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  • Patsy Clark Urschel

The Lost Coast

Updated: Oct 29, 2021


Mt. St. Elias in Icy Bay pc: B. Urschel

We’ve been traveling and hosting since April and, man, it’s been hard to settle in to writing again. But here we are - back in Southeast after a summer in the Gulf of Alaska, provisioning for winter, and getting ready to head back to Petersburg at the end of this month. Fall is in the air and a low-pressure system moved in last week that feels like it will linger for the rest of our natural lives. Even though our Alaska summers never really reach “hot,” the long days are so wonderful and make me feel like moving and doing. Winter, on the other hand, makes me feel like a bee stunned by the cold – senseless and immobilized.


As if being 6'4" wasn't enough...

My son Chris flew into Sitka in late June to join us for a two month stretch of exploring and expedition work following his college graduation. It isn’t hyperbolic to say that these two months were everything I had hoped they would be, namely getting to know my adult son again and sharing this gorgeous territory. I’m grateful for the rich time together: the kayaking, hiking, exploring, music, and my favorite of all - long and meandering conversations. I’m so happy to see the trajectory he’s on, the growth mindset he possesses, and his orientation towards love, empathy, and compassion.


pc: B. Urschel
Apparently this is what grappling hooks are for...?

After exploring Sitka on foot and by bike, the three of us headed west and north, towards the sub-arctic slice of the Gulf of Alaska coast that includes Yakutat, Icy Bay, Cordova, and Seward. The first bit of this stretch is often referred to as the Lost Coast and with good reason. Little to no services, very few safe anchorages, even fewer boats, shallow coastal waters (more prone to confused seas), and miles from help of any sort if one should need it. We had taken on two science research trips in this stretch of coast that were essentially back-to-back, filling the entire month of August. The first trip was with a glaciologist and his analysts, who were eager to continue the measurement of glacier retreat in the Kenai area of Alaska through repeat photography work. The second trip included two paleontologists, a geologist, an artist, and a commercial fisherman who were in search of the extinct desmostylian (something like a marine hippopotamus) and other fossils along the coast.




Before we made the long run to Yakutat, however, the three of us explored bays of exquisite beauty that were virtually so remote, we often felt like intruders, what with our two legs and opposable thumbs. We clambered around old mining sites, hiked shallow riverbeds that opened into gorgeous lakes, fished for salmon and halibut, explored the shallows with Scout (our shore boat), kayaked amidst the otters and gulls, and watched an awful lot of bears. Once we left Cross Sound (on the cusp between Southeast and the Gulf), there were scant few anchorages available to us.


Klag Bay's abandoned mine sites
Making our way to Lake Anna

NOAA weather forecasts become critical in this part of the world because the potential for storm force winds, tidal currents, and subsequent crazy wave heights is real and constant regardless of the season. In our roughly two months in this area, we had to make timing decisions that were contrary to the pace we wanted to keep so we could evade the storm systems either behind us or well in front of us, lest we be trapped for who knows how long. Our run to Yakutat was one such marathon, clocking in at 18 hours. There was a storm brewing that would bring us 20-foot seas and gale force winds that would face us unless we left immediately. We took three hour shifts at the wheel in ten-foot seas and in between treated the journey as a sick day, which is an apt descriptor; there’s not much one can or wants to do with that much churn, except secure everything that can be secured and try to read or nap.


Lituya Bay

One of the bays we might have taken refuge in, Lituya Bay, has a daunting history that made an 18-hour non-stop run seem like a pretty good idea. The tidal currents in the entrance of the bay can run about 5 knots, which make it dangerous to navigate, but it’s the history of tsunamis that raises eyebrows: four have been recorded in the last 150 years, the most famous in 1958 when an earthquake-triggered landslide unleashed a massive tsunami. It displaced over 90 tons of rock and ice, creating a 1,722-foot wave in the process (the tops of the tree line tell the story). Those that lived to tell the tale (including a boat that managed to ride the wave - gah!) surmised that the wave was traveling 120 mph near the bay’s entrance. So, yeah – I took a pass on that.


