This past week we went on two mini trips to both Kennicott and Anchorage. We only spent one night in Kennicott, yet managed to squeeze in some pretty amazing opportunities into that short amount of time because of the incredible speed Glenn maintained down McCarthy Road, occasionally slamming on the brakes in front of potholes and dips.
Along the way we made multiple stops, including a bridge hundreds of feet above a tumultuous river – the same bridge I got out and walked across with my parents, except this time we climbed under it. There is a much smaller walkway underneath the crossbeams and support systems that narrowly fits one person. You can scramble up to it by getting on the roof of the van, stretching your leg out as far as possible, and pulling yourself over to the cement base. From there you need acrobatics to swing around the steel bars to a very narrow bridge. Shuffling along, you can feel cars rattle across the bridge above you and hear the water roar far below you. It’s enough to make anyone afraid of heights, but we did it. It was quite satisfying to reach the end and leap down onto solid ground again. Glenn picked us up in the van at the other side and we continued onward.
Once in McCarthy, we immediately headed over to Wrangell Mountain Air for our flightsee. I was convinced the skies would fill up by the time we got to see anything, but thankfully I was wrong: we had a beautiful day for flying.
The four of us squeezed into a yellow bush plane behind our pilot, Steven. After testing headsets, taking multiple selfies, and waving goodbye to Glenn, the plane rumbled to life and we were off. Structures shrank out of sight and our shadow disappeared among the trees below. We sailed over McCarthy and Kennicott, ripples of moraine and needles of trees, until all that lay below was the jagged, dusty ice of the Root Glacier. Sun glinted over mountaintops and then clouds created rings around the middle section. Pocket glaciers sunk low in mountain ridges and snow powdered their peaks. Pools of fluorescent blue polka dotted the dirty ice. Mount Blackburn, the tallest peak in Wrangell-St. Elias, reigned over all, casting deep shadows that made the plane 10 degrees cooler just by blocking out the sun.
Tuesday we woke up and took down camp by seven thirty, putting us on the Root Glacier Trail long before anyone else. We were very lucky that we chose to do the flightsee on Monday, because the next morning was cold and gloomy, which would have made it hard to see much from the plane. This did make the conditions pretty chilly on the ice, but it’s a rugged two-mile hike to get to the glacier, so by that time you’re hot and sweaty.
Once at the glacier, we each found our own rock to sit on and lace up the crampons. Crampons are pretty much shoe soles that have metal spikes coming out that hook into the ice. They have long laces that wrap around your foot a million times and then you feel like a decked-out mountaineer. As I clomped around I pictured hikers a century ago sharing my struggle to stay upright without slicing my calves.
The sheer immensity of the ice is what overwhelmed me at first. From above – or even far away in a car – the glacier merely looks like a thin dust collecting at the base of a mound. But once we stepped foot on it, it became quite clear that is an understatement. Crackling ice fanned out as far as I could see, tumbling further and further up the mountainside.
We crunched around for an hour, pausing to drink glacier water, examine treacherous tunnels, and eat lunch on a ridge. I could have stayed out there all day but, alas, we had to be back in Glennallen before the YCC kid’s workday ended, so we eventually had to turn back. As we were stepping off the ice, steady streams of people were flowing towards it. Just after eleven, it was evident that these were the first guided tours ramping up. In all I’m sure I saw fifty people pouring onto the glacier behind me when before it had only been us five. Our timing really couldn’t have been much better.
After returning to Boxtown for one night, we set out again on Wednesday morning, this time in the opposite direction, towards Anchorage. We spent most of that day driving and wandering around Anchorage. We stopped at the Regional Office there and got to meet the Regional Director who is in charge of all the National Parks in Alaska. But then we headed on to Portage because the ultimate goal was to make it to the Kenai Peninsula by Thursday.
Because we were in the car by seven that morning, we were able to stop at Kenai Fjords National Park before our boat tour at noon. I saw my third glacier: Exit Glacier (the others are Root and Worthington). We didn’t get to touch this one because there were rockslide warning signs, but we got pretty close. It was also very interesting to see the signs indicating how much the glacier has receded in the past decade. It makes the issue of disappearing glaciers and icecaps undeniably clear.
On a different note, I saw something awesome on the trail back from the glacier. I was at the back of the group and was absentmindedly watching my feet move up the path, when I heard bushes rustle behind me. I turned just in time to see a black bear cub leap out of the vegetation and amble down the path in the other direction. I would have thought it was just a dog if I hadn’t clearly seen the snout and thick black coat. But, since it was a cub and the mother was probably somewhere nearby, we didn’t linger too long.
After seeing the glacier, we continued down to Seward to catch a five-hour boat tour. I saw sea otters rolling in the waves, dall porpoises gliding through the water, and sea lions lounging on rocks. The crisp, fresh breeze snapped at my face and the freshwater shimmered in the sunlight. There’s a sort of peace you only feel on the water and it fills me with a sense of calm. Although there were definitely people on that boat that were filled with seasickness instead. (Sean was still able to strike a victorious pose).
I’m doing things I could never afford to do on my own. This is such an amazing experience. I will leave you with my updated Animal Inventory:
One Black Bear
Five Dall Porpoises
10 Harbor Porpoises
Five Mountain Goats
50 Sea Lions