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Friday, August 30, 2013

Hiking in Alaska: Harding Icefield Trail

Hiking in Alaska can be trying; mosquitoes, grizzly bear and our old foe, moose are always a possibility. Depending on the time of year you can run into rain, snow and ice on the trails as well. We never thought that heat and smoke would be a problem, but that's what we ran into on our way up to see a river of ice.



Kenai Fjords National Park encompasses a huge area in south central Alaska; it protects the area "where mountains, ice and ocean meet" along the Kenai peninsula. Most of it can only be viewed by boat along the water's edge but if you're up to the challenge you can hike to the origin of Exit Glacier, the Harding Icefield.
A massive river of ice: Exit Glacier

I've always been fascinated by glaciers; I find their polar blue color and deep crevasses hypnotizing. Exit Glacier is one of the more accessible ones and the park service has built a Nature Center at the base to show off it's magnificence.

The trail starts at the boardwalk at the rear of the Nature Center--turn to the left and you can view the glacier up close and personal on the Edge of the Glacier trail. Go to the right to start the Harding Icefield trail.
Apparently it was a toll road. This guy gave us a glassy stare as we walked by.

The hike starts out in lush meadows; it was late June and the snow had recently melted off leaving beautiful wildflowers in it's wake. The 24 hour light makes the foliage grow fast and huge, parts of the trail were almost overrun with plant life. Although we had started at 7:00am, it was already a warm 80 degrees and the damp ground combined with the dense foliage made for a humid start. We stripped off our outer layer and tried to move fast enough to out pace the mosquitoes. This was futile, of course, and just ended up making us sweaty and itchy.

Lupine, astilbe and fireweed are some of the wildflowers found along the trail.
There is a trail there. Really. (lower left corner)

The trail leads up a ridge beside the glacier, and it was nice to have such a great view while we stopped to rest now and then. It's pretty much all uphill; the trail gains 1,000 feet for every mile for a total of 4.1 miles to the top.
Looking back toward the valley (trail starts at the river level, just to the left of the picture)
Note the hazy sky from wildfires near Fairbanks.

About 2.5 miles up we hit our first snow patch. Depending on the year, the snow doesn't melt off until July or so--in fact there is avalanche danger if you go too early--so be prepared for anything if you decide to take this one on. We were wearing our light hiking shoes which turned out not to be the most optimal for the conditions. We really showed our mild-California-Mediterranean-winter colors as we slipped and slid all over the place (I have never, nor will I ever, live in a place that snows. I'm just a snow wimp I guess.) It was a bit surreal, because even as we climbed higher, and snow patches turned into solid snow trail, it was still about 80 degrees. Smoke from fires to the north around Fairbanks was making the otherwise clear day hazy. The overall effect made the whole hike seem dream-like.

The trail across the snow. Hot, tired but happy.

We crossed the last big snowfield, crested the trail and...oh...my...God. The ice field was spread out below us, huge and an eery blue color. Huge crevices split into the ice looked big enough to swallow large vehicles.
View from the overlook: Harding Icefield

We had the privilege to be there all by ourselves, just a slight breeze to break up the silence. I kept expecting to hear the ice cracking.

The crevasses have a weird beauty.

We sat on a rock outcropping and took it all in. Glaciers are deceiving; you can clearly see the flow patterns in the crevasses and striations but you can't see it move. The piles of snow in the surrounding mountains all fed into this immense valley of ice, pushing it slowly downhill. Once again, Alaska served up an awesome sight.

After eating a few snacks, we poked around the small cabin at the top placed there as a shelter in case of bad weather. It was tethered down with some serious lengths of steel cable. I take it the wind (and possibly lightning) can get pretty nasty up there.
Emergency shelter, top of Harding Icefields

We loitered around until the first wave of hikers started showing up. It's always fun to be the only ones in such a wonderful place; once it started getting more crowded it was time to head back down. (Crowded on an Alaskan trail is a relative term: I think four more people showed up when we decided to leave.)

Two bear cubs decide to wrestle while Mom shakes her head.

On our way down we met a Park Ranger coming back up. This hideous woman*--who we began to refer to as the Trail Nazi--was setting little red flags down in the snow, far from the worn snow trail we had followed on the way up. Apparently others before us had blazed the trail in the wrong place, and the Trail Nazi was ordering all of us to follow this red flag trail, as that was the proper one.

And I thought the way up had been miserable.

Since we were the first ones to use this "proper" trail, every step was up to the knee, and in some cases, our whole legs were swallowed. It was so warm the snow had begun to melt internally, leaving a stale crust on top with big voids underneath. It was a soggy, horrible, hard way to hike. Our boots were filling with water when they broke through to the little stream beds forming underneath and our pants were soaked. At one point I slid down on my rear end, just to distribute my weight more evenly. We cursed this woman for two miles, until we eventually got ourselves out of the snow and back onto the dirt and wildflower part of the trail. Mud never looked so good.

*she was not hideous, she was just doing her job. We were hot, tired and cranky and could not control the evil thoughts coming out of our brains.


Exit Glacier terminus in the smoky light.

On our way out, we checked out the base of the glacier. The massive blue ice was piled high and towered over our heads. Apparently large chunks fall off in at random, so it's not advised to stand in front of it. We waited around a bit hoping something would happen, but it was not to be; hot and thirsty we headed back to the truck.

A "can't believe I'm here" moment: top of Harding Icefield Trail.
A link to the trail map: Harding Icefield Trail Map

The Harding Icefield trail is located about 9 miles down Exit Glacier Road, just outside of Seward, Alaska. If you have time (and if you don't, make some), don't miss the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward: http://www.alaskasealife.org