Click image for video: This fabulous blue ice cave that I explored in 2017 has vanished. Feel the satin of ice, strangely warm to touch. Look through 1.2 meters (4 ft.) of clear ice. Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau, Alaska.
I mountain biked across frozen Mendenhall Lake in February 2017 to visit this ice cave.
Completely alone in the cave, I had time to sit quietly with the sound of flowing water, surrounded by shimmering blue walls. Eventually, I narrated this short reflection on a place that would disappear forever.
I visited the cave several more times in February, finding crystal boulders of ice that had fallen from the roof.
The cave has completely vanished as the glacier melts and retreats, melted into water that fed Mendenhall Lake and river last summer, an ephemeral creation and ghost of changing climate and rapid glacial retreat.
Over the next couple of Alaska Billy Blog posts, I’ll continue with more photos and thoughts about this cave and the Mendenhall Glacier.
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Nugget Falls roars into Mendenhall Lake, Juneau, Alaska. Follow the creek as it flows into Mendenhall Lake (frozen), and you can see the foot of the Mendenhall Glacier in the distance.
The snowy peak prodding the blue sky is Mount Stroller White (1,570 m; 5,150 ft). The forested ridgeline in front of Stroller White that ascends to the left is one of the shoulders of Mt. McGinnis (1,289 m; 4,228 ft).
Nugget Creek arises from Nugget Glacier, flowing down a valley that separates Mount Bullard (1,288 meters; 4,225 ft.) from Heintzleman Ridge. My IG Post from 11/27/2017 shows me on cross country skis with Mount Bullard in the background.
A dam and a 198-meter (650-foot) long tunnel were constructed by the Treadwell Company during the heyday of early hardrock gold mining in Juneau. This hydroelectric facility provided electricity from 1912 to 1943, just one of a number of hydroelectric plants that put Juneau at the forefront of early industrial use of electricity, including electric locomotives.
Nugget Falls is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Juneau along with the Mendenhall Glacier. It’s also one of our favorite 30-minute hikes of exceptional beauty and the power of the waterfall.
How powerful the Himalayas of India are! Countless Buddhist monasteries perched high above us as we trekked along the Markha River in Ladakh, India. The ruins in this picture appeared to be ruins, but strings of prayer flags fluttered from similar monasteries built many centuries ago. It seemed impossible that anyone could have climbed to them, much less built them in the sky.
To walk here is to feel time as if it wavers in the air like a heat mirage on the horizon. There is a sense that people in the time of Buddha, 2,600 years ago walked these same paths, looked up at cliffs and ridges like these. Of course, it would be centuries later that the monasteries would be built, perhaps around 1200 C.E. Kate Troll & I spent 10 days this summer trekking with 8 other friends in the Markha Valley, a challenging journey with the river bottom at 3,350 m (11,000 ft) to 3,390 m (13,000), and across 2 passes at 4,961 m (16,276 ft) and 5,260 m (17,257 ft).
This is the dry side of the Himalayas with annual rainfall similar to the Sahara Desert, yet the Markha River cascades between mountains topped by these impossibly inaccessible Buddhist monasteries. Water from glaciers and snowfields on surrounding peaks that rise above 6,096 m (20,000 ft).
Kate Troll (@katetroll) shares a moment of peace and beauty among the icebergs of Alsek Lake, Southeast Alaska, near Dry Bay on the Lost Coast. Kate & I have been living in & exploring Alaska for 40 years. She combines her adventures here and around the world with her long career as a leader in environmental conservation, and her thoughts about hope in the face of climate change, in her book: “The Great Unconformity: Reflections on Hope in an Imperiled World”.
Just one more magnificent highlight on our float trip down the Tatshenshini River to the Alsek River, which runs through Alsek Lake before emptying into the Gulf of Alaska at Dry Bay. 11-day trip with 10 friends through 3 Canadian and USA national parks that combine into largest designated wilderness in world.
The powerful Alsek River flows under the mile-wide ice berg jam from huge glaciers that calve into the lake, and exits around a large island. The ice can completely block the exit, forcing rafters to get picked up here by bush plane. We hiked in to scout a route, and were able to find an open channel between the shoreline the ice jam, the eerie growl of river going under the ice off to our port side, forcing us to row far out into Alsek lake.
