Natural Connections: Visiting Glaciers in Alaska and Wisconsin
By Emily Stone
Naturalist/Education Director, Cable Natural History Museum
It was just a diagram on my screen, but the carefully drawn cross-section of a glacier with kettles, kames, and eskers being revealed as the ice melted drew me in like a treasure map. Then, lost in thought, I stared past my computer screen to the snow-covered hills, valleys, and lake surrounding my home. The diagram had come to life.
As I work with a committee to design and build our new exhibit “The Northwoods ROCKS! Where Geology is the Foundation for Fun,” (opening in May!) I have geology on the brain. Thinking about the glaciers that once covered Northern Wisconsin also has me reminiscing about walking on and paddling next to modern glaciers during my four-month trip to Alaska in the summer of 2018.
Exit Glacier: Kenai Fjords National Park
At the Marmot Meadows overlook we began to descend out of a lush field of wildflowers and straight down toward the white, blue, and brown wrinkles of the glacier along a rocky trail.
The glacier’s surface was a gracefully sculpted expanse of luminous snow and ice, sprinkled liberally with brown dirt. 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.
Our guide led us to the edge of a moulin. He held onto my harness, and I peered into the cavity. 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, I watched a tiny stream glide over the surface and then cascade into the smooth, spiraling hole.
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.
Aialik Glacier: Kenai Fjords National Park
After a water taxi ride from the town of Seward southwest to another fjord, the group switched to kayaks and glided through a maze of mini-bergs. A half-mile from the glacier’s front we paused, 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 in my chest. I love thunderstorms, and I’ve missed them while in Alaska. This was even better. The ice itself was rumbling. 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.
Valdez Glacial Lake: Valdez, Alaska
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.
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.
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!
As we work on the new geology exhibit, I’m excited to help everyone understand how to see the footprint of past glaciers on our lakes, hills, trails, and Northwoods fun.
Note: Portions of this article were originally printed in 2018.
Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at www.cablemuseum.org/books and at your local independent bookstore, too.
For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Our Growing Up WILD exhibit will close on March 15, and The Northwoods ROCKS will open on May 2, 2023. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and www.cablemuseum.org to see what we are up to.