Tag Archives: Glacier

The Mendenhall Glacier Blues

The Blue Ice Caves

Every color has a pure form that boggles the mind and goes beyond the eyes ability to see and it and the brain’s ability to interpret it. I’m talking about hues of color that make your neurons tingle as they try to absorb its hues. You may think of the dark red of a fine ruby or the electric-green of a buggy-eyed tree frog in a rain forest. These pure colors attract us like flies to honey and are a primary reason that thousands of visitors take the risk of stepping into the Mendenhall Glacier to see its sculpted walls of cerulean blue ice. The ice of the cave walls and ceiling is shaped into waves by the wind and water. Immense pressure from hundreds of feet of ice above compress the ice into perfect clarity giving a view to the conditions within.Glaciers carry the earth in their walls and as they melt create new land. As I stepped into Mendenhall Glacier, the world trapped within was immediately evident. Far into the ice, large boulders and sheets of sediment could be seen within. The rocks were distorted by the curves of the ice face. At the base of the cave’s walls, ice flowed over rocks that were half in and half out of their century-old entrapment. The whole floor of the glacier was made from the boulders that melted from glacier. These boulders, it seems, are released at a rapid rate, as the glacier was much different than my last visit in 2015

Mendehall Galicer, Juneau, Ice Caves, Blue Ice

Change at Mendenhall Glacier

Mendenhall Glacier is receding up to 150 feet per year. The rapid rate of change was in full display.  I was astounded to see former site of the ice caves that I visited in 2015 was ice free. In its place, was a valley of rocks and a frozen river. Rock walls extended up to the ice face high above us. Although I cannot be sure how far the ice receded, it may have receded as much as 300 feet. This is not the first time I have seen such change in an Alaskan glacier – I was reminded of the demise of the ices caves of Castner Glacier over the course of a couple years.  Glacial change can happen at a rapid pace! The images below capture the glacier as it is now – I look forward to documenting its inevitable change in the future.

Mendehall Galicer, Juneau, Ice Caves, Blue Ice Mendehall Galicer, Juneau, Ice Caves, Blue Ice Mendehall Galicer, Juneau, Ice Caves, Blue Ice

The Scoop on an Alaskan Personal Use Fishery

Alaska is famous for its rivers which fill with salmon each summer. Each species comes at an expected time, first the kings (chinoook), then the reds (sockeye), and finally the silvers (coho) and pinks. Anglers throughout the state pursue them by boat, rod-and-reel, and nets depending on the location and intent. A specific section of the Alaska fishery is deemed a “personal use fishery”. Even more so than other fishing regulations, harvest in these regions is meant to fill freezers for the upcoming winter. Alaskan residents are allowed to use a variety of nets on poles to harvest up to 25 salmon each.

Chitina River is a 112 mile tributary of the Copper River. As of July 28th, 2015, 1,341,545 sockeye salmon had made the run upriver (adfg.alaska.gov)!! The abundance of fish attracts hundreds of fishermen each day. The Chitina River is highly braided and variable in depth, and flows out of the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park from the Chitina Glacier. Because of the glacier melt, the water is chocolaty brown all year. Chitina drainage is a  truly rugged and beautiful area; the banks of the river are renowned by the anglers who walk down them for their steepness.

Chitina River Bluffs
This picture captures the scale of the river size and the sheer banks of the Chitina River. It also shows off the turbid, chocolate-brown water.
Chitina River Bluff View
Looking far up the Chitina River from the bluffs along O’Brien Creek Road

The Technique

I had a lot to learn before hitting the trail to the river. I was lucky that on a Friday evening it was packed wall-to-wall with fisherman. Most were standing around recounting the action of the day, cleaning fish, or planning for the next morning. I heard a group of four guys giving out tips to a fifth guy standing with them, and inched in to listen and then ask a few questions. The first thing the leader of the group emphasized was safety. Fishing in the “canyon” can be particularly treacherous due to the steep walls. Many fisherman choose to tie themselves to the rocks when fishing the canyon. Second, be ready to stay out for awhile because the fish come in pulses based on the flow of the water among other factors. Last thing was to find an eddy behind a bolder or point where the current was headed back up stream. Placing your net in the swirling, upstream current ensured it stayed open for passing fish using the eddy as an energetic rest-stop. Visibility was 0 inches due to the turbid waters from melting glaciers, so it was necessary to wait for the “bump” which signified a fish in the net. As he described the bump I could only hope I would know what he meant the next day.

Chitina River Dipnetting Technique
The eddy behind this boulder proved a perfect eddy. As you can see my net is facing up river (the current is flowing from left to right).
Chitina Shallow Eddy
The hoop on the net is pretty large, and I bottomed out in the river. This eddy provided only two fish while I stayed there.

The Result

Early in the morning we skittered down the steep banks of the Chitina River. I picked an eddy that seemed fitting, and as I dipped my net in the water its pocket billowed out perfectly. I perched expectantly on the shore and leaned lightly on the net to keep it turned open in the rushing current. As it turned out the bump was pretty distinct! Although I could not see the salmon swim into the net, I could imagine its nose hitting the mesh,  it becoming disorientated, and lying flat in the mesh bag as it was pushed sideways by the swift current. It was at that moment that I raised the net out of the water to catch my first sockeye from the Chitina. It only took 7 minutes from the time I started fishing, and I had visions of completing my 25 fish limit quickly! However, the second piece of advice became very evident to me as I stood on the banks of the river. The fish only trickled into my net, and then after 4 stopped completely. I did not catch another for the entire day.

The personal use fishery at Chitina River allows you to literally scoop them from the raging waters.
The personal use fishery at Chitina River allows you to literally scoop them from the raging waters.
Sockeye Salmon Chitina River
A great looking Sockeye scooped from the cold waters of the Chitina River!
First Chitina Sockeye
My first salmon from the Chitina River!

