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Benjamin Prylinski – Alaska Adventure

Alaska | A Naturalist’s Dream

Kenai Fjords National Park – Harding Icefield Trail

Harding Icefield’s retreating Glacier has become an icon of climate change. The approach to Exit Glacier, the most accessible of the 500 square miles of ancient ice covering Kenai Fjords National Park, is a timeline of retreat. On the road to the glacier’s toe, on the trail winding below the forest canopy and, ultimately, on the mostly bare rock at the end of the trail are signs marking 195 years of accelerating pullback. Beyond the last sign, which marks the 2010 edge, is a chasm of open space showing how Exit Glacier has continued its retreat up the valley.

The Harding Icefield is a large expanse of ice in the mountains of the Kenai Peninsula, which includes Kenai Fjords National Park. Covering 700 square miles, with a maximum depth of about 4,000 feet, the Harding Icefield is the largest icefield located entirely in the United States. The Harding Icefield connects 40 glaciers together, the most accessible of which is the Exit Glacier. An icefield is actually a large area of interconnected glaciers. What you see in the photo is Exit Glacier as it stretches down from the Harding Icefield. It doesn’t even encompass how giant the ice field is! Exit Glacier gets its name from the 1968 expedition that crossed the Harding Icefield. This glacier was the exit point at the end of that expedition, hence the name. The 8.2-mile round trip is a spectacular day hike, starting on the valley floor, the trail winds through cottonwood and alder forests, passes though heather filled meadows and ultimately climbs well above tree line to a breath-taking view of the Icefield. The top of the trail is a window to past ice ages – a horizon of ice and snow that stretches as far as the eye can see.

Kenai Peninsula

Hiking the Harding Icefield Trail inside Kenai Fjords National Park was a rewarding experience in itself, but cruising along the coast of the National Park and the many peninsulas, bays, and islands was a naturalist’s dream. 

Where wildlife is abundant and tidewater glaciers are massive. In the 7.5 hour Kenai Fjords National Park Cruise (Swipe to the end for map – yellow dotted line), the voyage began in Resurrection Bay and slowly glided along the coast of the Aialik Peninsula. Maneuvering through Cheval Island, Pilot Rock, and No Name Island, it was clear that we were now entering wildlifes territory. Humpback whales breaching, Black-Legged Kittiwake soaring,and Bald Eagles nesting, even Charles Darwin would have been astonished. 

As you enter Aialik bay, the Aialik Glacier greets you with its gailith scale. Being able to witness this glacier is a sensation alone, but immediately after Holgate Glacier enters the scene and satisfies your fixation for glaciers. Both unique in their own fashion, showing off their beautiful colors and sizes, mesmerizing anyone that crosses their path. Being able to witness glaciers calving in real time brings to realization of how delicate and ever changing our world is. 

If you thought it couldn’t get any better, you’d be wrong. Cruising through Dora Passage and the Chiswell Islands, you enter a new world of wildlife inhabiting the islands. Steller Sea Lions scattered amongst the rocky shorelines, Puffins perched on the coastlines cliffs, Fin Whales and Orcas dominating the water, Georg Wilhelm Steller would be rejoiced with nostalgia of Alaska’s wildlife. 

Hatchers Pass and Independence Mine

The development of this water tunnel in 1940-41 greatly improved the efficiency of mining operations. This horizontal tunnel connected with the upper level workings and became the backbone of the underground operation. Instead of moving material by bucket, it could be brought in and out of the water tunnel by electric trainload. 

Before completion of the water tunnel, all material was moved in and out of the mine by aerial tram. After its completion, the water tunnel became the main portal for the mine. Supplies entered the mine through this tunnel, as did the men on the way to their work shift. Through this portal, the battery-powered locomotive hauled ore to the mill, waste rock to the dump, and improved ventilation and drainage while providing the mill with a reliable supply of water. 

