A fjord by any other name

A boat trip to Tracy Arm offers sensory overload

Posted: Monday, September 10, 2001

Few are drawn to Tracy Arm by the name. If tour boat skippers required their destinations to have a descriptive name as a selling point, they'd all head for Glacier Bay.

But if the cartographers started from scratch and were limited to two or three words in renaming Tracy Arm, how would they deal with twin glaciers, granite walls, waterfalls, wildlife and icebergs?

Whatever their decision, the winner would have to be paired with "fjord," the more accurate term for the waterway.

Despite the blandness of the name, Juneau's Tracy Arm-bound skippers fill their boats every day during the touring season.

"A lot of people aren't aware of how dynamic a place it is," said Steve Weber, captain of the 56-foot Adventure Bound, the only tour boat that will continue daily, 9.5-hour round-trips from Juneau to Tracy Arm until the end of September. "It's not part of a national park. It's tucked away in a corner of a national forest, the Tongass. It just doesn't get a lot of publicity.

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"But it's not second-best to any place else."

Tracy Arm may seem like a jealous mistress, demanding Weber's attention at least 12 hours every day for five months. Listening to his commentary aboard the Adventure Bound or talking to him ashore, one senses he would prefer a year-round season to show off "his" fjord.

On a recent outing, he demonstrated that the shortest route between two points may be a straight line, but that straight lines diminish a traveler's experience.

About 45 minutes out of Juneau, he slowed parallel to - but at a safe distance from - a pair of humpback whales, one of which appeared to be encrusted with barnacles.

Back on course, the Adventure Bound veered to the left to provide a close look at the trip's first iceberg.

Pushing south again on the 40-mile (each way) trip, waterfalls burst from the forest and tumbled over rocks into Stephens Passage. Weber slowed to circle another iceberg, this one featuring two eagles perched on top. He set course for shore when everyone's second-favorite critter (behind whales), a kelp-nibbling black bear, appeared.

On a typical Tracy Arm outing, such attractions are merely appetizers once the boat pulls into the fjord.

"Tracy Arm is one of the world's best definitions of fjord - even Norwegians rate our fjord as a top attraction," Weber said, explaining that fjords are terminating inlets carved out by a glacier that left steep rock walls with the steepness continuing under water. A fjord also has to have adjacent elevated glacial valleys.

 

"Each element of Tracy Arm being a fjord is very well defined," Weber said.

This fjord offers a sensory overload. Steep granite walls, their tops lost in the clouds, tower over the water's surface. The face of the South Sawyer Glacier stretches six-tenths of a mile across. The water is full of icebergs big and small. Hundreds of harbor seals, with a pup for almost every adult, dot the floating platforms.

Weber pulls as close to the glacier as safety permits, then kills his twin, 625-horsepower engines.

Those on board are eager for a calving. Anticipation grows as the sound of a living glacier fills the air with a near continuous crackling that echoes off the granite walls like the sound of rifle fire. When the glacier calves, people whirl and point - "Over there!" - as the ice face splinters. The splash is seen before the sound - this time like a cannon - reaches the boat.

Weber's deckhands sell film to those who underestimated the photographic opportunities and make sandwiches for those whose appetites are whetted by the excitement.

Tracy Arm tours

Adventure Bound Alaska: 463-2509

Daily May 1 through Sept. 30 (subject to weather).

Departs Marine Park 8:30 a.m., returns 6 p.m.

Adventure Bound: 56-foot boat, twin 625 HP engines, 37 passengers, 3 crew, enclosed seating, heater, rest rooms, snack bar.

$99 adults, $59 under 18, plus tax. Discounts for locals. Price includes pastries, coffee and hot chocolate. Bring your own food or purchase sandwiches made on board.

Adventure Bound Alaska offers the only daily Tracy Arm tours from now until the end of the month.

Other companies offering Tracy Arm trips from late April through early September include: Tracy Arm Tours 586-3311, Goldbelt (Auke Nu Tours) 586-8687, Orca Enterprises 789-6801, Alaska's Tantallon Tours 789-7983, Seawind Cruises 586-664, and Four Seasons Marine 790-6671.

Eventually, Weber moves the boat across water that averages 900 feet deep to look at the Sawyer Glacier before hugging the base of the cliffs for close-ups of red-footed pigeon guillemot, wildflowers and waterfalls. At one point, he backs the stern of the boat closer and closer to an icy torrent.

As the water begins to splatter on the deck, everyone retreats - except a 90-year-old great-grandmother from Ohio determined not to miss the opportunity to tell the folks back home that she showered in a glacial waterfall.

The trip provides for more than five hours in the fjord. On the return, the Adventure Bound does travel in a straight line. Many of the people on board snooze, exhausted from what Weber calls "power-viewing."

"The gratification is continuous from the time we leave," he said. "We get a lot of people who tire out because there's so much to see. You put in a full day's work just looking at stuff."

Day trips continue through Sept. 30 and resume next May 1.

Steve Reed can be reached at streed@juneauempire.com.



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