We are based out of Juneau, Alaska, a long, spread-out city pinched between big, heavily glaciated peaks and the ocean. It is the Alaska state capital and also “ocean locked”; you cannot drive to Juneau, the only way in is by ferry boat or airplane. We did a two-day kayak trip to test out the gear, practiced our wet entry and exit, and feel ready now for the main event of our kayaking vacation.
We rent kayaks and safety gear from Above and Beyond Alaska, who are very helpful in assisting us with trip planning. We have two double boats for four of us, which comfortably hold all our gear and food for five days of camping.
Drop Off at South Sawyer Glacier
Tracy Arm is a two-pronged fjord roughly 100km SE of Juneau, and access is by boat only. We get up at 5:30, load up the car and get down to the wharf to get the kayaks ready for a 7:15 pickup by Adventure Bound for the 3.5 hour boat ride out to the end of Tracy Arm.
It’s raining in the morning and the sky is thick and heavy with cloud, with fog right down to the water. We are unimpressed with the weather and everybody is a little glum and not terribly excited, despite heading out on what should be an amazing trip to a stunning area. We carry the kayaks down to the wharf and stuff them full of our gear. When the ship, the Captain Cook, arrives, we haul the very heavy kayaks off the wharf and up over the railing on the boat and lash them to the stern of the ship, not an easy task. And then we are off, heading out into the fog. All the sightseeing guests are inside and we four paddlers are out on the back deck, and Captain Steve is gunning the boat, doing over 20 knots. It’s cold and windy and raining, and we aren’t talking much, just trying to stay optimistic in the face of this miserable weather. Can’t get much worse, right?
After about 1/2 hour we venture into the cabin, which is a vast improvement from the back deck, and start chatting with the other passengers and crew. Some of guests are really curious, and ask us all about what we are doing, what gear we have, how long we will be out there for, how do we deal with the cold water, etc. Lots of fun. We go up into the bridge and chat with Captain Steve, who makes sure we understand where the pick up locations are.
Entering Tracy Arm we cruise past Harbour Island, and there are some big, spectacular icebergs, very blue, some grounded on the sea floor and some floating. There is a navigation buoy in the channel that is being pulled hard by the tidal current, and we talk to Steve about when and how to paddle through this channel to get to Harbour Island. Because the weather is so bad, we also talk to Steve about the possibility of a pickup one day early, in case we get completely sick of being wet and cold.
As we cruise up Tracy Arm, we pull up to various icebergs for a closer look, circling around the bergs at a respectful distance. The deep blue colour is striking!
We also pull up to Jake Falls, mid-way up Tracy Arm, which the crew say is as big as they have ever seen it due to the torrential rainfall over the last few days. The falls is really roaring, and the captain puts the nose of the boat almost right into it, telling jokes to everybody about the results of getting cold and wet. Everybody laughs.
We continue cruising up the fjord, still encased in thick fog and with the rain only rarely letting up, pull around a corner and suddenly there it is: the massive, chaotically fractured, brilliant blue wall of the South Sawyer glacier, in a bay full of icebergs. There are seals all around, many of them up on the icebergs, but we don’t have time for photos as we are getting ready for the drop off.
We haul one kayak off the back railing and put it on the side railing, slinging ropes around it to lower it to the water, about 2m below. Robert is the first to get in, and is given very strict instructions by Steve how to move from the boat to the kayak. I am next, and then we are handed our paddles and drift away. Next are Andie and Julia, and then the four of us are floating in the bay, surrounded by icebergs and waving goodbye and thanks to Steve and the crew.
As we paddle away from the ship, the glacier starts to groan, a couple fridge-sized blocks fall in, and then there is a roar and an entire section of the ice wall, perhaps 30x20m (although very hard to estimate because there’s nothing for scale) drops in, creating a large wave that slowly spreads out towards us. We are 100s of meters away, but turn around and paddle further away. By the time the wave catches us it has dissipated into a very low amplitude but immense swell, and we are lifted perhaps half a meter as the wave passes under us. The entire surface of the bay rises and falls as the wave passes underneath us and bounces off the walls. A intense introduction to Tracy Arm!
