Wet & Wild : Alaska by Kayak

<i> Steele is a free-lance writer living in Newburyport, Mass</i>

It was when I suddenly found my kayak moving faster sideways than forward that I realized I was in real trouble.

The current that had snatched my boat was heading full force into an undercut that had been furiously carved over eons of time into the base of a granite cliff.

There was no time to pull against it. As I shifted low in the boat, in hopes of surviving the impact, I caught a glimpse of my brother, Richard, who had passed the rapids and was heading out into the swift stretch of eddies and whirlpools. He glanced back at me as I raced broadside toward the wall.

Only a few seconds earlier, I had entered the place I traveled to Alaska to see, a place that intrigued me by its name alone--a brief but harrowing entrance into an Alaska wilderness fiord known as Ford’s Terror.


The muscular current that flung me at the wall slapped me away at the last second, as if I was not worth the bother, and sent me scuttling out of the white water.

As soon as my kayak was steady, I dug in my paddle and scurried after my brother, dodging the rips. At last I had reached the well-earned calm, surrounded by the overwhelming beauty of the deep and narrow fiord.

Thirty miles south of Juneau lies Holkam Bay and the mouth of two long fiords, Tracy Arm and Endicott Arm, which open onto Stephens Passage, an important stretch of the extensive and complex intracoastal waterway of Alaska’s Southeast Territory.

In 1880, naturalist John Muir explored and wrote in praise of the fiords that open onto Holkam Bay, then the home of the Sumdum tribe of the Tlingit Indians. But it was a man named H.R. Ford who, as we were to learn, in 1889 left his name to posterity.


Because of its beauty and value as an irreplaceable wilderness, 653,000 acres of mountains, valleys, glaciers and iceberg-laden fiords were set aside in 1980 as the Tracy Arm-Ford’s Terror Wilderness, public land placed under the management and protection of the U.S. Forest Service as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System.

Cruise ships and charter boats carry visitors from Juneau to the Tracy and Endicott arms. The ships pick their way through the fiords to the tidal glaciers, carrying awe-struck viewers in comfort and safety.

For an additional fee, some of the charter boats will, as they did for us, carry kayakers, plus their boats and equipment. The kayakers are dropped off in the wilderness area and later picked up at an appointed time and place.

We set off on the Tracy Arm Express, a mid-size cruise boat, with our kayaks lashed to the deck at the bow, feeling like daring adventurers among the warm and well-tended day-trip passengers.

We had given ourselves seven days to explore the waters of Tracy and Endicott arms. Our goal was to reach the narrow fiord called Ford’s Terror.

Transporting us were two Eddyline Orcas, blue-water kayaks designed for the open ocean--sleek, lightweight, one-man craft of 17 1/2 feet made of thin Fiberglas strong enough to take the rigors of open ocean or hairy rapids. We brought our own kayaks, but rentals are available.

The Orcas weigh just 40 pounds unloaded, and are capable of carrying a surprising amount of equipment. They sit low in the water, are fast, responsive and, to my delight and surprise, not as wearing on the arms and shoulders as I had anticipated.

I did not find it uncomfortable, even with an in-water weight of nearly 400 pounds, to paddle five to eight hours a day, steadily for a time, pausing to glide quietly for a brief rest, then paddling again.


After a few days, the boat no longer seems separate, but more an extension of oneself. You sit tightly, feeling more in the sea than out of it, the boat turning this way and that in quiet response to the pressure of your feet on rudder pedals, slicing a whispering line in and out of the ice floes.

Part of the reason John Muir came to Alaska more than 100 years ago was to better understand the processes that had carved stupendous valleys such as those in his beloved Yosemite.

Here, in these Alaskan fiords, it is possible to see such wonders at an earlier geological stage, to paddle along the foot of sheer granite rocks shooting 2,000 feet high. Scars on the granite’s ice-shaven face bear witness to the inconceivable power of the glaciers.

The cliffs, their high peaks carved into perfect domes, look like huge orphaned rocks snatched up by ice in the distant past, then carried away and scattered like some giant’s forgotten playthings.

Traveling the 25 miles of Tracy Arm by kayak or cruise boat is like a passage through time. From the glacier’s leading edge to Holkam Bay, the traveler seems to move from the Ice Age to the present.

