Updated: Sep 19
Saturday, 19 August 2023, Kennecott AK
If your dreams don't scare you, then they're not big enough. - sign on the wall in Kotzebue, AK diner
You never know where your envelope lies until you try pushing it. - Glen Hanket
No bears sighted this morning - which is a good thing. However, yesterday's sighting has seriously spooked me. Whenever I leave the cabin to look for auroras, or when I push my bike up the steep driveway, I keep up a constant patter so as not to surprise them. "It's just me, Yogi, little ole me. Not coming to bother you. Move along, Ursula, take your cubs with you."
Not that the day started glitchless. I called Sue to check in, only to get routed to a Verizon agent. "The credit card for your autopay has been rejected. You need to go online or to a store to update that." Online was not available without Wifi, and the nearest store... The agent wasn't allowed to take my money over the phone, and the phone line that could was not working. Finally, after 25 minutes he worked some wizardry, had Verizon front me the money for this bill, and promised to check back when I returned to the city to make sure I took care of it.
Okay, can't worry about that now. Time to get to the footbridge! Since I now had a choice of bikes, I tried out the one Stefanie left this morning. Definitely easier to shift, which won me over. I did have to stop at the footbridge to borrow an Allen wrench to raise the seat. Didn't get it quite high enough, but it'll do.
A spectacular view of the glacier and mountains greeted me at the footbridge.
The bus arrived at 8:30, and Ben shuttled us to Kennecott for the day's adventure. He would guide seven of us on an all-day hike on Root Glacier. His first task: fit each of us with crampons for walking on the ice. Never done that before!
With the crampons tied to our packs, Ben led us through town to the trail that accesses the ice. I paused for a photo op to compare today's glacier
to the one that I saw in 1991. Amazing that the green-covered mount extending away from the mountain today was nearly covered in ice only thirty years ago!
For close to an hour, we hiked along the narrow, well-worn path,
taunted with the growing views of the massive glacier. The last stretch descended sharply through loose rocks and dirt, forcing us to focus on not falling.
As we moved along the trail, we learned more about each other. Colleen had grown up in Boulder CO (as had I) - but she went to the cross-town rival high school! (I forgave her.) She and Graham had just moved to Fairbanks and planned to open a bed-and-breakfast there. One of the Indian couples (Nanoud and Sam - or was it Rohan and Demeca?) were getting married, and Sam just celebrated her birthday. This was Ben's first season in the park. He was educated in teaching English to non-native speakers. His recent degree came with majors in Spanish and Music. I asked, "So are you going to play in a Mariachi band?"
The access trail ended at an edge of the glacier, with a short dirt-covered stretch leading to the whiter version. From this face, I could see a stream carrying milky runoff down the valley.
We found rocks to sit on to attach our crampons.
While we did so, Ben tutored us on how to walk. "DON'T shuffle your feet - those spikes in the toes will dig in and trip you. Lift each foot straight up and plant it straight down. Even stomp it a bit, so the spikes catch the ice. Walk with a wide stance - if you move your foot forward next to your other leg, a spike could catch on your pants and trip you. Out there, it's all about Safety First. Can you all say that for me?"
"Safety First!" we called out in ragged unsion.
"Actually, that's not quite correct," he continued. "This activity has inherent dangers, so it's really about Risk Mitigation First. But Safety First sounds better."
With that, we take our first tentative steps onto the dirty ice.
Up a short rise he took us - and suddenly a world of white filled our vision.
We moved slowly, adjusting to our ice legs. I couldn't have asked for better conditions - 60s with few clouds and no wind. To our side, majestic views to green-sloped peaks boxed us in. Dead ahead lay the main body of ice, still in its Alpine valley.
We stepped over tiny crevasses, watching the melting water course down them. Soon Ben showed us the first of many moulins. "The term comes from the French word for 'drill'. The melting water will drill a hole into the ice. It has no bottom - it will run all the way down to solid ground."
He took us further to the other side of the glacier.
"This is the way to Donahoe Falls and an ice cave. It starts with a slight downhill - which is really a test to see how you do. There's a much longer downhill to the falls, and if I don't think the group can handle it, we'll go with plan B. Remember, Safety First!"
He showed us the downhill technique - push your knees a bit forward, lean back slightly, heel down first. I was third in line to try. When I got down with others coming up from behind, Ben announced, "Okay, Donahoe is out. (It's not just you, Glen.) Instead, how about we go exploring!"
He led us off in a direction he'd only taken once before, "and things change so fast on the ice I wouldn't recognize it anyway!" A few minutes later he noticed a gap in the ice and tentatively approached it. After scoping it out, he used his crampons to anchor himself securely and announced his find. "It's a deep blue hole! I'll have you come up one at a time, hold my arm, and look over the edge.
But beware! Anything that drops over the edge is gone forever, never to be seen again, even if it's you. There's absolutely no way to recover a phone or a body from this."
