When I announced to my friends that I would be cruising to Alaska to wed Cindy, the news was generaly met with excitement and playful jealousy. Though most of these conversations were centered around the fact that we were getting married on a cruise, every now and then, someone would mention the destination. For some, it was an odd choice because in their mind, a cruise was best in a tropical setting.
While a tropical cruise is definitely on my to-do list (particularly after discovering how luxurious and fantastic a cruise can be), there was something about Alaska that felt was more suited for what we hoped to get out of a trip (and a wedding). Alaska has the romantic allure of the frontier, plenty of wildlife, history, and of course, glaciers.
Now, regardless of whether you acknowledge the trend of global warming (or don't and live under a rock), there is no denying the observation that glaciers are melting. To visit one was a bucket-list item of mine and one that is uniquely time sensitive. Considering this, Alaska would prove a perfect destination and I would get my fill in the Tracy Arm.
The Tracy Arm is a fjord in the Alaskan Panhandle that stretches for 30 miles from the sea to the Sawyer Glacier. I didn't know much about it before boarding our cruise ship, other than I would get to see a glacier. Though listed on the itinerary with all of the other ports of call, the excursion through the Tracy Arm was unique in that you never needed to leave this ship to enjoy the environment.
We started the day by heading out onto the top deck of the ship. From there, we could get a fantastic view and hear a cruise line's Naturalist who narrated about the fjord's history, wildlife, and our itinerary. A cloudy fog only added to the serenity of the place.
Naturally, everyone else also had the idea of heading to the top deck and precious real-estate along the edge of the ship was hard to come by. Luckily, Chuck and Chris found a spot between a towel-box and the railing, buying our group a little nook to view from. Our view was superb but the open deck introduced us to our first truly cold Alaskan weather. Lined up in headscarves and by height, it wasn't long at all before we began to look like a set of Russian nesting dolls!
Though observing from the highest point on the ship, we felt indescribably tiny as the solid, rock walls of the fjord narrowed on each side of the ship. The low, heavy clouds hovering within the cliffs only added to this effect by obscuring the true height of each ridge.
The cliffs contributed to our anticipation and yet, for me at least, managed to illicit some feeling of caution. I suppose it's just because I watch too many movies. I know it is overly theatrical to make the comparison but it felt like the moment when The Fellowship passed the Argonath in The Lord of the Rings.
It was at this point that we got a call from others in my family. They were down on Deck 4, which is an open-air deck around the middle of the ship, where the lifeboats are stowed. Tired of competing for space with other families on the top deck, we decided to join them. The relocation proved wise as there were several deck-chairs and blankets for us to get cozy and warm in.
At this point, there was nothing to do but get comfortable and wait (and maybe play a little shuffleboard). Oh, and of course, take photos of each other...
We sensed we were getting closer as the cliffs became more shallow. There were several small valleys jutting off from the canal; I assume that their lack of heavy forestation is evidence that a glacier used to fill each of these small inlets.
We continued to watch in awe before suddenly noticing a cloud-like, flat ridge lying between the folds of the fjord, off in the distance. Almost there!
We putted softly around Sawyer Island before at last arriving at the main attraction—
—Sawyer Glacier! Taa daa!
Now, to show you this panorama so soon is actually a misrepresentation of our experience. You see, when the ship reached the end of the passage it did so with the glacier on the Port-side of the vessel; We had set up camp on the Starboard side. Now, we easily could have just walked through the ship to the other side to bask in the natural beauty of the the thing but the Naturalist assured Guests fervently that the ship would rotate, giving everyone the perfect view. We chose to pretend to have the virtue of patience and remained facing away from the glacier.
Besides, there was much to see on our side of the ship, such as, um, goats!
That's right, in the midst of all this wonder from floating humbly in front of a glacier, someone pointed out to the Naturalist that there were a dozen or so goats on the south-side of the canyon wall. He seemed so excited by their presence and droned on and on about them. Despite this, they were impossibly hard to find!
We searched everywhere for those damn goats! In the 15-20 minutes that every other Guest was enjoying panoramic views of the Sawyer Glacier, the nine of us stared desperately at the cliff hoping to find the darn things! We were committed and it was comical!
If you look closely at this photo, you can see a white dot—that is all the wild goat you can ask for!
"We have goat!" We finally saw those darn goats and trust me, we were just as underwhelmed as you likely are reading this.
Lucky for us, the boat began to turn, revealing a brilliant blue mass of ice. We were told that the overcast conditions made for an optimum appearance of blue ice and boy it couldn't be truer. The beautiful blue shards, glued to the walls and floating in the sea, looked like a majestic Icee.
Soon, our patience paid off and we were facing the Sawyer Glacier head-on. We were excited to be in the presence of the glacier and marveled at its impressive presence and size. Despite this, you can not help but notice the light-colored rock on each side of the ice field, an outline of where the glacier was simply a decade ago.
Of course, I took countless photos, as if I was the first person to ever capture photos of a glacier. And then, there was only one thing left to do: Selfies!
As we were standing there watching the glacier, we noticed two exciting features. One, was the presence of seals napping all over the fresh chunks of ice. When looking back at the photos, it is almost silly that we didn't see them immediately, with their dark skin standing out against the bright ice (especially considering how much time we struggled with those damn goats!).
Second, we were able to witness the phenomena of calving, the process where the ice at the front of the glacier cracks away and gravity takes over, sending fresh icebergs into the sea. Something of an aural illusion, the "crack" noise that the event generates echoes between the high, rocky walls on each side of the ship and sounds as exciting as it looks!
Witnessing a calving event is bittersweet. You can't help but get wrapped up in how magnificent and exciting it is to watch large shards of ice crashing down into the water. It's why demolition videos are so exciting except, in this instance it's a beautiful, natural structure that is crumbling. Like watching firework smoke drifting away, when it's done you're left with a debris field of ice both fascinating and sad.
Anyway, it was at this point that the ship finished its rotation. We were now facing away from the glacier and ready to return to the sea. Cindy and I invited others to our stateroom to take advantage of complimentary room service and enjoy Tracy Arm from our veranda window as we played a game of Cards Against Humanity. It was the perfect way to retrace our path out to open water, where we would head north to our next port of call, Skagway. To continue the story to Skagway, check out my blog post here.
With the exception of a few tiny goats, our experience in the Tracy Arm was insightful, humbling, and awe inspiring. I know that it's simply another stop on another cruise line's itinerary but I felt tremendously lucky to get to visit there.
Though photos cannot due the landscape justice, to see more of Tracy Arm check out the gallery below: