Exploring the Earth and Sky of the West

National Parks

Alaska (Part Two)

Several people stand on the crest of a white and blue mass of glacial ice

Exploring the Root Glacier, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve, Alaska

The second stop on our Alaska trip of 2019 was Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve. The largest national park in the United States, Wrangell-St. Elias spans more than 13 million acres in the wilderness of southeast Alaska. Our destination was the old mining town of Kennecott, situated deep in the park’s interior between the volcanic Wrangell Mountains and the coastal St. Elias Range.

Due to the tire issues mentioned in my last post, we opted not to take our Subaru down the 60-mile long McCarthy Road, the main access route into the park. In hindsight, we probably would have been fine, as the road was in excellent condition (at least relative to the roads we’d been used to driving in Utah. The similar-in-length Hole in the Rock Road makes the McCarthy Road look like a recently-paved superhighway). Fortunately, we were able to book a last minute van shuttle from Kenny Lake, AK to the end of the McCarthy Road. Regardless of your mode of transportation, you then walk across a footbridge spanning the glacial silt-laden Kennicott River into the town of McCarthy. (The only vehicle access to McCarthy is via a private, and very expensive, bridge a bit further downstream.) Kennecott is another 5 uphill miles by shuttle, bike, or foot:

A red and white building with a sign saying "Kennecott"

Kennecott, Alaska. The 14-story wooden concentration mill is seen in the background.

Strangely, reaching Kennecott would have been much easier in 1919 than it was in 2019. The McCarthy “Road” is actually an old railroad grade originally built in 1909 to bring supplies in and ore out of the famous Kennecott Copper Mines. From 1911 through the late 1930s, the Kennecott mines shipped millions of tons of copper ore to Cordova on the Alaska coast via the Copper River and Northwestern Railway. The town had state of the art amenities at the time, including one of the best hospitals in the territory as well as the first X-ray machine in Alaska. While the mines closed in 1938, Kennecott Copper remains one of the larger copper-producing companies in the world, perhaps best known for the massive Bingham Canyon Mine just outside of Salt Lake City.

Following the closure of the mines, Kennecott lay mostly deserted for decades before beginning to draw tourists in the 1980s. Much of the land and buildings within the town were acquired by the National Park Service in 1998 and added to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. Restoration and stabilization of historic buildings in Kennecott is ongoing. Today, you can actually explore many of these buildings, including the town power plant (photo below) and the massive concentration mill (photo above), a 14-story wooden structure where copper ore was crushed and then mechanically and chemically concentrated into the high grade ore that was eventually shipped out via the railroad.

The interior of the Kennecott Power Plant, with massive boilers used to produce electricity and steam heat for the mines and town residents.

History aside, the natural landscape of Kennecott is really what makes it stand out as one of the most stunning places I’ve ever visited. The town is perched on the flanks of Bonanza Ridge, with rocky peaks towering more than 4,000 feet above and what remains of the Kennicott Glacier below. At first glance, it is not apparent (even to a geologist) that the mounds of rubble in the valley below ARE a glacier, but ice does lay beneath the veneer of debris. Like most of the world’s alpine glaciers, the Kennicott Glacier has retreated dramatically since the town’s heyday in the early 1900s, when its surface was level with or even above the elevation of the town. Today, you look down several hundred feet on to what remains of the glacier and the detritus it has brought with it out of the mountains. The origin of the glacier, and the dominant feature of the northern skyline, is the massive Mt. Blackburn, the fifth highest peak on the United States at 16,391 feet:

Wooden buildings cling to a slope with glacier covered mountains in the background

Old mining buildings in Kennecott cling to the slopes above the debris-covered Kennicott Glacier, which originates on the slopes of Mt. Blackburn, seen in the background.

A few miles north of Kennecott, the Kennecott Glacier is joined by the Root Glacier, a somewhat more “normal” looking glacier that we spent nearly an entire day exploring. The experience was rather surreal given that the air temperature was nearly 90 degrees. Climates amenable to the formation of glaciers don’t often produce days where a swim in the frigid glacial melt water actually sounds appealing as opposed to horrifying, but that was certainly the case on this day.