After two days of fishing I ended with seven beautiful sockeye salmon, and although I did not “catch my limit”, I felt very grateful and blessed to be able to partake in this unique, Alaskan fishery! As important as it is to put what you need away for the winter, it is important to save a couple for the grill too! These fresh salmon on the grill with lemon pepper and olive oil, and grilled sweet potatoes was as good as it gets, and a gratifying way to celebrate a successful trip to the Chitina River.

Grilled Salmon Recipe
Sockey on the grill with olive oil, lemon pepper and a bit of salt. Side of sweet potatoes!
Salmon Grilling Steps
Total time for this salmon on the grill is ~ 13 minutes. 8 minutes on the meat side to keep the moisture in and then 5 minutes on the skin side to finish cooking it!

Salmon with lemon pepper and olive oil

 

 

 

A Whale Of A Tale

You never know what you will see when you leave Seward Harbor, but with blue skies and calm seas our hopes were high for a remarkable trip. Our trip last year on this same boat, and captained by the same crew had been truly memorable!

We reached the open ocean at the edge of Resurrection Bay about 20 miles outside of Seward harbor, and immediately recognized based on an enormous flock of gulls and sea-birds that something special was happening in front of us. Of course, the many tails of humpback whales emerging from the water was a good tip too! As we carefully approached the scene the captain explained that we were observing “bubble-net feeding” of a large group (~18) humpback whales. This behavior has only been recorded consistently around Seward for about five years, as apparently many of the whales had taught it to each other. Observing from the water surface, it is hard to imagine the underwater pandemonium of bubble-net feeding. In the deep waters under a large school of bait fish all 18 whales were blowing bubbles in synchrony to herd the bait ball into one group. Once corralled, all of the whales ascended to the surface with their huge mouths agape to scoop up as many fish as possible. From the surface we were able to predict the timing and location of each emergence, because the flock of hundreds of seabirds would lift up high into the sky, before diving on the susceptible fish just before the whales broke the surface!

Our boat drifted silently with the engines turned off, and as the whales came up for the fifth time under the baitfish the flock of tell-tale gulls began to fly straight towards our boat! It was going to be a close encounter!! Sure enough, enormous mouths attached to up to 80,000 pounds and 80 feet of whale broke through the surface near the boat in a show that left me shaking. Not from fear, but rather sheer awe-struck wonder. I simultaneously snapped imagery of the incredible scene and watched each wonder unfold. I was too busy taking imagery to record video of the whales breaking the surface, but have chained together a series of images in the video below that demonstrate the behavior of bubble-net feeding. Be sure to listen to the incredible sounds they make while on the surface!

Humpback Whale Breach
I was fortunate enough to have my camera point in the same spot, and set up for a quick burst of shots. It allow me to catch the graceful ark of this full breach! It is likely that this humpback whale was celebrating a successful day of feeding and hunting.

Mammals

The humpback whales were just the start of a remarkable series of wildlife sightings. A first of my life was the killer whales. A large pod of them traveled along and breached frequently for air exposing their fin and distinct white eyepatch. The dominant male of the group was evident thanks to an especially large dorsal fin. Baby orcas surfaced directly behind their mothers as they were still dependent them for protection, and to learn from. We spotted many sea otters throughout Ressurection Bay and along the coast. The story of their recovery is remarkable. Sea otters were extirpated from much of their traditional range by exploiting Russian and American hunters. Their loss led to the collapse of kelp beds as urchins populations, a diet item of the sea otter, expanded and ate of the kelp hold fasts (their roots). Once protected by federal law, the recolonization of sea otters helped reestablish the kelp communities and repair a crucial underwater ecosystem for small fish, and many invertebrates.

Birds

The Chiswell Islands provide important breeding habitat and refugia for many sea birds. Puffins, murres, kittiwakes, and dozens of other species are found throughout their rocky crags where they escape predation risk. Many of the species that nest in the rocky crags of the cliffs are classified  as “pelagic birds”. These birds only come to shore to breed, and spend the rest of their life at sea. It is remarkable to me that little of their ocean life is understood, although it is clearly an important part of their life history and hence conservation. One incredible fact from the trip’s crew : common murres may dive up 600 feet in search of food! The images below are just a small cross-section of the birds were observed along the way.

Scenery

The bluebird skies of the day blessed us for the nearly the entire trip. However, as we moved away from Northwestern Glacier, a thick bank of fog moved in from the ocean. The damp air made the day cooler, and provided a mystical backdrop to the Chiswell Islands which poked in and out of the fog like chandeliers in a smokey bar. The islands created a partial barrier to the fog which flowed through the lowest points of the islands like a sinewy serpent. Subsequently, the fog established the base of some of my favorite scenery images throughout the day, and featured below.

As whales-of-a-tales go, I’ve stuck to the facts of the day, although so much of was above average that even I feel that it’s a tale of whoppers. It was the type of trip that every subsequent trip to the ocean will be relative to. Perhaps I will tie it someday, but it would take a Moby Dick sized whale of a day to beat it!

Watching a Glacier Die

Drop a few ice cubes in your drink before you start reading this, and consider the question : how many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop? Now, while you are thinking about that illusive answer, consider how many days it takes to melt a glacier. Just how fast does it happen? My several trips to Castner Glacier over the last 15 months provide interesting evidence into this impossible to answer question. Let’s take a look!

April 2014

When I first visited Castner Glacier in April 2014 a monstrous, multi-chambered ice cave shook me to my core. The ice cathedral hung over my head an estimated 80 feet above. The walls and ceilings of it were composed of blue, transluscent layers of ice and closer inspection of the walls showed that the clarity of the ice provided a window deep into the glacier of the sediment suspended in it. A chimney was cut into its ceiling allowing light to illuminate the icy floor of the glacier.  It was awe inspiring!

