Day 28: Moving at A Glacial Pace
Cold rain fell continuously as Alaska Redux took a day off from riding to spend sight seeing in Valdez. The adverse environmental conditions almost guaranteed today would be less than memorable and would barely merit a passing blog glance. Almost. Because, despite being cold and wet and sore today, we had a great day, thanks in large part to the great guides at Anadyr Adventures in Valdez who led us on a kayak paddle on a glacial lake then hiked us through an informative tour on Valdez Glacier.
I had planned such a tour in Valdez seven months ago when I laid out this Adventure. But my plans, as I recall, called for 65-70 degrees and sunshine, not 45 degrees and constant rain. But adventures demand you take what the weather gods give and today they gave crappy.
I reserved and paid for this trip five days ago when we were in Soldotna, so we were committed to go or lose our money. We went, trying to maintain good spirits but wondering with some trepidation what lay ahead.
Arriving 15 minutes early, we waited with other members of our group of soggy sojourners for the cold and wet adventure to begin. One of our growing group, who worked on the Wild Rose Farm in Fairbanks, used an abundance of zucchini to bake delicious zucchini bread with an amazing crust that she gratefully shared with all. It was absolutely wonderful and the day looked better already.
The guides introduced themselves, had a piece of the zucchini bread, and showed us where the gear was. They provided rubber boots, rain coats, rain pants and extra dry wear for those who needed one more non-cotton layer (like Mark and me). We suited up, grabbed a personal flotation device, had the obligatory informational and safety briefing, and loaded ourselves into a van towing a trailer loaded with two-person inflatable kayaks for a short ride to the glacial lake at the foot of Valdez Glacier. Good cheer–fueled by the zucchini bread–pervaded the van, despite the gloomy weather on the outside.
At the lake, the two guides, Bagel and Dalton, split the five groups of two into a group of four and a group of six, the latter being our group and Dalton being our guide for the day. In our group we had a banker transplanted from Iowa to Anchorage, an Iowa corn farmer, a young woman traveling from Spain by herself, a young man from Japan also traveling by himself, and two retired old guys (Mark and me).
Into the kayaks we climbed despite the rain and began our paddle across the lake, through the glacial icebergs that looked like small rocky islands, and to the toe of Valdez Glacier, where, heeding Dalton’s advice not to disembark more than two or three feet from the shore because the drop-off to the bottom of the lake was more than 600 feet, we hauled ourselves and our crafts onto the rocks.
Dalton’s passion for guiding and for the Alaska outdoors turned what could have been a cold, wet, boring hike across the rocky surface of the glacier into an educational and enlightening history/geology/glaciology lesson. We walked in the rain, at a glacial pace you might say. He walked and talked, telling of and pointing out various features found on the glacier–blue ice, crevasses, moulins, moraines, erratics, u-shapes, and more. Along the way, he found time to tell of the miners of 1896 who tried–and failed miserably–to use the glacier as a highway to the Klondike gold fields. And he told of Valdez’ early history and of the ever-present 1964 earthquake with its epicenter a mere 50 miles from Valdez and the devastating impact it had on the port and the people living and working here.
To say that today was a learning experience for me is a serious understatement. It was a glacial revelation, in part at least because after seeing dozens of glaciers from afar I was finally able to walk on one. I had noticed on other glaciers what appeared to be dirt, especially at the lower elevations, besmirching the pristine whiteness most people ascribe to glaciers. Today I discovered the brown stains aren’t dirt but rocks. Millions of them scattered across the top of the glacier. Some fall from the sides of mountains past which the glaciers flow and some drop from rocky outcrops or uplifts that split a glacier’s flow. But they both contribute to the rocky build-up as the glacier glides relentlessly down the valley.
Dalton pointed out that the glacier’s surface changes weekly, even daily, as new crevasses open and snow bridges collapse, as moulins (holes in the ice) grow bigger and deeper when ice melts and water flows hundreds of feet to the bottom of the glacier where it lubricates the glacier’s downhill slide. We carefully avoided places where thinning ice was dangerous, but had several opportunities to step down into fantastic icy features never seen from a 10-mile view.
On the way back down the glacier I chanced upon several broken pieces of purple glass. What fool would bring a bottle to a glacier, I wondered. Dalton said it was probably an artifact from the thousands of miners who tried to use the glacier as a shortcut in the late 1890s. Indeed, he said, guides and tourists often find debris broken and left behind by the miners. Later, when our day on the glacier had ended, I showed the zucchini-bread-baker the glass I found and she her friend, who were both archeologists as it turned out, said yes that historical explanation was certainly possible because the purple color was caused by manganese in the glass which was in common use before but not after WWI. Exposure to sunlight caused the once-clear glass to turn purple.
As we reached the area where we beached our kayaks and prepared to eat whatever lunch we brought with us, Dalton broke out cups, hot water and tea or cocoa. It was a welcome, warming treat and a thoughtful gesture by the folks at Anadyr.
We paddled slowly back across to the launch point, taking time to examine some of the larger icebergs and learning about their inevitable death in the lake. Growing increasingly cold and wet, we loaded the kayaks back on the trailer and returned to town. Taking off the borrowed rain gear, I discovered that my shirt and pants had both absorbed no small amount of water; that helped explain why I felt chilled. Most of the others, including Dalton and Bagel, had the same experience. Even with the rain gear, the constant rain plus the dripping from the kayak paddles found its way to out-of-sight dry spots.
We expressed our sincere thanks to our guides and quickly made the short walk back to our warm hotel room where soggy clothes soon tumbled merrily in the hotel washing machine. We were cold. We were wet. We were a little sore. But we were pleased that a potentially bad day had turned out so well. Another example of Great Adventure magic.
Tomorrow we begin our leg out of Alaska as we head to Tok (where I had internet connection problems the first time through). I’m looking forward to leaving the rain and entering warmer temperatures.