Sorry it’s been so long since my last update but I have been going at it non-stop this summer. For those of you that know me or have been following me for a while, know that I work with the National Park Service. In the past I donated a significant amount of time as a photographer to over 35 national parks with the hopes that one day I would be able to do it for as my career. Well now that I have a permanent position in Glacier, I was hired for my first official detail to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park as a photographer. A detail is where another park hires you for a finite amount of time for a specific task. My detail to Wrangell was with two of my park service friends from Yellowstone and we were tasked with a media-blitz of the park. Wrangell is such a large park and their resources are limited, so they are lacking when it comes to media. I was brought out as a photographer, and my other two friends were brought out, one as a videographer and the other for audio.
We flew into Anchorage, picked up supplies for the two weeks, and then headed to the park. The initial plan was to head out to Donaho Basin for a backpacking trip, shoot some scenic over flights, then spend another few days in the Bremner historic mining district area. Inevitably, there were some bumps in the road but we were able to figure everything out as we went along.
If you’ve never been to the park, Wrangell is 13.2 million acres, the largest national park in the United States, roughly the size of Switzerland. Access is limited. There is only one main road into the center of the park, which dead ends in the town of Kennicott, a historic copper mining area. This is where we would be based out of for the next 10 days. We spent the first night in the Lodge and then packed for our backpack trip out to Donoho Basin.
Bohemian Waxwing seen along the McCarthy Road
Tundra Swans seen along the McCarthy Road
View from the Lodge
In order to get the Donoho basin you are required to traverse the Root glacier roughly 1 mile wide. Once on the west side of the glacier, there is a route towards series of unnamed lakes. This is where we planned to camp because there are bear boxes. We had a bit of a late start but weren’t too worried since the sun wasn’t setting until 11pm. Hiking across the Root Glacier was a very unique experience. I have traveled next to glaciers and under glaciers, but never on a glacier. It felt exactly as I thought it would, walking on a giant piece of ice. It was fairly slow going because of the difficulty of the terrain, but also because of how scenic it was.
People on the Root Glacier
We walked over rivers, along lakes, navigated through crevasses, and over moraines (all on the glacier) until we finally reached the other side. From there we needed to make a decision whether to camp or to continue to push on to the next campsite. Since it was only 5 o’clock and the map said we had 3 miles to go, we made the decision to continue. For those of you who have hiked off-trail bushwhacking in Alaska, you know that 3 miles is no easy task. We hiked, and hiked, and hiked some more, and it seemed that we were barely moving. When one of our team members fell ill from food poisoning the night before, we decided that we would not make it to the bear boxes that we hoped to camp at and found trees to tie our food up into instead. Once camp was set up and we made dinner it was about 10:30 PM. I can honestly say that it was one of the most difficult hikes that I’ve ever done, not because of the elevation or distance, but rather the difficulty in pushing through the bush with a significantly large and heavy pack. It seemed all the branches were reaching out to touch me and say, “Slow down, take it all in. There is no need to go so fast.” Ughh.
When I woke up the next day and stuck my head out of the tent it was apparent that had made the right decision to push on. It was a beautiful sunrise with the perfectly still lake. It looked as if it were going to be great weather all day. We grabbed breakfast, packed our daypacks, and headed further up valley towards Gates glacier. As we made it past the second lake and eventually to the third lake we were directly alongside the Kennicott glacier. The 16K ft foot mountain Mt. Blackburn rose in the distance behind a sea of ice.
After a few hours of day hiking we decided to turn around, pack up camp, and head to our next camp spot alongside the Root glacier. This time we knew where we were going and we still managed to lose the route and ended up bushwhacking in 10+ ft tall alder. Gotta love AK.
People are in the photo!!!
Views from first Lake and Mount Blackburn 16Kft
Once we made back to the Root Glacier it was time for a cocktail or two and a little time to soak in the scenery.
The next morning we woke to another bluebird day. After grabbing some breakfast we only had to traverse the glacier once more, this time deciding to take an alternate route. Walking on a glacier is like being on a maze of ice. You never know when your route will dead-end. Sometimes you can find a work-around; sometimes you just have to backtrack. It makes for fun, but tiring hiking.
Along the way we found some spectacular scenery and the weather was perfect. So much so that I thought I could catch a tan for a little bit.
Thanks to Neal Herbert for this shot of me. Check out his stuff from the trip also. He is the videographer for Yellowstone.
The next day was a day of flying. We had two flights scheduled. The first flight we would head south to the Tana River, to the Tana Glacier, Bagley Icefield, and Icy Bay before heading back along Baldwin and Chitina Glaciers. Instead of picking my favs I put all of them in a slide show so that you can view all of them in order if you like. I have also included a map of all of our flights. This first one is labeled Lynn Flight 1. http://caltopo.com/m/031C
After landing and grabbing lunch we headed back up in the air and out towards Tebay Lakes, the Bremner River, Fan Glacier, then north past the Chitina River to Hidden Creek and the Kennicott Glacier. Here is a slide show from that flight. It’s amazing what we saw up there. I think I am forever ruined about what will excite me in the future. I can’t remember the last time I felt so blown away by what I was seeing. Oh wait, yes I can. It was in Denali NP looking at the Mountain. Alaska is awesome if you aren’t picking up what I am laying down…
The next day was spent conducting interviews of some local residents before having the chance to tour the historic Kennicott Copper Mill. This entire building is nuts. It’s a 14 story building and was used to mine the copper our of the surrounding mountains. It was the most productive copper mill in the world profiting nearly $1.5 billion in today’s dollars. Everything was vertically integrated from the mines, to the mill, to the railway to the coast, and eventual boats that would transport the copper down to Seattle. It’s really an amazing sight to see.
