We learn that in the cosmos, time is measured in the tens of billions of years.
And here on Earth, geologic forces that created wonders such as the Grand Canyon and Denali also move incredibly slow–in the millions and billions of years. Yet, in a single lifetime that spans almost three-quarters of a century, a mere blink of the eye by nature’s clock, I have seen some striking changes to our Alaska landscape.
Receding glaciers: You need not achieve “geezer” status in age to notice the glaciers’ rapid retreat. Some of those include the Knik, Matanuska, Eklutna, Flute, Portage, Raven (on Crow Pass Trail) Byron, Bear and Exit glaciers, the last two of which lie near Seward on the Kenai Peninsula.
If you’ve ever gained some elevation on the Pioneer Ridge Trail (accessed from Mile 4 on the Knik River Road) you’ve undoubtedly noticed the sprawl of Knik Glacier to the east.
From 1918 until about 1966, after the big earthquake two years earlier, this glacier regularly blocked the Knik River and water backed up to create Lake George. Each summer, the lake water deepened and poured over the edge of the ice dam, causing major flooding through the Knik River Valley all the way to Eklutna Village. In subsequent years, the glacier has not advanced to create the dam. But today, hydrologists closely monitor the area.
The ice of Matanuska Glacier, accessed by turning onto Glacier Park Road from Mile 102 of the Glenn Highway, has moved back more than a mile in my lifetime, leaving vast gravelly-rocky moraines. I’ve cautiously climbed out onto the moraines on a couple of occasions and must admit I lacked both the gear and training to safely venture very far.
On Glacier Park Road it’s a short drive to Matanuska Glacier Park, and in summer for a modest fee you can take a hike out to the glacier or go for a guided tour.
Portage Glacier’s retreat is one of the most dramatic that I’ve witnessed. When I was a child, my family took me to the end of Portage Road in the late 1950s to see the glacier, when there was only a parking area. At that time the ice face was about halfway across 3-1/2-mile-long Portage Lake. Large icebergs filled the lake and often drifted up on shore. The ice face has retreated quickly and today is around the mountain to the southwest.
Three good ways to now see Portage Glacier: During summer, take a boat trip from the dock on the western side of the lake, just past the Byron Glacier trailhead. Or, hike the easy three-mile (round trip) Portage Pass Trail from Whittier. In winter, ski, snowshoe, hike or bike across the frozen lake for a closeup glacier view, but be careful at the face for two reasons: calving ice off the face, and sometimes very thin ice directly in front of the face. Wait until late winter to ensure the ice is solid enough for crossing.
In the same area, Byron Glacier’s recession is also quite notable.
Years ago I took my children out onto Byron Glacier and we found ice worms, which are real creatures.
Closer to home, Eklutna Glacier has moved back nearly a mile since my first foray into the canyon in the early 1960s, when the public was allowed to drive cars back there. After cars were prohibited, we would ride our bikes to Mile 12.7 on the main trail; then hike another mile on the western side of Eklutna River (West Fork) to see the glacier’s face. But following its retreat over the next 50 years, it was necessary to climb up the canyon’s east side to reach the glacier toe. I used to cross the West Fork to the eastern side in early summer on an ice bridge, but there is a primitive trail along the east side that begins at the Serenity Falls Shelter at Mile 12 of the Eklutna Lakeside Trail.
For mountaineers skilled and experienced in glacier travel, access up onto the glacier in recent years has become much more problematic because of the ice’s retreat, but they still do it.
Since I was a kid growing up in Seward in the late 1940s and into the 1950s, the Exit Glacier near Seward has withdrawn about ½ mile, and it seems as if its retreat is quickening. One of my favorite hikes, as reported earlier in this space, is the four-mile Exit Glacier Trail up to the Harding Ice Field, with an elevation gain of about 3,500 feet.
In summary, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that Alaska is losing ice at a rate of about 75 metric tons per year.
This web link shows photos of selected glaciers at different years.
Advancing tree and brush lines: Another obvious change to the landscape in my lifetime is the advance of brush and trees to higher elevations, and also, the advance of vegetation in some valleys.
About 40 years ago I saw very few conifer trees at the highest point of the ridge above Eklutna Road, at about 2,600 feet, below newly named Gold Star Peak. Today, spruce trees are sprinkled across that alpine plateau, some seven feet tall. The upward advance of conifers in other areas of southcentral Alaska has been well documented.
Over the past half century I’ve also noticed the rapid advance of deciduous trees such as willows, aspens and cottonwoods in Peters Creek Valley and other valleys, including South Fork, Eagle River, Eklutna, Thunderbird and Ship Creek. And farther into those valleys, toward the moraines left by the retreating glaciers, invasive growth of grasses, sedges and moss. Life seems to gain a foothold relatively quickly after the glaciers retreat.
A few years ago when I was hiking deep in Eklutna Canyon, less than a quarter of a mile from the glacier amidst a jumble of rocks, I spotted a very small spruce tree jutting up about eight inches, trying to make a go of it. Seeing this made me smile. It’s an incontrovertible truth that life, however difficult the obstacles, will always find a way.
But much to my chagrin, I’ve also noticed the encroachment of dandelions farther and farther along our trails and into our valleys. I shouldn’t be so negative toward these ubiquitous perennials, however. Some people say they make great wine.
Meandering river channels: I’m not much of a river traveler anymore, but I know that many river channels have changed to the point that maps, even current maps, are generally rendered useless—particularly on the big rivers such as the Matanuska, Knik, 20-mile; and up north, the Yukon, Kuskokwim and Kobuk. Reading a river for the most navigable channels requires skill every bit as challenging as route finding in the mountains.
On the sides of the Chugach and Kenai mountains are visible scars from avalanches and rock slides that weren’t there when I was in high school.
Of course, most of the land’s changes are very subtle. I think you’d have to live to a ripe old age of 1,000 years to see significant shifts. I’ve always wished the technology existed hundreds of years ago so that a continuously running camera could have been mounted at a strategic place – say the south shore of Eklutna Lake – to record changes to the landscape and note what creatures might have walked in front of the lens.
We can’t readily perceive it, but the valleys we walk and the mountains we climb are always changing. And for that matter, so are we.
Frank E. Baker is a lifelong Alaskan and freelance writer who lives in Eagle River with his wife Rebekah.