An Alaskan Adventure: Wickersham
“Were taking on water! We have to turn around!”
A pit was forming in my stomach and my legs were cramping as I tried to keep my balance in the middle of the small blow up canoe. Icebergs floated only a few feet away from our paddles and a heavy current threatened to take us downstream, into the class two and three rapids of the Matanuska river. The adrenaline started to take over my body as water, only a few degrees above freezing, started to creep up my legs. I had made it quite clear that I had no idea what I was doing when it came to paddling, and let the boys take the oars, but now, with literally no control over the situation, all I could do was laugh hysterically.
There’s no better way to start an Alaskan adventure except with a canoe across the terminal lake of the glacier, at 8pm after a full day of work, as it’s just beginning to rain. The mountain we were bound for, Wickersham, sat behind us in the haze of the Kenai fires, beckoning us to come explore.
We ended up back on shore, taking stock of our situation. Anything that had been touching the bottom of the boat, which we now realized had not been fully sealed from the water due to a couple gaskets being left open, was soaked; our backpacks, pants, and shoes. But now that we realized what the problem was, understood the severity of the current we needed to cross, and had calmed down a little from the initial crossing, we couldn’t just let it go. We had to try again.
So thats how I found myself getting back into the canoe, and bracing myself once again to enter the glacial river. Adam drew from long ago kayak trips with his dad to direct his and Luke’s paddling, angling us upstream to get through the current. This time, with gaskets closed, and a great understanding of what we were getting ourselves into, we made it across to the far side of the glacier.
The Matanuska Glacier is the most easily accessible glacier in Alaska. Walking on the white ice requires merely to drive down a 3 mile dirt road, pay a gate fee to Glacier Park, and park in a parking lot, a short half mile walk to the edge of the ice. Hundreds of tourists visit the glacier every day, crowding the small area accessible to the public from 9am to 7pm. Our day job was to guide guests on the glacier for MICA guides, taking people to places outside of that small crowded area, teaching them about how glaciers work, showing them the beauty and grandeur of ice, all well managing risk for folks who had most likely never been on a glacier before, and in many cases, had little to no outdoor experience.
So it was after an 10 hour day of guiding that the three of us found ourselves on the other side of the glacier from where any of us had explored before, a place inaccessible except from several miles of glacier traversing, or by way of the terminal lake/river that we had just paddled across. It was after 8pm, we were soaking wet, and thunder and dark clouds threatened the sky above us.
The only thing to do was to start hiking. After stashing the boat in some bushes, we started up the glacial moraine that flanked the ice. The left side of the glacier was mind boggling, huge crevasses, flowing rivers, and deep caves marked its expanse as we climbed higher, bashing our way through loose rock and sinking into glacial mud. Finally, we left the moraine, bound for the much easier, much more fun experience of Alaskan bushwhacking!
We trudged our way up and up and up, and found not one, but two times where we crested the top of a hill, to realize that we had to go down into a basin before we could continue making our way up onto the ridge that would take us towards the heart of the mountain. We had no real intention of summiting, all we had was one day off work, and no real beta as the peak was rarely climbed in the summer, but when a mountain stares you in the face every single day, there nothing like the desire to just go see what it looks like up there. So higher we climbed, finding moose trails along the way to take us through the thickest of the brush, aiming for the rock glacier that came off of the north face of the mountain.
Luke's stoke for moose trails and for being out of the alders and for adventures!
Finally, after traversing across tundra, and diving back into the forest to get to a creek we though we could follow up to the rock glacier, we found ourselves pretty much delirious at 11pm, at the bottom of the creek bed. The sun was low in the sky as we followed the creek higher, hopping over rocks and pulling on branches to maneuver our way up. After a while, the water grew fainter, and finally dried out completely, leaving us a dry bed to walk up towards the rock glacier. Having gotten as far as we had hoped to get that night, we laid a tarp on the tundra, put on all of our layers, and covered the three of us in one sleeping bag to get a bit of rest.
you can see our camp spot right about where the green turns to grey in the middle of the photo
As we laid there, exhausted and dazed, the soft sponge of the tundra below enveloping me in its embrace, watching the silhouettes of a herd of caribou traverse the ridge in front of us, like specters we we not even sure existed. We could see pretty much the whole route we had taken that day, and the toe of the Mat peeking out from behind the ridge, reminding us that we were now in our view. The place that we looked up at every single day, multiple times a day. We were now it.
