Ford’s Terror in southeast Alaska doesn’t terrify many people. Maybe a few small boaters and kayakers. But not many others–and certainly not many cruise passengers. Dawes Glacier and the several miles of ice-strewn depths it leaves in its wake also doesn’t scare many folks up here, either. Maybe a few scientists or geologists. Both give Jeff Behrens the chills. That’s because he knows where they are and he goes there. And when Behrens goes, he takes a few friends with him.
Yesterday, July 3, was a day no guest on the Island Spirit will ever forget. It began in a perfect sunlight in Sanford Cove. Brisk is too nice a word. It was cold, especially once we got going up Endicott Arm toward Dawes Glacier. We hadn’t been gone too long before the ice began showing up. Not small ice. Large ice. Tons of it in the form of thousands of bright white or blue fragments. Tons above surface and who knows how many tons below the surface. Behrens had the Island Spirit’s hull completely reworked last winter just for this. But he’s still not interested in meeting any of these boat-sized chunks of ice head-on.
We swerved, tacked, criss-crossed and slithered our way past miles of ice to put ourselves directly in front of Dawes Glacier, a tidewater glacier that comes down directly into the frigid waters of Endicott Arm. Cliffs rose for thousands of feet on either side of us and we sat directly in the gorge this glacier created as it receded over thousands of years. The only other boats in this water were research boats. Behrens said they’ve been up here this summer studying the effect that vessels and kayaks might have on harbor seals and their pups.
From there, we motored past the ice again and down to Ford’s Terror. Entering this inlet, you’d think you were in just any other bay. But as you reach the back, your realize there is a tiny opening there that meanders back into the rock walls. Maybe a canoe or a small fishing boat would try this, you think, but not a 130 foot ship.
With a long blast of the Island Spirit’s horns, Behrens announces his intention to enter this narrow sliver of water and then he does so. He told me afterwards that his margin of error is very slim. Losing a prop or scraping the hull here is the consequence of one wrong move at the helm.
The reward is cruising into a remote inlet that is fed by waterfalls too numerous to count, a piece of water that is guarded on all sides by towering mountains and sheer rockfaces, thousands of feet above. This is where we’ll spend the fourth of July 2009. And trust me, we’re alone. Ford’s Terror belongs to us on this independence day. Thanks to a guy who thinks big and operates small, we’ve traded fireworks for kayaks, bottle rockets for tranquility.