Castner Glacier Face April 2014
This was the glacial face (moraine) as I found it during my April 2014 visit. Clear, blue ice was found in the face, and particularly in the caves.
Castner Ice Cave Cathedral
Once you walked through the ice caves, this cathedral was found on the other side. I guess, based on my height in this picture compared to the ceilings, that the cave was 80 feet tall!
Castner Glacier Chimney
This chimney was found in the ceiling perhaps 20-30 feet above the glacier floor in April 2014. It was very narrow at the top, but the bottom is much wider than this picture would suggest. The icicles at its base suggest that some melting was occurring in it.

This video was taken in April 2014 during a walkthrough of the ice cave and captures the scope of it. Instability of parts of the video was due to the slippery ice floor!

August 2014

The next time I visited the rainiest summer recorded in Fairbanks was coming to a close, and the rain had reshaped the ice in unimaginable ways. Water ran down the glacier in small rivulets and opened the chimney to a yawning mouth. It degraded the ceiling so extremely, that large chunks of the cavern had crashed down. If you stood close to the mouth of the cave many rocks fell dangerously from the ceiling as they melted from their icy tomb of thousands of years. The rapid melt had removed the beautiful transparency from the ice. It was now silty and gray.

Castner Glacier Collapse
When we returned in August 2014 we found the result of the constant rain over the summer. The chimney had melted so rapidly that the roof of the ice cave had collapsed.
Castner Glacier Ice Cave Backside
This image shows the degradation of the chimneys from the top and back of the glacier. Although I didn’t take an April 2014 photo for comparison, this image is especially revealing when compared to June 2015 (upcoming images)
Castner Ice Cave Scale
My parents stand next to the ice cave’s face for perspective. The large blocks that stood in front in April were now gone, and the top of the cave is much, much thinner than just three months earlier. 
Castner Ice Cave Front 2015
This image from the front of the caves shows a large section of ice which caved off the front. The scale and setting of this picture is similar to the April 2014 image of me standing in front of the broad ice cave.

The rapid melting that we witnessed inspired me to create a different type of video for Castner. This video documents the fall (August) stage of plant life around the glacier, and then documents the progression of drops of water from the glacier which eventually build into the silty and fast-flowing Castner Creek.

June 2015

When I visited the Castner Ice Cave in June 2015, it was just a shadow of its former self. Only a small arch of ice remained of the once huge cave. Castner Creek ran through the remnant of the ice cave, where previously it had run to the side. In just fifteen months, unquantifiable amounts of ice from the glacier had transformed into water, carrying with it many tons of silt to the broader river valley that Castner Creek flowed into. The glacier was rapidly changing, dying.

Castner Ice Cave Back June 2015
This image of the Castner Ice Cave was shot in June 2015 from the back. The thin, collapsed chunk of ice in the foreground is all that remains of most of the ceiling of the cave.

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Castner Ice Cave Back Panorama
This image of the back of the Castner Ice Cave can be compared to the images taken in August 2014 and April 2014. The trailing edges of the large ice cathedral that I stood in can be seen in the back right. The arch of the glacier is thin, and a new chimney shows that it continues to degrade.
Castner Glacier Backside Panorama
The trailing edge of the ceiling on the right is all that is left of the ice cathedral from April 2014. Large piles of debris and silt have been deposited, and the floor where the cathedral was is much higher now.

The answer is two hundred fifty-two. At least that is what students at Purdue concluded to the center of a Tootsie Pop. But why does it matter that Alaska’s Castner Glacier and the state’s other glaciers are melting so rapidly? Alaska Dispatch News recently reported on a new study demonstrating that Alaskan Glaciers are losing 75 billion tons (75 gigatons) of ice each year, and that 94% of that loss is occurring on inland glaciers like Castner. This means that Alaskan glaciers will continue to contribute a significant amount to global sea level rise, especially in light of a warming climate. They end the article with a quote by study co-author O’Neel. “This is probably going to be a pretty tough year for a lot of the glaciers”, he stated. It appears he is right, and Castner’s included.

Castner Glacier : Hello, but Goodbye

Shedding just one drop of water at a time glaciers containing enough water to change ocean levels can melt and disappear. The glaciers of Alaska have been around for a thousands of years. However, aging the Alaskan glaciers has proven difficult in some regions. The age of Alaskan glaciers is debated because they do not fall into time of expansion like lower 48 glacier (i.e. they do not necessarily expand just because of an ice age) (Pewe and Reger 1983) and there are many methods (e.g. dendrochronology, lichenometry, radio-carbon dating) to look at expansion time and range (Barclay et al. 2009, Pewe and Reger 1991 ) – from my reading it seems the methods and results have quite a few different answers to the same questions. So, although I would like to tell you how long the fresh glacier water I drank had been locked in its solid state, I do not really think I can!

South of Delta Junction, Alaska, Castner Glacier is a rapidly receding glacier, and has changed dramatically since my last time here this spring. Just see for yourself in the pictures below! The glacier is constantly collapsing on itself; its end (i.e. the terminal moraine) is rapidly melting due to summer temperatures and record levels of summer rain this season.  The cave shown was photographed just 4 months ago! The large chunks of ice which ‘calved’ from the glaciers front have melted, and the ice cave is very reduced.  It also has lost a lot of its beautiful blue, translucent sheen.

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Castner Glacier Ice Cave 08/24/14. Photographed just 4 months before the photograph before.  I’ve added my parents for reference size 🙂 Extreme melting and degradation of the ice cave have occurred!
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Castner Glacier 04/14/14. The large ice chunks in front of the ice cave have completely melted in the 08/24 photo. What a change in 4 months!

The hike to the glacier’s face follows Castner Creek; the creek is fast-flowing, brown, and fed by the melting glacier. It is incredible to consider that the hundreds of gallons of water which flow by each minute are created by the collection of millions of water drops. The drop becomes a trickle which form a thin, persistent thread of water. The threads intertwine to form rivulets and the rivulets meld into flowages. The valley floor coerces the flowages into a stream which flows to the ocean.  What an astounding thing to consider the power of just one water drop!

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Drop -> Thread -> Rivulet -> Flowage -> River -> Ocean. Each drop from the glacier quickly becomes part of something much, much, much larger!

