7/21/19 Blackburn Cabins, McCarthy, Alaska
The only reason we came all the way out to the end of the McCartthy Road was so we can see this magnificent park, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. We’ve seen pieces of this park, even significant pieces, but the shear scale of this park defies ever being able to say that you comprehend it. I’ve already shared some of the impressive stats about this park, but truly the best way to just start viewing this park is from the air.
And that is just what we did yesterday evening. We booked a ‘flightsee’ with Wrangell Air Services, a small airplane service operating several Cessna 206’s out of the McCarthy gravel air strip. Although it was tight getting me into the plane, I road ‘shotgun’ and tried my best not to interfere with the pilots work. Ted, the pilot, had flown his own personal airplane up in this part of the world, considered this park to be the best one in the system, and decided when he retired to spend time showing other people what he knew. His enthusiasm was infectious as he, too, took his hands off the ‘wheel’ to snap photographs. He said that we were extremely lucky in that most of the clouds had evaporated off and we were left with stunning views of snow-capped mountains, lush green valleys, and braided, glacier-fed streams.
It is very difficult to ‘rank’ our flightsees (and we have one more left), but this would have to be very near the top. Ted’s enthusiasm (I can’t count how many times he said ‘awesome’) was certainly part of that, but you simply can’t discount how staggeringly gorgeous this park is. The view from the air is so beautiful and when the plane banks and veers near one of the mountain tops, it is so tempting to reach out and touch it.
Although these pictures were taken mostly from the inside of the airplane, through windows and propellor blades, many of them, even with my primitive photographic skills, turn out just stunning. You just can’t take a bad picture. Rather than try to write about this flightsee, I’ll just post a bunch of pictures I took from the air. Here is a few tidbits of information I remember from what Ted described:
The Bagley Ice field which feeds a number of major glaciers is the second largest in North America (if you don’t count Greenland) and stretches for 130 miles through this park.
The glacial retreat is real and significant. In addition to Alaska setting heat records this year (again) the glaciers are melting at an unprecedented rate. And the rate seems to be increasing.
Despite the fact that the area received abnormally low snowfall last winter, the glacial fed river systems are all flowing at about 30% greater capacity than last year. Since that can’t be from last year’s snow melt, that means that the glaciers are melting at a much faster rate than even last year.
Most glaciers are 90% ice and ten percent rocks, but there are several in the park where the ratio is reversed. They are called rock glaciers and look like lava flows.
There is a whole lot of ice stored up in these glaciers and ice fields and even at the current rate of melting, it will likely take decades to melt all of it. But the point is they are definitely disappearing. Their scale is measurably shrinking and, at some point, unless something changes, they will be gone! When they go, there will also be a measureable change in the ecological system that lives here. We have no idea what that might mean as it ripples out to the surrounding environment. But things will change – how much and of what kind remains to be seen.
Yesterday morning, Joan and I bicycled out to the lake at the face of the Kennicott Glacier. (For some reason the end of the glacier is called the ‘toe’.) Our ‘purpose’ if we needed one, was to collect some ice for our cooler to refrigerate the meat and eggs we brought for this trip. The bicycle ride is probably not real challenging for most of the young, fit folks who tend to come here. For us, it was a bit of a workout and, when the trail emerged onto the glacial till field, with lots of sand and gravel, we gave up the bikes and walked the rest of the way. When we mounted the terminal moraine, we were astounded by the little glacial lake we found. Floating in the lake were several dozen icebergs, all in different sizes and colors from coverage by rocks and dirt. We spent about an hour exploring the shore of the lake and watching the calving that was occurring on the face (excuse me, toe) of the glacier. We got to hear, once more, that sound that’s made when the ice and rock breaks away and falls into the water. Like wildlife, though, it never happens where your camera is pointed!
We got to see the same lake and icebergs from the air when we circled back to land after our flightsee. It was a terrific way to tie the beginning and the end of the day together.