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Glacier: Exit, Stage Right

Updated: Feb 9, 2023

Thursday, 26 January 2023, Kenai Fjords NP

My regular call home found Sue much improved this morning, as she struggled to regain her strength after the painful Covid bout - a hopeful start to the morning. I then walked to the health-food store on the next street, carefully avoiding the parking lot (don't need no more falls!) to pick up fixings for breakfast and lunch. That left me with a few spare hours to pack, and catch up on writing my blogs.

A note about the park: I had visited here with a friend in August 1991, when we toured four of the state's National Parks. A boat trip into Aialik Bay served as a keynote experience on that trip, but we also visited Exit Glacier (named by early explorers that had exited the Harding Icefield through that glacier). I recall hiking to the toe of that river of compacted snow, dwarfed by the jumbled wall of blue ice.

My original plan on this Alaska trip was to take a dogsled into Kenai Fjords NP.

(Makes sense, since the original Iditarod run, delivering life-saving vaccines to Nome, began just outside Seward.) However, the outfitter told me that they can only run trips into the park once the NPS determines there's adequate snow and opens the gate. Last year, that never happened - and unwilling to risk it this year, I chose instead to dogsled in Denali park. For Kenai Fjords - since boat tours don't run in the winter - I would take a two-part 'winter tour' to return to Exit Glacier.

At noon, Brandon from Kenai Backcountry Adventures picked me up for my private tour. (With the unseasonable temperatures in which Seward has marinated, bookings have dried up.) At their headquarters, he outfitted me with a snow suit and helmet, then gave me the safety lecture: "Moose. We have maybe a 50% chance of seeing one today. If we do, we'll stop and wait for him to move on. If he starts acting aggressive, make sure to keep a tree between him and you."

Warming up to his topic, he continued. "Bear. If we encounter one, DON'T run - he'll chase you. Instead, yell at him, wave your arms, and he'll move on. I carry bear spray."

Brandon was nothing if not thorough. "If we're out there and I die, don't panic!" He took off his pack and unzipped it. "Here is where I keep the emergency walkie-talkie. Take it out of my pack and turn it on. It will send a message to other guides in the area, along with the GPS location. Then just sit tight, and someone will come to the rescue."

With that, we stepped outside, and he gave me a quick intro to the snowmobile. "Go ahead and take a couple of loops on the little figure-8 course here, so you can get a feel for it." That done, we took off up the road toward the park and Exit Glacier.

Given the weather of the past several days, the first mile of the road was clear of snow - not optimal for snowmobiles. However, a layer of icy snow covered the narrow shoulder, and I did my best at following him, staying on that until we reached the closed-to-cars gate. After this point, the park service had groomed (not plowed) the road for the use of snowmobiles, skiers, and the like.

The repeated freeze-thaw cycles had made the surface a challenge - the machine skis would keep sticking in the frozen ruts of previous travelers, then jerk to the side when another track interfered. I had to constantly strain to keep the machine on track - thankfully, we didn't go over 25 mph or so. At a couple points, Brandon steered us on a track through the woods on the south side of the road.

I relished the variety of this diversion. Since I had a private tour, Brandon encouraged me to stop whenever I wanted for a photo.

The scenery surrounding us complemented the beauty I had seen on the boat yesterday: magnificent mountains painted with light by the low-hanging sun, reflecting off the creeks carrying the glacial runoff.

I kept looking for the glacier I'd remembered from my previous trip, but nothing looked familiar. OMG, how far has the glacier receded?

Eventually, Brandon led us directly away from the road, into the glacial valley. This must be the area where I'd shot the photo of the massive tongue of ice thirty years ago.

I found it hard to believe that whole mass of ice had vanished...

After winding through the pristine area, he pulled his machine over, turned it off, and pulled out snowshoes - part II of our tour. "If you look up there, you'll see an ice cave marking the edge of the glacier.

We'll use the snowshoes to get as close to it as is safe."

Another new experience for me! He showed me how to attach the snowshoes to my boots, and what to beware of. "Walk normally, except keep a wider stance. You don't want to trip over yourself."

I gave it a try, and fell after the first few steps. Even though they felt ungainly, I could see what I must do to stay up and moving. After each fall, I gained a smidgen more confidence. Good thing! because as I proceeded toward the glacier, we passed a few holes in the snow cover where I noticed ice-cold glacial water flowing downstream - a REAL incentive to stay on my feet.

At the top of our ascent - still a ways from the ice cave - Brandon took out his thermos and poured me a cup of hot apple cider. "This is as far as we go.

(That's a far cry from the wall of ice I'd seen three decades ago!)

Now if you look back, do you see that little bush in the middle of that white area? That's where the edge of the glacier was, twenty years ago."

That hit me hard, a stark demonstration of what climate change has wrought. How sad... As I researched it later, I found that Exit Glacier provides a convenient laboratory for tracking glacial retreat. It also shows that man's effort to manage the visitor experience to a such a place faces high hurdles. For instance, a rest stop/pavilion built to provide a scenic view of the glacier twenty years ago, now only highlights the alders that sprung up once the glacier backed away.

After our hot cider, we headed back to the snowmobiles to finish the tour.

The sun had begun setting, painting the mountain-tops a rosy hue. For more diversion, Brandon led me on a pair of excursions off the other side of the road, though more densely-packed trees. In here, we ran close to the Resurrection River, through bands of snow, slush, dirt, and brush. At the end of each detour, we had to climb a slope to regain the park road. On the second one, I made the final turn onto the slope at too low a speed. Two-thirds of the way up, the machine lost traction, so I let it slip back off the steepest part. Rev it up, try it again, same story. Brandon then came over, backed it up a little further, put me back on it, and said, "Really jam it this time!"

You're the boss, Brandon! I gave it extra throttle, shot up the hillside, and fairly flew over the lip of the road before easing up. Mission accomplished! Now it was back on the shoulder of the paved road, back to the office. Another adventure - and I'd never heard of 'icemobiling' before! - under my belt. Now time for another long overnight of traveling...

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