Getting My Legs Back – Day Hike on the Canwell Glacier

Topo map with hiking route on the Canwell Glacier in the Alaska Range
My route for the day hike up the Canwell Glacier from Red Rock Canyon. Link: Hiking Guide to the Canwell Glacier and Rainbow Basin

After nearly 1.5 years of dealing with a plethora of health problems from stage 2 hypertension, erratic heartbeat and palpitations, getting sick with COVID-19 as well as some other mystery respiratory infection, and more recently, dealing with a neuroma in my right foot, I’ve been feeling really good for about the last two months. Actually, almost perfect. I’ve been trying to make the best of it to start getting back in shape and getting my legs back. I’ve been going on short hikes every weekend and have more recently started running regularly again.

I’m trying to push myself gradually, really hoping to get back to where I was only a couple of years ago. I’ve been trying to add a couple of miles to my hikes every week and making sure I’m either running or walking every day. My legs feel so weak! I hope that I’ll be able to return to backpacking and maybe even mountaineering again before the end of the summer season.

Yesterday was my longest hike in well over a year. It was only 15 miles round-trip up the Canwell Glacier, but it was over glacier moraine and talus, totaling 4360 feet in elevation gain with a 25-pound pack (mostly camera gear). It’s difficult not to get disheartened knowing that I could have doubled that distance only a little over a year ago and would have barely felt it. I need to remember that 4 months earlier, I could barely do a one-mile walk at home without getting out of breath.

It’s also a bit relieving not to have any agenda for a hike. This wasn’t actually the hike I planned on doing, but there was too much snow in the Rainbow Basin to go with my original plan. After hiking the 3-miles up the jeep road from the first stream crossing, I descended to the glacier and cut straight across the southern lateral moraine to the ice tongue. There was an enormous moulin at the southern margin.

A large moulin in the moraine of the Canwell Glacier

I’ve hiked across the moraine in the past, heading upglacier (east) to avoid some of the deeper ice canyons that are difficult to cross. It was definitely more of a challenge to find a way across these watery ice cliffs and involved some wading, but it also cut off a lot of distance hiking the challenging loose footing of the moraine. It’s good that I had my GPS with me because it’s really easy to get lost in these moraines, and it does not look the same on the return route. I definitely had to check my tracks a few times to make sure I hit the right spot for the stream crossings.

Ice canyon in the Canwell Glacier
One of the ice canyons at the edge of the moraine at the confluence of two streams. At the bottom you can see where the stream through the moraine with dirty water joins with the clear water from the ice tongue.
Mountains of the Alaska Range over a glacial moraine
Institute and Minya Peaks are barely visible over the moraine. This is why it’s tricky to cross these large lateral moraines. They are just rolling (and sometimes steep) talus slopes with almost no good identification points for navigation. Old moraine story and photos: Finding Beauty in the Desolate on Black Rapids
Ice canyon on the Canwell Glacier
The moraine locked stream meandering through the ice canyon

After about an hour of exploring this somewhat hostile terrain, I found a couple of decent places to cross the streams and make my way onto the ice tongue. The walking was about to get easier, which was good because my feet were already hurting.

Getting My Legs Back – Day Hike on the Canwell Glacier
Making my way onto the narrow ice tongue between a medial and lateral moraine

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rock balancing over a glacier stream
A rock balancing over a stream near a medial moraine on the Canwell

The clouds kept building and occasionally spilling over the mountains to the south. The katabatic winds really tore downglacier at times, occasionally ripping the hat off my head. The wind was warm, much warmer than I’m used to out on the ice. It started to spit rain, which had me a little worried about my stream crossing locations for the return. I had other options if they filled up too much, but it would require crossing quite a bit more of the lateral moraine.

Luckily, the rain didn’t amount to much. I moved quickly over the ice, trying to make up time from my moraine wanderings. I had set a 4 pm or 7.5-mile turnaround since I’m trying to be a bit more scientific about my distances and times while in recovery mode.

Hiking further upglacier, large hanging glaciers on Institute and Minya Peaks come into view. Unfortunately, the rain picked up as well, and fog started to creep over the high peaks. I climbed a solitary bit of moraine in the middle of the glacier to get a better view of the area and decide that’s my endpoint for the day.

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Institute Peak
The upglacier view to the east – The Canwell Glacier continues to a pass, the Gakona glacier descending the other side. That’s a traverse I hope to do someday!
Water flowing into a moulin on the Canwell Glacier
This moulin was super cool, turning 180° as the water descends into the ice!
A hole in a glacier with a small pool
Interesting formation in a moraine – an old, partially healed crevasse that has turned into a small hole in the wall and pool
A glacial stream in the Alaska Range
A stream cuts through a small medial moraine

The two stream crossings were definitely higher on the return, but not so much to make crossing difficult. The climb back up to the Jeep road was strenuous. I still felt good overall; my only complaint so far was that the bottom of my feet were sore. About a mile down the road, with two miles to go, the pain in my legs turned on. My quads and calves were both hurting as I crossed the last creek before getting to the truck.

It was a great hike! It never rained hard enough that I needed to put on my rain gear, and I had pushed myself hard enough without overdoing it. Although, I felt a little differently when I got home after the 2.5-hour drive and tried to walk up the stairs to the front door. A rest day or two, and I should be good to go!

You can find my full photo gallery for the day here: Lee Petersen Photography – July 2, 2021


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