Video-Juneau Icefield viewed from Astar 119 helicopter just above Taku Inlet, probably over Norris Glacier. The helicopter pilot is our son, Rion Hanson. Although named the Juneau Icefield, it extends 140 km (87 mi) north to south and 75 km (47 mi) east to west, making it the 4th largest icefield in the Northern Hemisphere.
Era Helicopters has a dog sledding camp on the icefield for summertime tours, with access only by helicopter. I’ve flown over different parts of the icefield during the last 40 years, and it remains one of the most astoundingly beautiful places I’ve seen. At its thickest, the ice is 1,400-meters (4,590 ft.) deep!
While valley glaciers like the Mendenhall, Eagle, Herbert, and Taku Glaciers near Juneau flow down close to sea level, the vast ice field is completely invisible from saltwater and cities.
Fog rises as the Mendenhall River flows out of Mendenhall Lake. The water is clearing up now that winter is setting in. Kate Troll, Nellie the Sheltie, and I skied around the shoreline of Mendenhall Lake to the outlet where the Mendenhall River originates.
Glacial rivers change radically from summer to winter. With summer warming, the melting glacier greatly increases the river flow, making the Mendenhall River a whitewater rafting destination for tourists. Silt from the glacier turns the water an opaque gray, and rafters can hear the hiss of silt against the rafts. In winter, flow is much less, and water more clear.
Mendenhall Glacier also causes jökulhlaups (an Icelandic term), glacial outburst floods. Meltwater builds up under the glacier, trapped by ice dams. When the ice dam melts away or breaks, the water bursts out, causing the Mendenhall River rise to flood stage very quickly. These jökulhlaups have become more predictable with sensors placed under the glacier to monitor water build-up.
Kate Troll, Nellie the Sheltie, and I skied around the shoreline of Mendenhall Lake a few days ago to the outlet where the Mendenhall River originates.
A little over a century ago, we would have been under the ice of the Mendenhall Glacier in this spot. Today, the glacier is 3.5 Km (2.2 miles) away and receding rapidly. Sometime in the next few years, it will no longer touch Mendenhall Lake, and icebergs will disappear.
Snow was beautiful, but has now given way to light rain. I’m thankful that I skied when the skiing was wonderful. Like many other places in Juneau, we treasure the beauty of our landscape—a new, magical view with nearly every kick of the skis.
We tried skiing on the lake and ran into slushy overflow beneath pristine fluffy snow. First job – scraping ice caked on our skis. Second—adjusting plan to ski the shoreline. Kate and I both have waxing skis. Mine are about 45 years old (!)—Fisher Europa 77’s—sort of like driving a steam-powered car—heavy and long, but still have camber and metal edges, so I like them fine.
Pocket Parks enrich a cityscape just as habitat diversity enriches a wild landscape. As Kate and I explored Manhattan for a few days, I tried to look at the cityscape through the eyes of NYC inhabitants. Impossible, of course. I won’t pretend that I know anything about cities from a city person’s perspective. In a sense I’m writing about something I know nothing about, and I’m sure I’ll prove it. I can only relate the city to my own experience.
A city is a landscape with habitats that support people, plants, and other animals. City habitats have their own energy, water, and food flow patterns; their own microclimates.
If you’ve followed me on Instagram (@bhfootloose), you know that I’m fascinated with habitat. Click the next two images if you want to learn more about the sea life that lives in habitats of the intertidal zone between high and low tide, or to read about the diverse plants in the small space at the base of a tree in the Southeast Alaska rainforest.
Walking with Kate through Battery Parkand along the esplanade at the edge of saltwater on the west shore of Manhattan Island, I began to think about how much value pocket parks add to the city. Pocket parks are tiny spaces dedicated to the enjoyment of everyone. They may look like a garden, with plants and soil, or they may display sculpture, offer benches to rest on, or perhaps chessboards for public use.
And speaking of gardens, check out the image of the urban farm in Battery Park. I find it interesting that all of us can recognize one of these pocket parks when we see one. They contrast with the crammed buildings, the use of every square inch of space that defines a city, where land is astronomically expensive.
People live in habitats just like wild animals do. A diversity of habitats, makes a place attractive to a wider variety of people with their own needs, also similar to wildlife. It’s true, of course, that we must first fulfill our basic needs for food, water, and shelter. Beyond these, however different people have different needs. The closeness of city life may feel more secure than living and recreating in wild places. Or the reverse. People may seek solitude, a chance to be near birds and living plants, a meeting place for friends, enjoyment of art, a chance to relax… an infinite and personal list.
