Seals and whirlpools: Dawes Glacier and Ford's Terror

Posted: Sunday, August 31, 2003

The scenery was ethereal. The clouds, steel gray, blue and white, had slung themselves low over the tops of the mountains, settled comfortably but immovably, as though hiding a grand celestial secret. The water, a deep blue on this stretch of Stephens Passage, was dotted with icebergs that bounced in the Adventure Bound's wake.

The 56-foot boat and its captain, Steve Weber, were taking a group of friends, mostly Juneau bed-and-breakfast owners but including a couple of tourists, to Dawes Glacier and Ford's Terror on Wednesday. The trip was a thank-you gesture for the owners, who send business Weber's way throughout the summer. Weber, 50, runs daily summer tourist excursions to Tracy Arm, a glacier-studded inlet about 50 miles south of Juneau, off Stephens Passage.

First stop was the Dawes Glacier, located about 80 miles southeast of Juneau at the end of Endicott Arm. As the boat drew nearer, increased concentrations of glacial silt turned the water a glassy sea-green. Once within sight of the glacier, Weber, a former high school math teacher, scanned the water for an iceberg worthy of up-close inspection. Finding one, a giant ice-blue floe whose above-water portion was the size of a minivan (roughly 85 percent of an iceberg is below the surface), he steered the boat slowly around it so passengers could take photos.

"I like maneuvering the boat around the rocks and the ice, and helping folks set up pictures. That's what we do every day," he said.

Dozens of small brown seals flopped lethargically on ice floes, all but the laziest wriggling off the ice into the water as the Adventure Bound passed by. Small waterfalls trickled over the sides of the rock cliffs, and the stillness was broken periodically by immense cracking sounds as the glacier, half a mile across from rock wall to rock wall, calved giant chunks of ice into the water.

Weber has done the Dawes Glacier-Ford's Terror trip about 20 times since he began running the Tracy Arm tours in 1994. Though the beauty of both areas is spectacular, the logistics involved in visiting Ford's Terror make it less suitable for a day cruise, he said.

Ford's Terror is a fjord with a narrow bottleneck entrance off Endicott Arm, about 60 miles south of Juneau. It is so named in reference to a naval crew member who rowed a dinghy into it at slack tide in 1889, and was caught by the currents for six hours when the tide began rushing in, creating rapids. Adventurous kayakers flock to the spot to ride the white water.

Weber had to time the trip carefully, in accordance with the tide schedule, to arrive at Ford's Terror before the current became too strong.

"I have a two-hour window of opportunity to come in here, look around, and get out, otherwise I'd have to stay to the next high tide," he said.

The Adventure Bound entered the inlet as the water approached high tide. Ice floes near the rocks were caught in the tide and floated swiftly toward the bottleneck. That tide collided with undercurrents flowing the opposite way, creating whirlpools as big around as a hula hoop that spun on both sides of the boat. An iceberg caught in an eddy twirled like the ballerina in a young girl's musical jewelry box.

On the other side of the bottleneck, towering gray rock cliffs, smattered with moss and ferns, rose vertically from the water. Pine trees grew tall out of each ledge wide enough to support their roots.

"It's hard to beat Ford's Terror for concentrated beauty," Weber said.

Cutting the engine in a narrow niche in the inlet, he pulled the boat up close to the rock walls, pointing out the moss and ferns.

"Now, don't pick any off, but it's OK to look. See the pretty moss?" he said.

Chad Scheff of Seattle, who was visiting Juneau with his wife, Kari, was wowed by the scenery.

"It's awesome. Of all the places we've been in the world, it's right up there," said Scheff, who recently spent 10 months traveling around the world.

For the bed-and-breakfast owners, the trip was a nice day off. Judy Bowler, who runs A Cozy Log Bed and Breakfast in the valley with her husband, Bruce, woke up at 4:30 to serve breakfast to her guests so she and her husband could go on the trip.

"We recommend Tracy Arm to 100 percent of our people who are here more than a day," Judy Bowler said. "Monetarily, it's a good alternative to Glacier Bay. We tell people, 'It's your very own National Geographic day.' "

Kate Troll, who runs Alaska Fjord View Bed and Breakfast with her husband, Bill Hansen, said she tells her guests that the Tracy Arm trip is a "must-do."

"It's partly because Steve, the captain, he's very personable and he lets people come up and just talk with him. People like that. They also like the smaller, intimate atmosphere," she said.

Masha Herbst can be reached at

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