Alaska: A Naturalist’s Dream

It is not so much that Alaska is the last frontier, but rather that it is a land that has always had new frontiers thrust upon it. It is a land that always has been, and always will be, crossing the next frontier.

Driving from Seward to Fairbanks allows you to understand Alaska’s sense of scale. Forests and Mountain ranges as far as the eye can see. What seemed very close at first, the drone quickly reassured you that is most definitely not the case. Miles upon miles, a naturalist’s dream awaits.

With games like the seal hop, four man carry, ear pull, one-foot high kick and seal skinning, the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics (WEIO) are sure to be unlike any other athletic competition you’ve ever seen. All the games in this competition are variations of traditional exercises practiced to hone the physical and mental skills necessary for the traditional livelihoods of Native Alaskan people.

Denali National Park – Savage Alpine Trail

In Denali National Park, the Savage Alpine Trail is one of the best ways to experience the park by foot. There’s only a few trails in Denali, and this one offers a sensation of Alaska’s landscape and wildlife.

Once you arrive at the parking lot near the Savage River Campground, cross the road and continue past the marked trail signs. As the trail rises via switchbacks, it starts on a level gravel path and then descends to a more open landscape. Follow a ridge across the top and then descend a steep slope toward the Savage River below. Depending on the weather, you may be able to see Denali off in the distance as you hike up the ridge. Good or bad weather, the view is beautiful and one that you’ll never forget.

Flattop Mountain Trail – Anchorage

Flattop is a quintessential ascend to endless mountain vistas. At the summit you are able to take in panoramic views from Denali (Mt. McKinley) to the Aleutian Islands. Though it is a more populated trail than you would want in Alaska, it still was a rewarding elevation challenge to conquer. If you want to diversify your hikes in multiple cities in Alaska, The Flattop Mountain Trail should be on your list for Anchorage. 

This trail was a unique experience to film nonetheless. While others were grabbing onto rocks for their life on the way up this steep, unpaved, rocky elevation, I was carrying my Sony A7iii with a Dji Ronin Stabilizer in one hand, and climbing with the other. Loving every second of the climb, almost as if I was a kid back on a playground. 

Knik Glacier – Anchorage

A small remnant of a past ice age and one of the biggest glaciers in south central Alaska. There was over a half mile of ice covering the Chugach Mountains during the Pleistocene ice age 600, 000 years ago. This glacier was connected to an extensive ice field that stretched hundreds of miles into the sea.

A rare geologic phenomenon occurs here called a “jokulhlaup” (an ice dammed lake). Until 1967, jokulhlaups were common here. The Knik Glacier would advance in winter and press hundreds of feet of ice against the mountainside of Mount Palmer, blocking Lake George’s water flow. In spring, water fills Lake George Valley behind Knik Glacier. There would be an increase in water levels of 180 feet as the 5 mile lake swells to over 20 miles. During the early days of settlement of the valley, silt, debris, and glacial ice would be swept down the valley by millions of gallons of angry surging water. This played a significant role in Native American and early pioneer lives. The town of Matanuska had to be relocated due to the annual flooding. 

Knik Glacier’s advance has been replaced by receding, causing tremendous events. There’s a movement afoot on the Knik Glacier! Increasing global warming is causing the Knik Glacier, as well as many Alaskan glaciers, to shrink. The glacier face has exposed a new lake over three miles long and over 400 feet deep which is growing every year.

Witnessing glaciers for yourself brings a whole new appreciation for our ever changing world. Soaring over ancient crevasses instantly transfers another worldly feel upon you. Setting foot on the glacier, makes you feel as if you set foot on the moon. Drinking water straight from the glacier brings a whole new meaning to the slogan “Bottled at the source, untouched by man”.

Why do you see the color blue?

