- Cryosphere refers to any portion of the Earth's surface where water is in solid form, including glaciers, ice caps, ice sheets, sea ice, snow cover, frozen rivers, lakes, and permafrost. The Cryosphere is closely linked to the Hydrosphere and plays a crucial role in the ecosystem and our everyday lives.
- I've chosen the name because Cryosphere encompasses a wide range of ice around the world. This blog is meant to chronicle not all glaciers, but those that I experience and photograph in my travels. My vision is to visit and write about as many glaciers and other ice forms as possible while I pursue knowledge and share experiences of a beautiful world of ice. I hope you enjoy the photographs and follow along as I go!

* Beware: Glaciers area a dangerous place to those that do not know the risks and have the proper skills to navigate them safely. Do not attempt travel on or near any glacier without proper skills or an experienced guide.

26 March 2017

07. Salmon and Bear Glaciers - September 2016

Salmon Glacier - 11 September, 2016

Lizzie and I weren't sure what to expect when we rolled into Stewart, B.C. at 9:30pm. We were headed from Alaska to Utah, and had traveled less than half way when we stopped over to explore some glaciers near the small port town of Hyder, Alaska. Hyder is a stone's throw across the border from Stewart, or about as far south as you can get in Alaska. Requiring a boat or long drive through British Columbia to reach the town, it rests near the very tip of the Alaskan panhandle.

That night had been incredibly foggy so far and we saw none of the steep mountain peaks taht surround the small town on our drive in. We had read about the Bear Glacier, supposedly visible from the road, but could see nothing to prove it tonight. The other objective for this stop was the Salmon Glacier, which apparently granted terrific views from a parking lot overlook on a steep mountain pass twenty miles above Hyder, technically back to the B.C. side of the border.

By the time we had dinner at the only place open in town, it was 10:30pm when we decided to head on to find camp. Knowing there was a parking area overlooking the Salmon, I wanted to try and camp there, allowing us to wake up to the view of the massive glacier. As we crossed into Hyder, the fog thickened. When we reached the dirt road heading toward the glacier, visibility was down to about 6 feet in front of the truck. Slowly but surely I felt my way up the steep windy road, stopping numerous times to get out and verify the road still continued ahead of us. Near the top of the pass the fog was so thick I could no longer see the road in front at all. I've never seen Lizzie so stressed, but I was having a great time navigating by feel of the road at 5 mph. We began thinking the road would never end but, finally, we reached a flat area that opened up into a parking lot. A single motor-home waited at the top, lights glowing inside, sending beams of amber out into the dense fog. Walking around the dirt lot we determined this must be the overlook parking, and made camp. By which, I mean we crawled into the back of the truck and our waiting bed; Complete with full size mattress, blankets, and pillows, this was truck camping at its finest!

Comfortable as I was, I slept very little that night, dreaming about the glacier below us - if only I could get a peek at it now...

My favorite way to see new places has always been to wake up to a view after arriving late at night. It sounds funny, but there is something magical about experiencing something for the first time by starlight, and then watching it slowly form in the gathering light of morning before a perfect golden sunrise. Given the complete lack of any visual cues of where or how high we were, aside from the truck's GPS screen, I was giddy imagining the surrounding peaks and glacier I knew so far only as topographical lines on a flat screen. Some time in the early morning hours, I stirred and noticed a faint glow of light. I could see from inside that the fog had lifted and I could just make out a horizon with a pale blue glow from the approaching sunrise. Below us I could now see a massive valley, glowing with white ice under the dimly lit sky. I jumped out and put on every layer of clothing I could possibly fit under my down jacket and set up my camera. I waited outside in below freezing temperatures for hours as the light slowly got brighter, until finally the sun peeked over the horizon for one of my most memorable sunrises to date:

Sunrise over the Salmon Glacier

Waiting in this spot, I watched the sunlight work it's way closer. It wasn't until after 10:00 am that the light and warmth finally crept over my rock overlook, and only then did I bother turning away from the mesmerizing view. In the parking lot above, many cars and people had started to gather. Lizzie made breakfast and we sat at the overlook watching as countless people drove up, snapped a photo, and turned back toward town. There seemed to be little appreciation for something that was so far out of their way to get to. A nearby construction project had brought a security guard to the overlook, the road beyond closed during the construction. The work being done on the shiny new power lines above drew more attention and questions from visitors than the majestic river of ice and incredible view they had driven here for.
Perhaps it's human nature to be interested in "progress" and advancement, but it was upsetting to see so little attention paid to such a wonderful thing that is disappearing because of exactly this type of "progress" by mankind.

