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Students learn a valuable lesson upon the ice

The Ice Students Cometh

Photographs by Colleen Kelley

by Chris Curran

THERE'S NO SUCH THING AS AN UGLY GLACIER. They do get a bit dirty in the summer when the winter snow melts off, but there really is no such thing as an ugly one.

I learned that lesson the hard way, trekking across 14 glaciers in south central Alaska for three weeks last August with UC geology professor Thomas Lowell and a group of students less than half my age. Lowell has studied glaciers as far away as Antarctica and New Zealand, and taught his Glacial Field Methods course in Iceland, Canada and the U.S. So he's seen a few glaciers over the years.

Yet no matter how hard I pressed, he would not name a favorite, simply saying with a smile, "There's no such thing as an ugly glacier." He treasures them all, and so do his students.

My adventures with the geological explorers, along with UC photographer Colleen Kelley, began with a hike up some snowy slopes to see Byron Glacier about an hour outside of Anchorage. Billed as the "easy, warmup hike," it seemed exhausting to me.

In the morning, as we approached Exit Glacier, I better understood the "easy" label. In less than an hour, I had reached the conclusion I was doomed.

"How high are we?" I wailed plaintively. "Not high enough," barked Dr. Lowell. He did try to encourage us, promising, "We'll climb just a little bit farther, and then we'll get some spectacular views."

Professor Lowell told us the climb would be on a relatively gentle slope covering a mere 3,000 feet in elevation. So why did this "simple hike up a hillside" take us six hours? Why did Colleen and I need to be "rescued" by Lowell who played pack mule and carried our gear the final 300 feet? And how did the students have the energy left to run from our spectacularly scenic plateau to the snowfields marking the beginning of the Harding Ice Field?

I asked a lot of questions during the trip. I got very few direct answers.

"I could tell you what to do, and you'd be done this afternoon, but if you discover it on your own, it's a far more valuable lesson," Lowell explained more than once to students frustrated at understanding how glaciers have changed since the Little Ice Age. Short answer: They're melting away at an increasingly rapid rate. The glaciers we enjoyed on this trip won't be the same next year, or even next month.

After the two-hour climb down Alaska's Exit Glacier, UC students discovered they were returning the next day. Thankfully, it turned out that the best way to study a glacier was not to climb 3,000 feet to a plateau, but to "bury your nose in them."

Professor Tom Lowell, Josh White, Josh Cooper and Amy Cochran at Kennicott Glacier.

Professor Tom Lowell, Josh White, Josh Cooper and Amy Cochran at Kennicott Glacier.

So on day two, we just cruised to the base of the glacier and stared for hours into the icy blue crevasses. Seeing the dangerous cracks up close helped me follow a basic course rule: Stay out of crevasses.

By the time the class wound its way to Portage Glacier, we were still crossing paths with tourists on a regular basis. Byron, Exit and Portage glaciers are popular stops that are easily accessible by road. Portage Glacier even has a big visitors center located near its picturesque iceberg-dotted lake.

We should have been in less of a hurry to get through town, as well. The other UC geology professor on the trip, Warren Huff, was clocked at the blistering speed of 26 miles per hour in a 15 mph zone. At least, the poor police officer seemed embarrassed as he let us go with a simple warning.

I'm not sure what the hurry was to get to our next stop, Whittier. The town has only one residential building, left from World War II, and two roads. They run parallel, separated by train tracks.

The only campground had been abandoned, and it was easy to see why. Although the backdrop is gorgeous, it was nothing but a windy, rocky old parking lot. Only the moraines (stone deposits) left behind by the glaciers had more rocks and gravel.

The best part of Whittier was the hospitality. It seemed that the entire town pitched in to help us connect to the Internet. The harbormaster and local hoteliers helped. They were even ready to send us to a local resident's condo when we finally connected at the local bar. This brief link with the real world, however, lasted for all of 30 seconds before we were cut off. There would be no chance to contact the Public Relations office back at UC for the next two days.

After a "restful" night in tents pitched on the rocks, we traded our two vans for two boats. Honey Charters (operated by former Cincinnatian Marilynn Heddell and her husband) ferried us across Blackstone Bay and dropped us off on a rocky spit of ground somewhere in the vicinity of Tebenkof Glacier. We hiked up a streambed of slippery rocks with the rest of the UC explorers in search of a campground away from the mass of mosquitoes near shore.

The slip-and-slide hike to the campsite was nothing compared with the trek to isolated Tebenkof Glacier itself. When I wasn't falling face-first into the stream, I was clawing my way through the thickets of alders along the bank.

Alders are tough little trees. They tangle their roots around the rocks, so you're never sure where you're stepping. I gave up counting bruises when they all merged into one purplish mass.


Rest for the weary came the next day when our chartered boats chugged through the mist and rain to pick us up for a cruise to Lawrence Glacier. After a short hike over rocks perilously close to a rushing torrent of icy water, we discovered our second ice cave in as many days. To me, it was another novelty to enjoy and explore. For the geologists, it was a chance to show the students exactly what happens as a glacier carves out a landscape. Glaciers don't always behave the way the textbooks say and that's the point of the course: to help students understand the difference between classroom learning and the realities of the field.

We returned to the boats for a choppy float across the icy remnants of Beloit Glacier, which sits on the edge of Blackstone Bay. The tiny ice chips are known as "bergy bits," too small to be considered real icebergs. But the crunching sound the propellers made left me wondering if there would be enough blades left to get us back to Whittier.

The only sound more incredible was the roar of the glacier when it birthed its bergy bits into the waters below. Beloit didn't behave, but Blackstone Glacier just around the corner put on a show to behold. An entire wall collapsed into the bay, and it was timeout for major league "oohs" and "ahhs!"

Several days into our expedition, while climbing the moraines left by Alaska's Kennecott Glacier, Lowell trusted Colleen and me to hike off on our own, out of view of the main group. Oddly enough, he also warned us to "sing to the bears" on our way down the slope where the students and researchers were working. Were we actually getting a head-start back home, or being treated as bear bait?

I didn't want an answer to that question. I sang as loudly and horridly as I knew how! No bears, no problem.

Catnwell glacier

Moving on without Colleen (a recent foot surgery had taken its toll and forced her to fly home early) we headed north, above the tree line, which meant it was time for the windiest, rainiest, coldest part of the trip. The bathroom door even warned, "Please close, so the wind doesn't knock the door off the hinges."

We explored the Cantwell glacier as a warmup to the students' primary research assignment: comparing the retreat of two glaciers. It took four days for the students to collect the data they needed.

After a final snowball fight and the last trip inside an ice cave -- a beauty that even had a "skylight" -- the students were ready for the concluding lesson. With 27-Mile Glacier melting in the bright summer sun, Professor Lowell challenged his students to put their science lessons to practical use and reach the general public.

"The retreat of these glaciers in the last 50 years is nothing compared with what's ahead in the next 50," said Lowell. "What is your generation going to do about it?

"You have a responsibility to society. Keep yourselves informed. If we don’t convey that information to the public, who will? If we don't act, what are the consequences?"

Not one of us wasn't moved, wasn't saddened, wasn't struggling with the simple question: What can one person really do to save the treacherous treasures we call glaciers?

As I said, a lot of questions were asked on this trip. Very few were actually answered.

Chris Curran is the science writer and an assistant director of public relations at the University of Cincinnati.


More from Curran on the Alaskan trip