Where the glacier retreats, it leaves the valley raw and nearly lifeless--bare, stark stone mountains. The only evidence of life is the harbor seals that travel far up Tracy Arm to find safety from killer whales.

As you paddle toward civilization, subtle, gradual changes can be measured in the landscape. Moss and lichen, visible in streaks of gold, green and brown and clinging tenuously to the mountain walls, start to appear at the points where the ice receded a few years before.

Suddenly, a spray of blue appears, a cluster of white or yellow--wild alpine flowers taking root in the moss. Farther down Tracy Arm you begin to see shrubs, miniature willow and small alder trees.


Where the glacier had been a mere 50 years ago before receding, stand forests of alder and Sitka spruce mingling with Devil’s Club, spindly underbrush known for the stinging spines on the backs of its leaves.

Blueberries have taken over the thickening soil, with sprinkles of Western Hemlock. Finally you reach smooth, wooded hills, long ago healed from the glacier’s cuts.

Muir wrote of Tracy Arm: “Amid so crowded a display of novel beauty it was not easy to concentrate the attention long enough on any portion of it without giving more days and years than our lives can afford.”

It is no exaggeration. The splendors are uncountable, moments of overwhelming natural beauty follow one after another.

A single waterfall, cascading majestically down thousands of feet of steep wall, would be a treasured monument worthy of a pilgrimage anywhere else. But here such visions embrace you in abundance.

After two days of traveling down the seaways of Tracy Arm and up the much broader Endicott Arm, after days of bald eagles as common as robins, of fishing salmon streams for supper, of gathering shrimp and sea snails for breakfast, of sunset over Admiralty Island, of ice caves and icebergs, of tidal flats blanketed with birds and scoured by bears, we stopped at last (and, by luck, on the night of a full moon) to camp just outside the mouth of Ford’s Terror.

We sat up late that night waiting for the rising tide to douse our fire, and took nips of bourbon for the cold and for courage. One does not enter a place with “terror” in its name without some apprehension.

These fiords are deep, in some places up to 1,200 feet and rarely under 300. Ford’s Terror is no different, except that two miles past the mouth, the fiord suddenly narrows from half a mile wide and 300 feet deep to 500 feet across, with an average depth of 18 feet.

Add to that, tides up to 20 feet and you get a clear picture of a great deal of water passing through a tiny space, a torrent that runs one direction, stops dead and runs the other direction, stops dead and turns again, every six hours or so.

Pity poor H. R. Ford, who, in 1889, without benefit of warning or chart, set out in a small rowboat from the Navy steamship Patterson for a little duck hunting. More by chance than intention, he entered the fiord and passed through the narrows in the brief calm of slack tide.

Not so on his return. The previously placid waters swept him into torrential, heaving rapids, whirlpools and icebergs great and small, grinding and colliding into each other as they sped through the narrows.

Trapped in the fiord for six hours until the next slack tide, he eventually made it safely back to the ship, but left behind his name and sentiment about his experience: Ford’s Terror.

My brother and I had a fair idea of what to expect. As we pushed out into the current and headed for white water, we anticipated danger and excitement. The passage is totally absorbing for the brief time it takes.

When you glide off on the rapid water, bank through whirlpools, ride rips and currents, then suddenly come upon the solitude and beauty of the fiord unfolding as you ride through, it’s reward enough for risking this wilderness Charybdis.

We left Ford’s Terror having seen a treasure of the American wilderness, and convinced of the wisdom of setting aside such places where the earth can have its way without human intervention.

You cannot see such a place and remain unchanged.

As we re-entered Endicott Arm, we met a family--a couple and their young son--anchored in a 40-foot ketch outside the mouth of the Terror. They had sailed from their home in Australia, visited Tahiti, Hawaii, Vancouver, Kodiak Island and Juneau. Having seen a good part of the world, they were now in this faraway place, anchored outside a tiny fiord.

They asked our advice about the narrows, the best ways and times to enter. In the course of the conversation, the father said something that, having just left Ford’s Terror, we could now verify: “From what we’ve heard, this will be the highlight of our trip.”

At that moment, we had no doubt.