The security guard, Allen, was a nice fellow. Stationed at the overlook every day for the last two months, the duration of the project, he had seen many people visit and told us of a few who had gone down to the glacier. That got my attention, as I had been trying to locate a trail down since we had arrived. Nearly 1,000 ft below us, the ice would not be easy to reach. Allen showed us the easiest way, though it would not be easy. The last group, he reported, took around two hours to work their way back up from the ice at the bottom.

Lizzie looking out over the Salmon Glacier roughly 300-400 ft below

We slipped and skidded our way down steep scree fields and rocky terrain for some time until we reached an old road cut about 300 ft above the ice. That's where we stopped. There was little more than cliffs below us no matter how far we walked the road, and we saw no way to make the descent without roping up and rappelling large sections, or sliding down the steepest scree field we had ever seen. Lizzie was not comfortable with the slope and we didn't have enough rope to make the descent on rappel, so, after much deliberation, we turned around and made a long, steep trek back to the parking lot. The exploration of the Salmon would have to wait for another time. The glacier had still given me an incredible experience, something I will never forget, and we would spend another night there at the overlook before attempting our next objective - the Bear Glacier.

That night brought mostly clear skies accompanied by stars like I've rarely seen outside the spotless skies of the Southwest Deserts. The white ice glowed faintly under the starlight and the milky way lined up perfectly for a shot over the glacier:

Salmon Glacier by starlight

Morning came with yet another incredible sunrise, and we headed out early to make our way to Bear Glacier. Just one more stop along the windy road for a view of the terminus of the Salmon:

Bear Glacier - 13 September, 2016

Terminating less than half a mile from the highway into Stewart, the Bear Glacier would be one of the most accessible glaciers in North America if not for a lake between the ice and the road. The previous year, I had driven through to Stewart and tried to find a way to cross the river below the lake with the idea that I could walk around to the glacier. Swift, ice-cold water kept me from attempting it alone, but this time we had come prepared. Equipped with a canoe, getting across to the Bear would require nothing more than a calm, relaxing paddle over the lake, leaving us a couple hundred feet from the ice.

Paddling toward the Bear Glacier
Bear Glacier from the edge of the lake
This was glacier exploration at it's finest! Upon reaching the far shore, we had a simple hike through recently de-glaciated land that, from the looks of things, had been visited by very few people, if any since the Bear receded away from the nearby lake.
At the edge of the glacier, massive fins of ice reached out to welcome us and invite us up onto the ice. We took our time, exploring the recently exposed rock below the retreating glacier, and photographing the toe of the Bear before donning our crampons and heading uphill to explore the surface of the glacier itself.

Lizzie (lower left) below a large fin of ice reaching out from the toe of the Bear Glacier.
The slope of the ice became apparent once we came close to the glacier, it would be a steep hike once we hit the ice, and very slow going. Likely we would not have time to go very far before we would have to turn around to make it back to the truck by dark. We pressed on, though, eager to set our eyes on whatever lay ahead.

Hiking up the steep Bear Glacier - a large braided river of melt-water feeds into Strohn Lake below

The steep hike soon revealed many wonderful blue ice features, a few animal bones - including vertebrae and the horn on a mountain goat - as well as a good sized colony of ice worms, yes, ice worms are real! (visit the link to see Alaska Center's explanation and video of ice worms)

Ice worms in a pool on the Bear Glacier
Look closely at the photo above; all of the dark squiggly lines in this pool of water are ice worms! The dark black pebble on the left size is about the size of a U.S. dime.

Continuing on up glacier, we located the perfect place to break out the ice tools and take some vertical laps before starting the hike back to the boat. An old moulin had melted out a nice flat-bottomed nook with a 40 ft (~12m) perfectly vertical wall in the back.

Lizzie peers into a canyon-like feature cut into the Bear Glacier

We were able to walk around to the top of the vertical section so we figured set-up should be easy from there. However, cutting the anchor was a lot more work here than at our home glacier, the Matanuska, as the ice of the Bear was rotten deep down and we cleared ice almost 30cm deep to find something more dense to screw our anchor into.

Lizzie climbing on the Bear Glacier
We were feeling great after the climbs and decided to call it a day and head back to the truck. We started the hike down quite satisfied with our day of exploration and excited we got to climb on a new glacier. It was on the way out though, that we ran into one of the coolest and largest features we've yet experienced on a glacier. We came to a large ledge that ran probably 100 ft (33m) across, and straight down to unknown depths below. A massive moulin lay before us, carved by surface meltwater milling it's way down into any weakness in the ice below.

