In Colorado, wilderness is sometimes as close as a car ride and short hike. In Alaska, expansive landscapes mixed with limited road access often require hours of driving plus a bump into the forest by plane.
With only 6.9 miles of maintained trails in Lake Clark National Park & Preserve, a plane to the visitors center won’t suffice.
In early July from the dock of Port Alsworth, our group stuffed gear into dry bags and loaded them into a 12-passenger float plane’s legs, which look like giant water skis anchoring the aircraft. I hopped into the front passenger seat — two of my companions behind — and with a gentle wisp of the propeller, we lifted off the water into the sky.
Northeast out of Lake Clark, past a smattering of salmon fishing camps run by the native Dena’ina Athabascans, we flew west over mountains carved by glacial recession 12,000 years ago. They were a mosaic of copper, teal and slate rock glittering in the sun. Where vegetation could hold, the iconic tundra of the Arctic grew, a spongy tangle of moss trampled by browsing bears and stomping moose, amid dangling blueberries and other species adapted to the harsh northern climate.
Past Twin Lakes and the home of famed naturalist Richard Proenneke, the pilot abruptly tilted the plane right and downward. “Follow the tip of my wing,” he said. There, on the plateau overlooking the pair of lakes, a lone caribou grazed on lichen.
The plane swung into the next valley, where a melting glacier filled Turquoise Lake. Its jewel-like waters lived up to its name. Yet unlike its Caribbean counterparts, it was opaque, clouded with silt crumbling off the mass of ice above.
The lake would be our backyard, and the Neacola Mountains our playground. For the next five days, we would explore this grand yet paltry fraction of the southwest Alaska park’s 4 million acres.
Hiking in the highlands
Elevation in the park ranges from sea level at Chitina Bay to 10,197 feet at the top of Mount Redoubt, a volcano that last erupted in 2009.
Turquoise Lake sits at a meager 2,500 feet, yet the peaks around it jut sometimes more than 5,000 feet. Their sharp ridgelines point toward the sky like a cache of iron spears and fan out into wide aprons of shale.
Without trails, hiking options are endless. The first day, we trekked up the valley floor toward the toe of a glacier, walking “until we feel like not walking,” said Alaska Alpine Adventures guide Sara Olbright.
Leading the way were sinuous strands of the river fed by the glacier. The braids, as they’re known, constantly move. When one clogs with sediment or glacial melt surges, the water cuts a new path into the valley. Sometimes a braid will dry up; other times, it widens. These bodies of water are one of the few immediate indicators of the dynamic system of glaciers, which historically have operated on massive geological time scales.
Deeper into the valley, the Gothic Mountains rose steeper, taller. They demanded attention. Yet to avoid twisting an ankle, so too did the uneven river rocks coating the ground.
The next day’s terrain required similar finesse. Cutting into a smaller glacial basin, we hiked above a roaring river into the alpine tundra. Draining water percolated, eroding holes in the tundra, ready to suck down the daydreaming hiker. Farther down the valley, rockslides had covered the slopes in scree and its larger cousin, talus.
With precise footing and (mostly) unwavering focus, we successfully traversed 2 miles of the rock shards. Just before the start of the glacier, an orchestra of small waterfalls ushered us toward a 15-foot cascade. We plunged into their crystal waters, reveling in the reprieve from the unrelenting sun one wouldn’t expect in the Arctic.
Averaging record heat
The heat baking Turquoise Lake in early July has plagued all of Alaska this summer. July 8 marked the 74th consecutive day of above-average temperatures statewide, reports the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy.
That trend lasted through July, pushing the month’s average nearly 1 degree above the record. June also topped the temperature charts, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data.
These records are the markers of climate change unfolding in one of the world’s most sensitive areas, said Scott Rupp, deputy director of the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Alaska and other high-latitude areas are warming 2½ times faster than the rest of the world.
That’s evident in more than 81,000 acres of melted glaciers in Lake Clark since the 1950s — and the elimination of Alaskan sea ice as of Aug. 4.
“Those changes are extreme here and extreme for the people experiencing it upfront and personal,” Rupp said. “We’re on the front lines of climate change.”
