Black Rapids Glacier: Summer 2014

The R44 helicopter taking off on the moraine on the Black Rapids Glacier that will be our campsite for the next 15 days.

The theme of this season was certainly “precipitation”. I kept thinking about the Forrest Gump quote, “One day, it started raining, and it didn’t quit for 4 months”. Luckily we were only there for two weeks. We earned bonus points for the four days of snow. I’m not sure what those points will get me, but I’ll take them.

It wasn’t all bad. We actually did get a few bouts of nice weather. Usually, this was in the form of some breaks in the clouds in the afternoon when one system left and we would watch as another system churned over the mountains to the south or north . . . or pretty much all around us. One evening I yelled at the tourists (15 miles away), as we could see they had pretty blue skies over the Richardson Highway corridor. I could just hear them talking about what a beautiful day it was to be out for a drive. “Hey, look over there, it’s the Black Rapids Glacier. How pretty!”.

Nope. Miserable.

We had nice weather for our flight on June 13. At least from the road to our campsite. Unfortunately, I also needed to install some time-lapse cameras higher up on the glacier where the skies weren’t as cooperative. It was impossible to land near our highest camera site that overlooks a large, ice-dammed lake on the margin of the glacier. There is not really anywhere flat to land nearby and the snow was deep, wet, and unstable. We did fly over the lake and could see that it was filling along with numerous potholes on the glacier as well.

Cauldron-like depressions called potholes are scattered around the upper reaches of the Black Rapids Glacier. They often fill with water over the summer, eventually draining on the surface or subglacially. They are left-over remnants of crevasses that formed during the 1936-1937 surge of Black Rapids. During the surge the glacier terminus advanced by about 3 miles and earned the nickname the

We had better luck down-glacier at the site of two other lakes. I managed to get the cameras installed, but unfortunately, one of the lakes wasn’t even filling. The lowest lake, on the other hand, was full to the brim!

The lake known as . . . Lake. It's an ice-dammed marginal lake - where the glacier meets the mountainside. When the sub-glacial hydraulic system is ready to move the water it will drain.

The science goal was the same as last year. We would set out reflectors in the ice in locations around the confluence of the main trunk of Black Rapids and a large tributary (the Loket) and range them with an automatic theodolite. From this, we can determine the velocities of the ice in different parts of the glacier. We wanted to observe what response the tributary has when the lakes drain on the main branch of the glacier if there is a speed-up on the tributary as well, and how far up the tributary that speed-up happens.

Nature’s goal must have been different. I had planned this trip based on observations of the drainages for the last two years. Every drainage had occurred during the dates of the two weeks we would be staying this year. I figured it was a sure bet to at least catch one or two drainages in the same time-frame this year. When we arrived the snowline wasn’t even to our camp yet. This, combined with bad weather meant that we spent 3 days trudging through snow, probing for moulins near obvious old streams so we wouldn’t fall through the snow and 1500 feet down to the bottom of the glacier, drilling holes in the ice on which to place the reflectors, and post-holing through deep snow on a mountainside to place one fixed reflector (not moving with the glacier).

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All of that work would be in vain (most likely); not one lake drained in the 15 days we were there.

Day 2 – Woke up to gross fog, lot’s of post-holing in deep slush, more fog, then it rained.

The thing about camping on a glacial moraine is that, while the ground looks solid, there is ice just an inch below the soil. The ground is constantly shifting as the ice slowly melts making it impossible to keep the guy lines taut.

We were having such a beautiful day - or maybe it was an hour, I don't remember. Then fog rolled down the valley filling everything in. That yellow dot on the medial moraine (center) is our tent. We watched that disappear moments later. Oh, let me tell you how fun and deep that slush channel was to cross in the foreground . . . none. Exactly none fun. The snow line on a glacier is not a fun place to hang out. The snow becomes temperate and isothermal - exactly 0° C throughout the snowpack. It becomes a wonderful mix of water and snow. You step in - making a hole that immediately starts to backfill with water, often waist deep. Then you step with your other foot. Sometimes this goes on for hundreds of meters before you can find a patch of bare ice, an island oasis free of slush. Use that vantage to look around, find the next ice island - that's your goal. That's your haven.Try not to fall into a moulin or crevasse along the way!

