Thursday, July 7, 2011

Grewingk Glacier Hike

We see Grewingk Glacier every day from our yard, so it is an everyday sight. We were spending 4 days camping on Right Beach near the Grewingk Glacier trailhead this past weekend and we were hoping for an opportunity to get closer to the glacier than the Grewingk Glacier Lake. I took a look at the map and figured it would be a 6 mile hike one way, which would make it 12 round trip--a long day hike. I wasn't sure I was up for it, but Aurora was really pushing for it, and Douglas was willing to go so I decided to pack a day pack and go.

I'd been up till 3 am the night before and slept in till 10, ate a hearty breakfast of pancakes and it was 12:30 before we finally made the the decision to GO! We've been doing so much backpacking and camping lately that I have my 'essentials' down pat, so our day pack contained lunch (summer sausage, cheese & crackers), snacks (pepperoni sticks, granola bars), 3 waterbottles, a water filter, rain gear, a first aid kit, hat and gloves, a lighter, a map, my iPhone (for the camera if not reception), bug dope, sunscreen and baseball cap.

It was a mile from our campsite to the Grewingk Glacier trailhead. When we got to the trailhead, the mileage said it was 6.5 miles to the glacier. Yipes! That meant 7.5 miles one way, or 15 miles round trip!! Were were up for this? Aurora was--I'm not sure Douglas and I were, but we were taking this one leg of the journey at a time.

The first 2.5 miles from the Glacier Spit to the tram were fairly smooth on a hard-packed trail. The first section was through the woods, while the next section traversed over the glacial river basin area so the trail was rocky and the vegetation was primarily short, scrubby poplar trees.

Things got interesting when we arrived at the tram. This is basically a rope on a pulley system strung across the river (in this case, the river that runs from Grewingk Glacier and Lake to Kachemak Bay) with a little 2-seater metal box hanging from it. A wooden platform at each end is the staging area for pulling yourself across the river by pulling on the ropes. When we arrived the tram was on the other side so we had to pull it across to our side. Aurora and I boarded and then I pulled on the rope from the tram and Douglas pulled on the rope from shore. My heartrate shot up and my arms felt like they were going to drop off in short order. It was much more difficult to pull this tram than the one in Girdwood. Once we got to the other side, Aurora and I got out and we all heaved on the rope to get it back to Douglas's side to pick him up. It was not much easier whether someone was in it or not. We got our technique down for putting the most heave on the rope at a time and utilized our legs and core muscles rather than just our arms. Another 10 minutes and we had Douglas on our side, and we all stood there heaving and sweating, dreading the return trip.

Once we crossed the river the trail began to climb. I'd been expecting it to follow the river and stay on the flats but it went up and up and up--500 feet as I discovered later when I finally looked at the map. The trail wound right along the edge of the steep dropoff at times, making me think twice about my footing. The trail was in awesome shape: it looked like it had been weedwacked just a few days before so there was a couple feet swath on each side of the trail cleared, saving us the challenge of dodging pushki that might have been hanging over the trail. We got some great views of the Grewingk Lake and huge hunks of ice floating in it, as well as peeks at the glacier itself.

Once we got to the top of this huge hummock (some glacier creation perhaps), we descended it back to the glacial outwash flats again. As we neared the glacier, we climbed a bit through a forest and between a giant rock outcropping (which we can see from our house and is on the left of the picture below) and the mountainside. Once past that, the trail got really rough and in some places nonexistent as it meandered among boulders and fresh glacier fallout. When we finally reached one high esker? moraine? we got a good view of the glacier itself. At that point I was so tired it would have taken a lot to get me to go any further closer to the glacier. I figure it would have been another hour of scrambling over boulders and whatnot to actually touch the glacier ice.

We stopped for lunch in view of the glacier, scarfing down the sausage, cheese and crackers and downing the last of our water after bundling up in the face of the cold glacier breeze. A group was camped at a non-glacial lake near our stopping point for lunch (pictured here), and I considered that would have been much more humane than hiking 15 miles round trip in a day.

A fresh water stream cross our path a few minutes down the trail from the glacier so we stopped and filled up our waterbottles and then started on, feeling the energy from the food revving us up. I was feeling quite woozy and had known I needed food and water, and it was amazing what a difference the fuel made for my brain. Climbing back up the 500 foot hummock I felt good and strong, and my attitude was stoic as we approached the tram once again. But my arm muscles still got a workout to exhaustion, especially since someone had come by since we'd been there and the tram was on the other side.

The disadvantage to camping on Right Beach is that it is only accessible by water at high tide since it is bordered by cliffs that jut into the water. There is also a river at Left Beach that floods a lagoon each tide and then clears out. Depending on the tide, the river can be too high to cross. High tide was at 5:11 that day and we were going to be coming through at about 7:45 p.m. so we figured it would have gone down enough that we could get through, but our backup plan was to call my uncle to come get us in the boat or else sit and wait. The river was still about thigh deep, so Douglas and I just forded it with our boots on. It felt luscious on our tired feet and legs and I could have stood there for awhile. The water was still pummeling the base of the cliff onto Right Beach, but it was low enough that we could climb over the rocks, carefully avoiding ripping ourselves on the barnacles.

Relief! We were back! It took us 7 1/2 hours to hike the 15 miles, including tram time. We'd done that distance with backpacks only days before. Amazingly, I was not at all sore the next day. I was tired, but not hurting. I have to admit that I find the Grewingk Glacier to be much more spectacular from our house than it was close up, but it was still worth the hike for the sense of accomplishment and adventure of exploration.

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