As spectacular as the glacier was, there is something quite unsettling about walking around on one in a T-shirt. The signs and symptoms of a warming climate were all encompassing. We walked along deep gouges (surprisingly reminiscent of Utah slot canyons) carved into the ice by strong currents of melt water…

The Root Glacier, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska

The Root Glacier, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska

encountered many sublime pools filled with deep, electric blue pools of glacial melt water…

The Root Glacier, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska

and carefully avoided deep shafts, known as moulins, that carry cascades of melt water into the internal plumbing of the glacier. In many places, we could hear the dull roar of the melt water boring tunnels through the ice beneath our feet. Glaciers like Root won’t survive many more summers with too many days like this one.

A channel of water flowing across a white glacier carves a tight bend in the ice

Meander in a meltwater channel, Root Glacier, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska

Brown sediment fills in interestingly shaped cracks in glacial ice

Patterns of sediment in the ice, Root Glacier, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska

Despite the best efforts of the interpretive signs displaying historical photographs, and the park film showing the sights and sounds of the past, the sheer remoteness of Kennecott in 2019 makes it difficult to imagine the Kennecott of 1919: a busy town immersed in the deafening roar of copper mining, with a glacier not yet ravaged by climate change dominating the horizon.

Cluster of pink flowers overlooking a debris covered glacier at sunset

Clusters of fireweed overlooking the Kennicott Glacier, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve, Alaska


Glacier National Park: Grinnell Glacier Trail

Dark clouds loom over a range of mountains and an azure-blue alpine lake

With one job ending in June and the next not starting until September, we spent most of this past summer on the road. It’s now mid-October, and I’m finally getting the chance to seriously sort through the resulting pictures.

Our last big stop of the summer was Glacier National Park in Montana and neighboring Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada. Glacier was one of the few remaining national parks in the west I had yet to visit, so I was excited that we were able to squeeze this trip in. Despite uncharacteristically foul weather for mid-August, a harrowing experience on the park shuttle bus, campgrounds with problem bears (and problem campers), and an unscheduled detour to an auto parts store in Cardston, Alberta, we managed to get in 60+ miles of hiking among some truly first-class scenery. Our most memorable hike was the trek to Grinnell Glacier in the northeast corner of the park. Here are a few photos from that journey:

A series of sharp mountain peaks are reflected in a tranquil lake at sunrise.

Sunrise light on Mt. Grinnell, reflected in the tranquil waters of Swiftcurrent Lake, Glacier National Park, Montana.

A hiker climbs a steep trail surrounded by green vegetation and wildflowers with large mountains in the background.

Hiking through the redbeds of the Grinnell Formation on the way to Grinnell Glacier. The Grinnell Formation, part of the Belt Supergroup, is a ~1.5 billion year old unit of sedimentary rock that preserves ancient ripple marks, mud cracks, rain drop imprints and more in its maroon layers. 

Cliffs of rock surround several glaciers and an azure-blue lake containing numerous icebergs.

Panoramic view of Grinnell Glacier (left) and Upper Grinnell Lake. The lake has existed only since the 1930s. In the early 1900s, Grinnell Glacier filled the basin now occupied by the lake, at one point depositing the sediment in the moraine the photographer is standing on. Today, only a small piece of Grinnell Glacier remains. As temperatures have warmed, the glacier has retreated leaving Upper Grinnell Lake in its place. The milky blue-green color of the lake is due to finely powdered rock (“glacial flour”) suspended in the water.

Gray cliffs of igneous and sedimentary rock tower over a aquamarine lake filled with icebergs

Cliffs of dark gray limestone belonging to the Helena Formation tower above Upper Grinnell Lake. The thin band of darker rock cutting horizontally across the cliffs is an igneous sill, formed when magma intruded along a plane of weakness in the limestone and then solidified. The lighter rock immediately above and below the sill is marble, created when the hot magma “cooked” the limestone into which it had intruded.

Dark clouds loom over a range of mountains and an azure-blue alpine lake

A thunderstorm approaches over the Garden Wall on the descent from Grinnell Glacier. This was the final photo I took on the hike. We spent most of the next hour running the several remaining miles back to the trailhead as thunder and flashes of lightning exploded behind us.

A bighorn sheep stands amongst vegetation with a glacier in the background

A bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) alongside the trail, with Grinnell Glacier in the background.


Crossing the Channel

Close-up of a small gray and red fox sitting in the grass
A small ocean inlet with blue-green water along a rugged coastline

Potato Harbor, Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park, California

Just a few dozen miles off the coast of Southern California lie the Channel Islands, eight motes of land jutting out of the sea a stone’s throw from the hustle and bustle of the Los Angeles metropolitan area. Of the eight islands, the only one with a significant human population is the tourist mecca of Santa Catalina, which draws over one million visitors per year. The remaining seven islands are sparsely populated and draw far fewer tourists. The four northernmost islands form an archipelago that is protected by Channel Islands National Park and the Nature Conservancy.

