAKE AS YOU PASS.” These last words are said with a polite firmness. The loud sound of Captain Cook’s engines promptly go quiet.

I overtake the island and the cruise ship and round the last bend. Ice is dense here and finding an open lane takes concentration. I go dead slow. Ahead is a veil of mist, but the next time I look up from ice avoidance duty it has dissolved, and a mile on is the Sawyer glacier.

How to describe a glacier? It is a river of ice, we are told, but though its twists and turns do mimic those of a river its mass resembles more a giant rock slide holding still. The chaos of jagged edges slowly calving into the sea I expect, but I had not anticipated that this chaos would continue up the mountain as countless deep fissures and crevasses–ice pulled apart and then pressed together in great piles as though the glacier is a jumbling earth-quake of ice falling and crashing over itself. Except that it does not move. And the blue! The entire aspect of the glacier is an egg-shell blue against the black of mountain; blue is the main color, not white, although there is plenty of white to be seen. From deep within the splitting crevasses and on the remaining wall after calving emanates a rich, gem-quality blue. The glacier is a vast, frozen sapphire.

Here I stop. The ice has become a loose pack and along one side of the fjord slush and small bergs are flowing briskly down. Zigzagging in clear water is no longer an option. To make way, Murre will have to shoulder slowly through, taking her thumps to the hull in stride. I see the Chinook returning from the glacier’s wall, jogging around larger pieces, occasionally colliding, riding up high, then backing down to find another path. My cruising boat is capable of many things, but this?

The radio sounds again.

“Chinook, you are coming in broken, please repeat,” says the Sea Bird. I cannot hear Chinook at all.

Then “I repeat: one of your engines is out and you’d like a relay to Coast Guard Sector Juneau. Please be advised we have no radio contact outside.”

There’s a pause.

“Yes, we are trying alternate methods of contact,” says Sea Bird.

The Chinook passes me slowly, her passengers now huddled in the main cabin and looking grim. The windows are fogging up.

“We have reached the Coast Guard,” calls Sea Bird after some time. “They will be attempting contact every fifteen minutes; they will start this in one hour, which should give you time to make the Tracy Arm bar.”

By now all her kayaks are aboard and the Sea Bird is herself turning to depart. Where Captain Cook has gone I do not know. I stay right at the edge of the pack ice trying to enjoy the wild, alien splendor. I put the dinghy over the side and row around in the smaller chunks, but I don’t have the guts to let go the tether. I take pictures. I pull ice bits aboard for quick examinations. I can’t get comfortable. It feels a little like dithering on top of Mount Everest.

I turn for the four hour motor back to No Name Cove.

From behind the island, Captain Cook powers past me with a roar.

“Captain Cook, we appreciated the no wake,” says a male voice from Sea Bird.

Long pause, then the lazy voice, dripping with derision, “This is Captain Kirk. Out.”

Murre and I descend the fjord, and as slowly as it constricted, it opens. The rain stops. Our marker berg is still grounded on the shoal of No Name Cove, where we anchor at six in the evening.

I fire up the stove first thing.


  1. Unintended permalink
    September 5, 2012 8:29 am

    Reaction: “Turn back! Turn baaaack!”
    That is all. Thank you.


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