On Joining a Glacial Flotilla

We could feel autumn’s presence, trysting in as the sun went down and slipping out again with the coming of morning, so we planned a last camping hurrah. Meeting the train in Girdwood, we clambered ungracefully aboard, hefting the new-to-us, aging raft into the tall baggage car.

I have raved of the Alaska Train, and I will lift my voice again to that refrain. Getting from one place to another is as old as our species; it is the manner of the journey that makes all the difference. Leaving our car at the glacier fed Placer River takeout, then traveling up by train to camp overnight at Spencer Glacier, before floating back down to our car seemed a delightfully adventurous means of ending at the beginning.

A national travesty has touched us here in Alaska—scratched onto some memo, typed into a generic policy stretching its unbending regulation across Canada to land on our Alaskan rails. It nearly broke my heart when our conductor Marty informed us.

Okay, fine, that is an exaggeration, but it did really dampen my train ride. The Alaska Railroad is no longer allowed to leave the windows open between train cars per new federal regulation.

Gone is the cold, earthen mist from the dripping tunnels as you hurtle for miles beneath mountains groaning under glacial weight. Gone is the nonchalant, persistent wind across your face as you peer across untouched wilderness swathes—nothing between you and nature. Gone is the distinction of hypnotic clacking and sporadic squealing from the train as it pushes and pulls you through the open air. Gone too, is the need to squint into unfiltered sunlight as you peer towards the blue of a glacier, grandness of an eagle’s nest, or marvel at the moose, marmots, swans, sheep and bears, oh my. Oh for the days that we could take the train to Whittier, hurtling through the WWII tunnel, with our faces at the open windows, hollering against the damp, deafening noise.

Whittier, AK

Nevertheless, we reached Spencer Glacier and due to the kindness of some off duty Chugach Adventure rafting guides, had our loads lightened considerably by way of their shuttle, which for our feverish child, was an unforeseen kindness.

A short digression over Placer to check out the waves.

The plan had been to carry our gear on our backs and then transport the raft and frame out on a homemade, borrowed handcart that can break down and be tied to the top of our raft, thus floated out.

We have been out to Spencer numerous times over the years because the path is crushed gravel. You can load your camping gear onto hand carts or bike stroller and go ‘back country’ camping—with babies, and an extra cooking shelter for the wind and rain. Over the years we have brought our gear back in a few different ways. We’ve pushed jogging strollers to haul kids plus gear, bike strollers, bike seats and trail-gator kid bike attachment with our adult bikes. And the AK Railroad has accommodated every time.

Spencer also offers rock climbing, a nice hike to a cabin perched high above the valley, the ability to explore back along the glacial moraines and a lake to float around on, so we have often spent two or more nights out.

You have your choice of camping at a group campsite about a mile from the train stop, complete with outhouse and pump (reservations necessary; water tested periodically),

a few sites to the left of the trail a few miles in, or our personal favorite, a gravel bar at the end of the path around the lake, three miles out (pictured in the slideshow above).

This year we had a ridiculously hot summer (don’t laugh—friends in warmer climes), so the glacier had calved more than we’ve ever seen, meaning the lake was chock full of ancient ice.

Someone once told us that Spencer Lake is over 500 ft deep. I don’t know the truth of that, but I do know that as an iceberg glides imperceptibly across the lake, the sun melts the exposed top until suddenly the berg is unbalanced and in a matter of seconds, the whole of the belly shows as it flips over. There are gasp inducing videos online.

Because of the amount of ice, we had to be very judicial about where to put in; and careful on how to navigate a clear path out. Though Shackleton might have scoffed, it was at times nail biting for us. Luckily, we had a crew of really short, impulsive, opinionated navigators.

At the river side of the lake, most of the icebergs have ground themselves and are awaiting their return to a liquid state. At the other end, you do have to be extremely cautious about how close you get to the toe of the glacier, if you’re bringing any type of water transport.

We paddled around after dinner which turned out to be a great idea because the next morning was very windy, thus less fun for the kids.

The autumnal chill woke us but snuck off as we began navigating through the iceberg flotilla. In this wilderness where glacier becomes lake, we wound our way to where the lake becomes river, and headed downstream for a day on the braided Placer. Taking out just before the river turns to sea, we returned to our beginning and headed home.

Please note that some of the photos were not taken by me. The stroller ones are from my husband, the biking ones, and the handcart from various friends. Thank you all!

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