Tidewater glaciers on the move

Posted: Friday, July 02, 2010

When I first arrived in the fiords in the early nineties, I jealously guarded their secrets, fearful that publicizing the place would lead to overcrowding and lost wildness. But I feel differently today. In fact, I now wish more Juneauites knew about this special place. So, once monthly this summer, I'll share my experiences in Tracy and Endicott Arms in the Empire, hopeful that it inspires you to come have a look.

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Courtesy Of Tim Lydon
Courtesy Of Tim Lydon

In August, 1880, John Muir finished his second visit to Tracy and Endicott Arms, describing the experience as "two of the brightest and best of all my Alaska days." Muir came to southeast Alaska to explore glaciers and learn how they shaped his beloved Sierras. Although he traveled widely, the glaciers and fiords of Tracy and Endicott remained among his favorite Alaskan landscapes.

The glaciers have changed since Muir's visit, but they're still big and spectacular. Rising up to 300 feet, their calving is among nature's most captivating spectacles. As a ranger in the surrounding Tracy Arm-Fords Terror Wilderness, I've spent many evenings in camp watching the ice crumble, avalanche, and belly-flop into the ocean. It never gets old.

Tracy and Endicott host the closest tidewater glaciers to Juneau. Although valley glaciers like the Mendenhall are impressive, tidewater glaciers are generally bigger and subject to frequent and often dramatic calving.

I've had many excuses to kayak and camp near the glaciers. Participating in seal research and documenting glacial retreat are a couple examples. The projects required landing my kayak on narrow ledges just a quarter mile from the ice, then hastily carrying my gear above the water before the next calving sent waves crashing against shore.

Fortunately, Tracy and Endicott offer easier-accessed camping about a mile from the glaciers, where the hazards are somewhat lessened. At these sites, I've passed long hours watching the near-constant action. Blue towers as big as office buildings suddenly shatter like glass and collapse into the ocean, throwing water and ice shrapnel hundreds of feet into the air. Shooters-bergs that dislodge far below the surface-rise from the ocean, sometimes more than a hundred feet, before toppling over with great splashes. The roar of crumbling ice echoes between high fiord walls. It's not uncommon for the entire face of the glacier to change shape during a twenty-four-hour visit.

For the adventurous, the rapidly retreating glaciers have left granite shelves that enable hiking alongside the ice. Aside from the steepness, the going can be uncommonly easy for Southeast, as the land is nearly absent of vegetation. Exploring these naked landscapes, Forest Service rangers have discovered secrets held by the ice, including ancient spruce logs from before the last glacial advance.

Camping and kayaking near the glaciers is thrilling, but falling ice, big waves, avalanches, cold temperatures and steep terrain are threats to take seriously.

A few years ago, a big wave destroyed a skiff belonging to a couple that landed about a quarter mile from the Dawes Glacier in Endicott. They were only rescued because one of them swam into icy waters to retrieve their dry bag full of flares.

Last year, tour boat passengers in a skiff about a quarter mile from the South Sawyer Glacier were pelted by ice following a big calving, but they somehow escaped injury. Some years earlier, while camped near the same glacier, a big calving threw a wave that nearly peeled me from my kitchen site about fifteen feet above the water.

I've learned to consider big calvings the norm. But it's especially true today, as our warming climate takes hold of the glaciers.

In the seventeen years since I first visited the arms, the ice has retreated dramatically. But it's really picked up in the last seven years. In one eighteen-month period, the South Sawyer Glacier lost over a mile of ice about 800 feet thick. Now, the Sawyer Glacier is on a similar tear. And the Dawes Glacier, which previously maintained a healthier appearance, is also rapidly wasting. It now slumps away from the fiord walls, leaving massive piles of fresh moraine.

The alpine and valley glaciers in the area are also affected. Three years ago, a valley glacier eroded apart, leaving behind a half-mile limb of unfed ice. Last year, one alpine glacier shed a big lobe, while another developed a hole that oozed black mud onto its belly. Above Holkham Bay, the Sumdum Glacier now has a massive depression in its mid-section, and its terminus has withered into a brownish stump.

It's true that glaciers come and go. People, bears and even salmon survive the diminished water. But the rapidly shrinking ice is nevertheless a symptom of the planet's changing climate. Scientists warn that our dependence on fossil fuel is driving the change in dangerous ways. For its part, the Forest Service is responding with increased research and education. In Tracy and Endicott Arms, we have moved climate change to the center of the education programs we provide to tour boat passengers and others, hoping to leave visitors to the wilderness with a strong conservation message.

Whether it's to experience the spectacle of calving ice or glimpse the impacts of climate change, the glaciers are a great excuse to take a trip to the Tracy Arm-Fords Terror Wilderness. Several operators offer day trips and kayak drop-offs, and the Forest Service is always available to help with plans.

• Tim Lydon is a wilderness ranger for the U.S. Forest Service. He spends much of each summer in the Tracy Arm-Fords Terror Wilderness.

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