Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Adventures in Wrangell-St. Elias, July 17-21

July 17: It's a gorgeous, sunny day. Something we never take for granted around here. The first part of our hike follows the trail that runs along the ridge by the glacier.  The woods are bursting with colorful wildflowers, and around us all sorts of birds are chipping and singing.  To get down to the glacier, we follow a steep scree slope and then hike along the lateral moraine.  A little ways down the glacier, we find Erie Lake, now drained and full of icebergs.  Glacial lakes such as this one are formed when the ice blocks the flow of water from streams.  When the ice blockage is breached at some point during the summer, the lake drains in an exciting event called the glacial lake outburst flood, or Jokulhlaup (pronounced YOKE-awl-aup).  We make camp above the lake with a gorgeous view of the Stairway Icefall, 7,000 feet of towering ice.

July 18: For the first time all trip, we leave our tent set up and head out wih day packs.  We spend a wonderful morning exploring the icebergs below us.  They are reminiscent of the jumbled boulders in Joshua Tree, but made entirely of ice.
In the afternoon, we hike up towards the icefall and find many spectacular glacier treasures: a huge blue pool probably hundreds of feet deep bordered by sheer cliffs we don't dare get too close to; smaller blue pools, also super deep, that we can get close to and gaze into, wondering how deep they go; many rivers gushing through the ice; and waterfalls that thunder down into the deep unknown. 
Fun fact: the glacial ice near the icefall is 2,000 feet deep in places! 
Our favorite discovery is a perfectly clear blue lake only a few feet deep that we can walk down to. Across from us is an ice cliff from which two small waterfalls pour down into the lake. The scene looks absolutely tropical, except it's all made of ice.
After an incredible day of exploration we retreat to our tent on the grassy knoll and simply enjoy the view. 

July 19: We hike out from our lake on a scree trail that we discovered as we watched another group hike easily along it. Then we head back out across the moraine. Behind us is the roar of two rivers cascading out of the mountains. All around us are the more subtle sounds of the ice dripping and stretching, like ice cubes as you pop them from the tray. Occasionally rocks tumble down from their perches on the icy slopes, and every once in a while there is a great thumping from an unseen basement: rocks tumbling and churning far below. 
Out on the white ice of the glacier it's quieter. The loudest sounds are our crampons scraping and puncturing the ice below our feet. Always there is the rush of water; sometimes a small stream, other times the louder rush of a waterfall tumbling into the deep blue depths. Around us rise the mountains, silent, stark and jagged, but clad in the softest coat of velvet green brush. Behind us now is the icefall, cold crystal in the sun. The peaks around it are coated with fluffy snow reminiscent of icing on a cake. Simply spectacular.
In the afternoon, we hike along the medial moraine. There's good traction here provided by the rocks frozen into the ice. We navigate many crevasses, streams, and a moulin before heading back across the white ice and finding a campsite in Donoho basin. Donoho is a mountain peak that separates the main flow of the Kennecott and Root glaciers (we've been hiking on the Root). It looks rather like an alligator- the two peaks as the alligator eyes and the long snout forming the basin between the glaciers where we are camped. 

July 20: It's 12:30 before we motivate ourselves to get going because it's raining again. Miraculously, the moment we emerge from the tent the rain stops and it's beautiful for the rest of the day. Thank you weather! It's easy to get down to the glacier, and from there we start crunching our way through the ice towards Kennecott. This part of the glacier has few big crevasses but it is quite hilly. We walk up a ridge of ice only to see another large sunken bowl as if the glacier was a poorly baked cake that caved in. It's not long before we can see a waterfall pouring down from the cliff we just hiked down. It's a three tiered affair, a thunderous white veil tumbling through the grey rock. What an incredible place we are in. 
It doesn't take long to finish our walk across the glacier then back along the trail into Kennecott. Once in town we treat ourselves to a giant M&M cookie from the lodge and an incredibly delicious pizza from Tailor Made Pizza. Pizza from a bus never tasted so good. Afterwards, Betsy from Kennicott Wilderness Guides lets us set up camp behind their guide shack- a perfect little tent spot that can only be reached through a "magical porthole," a small tunnel of rusted metal left from the mining days. 

In its day, Kennecott was a bustling mining town that successfully mined huge quantities of copper. Now many of the buildings are being rebuilt and preserved for their historic value. Outside the town, high up in the mountains are the remnants of the old mining buildings, now falling into disrepair but still quite impressive for their machinery and locations.  Miners back then, in the early 1900s, received two days off a year: July 4 and Christmas Day.
July 21: An amazing day of packrafting! First, let me introduce Spencer, packrafting expert from Kennicott Wilderness Guides who happens to be good buddies with two of our good friends from High Trails, Austin and Jay! He's a fun and friendly guy whose enthusiasm immediately got us psyched for paddling and exploring the area. Our day started with a small tour of McCarthy and some amazing cheesy fries from another restaurant in a bus: The Potato. Then we suited up in our dry suits, blew up our pack rafts with inflator bags and headed out onto a lake at the bottom of the glacier. Having never used a packraft or worn a full dry suit, all the gear is novel and exciting. 
Our first few hours of packrafting are on the lake, getting used to the boats and checking out the melting ice and mesmerizing rock fall. Spencer says that watching the glacier is his version of TV out here. We approve. The next couple of hours are spent on the "training grounds," a series of small rapids, each of which drains into slow moving flat water. It's a perfect place to practice whitewater skills such as ferrying, peeling out, and catching eddies in our new blow-up boats. Here we are also joined by Candace, a wonderful lady paddler who offers helpful advice and encouragement. I particularly enjoy their acronym for getting out of eddies: SALI: speed, angle, lean, icebergs. It's the same sort of thing I learned in Maine- but here we are literally paddling through small floating ice bergs. It's crazy! Thank goodness for the dry suits and warm sunny weather. 
After a lot of practice, and a bit of river scouting, Spencer determines that we can run a section of the Kennicott (the silty river flowing from the Kennicott glacier) with a class III rapid. We are pumped! It's an amazing paddle with super fun wave trains, and neither of us goes for a swim. 
This wonderful day ends with us cooking dinner and watching whitewater videos at the little house Spencer shares with several of the other guides. They have piles upon piles of fresh veggies from an organic farm in Fairbanks- dropped off by the family of one of the guides. We are instructed to eat as many as possible. What a treat! 
Thanks to everyone at Kennicott Wilderness Guides for your kindness, generosity, and for all the fun! 

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