Alaska (Part Three)
The last destination on our Alaskan journey was the Kenai Peninsula and the town of Seward. After a few days respite from the wildfire smoke in Wrangell-St. Elias, it returned with a vengeance as we headed back to Anchorage and down to the the coast:
After baking in the heat of the Alaskan interior for the last week, the marine climate of Seward was a welcome change. We even had a bit of rain for one of the few times in our entire trip.
While temperatures in Seward we’re somewhat more mild, the coastal location meant the humidity was not. On our first day in Seward, we partook in a brutal hike up to the Harding Icefield in Kenai Fjords National Park. The hike itself was not abnormally difficult, but we were definitely not used to the combination of heat and humidity, leaving me feeling physically ill at several points during the slog up the mountain. The day had started off overcast, but as we climbed, the clouds evaporated leaving us with stellar views of the rapidly retreating Exit Glacier and the Harding Icefield from which it originates. An icefield is essentially a large mass of interconnecting glaciers. The Harding Icefield is the largest — and one of only four — remaining icefields in the United States. The Exit Glacier itself has retreated more than a mile in the last 200 years, leaving trees and other vegetation to begin re-occupying it’s former valley.
The white and blue ice of the glacier made for a stellar contrast with the lush green vegetation of the alpine zone:
The wet climate of coastal Alaska results in extremely heavy snowfalls, making this one of only a handful of places in the world where glaciers flow all the way down to sea level to meet the ocean. Known as tidewater glaciers, these glaciers exhibit complex patterns of advance and retreat that, unlike standard alpine glaciers, are not purely the result of variations in climate. While warmer temperatures or prolonged drought can certainly reduce their mass, the movement of tidewater glaciers is also subject to complex interactions between the ice, the geomtery of the ocean floor, and the depth of the water into which they flow.
On our second day in Seward, we took a water taxi into the heart of Kenai Fjords National Park and then kayaked to within about a quarter mile of the terminus of Holgate Glacier. Tidewater glaciers have a tendency to “calve”, in which large chunks of ice break off the glacier and fall into the ocean, necessitating a safe distance. Glacier “social distancing” if you will. It is not hard to find videos on YouTube of people getting too close to calving tidewater glaciers, with quite predictable results. From our safe distance, we observed and heard several calving events in the few hours we were kayaking around the bay, but unfortunately I was not adept enough at kayaking into position quickly enough to actually capture one on camera.
Our boat ride back to Seward through Resurrection Bay also resulted in sightings of sea lions, seals, puffins, and even two pods of orcas: an exciting end to the trip!
From the San Juans to the San Juans
They are separated by more than 1600 kilometers. One barely rises above sea level while the other boasts six peaks exceeding 14,000 feet in elevation. One is most easily accessed by kayak or porpoise, while in the other it is difficult to escape the incessant drone of Jeeps, dirt bikes, and ATVs that trawl the vast network of old mining roads. One is beset by a deluge of by rain eight months out of the year, whereas the other is inaccessible except by ski, snowshoe, or helicopter for six. To the untrained eye, the San Juan Islands of NW Washington and the San Juan Mountains of SW Colorado couldn’t be more different. My current job situation has me living about an hour away from the mountains for 3 months out of the year, and an hour or less away from the islands for the other 9 months. And viewed through the lens of a camera, I have discovered that there are more similarities that you might expect. The first of which will probably be rather obvious:
They both posses stunning scenery:
View from Deception Pass State Park on Fidalgo Island looking southwest across the water towards the Olympic Peninsula.
Rosy Paintbrush in an alpine meadow near Red Mountain #1 (yes, nearby can be found Red Mountain’s #2 and #3. The old miners were a creative bunch.) in the San Juan Mountains.
Both offer opportunities for “extreme” sports:
A paraglider enjoys a serene aerial view of the San Juan Islands and several tankers headed for the oil refineries in Anacortes, WA.
