“Fancy kayaking uris Tracy Arm, and spending the night?” Jason asked me and our mate Josh, an experienced whitewater kayaker with a quiet gravitas about him. This won’t be a day at the beach like itaddling across the lake to Mendenhall Glacier, I was promptly informed. Tracy Arm is a narrow fjord 50 miles southeast of Juneau leading to Sawyer Glacier. There are zero rangers in attendance; it is deep in the Alaskan wilderness. “Okay, let’s do it—what’s the worst that could happen?”
After careful expedition-oriented preparation and worst-case scenario planning—capsizing in ice-choked waters would be serious—off we sailed on a local water-taxi, also a glacier touring boat. Below brooding skies towards the deep inlet, I was feeling a few internal qualms of my own. I watched the hypnotic rise and fall of the ship’s rail labour across the waters but shelved the concern that I might end up in the icy drink. Or that Josh had opted to bring his river kayak for that matter.
Josh owned a short, little vessel perfect for waterfalls, rapids, and rocks—the opposite of where we’d be paddling in conceivably windy waters. But as an active late twenty-something, he could handle himself, I was sure of it. Although I did wonder whether the absence of whitewater would excite our friend for the duration. There’d be no holes, standing waves or eddies, this was a cruisey adventure albeit an unsupported one.
As inexperienced paddlers, Jase and I borrowed sea kayaks—their low, tapered shape designed for tracking in a straight line efficiently in open water. Foremost, allowing us to absorb our surroundings while slipping easily through wind and cutting over the chop. Namely, more stable than the river kayak. Suitable for the aquatic setting or not, I’d still need my wits about me amid the stealth icebergs hidden below the surface.
Mesmerized, I stood stock still as the captain set a course between staggeringly high cliffs—craggy in appearance and formed by the submergence of a glaciated valley. Dropping anchor at South Sawyer for the tourists as much as us, nature’s majesty soon got to work. In fact, she’d already begun carving, dispensing massive chunks of ice and crashing momentously into the water.
Down the side of the boat we climbed, and nestled into our new vehicles. But not before the captain berated me for getting in the way, and belittled Josh as though this was his first encounter in a kayak. A charming fellow to someone I’m sure. Barely smoothing out the ruffled feathers, there were the seals! Basking in the sun upon the floes, vying for my attention, as much as the glacier’s crystal blue face. Wow wee, Tracy Arm seemed to me the very acme of Alaskan wilderness allure. The day was just beautiful; blue skies and fluffy clouds above the endlessly evolving icescape. A remote horizon where sea and sky intermingled at the edge of the world.
With no brief given to us by the captain or crew, we’d rigorously checked the weather forecast but possessed limited knowledge about the conditions in the area. Sure, there were masses of ice littered everywhere, but we had plenty of unoccupied space in which to manoeuvre around them. Happy to remain stationary and gently clank against the odd piece of ice, we stayed a respectful distance from the glacier. What’s more, enjoyed an enviable vantage point compared to the day-trippers, soon to sail away. Staring out and slightly unnerved, I guess we were on our own now.
A mere five minutes passed when a colossal piece of ice smashed down from Sawyer’s face. A tidal wave akin to the wave machine at Florida’s Typhoon Lagoon rolled alarmingly in our direction. The sensation was a torrent of alien sound.“LISA! Get over here now!” I did so with the utmost despatch. “And face the glacier, do NOT stay side onto that wave.” While I clung onto the advice as though it was a life raft, Jason bound our kayaks together with the paddles to create more stability. My mind was far from stable. Powerless, I sat in silent horror at the prospect of sitting inside a lean 12-foot vessel about to negotiate a six-foot wave heading straight at me. Bug-eyed and daunted, I forgot to breathe.
Having undulated on the waves without incident, I took a reflective moment, if not to refill my lungs and restore a resting heart rate. Completely at its mercy, the glacier brought home to us the magnitude of where we were. Unbeknown to us, high tide started to come in. As the water pushed the ice together, the more sandwiched in like sardines we became—jammed cheek by jowl, crammed past bursting point. It was like a glacial version of the Teacups ride, as the water spun us at what felt like breakneck speed toward the rocks: tumbling down the walls of the fjord and glacier. The latter of which was still carving, still threatening.