Like other public parks and facilities, pocket parks are for the PUBLIC, a critical concept. So much of the land, and structures of a city are privately owned. Pocket Parks belong to everyone, so they let each of us define them as a place of our own, shaped by and fulfilling our personal needs.
What I heard from local residents and felt myself is that pocket parks made me happy. To walk along city streets of endless tall buildings without a gap except the streets, fully filled by stores and apartments, and then come upon a small open space with benches to sit on, perhaps with outdoor sculpture displayed, perhaps with nothing more than a shrubs and flowers (and inevitably birds and insects that I hadn’t seen for blocks), made me feel freedom, comfort, happiness.
So, my hat is off to every place that supports pocket parks. Thank you, NYC.
It’s not just the dog mushing. I think I love the image of solitary pursuit of a goal. A quest. But not conquering nature, a concept and goal that I despise. I think it’s “adaptation”, although that doesn’t quite ring true either. The vision is that the musher and dog team fit into my concept of what the landscape tells me, and what I know. I’ve been alone and abandoned on the Windy Fork of the Kuskokwim River in -20 F winter, wondering if my conversation the night before about how mean moose get in the winter might be about to stomp me, considering how best to get back to a warm building if a damaged aircraft doesn’t send someone to pick me up. So is it loneliness? I don’t think so
The Iditarod Race is a strange beast. Racing across 1000 miles of frozen Alaska landscapes takes the fortitude and dedication, and especially the obsession required to be a dog sled racer… and of course to be a sled dog. It requires substantial money and financial sponsors to maintain and train a dog team capable of competing. There’s no question that the Iditarod symbolizes one of the great unions of animals and humans, requires its own brand of toughness, and fits the imagination of Alaskans and the people outside Alaska who dream of the Alaska mystique.
But dog sledding isn’t just the Iditarod. For some Alaskans, dog sledding still serves the same purposes it did before the Iditarod: a mode of transportation adapted to the winter landscape of the far north, a way to travel cross-country both for recreation and to live daily life, although much of the utilitarian function has been taken over by snowmobiles.
Like horses in rural America, sled dogs can travel and work in terrain and weather conditions that stymie mechanical contraptions. I’ll admit here and now that I know virtually nothing firsthand about either horses or sled dogs. Okay, I’ve ridden a horse, and had a tourist ride on a dog sled. Does that count? No, not really… Not at all. And yet I still sense the partnership that horseback riders and mushers share with their horses and dogs, the personal relationship between living, working creatures. No matter how much personality we attach to our pickups and snow mobiles, it’s not remotely the same as the mutual relationship with horses and dogs.
But I started with the question: What is it about the photo of the musher and dogs on the Yukon River with the mountains in the background that grabbed me by the uh… heart, and say this is GENUINE?
What if the musher had been riding a snowmobile? Would I have felt the same? Well… yes. Partly. Snowmobiles have replaced sled dogs in most ways for most people in Alaska. They are essential to life for many places. So I would still feel that I was witnessing a genuine image of everyday life in an iconic landscape.
But sled dogs represent something more. Perhaps it’s my tendency toward nostalgia, my admiration for life before modern machines. Or maybe it is my admiration for living within the confines of the local landscape. I think this is closer to the truth. Dogs require food, it’s true. As far as the Iditarod goes, this is anything but reliance on local landscapes. Food is formulated for the race. Mushers seek out every possible source of meat and fish that would otherwise go to waste during the year.
But dogs can live just fine on salmon and other fish caught by local people. Horses can live by grazing on local plants. As long as the plants and animals within a landscape are sufficiently productive and abundant, horses and dogs offer work partners relatively free of the outside world. Yes, I realize that today we provide many products and services to our animals that come from far away, but it’s this inherent ability to live within the landscape that I think is at the core of my reaction to the photo of the dog team and musher in a vast beautiful landscape without other visible humans or animals.
The partnership between the dogs and the musher, like the partnership between cowboys and cowgirls and their horses is the other reason why I find this scene so compelling. It’s a relationship, not just putting fuel in the gas tank and maintaining the machine, a relationship built on trust, understanding of limitations, navigating personality differences and emotions, and dependence on one another. Okay—I cuss out my truck once in a while.
The black specks of the musher and dogs on the sweeping band of the river, the forever far away hills, brings together my sense that humans have a place within this landscape, a communion between the world and our place within it.