Friday, August 24, 2012

300 Square Miles of Ice

Exit Glacier, Seward Alaska.

Here I am with the third installment about our recent trip to Alaska. This post covers our first full day in Seward after leaving Barrow and Denali. We had a great time in Seward with lots of great photos, so there will be a number of posts about this area.

The first challenge with Seward was getting there from Denali. Just outside of Wasilla we stopped for gas. While filling the tank I watched a few individuals pushing a car away from the pumps. They couldn't get it started. This is never a good sign! We completed our business and headed down the road. Within a mile the car started sputtering. The sputtering increased until the car was barely running. We pulled over. A man walks up and asks if we just filled with gas at the Tesoro station. Well, yes we had. His vehicle was broken down and had just gotten gas at the same station. Hmm. Not good.

We called the station and received the expected "you will have to talk to the manager..." response. We then called Hertz. Hertz scheduled a tow truck and a replacement car. The tow truck drove us to Anchorage and dropped as at the Hertz counter. We were mobile again in just a few hours. Pretty good customer service if you ask me.

We arrived in Seward in the evening, just in time for dinner. We walked downtown from our hotel and chose the Seward Brewery, not realizing it was their opening night. The people next to us had fish and chips and it looked fantastic. We ordered only to find out they had run out. There were not expecting so many people on their first night! Anyway we order a large salad to share and some dinner.

Our waitress, most likely on her first waitressing job, brought the salad to us. Hmm. It did not look much like salad. Karyn replies, "that is not salad, those are nachos." The waitress assured us that it was indeed their salad. Hmm, maybe they are just short on lettuce? Anyway, she leaves. Hungry from the drive, we decide to just go with it and dig in. A short while later the manager comes over to tell us that those are nachos. Hmm, surprise. The food was great and I am sure they have worked out the kinks.

After the day of driving we needed a big hike. The next morning we were off to Exit Glacier and the Harding Ice Field. Harding Ice field feeds Exit Glacier and about 30 other glaciers. Almost every glacier on the Kenai Peninsula originates there. The weather wasn't too fantastic, but didn't look too threatening either. The hike is nine miles round trip with approximately 3000 feet of climbing.

Driving in to Exit Glacier Trailhead.

Starting up the trail we immediately realized that this was a good place for birds. In Denali the birds were few and far between. Here I was immediately confronted with a number of species I could not readily identify. There were chips and tweets in all directions. We identified five warbler species within the first few miles of trail (Yellow, Yellow-rumped, Wilson's, Townsend's, Orange-crowned)! The closest I've been to a Varied Thrush is probably 50 meters, but here they were right in front of me. Ruby-crowned Kinglets were everywhere. My lifer Golden-crowned Sparrow even made an appearance. The trail quickly started climbing.

Varied Thrush.
Ruby-crowned Kinglet.
Exit Glacier terminus.

The trail's incline increased as we hit the main part of the climb. It was wet and muddy, but most of the steeper parts had rocky foundations making it similar to climbing stairs. The trail alternated between dense forest full of birds and open vista where we could enjoy the view. More birds - Pine Grosbeaks, Fox Sparrows, Hermit Thrush, and of course that invites predators - Sharp-shinned Hawks.

Better views of the overhanging glacier above Exit Glacier.

After climbing about 2000 feet, we passed the tree line into alpine meadow. The wildflowers were spectacular - Lupines, Asters, Arnica, Castilleja/Paintbrush, Buttercups, Geraniums... We could start to appreciate just how large the Harding Ice Field as the basin above Exit Glacier started to come into view.

Exit Glacier.
Alpine Meadow.

Birds weren't all there was to see as Karyn spotted a Black Bear. This guy was looking quite healthy as were all we would see in the area. Later in the week while waiting at the laundromat we watched three separate Black Bears on the hillside from downtown Seward. Denali was all about Grizzly Bears, Seward was all Black Bears.

Blackbear in Alpine Meadow.

One of the birds I really wanted too see on our trip to Alaska was a Ptarmigan. There are three species possible and all would have been life birds for me. We had hoped for Willow Ptarmigan in Denali, but we struck out. Here, we found a group of Rock Ptarmigan, which I was very excited about. They were so close that I almost stepped on one before it moved in front of my feet.

Beautiful Rock Ptarmigan!
Geek with Camera Photographing Rock Ptarmigan.
Rock Ptarmigan.

Right next to the Ptarmigan, probably about 30 feet away was a family of Hoary Marmots. Marmots are one of my favorite rodents and these juveniles were quite playful.

Hoary Marmot Juvenile.

Continuing to climb we crossed into the snow zone, alternating between rocky ledges and snow fields. The melt was in full swing so we had to be careful over a few ice bridges, but the trail is maintained and well marked by the park service. They had rerouted the trail in the more dangerous spots. Finally, the trail opened up onto a small rocky ridge which gave a full view of the ice field. It must have stretched for 50 miles. The scale was amazing. It is estimated to be hundreds if not thousands of feet deep. Over 400 inches of snow falls here each year. This was one very impressive hike. I rate it in my top 5 hikes of all time (others: Highline Trail in Glacier National Park, Lake Louise Trail, Cramer Divide in Sawtooth Mountains Idaho).

Panorama of Harding Ice Field - Click to enlarge then zoom.

The wildlife viewing was not complete. On the way up we could see Mountain Goats at a distance. We had much better views on the way back down. A group of seven had moved fairly close to the trail.

Mountain Goats.

The marmots were regularly issuing alarm calls. We finally saw the source of their anxiety as a juvenile Bald Eagle was hunting in the area. There were no successful attacks that we saw, but they must be successful some of the time for them to keep trying.

Female Hoary Marmot watching for Eagles.

What an awesome hike on an awesome day. One of my all-time favorites. In the next post we will get up close and personal with the fantastic animals of the Alaska SeaLife Center.


Big Eddy said...

Great storys and info. Great photos as always. How is the elbow?

Neil said...

Awesome Ptarmigan photos Rob!