Friday, August 31, 2018

A Naturalist on Ice

Helmet, crampons, harness, warm layers, trekking poles, camera. My pack was heavier than usual—and my excitement stronger—as we caught glimpses of white ice and blue crevasses beyond the canyon’s edge.

Two days after my first hike up the Harding Ice Field trail in Kenai Fjords National Park, I was at it again. The damp, gray, foggy weather was the same, but my mission was different. This time I was going to walk on the glacier. After watching adventure movies and adding a healthy dose of common sense, it’s not an adventure I’d felt comfortable doing solo. Nick, a guide from Adventure 60 North in Seward, led the way, and a retired doctor and his architect wife from Colombia (she runs the family’s banana plantation on the side) completed our little crew.
From the Marmot Meadows Overlook we watched other guided groups walk on the ice. They looked like tiny ants on such a giant landform. Photo by Emily Stone.

At the Marmot Meadows overlook we began to descend out of the lush field of wildflowers and straight down toward the white, blue, and brown wrinkles of the glacier along a rocky trail. The National Park Service doesn’t maintain this route, but several local guide services use the path.

The side of the glacially carved valley was steep here. At the height of the last ice age, 23,000 years ago, Exit Glacier filled the entire gorge. When our footing transitioned from ice-scoured bedrock to piles of loose gravel deposited by melting ice, Nick paused to point out that in past years he could walk straight out from this bench onto the ice. The dirty edge of the glacier now lay at least 20 feet below.

It was an abrupt transition from lush meadows down to fresh gravel
and then onto the ice. Exit Glacier is shrinking, so the hike keeps getting longer.
Photo by Emily Stone. 

According to the Park Service, the terminus of Exit Glacier retreated 1,635 feet up its valley and thinned by almost 300 feet between the years of 1950 and 1990. The rate of thinning has only increased since then. In the past ten years it has retreated 1,000 more feet. Former President Barack Obama visited Exit Glacier in 2015, to highlight the effects of climate change. The toe of the glacier has become so unstable that visitors are no longer allowed anywhere near it. We’d hiked 1.5 miles up steep switchbacks and flights of stone stairs in order to gain access.

At a level spot in the dirt we paused again, this time to layer on winter clothes, tighten rescue harnesses around our waists, fasten climbing helmets under our chins, and strap saber-toothed crampons to our boots. Nick traded his trekking pole for an ice axe. His big backpack was full of rescue gear. “Keep your steps high and wide,” he repeated as we made our first tentative moves in the mean-looking crampons. “High, wide, high wide,” I reminded myself. And, finally, I was walking on a glacier.

The landscape was a gracefully sculpted expanse of luminous snow and ice, sprinkled liberally with brown dirt. Scalloped divots at a variety of scales were rimmed in a dark lace of dust that had been picked up, ground down, and then freed from melting ice. Rivulets of water cut narrow ravines through the dirty surface and created small, white-walled canyons with intensely blue bottoms. Those small ravines probably flowed along the tracks of healed crevasses.

As the ice moves over uneven ground, crevasses open and close. Deep within the glacier, high pressure allows ice to move through plastic deformation—similar to molten lava. Crystals bend, deform, and slide past each other. Near the glacier’s surface, though, it is more brittle. As the mass maneuvers around corners and over obstructions, the surface must stretch wider. When the ice stretches past its stress limit, crevasses crack open. Later, they may squeeze shut, leaving only a linear scar.

Crevasses are cracks in the glacier that open and close as the ice moves over uneven terrain. Photo by Emily Stone.
Stepping high and wide, and being sure to kick our crampons into the slippery surface with each step, Nick led us to a narrow crevasse. His long legs straddled it easily, and one by one we came forward to have a look. Although it was narrow enough that none of us could have fallen in, it was still comforting to have Nick’s steady hand on my harness as I gazed into the deep blue depths.