The video below captures this change of water as it moves from the glacier to stream. I hope you enjoy!

The rate at which the glacier is disappearing seems improbable to me. It is the fastest I have ever seen a ‘slow event’ take place. It seems to make expressions like “working at a glacial speed” seem less appropriate. What natural phenomenons have you seen alter the landscape in a short period? I would love to hear your stories in the comments!

Although the first freeze has not occurred here yet the willows, aspens and alder have already begun to acquire a yellow-green tint to their leaves in anticipation.  Flowers are finishing the blooming and purples, yellows, and whites have given way to wispy seed-heads to be carried away by a persistent breeze.

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The large puffy seed-heads of these mountain avens were accentuated by the saturated greens of moss and the contrasts of a grey day.
This fireweed seed pod had just opened scattering its delicate seeds to wind and surrounding earth.
This fireweed seed pod had just opened scattering its delicate seeds to wind and surrounding earth.
The leathery texture of this bear berry added to the vibrant falls colors it was transitioning to.
The leathery texture of this bear berry added to the vibrant falls colors it was transitioning to.

 

Thanks for reading everyone! Enjoy the fall colors which are coming soon!

 

Citations:

Barclay, David J., Gregory C. Wiles, and Parker E. Calkin. “Holocene glacier fluctuations in Alaska.” Quaternary Science Reviews 28.21 (2009): 2034-2048.

Péwé, Troy L., and Richard D. Reger. “Delta River Area, Alaska Range10.”Quaternary Geology and Permafrost Along the Richardson and Glen Highways Between Fairbanks and Anchorage, Alaska: Fairbanks to Anchorage, Alaska July 1-7, 1989 (1983): 25-38.

Reger, Richard D., and Troy L. Péwé. “Dating Holocene moraines of Canwell Glacier, Delta River Valley, central Alaska Range.” Short Notes on Alaskan Geology, Professional Report 111 (1991): 63-68.

Sea Life and Glaciers : Seward, Alaska

There are many “Alaskas”. The large state is renowned for its dry, cold interior and also for its coastal regions. The coast itself varies from tundra to temperate rainforest and is full of a birds and marine mammals. In the Kenai Penninsula, large tide water glaciers add icebergs to the water which are used by pupping harbor seal mothers for rest. The region is known for its rising peaks which jut from the ocean as snow-capped mountains.

On the sunny, late June day, that we departed Seward harbor the sun shone on islands and mountains around us. In every direction, gulls and black-legged kittiwakes wheeled and dove over the open ocean.Our 9-hour tour through Major Marine Tours to the Northwestern Glacier and Chiswell Islands had just begun. Once in the open water past the Kenai Peninsula your feet are floating above the largest stretch of open ocean in the world – stretching thousands of miles to Antarctica. Kassie and I had birds on the brain and our small 30 passenger ship (in comparison to some of the 200 passenger ships) was perfect for the trip we were hoping to have. The waters of the Kenai Peninsula is home to many sea (also called pelagic) birds. These birds are remarkable in that the majority of them only come to land to nest, all other times- including the brutally cold winters- are spent at sea on the water. The bodies of many pelagic birds are so tuned to sea-life that they often look awkward on the land. However, their graceful, powerful ability to swim and catch fish makes up for their awkwardness.

I’ll just spoil the conclusion, by saying we had an incredible day on the water! This video highlights some of the power of calving glaciers, the beauty of sea-birds and the behaviors of marine mammals.

Birds of the Chiswell Islands

The vertical spires of Spider Island jut from the ocean just outside of Seward, AK
The vertical spires of Spider Island jut from the ocean just outside of Seward, AK

The vertical cliffs Chiswell Islands are perfect for nesting sea birds. Horned Puffins and Tufted Puffins burrow into the cracks to escape predating gulls. Parents are mated for life and separate during the winter, however find each other for every breeding season. Each of the puffin species found around the Kenai coast have extraordinary features. Horned puffins have a dark check-mark patch through through their eye which makes them look as though they have applied makeup to preform at a circus. Part of this check-mark is a horned protrusion comes off each eye like a fancy eyelash. Tufted puffins, the largest of the three puffin species, have large golden ‘eyebrows’ which waggle back and forth when they turn their head. Puffins are recognized by their large bills which they use to catch fish. Both of the pacific puffin species only have orange and cream colored bills, where the Atlantic Puffin’s bill includes blue and red. Puffins can dive up 200 feet beneath the ocean’s surface and they can hold their breath for a minute or two. However Puffins typically only need to stay under for 20 to 30 seconds at a time to catch the small fish that compose their diet.

A horned puffin flying around the Chiswell Islands.
A Horned Puffin flying around the Chiswell Islands.
Horned puffin photographed at the Alaska Sealife Center.
Horned Puffin photographed at the Alaska SeaLife Center.
Tufted Puffin
Tufted Puffin
Tufted puffin picture taken at the Alaska Sealife Center in Seward, AK
Tufted Puffin picture taken at the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward, AK

Pelagic birds are often found in large breeding colonies located on islands. For this reason they are referred to as ‘colonial nesting birds.’ These islands provide refuge from land-based predators and the large numbers of birds act as sentries, mobbing any intruder which gets too close. Our Captain informed us that once they had spotted a Black Bear on an island that was a mile from shore. It feed on bird eggs for a couple weeks then swam back to shore. It was a very rare occurrence but it is easy to see how one large predator can decimate the nesting success rates on the island.

Black-legged Kittiwakes nest in large colonies in the Chiswell Islands.
Black-legged Kittiwakes nest in large colonies in the Chiswell Islands.
Black-legged Kittiwake
Black-legged Kittiwake

Our bird list added many ‘lifers’ to our life-lists (along with a couple we had already seen) and many photographs to my hard drive. Our list for the day was comprised of Bald Eagles, Rhinoceros Auklets, Horned Puffins, Tufted Puffins, Parakeet Auklets, Pigeon Guillemonts, Common Murre, Pelagic Cormorant, Double-crested  Cormorant, Marbled Murrelet, Black-legged Kittiwake, Mew Gull, Glaucous-winged Gull, and a possible Ancient Murrelet.

