Valdez Glacier, just outside of the town of Valdez, Alaska is known as the All-American Route. Used by thousands of gold miners and explorers in the early 1900's, it provided access into the Chugach Mountain Range before roads connected Valdez to interior Alaska. Despite the harsh conditions and average of 600-900 inches of snow each year, the glacier provided access to explorers and miners wanting to try their luck in the Last Frontier. As the glacier retreats, however, it is becoming much more difficult to access than in the years of early exploration in Alaska.
|Iceberg filled Valdez Lake now limits access to the glacier|
As it turns out, the problem with getting anywhere in Alaska becomes clear when you look at a map of this enormous state. At over twice the size of Texas, there are only a few roads intersecting the vast wilderness. If you want to get anywhere in Alaska, you need a plane.
|Road Map by Alaskacenters.gov|
Being pretty short on extra cash, I decided to start small and find glaciers I could drive to first. Also short on downtime, I was hoping to find as many as possible within short hiking times of a road.
With those criteria, it proved rather difficult to put together a list more than a handful of easily accessed glaciers. Alaska.org publishes a brochure listing several “roadside” glaciers, but even some of those are in Juneau or Cordova (mandatory flight/ferry) so I still can’t just drive there.
The Worthington and Root glaciers popped up early on in my searches, and they are relatively close together (only about a 4 hour drive apart). So, when I had a few days without work in late May, I decided to check out both in one trip.
Digging deeper into the area I found Anadyr Adventures out of Valdez that leads clients to the Valdez Glacier. They access the glacier via kayaking day trips across Valdez Lake. Sounded awesome; I added Valdez to my list. Root Glacier, near McCarthy, has a close neighbor, Kennicott Glacier, which was less publicized but closer to the road, so I figured I’d give that a shot, too. I had three days off and four new glaciers to attempt. Not a bad start!
The day before my 3-day weekend, I finished up work on the Matanuska and hurriedly tossed my gear, food, and water in the truck. It was already after 8:30pm but I wanted to drive as far as I could that night. After all, it was summer in Alaska, so there would be plenty of light! At this time of year the sun sets around 11:00pm, the short summer nights only turning a dim twilight for a few hours before the sun returns to the sky. As I journeyed to a new part of the state, I was greeted by a colorful sunset and knew I could easily make the Worthington glacier the next morning.
The next morning was cloudy and gloomy as the road curved higher and higher toward Thompson Pass. Finally the twin tongues of the Worthington came into view below the low clouds and shone a bright pure white with a disappointingly thick snow coverage. A snow-covered glacier was well beyond my current skill level or equipment, so the beautiful Worthington would have to wait until later in the season (I did eventually return with Lizzie in August). It suddenly hit me that May is still very early in the season as far as alpine travel is concerned, and I now wondered if the other three glaciers I was after would be covered as well...
From the top of the 2,805 ft. Thompson Pass, the road descends steeply to Valdez, at sea level. Just outside the small port town is Valdez Lake. As I pulled into the dirt lot next to the lake I was greeted by a spectacular view of massive icebergs floating in the deep blue water. The glacier, thankfully free of snow, was barely visible around the corner.
|The glacier is just visible in the valley behind the round-ish white iceberg on the right|
My grandfather’s old green canoe had been borrowed/rescued by Lizzie and I from the dried-up pond on my uncle’s property at the last minute for our trip to Alaska. The long drive mostly saw the canoe sitting atop the truck with only a couple of lakes in Montana and British Columbia coaxing us into unstrapping the 80 lb. beast. It had not been so simple as to just slide the canoe off and put it in the water, since there were duffel bags, oars, and a gas-can tied on under the canoe as well. Every time we wanted to paddle, all that extra gear had to be dealt with too. In short, it became so much of a hassle to get on and off the roof we wondered if it had been worth bringing the boat on a 4,000 mile journey to begin with.
Now, as I paddled away from the shore and into the iceberg filled Valdez Lake, I couldn’t have been happier that we had brought it along. I also couldn’t help but think of my grandfather, who had passed just over a year before, and how much he would have loved to hear about the adventures his old boat was a part of.
