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Thursday, 31 August 2006

On the Ice: Exit Glacier, Alaska - Page 2

Written by Alison Drucker
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The adventure began with a phone call to the tour office asking whether we should bring lunch along on the five-hour hike, and a nonchalant response: “we advise against that because of bear danger” – a statement that made me decidedly nervous.

 

 

iceAt the park, we set out on the two-hour hike up 1300 vertical feet of mountain that would ultimately lead us to the Exit Glacier.  Along the way, Brendan instructed us in the proper use of the walking stick, regaled us with stories of some of the more colorful hikers he’d taken on this expedition (including a 72-year-old man with a brand new hip, who, in retrospect, I deeply respect for making it all the way up and down the rugged and sometimes treacherous trail), taught us about the processes that go into forming and altering the landscape of a glacier, and gave us a crash course in bear etiquette.

Namely, a surprised bear is a bear likely to attack, so the alert whistle is key.  If you encounter a bear in your path, our cavalier guide informed us not to run (she may chase you); rather, stay calm, huddle close to your fellow hikers to appear bigger and thus more intimidating, look the bear straight in the eye (easier said than done, I’m sure), and talk to her in a normal, conversational voice as you slowly back away, saying things like “hello, bear.”  We got a kick out of this, and so traipsed around for much of the day calling out pleasantries to imaginary creatures in the meadows.

The hike to the glacier was, as the 72-year-old hiker quickly realized, rugged and sometimes treacherous.  We encountered most of the treachery when we diverged from the park’s established trail, which doesn’t lead to the glacier, only to points where you can view it from a distance.  Our own personal trail led us across shallow creeks, through patches of snow left over from the long Alaska winter, amid assorted shrubs, and down a petrifying 45-degree incline to the edge of Exit Glacier itself.

Along the way, per Brendan’s guidance, we were careful to walk on rocks and dirt as much as possible and avoid all plant life, to leave as little trace of our existence as we could on the landscape.  We were also instructed to not follow directly in each other’s footsteps so as not to stamp out a new trail in the wilderness – except on the snow, where we were to absolutely follow directly in Brendan’s footsteps, to avoid a startling drop into thigh-high drifts where the snow was soft.

glacierAnd finally: the glacier.  Exit Glacier is relatively small, compared to some of the mammoth glaciers that dot Alaska’s landscape, and is framed by mountains and rock on three sides and the Harding Icefield on the other.  The Harding Icefield has spawned more than 40 glaciers, some of which descend into the ocean (called tidewater glaciers) and some of which, like Exit, descend down mountain slopes (hanging glaciers).

After the point where we diverged from the established trail to reach the glacier, many visitors to Kenai Fjords National Park continue on up past Marmot Meadows (named as such because it’s home to innumerable of the adorable marmots, whose singsong whistles were at first indistinguishable from bird calls to my novice ears) on a seven-mile round-trip trail to the icefield, sometimes camping out overnight there.  The thought of sleeping on a sheet of ice in the company of bears makes me shiver with both cold and terror, but God bless the adventurous souls who can do it.

 

(Page 2 of 4)
Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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