Exploring Alaska -
Anchorage & the Kenai Peninsula

The Chugach Range

After an uneventful night in a rented Ford Escort near Anchorage, I headed back to Merrill Field, Anchorage's general aviation airport. Merrill field is home to Vernair, on which I planned to take a flightseeing tour of the Columbia Glacier, a vast 440-square-mile ice sheet that flows into Prince William Sound. There was not yet anyone else wanting to go on the same tour at the same time, and Vernair is reluctant to make a trip with only one paying passenger, so I had breakfast across the street while waiting for someone else to call with the same interest. That didn't happen, and I didn't want to wait forever for something that might not happen within my planned time near Anchorage, so I decided to contact other carriers in case one of them could give better results. I called Take Flight Alaska (from whom, by coincidence, I had considered renting an aircraft to fly myself on part of this trip); their situation was the same as Vernair, with no one else interested in the same tour but they took my name in case they could combine me with someone else. I later discovered in a newspaper ad an outfit named Alpine Air, called them, and this time scored a partial hit. They had a couple wanting to see not the Columbia Glacier itself, but some other nearer glaciers in the Chugach Range with an add-on to Prince William Sound. I decided that this would be satisfactory should my original plan not materialize. After one more call to each of Take Flight and Vernair to see if either of these operators had another Columbia Glacier taker and finding none, I cancelled my plans with both and booked a ride on Alpine Air for 2 P.M. that afternoon.

Alpine Air is located not in Anchorage, but in Girdwood, which is about a 45 minute drive southeast toward Seward, where I was headed anyway. This scenic drive features views of Turnagain Arm, the southern branch of Cook Inlet, on which Anchorage is situated. Mountains on both side of the inlet rise straight up out of the water. There are many scenic viewpoint car pullouts along the roadside. The drive is much like California's Pacific Coast Highway, but better because there are mountains on both sides of the channel. Turnagain Arm is noted for its tides because of their enormous range (30 to 35 feet), tidal bores, and miles of mud flats which are exposed at low tide.

Inner Lake George
Inner Lake George
I arrived in Girdwood in plenty of time for my flight. Upon takeoff, the flight traversed a ski slope, then squeezed through a small pass into a canyon with a rugged bottom and tundra-covered slopes up above. A few small glaciers occupied some side canyons. The canyon then joined a much larger canyon where all the stops were pulled out. Glaciers were everywhere. We flew low over miles of crevasses and a point where one side of the main glacier had caved in because it had been melted below by water running underneath. Farther down, the glacier melted, the canyon broadened, and a silt-laden lake came into view. The lake was Inner Lake George, and it had icebergs floating in it because of the Prince George Glacier flowing into it. Except for the fact that it emptied into a body of fresh water, the Prince George Glacier was just like a real tidewater glacier.

After circling the calving surface a few times, we flew up the Prince George Glacier and approached a pass beyond which was Prince William Sound.
Turnagain Arm
Turnagain Arm
But a few clouds were seeping through the pass, and they were a bad omen: Prince William Sound was clouded over. We could see several peaks through the pass rising like islands above an ocean of clouds. The pilot explained that these "island" mountains really were islands in a sea of water, i.e. Prince William Sound, as well as a sea of clouds. To save time and money, we cut the flight short and headed back to Girdwood via the tip of Turnagain Arm. From this vantage point, there was a good view of the tidal mud flats which are characteristic of many parts of Cook Inlet.

After the flight ended, I continued up Turnagain Arm toward its very tip, the location of a town, a glacier, and a lake all named Portage. Several stretches of the highway sport a head-on view of the glacier, which calves off into the lake. On the shore of the lake near the outlet is a very good visitor center which has many glacier-related exhibits and a 20-minute film.
Portage Lake
Portage Lake with icebergs
Views of the lake from the visitor center usually include icebergs which have broken off from the glacier at the other end and been blown across by the wind. A century ago the lake did not exist; the glacier then occupied the same location. The glacier has receded, and as it does so the lake appears in its place. It is estimated that in about twenty more years the lake will reach its maximum size, and after that the recession of the glacier will expose dry ground.

Another hour or so of driving brought me to a campground where I was to spend the next two nights. Its location was optimal: not too far from Kenai Fjords, where I was to hike tomorrow, and not too far back to Anchorage where I had to catch a flight to Katmai the following day.

Kenai Fjords & Seward

The next morning I rose and headed farther down the Kenai Peninsula. Soon after turning off of the Seward Highway onto a side road the Exit Glacier came into view. From my angle it looked straight as an arrow, mostly blue with a dark brown stripe of morainal debris running down the midline. Half a mile from its terminus is a ranger station and a small network of trails. Most of these are short paved tourist trails that approach within a few meters of the terminus and have views into cobalt blue alcoves in the ice. When I walked right up to it I was very surprised by the texture. It was like a very firmly packed mass of ice cubes, each about an inch in size and crystal clear, but the boundaries between them diffused the light so that it appeared frosty white, not clear and smooth, from a distance.

Harding Icefield
Harding Icefield
After examining the glacier from this vantage point, I headed up the only strenuous trail in the area, which climbs through cottonwoods parallel to the Exit Glacier and reaches its source: the Harding Icefield. The Exit Glacier is just one of about thirty glaciers that drain this limitless expanse of ice, which I've described as, "enough ice to keep the drinks cold in every supermarket and convenience store in the Galaxy." I admired this natural wonder for 20 or 30 minutes. Then on the return hike I ventured up to a snow cave formed from an accumulation of snow in a ravine being undercut by a stream. I didn't dare go in; there were blocks of ice on the floor of the cave and two cantilevered shelves of ice overhanging the entrance. Peering in as deeply as I could, I saw no sign of light coming from the other end; it just vanished into blackness. This was either a cave or a very long tunnel.

At the end of the hike I looped around on a self-guided trail that proceeds through the various levels of development of an ecosystem when terrain first becomes available therefor (e.g. when a glacier retreats or a fire clears vegetation). Fireweed is usually the first to arrive (which is why it is so named), followed later by cottonwood and finally by a coniferous forest, which remains indefinitely until the next catastrophe.

I proceeded to Seward, which, despite some tips from my Lonely Planet travel guide, didn't have much of interest. There was a Kenai Fjords visitor center with a few exhibits on the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. The town was devastated on March 27, 1964, when the most powerful earthquake in recorded history struck Prince William Sound. The town was rebuilt, and no evidence of that disaster remains today except that the airport was relocated. I spent a little while browsing in some gift shops. Later I called my folks and my good friend Adam Helman. Finally I headed back to camp.

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