2000: Alaska

Frederick Sound & Tracy Arm

August 30

Two humpbacks cruising.

Today we will encounter our first glaciers! In anticipation, we opt for a hot breakfast instead of the continental spread in the lounge.

We share a table with our Aussie friends Mal and Karen, and also with Verna from Kerrville, Texas, a charming lady who has traveled extensively: Australia 7 times, Alaska 4 times, she flew to Europe on the Concorde and returned on the QE II.

Verna tells us, "After a long trip, I retrieve my cat from the kennel and eventually she begins to warm up to me, after she’s punished me enough. She can usually hold out for about 36 hours before she gives in."

It's too bad I can't reproduce Verna's tone of voice, it was priceless. In any case, I admire Verna's zest for life. And I can certainly identify with her cat experiences; our cat Chelsea exercises many forms of punishment when we return from vacation.

Whale of a tail!

We spend the morning cruising Frederick Sound, where we are awash in humpbacks! We see small groups in almost every direction. The Captain turns the boat and heads slowly toward a spot where we last saw spouting. Passengers all over the ship are straining to see whale signs....

Suddenly, two huge whales surface within 30 feet of the boat! I've never seen any this close before -- We are completely in awe of their size and majesty.

We get lots of photos with both the e-cam and the Nikon. The whales are swift and leave us behind quickly, but we revel in the joy of their wake.

The photos below were taken with our digital Olympus C-3030. It only has a 3x optical zoom, so we couldn't bring the whales very close.

These photos were taken with our Nikon N70 SLR and a 170-500mm zoom lens. Makes a difference!

This afternoon, we cruise into Tracy Arm, a dead-end channel which leads to the South Sawyer glacier. The temperature starts to drop significantly as we enter the channel.

We approach a large waterfall with white water plunging endlessly off the mountainside. The captain pulls our ship so close, we can almost feel the spray.

The water in the channel is gray-green and glassy-smooth. Jen tells us that the water near the glaciers is full of "glacier silt", which gives the water its color. It also makes the water opaque and robs it of oxygen, which significantly reduces the fish life, which in turn limits the food supply of predators: no eagles here.

It is getting progressively colder; we see our first iceberg!; Look out, Titanic!

We start to see many ice floes in the water. They have a luminescent blue color, due to the glacial silt imbedded in them. These bergs and "bergie bits" were once part of the tidewater glaciers which stretch from the mountaintops to the shore. As seawater undermines the glacial front, chunks break off and fill the inlets with icebergs.

As we glide slowly through the mirror-smooth waters of Tracy Arm, we see two or three small glaciers nestling between peaks.

Approaching South Sawyer.

Finally we round the last bend and see our target: South Sawyer glacier. It is beautiful even at a distance, but don’t go ‘way: the captain will take our ship within a quarter-mile.

We know the thing is absolutely huge, 200 feet high and a mile across; but it is hard to get a perspective from this distance. As we get closer, the best indicators of scale are the birds which fly near the base: they are tiny moving dots, like specks of dust against Mount Everest.

We stay close to the glacier for an hour, hoping to see it calve. Jen tells us that this glacier is receding rapidly, the changes are apparent since two weeks ago when she was here, so a calving is a good possibility. After about 45 minutes we see a fair-sized chunk break off and we are happy at our good fortune; but the best is yet to come.

No more than five minutes later, another piece starts to disintegrate, and as it goes it starts a chain reaction which results in a huge hunk -- at least 100 feet high -- doing a slow-motion swan dive into the water, accompanied by a great boom which drowns out our whoops and cheers. The calve creates a great swell in the water. We watch breathlessly as it approaches our ship, then ride the wave helplessly and jubilantly as it rocks our ship from stem to stern and sends us skyward. Unbelievable! This is the rarest of the rare, an event no one could have planned or foreseen. Our hotel manager Alison tells me this has been the largest calve she’s ever seen, in four years of cruising to Alaska.

The calm before the storm. A bottom chunk cracks away... ...and raises a spray. A top bit crumbles... ...and splashes.
Gravity kicks in... ...and a huge piece... ...goes... ...ka-BOOM! The hole left behind.

Finally our captain turns us slowly around and we watch, sad but satisfied, as the beautiful blue-on-blue of South Sawyer glacier starts to shrink behind us. As we cruise away, the glacier seems to creep eerily after us, like lava flowing down from a volcano.

On our way back we pass close to a small ice floe which carries a lone harbor seal enjoying his own reflection in the silky waters. He is as cute as a puppy and seems to be watching us as intently as we watch him.

"Hey, bro," he seems to say, " wazzup? Where ya goin'? Stick around, the fishin's awesome!"

Finally we retreat into the warmth of the lounge where I try to get my frostbitten fingers working again. We are having a heckuva trip, no doubt about it!

We spend the rest of the afternoon reliving our glacier glee, then enjoy another jolly dinner full of laughs with Tom, John, Perry and Berte. As we sit next to our dining room window, Mike suddenly spots a huge whale alongside! Er...well, a huge tilted, bobbing BUOY, that is. The "orange whale" becomes a subject of much sport for the rest of the voyage.

The dining selections are a bit exotic tonight. Marian is introduced to her first Portobello mushroom, which is almost as big as she is. She is certainly determined to try everything the dining room offers!

Mike is displeased with the menu choices and Philip, as ever, promises, "You can have anything you want." Mike takes him up on it, requesting a steak and baked potato. When his meal arrives, the potatoes are mashed. "Philip, what happened to the skin?" Mike complains. Undaunted, Philip returns from the kitchen with some scalped potato skins, nicely microwaved.

Philip has three more weeks on the cruise line, then he heads for home to make and sell his soaps full-time. I am sad for the cruise passengers to come, who won't get to meet him!

I have been amazed at the smoothness of the water for most of the trip. I've always heard about the Inside Passage, and now I understand why it is such a great place for travelers. And the direction to travel is definitely south to north, not only because the seas get calmer as you go, but because the sights get better and better as you head north.

Only two more days onboard. Already I am feeling sad -- it seems we planned this trip soooo long ago, and now it's almost over.

Beautiful floating ice. Bundled up. Mal hugs Marian. Green shores, white ice. Rodger has pie for lunch. Deep blue ice.

Brad and Barbara Washburn, famous and accomplished mountain climbers, are passengers on board our cruise. They give a talk in the lounge this evening. Brad was a pioneer in climbing, surveying, and photographing most of Alaska's highest peaks, and his wife Barbara, in 1947, was the first woman to climb Mt. McKinley. Now aged 90, Brad is still active in conservation and land management; they are on their way to Denali National Park to consult with the board of directors about park management.