Life by Ice: An Alaskan Poet’s Account

A view of Donoho Falls Lake bed and Root Glacier (source: J. Pataky)
A view of Donoho Falls Lake bed and Root Glacier (source: J. Pataky)

I couldn’t have known, ten years ago, how that first little taste of Wrangell Mountains backcountry would lead to an obsession with glaciers. I’d had some first dates with Alaska’s Kennicott Valley in prior years, including memorable forays on the accessible Root Glacier. It set the hook hard, with its crisp trim lines, succession zones, blue crevasses, yawning moulins, cyroconite holes, verdant mossballs, glacier tables, blue pools, surface streams, and its svelte medial moraine pointing toward the Stairway Icefall, the second tallest in the world.

The odd wheezes of compressed air escaping ice-trapped bubbles, the crunch of crampons, and the many notes of flowing water soundtracked that first glacier hike. I crossed the ice and descended into the empty bowl of a small, glacially-dammed lake. A glacier cave swallowed water flowing from Donoho Falls, and I couldn’t resist following it into the darkness beneath the ice.

Moss polster or "mossball" (source: J. Pataky)
Moss polster or “mossball” (source: J. Pataky)

The Root flows into the larger Kennicott Glacier, and likewise, those Root hikes led to a multiday Kennicott traverse in 2006. The Kennicott and Root are just two of over 3,000 glaciers in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. I felt an incontrovertible shift during that trip in the park, the first of many. Even an hour spent riding shotgun in a bush plane a couple of years earlier had only revealed a modest portion of the park, which is considerably larger than Switzerland. I saw mile-high cliffs perched by Dall sheep and silver braids of glacial streams. Volcanic steam vented into thin, cold air above Mount Wrangell, and mountains upon mountains stretched as far as we could see.

Last winter, almost a decade after that first trip, my book of poetry, Overwinter, was published. “Traverse” (available here) is the oldest poem in the book. It recalls that first multiday trip and draws on some of the sensory details that stood out. The plan was simple: fly to the Fosse and walk back. No permits, no fee, no lines, and no handrails. My hiking companion, Margot, and I stood in the belly of a fosse, like a natural ditch between a mountain and a tall moraine. This one was large enough for a small plane to land inside, and is known locally as the Fosse. The Cessna that left us roared off into a dry, warm July to diminuendo into the glaciated offing’s quiet.

Glacier cave in Donoho Falls Lake, Root Glacier (source: J. Pataky)
Glacier cave in Donoho Falls Lake, Root Glacier (source: J. Pataky)

It was a short, classic first Wrangells multiday for us both. The flight out gave us a raven’s-eye view of our route below Mount Blackburn, one of the tallest mountains on the continent and the rarely-climbed source of the Kennicott’s ice. From vantages on the ground, we could see Kennecott, an iconic old copper mill town that had been the hub of a phenomenal copper bonanza. The distant outcrop of large buildings was dwarfed below high ridges, situated just above the rocky surface of the stagnating lower Kennicott. Kennecott (the spellings differentiate natural features from manmade ones) would mark “The End” of our jaunt.

From the Fosse, we ascended the ridge separating the valley from the perpendicular Hidden Creek Valley. We hunched through mountain goat tunnels trailing through alders, stuffing pockets with goat fur snagged in branches. We peered into the narrow valley where the river—or “creek”, in proper Alaskan understatement—feeds a glacially-dammed lake full of bergs peeled off the thick Kennicott ice edge. House-sized blocks had floated across the lake; soon the ice dam would break and a jökulhlaup would drain the water, stranding the ice in the mud.

We hiked out and found a route onto the glacier. Far out and eastbound, we crested a rocky moraine to encounter four startled mountain goats heading west. I fingered the wool in my pockets and imagined them climbing up and shoving through the alders where we’d been just hours earlier. I was stunned to encounter them on the ice, and have never seen goats on a glacier since, though I’ve found their skulls and bones several times. In fact, I’ve come across the remains of all kinds of animals in the backcountry (near, but usually not on, glaciers)—goats, caribou, bears, hares, moose, and more.

Looking down at the Fosse and the upper Kennicott Glacier (source: J. Pataky)
Looking down at the Fosse and the upper Kennicott Glacier (source: J. Pataky)

Poet and friend Alyse Knorr observed that Overwinter hybridizes the nature poem and love poem traditions. The last poem in the book is called “The Wild Dead” (available here) and draws on many discoveries of dead animals in the landscape alongside the emotional space of a relationship’s end. Our notions of specific places are often influenced by the human relationships that unfold in them. Likewise, our love of places can teach us something about getting on with one another. The attention to dead wildlife is not a morbid fascination, but a recognition of the link they demonstrate between death and renewal. Once, I followed wolf tracks through snow and mud to a caribou carcass. Friends tell a story about a boar grizzly eating two dead bear cubs that melted from the cone of a spring avalanche that killed them. Voles gnaw bone fragments for calcium. The glacier itself diminishes, but contributes to a watershed rife with salmon.

I spend about six months each year, now, on average, at my cabin near McCarthy about a mile from the toe of that glacier. The edge of the Bagley Icefield is a modest flight south. McCarthy is a magnet for independent homesteaders, scientists, artists, mountaineers, and travelers. Not to mention Swainson’s thrushes, violet green and barn swallows, chickadees, warblers, great horned owls, trumpeter swans….

The book is full of birds, animals, and glaciers, but it’s not “about” them. It is the product of a glaciated psyche, though, one that consistently chooses to inhabit a particular place. It felt fitting to complete the final revisions (including “Counting Down to a Destination within Bliss,” available here) in my own cabin after years of living in various temporary situations nearby. I built amid highbush cranberries, rare-for-there blueberries, and aromatic Labrador tea. The cabin bulls-eyes a mental map radiating outward, now, valley after glaciated valley.

I haven’t been here long, compared to many. Long enough, though, to see very dramatic changes in the retreating, thinning glaciers. I tune in to the seasonal changes around me, and I’ve come to respect the cultural nuances, also changing fast, unique to this kind of mountain landscape.

The ice melts, succession proceeds, and people live close by, telling stories by the light of propane mantles, fires, auroras, alpenglow, midnight sun, LEDs, headlamps, candles. On glaciers closer to the coast, elusive ice worms subsist on windblown pollen and algae. Somewhere on the upper Kennicott, goat bones bleach in summer sun on a glacier that slowly conveys their remains down valley. In town each summer, neighbors harvest glacier ice for cocktails from icebergs that have calved into the melt lake growing at the toe.

Middle Kennicott Glacier, with Hidden Creek Lake on the right, and Donoho Lakes on the left. (source: J. Pataky)
Middle Kennicott Glacier, with Hidden Creek Lake on the right, and Donoho Lakes on the left. (source: J. Pataky)

Word travels fast when Hidden Creek Lake bursts each summer far up the valley, causing the Kennicott River to rise in an outburst flood. We marvel at how far away the swollen river can be heard. We gather on the bridge and watch the water rise and course under us. We eye the bank, predicting how much will erode. We check equipment and vehicles parked nearby, remembering one major event that carried old chassis and machines downstream, creating new paddling hazards for years. We listen to old timers describe how close the glacier used to be to the bridge, and how the river’s extinct east channel dried up. We cheer when gigantic bergs or boulders ram the bridge pylons, sending vibrations up through our feet into our bones. Gazing at the silty river, we try to reconcile its sounds with the inevitable silence winter always brings.

GlacierHub readers may order copies of Overwinter discounted 20% off by emailing the book’s publisher: This offer is valid until 1 April 2016.

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