Back in March, we briefly visited the largest Channel Island: Santa Cruz. At 97 square miles in area, Santa Cruz is reached via ferry from Ventura or Oxnard. Our hour-long journey across the Santa Barbara Channel was choppy to say the least, but included close up views of Pacific white-sided dolphins and several majestic oil drilling platforms. Upon arrival, we were greeted by one of the most lush landscapes imaginable. Abnormally abundant winter rains had produced a tall, dense carpet of green grasses that blanketed the entire island. One of the resident rangers told us it was the greenest he had seen Santa Cruz in the seven years he’d worked there.

A trail passes through dense green grass with sunset-lit mountains in the background

A trail winding through the lush spring grasses on Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park

A view of an island covered in green grass with the deep-blue ocean and other islands in the background

Looking east from Santa Cruz toward Anacapa Island, Channel Islands National Park

An illuminated tent beneath a tree. The landscape is illuminated by moonlight.

Campsite on Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park. Landscape illuminated by a first quarter moon.  

Given their relative geographic isolation, the Channel Islands are notable for their high concentration of endemic plant and animal species found nowhere else on Earth. They are also home to some of the earliest evidence of human habitation in the Americas. Archaeological and geological evidence suggests that humans inhabited Santa Rosa, just east of Santa Cruz, as far back as 13,000 years ago. At this time, sea levels were much lower due to the massive amounts of water locked up in glaciers and ice sheets farther north. As a result, the four northernmost islands (Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel) were united into a “mega island” whose eastern edge was much closer to mainland California. This made it easier for plants and animals to reach the island, either by air (birds, plant seeds, etc.) or on floating rafts of debris (mammals, reptiles, etc.) Some species may have even been deliberately brought to the islands by humans.

As the most recent glaciation ended, sea levels began to rise, eventually splitting the mega-island into the smaller landmasses that exist today. Once isolated, the plant and animal populations that had established themselves on the islands, either organically or after being brought there by humans, began to evolve into species distinct from their mainland cousins. In some cases, distinct subspecies have evolved on individual islands in response to unique conditions.

Close-up of a small gray and red fox sitting in the grass

Close-up of a small gray and red fox sitting in the grass

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For visitors to Santa Cruz, the most obvious example of this phenomenon is the ubiquitous Santa Cruz island fox (Urocyon littoralis var. santacruzae). Coming from the mainland where a sighting (especially a daytime sighting) of a fox is a rare treat, we were surprised to see one within minutes of getting off the ferry. The island fox is descended from and appears very similar to the common grey fox, but is much smaller. A fully grown island fox weighs just 4-5 pounds, and is similar in size to a large house cat. Often the lush spring grasses exceeded the foxes in height, making them challenging to spot! Nearly extinct in the early 1990s, a highly successful habitat restoration and captive breeding program has the species thriving today. We ended up seeing several dozen in our short visit to Santa Cruz. Other subspecies of the island fox exist on five of the other seven islands, each with slight differences evolved in response to local conditions.

A small fox lies hidden in the grass

An island fox lurking in the tall grass

A small gray and red fox sits alongside a dirt path

An island fox on the trail to Smugglers Cove, likely hoping for a food handout.

With its pastoral landscape and unique wildlife, Santa Cruz feels a world away from metropolitan areas of Southern California. However, nightfall brought a stark reminder of just how close the islands are to the urban sprawl. Light pollution from Los Angeles, Oxnard, Ventura, Santa Barbara, and the numerous oil drilling platforms in the Santa Barbara Channel dominated the night sky from Santa Cruz.

A panorama of the California coastline showing many large light domes degrading the view of the night sky.

Nighttime panorama from the cliffs above Scorpion Ranch on Santa Cruz Island. See annotated image below for a description of the different features.

Nighttime image of Light Pollution from Santa Cruz Island with sources labeled

Our return trip was delayed because the choppy seas prevented the ferry from reaching the anchorage on Santa Cruz on time, giving us a few extra hours to sit on the beach and enjoy the peace & quiet of the island. The winds died down enough for a smooth ride back across the channel where we even spotted a couple of migrating gray whales. Apparently I need more practice shooting photos from a moving platform, as the whale pics all turned out pretty blurry. Have another fox instead!

A small fox sits in the grass