Gawking at Glaciers in Wild Alaska
Story and photos by Tim Leffel

It almost feels civilized in the Alaskan capital of Anchorage, but just off the train heading south is a wilderness land where icebergs float on lakes and glaciers are still on the move.

Alaskan wilderness

Small chunks of ice landed in the water with a splash as we sat on the rocks and watched. I posed in front of the edge of the glacier. Behind me I heard a loud creaking sound in slow motion just after the shutter snapped. I turned around and a massive wall of ice separated from the rest and plunged into the water. "Run!" someone shouted. We scrambled over rocks to higher ground as a wave rose up and crashed with great force, hitting the shore right in the spot where I was just standing.

The glaciers of Alaska are still moving, pushing their way down the mountains as they have been since the end of the last Ice Age. They grind the stone mountains into rocks and pebbles and create U-shaped canyons in their wake.

spencer glacier Alaska

Glaciers like Spencer are receding though, a process hastened by man-made climate change that's raising temperatures around the world. Guides were rowing us around Spencer Lake as we gawked at icebergs, but this lake wasn't even really a lake when these guides were born. "It was more like a small pond when I first came here," says Ari, the head of our tour company Chugach Adventures. He points to a clump of small trees along the shore and says, "That was the edge of the glacier a few years ago." Each year the lake is a bit bigger, the wall of ice further away from the shore.

Alaskan Wilderness by Rail

Trail glacier Alaska

We got to this perfectly gorgeous spot in the wild on a train, as that's the only way anyone can get here without a very long hike. The train line heading south from Anchorage to Wittier and Seward used to carry gold, lumber, and fish. Now it mostly carries tourists. In the winter the only passengers are workers firing cannons into the mountains. It's a unique kind of warfare: fighting avalanches to keep them small instead of destructive.

The rail system got off to a rocky start in Alaska, with two southern lines and one northern one going bankrupt before the U.S. government took over in 1912. At that point, then-president Taft announced a grand plan for a rail line stretching from Seward to Fairbanks and you can ride that whole route today, up through Denali National Park.

Alaska Railroad Kenai Peninsula

This section through the Kenai Peninsula is spectacular, with thick forests giving way to glacial valleys. Occasionally echoes of the screaming wheels on the tracks bounced off tunnel walls as the train went through a mountain. We watched eagles soar by and then strained our eyes looking for bear and moose. Mostly we just let the glorious scenery glide by outside the windows or with the wind in our faces from the observation deck.

iceberg on Spencer Lake Alaska

Getting off at the Spencer Lake whistle stop, the tour company crew unloaded all their equipment and supplies. With no road in, everything they use comes by rail. A chilly wind came off the icy lake as we boarded rubber boats outfitted with oars. The guides took the oars and we took out our cameras, mesmerized by these inland icebergs that had calved off the great glacier beyond.

We sipped brandy by a roaring campfire as the light took its time fading into evening. Our muscle-bound guide Illiya showed his softer skills by cooking the best wilderness meal a group could ask for, all made in heavy Dutch oven pots on the campfire coals. We ate chicken cacciatore, moose stew with potatoes and carrots, and bread pudding with bourbon sauce.

Full and happy in the crisp air, we realized Alaska gets downright cold in September when we stepped away from the fire. We zipped up the tent and slid into our 0-degree sleeping bags, dozing off in a place with no sounds of machines.

kayaking on Spencer Lake

After a hike and the calving glacier scare in the morning, we kayaked back to base camp and packed up. We left the lake on the rubber inflatable boats we were exploring on the day before, but this time they were used for rafting down the river. The phrases "river rafting" and "glacier meltwater" don't sound like they go together very well. Thankfully this one was a glorified float, the icy water not splashing over the side and dousing anyway. Instead we paddle left or right on command now and then, but mostly just check out the scenery as we head toward the take-out point.

That point is near the train stop, of course. While the guides take care of heaving all the equipment where it needs to go, we peruse the Alaskan Brewing Company options in the train's bar.

Alaskan Wildlife at a Safe Distance

Many come to Alaska for the wildlife, but there's a mix of excitement and fear when you really consider the idea of meeting a big bear or moose in the wild. Standing in front of you on a trail. Are you really ready for that?

The guides all carry bear spray and they are dead serious about not getting in the way of someone bigger than them with antlers or claws. Thankfully the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center keeps its brown and black bears safely separated from us the visitors. With a setup akin to Jurassic Park's, the bears roam over a wide area while the fragile humans view them from above. The center takes in rescued animals—often ones that are spending way too much time in urban areas going through dumpsters. Thus a three-legged porcupine Kit, who is a big hit when he makes a purring sound while eating. Staffers care for a lynx that was orphaned during a forest fire, rescued as a baby.

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Read this article online at: Gawking at Glaciers in Wild Alaska

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