Nick, our guide from Adventure 60 North, knew the glacier well and was able to show us unique features while staying away from the more risky areas. Photo by Emily Stone. 
Crevasses can be a hundred feet wide, thousands of feet long, and hundreds of feet deep. Water-filled crevasses may reach all the way to the glacier’s bed. Perhaps this crevasse had stayed small because of the absence of water.

Nick also led us to the edge of a moulin. As before, he held onto our harness and we peered into it one-by-one. Water may have excavated this roughly circular, well-like shaft out of an old crevasse or found some other weakness in the ice. Either way, we watched a tiny stream glide over the surface and then cascade into the smooth, spiraling hole.
Moulins are roughly circular, well-like shafts in glacial ice. Water and sediment flow down into them. Photo by Emily Stone
Sometimes the water will make its way down a moulin for a short distance and then find a horizontal route through the ice. Sometimes the water makes it all the way to the ground surface and flows under the glacier. Moulins play an important role in carrying water and sediment from the surface of the glacier into its depths. Mount Telemark, a 380-foot-tall old ski hill in Northern Wisconsin, was probably built by water-born sediment that poured into a large moulin 14,000 years ago at the end of the continental glaciation. I was thrilled to see a much smaller version of this glacial feature in action.

We all took a few more photos before making our way off this foreign land. While on the ice it felt like a fairytale winter. Luminous clouds hovered above, and luminous ice sat deceptively solid below. High and wide we stepped closer to the edge, the ratio of dirt to ice under our feet increasing steadily until we were back on the piles of sediment at the glacier’s lateral margin.

Our world is changing quickly. The thought that these glaciers are melting is a little terrifying. And yet, I’m intensely curious to witness the landscapes they will reveal. Several thousand years ago, the Chippewa and Superior Lobes of the Laurentide Ice Sheet melted away from the place I now call home. I ski on piles of sediment they left behind. I swim in lakes formed by melting ice blocks. Many times I’ve craned my neck back and gazed upward, trying to imagine the mile of ice that once loomed above my head. After exploring these living glaciers of Alaska, I feel like I better understand my own home.

Emily is in Alaska for the summer! Follow the journey in this column, and see additional stories and photos on her blog:

For 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new exhibit: “Bee Amazed!” is open.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Hey Bear!

I've been doing a fair amount of solo hiking while in Alaska, which means that I'm in the habit of saying "hey bear!" loudly at regular intervals. I had thought about getting bear bells to attach to my pack, but I'm glad I didn't because the rangers here say that they don't work nearly as well as the human voice. 

Earlier in the summer I was in Anchorage visiting a friend (Tom Doolittle—the first Naturalist hired by Lois Nestel at the Cable Natural History Museum). Mostly I was doing trip planning and homework, but I wanted to get some fresh air, too. Tom had been raving about the Upper Huffman Trailhead in Chugach State Park, on the hill just above town, so that's where I headed. 

The parking lot was completely empty—a far cry from the nearby Flattop Trail I’d hiked earlier that had a herd of people on it. 

I headed out on the trail. It was pretty wide and gravely, but tunneled through thick brush and shrubs. Tall grasses lined the trail, too. On some of the trees, I saw where moose had scraped the bark off during the winter.

I also noticed a couple piles of what might have been bear scat, and a couple piles of what was definitely bear scat! This time of year it’s very fibrous because of the plants they're eating. Moose scat is much better digested because of their four-parted ruminant stomachs.

All the while I hiked through this, every 5-10 seconds, I called out "Hey Bear! Hey yo!"

Then, as I was passing through an area that felt a little more open because it was just tall grasses near the trail, I heard what sounded like a tree falling back in a little grove of mountain hemlocks. If I was in Iowa, the sound could only have been a rotten tree or branch finally giving way. However, I'm in Alaska. I yelled “Hey Bear” more loudly, and tried to peer into the grove to see what was causing the noise.

A cow moose burst out of the grove and galloped through the grass toward the trail I was hiking! Well, with moose you're supposed to run away. So I jogged a few steps back the way I came. Luckily she angled away from me and disappeared around the corner to the left at a T-intersection up ahead. 

Few! That was a little close for comfort!

