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Day 37 – Kenai Fjords National Park

August 10, 2017

On my itinerary, I have myself stopping of in Anchorage for a half day, just enough to get a shower and a hot meal, before moving on. After spending nearly three days in a hotel, I finally got moving again this morning. Seriously, I should have taken two months off just for a rigorous training regimen before taking these two months of for the trip.

During my convalescence, I was looking over a map of Alaska and noticed two national parks I somehow had never heard of, Kenai Fords National Park and Wrangell–St. Elias National Park.

From the name and the five minutes of research I did, it seemed that the proper way to experience Kenai Fjords is by tour boat or kayak, but that wasn’t something I wanted to sink my teeth into. Still, there’s a nature center with a few hiking trails a 2½ hour drive from Anchorage, so I thought it was worth a day trip before heading out and onward.

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On the way to Kenai Fjords, along Turnagain Arm, part of Cook Inlet.

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All I expected to find in the small corner of the park you can access by car was a nature center and a few miles of wooded trails; just enough of a diversion to justify bagging another national park map before continuing on. As I neared the nature center, I discovered that I was approaching what appeared to be a large glacier:

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Exit Glacier

It turns out I was entering the Exit Glacier Region of the park. At the end of the road, in addition to a nature center, there are some paved trails that take you within a stone’s throw of the bottom of the glacier, and a rigorous four mile trail that takes you to the top of the glacier and it’s source, the expansive Harding Icefield.

I’d planned on a quick hour’s stroll, but if there was a glacier and an icefield on offer, I had to check it out. The trail is only four miles, but it gains nearly 4,000 feet in elevation, so I had my work cut out for me.

First, I strolled the walking path to the bottom of the glacier…

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…and then started going up, a lot. I didn’t really know how long it would take to get up there, and I’m back in a part of the world where the sun sets, so I set an aggressive pace. All those aerobics instructors that tell you to “feel the burn” should just tell you to go find a hiking trail that gains 1000′ per mile. You’ll feel the burn, I guarantee you.

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I somehow covered the trail in under 2½ hours, which was a good thing. I needed the extra time. I got the impression from a ranger I’d talked to that the trail leads right onto the glacier and icefield. It actually stops short of that, instead ending at a overlook over them.

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To access the glacier and icefield beyond, you have to make a pretty technical descent over a lot of loose rock and shale. There are some social trails here and there, but it was slow going.

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The glacier was about twice as far away as it looked, but I eventually made it down, at which point my thought process went something like this:

“Am I on the glacier yet? No, I think this is just snow. I’m not on the glacier yet.”

“I think I’m no the glacier now.”

“Dude, yeah, I’m totally on the glacier now. I am standing on a freakin’ glacier!”

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I really should have been content with that. I don’t know what I’m doing on a glacier. I have no idea how to read the ice. I’m vaguely aware, from documentaries and TV shows, of some of the hazards, but I don’t really know what their called, much less how to avoid them. I know about hidden crevasses, and… voids I, think they’re called… but spotting them ahead of time? I got nothin’.

I had no business going any farther into the glacier than the five feet I had. So of course, I did. As you can see in the photo above, I was at the foot of a… hill? Is that what it’s called on a glacier? Anyway, I was at the bottom of a thing, and I wanted to be on top of the thing. I put on my crampons and gingerly headed out into the ice.

I went slow and kept my weight evenly distributed, trying to let it gradually flow as I went. That one credit hour of tai-chi I took in college comes in handy at the strangest times.

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The Harding Icefield stretches another fifty miles past here.

Right after I got to the top of thing, I had a slight mishap that could have been disastrous. I think I found one of those voids.  I was fine, but I took it as a firm signal to turn around and get back on solid ground.

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By the time I made it back to the trail, it was 9:00 and the sun would be setting around 10:30, so I hurried back down.

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I was in such a hurry on the way up, I didn’t notice that this hillside was blanketed with wildflowers.

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In the end, the sun descended faster than I did, but that was fine, because I got to see the mountains bathed in moonlight.  ‘Really wish I had my tripod right then.

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I’m now in the nearby town of Seward, where I’ll start the day tomorrow before hitting up downtown Anchorage and heading east towards Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and ultimately back to Whitehorse, where I’ll turn south.

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