Chasing glaciers in Alaska

The South Sawyer: out of bounds

Misty mountains, dense pine forests, floating icebergs, slithering seals, pods of whales, grizzly bears. That was what the Alaska cruise promised. We boarded the MS Volendam in Vancouver. A mid-sized ship that navigates the Inside Passage, it would take us to Tracy Arm Fjord, Juneau, Skagway, Glacier Bay and Ketchikan.

The North Sawyer: up close


Alaska’s capital Juneau was our first stop. We hopped on a catamaran for a thrilling ride through Stephens Passage on our way to Tracy Arm Fjord. At the end of this inlet was the twin Sawyer Glaciers. First we sighted ice floes. Then icebergs. Pine forests filled the valleys. Silvery rivulets raced down great heights. There were thin waterfalls and cascades too. As St Peter cautiously motored into the fjord, hilltops became bare rocky outcrops; shrubs grew in patches. A snowy peak rose in the distance. A glacier stood at its base. The South Sawyer Glacier. We stood enchanted by the river of ice. Our enchantment abated when we found our path completely blocked by ice.

Our captain promised another glacier whisking us north. North Sawyer was not as majestic as South Sawyer. But it lent itself to closer examination. Jagged blue edges gleamed, ice and sand mixed to offer a rusty hue. We watched in silence, a silence only broken by falling camera shutters. The ice didn’t break. No calving. You have to be incredibly lucky to see that.

Magical ride: Skagway to White Pass


An elegant train waited when we docked in Skagway. Shiny black carriages drawn by a bright green and yellow diesel engine. Each of the beautifully restored coaches bore the name of a lake. Our train to White Pass Summit. What a ride. Green conifers lined the route along a fjord carved deep by a glacier long ago. The 172km railway line (built in 1898 over 26 months) is an engineering marvel with climbs of nearly 1,000 metres over 32km. Engineers, foremen and workers had blasted rocks and burrowed hills to build the narrow gauge rail line.

The Skagway community sprung from a gold rush. Stampeders, they called the prospectors. The mad dash for gold in the late 19th century sparked what became known as the Klondike Gold Rush. At the peak of the search for yellow metal, Skagway boasted of a community of 10,000. Now there are around 3,000 people, mostly living off tourism and fishing.

The ride to White Pass was a journey into the past. Of desperate men and women braving Arctic cold, unforgiving terrain and ruthless criminals in search of fortune. As the train climbed higher we moved to the viewing platform; chilling winds lashing. A river canyon plunged down one side. A road wound its way on the other side of the river: a toll road that once brought riches to the builder who even charged dogs. Bridges and tunnels too. Soon a cantilever bridge (the highest when constructed in 1901) came into view. Of course, it’s no longer in use. The train took us to the summit, more than 2,750 metres high before heading back, its engines switching sides, seats flipped so we faced the other way.

The Margerie: the queen of Glacier Bay


Mist wreathed the mountains when our ship eased into Tarr Inlet. We were in Glacier Bay, a US national park 105km west of Juneau. Cruise ship services to the 25-million-acre world heritage area, one of the world’s largest protected areas, is tightly regulated; the prime season runs from June 1 to August 31. We had timed the holiday right. Picked the right ship and itinerary. The home of eight tidewater glaciers: this was to be the highlight of the trip.

It was early morning, dank and dark. A steady drizzle fell. Glacial winds tore into us as we reached the deck. We refused to budge. Wilderness, the Alaskan wilderness, unfolded before us. A stream of ice floes swept by. Snowy mountains inched past, mist swirling around. They had an ethereal quality, a lack of clarity. Squawking seagulls swooped for fish. A couple of glaciers broke the pattern. In the distance was the Margerie Glacier. Margerie was magnificent. A mammoth blue ice sculpture, rising majestically from the sea. As the mist began to clear, Volendam drew abreast. The fractured crystalline edges of the glacier stood out like splayed fingers. Only 76 metres of the 110-metre-high glacier is above the water level. Named after French geologist Emmanuel de Margerie, the 1.6km wide glacier flows 34km from Mount Root to the Tarr Inlet. We were gazing at a product of Little Ice Age. Time stood still: 4,000 years remained frozen

Creek Street in Ketchikan


Welcome to Ketchikan, the first city of Alaska, said an arch on the street as we pulled into the port. Behind it a quaint town. The town that boasts itself as the salmon capital of the world sits in a valley of pines set against ubiquitous mountains. Flowers bloomed on the sidewalks of narrow streets beside bright coloured buildings; a long totem pole stood at the end of a road; rows of boats swayed on moorings, the air redolent with salmon.

We joined throngs of tourists hunting for souvenirs on Creek Street.  Among the stores was Dolly’s House welcoming visitors from across a rickety wooden bridge with a board that proclaims “Where men and salmon come upstream to spawn.” More souvenir shops crowd even more streets with pubs serving Alaskan beer and salmon jostling for attention.

A pretty town, that’s Ketchikan: our last port of call. A promise, little else. Disappointing it was. Particularly after the bewitching beauty of Alaska: magnificent glaciers, ancient fjords, lush green valleys, magical train rides.


Alaska is the final frontier. Where the shadowy mass of whales casually slides into icy seascapes; white-headed American eagles feed chicks on ice floes; glistening seals sun on rocks; deep ravines frame thick pine forests. Only the bears were a no show. I was fine with that. For Alaska put on quite a show.

This was first published on on June 12, 2017.
Pictures: Shyam A. Krishna