We’re down to our last trip out. We’ve gotten to a majority of our field sites, counted the seals (twice), and boarded just about every ship there is to board. We’ve spoken to hundreds of people, responded to emergencies, and taken out most our volunteers. At this point, what is left to do?
Tracy Arm is a place for crafting stories. It has all of the trappings for adventure: soaring cliffs, roaring waterfalls, bears, bergs, and glaciers. The whole place is infused with a dynamism that draws people in from around the world, a hyper-concentrated highlight reel of everything that the Alaskan Landscape has to offer. It doesn’t matter who you are or what your background is, when you come to a wilderness like this, you have begun crafting a tale to remember.
We found other kayakers! Chrissy and Sean are a treasure trove of
insider information for the intrepid few that camp in the fjords.Read more
The first petroglyph we uncover lies in a pseudo-sand wash of shale. Lydia scoops out smooth flakes with both hands, not bothering with tools or gloves. Slowly, a wide stone slab appears, still firmly rooted in the earth, but with the exposed top undulating with ripples and curves groundout by human hands. Lydia brushes at the top, then points. Here’s the eyes, hands, a mouth. As she describes it, a face is suddenly summoned, staring right back at me with wide eyes. It’s been waiting on this beach for so many years, sometimes exposed to the wind, sometimes hidden, but always on this exact spot. The style is uncanny. The figure splays out on the rock, stretching in open planes and squeezed into the edges. Formal ovoids and u-shapes are absent. The rock face is all circles, faces, and designs without the thick lines that usually define Tlingit representations. Is staggering age or stubborn medium responsible? It’s hard to say for an amateur like me to say.
Rachel Myron and Lydia Mills uncovering the first petroglyph. Many petroglyphs are naturally covered or revealed by the movement of sand on the beach.Read more
We tend to forget how small we are against the might of the earth. For all our achievements, our work to beat back the wilderness and tame the elements, we have really only fooled ourselves. The earth abides, while we pat ourselves on the back. Sooner or later, even the greatest civilization realizes that it was at the mercy of nature all along.
The wilderness reminds us of our ultimate powerlessness in the face of nature. Here, where the comfortable bubble of technology is ‘verboten,’ we have to confront our own powerlessness. The best we can do is adapt.Read more
One of the incidental tasks of the kayak rangers is beach cleanup. Even a place like this isn’t immune to litter. Most of it appears to have come off of boats; everything from coffee cups to the remains of insulated fish boxes. It might seem like a small effort, but it’s vital to make sure this place feels pristine. It’s also for our own safety, in part. Any food-related waste that goes overboard may teach bears that human smells are food smells. A boat’s lasagna leftovers could spell certain doom for us on shore.
The best marine debris tends to hide in the grass at the very top of the tidal range. Here, Chrissy and I comb faster with the help of a volunteer. Bigger groups also help with deterring bears from hanging around the area.Read more
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.