Archive for July, 2014

Hiking on and around the Matanuska Glacier

July 21st, 2014 | Category: Alaska,Travel

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.

 

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Hiking up the Exit glacier trail to the Harding Ice Field

July 19th, 2014 | Category: Alaska,Travel

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!

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Kayaking in Aialik bay

July 18th, 2014 | Category: Alaska,Travel

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.

 

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Pictures from my first two days in Alaska in the summer of 2014

July 08th, 2014 | Category: Alaska,Travel

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.

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Dog Sledding on the Cook Inlet

July 08th, 2014 | Category: Alaska,Travel

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!

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