Icebergs off Hubbard Glacier

We made Yakutat just before the storm hit and settled into a snug bay for a few days of wind and rain. Once the weather cleared a bit, we headed further into Yakutat Bay to check out Hubbard Glacier, the largest tide water glacier in North America. Unlike most glaciers in Alaska, which are retreating and thinning, Hubbard has been slowly advancing. It appears this advancement is a factor of terminus calving rather than anything climate-related. A large and scattered iceberg field prevented us from getting any closer than about five miles from the terminus, but it was a powerful visit, nonetheless. We were hoping to get close enough to the glacier to round the corner to Russell Fjord, but the ice choked us out. This is proving to be a bit of an issue as Russell will soon resemble a lake rather than a fjord and could create considerable flooding threats for the Yakutat area in the future.


At Hubbard Glacier in Yakutat

Moving on from Yakutat, we slipped into Icy Bay, some 70 miles northwest, which gave us sunshine (!!), more glaciers, and the breathtaking vistas of Mt. Saint Elias. Straddling Alaska and Canada, Mt. St. Elias is the second highest peak in North America, second only to Denali. Icy Bay is huge, but just about everywhere you turn, the mountain is there, hulking majestically. We used Scout to meander through the iceberg fields, each berg laid out as if it had been carefully curated in its placement. When the sun's rays hit them, they dazzled and came to life in the most remarkable way. This is my version of church.

 

Wilderness is a necessity - there must be places for human beings to satisfy their souls. -John Muir

 

At church pc: C. Clark-Johnson

Approaching Tyndall glacier in Icy Bay
Mt. St. Elias and the Endeavour, showing off.

Fossil hunting in Icy Bay, right beside Tyndall glacier

Bill was enamored with the sub-arctic slice of Alaska between Yakutat and Seward, particularly the stretch snugged into the vast Prince William Sound. With its salty fishing communities and soaring mountains, he felt a land and people kinship that drew him in immediately. After the long stretches of open water, the Sound felt like a gift with its protected waters and gorgeous territory. Cordova, in particular, caught our fancy.


A rare, sunny day in Cordova
Cordova Harbor

This is how you dress in late July in Cordova. pc: B. Urschel

A lot of noteworthy history in this slice of Alaska. The port of Valdez is famous for the oil spill in 1989 after the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef, but about 25 years before that, a 9.2 megathrust earthquake destroyed the Valdez city harbor and docks as both an underwater landslide and a tsunami wreaked havoc. It was the most powerful quake recorded in North American history and the second most powerful in world history. Aside from geological anomalies, the Sound is also noteworthy for harboring Whittier, the rainiest town in the US, which receives a staggering 197.8 inches of rain annually. Seattleites can keep up the fiction of being a rainy destination, but the city only receives 37.18 inches annually.


Approaching our turn into Resurrection Bay, which houses the town of Seward

After picking up provisions in Cordova, we made our way to Seward to pick up our glacier team. We spent a week moving from glacier to glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park, attempting to find exact coordinates of previous photographs so they could compare volume loss through a fresh batch of photos. We had cooperative weather for the first 6 days and the team was able to cover over 75 image sites within the fjords. Our job with the team was to get them where they needed to be (either on the mother ship or in Scout), house them, and feed them. Beyond that, we broke bread together, had meandering conversations, and helped each other out when things got gnarly. The three of us learned so much from the three of them; about geology in general and glaciers specifically. As it turns out, I don't really get tired of looking at ice and rock.

Northwestern glacier and Squab Island. Perfection.