Day 3 – Beautiful morning! I spent almost all of it trying to cross a stream.

On the Black Rapids Glacier in the Eastern Alaska Range. Eventually the slushy blue streaks in the snow from a few days before this gave way to water channels in the ice beneath the surface. Sometimes they find old channels from previous years, sometimes they don't. In the summer of 2014 we spent two weeks camped on the glacier and had to cross many of these streams. It was still early in the melt season which meant that there weren't any moulins yet to drain the water for the surface. This meant that to get across the glacier we had to jump over many of these streams, a handful of which were quite wide. It was definitely a trip that was difficult on my knees!

Looking for a place to cross a large stream. Overhanging snow made jumping impossible. The consequences of a mistake were great.

Day 4 – Mostly rainy day.
We managed to get out and do some GPS maintenance. More difficulties trying to cross streams. Took a walk down to the landslides down-glacier, all of the water that wasn’t draining down moulins this spring was pooling up there and flowing around the debris.

On the right is rock debris from a landslide that occurred in 2002 after a 7.9 earthquake on the Denali Fault. The debris crossed the entire width of the glacier, 3 km wide. The debris insulates the ice, protecting it from melt which is why it is so much higher than the ice we were standing on. This provides a natural dam for water flowing down the streams on the glacier creating large ponds and lakes.

Day 5 – Rained. All. Day.
Until the evening when it started snowing. We had some cool views of the mountains through the clouds.

Clouds moving in on the high peaks.

>I just thought this was a beautiful view.

Day 6 – I don’t want to talk about day 6

A photo of Andrew's tent on the moraine.

Day 7 – Waited for the snow to melt
With all of the reflectors out, there really wasn’t that much to do. Weather moved in and out all day, we ran the theodolite when it wasn’t total white-out or pouring rain. In the evening another rain system started moving into the south while there were blue skies to the north and I took out the telephoto lens to take some pictures. It was really pretty despite the weather.

McGinnis Peak is on the right - Mt. Moffit is the little bright blob on the left barely poking above the ridge. This was taken the day after we got 8-10 inches of snow (in June!). It was such a pleasant sight to have a bit of blue sky show through the clouds!

Evening light hitting peaks in the Alaska Range.

Evening light hitting peaks – and a new storm rolling in for the night.

Day 8 – Pretty day.
We had to do some maintenance on reflectors that had turned in the wind or had filled with condensation, but otherwise nice. A little rainy, but not all day.

Any time there was good weather we just had to get out of the tent for as long as possible.

There were quite a few large streams to cross on the Black Rapids Glacier this year with absolutely no englacial drainage to help calm the water at the surface. At least they are pretty to look at.

Day 9 – More fog, more rain.

Oh hey, look, more fog and snow!

Day 10 – Bear wastes day.
We were packing up to head out of camp when a large black bear came strolling down the glacier. We tried to track it but lost sight after a while. We made the decision to stay in camp since we weren’t too keen on it getting our food. We had an emergency stash of food in a bear container, but I wasn’t too thrilled on the idea of eating rice and soup for the rest of the trip. By late afternoon I was fairly convinced it had moved out of the area so headed out to do some GPS and reflector maintenance. It was the last we saw of the bear.

We were packing up to head out for the day when we spotted this lone black bear strolling down the glacier. We kept an eye on him for a while, but lost sight as he entered the moraine.

A beautiful sight from the moraine, down where we would collect water. McGinnis Peak is on the right and Mt. Moffit is poking out in between the double peaks on the left. Even when we have bad weather for nearly two weeks straight, it all seems worth it when we get a few hours like this.