“OH MY GAWD! WHAT THE…” An iceberg akin to a small apartment block broke off the shelf beneath the water and exploded up to the surface. Surely, it was game over. We were done for. If the last piece of ice the size of a house created a six-footer, what would this do? Dread needled my chest as fear and adrenaline took over, sloshing around in my blood like mercury.
Unbelievably, n-o-t-h-i-n-g happened. It was anti-climatic, almost. Relief flooded through my veins but I didn’t know whether my backside muscles could take another cardio workout. Fathoms deep from idyllic, we sat like sitting ducks while the apartment block charged steadily towards us. Decimating everything in its way, leaving nothing in its wake. Situated 50 yards to its looming side, the three of us clawed away from it through the floating ice, with everything we had. The apartment block advanced. Menacing as it was mammoth. Coming for us. I began to inhabit a dark cave in my imagination, where dark thoughts came unbidden and with them a sudden chill.
Scrambling as fast as our unforgiving seafaring vessels would transport us, Josh, on the other hand, hopped and skipped over the ice. It was child’s play for him. With ease and speed, I eyeballed him from afar as he made haste. The apartment finally passed us and I verbalised whether we should jump on its Moses parting path, like a shameless motorcyclist who takes advantage of a speeding police car or flashing ambulance. Ignorance soon repaired—the icebergs behind simply closed in around it. Still ensnared in the eddy pushing us towards the carving glacier and tumbling rocks, we were locked in.
At a snail’s pace, the moment I gained a few feet of progress, the ice continued to dominate. And retaliate to those stupid enough to antagonize it. Or send me from whence I came. Or worse, lift me up, where I teetered precariously on a surface as slick as butter near the freezing cold water. It can be grim here, I thought, even if it is heart-stoppingly beautiful.
Making my paddle redundant, it was time to rally. With true abandon, I told my backside to brace up and scraped my way over the pack ice. My fingernails scratched over the floes as it dawned on me that the most effective technique was the wheelchair one: using my arms to limp the long kayak and me over the cumbersome ice and through the narrowing gaps of water in between.
“Lisa, keep up with Josh.” Mmn, good one Jason. Endeavouring to follow Josh was a fine theory but in reality, I managed to do anything but. While the kayaking aficionado made fairly painless progress in the red bullet, I was traversing a crystal maze at bicep-strengthening gradients. Seldom have I ever been so thoroughly gobsmacked as to the pickle in which I now found myself.
But what was so gloriously, outrageously brazen about the spectacle was the fact that I replaced anxiety for anger. Where this hubristic vanity, this ‘cock of the walk’ self-assurance came from, I couldn’t tell you. The lid on my panic was barely contained while quiet rage simmered on the surface. Still drifting toward the worst-case scenario, with determination I didn’t know I possessed, at last I took control. And crossed the proverbial road, travelling hopefully, as Robert Louis Stevenson would have it, rather with any firm notion of arriving anywhere.
While having my own personal summer, Saharan in intensity, I took a convoluted route in a different direction from Jason. Any equanimity I held was now oceans beyond me: vexation bulldozed any distress. Not aimed at anyone per se, there was no blame culture. I was just angry. I just hoped it was enough to get me out.
“Mate, you need to radio that boat over there and ask them for help,” where Jason’s plea met Josh’s reluctance. A tourist boat, it appeared. “But we need to stay together. Alert them now, please mate,” in a tone that brooked no argument. Plagued by doubts and a growing ambivalence, we’re in the cataclysmic crap now, I thought, as I swore unintelligibly.
Leagues ahead, the captain of the M/V Snow Goose had already taken the measure of our situation. Although he was unable to deploy immediate help—the Snow Goose was no icebreaker—Captain Paul promised to stay put and wait for us to reach him. What a stellar chap.