Rhinoceros Auklet photographed at the Alaska Sealife Center. These birds develop their 'rhinoceros horn' during the breeding season, and lose it each fall.
Rhinoceros Auklet photographed at the Alaska SeaLife Center. These birds develop their ‘rhinoceros horn’ during the breeding season, and lose it each fall.

 Mammals of the Chiswell Islands

There several species of whales and porpoises in the rich waters of the many estuaries of the Kenai. Sea Otters feed on clams, urchins, and other invertebrates that tend to feed on kelp. The Sea Otter is a keystone species that helps to protect the kelp beds providing shelter for a plethora of other sea creatures. Doll Porpoises, Humpback Whales, Fin Whales and Orcas cruise through the waters. The Fin Whales were a rare occurrence for the tour, our guides said they maybe see a Fin Whale 20 times a summer. Our tour saw a very rare pod of at least 6 Fin Whales surfacing together, which meant they were most likely rounding up bait fish instead of filter-feeding. On the rocks, 1 ton Stellar Sea Lion males watch over their harem of females, and the ice flows at glacier heads provide rest for harbor seal mothers and their pups. We saw several pods of Doll Porpoises throughout the day, on the way back to the harbor we had a small pod that decided to race in our wake.

One of the highlights of the trip was observing a “lunge feeding” humpback whale with her calf. Lunge feeding is when a whale dives far below a school of food (krill or small fish). Then, rushing to the surface with their mouth open the burst through to the open air swallowing anything in their mouth!

A humpback whale explodes on the surface, exhibiting 'lunge feeding'
A Humpback Whale explodes on the surface, exhibiting ‘lunge feeding’
This humpback whale is headed back down for some more food.
This Humpback Whale is headed back down for some more food.
A sea-otter floats on its back displaying its classic behavior. They float along and crack clams on their chests.
A Sea Otter floats on its back displaying its classic behavior. They float along and crack urchins on their chests. They spend their whole lives in the ocean, even giving birth in the water. If seen on land it is typically a sign that the animal is sick.
Harbor seal mothers rest themselves and their pups on ice flows which have broken away from the tide-water glaciers.
Harbor Seal mothers rest themselves and their pups on ice flows which have broken away from the tide-water glaciers.
Stellar sealion males control and mate with many females called a harem. Male sea lions can be up to 2,000 pounds!
Stellar Sea Lion males control and mate with many females called a harem. Male Sea Lions can be up to 2,000 pounds!

Glaciers of the Kenai

The Harding Ice Field is the largest ice field in the United States and is the source of dozens of glaciers. Some of the glaciers reach all the way down to the ocean and are classified as ‘tide water’ glaciers. These glaciers are constantly being eroded by the oceans daily movements and some of the glaciers have receded miles since the 1800’s when the Russians were exploring the coasts. The receding glaciers open up habitat for mammals and birds. The Northwestern Glacier that we sat in front of stretched for a half mile across the blue fjord, but you would never guess its size by just looking at it!

One can get a true sense of power of the tide-water glaciers by watching them ‘calf’. From time-to-time sheets of ice would break away from the exposed glacier face and cascade into the ocean. Even though our boat was positioned 1/4 of a mile away the rush of sound from the huge chunks of ice sounded like a jet engine rumbling in the not to far-off distance.

The craggy moraine of the northwestern glacier ending at the tideline.
The craggy moraine of the Northwestern Glacier ending at the tideline.
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Another boat sits in front of the glacier for a bit of perspective. If the boat floated at the front of the glacier it would be a mere speck on the its moraine.
The northwestern glacier reaches about 1/2 mile from side to side. It's split into two 'lobes' by a rock face.
The Northwestern Glacier reaches about 1/2 mile from side to side. It’s split into two ‘lobes’ by a rock face.
This river of ice and snow is the result of a large chunk of ice which broke away hundreds of feet above. The ice-chute that it slid down poured slush and chunks into the ocean.
This river of ice and snow is the result of a large chunk of ice which broke away hundreds of feet above. The ice-chute that it slid down poured snow and ice chunks into the ocean.

If you’ve made it this far I’d like to put in a quick pitch (unsolicited) for the Major Marine Tour company. Their boat the Viewfinder was piloted by a great captain and the tour guide on board was great with kids and had all the answers. The small size of the boat and number of passengers was perfect for us. They were more than happy to concentrate on birds when we told them what we were after. It was an extraordinary day.

Secondly, I would like to put in another unsolicited pitch for the Alaska Sea Life Center in Seward. Their exhibits are truly top-notch, and the chance to experience the pelagic sea-birds up close was wonderful. On top of that, proceeds go towards outreach and science. I am not normally a “zoo type” person, but everything I saw there impressed me to no end!

Thanks for checking in!

Thousands of years inches from your nose : Castner Glacier, AK

South of Delta Junction, AK there are many glaciers. One of them lies at mile 218 and a hike up Castner Creek brings you to its end (the terminal moraine). Once you climb up onto the glacier you are standing on hundreds (or thousands) of years of snow and sediment trapped there. Castner glacier is rapidly receding and as it melts has created many stunning and several exceptional ice caves. The caves often reach far back and are sculpted in inconceivable ways. As  you stand there in the chill of the cave and stare into the crystal-clear ice, it is impossible to grasp it all!

To get at the size and beauty of these caves, I’ve compiled this video of the walk-through of just two of the ice caves. Sorry for a some instability, but the floors were very slippery, and I had to protect my camera in case I fell 🙂

Apart from the beauty of the caves the geology of them is truly remarkable. For instance, consider the images here. The ice is so clear that you can see several inches back into it revealing layers of suspended soil.It’s hard for me to say how long they have been trapped in their icy tomb!

