In June 2023, Merge visited Skagway AK and was able to travel right up to the foot of the Davidson Glacier. But to really understand how amazing a glacier is, a geography reminder is in order.
As you may recall from when you were in school, glaciers have a remarkable ability to move, very slowly, driven by the force of gravity. These massive ice formations accumulate over time as new snowfall compresses the lower older layers into dense ice. As the snow on top melts, the water flows downhill, causing the glacier to “move”. These glaciers follow the path of least resistance, eroding the underlying landscape and leaving behind a characteristic U-shaped valley (also known as fjords). The movement is influenced by the topography, with glaciers often flowing through mountain valleys and occasionally terminating in large bodies of water.
However, the natural movement of glaciers in Alaska is being disrupted by the effects of climate change. Rising temperatures have led to increased melting, far surpassing the rate of snowfall accumulation.
As a result, the mass is diminishing and their flow is slowing down or coming to a halt, causing the glacier to actually recede rather than move forward. For example, Mendenhall Glacier (near Juneau AK) has retreated 1.75 miles (or 2.82 km) since 1929, when Mendenhall Lake was created. In just the last 23 years, the Mendenhall Glacier has receded about 0.87 miles (or 1.4 km).
This phenomenon of retreating glaciers not only alters the landscape but also has far-reaching consequences for the environment and local communities that depend on glaciers as a source of freshwater and for other ecological functions.
Which is why being able to hike right up to the face of the Davidson Glacier was so exciting. But it took some work!
Getting to the glacier required some help
In Skagway, Merge joined up with a small group led by Alaska Shore tours. They traveled in a catamaran, south from Skagway down Chilkoot Inlet to the point where it joins with the Chilkat Inlet also coming south. This is beautiful country, part of the Lynn Canal, North America’s longest and deepest fjord. As she said, “We lost count of the number of waterfalls gushing into the fjord.”
At the point where the Chilkoot and Chilkat Inlets joined, the catamaran turned west and landed on the shore of Glacier Point. A vehicle took the group on a short ride across forested glacial moraines to base camp where everyone got waterproof rubber boots, a safety vest, and a canoe paddle. The short quarter-mile hike through the forest to the edge of the lake would have seemed a lot easier without the clumpy rubber boots!!
The group boarded several 31-foot voyager canoes and started paddling towards the glacier. Well, that is after they figured out how to all paddle in the same direction!!!
They paddled as far as they could until the water got too shallow. After which they climbed out of the canoes and hiked for about 20 minutes through ankle- and knee-deep water until they were able to get right up to the face of the glacier. Along the way, the canoe paddles served as very convenient hiking poles!
The whole excursion from Skagway took about 5-1/2 hours return. And Alaska Shore Tours very conveniently provided a picnic lunch that the group ate on the beach at Glacier Point. All-in-all, Merge’s assessment — a great day exploring what Alaska’s natural beauty at its best. But get there before the glaciers retreat so much that they become impossible to get to!!!