Today was our first full day as a group in Alaska! We slept in from yesterday’s long travel, made pancakes for breakfast, and then headed out to Mendenhall Glacier for a hike. The place we are staying at is the St. Therese Retreat Lodge which is ~20 miles northwest of Juneau, Alaska. Mendenhall Glacier sits about halfway between the two. Driving towards town, it was easy to see the toe of the glacier fanning out into the valley followed by a large glacial meltwater lake. We parked near one of the main trails and trekked out to the glacier together on West Glacier Trail.
A recent Boy Scout project marked the side of the trail with picket signs that represent certain years where the glacier used to extend, starting at 1910 and ending at 2014. The beginning of the trail was humid, well-maintained, and very green. Moss was growing all over plants and tree roots. Soil layers were rich in organic material but thin and relatively undeveloped since they are fairly young and were recently covered by ice. They have only been able to grow since the retreat of the glacier. Hemlock and Spruce trees grew tall and intermingled with Devil’s Club, a big-leafed plant with spikes on the belly-side of the leaves and down the root. This area of the hike reminded me of a subtropical rainforest.
We passed several rushing streams, climbed up bare rock, and eventually made our way to an opening where we could see Mendenhall Glacier again. It appeared much more massive now and looked like a layered cake with dirty-grey glacial till on top followed by powdery-white snow in the middle and dark crystalline blue in the crevasses. We marched on loose till deposits to the next marker, 1996. Two decades ago, the glacier lay where we stood, still a good hike away from reaching the current toe. For some of us, this marker was personal because it
marked our birth year. In the lifetime that we have been growing and evolving into adults, this glacier has been rapidly receding; dying. This spot really hit me and others in the group hard. We decided to eat lunch here and take in the immense view of the glacier.
After lunch, we continued our hike up to the current extent of the glacier. Here, there was a gorgeous ice cave like a crystalline palace that was lit up elegantly by the Alaskan sun. It was a wonderland of ice that swirled with every spectrum of blue. Small pockets of water flowed through the body of ice until they made it out to the surface like a mini waterfall and joined the main glacial meltwater stream that fueled the lake. We took a group picture in the cave and went out to climb onto the glacier. The top of the glacier was much different than underneath it. Ice was caked in mud and slimy glacial till which helped our boots stick to the massive ice body as we shimmied onto Mendenhall. We did not go far since we were unequipped with crampons, so we gathered
together for a last group picture with the glacier before heading back to the trail and our lodge.
The entire hike was beautiful preparation before beginning our field work. Seeing the miles of retreat that Mendenhall Glacier has experienced lit a motivational fire inside of the group. We were reminded why the work we are doing is critically important for the preservation of the environment and the ecosystem services that are provided to wildlife and, also, humans. Tomorrow, we begin our field work with a fire in our bellies, ready to save the world one wetland at a time.