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Come to Alaska: III Walking North from Juneau

Updated on January 27, 2019
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Richard F. Fleck is an active hiker and leads Sierra Club "Hike and Write" treks in the foothills of the Rockies of Colorado and Wyoming.

Mendenhall Glacier

Walking North from Juneau

I just happened to be in Juneau, Alaska during the summer solstice. I wanted to get up early to walk along the coastal highway northward until I came to the Mendenhall River where I had rafted on the day before. I had trouble going to sleep as it remained so bright outside, even though the clock said midnight. It seemed like only minutes later when I awakened in the bright light of the morning sun. Had I overslept? Dressing quickly, I rushed downstairs and immediately searched for a restaurant. Scrambled eggs and toast had never been gulped down so quickly. Out the door I flew as I checked my watch to see that it was three o'clock in the morning! Oh well, I'll just have more time to see the Mendenhall Glacier (formerly the Auk Glacier).

As I strolled along the coastal highway watching bald eagles fly from bare branches near the sea, I constantly looked up into the coastal range flanked with bands of alder trees amid Sitka spruce forests. Each valley either had been glaciated or was dominated by an active glacier creeping downhill from the immense Juneau Icefield now concealed in cloud. Perhaps two dozen glaciers spilled downward from up there toward the sea including the giant blue-white Mendenhall Glacier that John Muir had seen back in 1879 before the existence of Juneau and when this glacier had the named of the Auk.

John Muir came to Alaska primarily to study glaciers at least five times between 1879 and the 1890's. He wrote two books published posthumously about his Alaskan journeys, Travels in Alaska (1915) and The Cruise of the Corwin (1917). He often wondered how it was that great masses of ice could possibly simply flow over jagged rocky surfaces. He made many attempts to study the surface of glaciers, but how could he get to the underside of them? He writes in his journal that "after both the body and soul of a mountaineer have worked hard, engaged hard, that they are most palpably separate...the nimble spirit [freed of its body} wanders alone down gorges, along beetling cliffs, or away among the peaks and glaciers of the farthest landscapes." It was from the body-free perspective that his spirit discovered how glacial ice flows over a much softer more pliable substance that was created by the weight of the glacier itself.

At last I came to the Mendenhall River formed by the melting of the Mendenhall Glacier. I took a trail back into the valley for several miles and occasionally heard sharp cracking sounds. The closer I got to the glacier, the louder these "rifle shots" became. The trail led me up and along the side of the Mendenhall where I could actually witness ice fracturing. I had read that some of these fractures produce canon-shot that can fly out over hundreds of feet at very high speeds. One would not be safe walking at the very base of a glacier as the characters out of a Jean Auel novel do. It was utterly amazing to sit and watch the movement of a giant glacier that proved to be as restless as the sea. Its wrinkled surface and gashes and gulleys and lateral lines of dark rock seemed unearthly. It constantly grinds and scoops out rock from the sides of mountains to produce, eventually, as John Muir contends, "future yosemites."

I found it difficult to leave this spot in Alaska. I could have stayed till midnight quite easily if my stomach had not demanded that I return to Juneau. And so I descended to the road leading back to where I came from but not without my turning around dozens of times to get another look at the Mendenhall Glacier.

Many cruise lines stop in Juneau giving passengers time to take a ramble or two in and around Juneau.

© 2009 Richard Francis Fleck


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