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Captain’s Log: Glaciers Galore

Once again, Seymour Narrows was transited, this time at the more civilised hour of 10:30 p.m. Seymour was described by Captain George Vancouver, on his voyage of discovery, as ‘one of the vilest stretches of water in the world”. It is easy to imagine why, on a ship under sail, trying to navigate the treacherous currents, with rocks around you. In his day, there was a twin-peak rock, “Ripple Rock” as it was named by settlers, slap bang in the centre of the 700 yard wide channel, around which currents could reach 20 mph at full spring tides. The Indians who first settled the area, used the rock as a ‘rite of passage’, young Indian braves had to get there and stay there while the maelstrom surrounded them. No-one is quite sure how many small craft and ships have sunk here, nor how many lives were lost. When the area was first settled by westerners, more ships tried to pass through and it is known that over 114 vessels and 119 lives were lost; one of the first was the USN gunboat “Saranac.”

As ships became larger and trade to the northern regions of British Columbia increased, something had to be done about Ripple Rock. In 1956, tunnelling started on the eastern shore of the Narrows, the purpose of which was to drive a shaft across and under the narrows, this would terminate under the rock and here a cavity would be carved, sufficiently large in volume to contain 1,345 tonnes of high explosive. After tunnelling for 27 months, the day (April 5th, 1958) duly arrived. Houses miles away were told to open windows, occupants of nearby towns were evacuated and, after all was ready, the ‘trigger’ was pulled. Ripple Rock disappeared in a massive wall of water and rock, the largest man-made, (non-nuclear) explosion in North America; when all was settled, Ripple Rock was no more and the channel safely navigable. (Before I am called to task, the Halifax munitions-ship was larger, however it was not a ‘deliberate’ act).

Juneau was wet and ‘claggy’, low cloud resulting in delayed flights for those going to the glaciers or scenic tours. As we approached Gastineau channel, on which Juneau lies, we pass the “Polar Star”, one (the only actually) ice-breaker of the U.S. Coast Guard.

The Polar Star.

The Polar Star.

Juneau Harbour approach.

Juneau Harbour approach.

Skagway was ‘socked-in’ when we arrived, however it cleared later in the day and then we were scheduled for Tracy Arm scenic cruising, however, as we approached the bar, (the old site of the terminal moraine, or face of the glacier 300 years ago), there was a thick fog bank. Prudent seamanship came to the fore, navigating between 2 buoys with zero visibility and the strong possibility of large ice ‘bergy bits’ to contend with was a ‘no brainer’ as far as I was concerned and so, with Endicott Arm entrance visible and clear, we changed our voyage plan and headed for Endicott and the Dawes glacier.

Cruising Endicott Arm.

Cruising Endicott Arm.

A glorious day ensued, the sun came out, our decks were crowded with enthralled guests and Dawes was relatively clear of ice, sufficiently so to make up to 1/3 of a mile off the face and stay for nearly an hour. Dawes even graced us with some calving too. Alaska in her glory.

Dawes Glacier from 2 miles.

Dawes Glacier from 2 miles.

Dawes Glacier from 1/3 mile.

Dawes Glacier from 1/3 mile.

On towards Ketchikan, down Chatham Strait, full of Humpback whales, through Decision Pass and into Sumner Strait and thence into Clarence Strait and an overcast Ketchikan; the sun burned off the mist and cloud in sufficient time for our guests to enjoy their day. Then making speed for Seymour narrows once more and the British Columbia Inside Passage. On our way north, our guests are sleeping and do not have the opportunity to see the beauty of the area. Southbound it a different matter and in glorious sunshine we transit the area, once again our decks are packed and we have the fortune to sight more humpbacks and Dahl porpoise, which come close to play in our wake.

Once through Seymour we have the luxury of being able to reduce speed and set it for an arrival in First Narrows, the area under the Lion’s Gate Bridge. The sun is rising over the mountains to our east as we enter the Narrows and docking at Canada Place once more.

First Narrows, Vancouver and Lion's Gate Bridge.

First Narrows, Vancouver and Lion’s Gate Bridge.

  • ginger arnold

    Thanks for the narrative. I never tire of taking a cruise to Alaska, even if it is by your photos and great narrative. Dawes Glacier! One more to put on my wish list!

  • Scott Lara

    Thank you!

  • Anne Searing

    I never tire of learning something new from your wonderful descriptions of your locale. Having been to Alaska a few times, I enjoy seeing things from your perspective. Wish I was there!

  • Harlan Ratliff

    Enjoy all of your “Captain Logs” — Missed having you as Captain on the Oosterdam this past May for our travel to Alaska with our thirteen member family. We were fortunate to sail all the way into Tracey Arms to see the Sawyer Glacier. We’ve sailed with you on the Eurodam and Nieuw Amsterdam and hopefully we will meet again. Do you have any information on when the next Holland America ship will be ready to sail? Holland America is the best cruise line by far!

  • Jonathan

    Hello Harlan, the as yet, un-named ‘Pinnacle’ class ship is due for delivery to HAL in February 2015. I’m sure there will be more information about her in the forthcoming months.

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