One of the most revealing pieces of the glacier was looking into its glass-clear ice. Inside suspended particles are just waiting to be thawed. I wonder how long they have been in there!
One of the most revealing pieces of the glacier was looking into its glass-clear ice. Inside suspended particles are just waiting to be thawed. I wonder how long they have been in there!
These two rocks have almost made it out from an unknown amount of encapsulation. Far within this crystal-clear ice you can see man other particles suspended and waiting release. Truly an incredible thing to see!
These two rocks have almost made it out from an unknown amount of encapsulation. Far within this crystal-clear ice you can see man other particles suspended and waiting release. Truly an incredible thing to see!

As the glacier melts the suspended sand particles fall out. They form layered domes and peaks which can be be many feet tall. Here’s a small deposited pile in the mouth of the eastern Castner Ice cave.

Castner Glacier is a rapidly receeding glacier. As it melts the sediment being held within the glacier deposits itself in hills and mounds. You can see the man layers of depsiting in this small mount of soil.
Castner Glacier is a rapidly receeding glacier. As it melts the sediment being held within the glacier deposits itself in hills and mounds. You can see the man layers of depsiting in this small mount of soil.

There were two caves that I explored with Ross, each were double ended; you could enter through the front and exit in the back. The walls were sculpted by water and wind. Ross commented that it was though “a huge tsunami had just been frozen instantly” – a apt description! It is so hard to judge the size of these caves without scale, so you’ll often see a person just to understand how big they are!

The blue in this huge ice cavern is stunning, as is the size!
The blue in this huge ice cavern is stunning, as is the size!

 

I am not sure if this place has a true name or not. But the rapid recession of the Castner Glacier is demonstrated in this melting ampitheater of ice. I have decided to call this open ice face the "Cathedral of 1000 Swords"
I am not sure if this place has a true name or not. But the rapid recession of the Castner Glacier is demonstrated in this melting ampitheater of ice. I have decided to call this open ice face the “Cathedral of 1000 Swords”
Posing next to a frozen waterfall at the eastern Ice cave of Castner Glacier. Behind me, the cave extends far back. Look at those layers of ice and sediment! Each represents at least a winter of ice. I am literally standing underneath thousands of years of ice history!
Posing next to a frozen waterfall at the eastern Ice cave of Castner Glacier. Behind me, the cave extends far back. Look at those layers of ice and sediment! Each represents at least a winter of ice. I am literally standing underneath thousands of years of ice history!
A silhouette of Ross in the eastern ice cave. Look at those layers of ice and soil!!
A silhouette of Ross in the eastern ice cave. Look at those layers of ice and soil!!

Being on this glacier was  really special for me. I guess because I suddenly understood all the years of school where we talked about the features of glaciers and their impact on the landscape. To see the suspended sediment in them made it clear how areas like my hometown (with sandy, loose soils) could be laid down by receding glaciers. The importance of the active ends of glaciers (the terminal moraine) were apparent because the river was actively fed by the glacier. And, last, you really can’t imagine how huge they are till you stand on top of one! Or hike across it.

One last piece of the hike was a very cool look at a feeding white-tailed ptarmigan. Ptarmigan are notoriously “fearless” of humans (some describe it as stupidity), so this guy had little problem with us approaching him. He waddled around and ate snow an picked at willows. They are incredibly beautiful in the winter! But I imagine this bird will be molting to his summer brown soon 🙂

White-tailed Ptarmigan in its winter plumage. It was picking buds off this short willow.
White-tailed Ptarmigan in its winter plumage. It was picking buds off this short willow.
This white-tailed ptarmigan is grabbing a mouthful of snow- presumably for hydration.
This white-tailed ptarmigan is grabbing a mouthful of snow- presumably for hydration.
White-tailed Ptarmigan feeding on some moss or lichen along the top ridges of the Castner Glacier.
White-tailed Ptarmigan feeding on some moss or lichen along the top ridges of the Castner Glacier.

3500 miles of Wow. Our Journey from Perham, MN to Fairbanks, AK

Well Readers, it’s been a long time since I’ve put up a post here. And it’s not from lack of desire, rather lack of time. I’ve been Very, Very, Very busy. Capitalized “V”s are supposed to emphasize. Here’s the first part of our journey to Fairbanks. I have been involved heavily in RA training. I’m working at the “sustainability village” for the year and am very excited about! I’ll be the head of 16 residents that are dispersed amongst 4 apartment buildings. The buildings are hyper efficient, and residents that live here pledge to live sustainably (which manifests itself in many ways). My interests and past experiences in Northland College will fit me very well. Residents grow some of their own food (I ran the campus greenhouses for 2 years at Nortland) and are asked to bike, walk or carpool when necessary.

On top of my RA duties, I’ll be diving into my graduate work very soon, and classes start just after Labor day!  I’ve actually been so busy that I didn’t have time to write it, fortunately, Kass could help out again! Without futher ado, here she is, with small interjections from me:

HERE’S TO ALASKA!!!!

Our planned trip to Fairbanks, Alaska was a total of 61 hours not including stops for fuel, food, or road construction! Then we added another 12 hours or so to head down to Denali National Park and to see Anchorage then head back to Fairbanks. It was a little daunting to think of all those hours in Ian’s pickup but we were up for the challenge!

Out west again…

We left Perham on the 8th of August and headed to the first destination on the way to Alaska, 16 hours to Sandpoint, ID.

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As you can see we were pretty heavily loaded. Ian planned to have his entire load of luggage on the trailer then we would “boondock” (park in random spots for the night, mostly rest stops or pullouts) in the back of the truck were we rigged up a bed instead of having to pull out a tent every night. Nice thinking Ian! He created the trailer from an old popup camper his parents let him use. He tore the whole camper off of it, leaving the strong frame and built it all up for this journey in the last few remaining days we had before leaving. (CRAZY!)

