28 June, 2009

Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop

****Long post due to lots of pictures****
****and potentially boring (to some) glacial geology****

Yesterday was a *lovely* day!! Greg found out about a train trip to Spencer Glacier. It's a "whistle stop" on the way to another location (Anchorage, Girdwood, Portage, Whittier, and Grandview). So you get on the train in one location, then it stops in the middle of nowhere and you get off - then it picks you up again later (don't miss it!) and drops you back at the car. Apparently the Alaska Railroad is working on developing a few spots (plans for 5 so far - Spencer is the first, and only as yet) that are accessible by rail, but not by car. I see huge marketing potential here, but I also appreciate that you'll never be able to get everywhere by car, especially in our LARGE state. So having the opportunity to get some places by other means is nice.

At the Portage Train Stop

We started the morning by driving out to Girdwood to have breakfast. It's a beautiful drive along Turnagain Arm, and is also just a few minutes from the Portage train station. We ended up breaking our fast at the Jack Sprat Restaurant. It's a quaint little joint, and the food is good. A nice way to fuel up for the day ahead. In preparation for the trip, we made sure to pack water, snack bars, rain jackets, bug dope (necessity!) and of course cameras. Turns out we didn't need the rain jackets, but I'm sure if we hadn't had them it would have poured. =)

This was my first train-ride - although I'm not really sure that it should count. I mean, it was less than 15 minutes from boarding at Portage to getting off at the Spencer stop. Somehow, I was thinking it'd be a little longer for the ride... oh well. It was magnificent scenery - we even saw a moose (but I didn't get pictures). Just so happens that this was also a geocaching event. Surprise, surprise... Not! Some of the cachers on the trip were spending the night - others (like us) were day-tripping. Seems that there are one or two (and now two or three) caches out in the Spencer Glacier area...

We stayed together long enough to get a photo, then our group split up. Sam & Jennifer hiked out to the viewing area on their own, visiting with various groups of cachers on the way there and back; Greg headed out to the glacier and beyond for caching and pictures; and Todd, Anita & I opted to take the ranger guided tour to the viewing area.

It's an easy, well maintained trail that goes 1.3 miles from the whistle stop to the glacier viewing area. Many of our glaciers are receding. You can ask anyone who's been here for a while about Portage glacier, and you'll hear about how "years ago, I could see it from the center, maybe almost touch it... now you have to take the boat tour..." I'm sure Exit & Harding glaciers are faring about the same - although I haven't been to either this year to see (with my own super-non-scientific evaluation). Anyhow, it's fun and interesting to have another glacier to visit. And because it's in recession, we get to see the many different land formations, vegetation, and effects of having a glacier-in-recession in residence. Very interesting! =)

Spencer Glacier through the Trees

****Glacial Geology starts here - you can skip the blah, blah if you like...****

Avalanche Chutes

One of the first stops along the route had spectacular views of the surrounding mountains, a flowing river, and a train bridge. The guides explained about the milky color of the water - nothing lives in glacial streams because of the silt (so fine, it's the consistency of flour). The water is extremely cold (glacial melt, remember?) and no light penetrates beyond the first few inches - so there's no photosynthesis, no air, no plants, no fish. Next to the bridge is a structure that houses the avalanche cannon (seen below). The train to Whittier/Seward runs year-round, and this area (especially in the higher elevations) can get upwards of 100' of snow. To ensure the tracks are clear, they use the cannon-like apparatus to trigger controlled avalanches. You can look at the surrounding terrain and see the deep grooves in the mountains caused by avalanches (seen above) - snow tumbles down, ripping up trees & vegetation on the way down; succeeding melting further erodes the soil causing a channel; further wind, rain, & snow deepen the channel, etc.

Train Bridge & Avalanche Gun Housing

Further along the walk, we learned about kettles - deep pockets in the landscape caused by the glacier scouring over the land. Now they're either large depressions, or sometimes stagnant water-filled ponds. At the end of the glacier, there are typically hills of rocks (morraines). This is from the rocks dropping as the glacier melts. You can see how far a glacier reached by these hilly areas - the ones farthest out mark the apex of the glacier and likely will have greenery as the cycle of life begins again; the ones in closer are just big mounds of rocks. Our walk didn't get close to any of the newer morraines, but I stood on one farther out covered in greenery (with a seagull's nest on it) to take some pictures.

Example of Regrowth
low vegetation & moss

Looking towards the glacier, I can see the pool of water that feeds the river the train bridge crosses. And closer, I can see the "mud flats" - wet glacial silt left behind as the water recedes. Closer yet, there's low lying moss and ground cover. Behind me, alder bushes and short trees. And farther behind me, taller trees and larger vegetation. The cycle of life is renewing. Plants and life are overtaking the barren grounds left from the scouring ice. Kinda cool to see evidence of the cycle at work! =) Oh! In case you didn't know: glaciers make v-shaped valleys, while rivers carve u-shaped valleys; glacial ice is so dense it looks blue; ice worms live in glacial ice; fjords are glacial valleys covered in water; glaciers are always moving forward (advancing), but the rate of melting may exceed the rate of advance which causes the glacier to receed. (Volcanos have some interesting geology too... and I already know I'm a dork.)

Regrowth and Scale (people to 'burgs)
water, mud, low vegetation, bushes, trees
and the morraine covered in plant-life

****Glacial Geology torture ends here...****

We got a great view of Spencer glacier - although not close enough to touch. Greg's hike took him much closer, and he could have gone even farther but didn't want to miss the train so he came back a little sooner than he would have liked. We saw some beautiful wildflowers - lupine seems to grow everywhere, and the fireweed was growing (but not blooming, and *definitely* not gone to seed - a harbinger of an early winter, so I was happy about that!). We also found a seagull's nest on the morraine we walked out to for pictures.

The hike back was pleasant, and we made it in plenty of time to catch the train - even with a detour to check out the campground. Our group together again, we got to exchange stories about where we'd been and what we'd seen while we waited for the train to pick us up.

I sat on the opposite side of the train from the journey in, to see what I'd missed before... nothing much - just more stunning scenery. I took a couple pictures through the window as we traveled, and am pleased that some of them turned out. The train also stopped to pick up rafters - they'd gone to Spencer to put the raft in and then floated down to where the train stopped to pick them up. We watched as both guides got stuck in the same place - one group of rafters was told to bounce up & down (to help loosen the raft?), so they looked like a quick-paced people version of whack-a-mole, on a raft, in life vests. =)

And the fun didn't end there. After we got back to Anchorage, we headed over to Todd & Anita's to barbeque and check out all the pictures everyone had taken (gotta love digital!!). All in all, it was an incredible day! The weather was fabulous, the scenery was spectacular, and the company was marvelous. How can you beat that?!?

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