Time stood still as the realization set in. What felt like an entire afternoon finally saw Jason and me at the stern of the Snow Goose, reuniting with Josh. I was a hot mess in my own cloying heat but we made it. Of all the stuff I have should have thought twice about, undeniably, this was one of them.
In a gale of whoops and shrieks, we were given a sea of welcome by the guests. Invited on board with open arms and a round of applause. Pleased with our endured performance, a strange ‘ta-dah’ moment ensued. Lightheaded with my devil-may-care attitude, perhaps partly fuelled by a can of beer, I indulged the passengers’ curiosity and gave them the backstory.
Mayhap we were an interruption from the usual splendour of peaceful glacier exploration, cruising the remote waters of Alaska. Either way, I owed the captain a world of debt for the rescue. And the guests for allowing us short-term passage. One handed me a tissue and I blew my nose with a noise like a strangled goose.
Lifting anchor shortly after our embarkation, we naturally and maybe too easily declined the captain’s offer to drop us off at the planned camp spot, just minutes into the sailing. Luxuriating in the roseate glow of the saloon, we’d barely had time to regain composure. The feeling of warmth on my sore, half frozen fingers was as close to ecstasy as I expected to get this side of heaven.
Reviving ourselves on a hot meal, we took some time to dry out—to my bafflement, I looked like I’d actually capsized upon removing my drysuit—doom-induced sweat will do that to you.
Mooring up in William Cove, the rain beat down hard and wouldn’t stop. “Oh look, there’s a bear!” someone casually remarked. It was a big bugger at that, padding along the coastline sniffing around for food. I began to wonder tentatively, attempting to make myself believe that surely the bear was not a grizzly or a brown bear; the black bear’s more predatory ursine cousins. Here you will live dangerously but know great joy, I mused.
Far from a chucklesome scenario, the three of us looked in dismay at one another—our home for the night. Untroubled, four big paws departed into deep vegetation just a stone’s throw from the shore’s edge.
Bottom lip out, it was time to leave these good people and the safe sanctuary of their bear-free boat. None of us wished to outstay our welcome. Hardly appropriate when the guests were paying for a high-end experience, picking up paddling waifs and strays were not exactly part of the package.
No flattish ground on which to pitch the tent, the vegetation was simply too tall. With whatever lay on the pebbly beach, we set up a tarp, taking a lot longer than you might think. The light was fading fast, and all of us were on edge. The grizzlies were out there. “There’s another bear, guys” observed Josh, nerves starting to fray. On the other side of the beach, but there it was. Leaving none of us comfortable about falling asleep now.
While Josh and Jason suggested we take lookout shifts throughout the night, “no,” I said with an approximation of calmness. Only Josh knew how to handle his 45 caliber, while our bear spray and high lumen lights seemed to count little and less in offering us protection. What were we thinking?
“I’ve just heard a rustling sound and sticks cracking behind me in the tall grass,” Jason exclaimed. Nerves strung like wire, I’d waited all evening in a fever of tension as the bears became emboldened. Our plan to brave a night by ourselves at Tracy Arm truly scuppered, I was done.
“Snow Goose. Snow Goose. This is the kayakers on the beach.”
“Snow Goose. Snow Goose. This is the kayakers on the beach. Do you copy?”
“Copy that. Hello guys, how can we help you?”
“Josh here. There’s a lot of bear activity down here, and we’re feeling pretty uncomfortable with the situation. Captain Paul, what’s it going to cost us to sleep on the back of your boat, please?”
“Listen guys, we’re not terrible people. If you’re feeling unsafe, come aboard. The guests have all gone to bed but we just ask that you’re quiet, and depart by 6.45am tomorrow.” Copy that. That’s two rescues from the mother ship in one day.