The next day we would be flying into Bremner historic mining district where we would be camping for the next 3 days. We were concerned about getting stuck out there so we planned for an early pickup just incase the weather turned and we needed to spend a few extra days out there. This time we were allowed to “pack” heavy because we were not carrying all of our gear. So we brought everything including a case of beer. We had a late arrival due to our plane breaking down just before takeoff (That’s not what you want to hear about your plane before you get in it). So when we landed we spent the remaining time exploring the area around camp and hit the sack.
The next day we woke up and explored around camp for a short while before heading up to the Bremner bunkhouse and checking out all the historic garbage. When I say garbage I mean artifacts including buildings, a powerhouse, cars, tractors, stoves, tools, etc. All very cool, very heavy stuff. It’s crazy they were able to get everything out to this remote spot. The stuff is so cool in fact that they hire volunteers to live on site and make sure people don’t steal anything. We met the volunteers, and their dog companion, and had a great time chatting about their experiences so far. The wildflowers were also still blooming despite a rather dry summer so I was excited to see all the familiar faces.
From the mining camp we headed up to one of the area tarns that was used as an aqueduct for the area water. Along the way we saw some nice waterfalls, cool animals like ptarmigan, pika, and marmots, and some great views of the mountains. Once we were done we headed back to the bunkhouse and made a plan to hike with the volunteer couple the following day.
The next day we woke up to the entire valley covered in fog. We took the old mining road up to another site where they used to mine for gold. As we went up in elevation we hike out of the fog and the sun was burning off what remained. Immediately when we made it into the cirque basin I noticed more pika, ptarmigan, and marmots. The ptarmigan were everywhere in fact. We noticed that the rock ptarmigan at higher elevations were not as skittish as the willow ptarmigan at lower elevations. In fact they seemed to like us. We even had a few chicks walk right up to us and scope us out. After a beautiful day of hiking we headed back to camp and waited for the plane to pick us up.
Once we were back in McCarthy we headed out for dinner and dumped our memory cards in preparation for our final day of flying.
The weather was a little iffy but since we didn’t have a particular agenda for this flight we were able to seek out the good weather. We went up the Nizina River to the Nizina, Federika, and Russel Glaciers via Skolai pass and then over to the Bonanza Ridge area including the Stairway Icefall, Root/Gates/Kennicott glaciers. This day wasn’t as spectacular as the other flights, but it was still a good opportunity to shoot some other areas of the park we had yet to see.
I mentioned that we had the chance to head out to Bremner for our overnight trip but we were supposed to hit Skolai Pass area also. I didn’t really know what I was missing until this flight. If you go to Wrangell for a fly-in trip, Skolai is like a mini Switzerland. If I get the chance to go back I hope that I can get a few days in that area.
After that flight our trip was pretty much over. We turned in all of our flight equipment, headed back to Anchorage and the regional office to drop off the car. Then we headed out for some celebratory drinks. We had no car so we didn’t need to worry about a DD so we were all having a great time. So much so that when I ordered my 3rd or 4th drink I felt really tipsy, even sitting down. I looked at my drink and thought to myself, I better slow down here a little. Then I looked up and realized that I wasn’t the only one feeling this way. It wasn’t the alcohol making me feel tipsy but rather we were in the middle of a 6.3 magnitude earthquake. The ENTIRE building was shaking and people started standing up. Apparently that is a thing? After that we headed out to dinner and had a few more drinks before calling it a night to make our early flights the next morning.
Overall I shot around 6500 photos in 10 days pairing that down to about 500. The majority of those shots came during the scenic flights. It was totally amazing to see this park from the air. You lose all sense of scale when you are up there. Mountains that look close enough to crash into are a quarter mile away. Icebergs the size of houses are just dots in the bay. It’s the only way to really “see” the majority of the park. It’s a wild and untamed place. You could take any individual feature from this park whether it’s a mountain, waterfall, glacier, lake, etc. and place it in the lower 48 and it would be its own National Park. But here, it’s just another unnamed feature. Alaska really is the last frontier. It’s so freaking big and majestic that you can’t help but be humbled by it.
Going back to Alaska was like a breath of fresh air. It reminded me why I do what I do and was the first realization that all of the hard work and dedication I had put in the past few years as a volunteer was starting to pay off. It also sounds like there is opportunity to return to Alaska next summer for a chance to work with a different park, possibly Lake Clark or Katmai. In the meantime I have a few weeks left of work here in Glacier before I am on furlough for the month of October. During that time I will be in Rocky Mountain, Arches, and Canyonlands National Parks. If you are in the area and would like to meet up for a drink, hike, or drink while hiking just let me know! Thanks again for following along with my travels and sorry it’s been so long. I hope to push out another post about my summer in Glacier soon as well.
Cheers and happy travels!