On my last day in Alaska for this trip, I drove about as far north from Anchorage as I had south to get to Seward, where I’d hiked near the Exit glacier and kayaked on Aialik bay. My destination this time: the Matanuska glacier. You can see it from the road, once you get within a few miles of it:
Once you get close to it, you can see how huge the thing is. Not only is it long, but it’s high.
The bulk of the glacier dwarves the people walking on it. It’s actually much thicker than it looks here; much of it is hidden under mounds of glacier rubble where it terminates.
Here’s a view of it from above – from later in the day, when I climbed Lion’s head, about a thousand feet over the glacier. I had the mountain all to myself, and sat there for an hour listening to the staggering cracks and books of the glacier.In between these noises, it is completely silent, sometimes for 5 minutes, sometimes for hours. As impressive as this glacier is, it is only a shadow of what it was 100,000 years ago, when it probably rose most of the way up to the mountain tops. I am not a religious person, but it occurred to me that an object like this glacier would make a suitable god. It’s unimaginably vast, powerful, and living on a time scale that I have a hard time comprehending; who knows what secrets lie frozen within it? At one point, I found a dragonfly partially frozen into the ice. Was that a recent event, or a primordial one?
Those lakes in the foreground look like they’re on solid ground, but they’re actually on top of the glacier. The glacier has ground up so much of the surrounding mountains, and has gone through so much melting since the last ice age, that it has a thick layer of rock and dirt on top of it. When you look closely at the lakes, you can see they they’re basically sitting in ice pits. Meanwhile, the soil insulated the ice so much that it has looked like this for a really long time; there is a forest on top of it!
Back to the Glacier’s surface: the top side of it has many water features such as lakes and streams, which carve sinuous gulleys into the ice before vanishing into deep crevasses:
Where water or fracturing has polished the surface, it has that wonderful glacial color:
Larger lakes are also found:
In places where the water is saturated with ground-up stone – not just dust, but really, stone flour – it is gray and opalescent.
Proceeding into the fracture zone, where the ice is splintered and broken by the force of the glacier’s movement, you can find perfectly clear, still pools that are suspended high above the surrounding terrain. note the person at right for scale.
The fractured ice represents much of the surface of the glacier, which winds for 27 miles back into the mountains. It’s extremely rugged and dangerous terrain that can swallow people forever. Caution is advised! Can you find the ice climber in this picture (click to enlarge any of these)?
How about this one?
It’s prudent to wear spikes and carry the right gear for this environment; I hired a guide from Nova expeditions to show me the ropes, but next time I’d probably bring my own spikes and go my own way. I found Nova to be a very good deal – the guide was knowledgeable and competent and the price was reasonable. The helmet, though, is not the height of fashion.
The variety of shapes and textures of the ice seems never ending. And once in a while, an enormous groan or artillery fusillade-sound would come from one or another part of the glacier as it crept inexorably and almost undetectably forward.
Last but not least, the hike up Lion’s Head was a real ass-kicker, but it is totally worth it. It is kind of like climbing a ladder for half an hour, but when you get to the top you can see the glacier as pictured above in the long shot. Here is a view in the other direction; you can see the car down by the road and see exactly what I had to climb to get to this eagle’s view.
The vegetation on Lion’s head is exorbitant and lush. Within a shaded glad under evergreen trees, foot-high ferns resemble their tree protectors.
Just like Arizona, there seems to be an insect for every type of flower.
Miscellany: there is a lodge – the long rifle lodge, that is perched at a spectacular vantage point over the glacier. It is not an expensive or luxurious place, but it has an unrivaled view, specially from the dining room. I would stay there is a heartbeat. the food was simple but good, and I loved staring out the window.
Since my three-day kayaking expedition was cancelled by a big storm, I decided to hike around glaciers instead of row up to them. In a brief moment of sun I had this view of the Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park:
Here is the foot of the glacier. In recent decades it has retreated by about a mile, and at the foot is just a shadow of what it once was. However, it is still huge – several hundred yards across.
