Our National Parks: In Quest of a Glacial Ghost
Mendenhall Glacier, Alaska
In Quest of a Glacial Ghost
I had recently returned from the stunningly beautiful Alaskan Panhandle witgh its myriad coastal glaciers calving into green waters of fiords when I suggested to my son Rich that we hike up to the ancient glacial terrain of Chasm Lake beneath the Diamond Face of Longs Peak. Neither of us had been there before despite the fact that we had taken many hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.
During our pre-dawn drive down to Colorado, I thought of the living glaciers near Juneau. I remembered the blue dome of the Mendenhall (formerly the Auk) Glacier tucked between two mountain ranges looking like a curving blue planet temporarily in the Earth's midst. I remembered flying over the Taku Glacier that flowed majestically out of the Juneau Ice Field down to the sparkling seawater of Taku Inlet. Being up there in Alaska was like losing ten thousand years; its present-day landscapes are what the Rocky Mountains may have looked like through the eyes of Paleo-Indians. Modern Plains Indians still refer to a time when the Great White Giant reigned.
We pulled into Longs Peak campground a little before 8:00 am and shouldered our packs. We couldn't have asked for a more crisp and brilliant day. Every granite ridge stood out sharp and clear as we bounded up the trail through a sun-spiked lodgepole pine forest along a fairly straight but steep trail above the valley between Longs Peak and Twin Sisters, the old haunts of Rocky Mountain National Park's founding father, Enos Mills. Melancholic squawks of Stellar's and Canada jays resounding through the forest aisles blended with the distant roar of a cascade.It seemed like only an hour since I had climbed snow-laced Mount Roberts above Juneau, Alaska, but now I was with my son here in Colorado, and it felt good to be with him and to share with him Alaskan memories.
Lodgepole pines ever so slowly yielded to higher altitude firs and spruce harboring occasional clusters of Colorado columbines and bright blue chiming bells. The trail wound its way up through subalpine meadows affording us glimpses of Mount Meeker and the highest peak of this national park, Longs Peak, a mountain I had scaled three times during the past twenty-five years. But not today--we just wanted to hike up to the dramatically compacted alpine landscape of Chasm Lake. Even though it was late July, we had to cross a rather extensive snowfield fingering its way down to the forests of 10,000 feet.
We reached tree line country within an hour and a half--a land of twisted pine and dwarf spruce interspersed with arms of lush tundra. Marmots scurried about the rocks whistling to one another in the thin air. Longs Peak (14,255 feet) just loomed above us, ever so high, streaked with cloud-like snow in a crystalline sky. We sat down on some flat boulders to eat fresh oranges. I told Rich how twenty-five years earlier when I was a ranger here, an old Ute Indian tapped me on the shoulder and said with gleaming eyes, "Will you look up at old Longs Peak standin' way up there!" His intonations expressed far more than his words in that they quite literally intoned a sense of joyous awe and mystery. Rich, too, expressed wonderment at this "land above trees" as naturalist Ann Zwinger calls it. He said that even though he was a bit weary and the miles were long miles, he was anxious to get a closer look at the high glacial gorge of Chasm Lake.
We zig zagged along the tundra trail noting the delicate alpine-forget-me-nots and broke away from the main route up Longs Peak by descending into a gorge at an elevation of 12,000 feet. Our side trail led to a series of rather vertical snowfields. Again I wondered if all was an illusion, and I was in reality following bootprints in snow up on Mount Roberts, Alaska. I had never seen so much snow for this late in the year at this latitude. Much of the snow was stained with deep red algae smelling like watermelon, but I warned Rich against tasting it as this species is very poisonous to humans.
Marmots squeaked back and forth on the rocks above the snow as we crossed a gushing stream tumbling out of this glacial basin. We stared up at the striations of glistening Mount Meeker and could easily envision an Alaskan-like glacier packed into its midst grinding and polishing the curved bowl of Meeker's north face with what John Muir called "glacial hieroglyphics."
We ambled up to a ranger patrol cabin and then climbed a steep rocky face for about 200 feet up to a ridge overlooking the rugged shoreline of Chasm Lake, just shy of 11,000 feet. Vienna sausages, cheese, and grape juice tasted like a king's banquet. Our chatter back and forth about the immensity of this place faded into silence when we felt we must simply sit and stare. The more we looked, the more we discerned traces of glacial ghosts on vast cliffs with the same scratches and glistening polish I had seen from the deck of a ship in Tracy Arm, Alaska.
After a few swigs of cold canteen water, we scurried down to the lake for a closer view of tiny greenish icebergs afloat at the far end of the lake. Deja Vue! Surely Alaskan glaciers and a hundred centuries are not so far away! The spirit of moving rivers of ice in a glowing, flowery tundra lingered in our minds all the way back to Laramie, Wyoming.
Recent research by geologists has dtermined that there is yet another glacier in Rocky Mountain National Park above Chasm Lake underneath the Boulder Field and is responsible for the shifting movement of boulders from year to year.