Monday, September 24, 2012

Alaska Adventures Part 2 - Exit Glacier and Harding Icefield

From the Better Late Than Never files, below is part two of the report from my adventures in Alaska.

After running the Lost Lake trail race on Saturday and having a good time hanging out at the finish line party stuffing my face and drinking lots of good local beer, I was unmotivated to pursue any additional mountain adventures that afternoon, so I spent the remainder of the day hanging out in and around Seward taking in some of the local culture and admiring the views over the bay.

As I walked around Seward and interacted with the locals and the tourists, I made two interesting observations that defined the primary ways in which I could very easily distinguish between the local townspeople and those people who had just wandered into town off the cruise ship or by way of their rented RV. The first distinguishing factor is that all of the local men in Seward had beards. All of them. Even the male children as young as seven years old had beards, which is impressive. The second observation had to do with the preferred footwear of the locals vs. the tourists. I suspect that Seward must remain submerged under several inches of water, mud, and ice for the majority of the year because all of the locals wore boots, and usually not just plain work boots but heavy duty waterproof rubberized boots that look like they are built for trekking through a swamp. I felt lucky to have avoided the mess of watery muck that would dictate such footwear while walking around town, as all of the streets and sidewalks were at that time clean and dry.

After experiencing all of Seward's best local attractions in an alarmingly short period of time, I made my way back up the Resurrection River a short distance and once again found a great campsite along the river with some great views back down toward the bay.

The weather the past two days had been fantastic, and I was hopeful that this would continue. I checked the weather forecast and found that at exactly 6:00 am the next morning, the clear skies which I had been experiencing were predicted to completely vanish and be replaced by heavy cloud cover and a constant deluge of rain until precisely 6:00 pm the following day, at which time the rain would stop, the clouds would vanish, and the birds would resume their singing as the sunshine once again made itself known. I was skeptical to say the least about the prediction of going from clear skies to 100% chance of rain in almost zero transition time, then returning to clear after exactly 36 hours. I would soon find out that not only is this sort of weather transition possible in southern Alaska, but apparently someone knows how to predict it.

I woke up a couple of times during the night and peeked out from below the tarp that I was camped under and observed the starry sky above me. Still no clouds moving in. Shortly after 5:00 am I woke up and poked my head out once more and could no longer see the stars. Since it was still very dark, I was not yet ready to believe that cloud cover had moved in, so I busied myself with breaking down my camp and getting ready to head out for the day.

By the time I got to the parking lot for the Exit Glacier visitor center, which lies within Kenai Fjords National Park, it was apparent that in fact there was heavy cloud cover that looked to be building rapidly. With only one other car in the parking lot, I knew I would have relative solitude on this usually heavily traveled trail. I climbed up the initial portions of the trail quickly and in short time I began to have some fantastic vantages of the exit glacier running parallel to the trail, as well as the surrounding mountains.

As I climbed higher through alpine meadows just above treeline, a small black bear scampered across the slope above and perched itself on top of a ridge approximately 200 feet above me before ducking out of view. The trail wound up to the top of the ridge to the spot where the bear had been standing, and as I crested the ridge, the bear popped its' head above some rocks a short distance from where I stood, and quickly began bounding down the slope on the opposite side. I had my camera ready and was able to snap one quick picture during the brief moment that the bear was in close proximity.

After descending the opposite side of the ridge, the bear busied itself digging in the tundra for something edible, as can be seen in the lower center portion of the picture below.

As I continued up the slopes and through a talus field, I came across a marmot which was a mixture of tan, gray, and blond in its' coloration, which is something I've never seen before.

Climbing higher, the icefield above the glacier began to come into view. The views opening up in front of me were somewhat overwhelming, as I had never before seen anything as massive and extensive as this sea of ice stretching for miles and miles, filling huge valleys and leaving only the very peaks of the mountains visible above its' surface. Even though I was walking on an established trail only a few miles from a parking lot that is regularly flooded with tourist traffic, I knew that the views unfolding just in front of me were of a truly wild and untamed part of the natural world.

As I began traversing snow fields leading to the edge of the main body of the icefield, the weather continued to deteriorate and began to alternate between misting rain and light snow. At times it was difficult to distinguish between the gray sky and the field of ice below it, with only the dark nunatak peaks providing a clear separation.

Further to the west, the icefield stretched on for many miles until the view was swallowed into the massive gray clouds overhead.

I assumed that the one other vehicle in the parking lot belonged to the owners of this tent, who had one of the greatest camp site views imaginable.

The views from here were beautiful beyond words, and I spent a significant amount of time just observing the intricacies of it all.

As I began venturing back in the direction I had come from, I came across this friendly old mountain goat who was more than happy to pose for a quick photo shoot for me.

As I once again made my way down the trail, the rain and snow became constant and slightly heavier. One last look across the upper glacier and the edge of the icefield, and then I was off down the trail.

I made good time running back down the trail, and enjoyed opening up my stride and letting loose on some of the fast downhill portions. I passed a number of parties who were on their way up as I was descending. By this time the rain was getting heavier, but not to the point as to discourage some of the more ambitious hikers. When I reached the trailhead, there were dozens of bodies walking around under plastic rain ponchos and looking very unhappy about the current state of things. I got a lot of odd looks from the poncho people as I bounded down the trail back to the visitor center, which is something I've become quite used to. I do always feel somewhat sorry for these types of people wandering around under their ponchos who will undoubtedly not get to experience the same things that I've just been a part of, whether due to a lack of motivation, ability, or any other numerous factors. This sort of thought always serves to make me increasingly thankful that I have both the motivation and the ability to experience the types of things that I do, and bolsters my desire to encourage others to pursue the same types of adventure.

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