Now I had to decide what to do. I wanted to hike another couple miles. I figured that if she turned left at the T, I could probably turn right at the T and be ok. Before I could walk more than a few steps in that direction, the grass rustled again.

This time a BROWN BEAR burst out of the bushes! I started to grab for my bear spray, but he was loping away from me, following the exact path of the moose. He looked over his shoulder at me as I said “HEY BEAR” even louder (and maybe a little more shakily) than before, but he kept on going and disappeared around the corner. I stopped reaching for my bear spray, and grabbed my cell phone camera instead. I just had time to snap one quick photo.

It took me more than a month in Alaska to see a bear, and this was a pretty exciting encounter. 

It was a little too exciting for a solo hike, though. I turned around, went back to my car, and drove to a different trailhead. I was heartened because there were two other cars in the pull-off. I wouldn't be alone out there. 

This gravel trail was even wider, although the same thick brush closed in on both sides. “Hey Bear!” I was hiking up a slight hill, and pretty soon a group of six women and three dogs came hiking down the trail toward me. A bear would have no trouble hearing them! Heartened even more, I kept going. 

Then I came to an intersection. The SAME intersection where I had seen the bear and the moose disappear around the corner. I (and the ladies) had unknowingly hiked up the same trail the bear and moose had just run down. “Hey Bear!” It probably would have been fine to keep hiking, but the scenery among all those shrubs just didn't feel worth it anymore. Not by myself. “Hey Bear!” I was tempted to run after the group of friends and ask to tag along. 

Instead, I just turned around and “Hey Bear!” started hiking back to my car. “Hey Bear!”

Halfway back, I heard some hollow thuds in the brush, like something heavy on airy ground. “Hey Bear!” Then I saw a huge rack of antlers above the first row of shrubs. “Hey Moose!” My heart started racing again! Moose aren't predators, but they are said to be nearsighted, easily spooked, and need a wide personal bubble. They are also huge. “Hey Moose!”

He ran off diagonally across the trail between me and my car and disappeared surprisingly easily into the brush. “Hey Moose!”

I waited a minute, then cautiously walked to where he had crossed the trail. There was a definite path into the brush, and also heavily moose-browsed shrubs sticking up out of the grass. “Hey Bear!”

Once back at my car, I decided to return to the busy Flattop Trailhead and hike among humans for a few miles. I ended up having a fun chat with two girls from California—one is a teacher on summer break, the other is taking a leave of absence from her job. They were super excited about my recent wildlife sightings. Now that I was safe and with others, I was, too.

Emily is in Alaska for the summer! Follow the journey in this column, and see additional stories and photos on her blog:

For 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new exhibit: “Bee Amazed!” is open.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Paddling Among Icebergs

After my spectacular hike up to the Harding Ice Field in Kenai Fjords National Park, I wanted to do more than just look down onto the complex world of glacial ice from high above. Through a friend from Northland College, I discovered that Adventure 60 North, a guide service in Seward, runs sea kayak trips to the toe of a calving glacier.

I was glad for my brand-new, bright green rain jacket as I boarded a water taxi the next morning in the cold, steady drizzle I’ve come to expect from Alaska. Back at the Adventure 60 North shop, our guides, Sunny and Nick, had outfitted us with dry bags for our stuff, and supplied any other gear we didn’t already own. After two-and-a-half months in Alaska, I was well-prepared with the ubiquitous brown Xtratuf boots, rain pants, and my cheerfully green jacket.

The water taxi ride itself was spectacularly filled with sea otters, orcas, two kinds of puffins, rocky cliffs and crags, sea lions, a bristle-thighed curlew, hot coffee, and good conversation. I’ll probably write more about all that later! For now, let’s focus on how cool it felt to be paddling in a kayak among bobbing chunks of glacial ice.

We glided through the maze of mini-bergs for a while, having landed on the gravely beach of a glacial moraine about two miles from the current glacial terminus to switch from one type of boat to another. Neoprene pogies—which are little hand pockets that Velcro around the paddle shaft—kept our hands warm despite the ice water. About a half-mile from the glacier’s front we paused and floated, admiring the huge, pale-blue tongue of ice that reached down out of the clouds and into the sea.

