A few days into my third trip, we make our way to Sawyer Glacier (North Sawyer to some) to find out how far the glacier had receded since last summer. The steep fjord walls, tightly grained with metamorphic pressure, twist the waterway. The ice flotsam runs in threaded lines through the water, following the freshwater outflow running against us. There, around the last curve, Sawyer looms. Towering seracs rise out of a mess of pulverized ice on its surface. Terns buzz around the face, waiting for the next thunderous calving to stun fish. We paddle closer. Chrissy, ever the expert, picks out the newly exposed rock around the sides. She traces the meandering of the lateral moraines and picked out the spots where ice would no longer flow down to feed the front. Not long, she guesses, before Sawyer would drop out of the ranks of the tidewater glaciers if it wasn’t already pulling its feet out of the sea.
Sawyer Glacier. The ice is peeling off of the rock faces, up and out of the water.
Sean and I huddle under a tarp, a few hundred feet up on a rocky bluff. South Sawyer Glacier squats opposite us, separated by a long stretch of silty green water. Below South Sawyer, a thick mat of brash ice stretches towards us, ending in a clearly demarcated line beyond which only larger bergs have dared to venture. We’re up here to count seals, but from what I can see, there’s only a few scattered on the flatter icebergs in front of us. Surely this couldn’t take that long. Sean, after a short squint, confidently asserts that there’s quite a lot of seals, but it’s hard to believe him. We set the binoculars up on sturdy tripods, and fuss for several minutes to find a position that will be comfortable for an hour or two. Sean gives me a final chance to make sure I’m ready and comfortable. I’m impatient, ready to finish this and move on to the next thing.
Then I look into the binoculars. Suddenly the distance between us and the glacier stretches on and on. The solid white field of sea ice opens up, becomes a plain of three-dimensional shapes. I spot a seal! And another! And another. Seals, and farther back, seal-like objects, seal colored dots, and so on, beyond resolution. I feel much less confident.
It’s day six in the field. Chrissy and I eat breakfast among the exposed seaweed of the intertidal area, counting on the incoming tide to dissipate any food scent. Bear sign and moose tracks are the only evidence of other users on this tiny beach, and we want to be good neighbors.
I’m nearly done loading my kayak back up when the first cruise ship appears across Endicott Arm. Chrissy, already afloat, pricks up instantly. Time to get in the water, she says. I throw what remains on shore into the kayak helter-skelter, dog the hatch covers and push off as the first swells come into sight. I’m barely out of the shallows when they hit us, the water rearing up into four-foot swells that seem alarmingly close to curling over. I crest the first and see the next bigger swell is riding right behind. The kayak feels like a dolphin as it bucks up and down, over and over as I concentrate on keeping the bow facing right into the onslaught. Behind me, the incoming train demolishes the thin strip of sand we just left, rumbling as it smacks into the rocks.
Welcome to the wilderness.
I’m a Southeast Alaskan first, Alaskan second. There’s something about the land and sea here that seeps into your bones, something just as pervasive as the rain wicking up your sleeves. For me, it’s the feeling of living on the edge. My hometown, Juneau, is a tiny smear of civilization scrunched between the edge of the sea and the foot of the mountains. Waves lick beneath the docks on one side, while, a few blocks away, avalanches and landslides push at our backdoors. It’s an extraordinary place. But, as I’ve come to appreciate, the land is not the boundless, untouched wilderness it appears to be. The wild places we have left aren’t there because we can’t push in. They’re there because we decided to stay out.