Less than 500 yards to paddle in the dark and we were home and dry. A blackness cloaked in opaque mist descended on the oily calm water. Only minutes long, it might have been the single most eerie experience since taking shelter in an abandoned hut at San Sebastián on Tierra del Fuego, where road trains raced past us at a frightening speed all night. Unable to see beyond the end of my own nose, let alone the tip of the kayak, I was once again unnerved by Alaskan’s wild offerings. You wanted adventure, Lisa…
Then there was the matter of food to be considered. My stomach had been making subdued protests for some time, and Jason’s voiced its much louder objections. Quietly aboard, a tide of freshly caught crabmeat and a flow of beverages kept coming. Yummo!—thank you. Thirstslaked, we sat down, engendered by several bowls of varying calorific clout on top. The place glowed all around us, even the phosphorescence was out in full force, as though sharing our happiness.
Achingly so, the first mate also had me in stitches, practically rolling around the deck slapping myself in unbridled mirth. The buzz of conversation clicked and whirred as we mingled, laughed and chatted some more on a silver lining of good times. I’m not sure we’d ever be able to pay it forward but I’d darn well try. Sated and happy, the feeling of nourishment began to creep through my body, freeing me to think of the next most pressing need—sleep. Cordial relations with my stomach re-established, my body relaxed, rocked at ease on the cradle of the deep.
Fond farewells were warmly dispensed from the new friendships forged. I smiled like the sun was coming out. Alas, it was time to leave the Snow Goose to its remaining cruise. We still had some cruising of our own to undertake. Beneath steely grey skies glowering down on us, the morning saw us paddle furiously—among spurts of inert apathy—in an unforgiving headwind. Needing to cover ground and get back into radio range, Josh selflessly towed me at one point where my pipe-cleaner arms had extended every last courtesy and expired. In our heady rescued state the previous day, we’d opted to stay miles from the designated pick up point. Ho hum.
A morning’s mourning eventually saw us able to transmit again, Josh jumped on the radio to our water taxi for an early pickup. The day was cold and bleak. I was mentally worn and physically spent. Having relayed a brief but brutal synopsis over the last 24 hours, our hopes were dashed when the captain flatly refused our request. I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that?
Opining, “Not possible. Early pick up won’t be convenient for our guests on their day trip at Tracy Arm. And your kayaks will be taking up unnecessary space on our boat. You’ll need to wait on the ice until your scheduled pickup time and we’ll see you at 3pm.” Red mist. I said something really bad in response, grateful no tender ears were in earshot. That was FIVE hours from now, which I found about as funny as leprosy. Excessive humility was not one of this woman’s failings.
Mindful of the fact that my soapbox is never far away at moments like this, particularly when it comes to wincingly guilt-ridden captains. A Sicilian strength vendetta began to smolder against the woman. Incredulously, we’d paid substantially more than the day-trippers, simply to hitch a lift with our kayaks to the fjord and back. Her struggle with the demands of customer service hung in the icy cold air.
In another terse conversation, desperation met glacially cool resistance over the radio. But to our chagrin, a sarcastic diatribe of opposition from the woman finally gave in to our battle of attrition. Gratefully, we found ourselves back on the boat that had discharged us into this saga. Let’s not get too steamed up on righteous indignation, I signed up as a grown woman, recognize my limits and hope I never shy away from them.
Oh Alaska—she’s a behemoth of power and beautiful. Those looks will never fade. Her virtues and her vices, her accent and attitude, her disarming candour and remorseless nature, are just some of her best qualities. In a redeeming grace, I don’t think she knows how stunning she is, especially in the deep honeyed light of a late afternoon, there’s no aura of self-satisfaction about her. Irrepressibly cool though, she can be a real bitch, but I appreciate what she’s given me all the same.
Flexing my sense of adventure with a want and willingness to experience an Alaskan’s Alaska was one thing, but experiencing it on this occasion was quite another. After the nerve-stretching escapade, I reset my compass and drew a line under it, one that perhaps oozed a bit too much excitement.
Still, it’s thrilling experiences like these that make our lives tough but tender, lyrical as much as vital, raw and real. I like to think that we’re people who thrive on the bloody marvellous and endlessly rugged and a little dangerous. But not all the time. Perhaps I’d rethink my steadfast adherence to Sir Arnold Bax’s principle that one should try everything once except incest. I’ll add kayaking in Tracy Arm to that.