Deep inside the dark moulin was a macabre reminder of the dangers of such features:

Animal remains deep inside a large moulin on the Bear Glacier

We walked the length of the enormous moulin and looked on in awe at the size and beauty of such a feature. Waterfalls disappeared into the depths on all sides with a deafening roar echoed through tunnels and amphitheaters carved out of pure ice. Meltwater cut into the walls leaving massive blades of ice jutting out into the air. All around we walked and peered into the abyss that seemed to go down forever. Indeed, the water falling into the tunnels below us would be transported below the glacier and out to Strohn lake, probably in a matter of minutes. Any person or creature falling into these depths would face almost certain death. 

While the dangers of these icy beasts can be high, when treated with respect and explored with proper training and skills, they present some of the most incredible experiences to be had anywhere on Earth. Each time I visit a new glacier I seem to have a life-changing experience, and come away with a new story of another profound place that is too great to put into words. 

So you'll just have to get out there! See for yourself these incredible places, and if you don't have any training, there are plenty of guides and outfitters willing to share these unique experiences while keeping you safe!

That's all for now, thanks for following along and remember you can subscribe to receive the next story in your inbox by entering your email on the right. Also, check out more photos on my Instagram feed: @dcranephoto

Bear Glacier Stats, as of 2016

My First Visit:13 September, 2016
Type: Valley Glacier
Location: Bear Glacier Provincial Park, British Columbia, Canada
Source: Cambria Icefield - Boundary Range, Canada
Length: ~ 2mi/3.2km
Width: ~ 2,000ft/670m (estimated by Google Earth images, little information found)
Status: Retreating over 30 meters/year in 2015 (CBC News Article)
Access: Paddle across Strohn Lake near Stewart, B.C.

15 December 2016

Valdez Glacier - Paddling into an ice cave

This is part of Lizzie and I's trip to Worthington and Valdez Glacier, you can read about the first half, here.

Since I have also written about the Valdez once before after my first trip there, we'll keep this short and focus on the fun part: ice caves!!

We awoke after a rainy night to terrific views of Valdez Lake and steep, foggy mountains all around. Lizzie and I had spent the night just outside of the parking area and boat launch for Valdez Lake, in anticipation of paddling around the lake and hunting for ice caves.
While we geared up in the parking lot, a friendly guide from Anadyr Adventures arrived with several clients, getting ready to head out in the company's inflatable kayaks for a day on the glacier. A super nice fellow from Montana, he was working in Alaska for the summer, like us, guiding first timers on ice and sharing the beauty of glaciers with the world. We talked briefly while his clients got themselves ready to head out, and he gave us a hint of where we might find what we were looking for. He also warned that their company had ceased to bring clients into the cave because in the very back was a very thin section of the roof, dark with rocks and debris overhead. We thanked him and invited him up to the Matanuska for some ice climbing before heading out in the canoe. We quickly located the hidden entrance to the cave, something we probably would have overlooked without help from the friendly guide. It looked too small to even fit a canoe or kayak into at first.

Narrow entrance to the flooded cave
At the entrance, both sides of the canoe skidded along the walls on either side, but it easily slipped through. Even more brilliant than in the Athabasca ice cave we visited a few months prior, the inside of the glacier was a perfect, clear, azure blue. We were deep enough below the surface of the ice that only blue light is able to reach through.

Paddling inside the pure blue Valdez Glacier
Upon turning the canoe around inside the cave, I was able to look back and see the roof the guide had warned us about. Thin ice revealed dark black boulders the size of microwaves and larger, just waiting for the ice to give way. I shuttered to think of the power of that amount of rock hitting the water all at the same time. Even steering clear of the area, we would be in for a wild ride inside the small cave if it collapsed.

We kept our time inside short, not wanting to take a swim if something did fall. Even after a short time, the bright light of a cloudy day came as a shock as we neared the exit. We made a stop onto the top of the glacier to explore and saw many cool features, but nothing could compare to the experience of paddling inside the glacier.