We drove about 12 hours that first day before hitting a rest stop, and then we finished the rest of the way the next morning to Sean and Jada’s house. We got to see the little man again and spend some quality time with the loved ones we miss rather dearly! We dropped off a few things for them, Ian’s kayak for them to use while he is up in Alaska, and a huge china hutch for Jada that was her grandmother’s, and some clothes for Dane from Darla. We spend all of Friday and a good piece of Saturday morning with them. It was a very nice spot to stop and rest up for the remaining chunk our journey.

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As a side note, those of you who know Ian well enough, know that there is a part of his brain that just so happens to be a human jukebox. (If you didn’t know that, now you do ; ] ). This jukebox is always on random (well typically) and it rarely ever can finish a song before its attention has skipped into another piece of a different song. One of the many songs Ian often had on repeat during this trip was of course John Denver’s, Alaska and Me. He often sang, “When I was a child and I lived in the city I dreamed of Alaska so far away… somehow I knew that I’d live there someday.”  It popped up more and more in the jukebox’s playlist the closer we came to Alaska. He typically ended almost shouting every time, “Here’s to Alaska!!!” Good thing I’m a John Denver fan! : ]

Canada

Our destination for Saturday night was Banff National Park. I have had the pleasure of visiting Banff before but this was Ian’s first journey there. Banff was only about five and a half hours from Sandpoint so we made it their easily. It started to pour as we got to the park and managed to find an overlook to pull off on and we boondocked for the night. Ian captured the rainy mood of the mountains the night before and then the subequent sunrise of the same mountain range. What a difference!

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The next morning we rose and greeted the beautiful view once more before continuing up Highway 93 (Icefields Pkwy) that drives through Banff National Park in British Columbia/Alberta, and up to Jasper National Parks in Alberta, Canada. The highway was amazing! It led through the mountains, next to glacial rivers and lakes, all the way up to the glacial ice fields themselves! If you are ever in the area we highly recommend this drive! So awe-inspiring! The mountains continue to change a head of you showing new types of geological structures and chemistries. We stopped at the Athabasca Glacier, that had a trail up to it and even showed signs of where the terminal moraine used to be in decades of the past all the way back into the late 1800’s. We weren’t able to touch the glacier as I was hoping; the river at the end of the moraine was just too fast and wide (and probably freezing!) for us unprepared visitors in our sandals.

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NOTE FROM IAN: This glacier was full of “Nerdy” glacial stuff. Here’s a little bit about what I learned while looking at this glacier!!

ATHABASCA GLACIER

The glacier has receded greatly in recent years. Here is a panoramic of the glacier:

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Glacial recession has been going on for centuries, however has sped up in recent years. This glacier has retreated about 1.5 km (.93 miles) in the last 125 years!! (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Athabasca_Glacier). The location here had each 20-or-so year mark posted to you could see the progress of the glacier. What an eye opener! In fact, at the location (picture below) shown you can see the vegetation growth that has occurred since the glacier left that spot 105 years earlier. It isn’t much growth!

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Glaciers play a key role in the landscape and the evidence of their movement can be seen everwhere. Here, the glacier has grown over the solid surface of the rock cutting into it as it recedes. This is a classic show of the power of a glacier. You can also see the typical glacial rocks in the area. Each of these shows the glacier in the background with some of its left over rocks in the front. COOL!!

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Another piece of a glacier is the glacial moraine. This area is covered in silt and rock that has been ground by the glacier. In many instances it may look like land, however, we were lucky enough to see where the terminal moraine has shattered away exposing some of the ice beneath.

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So there you have it, a little bit about the Athabasca glacier!

As we headed up the road and got closer and closer to the town of Jasper it was my turn to sing John Denver, “Up in the meadows of Jasper, Alberta, two men and four ponies on a long lonesome ride…” However we didn’t see any meadows, just lots of mountains, trees, and streams. It is so beautiful I can see why in inspired John Denver to sing about it. However the town of Jasper was completely PACKED! I’m sure it was a nice little town but it looked like rush hour in New York City! We couldn’t even get into a gas station, so we just drove right through.

I wanted to see Maligne Lake and Canyon so we took the little side road that led there and when we got to the canyon we couldn’t believe how packed it was! We got out and started on the trail and even made it to a bridge overlooking the canyon before we just couldn’t handle the amount of people. It was gorgeous but just too packed to truly enjoy. So we left the park and continued our drive northwards. That night we ended up boondocking in a the Walmart parking lot in Dawson Creek, the start of the Alaskan Highway, along with about a dozen or two other dockers.

Note from Ian: Boondocking is awesome! Here we are boondocking the Dawson Creek Walmart.

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Monday arrived early; we noticed that the sun kept waking us up earlier and earlier if the truckers and other early morning drivers didn’t beat the sun to it. Another day on the road, we had an actual goal of where we were going to stop for the night though which made us anxious to get going. One of Ian’s coworkers in Maine suggested to we visit Laird River Hot Spring Provincial Park. With such a pleasant name to it and rave reviews we were excited to get there, which made time go rather slowly. To make time speed up and keep our minds occupied through the drive I got Ian to play “My cows” with me. This was a game my parents got my sisters and I to play when we were young and bored on the long car trips to my grandparents’ houses. Ian and never heard of it and maybe you haven’t either so I’ll break down the rules (or at least what I could remember) in the way I was taught by my parents. Every time you see a cattle or a cow you say “my cow” or if you are bored with the small amount of cows around, whatever the animal happens to be so “my deer” if I saw a deer etc. Scoring is rather up to whoever is in on the game or that’s how we used to play. So Ian and I decided (or mostly I decided, him being new to the game) the following.

