Friday, September 19, 2008

Helicopters and Trains

Atop Mead Glacier outside of Skagway

September 11
By the time that we docked at our last destination -- Skagway, Alaska -- the third stop in as many days, I was a bit disappointed. The reason was that I had booked an Alaskan four-glacier helicopter tour for the afternoon the ship was docked in Juneau. As it turned out, all air excursions were canceled due to low cloud cover. So, I hastily rebooked another air adventure -- a helicopter landing on one glacier -- before the excursion office closed on Wednesday afternoon. If things worked out, I would be on a morning flight to just one glacier at a little bit of a reduced rate, but with a bit more time spent on the glacier itself. That morning I steeled myself for what would be the third helicopter ride of my life, the first and second being airlifts out of the Grand Canyon. The bus picked up our party and we arrived in time to be one of the first six helicopter parties to fly out onto Mead Glacier, about 25 minutes flight away from the heliport. Because of my weight, I was chosen to sit in front of the vehicle, while the three ladies on the trip sat behind me. We followed the other five helicopters rising majestically in the air like proud birds rising above the landscape and then moving at breakneck speed some 2,000 feet above the Alaskan Inner Passage. Wow! What a ride! At such a height it is almost impossible to take in all of the beauty and splendor of the countryside, but it was nothing short of overwhelming. By the time we flew towards the incredible Mead Glacier and landed there, my senses were on overdrive. A glacier is a dirty place and, yet, the water that pours off of it is incredibly pure. I was actually able to drink glacier water while there, cupping my hands and making a perfect drinking cup to hold waters half a millenium old. It may not have been the Fountain of Youth, but it tasted very good, albeit very cold. By the time that our 25 minutes had been used up, we had been exposed to all manner of glacier features including the deep crevasses and moraines, which make the glaciers appear soiled because they carry much of the fine, powdery material that is deposited and moved along by the glaciers as they grind their way slowly downward. Glaciers are essentially frozen anvils of ice that move from high perches and make their way toward the sea, smoothing every in their paths. They are also moved along by small rivers of water that permeate the entire structure and lubricate the giant ice formations as they move ever slowly downward. While atop the Mead Glacier, I was able to view deep crevasses carved out by rivulets and streams of melting water that cut through the structure.
Later that afternoon it was time for me to take the White Pass and Yukon Railroad, built just after the Yukon Gold Rush, the biggest gold rush ever known. The railroad constructed over the Chilkroot Pass was considered something of a modern marvel in that it reached heights only dreamed of by miners of the late 1890's. Althought the track is a smaller-than-normal gauge, the train that runs upon it is well managed and the picturesque sights along the way to the top and looking down towards the valley make for an incredible adventure. The track runs all the way into British Columbia, so everyone had to have their passports before driving back across the border into the United States after the train ride was over.The last part of our adventure consisted of stopping at Liarsville, a depiction of a Klondike gold village that would have been considered accurate back in the late 1890s. Several of the performers were quite fun to be around and afterwards we all panned for gold just like the hopeful miners did back in the day. On the way back we steeled ourselves for the final day of voyaging that would take us to the College Fjords, home of the biggest confluence of glaciers in the Alaska inner Passage, the next day.

Deep crevasses of blue hue mark all glaciers.

Deep crevasses cut into glaciers

White Pass and Yukon Railroad moving up the railway.

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