This is where the glacier was only in the 1990s. You can see how the rock underneath the ice was scoured away.
Here are some helpful tips; I particularly like the third one.
Now the rain began, but so did the great views. The microclimate of the hillside i was on was incredibly verdant and covered with happy plants. The trail is 3.5 miles long, and rises 1000 feet per mile. This is similar to hikes I’ve made in the grand canyon (although this is much shorter). It is what I call an “ass-kicking” hike.
Running water was everywhere.
Directly across the gorge I could see the naked black rock scoured clean by the glacier in years past, and a small spillover of ice from the ice field. The ice field is an inland sea of ice that sits in an elevated basin; the glaciers are ice falls, analogous to waterfalls. While flowers are blooming below, at altitude on the ice field, it is virtually winter, and cold air flows down with the ice. Hikers here encounter freezing rivers of cold air that can come in hammer blasts.
Now it began to rain in earnest. At first it was just a heavy downpour, but soon it felt as if I were ringed with people playing fire hoses on me. Whenever I climbed over a ridge and was exposed to the cold wind coming off of the glacier and the ice field above, things were pretty uncomfortable. Eventually I reached an overlook where everyone else on the trail was turning back. You can just see the top of the glacier behind me.
I stayed dry for several hours, but eventually I felt a squishing sensation in my shoes and knew something had gone wrong. I spent some time cursing my gear before realizing that i had left the underarm vents open on my jacket, allowing the cold rain to drip down my entire body; I was completely soaked. I kept going.
Soon I crested the top of the mountain and encountered even worse weather. When I took off my rain jacket to put on extra fleece, my t-shirt froze instantly. Visibility soon dropped as well, but i could see the start of the Harding ice field!
Up here (around 3500 feet) there was essentially no vegetation; it looked like what I’d expect to see at 14000 feet down in the states. Now, I was even more soaked, and completely exposed to the so-called catabatic winds (essentially, ice-chilled air) coming off of the ice. There was no shelter, the rain was unrelenting, but I was only half a mile from the end of the trail… I kept on for a while.
Eventually, I felt the beginning of blisters in my water-softened feet, and I realized that mother nature was going to win this time. Reluctantly I turned back. My fingers were so cold I could barely move them; I fumbled and dropped my camera over a ledge. Cursing helplessly, I watched it tumble over and over, entering a waterfall stream, which carried it hundreds of yards down a steep cliff of slippery wet gravel and decomposed shale. It stopped just short of plunging over a cliff ind into the crevasses of the glacier below.
Grumbling, I went down after it. Later I took the picture above of the place where the camera fell. It took me about 30 minutes to make the round trip. Damn. Now, completely cold and annoyed, I headed back to the warmer part of the trail as fast as I could.
Screw you, rain!
Despite the difficulty, it was a great day. I staggered back to the car and sat in the back seat long enough to completely cloud the windows with my breath before changing out of my sopping wet clothes. Relief!No comments
two weeks ago I went kayaking in Aialik bay, in Alaska’s Kenai Fjords national park. I was supposed to go for three days, but a big storm washed those plans away. Still, I was able to go for a single fantastic day. I left from Seward, where I used the services of Miller’s landing, a campground and adventure guide service that rents kayaks and provides water taxi service. They have some backpacker’s “cabins” that are the most reasonable accommodations in the area, at $50/night, although they are basically glorified sheds with beds and heaters – not for those who require amenities of any sort. The Seward region is absolutely beautiful; the town sits on Resurrection bay, which is surrounded by typically gorgeous Alaskan mountains. Otters frolic in the bay and you are guaranteed to see a least one if you spend 15 minutes walking by the water.
All of the water in this region has a spectacular color caused by the particulates from glacial streams. When the sun hits it, it is an incredible aqua color.