Points Justification
Ravens 1 They were everywhere!
Cows 1 Common for a while in the bit of farm country that exisited
Horses/Deer 2 Rare-ish (horses should have only been 1 there were common)
Elk/Caribou 3 Hadn’t seen any yet but figured they would be more common than the following
Mountain Goats/ Big Horned Sheep 4
Buffalo 5
Black Bear 7
Grizzly Bear 10

Now typically when playing my cows anytime someone sees a graveyard they can shout out, “Bury Your Cows!” then all of the members playing the game start back at zero except for the observant player that spotted the graveyard. We figured we wouldn’t be seeing many graveyards in our drive through the mountains and boreal forests so we decided to cancel the burring of cows. 😉 All that is left before you start to play is deciding on a number that wins say first to 10 or even 21 animals. We played a few rounds over the next few days. Ian was very quick at catching on; I think he won most of our games.

Eventually we made our way to northern BC, the mountains came and went and the roads and construction got worse. We pulled over by a campground on Mucho Lake, which was a beautiful lake surrounded by stony mountains. I’m banking on Ian adding a picture HERE: 😉 If you drive this way make sure to slow down and you go farther north because the mountain rock comes all the way to the water and so do the Bighorn Sheep! Other notable species in this area were Caribou, and a little farther north were Bison and a Black Bear right by the side of the road!!!

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NOTE FROM IAN : This goat has a satellite tag! I thought that was pretty cool. I’m assuming he’s being used to look at the movement of goats around the roads. He was right on it! He’s at MUNCHO LAKE, which can be seen here:

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Finally after the last hour of excitement we made it to Liard River Hot Springs! It is a nice little campground which fills up fast during the peak season so get there early. The main spring was beautiful and super-hot! Over 110 degrees F, this is above my comfort level but Ian loved it right from the mouth of the spring. I had to go down to the next tier where the water was a little cooler. The water was a clear dark blue to green and lovely. The only problem was the smell of the sulfur, but well worth the relaxing temperature! Even more so after driving long distances every day, cramped muscles are able to loosen in that hot water.

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That night at the campground Ian got up at 1am to take pictures of the slowing Perseid Meteor shower. I eventually got up to look at the stars as well, some of the brightest I’ve ever seen. Ian set his camera up to take more photos during the night with his intervalometer and we went back to bed. In the morning when viewing the photos we realized we had missed the Northern Lights by mere minutes, if it wasn’t already out faintly when we headed back to sleep. Shucks!

NOTE FROM IAN: The great thing about having the intervalometer set up was that I could timlapse it! Although it wasn’t set up ideally for capture, here’s my first timelapse of the northern lights (very short video <<<<CLICK HERE>>>) . Many, many more to come! Also, I didn’t manage to capture any meteors, however, I was able to capture a stunning movement around the north star, which I thought was very cool! It hasn’t been enhanced in any way beyond the original shot.

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From here we decided to make it up to Fairbanks as soon as possible so we could still have time to spend in Denali and Anchorage before Ian had to move in next Monday. We managed to make it up to the Yukon and we stopped in Watson Lake at an information center.

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At the center we were informed that you could win a 5 ounce or 10 ounce gold nugget if you participated in a Yukon passport challenge. If you visited 10 or 20 of the cultural sites while driving through Yukon and get your passport stamped at each site as proof you would be entered into a drawing when you hand the passport into your last stop. Most of these were on the way so we were gung-ho about winning some gold. However, our chances of winning when out the door a little while later in Teslin our second spot to pick up a stamp we were waylaid. We had stopped to find a museum and a gentleman came over to our car and asked us if we had enough room on our trailer to fit a BMW motorcycle. I was a little taken aback not understand at first, how would this be possible? He explained that his clutch had gone out and he had been waiting for hours hoping someone would come a long that would have enough room to bring his motorcycle to Whitehorse. He explained that he would give some compensation but the $700 to get a tow truck was too expensive for him to be able to afford. I was leery, as horrible as it is sometimes it’s hard to take people at face value these days. I figured Ian is a big guy we would have no qualms were I normally would balk at picking up a man I didn’t know, following the rules my dad had set down for me as a female driver in the past. The only thing left that worried me was that I wanted to know if the bike was really his. I asked if he had his title with him, he didn’t but he had his insurance and an ID. So no stealing a BMW bike here! We rearranged the trailer and with the help of Randy and his friend, Ian got the bike on the trailer. Randy had to sit in the jump seat of the truck but he didn’t seem to mind. The next two and a half hours to Whitehorse flew by with a new conversationalist joining in our little two person foray.

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We got our first and only meal in a sit-down restaurant that night with the $50 Randy gave us for bringing him to Whitehorse. After eating we headed out of town a few miles and stayed at little a rest stop for the night. By this point I was getting rather tired of using latrines… Rest stops never seem to have good bathrooms once you leave the states. So hold your breath, put a good layer of toilet paper down, and make sure to bring lots of hand sanitizer!

Wednesday was all about getting to Alaska. We jetted down the road, stopping only briefly at gas stations. Ian picked up a book by Velma Wallis, an Athabascan native of Alaska, called Bird Girl and the Man who Followed the Sun (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bird_Girl_and_the_Man_Who_Followed_the_Sun). So I set about reading the book out loud for the rest of our journey to Fairbanks. I made the mistake of reading the back of the book incorrectly. It stated, “This story speaks straight to the heart with clarity, sweetness, and wisdom. When you’ve read this book, you will feel that you are a slightly better person that you knew you were.” –Ursula K. Le Guin. I got all excited for the book and then was disappointed. Don’t get me wrong the book was good, but it was very sad I thought it was going to be a pick me up. I looked at the back of the book again and it turns out it was a review for her last book, Two Old Women, not this one.

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Thursday, we pulled into Fairbanks, we made it!! We dropped my gear off on campus and then headed south for the second leg of the journey. Blog to come!

NOTE FROM IAN:

So, how much does it cost to do a trip like this? Lucky for you, I kept almost all of the receipts and put them into a convenient table! If gas was purchased in Canada I put it into Gallon equivalent and if it was purchased in the US I put it into liter equivalents. All told we drove 3,500 miles between MN and Fairbanks, and this is the breakdown from those miles.

Alaska Gas Table

Still reading? Not too much else to read for now, however, here’s a few more images from the trip that didn’t make the blog. Thanks for reading!

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