As the temperatures here in my native eastern Washington State soar to record-breaking 100 degrees Fahrenheit-plus this summer of 2006, my thoughts turn to summers past and times I've spent in our sister state to the north -- Alaska.
Mendenhall: Alaska's Most Accessible Glacier
The coolest of cool photos in my Alaska albums has to be this gloomy shot of fog rolling down across Mendenhall Glacier. With the inky expanse of Mendenhall Lake in the foreground, this presents an optimal "chilly plunge" fantasy. Hard to believe the photo was taken in July.
Mendenhall is Alaska's most-visited glacier. Situated just 13 miles from downtown Juneau (the state's capital), this lake, glacier, and visitor's center draws a quarter of a million people annually, many of whom, like me, were visiting Juneau from a cruise ship. At Mendenhall Glacier, visitors find a little slice of geologic history and a true Kodak moment: a sparkling blue ice field flowing 13 miles down a valley and ending at the edge of a lake dotted with little icebergs.
The glacier was named for Thomas Corwin Mendenhall, a scientist who served as Superintendent of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey from 1889 to 1894. It is one of 38 glaciers that flow from the 1,500-square-foot Juneau Icefield. The visitor's center, built in 1962, was the first in the National Forest System. It provides a full-frontal view of the glacier (handy in inclement weather), and exhibits that help show how glaciers form and how the Mendenhall Glacier moves and shapes the valley ecosystem.
Incredible Glacier Bay
Many Alaskan cruise ship itineraries include a day at sea plying the waters of Glacier Bay National Park. Most of the area we know as Glacier Bay today was covered by ice just two centuries ago, but due to the dynamic nature of ecosystems dominated by ice, it is now a marine ecosystem with coves, fjords, beaches, lakes, and, of course, glaciers. As you glide through the icy waters, snow-capped mountains rising to over 15,000 feet and a complex system of marine and terrestrial plants and animals surround you. Another favorite "July in Alaska" cool-weather photo of mine shows a group of adventurous kayakers cozying up to Margerie Glacier in Glacier Bay.
The advance and retreat of the glaciers makes Glacier Bay a dynamic landscape. Today, the shorelines include mature forests of predominately spruce and hemlock. The marine population includes humpback and killer whales, Dall's porpoises, stellar sea lions, and harbor seals, while land mammals include moose, bear, coyote, wolves, river otters, marten, mink, and wolverine. It's a harsh environment, to be sure -- besides the obvious factors of cold and ice, the tidewaters within the bay can rise and fall up to 25 feet over six hours.
Glacier Bay is one of my top reasons for taking an Alaska cruise. To be honest, most Alaskan cruise ship ports of call I visited made me feel like I was part of a cattle call -- an unpleasant tourist blight on the landscape. At Ketchikan, Sitka, and Juneau, I yearned for an extra day or two AWAY from the ship and my thousands of fellow passengers, a chance to see sights off the beaten path. But the Glacier Bay cruise was an exceptional way to see these glaciers and their ecosystem.
Farther From The Maddening Crowds
OK, I'm cheating a little with this last photo. It was not taken in the summer at all, but in January. The absolute white of this peak viewed from the Kenai Peninsula during the few hours of Alaska's winter daylight is a sensory oasis for a girl in the 105-degree temperatures of a desert July.
I had the great fortune to visit the Kenai Peninsula by car last winter, and it was a glorious trip. While Alaska natives might not consider the area around the towns of Homer and Soldotna exactly "wilderness," the time I spent there made up for the claustrophobia I experienced with the cruise ship crowds. My memories of moose sightings, cross-country skiing, and plying the frigid waters of Kachemak Bay courtesy of an off-season water taxi are a balm to my overheated, sunburned senses right about now. Next time I go to Alaska, I hope to get even farther off the beaten path and explore more of its wild, chilly beauty.
Sally O'Neal Coates is a travel writer who makes her home in the open desert country of southeastern Washington State, where temperatures soar in the summer and the snow flies in the winter. She writes weekly for Sportsmansguide.com.