Glacial skate escape — Rare conditions create cool Alaska experience

Photos by Cary Restino, Homer Tribune. Daniel Perry and Sabina Morin play with a chunk of ice while skating on the frozen lake at the toe of Grewingk Glacier across Kachemak Bay from Homer last week.

Photos by Cary Restino, Homer Tribune. Daniel Perry and Sabina Morin play with a chunk of ice while skating on the frozen lake at the toe of Grewingk Glacier across Kachemak Bay from Homer last week.

By Carey Restino, Homer Tribune

Arguably the most notable feature of the view from Homer, after the Homer Spit, is the glacier that looms large in the center of the Kenai Mountains ringing Kachemak Bay. It sparkles blue in the summer sunshine and reveals deep, waving ribbons of dark rocks and debris like a child’s finger-painting. On those rare, brightly moonlight nights, it glows almost as brightly as the moon itself.

But while many have made the trek up to the glacier’s lake in the summer, far fewer, and more adventurous, have experienced the glacier up close. That’s a feat for those who know how to seize the perfect moment to visit.

Anyone who loves skating on the southern Kenai Peninsula knows the drill — catch the first deep freeze of fall, when the smaller lakes of Homer freeze first, before the inevitable slushy snow falls to ruin the ice. If you’re lucky, as many were last week, you catch the larger lakes, like Beluga, frozen solid and smooth for a few precious days. And if you are even luckier, one of your fellow skaters will mention that they are planning a trip across to Grewingk Glacier the very next day, and ask if you would like to come. The only response possible if all those stars align is to let go of whatever you were supposed to do that day and say “yes.”

Crossing Kachemak Bay to the Saddle Trail in Kachemak Bay State Park in the winter is nothing like going across in the summer, especially if it is cold enough to freeze a lake solid. Only a few water taxis operate this time of year, and with good reason. Ice quickly builds up on the windows of Gart Curtis’ boat Blue Too as waves splash across the deck. But inside, passengers are warm and dry. As the boat pulls up to the trailhead, two whales surface nearby. Eagles swoop in air currents and bright-billed seabirds paddle at the water’s edge. Hiking in the off-season is quieter and certainly less buggy, and there is still plenty going on in the park in November.

Skaters get an up-close look at the face of Grewingk Glalier skating on the frozen lake at the toe of the glacier.  The lake surface froze clear and smooth last week.

Skaters get an up-close look at the face of Grewingk Glalier skating on the frozen lake at the toe of the glacier. The lake surface froze clear and smooth last week.

This year, little snow has fallen in the park at lower elevations, leaving the trail walkable, if a little icy in stretches. Even elementary school-age children were able to easily navigate the 1.5 well-marked miles to Glacier Lake without a complaint. On higher snow years, snowshoes would be helpful. Some ski in the longer, flat, 3.2-mile route along the Glacier Lake Trail through the moraine. Either way, Glacier Lake is within reach for most, regardless of the season. Skaters are wise to prepare for deeply cold temperatures, however, as little sunlight warms this area during the winter months. Warm beverages and hand- and foot-warmers are highly recommended, especially for smaller digits.

The payoffs, however, are huge. Glacier Lake is about a mile and a half long, and this year, the ice was thick and glassy smooth for much of that distance. Icebergs that had broken off during the summer and floated free were now frozen in place, glowing blue and sculpted by the hot sun of summer. The ice took shapes of everything from the Starship Enterprise to an uncanny replica of a whale’s tail, and one could not help but skate around and even over these icebergs while crossing the lake.

Sabina Morin slides off a chunk of crystal-clear ice near the edge of Grewingk Glacier.

Sabina Morin slides off a chunk of crystal-clear ice near the edge of Grewingk Glacier.

It is not just the glacier ice that enthralls those lucky enough to visit Glacier Lake on those magical winter days when the ice has frozen solid. Islands dot the lake, full of massive, lichen-colored boulders and craggy bushes. Looming high above the lake, the towering mountain of the Alpine Ridge Trail frames the vista.

But the 13-mile-long glacier is undoubtedly the pièce de résistance, drawing you across the ice like a giant magnet. Grewingk Glacier was named in 1880 by American naturalist William Dall after a Baltic German geologist Constantin Grewingk. It is part of the Harding Icefield, thought to be more than 23,000 years old, forming during the Pleistocene Epoch when ice blanketed one-third of the Earth’s surface.

Today, the glaciers are in retreat, however. Between 1950 and 2005, Grewingk Glacier was observed as having retreated some 2.5 kilometers, and the rate of retreat has increased since then. Scientists predict it will eventually retreat out of the lake, slowing its retreat rate somewhat, according to a study by Maurio Pelto, a professor of environmental science at Nichols College in Massachusetts and director of the North Cascade Glacier Climate Project.

Overflow from a mountain stream spreads out in a clamshell pattern for Sabina Morin, Daniel Perry and Liam James as they explore the frozen falls. Sabina Morin slides off a chunk of crystal-clear ice near the edge of Grewingk Glacier. The many icebergs frozen in the lake ice provide a wonder-filled playground for all ages.

Overflow from a mountain stream spreads out
in a clamshell pattern for Sabina Morin, Daniel Perry and Liam James as they explore the frozen falls.
Sabina Morin slides off a chunk of crystal-clear ice near the edge of Grewingk Glacier. The many icebergs frozen in the lake ice provide a wonder-filled playground for all ages.

While it may be retreating, Grewingk is still an icy mass to behold, especially up close. The face of the larger sections of ice loom some 100 feet into the air. Huge chunks from the glacier’s calving ring the face, serving as a warning to be wary of the ever-moving ice. Along the face, you may also encounter overflow water on top of the ice, which can look deceptively like frozen ice if you aren’t watching for it.

But with caution, the glacier can be observed with relative safety. Most of the face is more moderate in height, and full of wonders. Moulins carry melted icewater from the surface of the glacier down to the lake through a labyrinth of pipelike holes. Sculptured forms can be seen on the glacier’s surface, and the deep lines of compacted sediment and thousands of years of gradual movement are visually mesmerizing.

One could spend endless hours exploring along the edges of this great giant if dwindling winter light and temperature were not a factor. All too soon, it is time to skate back across the iced lake, stopping at newly discovered icebergs along the way. In only a couple of hours, you are back in Homer, drinking tea and eating pie in a steamy bakery. But for those who have skated to Grewingk Glacier, the memories of this magical and intimately Alaska experience will make the view across the water that much closer.

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Filed under glaciers, Kachemak Bay, outdoors

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