The real fun began early in the AM the next day, when we boarded the water taxi for Aialik bay. On the way out, we passed small, rugged islands where sea lions lounged, and where a humpback whale appeared to be scratching itself on rocks – something I’ve never seen before. Here you can see a fin sticking out of the water between the rocks:
Otters were everywhere, and occasionally, seals would surface and observe me; some Dall’s porpoises were playing in the bow wave of the water taxi that ferries kayaks out to the bay from Seward. It rained constantly and the approaching storm made it heavily overcast; the temperature was in the 50s.
We got close to the Aialik and Pederson glaciers; at Pederson we saw an apartment-sized portion of glacier calving into the bay. I didn’t get it on camera, but with a fusillade of thundering cracks it fell off of the glacier, found its buoyancy and rose to twice the height of the glacier’s top, and then disintegrated and collapsed into the water, causing the millions of fragments of floating ice already in the bay to engage in a grumbling commentary as they rubbed against each other.
For miles in front of a glacier, there is a sea of scattered ice debris.
The glacier itsefl – this one is Aialik – is an imposing wall whose scale is difficult to represent because of a lack of objects for comparison. I’d say it’s about 200 feet tall and 3/4 mile wide. It constantly creaks, cracks, and groans, and every 10 minutes or so, there is a shower of ice that sloughs off and splashes into the water.
I don’t have time to annotate these – maybe I’ll do it later – but here are the images from the Chugach mountains around Alaska and Resurrection bay around Seward.
Here are some images from the last time I was in Alaska. It was last year – I guess I’m a bit behind… this was in the winter, and it’s now the height of summer and I’m in Anchorage and Seward having different adventures! But here’s the pictures anyway.
A brief description of the pictures: The Chugach mountains around Anchorage; the stunning cook inlet scenery; dog sledding in Alyeska; winter survival training; the large animal shelter near Portage glacier; show shoeing along the portage glacier lake. The desert images were taken upon the day I returned to Flagstaff via Phoenix; the highway to Flagstaff was closed due to snow, but down in Phoenix the desert was blooming!
Who is interested in learning some basic electronics and soldering skills? I will arrange a hands-on “maker” experience where we will build some small, cool little electronic thing that you will be able to take home with you afterwards. The cost will be in the $50 range, and is for materials only, all of which will be yours to keep.
The first thing you need is a decent set of tools. I can provide some tools during class, but if you want to solder on your own, or don’t want to wait and share during class, you should buy one of these, or something like it. Whatever you buy, it should have a 20-25 Watt soldering iron, some solder, a wire cutter and pliers. A solder remover and/or solder wick is a very good idea. You can buy the tools seperately, or in kits like below, which are all less than $50, most less than $25. I have lots of pliers and cutters, so the soldering tools are the most important part:
- Maker Shed soldering kit (has pliers)
- Think Geek Kit (has pliers)
- Ifixit kit (deluxe starter kit!)
- Elenco soldering kit (soldering only)
- Elenco Kit with project board (fewer tools, but it comes with a kit!)
- Radio shack soldering kit (soldering only)
Here is the menu of kits that I think would be appropriate. They are all less than $40, most less than $20. I don’t have any attachment to these companies, but they make nice kits. Please choose one and order it so that you have it in time for class. Feel free to get something not on this list as long as it is a beginner kit (since this is a beginner class). You can read the description and decide for yourself what you want to build; keep it mind that kits with more parts take longer and have a higher chance of failure due to complexity.
- Weevil Eye (one of the simplest kits – good for smaller kids or unambitious adults)
- Digital Dice
- Simon Game (button version)
- Simon Game (tilt version)
- Blinky single-digit marquee (a little more advanced due to high part count); hackable
- Pico Paso noise maker (spectacularly annoying!); hackable
- Tiny Cylon LED blinking thing;hackable
- Music Game (Has possibility for more advanced hacking)
- Useless Machine (One of my favorite things, but actually not that much soldering involved; it’s largely mechanical)
- 1-gram piano (Has possibility for more advanced hacking)
- ClocKit (Has possibility for more advanced hacking)
Contact me if you have any questions.
