Alaska, Featured, History, Outdoors, Travel

Dichotomies at the Valdez Glacier

Inside an Old Moulin. Photo: Allison Sayer
By Allison Sayer for City News –

The stunning Valdez Glacier Lake lies at the end of the unvarnished “Glacier Haul Dump Road.” Junkyards and an old asbestos dump line the gravel road. A glacial moraine is, after all, a huge pile of rocks and gravel. It is an extremely practical place to excavate and fill with trash. Yet, the small lake filled with enormous icebergs at the end of the road is among the most beautiful spots in our area.

During the summer, icebergs calve into the lake. The icebergs themselves calve and roll as the summer sun melts parts of them away, and float across the lake with the wind. During the winter, the icebergs are frozen in place. The terminal face ceases calving and sits in silence.

Through A Blue Canyon. Photo: Allison Sayer

Many locals spend winter days on the glacier lake ice. It is popular for ice skating before the snow flies. Later in winter, snowmachiners, fat bikers, cross country skiers, joggers, and walkers explore the ice at the glacier’s toe.

Glacier ice fingers extend over lake ice channels. With the lake ice beneath, it is easy to walk into ice canyons, caves, and tunnels. Many of these passages were part of the “glacial plumbing” system through which meltwater flows from the glacier’s surface to the terminus. Others are old crevasses that formed when the moving ice flowed around corners, creating stress cracks.

Window to the Sky. Photo: Allison Sayer

The Valdez Glacier Lake formed in a few stages. Over a long period of time, rocks embedded in the glacier scoured out a depression underneath the ice. Then, as the ice melted, water filled the depression. Now, the ice lies on one side of the lake and the old terminal moraine lies on the other. The old terminal moraine, a large pile of rocky debris, helps create a dam between the lake and the ocean.

There was no lake when the Valdez Glacier first attracted thousands of would be prospectors from all over the world to the site of Old Town Valdez. The glacier’s terminus was much closer to the ocean. Prospectors were lured by rumors they could cross the glacier easily and ultimately reach the Klondike. The route’s merits were greatly exaggerated, and many prospectors died in the attempt. Many more were seriously hurt or lost all of their possessions. The original town of Valdez was born out of this debacle.

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Ice Hide and Seek. Photo: Allison Sayer

I think about the extreme suffering that occurred on this very glacier as I casually explore its tunnels on a lazy Monday morning. Are there men still entombed in this ice I find so beautiful? Would they have laughed to think of a future human enjoying herself in this impassive ice?

With my life of luxury, I see this place with completely different eyes from the prospectors, or even from other people who came here and thought “Hey, this would be a great place for a dump.” The glacier has no opinion. The ice, formed thousands of years ago, quietly melts, while we humans project our own realities onto it. 

In a way, this glacier is a metaphor for Alaska itself. Some people see Alaska as a place to make money. Some are addicted to its beauty. We live with the enormity of nature that provides us with food, and can also take our lives. Some people can’t wait to leave this place, and others dream of coming here. Some prefer summer’s dynamism and others prefer winter’s stillness. And many people here suffer. Of course, most of us don’t see just one glacier, or just one Alaska. We see all the complexities of our daily lives, our memories, and our dreams against this fantastic and immense land.  

Inside the Ice. Photo: Allison Sayer

Practical notes for visiting the Valdez Glacier

The glacier is located near a shooting range. You can bring a gun and have your own biathlon! Or, if a member of your party does not respond well to loud noises, avoid weekends and after work hours. It is generally quiet on weekday mornings.

Disclaimer- Valdez City News and Allison Sayer are not leading authorities on glacier travel or safety. We are not responsible for the actions of the reader. Please consult a professional for safety instruction and advice regarding glacier travel.

Having ice over your head is a potentially dangerous situation. It can break off pieces, or release rocks, that can fall on you and injure you. Avoid placing yourself underneath ice on warm days, especially late in the day when the sun has warmed the ice for several hours. High winds can also bring rocks, ice, and other debris down on top of you. Cold, calm mornings are your best bet. If there’s an earthquake, all bets are off.

Getting on top of the Valdez Glacier beyond the lake is dangerous due to deadly moulins and crevasses. These features can be hidden underneath the snow- an unsuspecting person can fall through and literally never be seen again. Don’t travel on top of the glacier if you don’t know what you are doing!

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