Tracy Arm Ford’s Terror Wilderness Area

Jul 16, 2018 - National Geographic Quest

Welcome to Alaska, where rainfall nourishes coastal rainforests and snow accumulation fuels glaciers that carve mountainous geology. Seawater fills in the retreat of glaciers that have cut deep U-shaped valleys, allowing us to explore the landscape by ship. 

Early morning, National Geographic Quest navigates passage through a narrow channel in ‘the bar,’ a partially submerged terminal moraine marking a centuries-earlier advance of the Sawyer Glacier. A moist misty morning greets us on our passage up Tracy Arm, an awe-inspiring slowly serpentining fjord that becomes more spectacular as the steep granitic walls close in on you in its upper reaches. This morning the fjord walls seem to be crying in the rain, with hundreds of waterfalls and vertical streams running down the rock face. 

At an island junction, the fjord bifurcates and we come around a knobby point where only a short time ago, Sawyer Glacier would highlight the view. Today, the glacier does not appear until we traverse a few bends deeper into the new fjordwaters.  It may soon come out of tidewater. 

After lunch under clearing skies, we hop into Zodiacs and slalom through icebergs in the jade-colored waters. Improbably, a hummingbird buzzes by us in the icy scene. A cream-colored dot of a mountain goat, spotted through binoculars high up the hillside, and harbor seals hauled out on icebergs to raise their pups, represent creatures in extreme refuge habitats, of steepness and icy isolation, respectively, against potential predation. 

After a non-hostile takeover (our quasi-Viking crew – dressed up and serving us hot cocoa by boat!), we seek views of the dominating glacier in the fjord, South Sawyer. The continued retreat of this flowing mass of ice leaves a former shadow of itself in the form of bare un-vegetated rock where the ice once stood alongshore. Discussions arise about naming the newly exposed island that has presented itself in the fjord. Perhaps it is not necessary to name every new point on the map, to leave it to wilderness, human imagination, and to future generations.

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About the Author

Steven Zeff


Steve is an international science educator, expedition naturalist and whale research associate. He has worked a range of polar to tropical destinations for Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic, since 1999. Steve lives in Stockholm, Sweden, where he teaches science and coordinates international school programs. When not in the classroom or out on expedition, he enjoys kayaking and birdwatching in the Swedish countryside from a stereotypical red summerhouse.

Steve lived ten years in Hawaii where he was involved in marine conservation programs, taught naturalist training programs, and researched and swam with humpback whales regularly. He was the Director of Scientific Communications for the Center for Whale Studies, a long-term whale research project working for the protection of the humpback whale. Steve has observed more than fifty of the world’s whale, dolphin and porpoise species in the wild.

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