JUNEAU, Alaska — 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.