The first time I went to Alaska was in December. I went for the winter sky where the sun no longer rises, endless stars and meteors light up the clear black backdrop, with northern lights dancing over the horizon. I did get the best view, but missed the sight of glaciers. This year, I set off on a summer trip to trek the paths of these ancient giants that defined the arctic.
Our first stop was not a popular one, but the intimate experience was nothing I would have ever imagined: there aren’t very many places where you can kayak across the lake fed by the glacier to hike on top of it. It was a cloudy day, and the moderate lighting made the mystic glow from the ice caves just perfect. When we paddled close to the icebergs, the luring shades of blue made me want to reach for that center glowing like a mysterious gem. The mountains surrounding the lake, lush with a soft contour, highlighted by meandering creeks and waterfalls flowing through the hovering clouds, looked as if Hobbits live right there.
We landed on a rocky beach where ice met water. The glacier in front of us was covered in debris and looked almost black, completely different from the floating icebergs. After all, this is their true form after millions of years through rain and dust. But as we started hiking, the close up view became quite different. The white and blue reflections of the ice broke free from patches of dirt, creating an interesting mosaic pattern below us. This colorful pavement lead us forward for about half a mile, until we came upon a large crack in the glacier. I carefully walked up to the edge and peeked into the two person deep canal, expecting to see some silver-green water like the glacier lake. But guess what was down there?
I couldn’t get the optimal exposure for a truly faithful picture of that glacier blue. It was a bright, almost neon, fluorescent blue. So bright that I really couldn’t believe my eyes, and was standing there in awe. How can such a color exist in nature? It’s not just vibrant, but vivid, flamboyant, unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Our guide from the outfitter joked that this is where Gatorade bottled their “glacier freeze” flavor. It’s definitely a quite accurate name.
Lying aside the Harding Icefield Trail in Kenai Fjords National Park, Exit Glacier enjoys much more visibility than our first destination. Although, as a consequence, hikers were not allowed to walk directly on this glacier, I was more willing to forgive this rule after our already satisfying adventure the day before.
The hike started in what felt like a tropical forest. Ground was covered in mud, ferns, and thickets, and air was humid, filled with mosquitoes. If not for the glimpses of the glacier that we were able to get once every many numbers of switchbacks, we would have thought it was the wrong side of the equator. Halfway up the mountain we were rewarded with a great view:
Once above treeline, the climate suddenly changed without warning, and the trail turned into a sheet of whiteness.
Having lived in the northeast all these years, I’m still phobic of slipping and therefor have never braved snow shoeing. Fortunately this time it was a fun first experience following the previous person’s footsteps, very literally. It was also fun to watch people coming downhill sliding, skidding, slipping, and rolling (while not mentioning what I did when it was my own turn).
Harding Icefield measures over 300 square miles, and three times more if including all its glaciers. The vista at the end of the trail properly defines what is “feeling like standing at the end of the world”:
Maybe making a fool of myself going down the snow trail was worth it after all.
This is a glacier that we passed by on our drive down to Seward from Valdez, and I wonder why no guide books, outfitters or tour companies advertise it at all. No pictures on the internet can nearly do it justice: layers and layers of dark green mountains stretching over the horizon, with a massive glacier, pure white and shining under the sun, flowing through the valley into a lake so serene, so calm that you can’t tell the reflections from real landscape. Wild flowers dot the foreground, and a crisp, blue sky with light brushes of clouds on top. It was the Alaskan image that I had always dreamed of: pristine, bold, with the simplest but purest of colors, and the fullest of life.
I checked off the best of both seasons in Alaska. Next time I go back, Denali will be the final destination.