The following is a visual representation of why the effort of hauling my gear thousands of miles, fighting through sometimes difficult water and camping in the cold is worth the effort. I’ve just returned from the area near Tofino, British Columbia, where I was fortunate enough to go kayak camping for a few days.
Sea lions off of Blunden island.
A gray whale and her calf surface briefly.
A sea otter takes a break from his ceaseless activity to watch me. They seem to like he turbulent, foamy water, or at least the food they find there.
Dramatic waves, having traveled immense distances across the open Pacific, come ashore at last.
Whales are huge, but not always obvious. There is a whale in this picture… (click to enlarge, as with all these images)
Only when they break the surface or breathe do you really see them, unless they’re doing something dramatic like broaching or fluking, which I didn’t see this time (although I have seen it – see here).
In the calmer waters behind the barrier islands, it’s a different world.
This is the kind of scenery with which I was continually forced to cope… really, how does one deal with this? It’s everywhere you look; it’s there when the sun sets, and still there in the morning. I couldn’t stop feeling like the luckiest person alive.
Sometimes, this happens:
Numerous inviting beaches await, some with caves or primeval, Tolkeinesque rain forest groves.
Wolves comb the beaches for anything edible. They approached me at close range while I was camping and I had to shoo them away, but unfortunately I didn’t have a camera nearby at the time. They seemed sleek and well-nourished. Here are images of some other wolves I saw once.
I like blue.
This next image, although not that impressive, I will never forget, because it was so hard to get. A 30-knot headwind was blasting mercilessly into my teeth as the tidal current ran against me over a complex bottom, causing confused, turbulent water that pulled in multiple directions with waves popping up unexpectedly to douse me and my unprotected camera. I had to row forward furiously just to go backwards slowly, but I was determined to get an image of these guys. When I put down the paddle for just 8 seconds (I counted), the wind swung me in the opposite direction. The motion of the boat, the lack of good light, and the qualities of the camera made it extremely difficult to get a clear image, all while trying to keep right side up and the camera dry. I took it as a personal challenge to get any image at all, and after all that, when I reached the right spot to take the picture and raised the camera during the 8-second interval, the eagles turned their backs upon me! I shouted “really? That’s the way it’s going to be?” Yes, that’s the way it was.
Many thanks to Blake at Batstar adventure tours, who rented me gear when nobody else seemed interested and was otherwise enormously helpful.2 comments
Some images looking across the Barkley sound from Port Alberni.
One of the local timber plant’s tiny tugboats pulls a raft of unprocessed logs.
A vessel in the harbor is lit by angled light coming in under the clouds.
A very typical scene from the windows of the office here.4 comments
Click on images to make them larger.
Leaving the brilliant, windswept wilderness outpost of Flagstaff, I had a good view of the peaks and a few smaller cinder cones to the west.
I touched down in the metropolitan madness of arid Phoenix…
…flew back north over the geological wonderland of Northern Arizona and Utah:
…and touched down again in rainy Seattle. SEA-TAC is a great airport. I love the wall of glass, suspended on cables:
Finally, I landed in Victoria, BC, Canada, and drove several hours to Port Alberni, another wilderness outpost.
After getting a night’s rest and putting in a day’s work, I used the remaining light to visit Stamp falls regional park, where there is a roaring waterfall and a fish ladder.
It’s verdant, smells like healthy soil and fresh air, and moss covers everything, as is characteristic of the northwest.
There was this giant, which squirted out of a crevice in a cliff, made a 90-degree turn and shot towards the sky.2 comments
Here are the pictorial results of a day hike to steamboat rock in Sedona. This is accessible via a poor trail that can go straight up cliffs. Not for the acrophobic, this one! Step carefully… and look around, there are ancient native American ruins everywhere, hidden high in the cliffs.