Friday, June 26, 2009
The land between glaciers
We went for a walk between glaciers: between the Knik glacier and the glacier-feed Lake George, skirting the shores of the lake. Once, the lake was much higher, much deeper, and prone to flooding out downriver as the ice dams broke. After the '64 earthquake, things changed, the glacier retreated, and the lake retreated as well.
Now, a few decades later, the lake is hemmed in by a terminal moraine, and where was once lakebed under sixty meters of water is now a dry, flat, level place with a thousand foot long runway worn into the dirt, dog-bone shaped with turnarounds at each end. It's the sort of place you can take even a nosewheel plane, to hike around.
(Below, the looking north at the Knik Glacier before landing.)
And so we did, in three planes, packed with nine people - of them, one born and raised here, most of us come by choice, and two visitors playing tourist. A nosewheel Maule hauled four, the Cessna 180 brought three, and the Citabria came fully loaded with two people on board. After several passes to watch for traffic, check out runway conditions, watch someone else land first, and decide everything was good, we touched down as smoothly and firmly as if it were a groomed gravel runway, taxiing to the end to pull around and park. (When operating on gravel or off-airport, it is extremely important to keep in mind where the wind and your prop wash are blowing the dust cloud behind you; your own dust trail can close the strip. It is also extremely rude to dust other people and their planes, if you have an alternative.)
Gathering to watch the last plane land, we decided to hike up the moraine that formed the rimwall of a higher Lake George, and set off on one of the clearer, low-brush parts. On the way, we found evidence that the land still shifts and cracks, moving underfoot; three laid-in tie-downs stood a ways off strip, separated by several gullies and quite impossible to land near or taxi to now.
The predominant plants are dwarf fireweed on the dry mud, reeds on the wetter, lower portions, and willow scrub (it's a low thicket bush here, not a tree), with alder scrub as well. Even with fourty years to grow, few things are higher than a tall man - the growing season is short in air chilled by the glaciers, with constant wind and sunlight blocked by the tall gorge's mountain walls. Not much grows here, and few things live here - the odd moose or bear wandering off the mountains on each side, but the dog didn't even give the slightest sign of scenting a rabbit.
Down the other side, we walked among the driftwood, asking the scientist among us if the wood there had been torn off the glacier in its passing from hillsides recently or been frozen in hundreds of years ago - no real way to tell, but that there was a lot of driftwood at the base of the glacier in a place where there was no other source for those splintered logs. So we stood, and talked, skipped rocks, shot each other's guns, and went hunting for the remains of a decades-ago downed airplane before stopping to share food. (It appears someone else salvaged everything since.)
On the way back, we encountered dwarf fireweed full of butterflies closing up their wings for the night - under the high overcast in the subarctic near summer solstice, it was impossible to tell the time by the light. So we went on up the glacier valley to Tuition Strip, so called as it cost someone a semester's tuition when they tried landing when it was still slick mud and wet lichen, not yet dried enough for traction. There was a still-muddy patch near one end, and though the runway had been thoughtfully marked off at lengths with bits of surveyor's tape, it still needed some work to make the heaviest and ground-hugging craft comfortable. So, we formed lines to walk down its length, pulling small willow scrub growing there, leaving a smoother, more prop-friendly strip behind us.
As it grew later, and the wind less, the mosquitoes came out - and so, we took off and went back to Birchwood for the night.