Suddenly, thunder rumbled. A little bubble of excitement rose up in my chest. I love thunderstorms, and I’ve missed them while in Alaska. This was even better. The ice itself was rumbling. We searched the blue cliff at the water’s edge for movement, but found none. The movement must have been farther up the glacier, or deep within. After a few moments, thunder rumbled again. This time we watched a chunk of ice tumble into the sea. A small white avalanche of crushed ice poured in behind it, and a wave spread out from the glacier. We gasped and cheered.

Glaciers are constantly moving, after all, that’s what makes them glaciers. During the hundreds of years that snow built up and compressed older snow beneath it, pressed out all the air bubbles, and caused the crystals to reform into dense ice, it wasn’t a glacier. Finally, when that huge mass of ice began to flow downhill or out toward its margins under its own weight, a glacier was born.

Aialik Glacier, the one we were scanning for action, moves forward two to four feet per day. Under pressure, ice can bend and flow. Near the glacier’s surface, however, the brittle ice must crack to accommodate the hidden topography below. A glacier’s speed is due to a combination of the ice’s thickness, the gradient of its valley, and the presence of water at its base. Add in the fact Aialik is a tidewater glacier that ends in warm, constantly fluctuating seawater, and you have a very dynamic system.

We studied the heavily crevassed surface of the glacier, and all made guesses about which section would go next. Sunny had explained that the spires of ice formed by intersecting crevasses were called seracs. Three out of the seven paddlers in our group pointed to the same, precarious-looking section. Minutes later, thunder rumbled and that heavily fractured serac splashed into the sea. After several minutes more, we bobbed on its wake.

Thunderous calving into the ocean was exciting, but I still wanted to get up close and personal with big icebergs. A few days later I filled the last spot on another kayak trip, this time with Anadyr Adventures in Valdez. This adventure skipped the water taxi and delivered us by van right to the shore of a little proglacial lake just outside of town. The Valdez Glacier had scoured a deep valley, dammed one end with a moraine, and melted back. Even though this lake wasn’t affected by tides like Aialik Glacier, water still lubricated turmoil at the toe.

Our morning at Valdez Glacier Lake began in thick fog. This canoe soon launched full of four grown men, two of whom carried huge camera lenses. Photo by Emily Stone.
We launched inflatable kayaks onto mirror-calm water in a dense fog. Huge icebergs loomed in the shallows. Someone made a joke about the Titanic, but that didn’t stop us from paddling up for a closer look. Most bergs were heaped with blankets and piles of wet, brown sediments, which indicated that they were floating upright, in the same orientation as when they’d been attached to the glacier. Where chunks had broken off to reveal their inner ice, though, the crystals were huge, sparkling, and made luminous patterns of white and blue.

Although our day began in thick fog, blue sky hovered above. Seeing the lake and icebergs in both lights was a fun part of the experience. Photo by Emily Stone
Up close, the broken and melting sides of the icebergs were a luminous blue. Our inflatable, sit-on-top, tandem kayaks felt very stable and maneuvered easily for a closer look. Photo by Emily Stone.
Glacial ice is dense, with very little air. As light passes through it, the wavelengths of red and yellow light are absorbed, and blue light is scattered and reflected back to our eyes. The deeper the light penetrates into the ice, the more blue it appears. Snow and ice with more air among their crystals scatter light back from their surface.

A few bergs were pure white, at least from a distance. Those had rolled over, exposing their cleaner core of ice (which gains air as they melt, making them white instead of blue), and dumping their sediment load into the lake. Today, the ice dripped placidly, melting bit by bit. Our guide, though, has watched these behemoths split, roll over, and shatter. As I ran my hand along the smooth, wet side of one berg, I was grateful for the contrasting lack of thunder on this adventure.