Day 11 – A day made almost entirely of good weather.
Actually a fun day to walk around and maintain stations! We moved our tents in the morning. The moraine we lived on might look like a pile of rocks in the middle of the glacier, but it’s actually just an inch of soil, with some rocks, and underneath is all ice. The sleeping pads in the tent insulate the ice beneath it, so the ice on the sides of the tent melt down faster than the middle. After 10 nights my nose was nearly touching the top of the tent.

Looking straight up the glacier and icefalls to McGinnis Peak. This was the first day on this trip that conditions allowed us to get this far west.

Andrew displays perfect form at one of the numerous channel crossings on the Black Rapids Glacier.

After drilling a few new antenna poles so they wouldn’t melt out over summer, we decided to hike out to one of the lakes we are monitoring to see if it had drained. It took a long time to cross the channel to get to the northern moraine, and it was not an easy hike to the lake from where we needed to cross. It was rainy, and the landscape is desolate. It’s really surreal to go walking in there. We came across a large lake that had already drained (not monitored as it’s relatively much smaller).

This is an ice-dammed lake that must have filled and drained not long before we trekked past it. There is a pretty well defined water-line on the ice cliff to the left. I'm not sure if it filled or drained in that cave in the center, but it was really cool. HUGE.

Arriving at the lake I could immediately see that there had been a partial drainage. There were obvious waterlines on the ice-wall to the south and there was water running into a crack nearby. When we went down to inspect the stream drainage into the crack there was also a large canyon that had definitely been excised by water drainage. Eye-balling it, it would be very close in height to the difference in the water levels we could see in the ice. It was really cool to experience the sights and sounds associated with massive amounts of water draining through the ice.

We hiked up the mountainside to the camera site to check that it was working ok and then decided to just keep hiking up. It was really nice after 12 days on ice to see some different views and the terrain was steep, but awesome to walk on (grass!).

While hiking above the Black Rapids Glacier, we were startled by this lone caribou that charged down the mountain right in front of us. She seemed fairly startled by our presence, after all, we hadn't seen another person in two weeks ourselves. There was a black bear in the area the day before which may have had her on edge to begin with.

This photo was taken near a USGS marker above the Black Rapids Glacier. Center top you can see the Loket tributary flowing into the main branch of the glacier. The rocky moraine in between is where we camped for 15 days. The lake bottom center is a large, ice-dammed marginal lake that drains every year causing the glacier to speed-up slightly from the increased water pressure at the base. Andrew is off to the left, also enjoying this view.

End of the day after hiking the ridge in the background. It was rainy on us most of the time, but pretty clear over the glacier. Heading back to camp.

Days 13, 14 – Bad weather – cleaned up reflectors and finished GPS maintenance

Day 15 – Time to go home!
Luckily, we had a nice weather window for take-out. That coupled with a crazily efficient and fast pilot, Brandon made getting out a breeze. I don’t think a pilot has ever even made it to our camp to take out before noon, and he managed to get to us before 10 am. He took out Andrew with some gear in the first load, made a round-trip in like half-an-hour, then grabbed a giant sling-load leaving me with basically nothing but my personal gear and some survival equipment/food.

Sling-loading equipment off the moraine.

We still needed to visit the camera sites to make sure they were still running. I had hoped to get a camera up at the uppermost lake, but the weather would again prove to be a challenge. We did manage to get close enough for me to see that it was in the process of draining. Some of the potholes had filled even more, they were quite a stunning shade of blue.

Water in a pothole up high on the Black Rapids Glacier. There is a water channel on the right, I believe it may be filling from Aurora Lake and then draining down-glacier.

Our R44 pilot, Brandon, next to the helicopter before leaving the moraine on Black Rapids for the last time.

Looking over the Delta River Valley with Donnelly Dome in the Distance.

*The photos from this post (and more) will eventually be up at

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