Monday, January 11, 2010

1541 Miles Traveled

This morning, we were in the van by ten in the morning, and picked up one more student from the airport. Zypy had arrived the previous evening, and was unfortunately unable to contact any of the group. Immediately thereafter, we drove about five minutes to the adjacent wetlands.
The first thing I noticed about the wetlands was the a few dogs and owners wandering around the beginning of the path. Several stray tennis balls strewn along the path. Many owners neglected to clean up after their pets, and the path was lined with another leftover of the canine visitors, despite the signs warning that dog poop carried diseases that would infect local wildlife.
Perhaps the high number of dogs caused the lack of waterfowl, because as we wandered through the seemingly endless miles of wetlands, there were very few birds. However, our hike was rewarded when we came across two huge bald eagles sitting on a dead log just feet off the trail. We sat and watched them for a few minutes, and many of our adept photographers in the group shot gorgeous pictures.
The wetlands were surprisingly bare, with few species of plants or animals. We saw evidence of land otters – little rounded cat-like tracks with distinct tail drags. The grass was yellowy-brown, and had been blown into a flat mat over the land. A stalky plant with dried flowers similar to those of Queen Anne’s Lace lined the trail closer to the estuary. The particular wetlands we walked through were brackish, where a freshwater river met the ocean.
I was interested in the green, stringy algae that grew in shadowy places throughout the wetlands. Initially, I thought that the water contained very high levels of algae, because it was a cloudy gray-green, but Denny told me that the color in the water came from all the erosion. We walked to the edge of the water, where low-tide created mud flats. Red, ribbony seaweed had washed ashore, carrying barnacle-covered mussels with it.
After about two hours of exploration, we walked back to the cars (a blue mini-van and a huge white fifteen-passenger sketchy van), and made our way to the Mendenhall Glacier just outside of Juneau. The glacier was one huge wall of brilliant blue ice, and drained into a frozen lake that was also fed by a roaring waterfall. What was so surprising about the weather was the unceasing change. Clouds completely covered the glacier when we first arrived, then it was crystal clear, and then there were streaks of fog, and then it was clear, and then it was foggy once more. All of this weather occurred in about an hour.
I gleaned several important pieces of information gleaned from an eleven-minute video we were shown. Heavy snowfall, consistently cold weather, and lots of time are necessary to make a glacier. The snow compacts into ice with a very unique molecular structure that absorbs all but blue ice. The ice gathers and forms a field, which then leaks down gaps in the mountain range due to its immense weight. Almost all of the glaciers in Alaska are receding right now, including the Mendenhall. Since 1935, the glacier has receded over a mile! However, the rate of melting has slowed in the last ten years. Significant evidence, the guide and video told us, pointed to human actions as being the impetus for these changes.
Some glaciers in Alaska are actually becoming larger. Initially, one would think this would be evidence for the randomness of the glaciers’ changes. Interestingly, the weather has actually become warm enough at the top of some peaks for it to snow in places that previously had no snow. The increased build-up of snow in some places has caused some glaciers to grow.
After we left the glacier visitor center, we had half an hour to walk around. While this sounds like a very fun and enticing activity, all of the trails and paths were covered in solid ice. The braver half of the group made it about thirty feet down the trail, slipping and sliding all the way. Having only one really functional hand made me wary of skidding down an icy hill.
We once again piled into the extremely hot, humid, and crowded vans and went to the Alaska State Museum. Historic and contemporary art was displayed, as well as a handful of stuffed eagles and wolves. The coolest part of the museum was a six foot globe with different views of the earth, the moon, and Mars projected using four projectors that showed satellite maps that displayed hurricanes, precipitation, and forest fires throughout our world and others.
Finally, we went to downtown Juneau so those who are of age could drink in the historic Juneau hotel. I wasn’t able to enjoy this historic site, so I had some tea at a local coffee shop with a few others who were on the trip. We also stopped in a local gag shop and looked at some nicely crafted glassware. This most interesting part about this part of the day was a man I saw drinking some coffee. He had a chest-length beard, feathery eyebrows, and was wearing a fur outfit with his head wrapped in a colorful headband.
Around 5:15, we went to the grocery store, picked up some wild salmon, and now we are back at the Shrine about to have some salmon with brown butter scallion sauce. I made the salad, but at this moment I’m sitting in front of the fire drinking some Merlot we picked up at the grocery store. It’s been another great day, and I’m excited for tomorrow!

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