One of our group explored near two icebergs that have rolled over, exposing clean ice and dumping sediment into the lake. Behind the left hand iceberg you can see the deep canyon containing the Valdez Glacier. Photo by Emily Stone.
After lunch, the fog burned off and revealed a brilliant blue sky. We scrambled up a canyon wall to get a better look at the glacier itself. The brown and white striped river of ice flowed from around a corner and into view. At the terminus lay a jumble of broken, dirty ice chunks, in the process of detaching fully into the lake. With bright sun illuminating everything, the lake seemed small; in the fog, we might have been on an endless sea.
Valdez Glacier is a river of ice, with a healthy dose of rocks and gravel mixed in. It seems to flow relatively smoothly back in the canyon, but becomes unstable and breaks up as its terminus hits the lake it created. Photo by Emily Stone.
Ever since I discovered how to read the glaciated landscape of Northern Minnesota and Wisconsin, I’ve been fascinated by these massive forces of nature. Admiring them from afar, seeing them up close, paddling among icebergs, touching their ice…glaciers are even more amazing than I’d expected…and I’m not done exploring them!

Emily is in Alaska for the summer! Follow the journey in this column, and see additional stories and photos on her blog:

For 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new exhibit: “Bee Amazed!” is open.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Harding Icefield

The still air was heavy with moisture as I hiked up the Harding Icefield Trail in Kenai Fjords National Park outside Seward, Alaska. Dense clouds hung low, and fingers of fog crept up the valleys. It was typical weather for a temperate rainforest, I kept reminding myself, but gloomy all the same.

As a family of hikers containing three generations picked their way up one of the many sets of rock stairs ahead of me, I used the delay to look around. In a patch of vibrant fuchsia fireweed flowers, dewdrops clung to pink-and-white swirled pistils. Their delicate beauty was just as rewarding as a spectacular vista would have been.

My focus stayed close as I gained elevation. Above tree line the meadows were overflowing with rainbows of flowers, and smallish bumblebees—the workers—buzzed drunkenly from one blossom to the next. A brown bear and her two cubs wallowed in the flowers maybe 30 yards up from the trail. While the kids ran higher up to the scree slope, she paid hikers no mind and focused all of her attention on eating the lush growth.

At a place called Marmot Meadows, I waded through lush growth that threatened to hide a side trail, and popped out on a rock overlooking the ice-filled valley of Exit Glacier. At my feet the shale was smoothed and rounded; its surface hash-marked with glacial striations. The bottom of a glacier is essentially a giant piece of sandpaper with rocks of all sizes frozen into the matrix. Glaciers have the power to polish bedrock as the ice slides and grinds its way downhill.

Exit Glacier is one of 38 moving tongues of ice that spill outward from the Harding Icefield in the Kenai Mountains of Alaska. Photo by Emily Stone.
Looking out from the striations at my feet, I peered over the edge and many yards down a steep scree slope to where the wrinkled, cracked, striped, and dirty ice now flowed. How long since it had covered this overlook? How long since blue ice had bloomed on these meadows instead of flowers?

Looking up through wisps of fog, I stared at the top of the glacier where it seemed to emanate from a bright spot in the sky like a prehistoric tongue. That’s where I was headed. Up there, just out of sight, sprawled the Harding Icefield.

Cresting the final ridge of bedrock and loose debris, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The trail had contoured along a hillside of tundra festooned with the nodding white flowers of bell heather. I’d learned to identify those same flowers weeks ago at a lower elevation.  Gaining even more altitude, I slipped and slid through soggy old snow patches tinged with pink algae and across damp hillsides of loose rock. A sure-footed mountain goat and her kid disappeared over a bedrock cliff. Marmots whistled from their lookout rocks.  Dense clouds hung low, and the air was full of moisture, so the view from the top of the trail mostly contained an expanse of gray sky over gray snow, with a soft white light dividing them. Despite the dim light and reduced visibility, it was easy to feel small here on the edge of the largest icefield entirely contained within the United States.

