Staring out at the Kenai Peninsula’s vast sheet of ice called the Harding Ice Field, a remnant of the Pleistocene age some 10,000-15,000 years ago, I uncapped a cold non-alcoholic beer that had been chilling inside a small container within my pack that contained ice cubes.
Carrying ice to a world of ice reminded me of lines from a movie called The Eiger Sanction, when upon arriving at the summit during a training climb, actor George Kennedy asked Clint Eastwood for a beer. “Who’d be crazy enough to pack a beer all the way up here?” Eastwood rejoined. “You would,” quipped Kennedy. “Check your pack.”
This time, the crazy one was me. I wanted to have an ice-cold drink when I arrived on top, not wait for it to chill in the snow. Along with the N/A beer, my lunch included a ham and cheese sandwich, barbecue potato chips, chocolate chip cookies and a thermos of coffee. My wife notes that a tablecloth would have added a touch of class to my “picnic by the glacier.”
July 22 was a sunny day, and most of the wildfire smoke seemed to be to drifting to the south and east. I left the parking lot about 8 a.m., but within an hour it seemed to become quite hot, with not a breath of wind. As soon as I began building up a sweat, black flies descended. It seemed they actually liked the 100 percent Deet, which I applied carefully less it melt my eyeglass frames.
People didn’t really start showing up for a couple of hours as I slowly trudged up the well-built, 3.8-mile trail that rises about 3,000 feet. Most hikers were 20 and 30 somethings, and they bounded past me like gazelles, as if I were standing still. “But I’ve got ice-cold beer in my pack,” I rationalized, leaning into the hill to catch my breath.
It had been five years since I hiked the trail and I didn’t remember so many people – about 150 by my estimate throughout the day.
I met folks from Switzerland, Ireland, China, England, and some state-siders from New Mexico and Colorado. I spotted a couple of people in their 50s, perhaps even 60s, but not a soul in my age league: 70s.
Climbing higher to an open area called Marmot Meadows, at about 2,500 feet, a merciful breeze drove away the bugs and it began to feel much cooler. After a methodically slow, plodding pace, I arrived at the top, or “glacier overlook” at 12 noon.
I’ve come to believe there are no words to describe the mind-blowing spectacle of the Exit Glacier, with its sharp-blue, crevassed incisions, ramping up to the Harding Ice Field’s sprawling white ocean of ice.
Words like “stunning,” “awesome,” “stupendous,” “unbelievable,” just don’t do it. It is almost too much for our eyes to take in.
As I’ve said in previous columns, this place is primordial, and journeying to it is like stepping back into time. Small mountain islands called “nunataks” jut above the ice expanse that stretches to the south and west, capping the Kenai Peninsula. Seeing it reminds one of what geologists say Alaska looked like 10,000 years ago.
After about an hour–eating more than I should—if only to justify the fact I’d carried it all the way up there, I packed up for the return hike. Moving a bit more quickly on the descent, the flies and mosquitoes didn’t seem nearly as bothersome.
Waiting for me in the car was another ice-chilled N/A beer, which I pressed against my overheated forehead. Temperatures in the 70s are just too high for this lifelong Alaskan. If this summer represents climate change, I’ll have to confine my hiking to spring, autumn and winter.
And I suppose that on future hikes, it would be prudent not to load down my pack with ice, especially if I’m bound for an area with snow and ice.
Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River with his wife Rebekah, a retired elementary school teacher.