Even in Lake Clark, two plane rides and miles on foot from any city, the tangible impacts of climate change pulsed loud and hard despite the grandeur of the peaks above and the serenity of the sands below.
After two days of wandering along the riverbed and across fields of talus, we kayaked 5 miles across the lake to a spit guarding the entrance to the Mulchatna River. During the journey, the staggering summits looming above 7,000 feet gradually tapered off into verdant hillsides no higher than 4,800 feet.
Soaring around the spit were Arctic terns — slender, white birds with angled wings that migrate 25,000 miles to Antarctica each year. Some plunged into the lake in search of a grayling for dinner. Others protected their incubating eggs, belting out a shrill alarm whenever an intruder neared their colony.
We hiked up the drainage running into the lake, thrusting through dense willows. Bushwhacking is an Alaskan rite of passage. The novice hiker learns to find the path of least resistance among the chaos of branches and leaves, with only arms as machetes.
Emerging from the Arctic jungle, we returned to the alpine tundra and began to ascend the terraced hillside. Jet black boulders adorned with rose-shaped lichen seemed plopped on the landscape as if they had come crashing down from the moon.
Scattered among the rocks were patches of exposed soil ravaged by hungry grizzlies searching for ground squirrels. Such digs take them seconds to rip apart and, despite their mostly vegetarian diet, are clear evidence of the power they can generate from their curled claws and bulging back muscles.
We hiked until we felt like stopping, then returned to the spit for dinner. More smoke had blown in from nearby wildfires and shrouded the mountains flanking our first campsite. Their remarkable jaggedness — blurry against the airborne ash — was merely a memory.
As did the searing heat, wildfires also stretched across Alaska through June, July and August. Most notable was the Swan Lake fire. Fueled by the heat and absence of rain, the blaze consumed about 100,000 acres of black spruce on the Kenai Peninsula.
Winds carried charred remains of the Kenai and other burning landscapes toward urban centers as well as wilderness areas such as Lake Clark. Conditions deteriorated so drastically that the National Weather Service issued the first ever dense smoke advisory for Anchorage on June 29. On July 10, when a string of lightning strikes ignited at least 30 new wildfires in Alaska, Fairbanks had some of the worst air quality in the world.
The more than 2.4 million acres that have gone up in flames in Alaska this year is nowhere near the state’s worst, say data from the Alaska Department of Natural Resources. More than 3 million acres burned in 1990, 2004, 2005 and 2015. And 2004 took the crown at more than 6.5 million.
The frequency of big fire years is the more alarming trend, Rupp said. During only five years between 1950 and 1990, wildfire swept through more than 1 million acres. Between 1990 and 2019, that milestone was passed 12 times, with more expected as climate change accelerates.
“That trend is a primary driver of Alaska’s forests turning from a carbon sink to a carbon source. Fires are a huge contributor to a flux in the amount of carbon in the atmosphere that then acts as a positive feedback loop,” said Rupp. “We’re now in a difficult cycle where that is impacting everything else you’re seeing like the loss of the glaciers and permafrost thaw.”
At the end of the week, the float plane circled back to Turquoise Lake and, with our gear piled in its nooks and crannies, flew us back to Port Alsworth.
I pressed my face against the plane window, admiring the dense stands of spruce trees guarding the Chilikadrotna and Kijik rivers. A plume of smoke among the evergreens just west of Turquoise Lake drifted north — one of the sources of our obscured views, sparked during the lightning storm July 10.
Later, I would learn that eight smokejumpers had parachuted to the 900-acre fire to protect a Native American allotment and a cabin.
Such memories cannot dim the spectacular beauty of Lake Clark — its peaks, valleys, glaciers, rivers, lakes and everything in between.
But the catastrophe that climate change is inflicting on the park and its home state can’t be forgotten. Nor can the fact that this year will not be the end of the milestones, records and unprecedented climatic events altering the expansive Alaskan landscape. The question is how badly conditions will worsen and whether we will take the necessary steps to protect the wildness tucked away in the corners of the Arctic.