June 1, 2012 Yakutat, Alaska Aleutian Tern Festival Report part 1

Friday morning: the flight from Anchorage to Yakutat via Juneau

The Yakutat Aleutian Tern Festival was such a multi-layered, wonderful experience, I'm still processing photos and thoughts. So much happened, I will try to present it in several parts as I have time.

I pored over the Alaska Atlas and Gazetteer after I got home to learn the names of some of the incredible geography we cruised past so easily. If anyone has corrections, please let me know.

The morning flight from Anchorage to Juneau then back to Yakutat turned into a bonus flight-see on a beautiful day. As the jet banked over Cook Inlet, I glimpsed neat green rows of crops growing in the square fields of farms at Point McKenzie, reminiscent of the heartland but in muskeg punctuated with glacial kettle ponds.

Very quickly, we left green spring, civilization, and the busy city of Anchorage and flew southeast over the Chugach Mountains. As we approached Prince William Sound, spectacular, snow-covered coastal mountains dominated the landscape. Cirque glaciers nestled high in craggy mountain cradles. Valley glaciers carved long troughs. Some merged into larger tidewater glaciers striped with dark debris from many lateral moraines. Icebergs sailed in the ever-longer blue-green fjords of the Sound.

I recognized the broad valley of the Copper River just east of Cordova. What a tremendous migration corridor through the Chugach Mountains for birds and mammals! The Copper River "highway" looked like a taut white thread following the flood plain up to the miniscule Million Dollar Bridge sandwiched between giant Miles and Childs Glaciers. Human evidence is dwarfed by nature here.

Martin River Glacier gave way to Steller Glacier and soon we were over Bering Glacier, the largest and longest glacier in North America. To the north was its source, the Bagley Icefield, the largest nonpolar icefield in North America. Steller, Grindle, Dahlgren, Duktoth, Kulthieth, Yakataga,
Eberly, Munday, McPherson. The fascinating names on the topo maps mutely beg for further research into their exciting stories.

On the jet droned, the wild and rugged scenery majestically scrolled along in my tiny window, only occasionally veiled by clouds. Icy Bay rolled into view, fed by several tidewater glaciers: Guyot, Yahtse, and Tyndall creating Tsaa and Taan Fjords.  The largest piedmont glacier in the world, the Malaspina, appeared. It is 40 miles wide, formed by several valley glaciers including the Agassiz, Seward, and Marvine Glaciers. Minutes later, Malaspina Lake appeared, still mostly frozen, separated from Yakutat Bay by Schooner Beach.

At the head of Yakutat Bay, Hubbard Glacier, the largest tidewater glacier in Alaska, calved into Disenchantment Bay. The Hubbard's calving face is over 6.2 miles wide. I could see Canada to the left and right in the distance though the steep mountains did not declare allegiance to any country or show human-made boundaries.

It was fascinating to visualize how an advancing Hubbard Glacier could close off the seaward entrance of Russell Fjord and trap seals and other marine life in the suddenly created lake. The tiny community of Yakutat, seemingly far away, has been threatened with flooding by this phenomenon recently in 1986 and also in 2002.

The field trip to Russell Fjord was cancelled this year due to a record 400 inches of snow that kept the road closed. However, several lucky people enjoyed the optional field trip by charter boat to Hubbard Glacier.

The jet passed too far north of Yakutat for me to see the town, but Yakutat Glacier pouring into Harlequin Lake soon appeared in my magic window. Many ice bergs filled the south half of the lake and piled up at the outlet. Here, Dangerous River starts its meandering path through the Yakutat Forelands to the Gulf of Alaska. Again, a white ribbon of unplowed road cancelled this field trip.

The mighty Alsek River came into view, its braided streams carving channels in the icy floodplain. This wilderness river starts in Canada's Kluane National Park and Reserve in the Yukon, flows through BC to Alaska and ends in Dry Bay. Along with the Tatshenshini River, it is the only completely protected large river drainage system in North America. It is also a United Nations World Heritage Site.

Next came Glacier Bay National Park. I could see a cruise ship steaming up Glacier Bay towards Composite Island at the entrance to Rendu and Queen Inlets. It looked so insignificant. A smattering of low clouds hid the rest of Glacier Bay and Gustavus.

When the show continued minutes later, the snow line was remarkably higher. More rocks protruded from the peaks and many ridges were bare. Sawmill Bay was surrounded by green. The first sign of civilization (cruise ship doesn’t count) was a small town of Excursion Inlet, population 12 in 2010. This was originally an Alaska Native village. During WW II it was used as a prisoner-of-war camp. The cannery was built in 1918 and is still in use.

The Chilkat Mountain range between Excursion Inlet and Lynn Canal looked a lot like a delicious sundae with vanilla ice cream peaks and brown chocolate syrup running down the sides. Yummm! As we approached Lynn Canal, the snow melted more and more until only on the peaks and ridge tops wore white.

We descended over Lynn Canal to Juneau, where once again the grass was green and summer returned. Mendenhall Glacier seemed an anomaly, tucked away in the back of the scene, retreating away from this warm, green land.
At the airport, I hopped on another jet and in about 35 minutes arrived in Yakutat. My time as an eagle was over; time to go birding! Stay tuned for Part 2.

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

No comments:

Post a Comment