Glaciers I’ve Come to Know
There’s something about these massive chunks of ice that I cannot get enough of. I’ve been lucky to spend a lot of time with these geologic anomalies all over the world in both the northern and southern hemisphere. Here are a few of my favorites from Alaska.
The first is the Hubbard Glacier in Russell Fjord Wilderness Area. The Hubbard is a locomotive glacier. It advances and retreats in relatively (for a glacier) quick oscillations. Currently, the face sits just 300 yards from Gilbert Point, where campers can set up tents on an alluvial outwash and listen to (or rather feel internally) the concussion of the glacier cracking and popping all night and day. Just a couple decades ago, the face had advance so far, it occluded the mouth of Russell Fjord, creating a gigantic glacial lake. As the water rose, it inundated the shoreline, killing all of the the vegetation. When the water in the fjord finally broke free, it left a “bathtub ring” of denuded land around the shore. Some of the first species to recolonize this area in the successional regime were the wildflowers. Now, when you visit Russell Fjord, the perimeter of the bay is flush with lupine, columbine, paintbrush, and fireweed.
Second is the Dawes Glacier in Tracy Arm-Fjord Terror Wilderness. I’ve had the opportunity to guide folks to the Dawes a couple of times. Unlike the Hubbard, Dawes is retreating. As it retracts, it leaves the scoured rock walls void of anything, making the paddle up to the campsite were this photo was taken a lesson in ecological succession.
John Hopkins Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park Wilderness is third on the list. I have spent a lot of time visiting the John Hopkins. Chocolate Falls, a campsite named for the silt-filled waterfall that runs down the cliff face behind camp, is possibly my favorite place in Glacier Bay. It has beautiful black sand pocked with bright white ice bergs and you can sit on the buffs and watch harbor seals ride the ice flow back and forth with the tide. From the air, the silt-laden water of various densities, mixed with blue saltwater and chunks almost looks more like a scene from the Hubble Telescope than a picture of the sea.
The Nunatak Galcier, number four, is a much different type of glacier. Unlike the tidewater glaciers, which start in cirque far up in the mountains and “drain” down into the sea, alpine glaciers, like Nunatak, cling to the steep faces of mountains. Since they possess considerably less mass, they are far more susceptible to climatic shifts, and therefore are at extreme risk. Seeing hanging glaciers like Nunatak surprises me. I have a hard time grasping how something so plastic and heavy could remain on such a steep incline for long enough to accumulate enough snow to form ice. Nunatak Glacier resides on a peak named simply, “The Nunatak” in Nunatak Fjord, an arm of Russell Fjord. So what is a nunatak? Nunatak is an Inuit term for the prominent, sharp peaks that rise above the ablated foothills. Nunataks form when an icesheet or series of glaciers flow around mountains. The rock beneath the ice is eroded into rolling geography, while the peaks at elevation higher than the ice erode primarily from being undercut by the ice, forming sharp peaks with high angles of repose. I personally, have always been keenly attracted to nunataks, enough so to name my business after them.
Fifth is McBride Glacier, also in Glacier Bay NP. McBride is the only tidewater glacier in the East Arm of Glacier Bay, where motorized vessels are not allowed for most of the year. Thus, McBride is a perfect destination for serene glacier viewing.
Last is the Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau. The Mendy must be one of the most accessible glaciers in the US. You can see her from the plane when you fly into Juneau, and if you stand in the right place on Douglas Island, it almost looks like shes about to engulf the town. The Mendy is my favorite glacier to play around, on, and in. It’s not a complete trip to Juneau without a hike to the deep, azure icecaves along her flanks.
John Muir wrote in Travels in Alaska that “a man who neither believed in God nor glaciers must be very bad, indeed the worst of all unbelievers.” For myself, I’d like to think my love of the latter negates my atheism.