Alaska Part 2: Bear Glacier, Exit Glacier & Denali
During our time in Kenai Fjords National Park, we also visited Bear Glacier and Exit Glacier. One of the many highlights of visiting the Kenai area was the ability to experience different glaciers in different ways. For example, Aialik Glacier calves in such a way that there are numerous but smaller icebergs. In contrast, Bear Glacier is receding, leaving massive icebergs behind in a calm lagoon. We walked the surface of Exit Glacier, which is the only glacier accessible by land via a hike.
We spent an afternoon kayaking Bear Glacier lagoon, which was a surreal experience and entirely different from Aialik. We started off in T-shirts on the boat ride over to the lagoon. By the time we arrived, we donned drysuits to protect ourselves from the cold breeze coming off the glacier and the very chilly water.
From shore, we waded out to a few smaller icebergs, which as you can see above - aren't that small! As I waded out, my foot hit the bottom of one of the icebergs - and let me tell you, they are heavy and can roll without warning!
Once we kayaked fully into the lagoon, we were enveloped by a 360 degree jaw-dropping landscape. Massive blue icebergs dotted the calm lagoon with Kenai peaks in the background. The silence was broken only by the sound of wind and the occasional thunderous crack of ice breaking off the icebergs.
The photos give you a sense of what it's like to be in the lagoon, but the true scale of the icebergs and the landscape simply cannot be experienced except in person. As the sun glinted off the deep blue and white icebergs, I experienced that familiar and lovely draw of nature - a sense of not mattering, a gentle reminder of the insignificance of worldly tribulations. What could seem that significant in the face of beautiful, thousand-year old ice?
The following afternoon, we put on our crampons on and walked onto the surface of Exit Glacier after a brisk uphill hike. Exit is accessible from the roadside, but a guide is necessary to get onto the surface.
On the surface of Exit, it was quiet, save for the chatter of ice climbers and the sound of glacial melt, which sounded like flowing streams. We followed our guide carefully, avoiding the crevasses, some of which appeared bottomless. We sipped pure glacial water straight from the source, a treat after a strenuous hike!
For the final leg of our trip, we boarded the Alaska Railroad for an 8-hour scenic ride north to Denali National Park. The highlight of our time in Denali was a half-day Discovery ("Disco") hike, led by an experienced ranger. The park is roughly the size of Massachusetts, with only a single 90 mile road and a handful of marked trails near the entrance. The vast majority of the park is backcountry, so unless you're an experienced backpacker, it's difficult to experience the interior of the park. Fortunately, we signed up for a Disco hike (in a charmingly old-fashioned way: one day in advance, in person at the Visitor Center, pen and paper). It's first-come-first-serve and group size is limited to 11 people. The hikes range from moderate to strenuous, and as implied, cover largely unexplored backcountry - a great way to get a taste of the real wilderness.
After stepping through dense waist-high alder and crossing a small stream, we followed a boggy moose trail until we reached the tundra. From a distance, tundra looks smooth, but underfoot, it's surprisingly uneven and soft, much like walking on a half-inflated water mattress. After a strenuous climb, we stopped for lunch and admired the views and the wildflowers beginning to bloom. A few weeks later, we learned that all sorts of berries would blanket the tundra, to be vacuumed up by hungry bears preparing for the winter.
The tundra floor was in fact a miniature, colorful forest:
Grizzly sightings are relatively uncommon in Denali; given the limited road access and the vast park acreage, many visitors never see one. On our hike, we were lucky enough to spot a blonde grizzly and her 2 cubs in the distance. With binoculars, we watched as she sat patiently while her cubs tumbled playfully around her.
I hope you've enjoyed the wild beauty of Alaska. It allowed us to disconnect, to get lost, and to be tiny - things that are fundamentally important for our well-being. May you take some of this peace and beauty with you.
Thanks for reading,