Breaking up is a big deal. Especially if it’s the Nenana river at the end of a long Alaskan winter. The break-up of the river is an annual event attracting hundreds of optimistic gamblers. For a small price – $2.50 – participants buy guesses on what time to-the-minute the breakup of the Nenana will send a wooden tripod tipping over and moving downstream. Incredibly, the prize pool can go for hundreds of thousands of dollars! I’ve heard that the winner-takes-all prize is over $400,000 this year. Pretty incredible!
This event has been going on for decades. During that time the tripod has gone down stream on as much at 50″ of ice, but is often times much less. I visited on 04/20/14 and there were many people optimistic would occur in just a couple more days. No matter when it is, there are many who are looking forward to the opportunity of winning, and to the symbol of a new Spring in Alaska.
Well, it’s no secret that we had a lunar eclipse the other night. Alaska was just on the edge of the full eclipse zone, and the skies were crystal clear; we were in for a great show! It did not disappoint, the transition of the moon from silver to red was spectacular!
I took my equipment out to Murphy Dome. It was also one of the hardest shoots that I’ve done for time lapsing because the moon moves very quickly! In 10 seconds it would shift a noticeable amount in-frame, making it exceptionally hard to timelapse. Secondly, the transition from a very bright moon to a dark one was difficult to work with. In order to control the highlights of the moon, I had to sacrifice the dark part and to get the reds I had to blow out the highlighted, white part. Third, I was shooting at 300 mm, and the longer exposures were getting jostled in the wind. I spent some of the night huddled on the upwind side of the camera to protect it. With all that said, I’m not complaining one bit, I had a great night out 🙂
So, the video I’ve compiled here is from the phase transitioning to dark. I had to go in post-shot and crop each to match as closely as possible. I developed a technique of centering my cropping grid on a crater to get it as close as possible. A bit time consuming, but I find image editing kind of therapeutic. Still, there is a small waggle of the moon- I hope you don’t mind :).
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!
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.
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!
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 🙂
This posting is my second piece in my ‘reflection’ posts. These posts are meant to bring past adventure to life. I hope it does.
It may be inevitable that solo-hiking 20 miles over the Presidential Range and camping between coffin-shaped rocks at 5000 feet under a blue moon is memorable.On August 30, 2012 I started over the Presidential Range (http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/94/NHpresidentials.JPG). I began at Mount Madison and headed up the Airline trail. The last time I had been on Madison was in the dead of winter. A friend and I were attempting the traverse on January 16th. Conditions held us back and I lost a toe-nail to frostbite. So, there was certainly some meaning and caution for me as I ascended Madison on that warm, August day. On this day, the views never stopped. Large puffy clouds drifted overhead, and occasional hikers which either passed me or passed by me were of the same cheerful outlook : it was a good day.
After clambering up Madison and over Adams I reached the approximate half-way of the trip in in a saddle between Adams and Jefferson. At the time I was at about 5,000 feet. I scouted around for a place to camp for the night. My plan was to simply lay out in an low-impact area on top of the mountain. I found my ideal spot between two larger boulders. As I reasoned there was no plant vegetation to trample and and the boulders would provide considerable shelter from the winds which can arise at any time in the White Mountains. Until 2010 Mount Washington held the records for the highest, directly measured wind gust on earth. 231 mph! The bounder crevasse tapered out to fit my shoulders and down to fit my feet. It was just over 6 feet long and had a flat rocks between it. Certainly, it didn’t slip my mind that I was crawling into a boulder coffin. At least it wasn’t premonition.
Supper on the summit was perfect. A hot meal of pesto tortellini and tea. I got to enjoy a magnificent sunset. As the final pieces of fire left the sky the lights of Conway and the city life were far below me. The big dipper was overhead. It was a relief that I was only able to watch the city life, no noise from the city made it up as far as my mountain saddle perch.
The final dregs of sunset
Conway, New Hampshire with the dipper overhead.
No sooner had the sunset disappeared, and the moon came up. I’ve seen a lot of moon rises in my life, but never one quite like this. Low hanging clouds on the horizon caused a nuclear reaction. The big blue moon lit up the landscape in a beautiful mushroom cloud of whites and yellows. Aided by the elevation you certainly could have read a book by its light. About 5 miles away as the crow flies the Mount Washington Observatory was lit like Zeus had just come home to Olympus. The stars still shone brightly overhead and all of the major constellations that I know could be seen. I sat and watched the moon and stars for a couple hours before finally crawling into my rocky coffin for the night.
When I awoke the next morning I was greeted by a distant fiery sunrise. However, the fog that mostly obscured the eastern sun was a living being. It shifted and blew through the canyons and valleys all around me quickly. It shifted like a flock of starlings and disappeared quickly before forming a new flock of water droplets. I got to enjoy this new mountain cover and think about the moon rise the previous night. It was such a change!
The rest of my hike was defined by wind and rain. Gone were the vistas, but the fun was now in the challenge of finishing the traverse in these less-than-ideal conditions. I summitted Washington, and headed down from there, abandoning a summit of Eisenhower due to the conditions.
This hike certainly stands out as the hike to beat for me. The chain of sun, sunset, stars, moon, and sunrise were incredible and dynamic. But, these legs of mine have a lot of adventure left in them so maybe, just maybe, there’s a chance.