A Fuzzy Free Solo
Ben Marolf, Lead Guide on the Wilderness Explorer
Captain Adam’s radio call came in over channel 69; “There is a bear off the starboard beam…” My ears perked up. I was leading a skiff tour in front of South Sawyer Glacier in Tracy Arm, a deep glacial fjord just southeast of Juneau. It was Friday, and we had had a few bear encounters during the week, but every opportunity to see wildlife is one worth taking.
As the guests all murmured in anticipation about going to see the bear, another call from Adam came in on the radio. “Yeah… It looks like the bear is on an iceberg. Still off the starboard beam.” After dozens of trips in Southeast Alaska, I’ve had the privilege of seeing some unique things. I’ve seen whales lunge-feeding in front of a waterfall. I’ve watched a brown bear flip boulders in front of Lamplugh Glacier. I’ve watched a lot of excited guests' faces when they come up after a polar plunge. I’ve seen chunks of ice the size of the Wilderness Explorer fall off of a glacier, but I’d never seen a bear on an iceberg.
With Deckhand Ben-jammin’ as our fearless navigator through what was quickly becoming an icy minefield of bergie bits, we progressed towards the bear. Who knows if he had just forgotten to set his alarm that day, and had fallen asleep on the ice as the tide came in, or if he was just a bear looking for adventure, but this Friday in Tracy Arm was certainly as much of an adventure for our bear as it was for us.
As he floated by a river on his trusty berg, our bear decided that he had had enough ice-riding for one day and leaped off the berg and began paddling for shore. With great purpose, he swam…directly past the easiest escape route to shore and up to what was nearly a vertical cliff covered in algae and silt.
We all watched with bated breath as our brown fuzzy Alex Honnold free-soloed his way up the walls of the fjord, slipping a few times (for what we’re sure was only dramatic effect), before finding himself a perch where he was able to dry off his cold paws and catch his breath. This gave our skiff an opportunity to snap a few photos of him before we returned back to the Wilderness Explorer to have our own Polar Plunge before lunch.
I’ve seen some odd things in Southeast Alaska. I’ve seen Sea Lions do swan dives off rocks. I’ve watched people kiss Banana Slugs because we told them it was good luck. I’ve watched an anemone eat a jellyfish. And now I’ve seen a brown bear ride an iceberg and climb a cliff. Feel free to join me sometime. It’s wild up here.