As the wind pressed the smaller icebergs toward shallow water near the launch, and I had to paddle through an accumulation of “candle ice” crystals between bergs to access the open water of the lake. Candle Ice is a crystal ice form of numerous vertical columns that easily fracture and fall apart, making a 'clinking' sound as they bump into one another. I felt like a human-powered icebreaker of the arctic smashing through the ice sheets ahead. But, you know, much, much slower.
|Candle Ice floating in Valdez Lake|
Finally breaking through the barrier, I had the lake entirely to myself as I paddled among the ice giants. The further I struggled into the headwind, the more of the glacier became visible, inviting me closer. I maneuvered the canoe around a corner of the cliff and massive walls of ice sprung into view, standing 50 feet high straight out of the water. Who knows how much ice lay hidden below the surface of the water. Not wanting to get too close to the icy ramparts, I steered out toward the center of the lake where the moraine covered ice seemed to bow down to the water level. I nervously steered the canoe up a channel where the ice was below the water and “landed” where I could see moraine on the water’s edge. I had no idea what to expect landing a canoe on ice, but I figured if there was a company bringing clients to do the same, they believed it to be safe enough. I poked and prodded various places with the oar and finally stepped a foot onto the rocks. Solid, though slippery, I stumbled across the flat pieces of moraine - shale from tiny pieces to as big as dinner plates - as they slid across each other and over the ice below them.
|'Landing' area of the glacier - moraine covered ice|
I spent some time wandering the rock-covered medial moraine of the glacier and let my mind wander as well. I wondered about the vast mountains above me and the glacier running ahead, winding through the mountains and disappearing into the distance. It seemed to go on forever.
Returning to the canoe, I pushed off carefully and returned to the water. Paddling the remaining length of the terminal face I saw many water filled channels running up the glacier, likely old crevasses or river valleys that happen to be below the lake's water level now. A few channels appeared to run at least a half-mile up glacier from the terminus.
The far end of the glacier was pressed up against a vertical cliff face with several waterfalls spilling snow melt from the high peaks above. I made it all the way to the cliff side before starting back toward the parking lot, now rather tired of paddling. Much to my dismay, the wind shifted into a headwind once again, this time stronger than on the way in. Even though I knew I would be exhausted, I took the long way around, following the opposite shore to get a close view of a tremendous iceberg floating on that side of the lake. Though the berg was not overly tall – maybe 30 ft. of ice stood out of the water – it was massive. At probably 150ft wide and 400ft long, I suspect it would have been a sight to see that floating island separate from the glacier. This was not one of the icebergs you see in the movies, all crystal blue, clear ice, though. It looked much like the rest of the Valdez glacier, covered in a thick, black moraine. Still beautiful.
|A small part of the iceberg in front of a valley which used to contain another glacier|
I paddled on into the wind to return to my truck, and along the way apparently came too close to a gull’s nest somewhere near shore. I turned to look over my shoulder as I heard the screeching coming at me, and almost rolled the canoe when I saw the bird not 5 feet from my head! She continued her assault as I paddled away as fast as I could, continuously swooping and diving closer to my face each time she flew past. I barely escaped and returned to the parking lot as the wind subsided. As I prepared to load the canoe I was attacked again, this time by the Alaskan Air Force. The mosquitoes here have been known to drive animals mad, and cases have been documented of caribou leaping off cliffs for no apparent reason except to escape a cloud of the tiny predators. Relentless, and the worst I have yet experienced their attack, they made loading the canoe myself absolutely maddening as I stopped to squash one biting my face every couple of seconds. I looked like a bandit, or bank robber, bundled up with a handkerchief around my face, covering every bit of skin I could. Still they found their way through all the clothing and bug spray to leave welts on my knees, arms, nose, and cheeks for days afterward. Finally with the gear loaded and still wet, I made my escape to the highway after one final look back to the beautiful Valdez Lake, icebergs drifting in the deep blue water. The day had been an exhausting one, but then, most of the best days are.
Valdez Glacier Statistics:
First Time on the Glacier: 24 May, 2016
Type: Valley Glacier, Lake Terminating
Location: Valdez, Alaska
Source: Chugach Mountains
Length: 20 miles
Width: 1.25-1.75 miles
Access: Boat across Valdez Lake; 3 to 4 glacier guide services offer day trips onto the glacier.