The First Iceberg

This is the fifth of the “Week-Long Alaskan Dream” post series.

The starting of the Misty Fjord’s engines at 5:00 a.m. roused me awake, but the gentle movement of the boat starting on the day’s journey quickly lulled me back to sleep for another couple of hours. It was hard to believe we were beginning our 4th day of the trip (and only our third full day) – every day had held an entire trip’s worth of memories, and today was no different.

Once I rolled out of bed, a few of us gathered in the lounge area off of the kitchen to enjoy a cup of coffee, slowly greeting the morning. Then one of our shipmates popped in from the deck with one word — “Iceberg” — and the energy immediately changed. We excitedly chattered while pulling on rain gear to head to the bow.

Similar to capturing the images of one’s first child, the first iceberg of the trip was the subject of a multitude of photos from different angles, trying to preserve the memory without dulling the details. The layers of gray mist painted a rich yet monochromatic backdrop for a pop of sculptured blue floating in isolation, soon joined by others. Small bergs seemed to gather close, and their frequency and size grew, creating an increasingly diverse landscape as we pushed forward up Tracy Arm to the Sawyer Glaciers.

The fjords leading to the Sawyer Glaciers vary in their navigability. When we arrived in the morning, the fjord branching toward the North Sawyer Glacier was more open, so the captain veered in that direction first. When we reached the north head of Tracy Arm, we were treated to a private showing of the wall of aged ice. Gunshot-like sounds filled the air to announce a shifting of ice, quickly followed by collapse of a section of the massive glacier face into the bay, much to all of our amazement.

With calm waters and minimal ice debris, the captain deemed it safe enough to put in the kayaks. We were cautioned to maintain a safe distance from the glacier as we explored the bay. When a glacier calves, the ice chunks can become dangerous projectiles and create hazardous post-calving waves.

Cascades and waterfalls were scattered about on the towering cliff walls surrounding us. We paddled toward the base of a waterfall and pushed at the smaller pieces of ice as we passed by. One quickly came to understand the danger that a sizeable iceberg poses to a fiberglass boat hull, as a tap of the paddle was met with incredible resistance, even on the seemingly smallest of ice chunks. The old phrase “tip of the iceberg” is accurate – a small mound of ice above the water’s surface is often misleading, given the large mass that is connected beneath it.

Sitting in a kayak at the water’s level, we felt incredibly insignificant in the most awe-inspiring of ways as the untouched beauty of the mineral-infused waters, blue mosaic glacial face, and mist-covered peaks of the imposing fjord walls enveloped us in their collective beauty.

Once the kayaks were loaded back on to the Misty Fjord, the boat worked its way back along Tracy Arm to the fork leading to the even more impressive South Sawyer Glacier. The ice floes were thicker in the fjord passage, causing the captain to slowly zig-zag between the icebergs. It was like wandering through a sculpture garden, with each angle of the dramatic frozen masses revealing a different creation. Some were a rich blue, others a milky white, while yet others were largely clear.

On the expanses of flat ice were pairs of seals, mother and baby, lounging safely together. As the boat slowly navigated the passage, seals quietly slid off the ice into the water, with the babies close on the tail of their mothers. Watching the mother seals cautiously observe the ship and determine when to instruct their offspring to dive, I felt my own protective motherly instinct stir, a feeling that often emerged while just scratching the surface of the stunning wilderness that is Alaska — a fierce desire to protect this untouched land for generations of seals and other wildlife to live without threat of harmful development and unnecessary environmental dangers.

The lunch call went out and South Sawyer Glacier loomed closer. The chef plated salmon fillets with rice, and we abandoned our cozy dining nook for lunch with the best kind of view.

We gazed at that living, moving piece of ice for some time. It periodically popped and groaned, and then rewarded us a couple of times by calving a piece of ice that fell dramatically into the water below. The harbor seals rested on the nearby ice fields, unfazed by the spectacular scene that left us gasping in wonderment.

The Misty Fjord had few scheduling pressures, but we did need to refuel and resupply the next morning, just outside Juneau at Auke Bay. We began the trip back down Tracy Arm, with icebergs supporting our happy hour that afternoon. Featured drink?! The glacier-ita!

Perhaps it was a romanticized view, but the glacial ice seemed to have a special glow about it, adding a special touch to cocktails that day.

We moored in a quiet bay for the night, with the lights of Juneau in the distance. The skiff transported us to the shore of a rocky beach to stretch our legs and skip stones into the peaceful waters before turning in for the evening.

The bay reflected a warm pink sky that was slowly consumed by the blue of twilight, as the fierce golden glow of the sun set on the snow-covered peaks.

Next post: Mesmerized by the Humpbacks

Previous posts in the series: 

A Week-Long Alaskan Dream: Mosquito Cove Trail

We gathered in the hospitality room for Alaskan Dream Cruises in Sitka, Alaska, four couples from Michigan, New York City, Minnesota, and Australia. Introductions were made and we sized up our shipmates for the upcoming week. While the Misty Fjord finished its preparations for the Inside Passage cruise departure that afternoon, we were invited to join Alaskan Dream staff on a morning hike in the nearby Tongass National Forest.

The day before had been rainy and gray, so it seemed a good omen that the skies cleared and sun shone as we loaded into the van to hike the Mosquito Cove loop together. Making small talk and taking turns to point out interesting observations, we climbed timbered steps in the temperate rain forest, stepping carefully past piles of bear scat, while large slugs slowly made their way across the trail.

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We learned that only in the cleanest of atmospheres can a certain moss grow — usnea or “Old Man’s Beard” — a gossamer-like thread dancing in the slightest of breeze on the spruce and hemlock branches.  Old Man’s Beard reminded one of the delicate balance within Nature, and John Muir’s quote, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

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We emerged from the deeply-shaded forest to a cove at low tide, greeted by a world that is revealed periodically as the water recedes: broken shells left behind by ravens and other creatures seeking morsels from within; tiny crabs scurrying under rocks; slow-moving snails carrying smaller travelers on their backs. A person could miss the sub-plots as the allure of the main landscape story drew the eye to the larger vistas across the bay.

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Mosquito Cove, Sitka, AK

Looping back to the trailhead, the clear blue skies yielded unobstructed views of the dormant volcano, Mt. Edgecumbe.

Mt. Edgecumbe, Sitka, AK

We walked the remaining trail back to the van, to return to Sitka before embarking on our cruise adventure later that afternoon.

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Conversation already flowed more freely, and a casual, comfortable vibe was established among our new travel companions after sharing the meditative beauty of the forest together.

~ Kat

Next post: Leaving Sitka on the Misty Fjord