Inside Passage Blog

By Linda Lewis



August 3, 2007 – Tracy Arm: South Sawyer Glacier - Did We See It?


Tracy Arm - South Sawyer  Glacier (south of Juneau) - would we see it? That was the big question this year.
Sawyer Glacier is usually quite approachable, but this winter's excessive snowfall changed everything. Most cruisers who tried to go up Tracy Arm earlier this summer could not get up far enough to see the glacier. We kept hearing these reports as we approached SE AK the end of May so we changed our trip plan to make this destination come at the end of our voyage rather than the beginning. We were keeping our fingers crossed we would see the glacier.
Here is an example of the view off to our sides as we started along our way up Tracy Arm on July 21.

This rock wall (NB Mr. Geologist) loomed up at us  in our winding passage, as did more ice in the water. Did I imply you were finished looking at icebergs? Nope. See that one? There were many more beyond it.

Now you are getting the idea. Just one week before our passage, Pat and Stew on Pegasus reported that they could get only as far as bringing Sawyer Island into sight - but no view of the South Sawyer Glacier. They had to turn around because there was just too much ice in the water. That's hard on the gelcoat of the boat and hard on the props. It can get downright dangerous if you squeeze up too far and the ice pack closes in behind you. So... at this point we were still wondering if we would be able to make it up all the way to the face of the glacier.

Here we are, all bundled up for glacier viewing.

Photo by Mark Bunzel

This is North Sawyer Glacier in the distance. You can see it off to your left on the way to the larger South Sawyer Glacier at the end of Tracy Arm.

And here is our goal, in sight! Lucky us. South Sawyer Glacier. Hurray. We got this far. Dave and I especially wanted our guest, Mark, to see South Sawyer on his first trip up Tracy Arm. When we got this far we were hoping to inch our way up even closer to the face.

However, the ice was getting quite thick. These pictures don't show the reality of the ice in the water. But the Captain could see it and called a halt for the Royal Sounder at a very pretty little waterfall along the north side of Tracy Arm.

Photo by Mark Bunzel

Dave decided that he would stay with the mothership and Mark and I should hop into the Green Devil (18' skiff made of plywood and fiberglass; 40 hp motor) and make our way up as close as we could to the face of the glacier. What great fun that was!

Photo by Mark Bunzel

In the Green Devil, Mark and I threaded our way through the bergs as if we were on a slalom course. OK, so you're seeing a nice open ice-free pool in the photo above. Believe me, it wasn't like that very often.
We sure liked what we saw.


How close would we be able to get?

This close.They don't call South Sawyer Glacier spectacular for nothing. It is big and blue and beautiful. Hearing the gun-fire-like cracking, the thunder of calving ice, and seeing the ice falling and spewing water is a hair-raising experience. Especially when you're in a skiff and wondering how far the swell with its ice carpet will move towards your vulnerable boat if the calving happens when you're near the face.   

For much of the distance we traveled in the skiff we were able to proceed slowly and sort of "bumper-car" our way through the bergie lines we encountered. Mark was snapping photos and shooting video at a rapid pace. [Stay tuned for the upcoming Bunzel Discovery Channel special; just kidding.]
At this point, the bergs were so numerous that the prop was beginning to ping on the ice and started to sound a bit like an ice-cube grinder. Not good. The Green Devil's prop is a small, fragile thing and rowing back through the icebergs did not appeal to us.

So we sadly turned around at this point. On the return leg I tried to get right in behind a metal charter vessel and take advantage of the flat water behind his wake. However, he gunned along pretty fast and kept making hard turns to left and right. That churned up the water and threw up the ice pretty badly. I backed away from that idea and we made our way slowly and carefully back to the Royal Sounder and our very patient (!), very gracious Captain. We had been gone over an hour and he only called us on the VHF once to check up on us and give advice for a return route that he could see but we couldn't.
The Royal Sounder, with Captain at the flybridge helm, awaited our return. The time stolen in this wonderland added yet another Southeast Alaska adventure-memory to my treasure chest.

Linda & Dave
M/V Royal Sounder



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