I am holding onto the details from visiting Exit Glacier, knowing that seeing it now is a privilege. We stood where the glacier lay in 2005, its retreating terminus now in the distance. In Seattle, it is possible to ignore the effects of climate change but Alaska does not provide that luxury.
In a land of many glaciers, we rode a boat to see tidewater glaciers fall into the sea, others we walked for miles, patterns in the ice emerging as we neared, and others still we marveled at when pulling off the side of the highway. Each glacier had its own unique features, and reason to treasure it.
Traveling through Alaska I found myself wondering which parts I will tell my grandchildren about. Will it be seeing animals that have since gone extinct? Clear rivers unexposed to toxic waste, pre-pebble mine? Swaths of wilderness unspoiled by oil pipelines? With glaciers I don’t have to guess, I know by the time my future children are old enough to see them, it will have shrunk to the point I cannot recognize it as the same place I visited on this trip.
The irony of contributing to global warming by visiting places affected by a changing climate is not lost on me. Will my desire to feel small among something so massive seem selfish in 50 years? Or necessary? To love and appreciate the thing before it is changed beyond recognition?
I believe to know a place is to love a place and we protect the places we love. After visiting Exit Glacier and the Harding Icefield, loving this place comes easy. Hopefully, by the end of the of this post, you may love it too.
We camped along the road to Exit Glacier the previous two nights, glimpsing the icy sheet from a distance between bouts of rain. On Sunday, after months of research and inspiring pictures, we headed to the trailhead to get up close and personal with Exit Glacier. Despite sporting a nasty head cold and the persistent rain/fog/mist, I was pretty excited to be out of the car and on a trail in Alaska.
We were excited to add another National Park to our list, Kenai Fjords National Park. Exit Glacier is one of two established trails in the Kenai Fjords National Park. The Harding Icefield Trail leaves from the same trailhead as Exit Glacier, but turns off before reaching the toe and instead climbs above the glacier, giving a birds-eye view. If you continue to the end of the trail, it looks over the Harding Icefield, a behemoth of an ice-sheet that makes up the majority of the Kenai Fjords National Park. The only other ways to explore this national park include a cruise, like the one with Major Marine Tours we did the day before, or flightseeing opportunity. Approaching the park by water on the first day then by land on the second felt like a very satisfying way to experience this area.
We walked past the visitor center and took a look at the map. Our plan was simply to hike to Exit Glacier and back, as we didn’t think our dry weather would stick around for too long and we wanted to start heading towards Denali that afternoon. However, after being cooped up in the car for days, I was ready to consider a longer route. While completing the entire Harding Icefield Trail seemed outside of our ambitions for the day, we noticed a viewpoint about a third of the way up the trail, which looked like the perfect mileage for our day, and would allow for some extra views.
The trail to the Exit Glacier route started on a wide, flat, paved path. It quickly separated into branches, one route remained paved and went straight to the overlook and a gravel path that meandered along the river before reaching the viewpoint. We opted for the more primitive trail, but it was awesome to see a route that was so accessible to differently-abled persons. The first glimpse of the glacier from the riverbank came into view and we hurried along to get closer.
We arrived at the viewing platform and could see the terminus of Exit Glacier. As we walked up the valley, small signs indicated where the glacier reached in previous years. It was hard to imagine that the first time I visited Alaska, the glacier reached where we were standing and only 13 years later the glacier was off in the distance. In the past, visitors could walk up much closer to the ice, but with the current location of the glacier, the park asks visitors to stay at the viewing platform. The glacier has retreated to the point where the park will no longer be adding extensions to the current viewing platform, as the ground is now too steep and treacherous to continue. Viewers in the future will continue to stand on the same point as the glacier moves farther and farther away.
In 2016, the glacier retreated 293 feet, according to the National Parks Service. Glacial retreat was historically measured in inches, rarely feet. 293 feet in a year is a dramatic change. Alaskan national parks are not the only place watching glaciers disappear. A century ago, Glacier National Park had 150 glaciers, now there are 37. By 2080, it is expected that no glaciers will remain in the GNP. Here in Washington, Mount Rainier’s glaciers are receding at a rate at least 6 times faster than expected, leading to unprecedented changes.
The effects of glacier loss due to climate change have been cataloged extensively, including the effects on ecosystems and communities that rely on intact glaciers for things ranging from subsistence to tourism. Those effects all stood as a background as we looked over the muddy water flowing from ice filled with delicate cracks, and I realized I missed something that wasn’t gone yet.
Harding Icefield Trail
After taking in our fill of the Exit Glacier viewpoint, we decided to head up to Marmot Meadows for a different angle. We backtracked a bit then took the turn-off for the Harding Icefield trail. The route meandered through the trees then quickly began to gain elevation. I gained a blister. We followed switchbacks passing a tumbling river, surrounded by lush greenery. After a few miles, the green brush fell away and we were in an open meadow. No marmots to be seen, but there was a spectacular view of Exit Glacier.
We wandered closer to a rocky ledge that looked out on the expansive sheet of ice. Blue and grey details shone in a way we were not able to see from the lower vantage points.
After taking in the sights, we made our way back down the trail and back to the visitors center. The route seemed to fly by and before we knew it, we were back in a crowded parking lot. My cold that had disappeared as we were hiking came back with a vengeance, and with it, the rain. We packed up our gear and headed to the Exit Glacier campground for a little lunch before heading to Denali. Read about the rest of the trip here.
For some beautiful footage of Exit Glacier and more information about how climate change is affecting this area, give the video by Raphael Rogers a watch below.