Hoary marmots are the largest members of the squirrel family in North America. They feed on flowers, berries and lichen in the alpine zone, and hibernate in their year-round dens. Photo by Emily Stone. 
The ocean provides this region with plentiful moisture in both summer and winter. Current annual snowfall totals are somewhere around 60 feet. As the weight of new snow compresses the old, the air is forced out, ice crystals grow, and it becomes more dense. The process of squeezing air out of snow changes its color from white to blue. When enough ice has accumulated, it begins to spread from the center and flow downhill under its own weight. A glacier is born. This 300 square-mile Harding Ice Field covers a mountain range under ice several thousand feet thick, and flows out into 38 glaciers.

The Harding Icefield is located in the Kenai Mountains of the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska. It feeds at least 38 glaciers, including Exit Glacier. Photo by Emily Stone.
With a mixture of longing and trepidation I studied the patterns of crevasses that wrinkled the surface of Exit Glacier as it poured off the main mass and down its valley. Wouldn’t it be exciting to explore that fractured surface? Those features are born of the glacier’s continuous advance. As the mass maneuvers around corners and over obstructions, the surface of the ice must stretch wider. When the ice stretches past its stress limit, crevasses crack open.

Movement is part of the definition of a glacier, and yet I was surprised to learn that this one is traveling down the valley at about two feet per day. That seems fast for something that appears solid and lumbering. Even so, its terminus is melting faster. The furthest extent of its ice has retreated more than 1.25 miles since it was first mapped in 1815. In fact, all Alaskan glaciers below about 4,905 feet in elevation are melting.

As the toe of Exit Glacier retreats up its valley, the National Park Service has tried to keep up by building longer trails and new overlooks to retain the easy access this glacier is famous for. They’ve reached a stopping point, though, where steep cliffs prevent further access from below. Future views may require everyone to pick their way up steep stone staircases just like the intergenerational family I passed earlier. Will fewer individuals be able to make it?

We could ask the same question about the bears, and mountain goats, and flowers. They might not need the ice, exactly, but they have adapted to certain habitats and climatic conditions. Rapid change isn’t just coming, it’s already here. With that thought on my mind, the clouds finally coalesced into rain, and we all made our way downhill.

Emily is in Alaska for the summer! Follow the journey in this column, and see additional stories and photos on her blog:

For 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new exhibit: “Bee Amazed!” is open.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Camp Denali

Bright sun poked through scattered clouds as I boarded a bus at the Denali Park Depot. Ever since my graduate advisor and then a classmate told me about the amazing experiences they’d had at Camp Denali, I’d been looking forward to visiting. And now it was about to happen.

The Polychrome Overlook at Mile 46 on Park Road is a spectacular vista. Photo by Emily Stone.
What is the draw? Besides a rustic lodge deep inside one of our wildest national parks, I’d been lured in with tales of daily excursions led by talented naturalist guides; a tight-knit community; and amazing food. Somehow the stars had aligned, generosity had been extended, and I was on my way.

My first thrill was learning that Drew—a naturalist guide and today’s bus driver—had majored in geology at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, and also has a masters of education. Most of the guides, I soon discovered, were vastly overqualified, but had found their special place.

“This is an essentially intact, subarctic ecosystem,” Drew began. Barely past park headquarters, Drew also commented on water in the ditches. It hadn’t rained lately. That water was seeping out of thawing permafrost. The boreal forest thrives here in the cold soil. Despite having frozen toes, these sun-drenched northern forests produce more oxygen than any other ecosystem during the summer. Their productivity, which includes the infamous biting insects of Alaska (which so far have not been worse than Wisconsin), attracts an incredible number of migratory birds.

As Drew narrated the history of fault lines, the formation of mountains, and the ebb and flow of glaciers, wildlife sightings interrupted him continually. A willow ptarmigan—cousin to the ruffed grouse of Wisconsin—crossed the road. Wildflowers danced in the sunshine. At one overlook we stopped to look at a golden eagle’s nest through the spotting scope Drew brought off the bus. Just beyond that we stopped to peer at a gyrfalcon (a rarely seen arctic cousin of the peregrine falcon) on a rock outcrop. Dall sheep, caribou, and two families of grizzly bears with two cubs each rounded out our wildlife sightings.

