Posts by Jeremy Pataky

Life by Ice: An Alaskan Poet’s Account

Posted by on Feb 18, 2016 in All Posts, Art/Culture, Experiences, Featured Posts, Uncategorized | 0 comments

Life by Ice: An Alaskan Poet’s Account

Spread the News:ShareI 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. 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. 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...

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