We paddled slowly around the bergs at the head of the bay, moving away from the glacial face, and discuss plans for the afternoon. Steve told us that the five days we have here is a long time, and most parties only take three days to paddle from the head of Tracy Arm out to Harbour Island. He suggests that we spend two nights at the first campsite, Sawyer Island, which is at the junction of two branches, both with glaciers at their ends.
The clouds and fog are lifting, and we decide to head to the island and set up camp during this window of good weather, so that everything stays dry. After paddling around the island looking at the different options for landing the kayaks we settle on the south side of the island, where the map says the camping is. The island is solid rock right to waters edge, no beaches at all, and we find a low-angle patch of rock to land on, bracing one kayak with the other while folks carefully get out.
We unload the boats and move all of our gear up to a relatively flat patch of rock on top of the small island, perhaps 10m above the high tide line. Andie and Julia then volunteer to go fetch water from across the channel, as there’s no water on our little island. They paddle across the channel to the wall on the south side, where there are several waterfalls cascading down to the ocean. The bigger falls are too wet, so they get the boat up close to a small trickle coming down the vertical rock and fill up our 20 litre jug. When they get back we haul the boats further up onto the rocks, well above the high-tide line, finish setting up camp and get dinner going.
The sky is clearing, and we let out whoops of joy when the sun briefly appears. As the afternoon turns into evening, the sun drops slowly into the western end of the fjord, staying just above the ridge of a peak soaring 1000m above us. The waters around us are full of icebergs, and seals are regular visitors to the island, looking up at us with curiosity as they swim around just off shore.
As we are eating dinner Andie sees one porpoise and then another go by, and we are all just in awe of the stunning surroundings and our good fortune with the weather.
There are waterfalls pouring off the surrounding peaks, four to the south and another four on the wall towering above us to the north, and as the sun pokes out from behind clouds it lights up the wet walls and icebergs beautifully. The icebergs slowly drift west, down the fjord as the tide goes out.
By 9 everybody is asleep and I am left alone to enjoy the solitude and stillness of this magical place, writing up this journal outside on the rocks. The glacier rumbles in the distance and the icebergs float slowly around in the calm waters around our camp.
North Sawyer Glacier
A relaxed morning, we wake up at 8:00 after going to bed last night at 10; nothing like a solid 10 hours of sleep, or rather, nothing like 10 hours of fitful sleep listening to intermittent rain showers pass through. The morning is cool and overcast, and as we make breakfast (good old bagels and peanut butter) and tea a couple more showers come through, which does not fill us with enthusiasm for getting out on the water. The low tide in the morning has exposed a good-sized group of rocks below our kayaks, smooth granite covered with sea weed and other incredibly slippery plants, and would make getting the boats into the water a major chore, so we have an even more relaxed morning and put into the water around 1:00.
The tides here are large, perhaps 5-6m, and the difference they make to the shoreline is dramatic. At high tide our boats are left high and dry on our little island, surrounded by slippery rocks that drop into the cold, murky waters.
This morning the weather is clearing, and we have some actual sun as we paddle around the west end of Sawyer Island and up towards North Sawyer Glacier. Our spirits soar as the sun comes out!
The sea is beautifully calm and the walls of wet, grey granite towering over us glisten in the sun, with numerous waterfalls cascading down to empty into the fjord. Absolutely stunning, and we are all in absolute awe of the majesty of this place, especially now that the clouds have cleared and we are enjoying the warmth of the sun. I am paddling with Robert today, and he has taken the back seat of the kayak, the end most responsible for controlling the boat, which gives me the luxury of being able to occasionally put my paddle up and take pictures.