With that dire warning ringing in our heads, we each inched over to him and peered over the edge. All I could glimpse was blue descending to nothingness - but I wasn't about to lean far enough over to get a clear view.
As we moved on, we discovered a new, large moulin.
Downhill from that, we noticed a shallow stream on the glacier flowing out of an undulating ice canyon.
"Oooh, let's check this out," Ben ventured. We wandered up the narrow defile through a couple of S-shaped turns, hopping bank-to-bank across the rivulet.
We quickly reached a spot with no bank to hop across. Ben assessed the scene, then decided, "Well, we could climb out of this canyon and avoid the issue - but it's more fun if I just cut a couple of steps on the inner wall and climb over it." With that, he grabbed his ice axe and chopped out steps,
then stood on top to help each of us navigate the new path.
After we all surmounted the inner bank, we decided to take our lunch break. Ben pulled out pads to buffer our butts from the ice.
Out came the backpack stove to heat water for tea or cider. And out came a Snickers bar, which he unwrapped and bent in various directions to illustrate the dynamics of glacial movement, fissures, and calving.
As the crew opened their lunches, I discovered that the lunch pack I'd ordered from the outfitter didn't get sent out with Ben. I'd brought a few snacks to augment their pack anyway, but one of the Indian couples felt sorry for me and passed me a big cookie to tide me over. Thanks, guys!
We pushed on after the break, heading further up glacier. The progress paused when I apparently passed one foot too close to my pant leg and took a face plant. The fall pushed my sunglasses into my nose, producing a trace of blood. Ben rushed over, made sure I hadn't injured myself, then grabbed a Band-Aid from his first aid kit.
Onward and upward. At least, until I took a second fall, landing on my cheek. "Okay, it was almost time to turn back anyway," Ben announced. "Safety First!"
But before he could put than plan into effect, he opted for plan B. "Glen, would you mind if I had you sit on my pack for a few minutes, so I can take the rest of the crew to see this next feature? It'll only take a few minutes. And I can take a picture of it with your camera, so you can see it too!"
I agreed without hesitation. I'd hate it if my carelessness deprived the others of what they paid for. They took off, and I watched them disappear from sight.
I didn't mind missing it - especially at the risk of injury. As long as I got to film the others doing the Blue Hole Plunge, and I got to sip the glacier, I'd consider it a successful day.
They returned shortly, and Ben showed me the picture of the moulin they'd found. Now it came time to angle back toward our exit point. Ben and I took point, with Ben keeping a grip on my daypack as we proceeded, to forestall future falls. I didn't complain. I could sense that fatigue had set in, and knew that I risked another fall. Indeed, I had several missteps n the way back that I caught, but without Ben's firm hand steadying me, I couldn't guarantee that one of them wouldn't have brought me down.
After a bit, he set me on his pack again as he left to reconnoiter a blue hole for the plunge. Once he got the others situated, he came back to get me settled at a good spot to GoPro the plunges. Sitting there, I watched Graham disrobe to his skivvies and leap into the icy pool. A few minutes later, Colleen overcame her doubts and did the same.
Once they dried off and got dressed, we moved on to another blue hole. This one featured a 15' cliff off which one could jump. The crew demurred, but Rohan and Demeca opted to take a modified Plunge: they would sit on one of the lunch pads and slide into the pool. Once they finished, Ben got down to his underwear and jumped off the cliff. (Everyone completing the Blue Hole Plunge received a certificate when we got back to the office.)
Moving on again, we passed perhaps the most vivid of the blue holes, with an otherworldly blue hue.
As I admired the pool, Ben's tone turned personal. "Do you mind me asking how old you are?" I gave him my riddle answer: "I'm looking forward to celebrating my 17th birthday next year."
He made the connection immediately. "You're a leap-year baby!" He laughed and said how impressed he was that I was still trying new adventures. "I want to be like you when I grow up!"
We had one more experience on tap before leaving the ice. Ben laid his pack next to a small glacial brook, now brimming with water melted by the afternoon sun. To each of us he handed a red licorice stick. "I want everyone to bite off each end of the stick. You'll see there's a hole that goes through it, like a straw. You each get to lay on your stomach on my pack, get your face near the water, and take a long sip of the glacier."
How cool! The high point of my day.
Ben led us back from whence we came. At glacier's edge we removed the crampons, lashing them to our packs. We now left the glacier behind
and faced our hour-long hike back to their office. It felt good to again be on solid ground and moving again without a guiding hand. At one point Graham asked my age, then confided, "You've really inspired me. I hope I can still get out there and do these incredible things when I hit that age." (Indeed, days later he emailed me that he and Colleen had already began planning for their next National Park adventure.)
Nice to know that even on difficult days, I can still have an impact.
Fall down. Make a mess. Break something occasionally. But know that your mistakes are your own unique way of getting where you need to be and remember the story is never over. - Conan O'Brien