Photo: The Sawyer Glacier in 2008. Photo on the cover of Glaciers, Bears and Totems: Sailing in Search of the Real Southeast Alaska
"Great Sawyer Glacier of Tracy Arm and Fords Terror Wilderness is Retiring" read the headline
on Juneauempire.com. I was working on an article called "Glacier Safari" for Northwest Yachting and was checking for the latest information on SE Alaska's glaciers. The headline puzzled me. "Retiring" sounded like a strange way to describe a glacier, as if it was a worker at the end of a career. Then I saw the photo of the sandbar at the foot of the glacier and realized that the headline was just a clever way of saying that the glacier had retreated to land and was no longer a tidewater glacier.
I felt as if I had experienced a personal loss. The glacier's magnificent blue and white ramparts gave me my first glimpse of a tidewater glacier, in 2006. Its photo, taken on our second visit to Tracy Arm, in 2007, graces the cover of my book, Glaciers, Bears and Totems: Sailing in Search of the Real Southeast Alaska
. On that trip we approached what I thought was an ordinary small iceberg floating in front of the glacier. But as we passed it, the iceberg towered over Osprey's mast. That new perspective showed me that the glacier was bigger and farther away than it looked. Its size and its ability to fool humbled me.
Eight years later, in 2015, we had a more sobering experience with Sawyer Glacier. As we approached the end of the inlet, we kept expecting to see the glacier around the next bend, but instead we saw more barren red rock. "Where is it?" I asked. Surely, it hadn't been this far up inlet. Our chart plotter gave us the answer: its screen showed the boat's icon traveling not over water, which clearly we were doing, but over ice.
Photo: Osprey's chart plotter in 2015.
The glacier had retreated from its charted position. And when we finally saw it around another corner, the glacier stood silent and still, no longer the rambunctious calving glacier of the past.
Photo: Sawyer Glacier in 2015
Holkham Bay, Sawyer Glacier's home, is famous for its part in establishing the importance of glaciers in the formation of the landscape. When John Muir visited it in 1879, he delighted in its Yosemite-like cliffs, domes and valleys. To him their presence next to the glaciers were evidence role of the glaciers.
Thoughts about the role of a glacier in forming the landscape brought me back to the notion of a glacier retiring. Maybe it wasn't so strange. Glaciers do work; they carve out u-shaped valleys, domes and half-domes, move dirt and rocks of all sizes, and write messages in rock in the form of striations. And the glacier hadn't died. It was still pushing ice down the mountain, just not at the rate it once did. Evidence that this great glacier once worked here will last for millennia.
Ninety-five percent of Southeast Alaska's Glaciers are retreating, stagnating and thinning and the rate of thinning has increased due to climate change. (See the National Park Service's Fairweather Guide
). This shrinking of the glaciers and their possible loss saddens me but I'm thankful to have had the opportunity to experience them while they were still actively calving, and also thankful for what they teach us about the earth and its natural processes. Barren rocks revealed by the melting glaciers remind me of a desert landscape, beautiful in a wild way. And the sight of new life springing up where glaciers once covered the earth gives me hope.
If you're planning a voyage to SE Alaska, there are still glaciers worth seeing (including Sawyer Glacier). You can read about them in my article, "Glacier Safari," in the June issue
of Northwest Yachting