 

A man who keeps company with glaciers comes to feel tolerably insignificant by and by. - Mark Twain

 

Squab Island is a nesting bird habitat. Sorry, Bella - no hiking here.
Dwarfed by Southwestern Glacier pc: C. Clark-Johnson
Goofing off at Pederson Glacier pc: C. Clark-Johnson
The best eye!


pc: C. Clark-Johnson

Mountain glaciers, like the ones we studied in the Kenai Fjords, provide about half of glacial melt water contributions to sea level rise. Between the 1950s-1990s, annual volume loss in Alaska glaciers was double that of the Greenland ice sheet. As you can imagine, there are physical, chemical, and biological impacts from this loss of volume, from water quality that threatens biodiversity of marine wildlife to socioeconomic impacts from a reduction in tourism. The International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks identifies warmer temperatures, changing sea ice and a significant increase of wildfires as factors that make Alaska ground zero for climate change. In their 2019 report, they describe the change in sea ice like this:


“The presence of sea ice significantly modulates regional temperatures and moisture, determines the structure of the marine food web, and shapes the kinds of activities that people can or cannot do - from subsistence and travel to resource extraction to national security. Nothing in the Alaska environment is changing faster than sea ice.”

Understanding all of this made our week with this team really gratifying but also served as proof of concept for Alaska Endeavour, the non-profit we started this year. It seeks to provide critical marine-based research support to scientists who don’t want to wait for the time-consuming process of getting projects funded through the traditional, academic-based granting process. We’re shaping our trips for next year as I write. Alaska Endeavour's site will be up and running in October. We learned a lot from this first trip and are grateful to the glacier crew for their generous spirit.

The dirty ice spires of Anchor glacier

But the glaciers – oh, my heart. Whether miles away or right in front of my nose, I feel sharp and alive in their presence. I feel awe, fear, wonder, and profound respect for the power and ultimate fragility of each glacier I see. I can’t imagine not visiting them. I know people feel the same way about the woods, deserts, or the mountains and would be similarly heartbroken were any of these sacred spaces to fade away. As John Muir wrote, “But glaciers, dear friend – ice is only another form of terrestrial love.” If you want to know more about the connection between people and glaciers, within the context of possibly losing them, check out Dr. M Jackson’s book, The Secret Life of Glaciers.


Holgate Glacier's dramatic terminus
Glacial erratic near Little Holgate Glacier
Chris taking the team to the next image location between Southwestern and Reconstituted glaciers
 

“Nature’s best thermometer, perhaps the most sensitive and unambiguous indicator of climate change, is ice…ice asks no questions, presents no arguments, reads no newspapers, listens to no debates. It is not burdened by ideology and carries no political baggage as it crosses the threshold from solid to liquid. It just melts.” - Henry Pollack, geophysicist

 

Face of Holgate Glacier
Important part of the work: taking it all in
We knew the black bear was approaching, but I didn't realize it was so close. pc: K. Angeli

We weren't very interesting

We dropped the glacier team back in Seward then made our way immediately back to Cordova. Since the paleo team we were hosting was large, Chris and I peeled off and flew to Seattle together and Bill and his new group began a 12 day adventure where every member pitched in to keep everyone dry and fed. I'm sorry I missed it but am so glad they had a great adventure. I rejoined the group in Yakutat for their last evening, then Bill and I began our journey back east alone, toward Glacier Bay, where we picked up Bill's son Augie, his wife Morgan, and their baby, Evelyn.


What a lovely cap to our summer. After picking them up in Bartlett Cove, we enjoyed one glorious 24 hour stretch of sun in the bay and then the fog, clouds and rain rolled in, shortening what would have been a full week in Glacier Bay. We left after three days to explore Hoonah and Neka Bay before making our way to Juneau. We had so much fun together. Morgan's cooking was divine and Augie sustained us with a LOT of Dungeness crab. And that baby - wow! Such a bright light in the world. These three were game for everything and anything.


Evelyn conducts

New business scheme: haircuts at glaciers. I think it's got legs. pc: M. Urschel

May she be steering the ship for years to come! pc: M. Urschel

pc: M. Urschel

Ready for anything! pc: B. Urschel

Happy 30th, Augie! pc: A. Urschel

Alaska is a Covid hot spot right now. We've been in Juneau for the past three weeks and have been keeping to the boat for the most part. The case count in Petersburg is on an uptick, too, so I suspect this could be a tough stretch for folks. Here's hoping you and yours stay safe.

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