The next morning we woke up to a thick fog blanketing everything above us. We were just beneath a cloud, and could see barely any of our surroundings. Still, we wanted to make the most of the day so we packed up “camp”, put on rain coats, and started into the impenetrable cloud. We still were motivated to get up higher, towards the summit ridge, but once we laid hands on the infamous Chugach choss, we though otherwise of venturing upwards, mostly due to the large possibility of having to descend the same way we went up. Each piece of rock we touched pretty much either crumbled or moved under our touch, and the few sections that were more solid were covered in a layer of fine scree. It would by no means be impossible to go up, but descending that stuff, that was outside my comfort level for the day. And the gully that we were in would be a perfect funnel for any falling rock onto whoever was below.
So we made the call to just simply explore. We lazed about on the soft tundra, in no hurry anymore and only out there to just enjoy it. We ended up hiking to the top of the rock glacier, which I was very stoked about. I had recently had a client who had taught me a lot about rock glaciers, something which I had previously known very little about. This client was a climate activist from Argentina who had worked on the very first glacier protection law in the world (he wrote a book actually), and he was advocating for any perennial ice/snow feature to be protected, not just those scientifically classified as glaciers.
Once we decided we weren't going to be climbing, we were in no hurry to get anywhere
The largely agreed upon scientific definition for a glacier is perennial ice that is large enough to move from the pull of gravity. This tends to be about 100ft thick or 25 acres wide. This rules out plenty of perennial ice and snow that is just too small to move, and thus not classified as a glacier. Jorge told me that these smaller pieces of ice are not classified as such because scientists need to narrow down their research, but from a social justice perspective, there is no need to differentiate between different sizes of pieces of ice, they all provide an essential natural resource: water.
Glaciers are the largest fresh water storage tanks in the world. All winter they accumulate snow, which compacts into ice over the course of many years. In the summer, they melt, sending valuable fresh water downstream, supporting the lives of countless species and organisms. Increasing glacier melt, due to increasing summer temperatures provides extra water for now, but will eventually become a death sentence as glaciers in some areas, such as the Himalaya, completely dry up. Thinking about this perspective that any ice, in any form, from a snow covered alpine glacier, to a sediment covered rock glacier, to a patch of ice that just never quite melts even in the hottest sun, is all a precious resource that should be protected, really influenced my view on glaciers in general. This line of thought and newfound stoke for rock glaciers propelled us higher in the cirque towards the face of Mt Wickersham.
Rock glaciers are created as glaciers retreat, when they have become small enough to leave all of the rock, debris, and sediment carried within them, on the top, as well as within the ice. Some have a pure ice core, others are simply rock and permafrost mixed together. It is still perennial frozen water, and they exhibit many physical marks of a glacier, but there was no sign of ice, at least not anywhere near the surface. The surface of this specific rock glacier was very similar to the tundra around it, small plants, lots of sediment, feeling more like moraine than glacier. But underneath our feet, as we walked up the rock glacier, was ice. You could see the structure of the whole glacier, still exhibiting signs of old crevasses, of the buttresses at the toe of the glacier, and from a distance, it is obvious that it once was a moving glacier. But now it has faded, covered in debris and sediment, invisible except by the perceptive eye. Rock glaciers have long since been overlooked by glaciologists, who have tended towards the study of hard ice and snow covered glaciers instead of their younger sibling, the rock glacier.
Well we ended up hanging out on the rock glacier in a slight drizzle for a while, before figuring we might as well head down since we still had literally no visibility, and the clouds did not seem to be wanting to clear. So we started back down, choosing to attempt to take the creek down, instead of bushwhacking up the hillside we had come down. We hopped and leaped back and forth across the creek attempting, and failing, to keep our shoes dry. I am not the biggest fan of leaping from rock to rock across running water with a pack on, and this was a bit of a mental challenge for me, especially we started to get higher from the water as we entered a bit of a gorge. Eventually, it was outside my comfort level, and we opted to turn back around and head back the way we came, which, as it often is, seemed faster on the way back.
By the time we made it back to the boat, our feet had been soaking for pretty much the entire day, our legs were worked and I was pretty damn happy. The boat ride back across the lake/river was much less eventful than the first crossing, and we made it back to Barb (the mini van who had been hit by a moose the year before) safe and sound, very hungry, and with very sore feet. It had been a good day off.