Unexpectedly, the Captain Cook boat appears, cruising up the North Arm. The big cruise ships do not sail into this narrow channel, but for small boats like this one it’s no problem. We wave hi as they go past, and then we are again alone in this spectacular place, and keep paddling north up the arm.
The water is glassy smooth and Robert and I both feel comfortable taking our SLR cameras out of their dry bags to capture the incredible beauty around us. Because Robert is driving the kayak I have lots of time to do that. Awesome! We work our way slowly up the north arm and the scenery continues to amaze, with waterfalls every few 100m on both sides, and the rock changing colour, from gray to a malt-chocolate brown to bright orange, interspersed with light fractures and dikes.
The water is full of ice, mostly small bergs of less then a square meter, but occasionally large ones, bigger than a house or small office building, which we give wide clearance to. Captain Steve recommends giving the bergs three times their height in clearance, and we give them at least that. We did see some bergs rolling and flipping, off Sawyer island, and while they seem to roll very slowly we are not taking any chances, this far from help.
As we approach the end of the north arm the face of the glacier comes into view, a stunning wall of brilliant white and intense blue glowing in the sun. The fractured ice plunges right down to the calm, quiet water. Above the glacial wall are two mountains with a broad valley in between, and two separate glaciers, from either side of these mountains, have merged at this point before ending abruptly at the sea.
The glacier regularly makes deep rumbling and booming noises, and occasionally chunks, perhaps car-sized, drop into the water. Without anything for reference, it is very difficult to judge the height or width of the terminal wall, or even our distance to it, but looking at the map later we estimate that we are at least 500m away.
The sky remains a mix of sun and clouds, which paints the overwhelming scene in front of us with constantly changing patches of light. The fractured face of the glacier glows a brilliant white and blue and we are in photographic paradise.
We simply hang out in front of the glacier, for close to an hour, mesmerized at this incredible scene, taking photos and just staring. Cruising back and forth, we take turns going towards the face but always keeping a very respectful distance from the massive, unstable wall. Feeling very fortunate to have this sunny day in this incredible location!
We are also waiting for a big chunk of ice to fall off! Despite the north arm being full of icebergs, the glacier here today is not as active as the South Sawyer was yesterday. There are not any seals hanging out on the ice around here, either.
Eventually a good-sized piece on the left side does collapse into the water with a roar and a splash. It must have been significantly smaller than the one we saw fall yesterday, as there is hardly any wave sent out across the water.
Eventually we decide that we can’t possibly take any more photos and so turn around and slowly paddle back towards the island, taking a lunch break at the rocky beach by Twin Falls. The plan is to head up to the South Sawyer again, since we still have time and the sun is out.
Heading up towards the south Sawyer glacier, we are passed by a huge cruise ship, the third we have seen in the arm today, and we give the immense floating hotel a lot of space. Fortunately they steam very slowly up the fjord, and we hardly notice the wake. Once the massive ship is ahead of us it pretty much dominates the view of the glacier, and we turn around to make it back to our island while the tide is still high enough that we don’t have a problem landing the boats on the rocky shoreline.
As we are now paddling with the outgoing tide and the katabatic wind flowing off the glacier, we make very good time and are back at our island camp around 5:15.
Two more massive cruise ships sail up the fjord while we are cleaning up and having dinner, and while their size is impressive, their presence greatly diminishes the otherwise very remote feel and majesty of this place, and the plume of smoke spewing from the stacks definitely casts a pall over the unspoiled wilderness around us.
Dinner is Pad Thai with an appetizer of soup, and we discuss the cruise ships. On the downside having these floating hotels cruising up and down the fjord takes away the sense of remoteness, pollutes the air, and they are so big that they dominate the otherwise incredible view. On the plus side it is a relatively low impact way of bringing a lot of people into spectacular areas like this and thereby hopefully increasing the awareness and appreciation of nature, and the desperate need for conservation of wild places. And of course the real reason they come up here is the amount of money all those people bring to the city. We have dessert out on the rocks, watching for seals and occasional groups of porpoises who swim by as the icebergs float west with the outgoing tide.