The willow ptarmigan is the state bird of Alaska (not the mosquito!). Its ancestors have roamed the tundra of North America, Scandinavia, and Siberia for tens of thousands of years.
Photo by Emily Stone.
Drew, one of our naturalist guides, was always eager to bring out his spotting scope to help guests get a better view of wildlife from a safe distance. Photo by Emily Stone
And then there was the mountain. The famed Denali coyly played peekaboo behind the clouds. Its North Peak was visible, but the higher South Peak stayed hidden. In the late afternoon light, its snowy shoulders glowed.

Denali (previously known also as Mount McKinley) is the highest mountain peak in North America. Its peaks are often shrouded in clouds. Photo by Emily Stone.
I was thrilled to see the bears and The Mountain, of course, but my favorite sighting was a little different. Near the end of our drive—almost to the end of the 92-mile Park Road—Drew pointed out a lumpy stretch of grass-covered ground in the distance. That’s stale ice, he explained, leftover from when the Muldrow Glacier made a surging advance 800 years ago. A field of ice broke off from the main glacier as it melted back and became buried in sediments. Pioneering plants colonized the hills, despite their frigid cores. It continues to melt slowly.

Why was that so exciting to me? Well, 10,000 years ago when the glaciers retreated out of Wisconsin and Minnesota, many places on the landscape—including my own backyard—would have looked very similar.

Connections seemed to be the theme of my stay. The naturalist guides, staff, and other guests were all friendly and welcoming. Because all the guests arrived on the same day, ate family style, and chose from the same field trips, we had many chances to get to know one another. I loved sharing my new wildflower knowledge with other interested folks, as well as learning new plants from the naturalist guides. All of our hikes were off-trail, so having those experienced guides leading the way was confidence inspiring.

The second full day dawned gray and rainy, but Alaskans don’t change their plans because of weather, so I chose the strenuous hike in order to stay warm. We struck out across tundra hills carpeted with wildflowers. After spotting a small herd of caribou nearby, our guide had us herd up, too. No sooner did we come together than more caribou galloped out from behind a hill, swerved toward us, and then—like a school of fish—darted away. The sound of their hoofbeats echoed in our chests.

The kettle-pond-dappled tundra in Denali is very reminiscent of glacial landscapes in northern Wisconsin and Minnesota. Although the ponds haven’t become floating mat bogs, the ground itself is feels reminiscent of walking on one. Photo by Emily Stone.
This place seems to echo in a lot of people’s chests. One evening I sat down with Jenna—who grew up here and now runs the lodge—overlooking the camp’s tiny pond. I shared highlights from the guided hike I’d been on, and commented on how fun it was to see southerners walking on spongy tundra so similar to my bogs and fens back home. She nodded. “I hope people take home the desire to learn more about their own backyards. And by having people for more than one day, by offering progressively more in-depth experiences, we are creating stewards of the park left and right.”

After dinner, we engaged in a little tradition they call “Hike Highlights,” where one person from each group shared thoughts from the day. Gloria, who had been on my hike, talked about these large Alaskan parks feeling mysterious and inaccessible. Most people just see them as circles drawn on a map, with little notion of what’s there. “But now we know what’s inside the circle.”

Another guest named Brian had been on the moderate hike, where they’d spent some time viewing waterfowl through a scope. “You know,” he started, “our guide mentioned how protective he feels about the park, and I didn’t think much of it. Then, as we were watching these ducks, another group of visitors across the lake started getting a little loud and rowdy. I bristled and glared, and realized that after just three days, I felt protective about this place, too.”

The morning bus ride out alternated between a quiet and contemplative mood, and new friends chatting about one last thing. As I studied the map and reflected on the wonderful community I’d just found, it struck me that maybe I had just traveled to the heart of Denali National Park.

Emily is in Alaska for the summer! Follow the journey in this column, and see additional stories and photos on her blog:

For 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new exhibit: “Bee Amazed!” is open.