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06. Worthington Glacier - 7 August, 2016

Back in May, I had returned to MICA from my solo trip to the Valdez Glacier (which you can read here) with stories of paddling between icebergs and photos of the icy giants all around me in the deep blue lake. Lizzie was itching to see the icebergs and glacier, and I had since heard rumors of an ice cave that could be accessed only by boat. We began planning for another trip almost as soon as I had returned. As a second year guide, Lizzie would work six days per week all summer, but would get one two day weekend in August, and we knew that would be a great time to get to Valdez. On the way, we planned to stop over at the Worthington Glacier, which was still too snowy for me to get to during my first visit. I was excited to see another new glacier, but probably even more eager to find that ice cave in Valdez.

As the days got and closer, though, the weather forecast looked less than ideal; Heavy rain was projected for both days across much of Alaska. Many alternative hikes were considered, but the weather looked worse everywhere else across the state. We decided if we were going hiking in the rain, it may as well be on glaciers - so we loaded up the canoe and started the drive first thing the morning of the 7th. Sure enough, the rain came in early that morning, and only intensified as we drove toward the Worthington.

Worthington Glacier from the road - taken later in the day when the weather calmed down enough to see the glacier
By the time we reached the parking area, the rain was so intense we considered coming back later, or not at all. We decided to stick around and see if anything changed, and by the time we had eaten lunch and packed our gear, the rain had calmed to a steady drizzle.  So off we went, into the rain. The beginning of the trail was easy, leading to a heavily visited viewpoint in front of the glacier about a half mile from the parking area. Once we left that trail, though, paths quickly became wet, slick, and much harder to follow through the rocks.

Lizzie considers the best option to access the glacier.
We scrambled up the lower moraine-covered ice over loose shale of all different sizes. When we finally reached the clean, white ice, things became much more smooth, but also super steep. The view was fantastic, even from the toe of the glacier. Waterfalls flowed from both sides of the steep valley and cut into the edges of the ice. The glacier contained many small, beautiful blue holes from old moulins and resealed crevasses, but very few large features down low.

Waterfall over the broken bedrock, carved out by the glacier. Also shows just how steep the lower glacier is.
With such a steep hike in the cold and rain - not to mention constantly stopping to take photos - the next half mile took us quite some time. We made it to where the pitch leveled out to almost flat, but the glacier there was severely broken up into thousands of crevasses. As glacial ice accelerates toward a drop like that at the toe of the Worthington, it begins to break apart into a field of crevasses. Imagine sitting in a raft as you go from a calm river to approaching a waterfall. Closer and closer to the drop, the water becomes much faster and more turbid. The same thing happens with glacier ice, except that it flows more slowly than a river and, instead of rapids, you get pressure fractures forming crevasses.

Looking up to the firn line and icefall of the upper glacier
As we wound our way around and between massive cracks up to 60 feet deep, snow began to appear - first in holes and shaded areas - then covering much of the ice above us. We realized we had reached the firn line - the level where snow covers the glacier all year - and it would be dangerous to go much higher. The plan was to circle our way around from the left lobe of the glacier, above the rocky outcrop of the former nunatak, which separates the two lobes of the lower glacier, and hike down the right side, bushwhacking our way back to the parking lot.

The glacier had other plans, though, and sent us back the way we came after we struggled to find a way through the broken crevasses in near-hypothermia-inducing weather. Before we turned back, the clouds lifted just high enough that we could see the flanks of surrounding peaks, nearly all of them containing glaciers that spilled down to join the Worthington. I desperately wanted to explore every channel and peak, but the ice caves of the Valdez Glacier were waiting. The upper Worthington would have to wait for another time. On the way down, we passed close to the edge of the ice, broken against the rock and full of cool features and waterfalls. 

A cold, wet Lizzie hiking down
In the crevassed and broken ice, we also found an old cable. We later learned that there is a research station higher up on the glacier, likely the origin of such artifacts. The cable we found was partially melted out, nearly 200 feet worth of it, with each end still frozen into the ice for unknown lengths.

Left: the cable disappears into the ice in the top left corner; Right: close up of said cable
Further on down, we met up with the trail, and decided to walk around to the viewpoint. A fantastic display of a waterfall and river filled ice cave awaited us: a perfect photo op to end the day!

Toe of the Worthington Glacier

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Worthington Glacier Stats:

My First Time on the Glacier: 07 August 2016
Type: Valley Glacier
Location: Thompson Pass near Valdez, Alaska
Source: Chugach Mountains
Length: 3.8 mi (6.1 km)
Width: about 1 mi (1.6 km) near the top.
Flow: up to 30 m/yr (research from 1960's)
Status: Retreating
Access: Pangaea Guides offers tours, don't miss the view from the Worthington Glacier State Recreation Site in Thompson Pass