Reflecting on a vanishing landmark

A walk up West Glacier Trail gives perspective on passage of time

Posted: Sunday, October 29, 2006

On bluebird days the cerulean hue inside a crevasse of the Mendenhall Glacier is so deep and rich it competes with the sun and the sky for brilliance. Not only is it beautiful to look at, a glacial crevasse offers a glimpse into the time capsule that is the belly of the glacier.

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With some hiking boots and an extra few hours, you can hike to one of the lookout points where the splits and fissures of the Mendenhall Glacier are visible up close, from above, offering the view only birds and people in helicopters get to see.

My friend and I hiked the West Glacier Trail a few weekends ago on one of the rare clear sunny days this fall. We hiked through the trees, along the beach, up a few switchbacks and over a couple ridges until we reached a lookout spot about four miles in. The view reveals two moving ice rivers coming together, joining moraines, and forming the last leg of the Mendenhall Glacier just before its terminus at Mendenhall Lake.

This glacier flows forward at an average rate of one to three feet per day, but at the same time, is melting and eroding at a slightly faster rate. When the melting exceeds the rate of flow, a glacier is considered receding. The Mendenhall Glacier has been receding since the late 1700s. Last year it retreated 170 feet. However, in 2004, it lost more than 600 feet, said Larry Musarra, director of the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center.

The West Glacier Trail begins at the end of Skater's Cabin Road. The first leg is a flat walk through the trees with a path wide enough for two people. Before the trail goes up the mountain there are short paths down to the beach. We followed one and walked for about a mile along the shore of Mendenhall Lake.

On this day, the mist rose above the lake and formed a foggy haze that fell behind the trees like a white blanket, creating a jagged silhouette of the treeline in front of the mountain. The sun burned through in places, casting shadows across water. A thin layer of ice formed on the surface of the lake a hundred feet out.

In the distance, eagles called out in their high-pitched voices from their perches in the trees and a small flock of Merganser ducks paddled across the lake, navigating the channel-like passages in and around the ice. The ducks flicked their wings, dipped their heads and sprayed pearls of water into the air, backlit by the sun. When they flew up, their wings slapped the water, leaving a split-second dotted trail behind.

In some places the ice reached all the way to the shore and slapped against the sand like broken glass. Rocks poked through like seal heads and the ice crackled around them like cellophane. I stepped through with my boots and started to walk through it. Couldn't resist. My feet became arctic icebreakers.

The beach walk ended at a rocky peninsula too steep to climb, but a smaller trail led back to the main trail heading up Mount McGinnis. The main trail wends through dense forest, over bridges, by waterfalls and past huge granite boulders, called glacial erratics, 10 to 12 feet tall and lying like monoliths among the trees. They were dropped a hundred years ago when the glacier receded over this area.

A broken tree, snapped in half by a fallen boulder, stood freshly shattered and splintered with the rock laying below it, resting at the end of a swath of destroyed foliage and bruised trees.

The higher up you hike, the more opportunities for spotting the glacier. From up high one can see the big picture a lot better, the geological and biological effects of a receding glacier.

I first saw the glacier 30 years ago when it was about 14 mile from the visitors center. Today, it is a full mile from the building, and the land that has been revealed since then is still mostly rock and sand, with only a thin layer of lichen and moss growing in the earliest stages of plant succession.

Peter Metcalfe, who grew up here and was the first person to show me the glacier, said his first memory of it was ice skating from Skater's Cabin in the late 1950s as a boy.

"I skated all the way to near the face of the glacier and, at that time, only the toe of the giant rock shoulder we see today was exposed. So that's where it was in those days," he said.

When Peter's mom was young, in the 1930s, the glacier came all the way to the visitors center, he said.

"The glaciers in Southeast Alaska have been retreating for quite some time, since the end of what was called the 'Little Ice Age,'" Peter told me. "When the explorers came up here, the Mendenhall Glacier was basically at the Back Loop Road. Two-hundred or some years ago, Glacier Bay wasn't a bay. The glaciers were bordering Icy Strait."

Glaciers in that area have retreated about 62 miles in the past 200 years , according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

"As far as global warming is concerned, it's a process that's been going on a long time. The degree to which mankind contributes to it is the argument," Peter said.

Back on the trail, my friend and I sat on the ridge overlooking the glacier talking about the changes we've noticed in our years coming out here. He pointed to a waterfall flowing down a huge boulder several hundred feet long. Only a few years ago that boulder was under ice and there was no waterfall. We looked back toward the visitors center at another waterfall. Back in the day, that was the starting point for climbing up onto the ice. Now its 34 mile away from the glacier.

After a couple of Cliff bars, some water and a good long look, we turned and headed back down the trail toward town. Passing all the sites we'd seen on the way up, my head was spinning about melting and retreating and wondering what the tourists are going to do if the glacier retreats around the bend and you can't see it anymore. Would we build a road to get them there, or would interest in Juneau's natural wonder just fall off the tourist map?

For me, watching the glacier is a marker of time, like watching my kids grow. There isn't much I can do about it except enjoy it and maybe climb to the top of a ridge once in awhile and watch it move, slowly, with great respect and appreciation for the wonder that it is today.

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