Sailing South from Juneau- Alaska

Sailing from Juneau,

Sailing from Juneau,

Enjoying Juneau Harbor’s blinking lights, I ambled down to the dock where my fishing boat cruise woukl begin the next morning to Sum Dum Bay and Tracy Arm and tried to imagine what landscapes I would see. In preparation for my trip I had read two companion volumes, John Muir’s Travels in Alaska (1916) and Samuel H. Young’s Alaska Days with John Muir (1915). The Tlingit and Tsimshian Indians in those days (1880’s) were in the process of learning English and a new religion from Protestant missionaries like Samuel Hall Young whom John Muir had befriended. Muir explains in his book that he wanted to hire several Indian guides (in whose stories and conversations he delighted) to go into the back country where he could explore glaciers. The Tlingits suggested the names of a few and Sitka Charley who would be the best for that purpose because he “hi yu kumtux wawa Boston–knew well how to speak English.”

Dawn came bright and clear up in the panhandle of Alaska. About twelve of us boarded the “Riviera” skippered by a young man called Rusty from Cape Cod; we soon left the harbor behind us. Sitka-studded Admiralty Island looked like a Rockwell Kent etching with snow-capped peaks flanked by feathery clouds of silver. On the mainland side we could make out Taku Inlet but not the receded Taku Glacier. On another day I would take a seaplane over the immense Juneau Icefields and the crinkly surface of Taku Glacier to land on a marshy inlet and tramp the lush forests for several hours. On that flight I would catch a glimpse of what most of North America looked like at the height of the Wisconsin Ice Age.

As our craft plied through waters beyond Taku Inlet, we passed numerous crab boats hauling in their catch with big nets. Within an hour we entered Sum Dum Bay as Muir had donewell over a hundred years earlier. We gazed at the “hanging” Sum Dum Glacier in cloudy mountains south of Tracy Arm fiord. Quickly granite walls engulfed us rising straight up to glaring snowfields. Stream of water hurled through space down to the green waters of the fiord. Bright blue icebergs drifted past as we closed in on a tell-tale cliff carved and scratched by myriads of slow-moving glaciers of yore. Following Ralph Waldo Emerson’s lead, Muir called these scratches “glacial hierogylphics” because they surely furnished as much geologic information as the Egyptian Rosetta Stone furnished linguistic knowledge.

Approaching South Sawyer Glacier, we amused ourselves watching jet-black seals sunbathing on bright blue icebergs, blue being the only color refracted out of their dense masses. Our ship came to within a hundred yards of the glacier looking like an arched blue planet all its own. A sudden thunderous boom startled us as a huge chunk of ice broke off the edge of the glacier and splashed down into a narrow bay. The Tlingit words Sum Dum are apt. The berg makes the sound SUM, and the echoing cliffs DUM! Aquamarine and copper-colored chunks of ice bobbed all around the glistening new berg. Here we could easily envision future yosemites. Samuel Hall Young writes in Alaska Days with John Muir, “Glaciers were Muir’s special pets, his intimate companions, with whom he held sweet communion. Their voices were plain language to his ears, their work, as God’s landscape gardeners, of the wisest and best that Nature could offer.”

We sailed silently through a fiord as mesmerizing as the floating swan’s down of the Nishkiya ceremony that a tribal elder spread into the air to open a dance ceremony the evening before. In the silence I imagined an Indian’s voice singing from the top of some immense summit. By now we had become accustomed to a world of dark blue ice, hieroglyphic cliffs, and rivers falling out of the sky. But we were in store for something more. Just off Admiralty Island a humpback whale rose out of the water to flap his tail fin so forcefully it sounded like a cannonade. His gigantic body rose and splashed several times before disappearing southward. Too quickly Juneau Harbor, dominated by Mount Juneau and Mount Roberts, came into view.

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