Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Glacier Visit


A few days ago, on July 27, Katherine and I attempted to visit the toe of the West lobe of the Twin Glacier, where we had thought other people had visited previously. Everyone who has been simply refers to it as “the glacier”, and we’ve seen pictures of people from this camp physically touching the ice of the glacier. What a fine trip of an afternoon, we thought.

Our goal for our afternoon jaunt, the toe of the West lobe of the Twin Glacier. This picture was taken a few days before our trip, from the vicinity of the “Fert” study site.

I had taken July 27 as a day off, because it marks approximately the half-way point of my summer field season at Alexandra Fjord, because one day not doing field measurements lined my schedule up with Katherine’s to minimize heavy equipment movements, and because I really wanted to sleep in. I awoke around 11:00 am, had some food loosely described as “brunch” (tuna melts), and around 2:20 pm Katherine and I set out, planning to be back in time for supper at 7:00 pm. First we visited Katherine’s study site at the Wet Sedge Meadow, then headed up hill towards the glacier. This put our starting position far to the west of camp and the normal start location for this kind of hike.

The cotton grass (Eriophorum spp.) was in full display, carpeting the middle valley in white fluff.

We encountered our first river to cross after walking for less than an hour. We were a bit surprised by the high water level, and spent some time looking for a way across, ultimately to no avail.

A tiny waterfall formed where a miniscule side-braid of the river meanders over some adjacent tundra.

Katherine elected to cross the deeper part of the river in bare feet, to keep her boots dry. Later she complained about how cold her feet were. My feet were also briefly cold, but once I wrung the water out of my socks I was fine.

Having waded knee-deep across one river, we were a bit less hesitant crossing the second – with her feet cold, Katherine decided to follow my lead and leave her boots on during the cold-water crossing.

Upon reflection, some of which occurred mid-stream, wading across a rushing glacial outflow river was probably a bad idea. The water was extremely cold and moving fast, and was so full of silt and sediment that it was impossible to see how deep it ran – I nearly slipped and fell a couple of times as my foot moved into a deeper patch of water than I’d anticipated. However, it’s not an adventure if there’s no danger, is it?

Continuing south, we encountered our third river. This one was obviously far too large, deep, and fast to even consider crossing, even with our semi-successful technique of moving between gravel bars in a broad braided section. I took a video to show just how big and scary this final river was.

A look down-stream from the north bank of the third river. While it would be fairly easy to reach those near gravel bars without real risk, there was no point in this river we could see that avoided a large, deep, fast channel such as that visible in the middle of this photo. It’s difficult to gauge distances, but I can tell you that this middle channel here is between 5 and 7 metres across – much too far for me to jump, and almost certainly too deep and fast-moving to wade across.

We had to admit defeat, confused though we were by the reports of success by so many other people. How could they have crossed this river, which is the last barrier before the toe of the glacier?

This photo was taken from the north bank of the third river, looking almost due south at the west lobe of the Twin Glacier.

Speculating that recent weather conditions had greatly swollen the rivers, we decided to poke around on the north bank for only a few more minutes before beginning the (drier and straighter) trip back to base-camp. Moving upstream a short distance we encountered a surprising gem of terrain: a tiny, vertical-walled canyon opening into a clear pond.

The tiny canyon, viewed from the slight rocky hill at its eastern edge.

Katherine carefully descended into the tiny canyon.

Another view of the canyon, looking almost straight upstream.

The stream in the canyon takes a sharp turn to the right at the down-stream end, and tumbles over a small waterfall.

Another look at the waterfall, and the nearly-still pond it falls into. Were the water perhaps 20 degrees warmer, this would have made for a delightful swim. But insta-hypothermia is not my idea of fun.

We expected our return to camp would take around 90 minutes, so we started back just after 5:00 pm. We continued to speculate about possible methods of achieving the south or east side of the third river, but at no point did we see any likely crossing points.

Less than a kilometre downstream of our southern-most point, the river is still broad and swift, and is bordered by cliffs on the right bank, perhaps 4 to 6 metres of vertical. This also represents some of the only steeply-banked terrain I’ve seen in the valley, on the left bank of the river.

Looking back upstream.

The terrain in this part of the valley is a distinct network of tightly-packed hummocks topped with what I think is mostly Dryas integrefolia and Cassiope tetragona.

Another look at what I think is interesting terrain.

An entire paper based on the micro-climate impacts of this big boulder was written several years ago: Elliot D, Svoboda J. 1994. Microecosystem around a large erratic boulder: a High-Arctic study. pp 207-213 in Ecology of a Polar Oasis (Svoboda J, Freedman B, Eds.). Captus University Publications, Toronto, Canada.

We stayed to the eastern side of the valley on our way back to camp, then realized the two rivers we’d crossed earlier had merged mid-valley and formed the rather intimidating “stream” we had been getting our drinking water from at camp. And we were on the wrong side of this stream.

Fortunately, there’s a bridge!

Me crossing the bridge. Excellent photo by Katherine.

Katherine was not pleased by the apparent construction of the bridge, especially when viewed from the approach on the right bank. It’s actually much sturdier than it looks – the main beam is embedded into the right bank under where she stands.

The view of base camp from the southeast, a perspective I don’t often see.

Later we would learn that “the glacier” others had visited was in fact the toe of the Helm’s Deep glacier, west of (to the right of, from camp) the Twin glacier. The usual and non-life-threatening approach to this glacier is to cross the river at the bridge, proceed south, then turn right and up-slope well before the barrier of the third river.

So, we didn’t actually reach any ice. But we did get wet, risk injury, and survive to tell the tale.

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