Alaska Endicott Arm

Fords Terror: What's In a Name?

Saturday, August 15, 2015S.V. CAMBRIA

MV Island Spirit entering Fords Terror
Fords Terror is a geological wonderland . . . and one of the most beautiful places we’ve ever seen, though you wouldn’t know it by its name. The story behind the unflattering moniker is well-known by those cruising these waters, but bears repeating: In 1889, a crewmember on the US Coast and Geodetic Survey vessel the Patterson entered the fjord in a rowboat at slack water. We’d always assumed he went in to conduct a survey but, according to a sidebar in the Evergreen chart atlas, that isn’t true. He was duck hunting and got trapped by the rapids, which were grinding up icebergs on the rocks, and had to wait six terrifying hours until the next slack tide. His name was Harry Ford.

One hundred and twenty-six years later, the entrance to Fords Terror remains uncharted.

There’s a lot of good first-hand information on how to safely enter (the Douglass book included), so we left Dawes Glacier around two o’clock and made our way back up Endicott Arm to the outer entrance of Fords Terror. We weren’t the only ones. The National Geographic ship, Seabird, was already anchored and shuttling passengers into the fjord for quick tours. There was also a smaller ship, Island Spirit, and a large motor yacht, Sumdum, that were going in for the night. We took our place in the queue and waited. High tide for Juneau was predicted to be 16:16 and slack water can occur anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes later, depending on the height of the tide. For us, it was 40 minutes. We upped anchor at 16:50 and cleared the entrance at 16:55 in perfectly still waters.

The entrance is like crossing a portal into another world.

We slowly made our way up the narrow inlet, often times while standing on the deck, as layer after layer of dark vertical cliffs towered above our heads. The artistry of the glaciers that sculpted this extraordinary fjord left us speechless and in a complete state of awe – each twist and turn revealed a sight more beautiful than the last. And just when we thought it couldn’t possibly get any better, the western arm opened up in front of us and proved us wrong. The view was simply beyond words and, quite honestly, overwhelming. The fact that it was going to be our home for the next two nights made it even more so. 

David and I spent most of our time in the kayaks trying to take it all in but finding it to be an impossible task: It was just too much – too beautiful, too immense, too emotional. Oftentimes, we’d find ourselves simply staring up at the powerful scenery, afraid that if we dared move, it might turn out to be a dream and disappear before our eyes.

Note: This blog was written on Saturday, June 20, 2015.

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  1. Beautiful! How did you determine that slack water was 40 minutes after high tide? In the U.S. I use, but that doesn't cover B.C., and I found B.C.'s current stations are very limited (ex, current tables for only 2 locations vs tide tables for 20 locations) and tide tables don't include data for peak and slack current.

    1. Hey, Patrick. Slack water for Fords Terror varies with the height of the tide and is based off slack water for Woods Spit and/or Juneau (they both occur about the same time). From everything we read, that usually happens 30 minutes to an hour afterwards (the bigger the tide, the longer it takes), so it's important to get there early and watch the entrance for turbulence. For information in Canada, we use the tide and current tables published by Canadian Hydrographic. You can buy the books at local chandleries or download them for free. Hope that helps! Cheers!