Descending a scree-filled colouir after summiting 14.150′ Mt. Sneffels in the San Juan Mountains. While most of the climb is straightforward and requires only a hefty amount of scrambling, there is one tricky section near the summit during which a fall would likely mean the end of one’s mountain climbing days…or any other days for that matter.
Both were shaped and sculpted by vast quantities of ice:
Glacial striations in slate high above the Uncompahgre Gorge in the San Juan Mountains. The parallel grooves in the rock were carved by rocky debris trapped along the base of a long-gone glacier that was partially responsible for scouring out the gorge.
A Washington State Ferry passes a cliff of glacially scoured rock in the San Juan Islands. Glacial striations identical to those in the previous photo are ubiquitous throughout the San Juan Islands, evidence that the area was buried beneath more than a mile of ice during the peak of the last glaciation, about 15,000 years ago.
And finally, both are home to curious wildlife:
An American Pika investigates a bush at 11,000 feet in the San Juan Mountains.
A Blood Star investigates a California mussel below sea level in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
In case you didn’t know, that’s what starfish look like when they are curious.
A Visit to Aoraki
Oh boy where to begin. I suppose the beginning would probably be a good place to start. Went with a group of five other people to Mt. Cook this past weekend to do some camping, backpacking, and other touristy type things. Known by the Māori as Aoraki, visiting the Mt. Cook area has been solidly atop my “to do” list ever since I found out I was going to be coming to New Zealand for a semester (another guy our group has had a picture of Mt. Cook as his desktop background for the last year) so my excitement level was off the charts for the past week or so. Mt. Cook is about a 4.5 hour drive from Dunedin so we rented a Toyota Previa (didn’t know they still made those…) and I got to continue acclimatizing to driving on the left side of the road. I was the only driver on a trip to Milford Sound a few weeks ago (blog entry on that to come at some point…) and only almost got us killed once so I was feeling pretty confident heading into this weekend. Honestly, it’s become so natural that I know its going to be weird to come back to the states in a few months and get back into the right hand lane.
We didn’t have real specific plans for the weekend as the weather at Mt. Cook is notoriously nasty year-round. Snow and hurricane force winds are commonplace even in the summer and we decided that we would pretty much let the weather dictate when and where we hiked. Our main goal though was to spend a night at the famed Mueller Hut on Mt. Ollivier just across the valley from Mt. Sefton and Mt. Cook, the highest point in New Zealand and Australasia at 12,316 ft.
The weather upon our arrival on Thursday night was not particularly reassuring. The campground was located near Mt. Cook Village right at the mouth of the glacial valley that leads up into the mountains. This valley apparently is very good at funneling rain and wind right down into the valley because even though the skies at the campground were almost completely clear, we had the pleasure of setting up our tents in a downpour that was literally coming at us from the side. My little two person tent went up pretty easily however the large 4-person dome tent that we rented from the school was about as aerodynamic as a tank. Compound this with the fact that this tent had a pole setup that was analogous to solving a Rubik’s Cube and the inside was pretty much a lake by the time we finally got it up.
Fortunately the weather had cleared by morning. I was the first one out of the tents in the morning and while I won’t repeat my exact words upon seeing the surroundings of our campsite here, suffice to say they it was pretty spectacular.
Since the weather was looking promising for the day, we hightailed it over to the DOC (Department of Conservation, essentially the New Zealand equivalent of the National Park Service) Visitor Center to make reservations for a night at Mueller Hut. The hut sleeps less than 30 people and is first come first served so we wanted to be there early. Because of the terrain and weather, the DOC at Mt. Cook is understandably strict about making sure all hikers check in with the rangers to inform them of their plans and itinerary. After getting our permit and having a quick breakfast, we shouldered our packs and started up the trail to the hut.
