Tracy Arm, South Sawyer Glacier

May 27, 2019 - National Geographic Venture

While we expected to wake up this morning in Endicott Arm, we diverted to arrive instead at Tracy Arm, the northern section of the Tracy Arm-Ford’s Terror Wilderness Area. Although spruce pollen made a soft haze in the air, the skies were clear and we peered at the fjord walls over coffee off the ship’s bow. Many of us were up early – a result of either the early morning light or jetlag. I don’t think any of us minded with a morning as scenic as this one.

Our trip into Tracy Arm rewarded us with the view of several mountain goats. The creamy white of their bodies stand out from the thousands of rocks along the high fjord walls. Spotting mountain goats can always be a challenge, but with patience, good optics, and communication most out on deck were able to see them and wonder at their ability to make it in such seemingly barren conditions.

After breakfast we found ourselves at the point where Tracy Arm splits between the bifurcated arms carved by Sawyer and South Sawyer Glaciers. We set out to see ice and alder colonizing the raw edge of the new land, to listen to mew gulls. We admire not only the blue ice of fresh glacial calvings but also older ice since calved from glacial edges. Embedded stones, sand, and grit embedded are evidence of the sheer amount of time, energy, and pressure that went into carving out this amazing fjord.

One thing was clear: the difficulty of discerning natural rates of retreat of these tidewater glaciers and meltwater waterfalls from how human-led impacts to climate that have accelerated these processes. These necessary and interesting conversations helped us to see this as a landscape both of hope and of concern, of beauty as well as of loss.

On Zodiacs toward South Sawyer Glacier, we embarked on a water-level view of waterfalls. We were front and center to admire the architecture of calved ice, and once we were in sight of the massive and raw face of the South Sawyer Glacier, we sat in wonderment before the hordes of harbor seals resting on the frozen floating bits.

We were lucky enough to be here at the time of harbor seal pupping, and we saw several seal moms with pups alongside, with many more pups-to-be on the way. As we nudged our way toward the spectacle, we were left only to ponder such flourishing of life at the ice’s edge. Of course it made sense, and yet.

We spent the afternoon retracing steps in Tracy Arm, but the wonder is that no journey retraced is the same. Keen eyes on the bow sighted numerous bears, two near enough for us to approach and observe thoroughly. These were black bears, glossy and brown-snouted, and the both of them mounted at the high tide line and clawing barnacles from the rock.

Were we done here? Absolutely not. Once out beyond Holcomb Sound, in at the outermost reaches of Tracy Arm, we found four humpback whales foraging, fluking, and spouting in the low light. It was a BIG day. Alaska big. And we were all out to meet it, to seek it, and we hope to find more over the week to come.

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About the Author

Liz Bradfield


Liz splits her time between the worlds of biology and literature. At home on Cape Cod, she does field work with whales and seals. The author of four collections of poetry, Liz also brings with her an interest in how literature and art can enliven science and enrich our connections to places. She has had work published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Orion, and is a professor of creative writing at Brandeis University.

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