After tagging along with visiting students to the permafrost tunnel, we were offered the opportunity to continue accompanying the group on their tour of Gulkana Glacier. We were quite excited to be included in another excursion, particularly because two glacier researchers and experts (Regine and another UAF professor) would be leading the tour.
Gulkana Glacier is located about 175 miles southeast of Fairbanks, so the day began at 7:00 AM in order to have as much time as possible on the glacier. We met up with the group in a parking lot at UAF and spent some time making sure everyone had crampons that fit their shoes. Within in an hour, we were on the road and drove for about three hours with a few stops to view scenery and purchase lunch. As we drove southeast, views of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS) became more frequent. The TAPS is a giant oil pipeline that stretches from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez and transports millions of barrels of oil each day. The road to Gulkana Glacier is the same route that the pipeline takes, making for great views of the engineering marvels associated with the project.
The turn to access Gulkana Glacier was unremarkable and came up suddenly on the windy road. After turning off, we followed a dirt road covered with fairly large stones for approximately fifteen minutes. As we drove further along, the road became increasingly rocky. Finally, we stopped in a nondescript area along a river that is fed by glacial runoff. Throughout our drive to the glacier, the weather seemed to worsen with each mile. By the time we parked alongside the river, a steady rain was falling and the temperature was about 45 °F. We ate our lunches quickly in the car and bundled up with all of the warm, waterproof clothes that we brought.
Eventually, we left our warm, dry car and started the two mile walk towards the base of Gulkana Glacier. As we walked, the rain fluctuated between a steady downpour and a light mist. We walked quickly to keep warm and soon came upon our first challenge of the hike: a 20-foot high bridge over a roaring glacier-fed river. The bridge was well-made from wooden planks and steel cables, so we were confident that it was secure. However, the wooden planks were spaced approximately 6-10 inches apart, giving the bridge-crosser a glimpse of the swift river below with every step. While one may at first be tempted to take the “don’t look down” strategy while crossing, the wide spacing of planks unfortunately meant that a foot could easily slip between and leave you dangling above the river. We crossed as quickly as possible and hoped that the bridge was the most challenging experience of our day.
Alas, as we hiked a bit further, we reached an equally demanding obstacle that once again involved crossing a river. This river crossing was located right near one edge of the glacier, and the rushing water was higher than seen by Regine on previous trips. With no way around the water, the only choice was to cross by jumping on some large but sporadic stones. It was possible to reach the middle of the river relatively easily, but to make it to the other side, a huge step (or a small leap for some of the smaller people) was necessary. One by one, we made our way across. There were thankfully no issues, although some chunks of ice and a sizable rock fell off the glacier and hit some nearby stones while Leigh was mid-journey.
After the second river crossing, the base where we would climb onto Gulkana Glacier was finally in our sights. All that was left to reach the glacier was a short, muddy walk. With the worst behind us, we started confidently hiking towards the ice. We were towards the back of the group and soon began hearing surprised yelps from those in the front. The seemingly solid, flat ground leading up to the edge of the glacier was much less firm than it looked. While stepping on larger rocks was still relatively stable, stepping into the mud or gravel areas would result in a cold, wet, and dirty leg as you sank into the swamp. This area was made of glacial silt, which is very fine particles of rock that are created by glaciers. Glacial silt is also what causes some glacial lakes (such as Lake Louise in Banff, Alberta) to be turquoise in color.
By the time the group realized we were in the middle of a glacier soup, we were too close to turn back. Each member of the group tried in vain to navigate successfully through the treacherous mud. Some people escaped relatively unscathed with only the sole of their boot covered in muck. Others were less lucky and had to extricate their entire ankle or lower leg from the goop. We landed in the middle of this range; both of us had boots completely covered in the mud by the time we made it to the edge of the glacier.
Once we recovered from the shock of the freezing mud, we pulled out our crampons and got ready to hike onto the glacier. Neither of us knew what to expect. Though Dave studies glaciers, he works with debris-covered glaciers and had never hiked on exposed ice. We were pleasantly surprised to find that walking up the relatively steep edge of the glacier in our crampons was as easy as walking on a trail (and much easier than getting through the glacial silt!). We made our way up the glacier, with frequent stops to admire different scientific phenomena. Regine showed the group how to safely check for unstable ice or hidden crevasses, and she pointed out interesting features like moulins (a vertical glacial river) and ablation stakes used by previous scientists to measure glacial melt.
We spent about two hours hiking around on the glacier. It was an awesome learning experience. Every few steps revealed another beautiful or interesting feature to admire, and it was scenery unlike anything else we’d seen so far in Alaska. Eventually, the rain and cold temperatures prompted us to make our way off the glacier and journey back to the car. The trip back was filled with the same obstacles, but the excitement over seeing Gulkana Glacier and the promise of a warm car helped us make it back without issue. After taking a few minutes to change in to warm, dry clothes and grab a snack, we were back on the road and made it to Fairbanks by 10:00 PM. Though we were tired from the long, busy day, we both agreed that seeing Gulkana Glacier was an incredible experience. We feel lucky to live relatively close to such cool natural features, and we’re looking forward to the next day of exploration.
Leigh joins me in writing about our adventures living in Alaska.