Note that the word “trail” in this context is used a bit loosely. The DOC officially calls it the “Mueller Hut Route” which I think conveys things a bit better. The trail up to the hut is a deceptively short 2.7 miles. However, in those 2.7 miles, one gains over 3500 feet in elevation for an average elevation gain of about 1300 feet per mile. For comparison, the Bright Angel trail in the Grand Canyon averages about 540 feet of elevation change per mile. In summary, the Mueller Hut Route is one of those trails where you talk not about “miles per hour” but rather “hours per mile”. The first half of the trail is relatively well maintained although it consists mostly of crude railroad tie “stairs” implanted in the side of the mountain. The second half of the trail is marked only by intermittent orange posts and traverses a nasty talus/scree slope where footing is pretty much non-existant. We made it up to the hut in about 6 hours.
The setting of the hut was absolutely indescribable. Rather than trying, I’ll show you a picture instead:
We arrived at the hut mid-afternoon so we had plenty of time to hang out around the hut, meeting other hikers and exploring the area. One of the coolest things was witnessing the nearly continuous icefalls that occur on the glaciers that coat Mt. Sefton. Large avalanches of ice cascading down the sheer face of a mountain sounds remarkably like thunder and the sound travels so far and well that even at our campsite in the valley, miles away fro the ice, I was still woken up several times by the roar of the icefalls. In the afternoon, 4 of us scrambled up to the top of Mt. Ollivier, the first peak a young Sir Edmund Hillary (the first man to climb Mt. Everest) climbed back in 1939.
The Mueller Hut that we stayed in is actually the fifth-incarnation of the hut. First built in 1914, Mueller Hut has been swept away by avalanches on several occasions (The second hut lasted just 4 months before it was swept away…) and the weather conditions are so downright awful that the hut requires rebuilding on a regular basis. The current hut has been in place since 2003 when it was opened by Sir Edmund Hillary himself. By normal backpacking standards, the hut was a five-star resort. It has large tanks of running water outside on the deck, gas stoves, some fairly comfortable mattress pad thingys in the dormitory-style bunkhouse, and even indoor bathrooms in a outhouse about 50 yards from the main building. The hut is managed in the high season by volunteer hut wardens that stay for a week at a time. Every night at 7pm, the hut gets a radio call from Mt. Cook base in the village below to inform the hut wardens of the weather forecast for the coming day as well as to confirm that everyone made it up to the hut safe and sound for the night.
Perhaps the most spectacular part about staying at the hut was what it looked like after dark. Being over 100km from any significant sources of light pollution, the night sky at Mt. Cook is accordingly spectacular. We lucked out in the fact that our visit coincided with a nearly New Moon so the skies were dark. Real dark. Literally, you almost didn’t need a flashlight to walk around after dark, the sheer volume of starlight was sufficient enough for me to confidently walk back to the hut without fear of falling into a rock crevasse. Sunrise the next morning (first time I have willing gotten up before 7am in a LONG time…) was equally spectacular although the winds has increased dramatically by morning.
The climb down the next morning was much more pleasant on the cardiovascular system although a bit rougher on the knees and calves. Once we got back to camp (where we had gladly swallowed the extra $6 per person to keep our tents set up for the night we were at the Hut just so we didn’t have to spend another hour setting them up in the rain and wind) we pretty much just lounged around the rest of the day, exploring Mt. Cook Village and driving up the Tasman Valley to look at some more glaciers. Our last night at the campground was a rather sleepless one due to the winds which magically reappeared after dark. I must say though, even after only a few uses, I am extremely impressed with my new Mountain Hardware Drifter 2 tent (Thanks Mom and Dad!). The thing is waterproof as a submarine and even though what is supposed to be the ceiling of the tent was in my face most of the night, it didn’t bend or break despite the extreme winds. Overall, we all felt exceedingly elated that the weather once again cooperated for the most part. At this point, I can confidently say that I have brought the sunny Arizona weather with me to New Zealand because every weekend it feels like I go somewhere where the weather is notoriously abysmal only to have the sun shine almost all the time.
May the weather gods continue to smile!