Sawyer Island to Elbow Camp
High tide is in the early afternoon today so we have another relaxed morning, eating breakfast before packing up camp, and are ready to go around 1:00. The channels are full of icebergs this morning, and there is even a Smart-car sized one stranded on the low-tide rocks, plus numerous softball-to-microwave sized ice blocks scattered around the rocks.
The goal today is to get part way out the fjord to one of two camps to the west of us. The far camp is almost twice the distance, and we’ll see how far get. Once we are in the water there is no dawdling, and we get to the first one, Valley Camp, in about two hours. The valley is beautiful but the rain has returned and we still have time, so we decide to push on for Elbow Camp, which will put us within easy range of a pickup by Capt Steve.
Paddling today has a tremendously primeval feel. Out in the fjord we are surrounded by huge walls covered in mist, vegetation and waterfalls. The rain drizzles down and low lying clouds and fog are draped over everything. The only sound is water cascading down the rock, there is no wind and the air is heavy, thick and rich. Beneath us the fjord is 100s of metres deep and we sit, in our tiny kayaks, surrounded by calm, heavy immensity. Water, in a variety of forms, completely dominates and defines this world.
Except for one giant cruise ship and a couple of small boats we are alone in the fjord today. The dark, wet granite walls tower above us, and every crack in the wall is filled with vegetation that forms a series of green pathways across the otherwise blank walls. Any gully or depression in the walls has a stream, ranging in size from trickles to torrents, cascading down towards the ocean.
We have some trouble finding Elbow Camp, as the location marked on the map is not very accurate, and it takes us about 40 minutes of paddling up and down the shore to find it – a broad rocky beach with two bright yellow kayaks tucked up behind big logs at the high tide line. We have paddled 30km in about 4 hours today. In camp we meet Christine, a park warden, and Tim, from Georgia, up here for a summer job maintaining trails and cabins. It’s still raining as we setup the tents in the rich forest with a lush carpet of moss and quickly eat dinner, clean up, hang the food in a tree, and get to bed by about 11:30. We have not decided yet what to do tomorrow, but a pickup by Steve could be welcome if it keeps raining like this.
Elbow Camp and Pickup
It rains all night. It’s raining in the morning. The sky is heavy with cloud and the ocean covered in fog. My tent has leaked and I wake up with my head in a puddle. After about 30 seconds of discussion over breakfast we make the unanimous decision to call the captain on the radio for a pickup and go back to Juneau today.
Because of the steep rock walls in Tracy Arm, there are very few campsites, and those few are primitive, no facilities at all. Elbow Camp spot is a beautiful spot, with a creek tumbling down through the rich, mossy rain forest and a big, broad rocky beach that makes landing and launching the kayaks very easy. Christine and Tim are packing up early and heading up the fjord today, and we say goodbye and wish them better weather.
After breakfast call Capt Steve for a pickup at a location an hour or two paddle away, then we pack up our wet tents, put on our wet paddling gear and get back on the water. We are trying hard to “embrace the wet” since you certainly can’t fight it! Once the boats are loaded we paddle up the fjord, the way we came down yesterday, a very relaxed cruise along the shoreline, and get to the pickup spot with an hour to so to wait.
I’m sure we made quite an impression on the boat passengers, appearing out of no where like we did. We chat with some of them on the way back and answer fun questions like “did you sleep out here?”. Steve and the crew were a lot of fun too; they had bet that we would last only three days out of the original plan of five, and were surprised that we had made it to day number four.
On the way back to Juneau we we spot some humpback whales and stop to get a closer look, before continuing on the hour or so of relatively quick travel north to the city.
Thanks for a spectacular kayaking trip, and special thanks to Above and Beyond Alaska for their equipment, advice and help and Adventure Bound for providing us with boat transport out and back, and lots of great advice!
– Darren Foltinek, 2014