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Into the Mouth of an Ice Beast

The receding glaciers in the Bays of Southeast Alaska are opening up barren landscapes and new lands for colonizing vegetation and birds like arctic terns. As we walked along Sitaantaagu (Tlingit : “The Glacier Behind the Town”), I felt connected to the misty, snow covered mountains, and rocky lake shore. It is renowned and spectacular country!

Mendenhall glacier is receding at up to 150 feet per year, and in 1900 the large quantities of melt water began forming Mendenhall Lake.  The lake is now home to salmon which have colonized glacial streams. Remarkably, it seems that colonization by salmon occurs in a decade or two. Much shorter that I ever suspected!  As we, a large group of wildlife biologists, walked along the shoreline of Mendenhall Lake and told stories of field seasons gone-by or hypothesized on natural processes, icebergs which had calved from the glacier drifted in the middle of the lake.Naturalist Bob Armstrong introduced me to a small, alpine wildflower called purple mountain saxifrage.  This early bloomer, he stated, is a critical resource of early emerging insects like the bumble bees.

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Purple saxifrage is one of the first spring flowers to bloom in the Juneau region.
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Purple saxifrage filled with the rains of Juneau.

The face of the Mendenhall Glacier got bigger, and bigger, and bigger as we approached. By the time I reached the front of the glacier it loomed in front of me for almost a half mile.  I walked up the river of melt-water in front of the glacier and  touched the edge of the the ice cave it had carved. I grinned a bit, threw myself over a three foot bolder guarding the cave and stepped inside into the mouth of the icebeast. I was awestruck. Curved, turquoise ice hung over my head like whipped meringue. The sound of the river reverberating in the small space was numbing, and was fed by each drop of water that fell from the ice into the river. Looking further up the cave, the color transitioned from turquoise to cerulean blue. As I walked further the surrounding area turned so blue, that I could have been scuba diving in an ocean.

The hardest part to capture in these pictures is the scale of the ice cave. It stretched back over 100 feet, and as I walked in the ceiling diminished from 7 feet, to 5 feet, and finally I was relegated to crawling on my hands and knees in the narrow space.

The way ‘out’ was graced by a set of rock ptarmigan. These birds, allowed me to get very close, and I framed up this shot with the face of the Mendenhall Glacier in the background. These ptarmigan won’t be white for much longer!

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A beautiful rock ptarmigan in front of Mendenhall Glacier
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A puffy rock ptarmigan!

Glacial recession in expansion in Alaska has occurred since the last glacial maximum. The Little Ice Age caused the expansion of Alaskan glaciers about 4,000 years ago, and recent recession has exposed what has been buried for nearly a millennium. These stumps were exposed by the receding Mendenhall glacier and were aged to nearly 1,500 years ago! “Deep time” can be hard to comprehend, and it amazing to think the Imperial Chinese Empire had been established for 800 years and that Medieval Europe was enforcing fiefdoms through rigid monarchies when these hemlock and sitka black spruce were buried!

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A large stump of a forest buried by ice ~1,500 years ago. It has been determined the forest was composed of hemlock and sitka black spruce.
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This stump field is degrading fast, but it’s likely more forests will be uncovered as the Mendenhall Glacier receeds even further.