Over long periods of time, glacier ice is buried under new layers of ice and snow. These heavy layers press the air out of the deeper layers of ice. This not only removes much of the air, it also causes the ice to form large, dense crystals. When light hits these crystals, they absorb long wavelengths of light. At the same time, they scatter short-waved blue light, which makes the ice appear blue. We can only see that blue color when we see the deeper layers of ice. This happens along the leading edge of the glacier, where the ice is calving, or breaking apart.

Why are the glaciers black?

Indeed, some glaciers are so filthy that they look like black smudges across the snow rather than the deep blue ice characteristic of glaciers. That’s one of the most dynamic of all mountain-building processes, and to do their job, glaciers must push around thousands of tons of material as they gradually reshape the land. Yes, there are other processes that could be accounted for, but we will keep it simple for now. Enjoy the pictures. 

Crows Pass Trail

One of my favorite hiking trails in Alaska! This trail is a great reminder to all of those embarking on their National Park Bucket list, the world is a big place. Having hiked trails in both Denali National Park and Kenai Fjords National Park, this statement means more than ever. Though National Parks have some of the most pristine natural features and iconic landscapes, you can find beauty everywhere.

Considered to be one of the best hikes in all of the Chugach Mountains, Crow Pass follows a portion of the original Iditarod Trail,  along the way you’ll find glaciers, waterfalls, wildflowers, wildlife, and mine ruins. 

What made this trail so unique and special to me was the environment. One moment you are trekking through lush forest and then you are transported to another environment. Once you pop over the tree line, you’ll have unobstructed views of the mountains on both sides of the valley. As you maneuver through a number of rusted mining ruins of the Monarch Mine, you’ll be able to look directly up the rock-walled gorge of the falls. As you maneuver through switchbacks up the rocky slope, your view of the massive columns of falling water is spine-chilling. Here, your chance of coming upon some of the resident mountain goats is likely. Then again, once you clear the rocky slope from there, that feeling of entering a new environment hits you again. Snow and baby blue streams cover the area near the Crows Pass Cabin welcoming you to another world. Finally, a little further down the trail (follow the cairns), you end up at the Crows Pass Elevation Sign. You Made it! The cherry on top, the Raven Glacier enters the scene. Not only was the glacier the star of the show, but your panoramic view from the summit has views that will never leave your mind. To the Left, a descending flora and fauna filled rocky mountain trail, and to the right, the spectacular Raven Glacier and its flowing streams downhill. 

GLOBE Global Learning and Observations to benefit the environment

Like the rest of the Arctic, Alaska is undergoing an unprecedented rate of change, and the effects of warmer temperatures are being felt. A rapidly changing Arctic highlights  the importance of research and monitoring efforts to establish ecological baselines so that long term trends can be determined. 

The University of Fairbanks, International Arctic Research Center, and the community are reaching new heights in these efforts. 

Through The Global Learning and Observations to benefit the environment or GLOBE, students and the public worldwide have the opportunity to contribute meaningfully to our understanding of the Earth system and global environment. This science and education program aims at providing the STEM professionals of tomorrow with the knowledge they will need to deal with Earth’s greatest challenges.

The GLOBE program gives students a hands-on introduction to the scientific method through interdisciplinary activities. In order to ensure the scientific validity of the lesson objectives, they develop protocols which are developed by scientists and validated by teachers.

As part of its global outreach program, GLOBE also builds a community of students, teachers, scientists, and citizens that conduct real-world research collaboratively. Researchers are able to gain invaluable insights into local environments around the world, and more communities around the world should be able to contribute significantly to scientific discovery as a result of the data collected by their community members. 

This program is the essence of equity and the gateway to giving power to the people. No you don’t need a fancy degree to conduct research. GLOBE gives everyone, of all ages, all backgrounds, a chance to be a part of something bigger to benefit our environments, our earth. 

Teachers, students, researchers, elders from indigenous cultures,  coming together in the name of science.

Let this picture tell a story of how science brings people together around the world, it’s a language that everyone can speak, and can change the world! 

Connect with Ben and learn more about his trip

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