Fire and Ice, Rocks and Water

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July 25th 2018
Published: July 25th 2018
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As we’ve been traveling in Alaska, we’ve learned that this place is full of natural wonders. I could post fifty pictures and you’d all be going “Yeah, yeah …” by the end, but that’s because we drive or float or fly and see the most beautiful views, and then turn and see a view that’s even better. This is a place of fire (volcanoes), ice (glaciers), rock (the mountains) and water (the beautiful rivers. You could travel for a lifetime and not see more than a fraction of the land’s desolate beauty.

We went fishing for king salmon on the Klutina River last week, driving almost three hours on a rutted dirt road to a cloudy aqua-colored river. It’s a deceptively simple whitewater trip with waves and holes that would be class 2-3 in the southeast US, except that it’s moving 10-15 miles an hour and is frigid. With few eddies for recovery, a swim could be deadly. It’s full of trees that are falling from the shores because the permafrost is melting and falling into the river. Yet another thing I didn’t know: permafrost is made up of dirt mixed with ice and is over 30 feet deep in some areas of southeast Alaska – deeper in the far north. Along the Klutina are permafrost “cliffs” that crumble and fall into the water as the sun shines on the surface. By the time we’d fished and floated 20 miles down the river to our campground, the water was a thick, gray soup and it’s much harder to fish for the spawning salmon, because you can’t see where they are. I saw some articles about concerns that Alaska is literally melting.

A couple of days ago, we took a “flightseeing” tour of the Wrangell-St. Elias mountains. We flew in a tail-dragger Cessna from the airport in Gulkana, near Glennallen. (Yes, get that map out again.) In an earlier post, I noted how huge everything in the landscape is here. The mountains we toured are part of the Wrangell-St.Elias National Park and Preserve. Our pilot/guide told us that the park and preserve are the largest protected area in the US, and that when you include the adjoining Chugach National Forest and Canada’s adjoining Kluane National Park, it’s the largest protected area in the world. Altitude in the park goes from sea level to over 18,000 feet, and the park is
Minor SummitMinor SummitMinor Summit

Our guide noted that this "pimple" on the side of Mt. Wrangell is the size of Mt. St. Helens
the size of Yellowstone, Yosemite – and Switzerland – combined. And – oh, by the way – some of the largest mountains are active volcanos.

We flew over the Tolsona mud volcanoes in the Wrangell-St. Elias park. From the National Park Service:

“Around the perimeter of the mud volcanoes you can see numerous dead trees. The presence of these dead trees was the result of an increase in activity following the Good Friday Earthquake of 1964. There is a dead vegetation zone around the mud volcanoes due the salty content of the mud. These cold, salty springs flow almost year-round and during the frozen winters the site is frequented by animals who are in search of moisture. The gas that you will see bubbling is 55% methane and originates in coal beds that formed in the Lower Cretaceous and Upper Jurassic periods. As these bubbles make their way up through the earth to the surface, they pick up fine silt. This silt is then deposited when the air bubbles pop, and over time enough silt is deposited to form the mud flats as they appear today.”

Mt. Wrangell itself is snow covered and shaped like a smooth dome. Yep – it’s an active volcano too. It’s over 14,000 feet tall and certainly doesn’t look like a volcano. It has a “pimple”-shaped (our guide’s word) protrusion on one side that our guide told us is the same size as Mt. St. Helens. I hope that mountain doesn’t decide to do anything dramatic any time soon.

But that mountain and its neighbors also have glaciers. Think of it – magma inside and glaciers outside. We learned (again) that glaciers aren’t always white. The ice is mixed with soil and is only white when winter snow adds another layer to the glacier. We were able to fly over some amazing crevasses and pools of aqua-colored water. For the last few days, we’ve been surrounded by glaciers as we’ve driven through Anchorage (just another town) and headed down the Kenai Peninsula to Seward. They’ve retreated a great deal in the last 11 years, but are still impressive.

So, I’m posting pictures from the flightseeing trip, hoping you’ll see a little of what we were fortunate enough to see.

Additional photos below
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