I do not have a bucket list. I have a list, and I like to get things done before I have to fret about what may or may not be in sight of the bucket. It has been on my list to enlist the Maclaren River Lodge to transport us to their glacier base camp so we could access the Maclaren Glacier and canoe back down the river. 2016 gave us the opportunity to realize that yearning. Here is the tale, in the form of my Maclaren Glacier Diary, wherein Matthew took us ten miles upriver and dropped us off with canoe to find our way back home.
Making arrangements with the Maclaren River Lodge, we made reservations to use their camp located several miles up the river to access the glacier, and then canoe back down the river to the Lodge several days later. Maclaren River Lodge is located at Mile 42 of the Denali Highway, a 130+ dirt road that skirts the southern edge of the Alaska Range between Cantwell and Paxson Alaska, and is arguably one of the finest back roads in America. Alan and Susie did a great job of getting us set up for the end of their remote-camp season and fielding all the logistical questions we had. Bottom line, a very remote and primitive camp, but well outfitted for our needs. By way of defining “primitive” large expedition tents are provided, as well as cots, camp chairs, and firewood. One must bring their own camping gear, including food and cooking facilities.
First point of order of our Maclaren Glacier adventure, Matthew Christie Somerville ( @skiboyphotoworks )hauls us up river in a shallow-draftt power boat with gear and a canoe for our return trip down the river. The plan is to spend two nights in camp, hike to the glacier, and return to the Maclaren River Lodge via canoe. At the outset it looks like we have hit the perfect weather. What could possibly go wrong? Just in case Murphy shows up, we have been given a radio that will keep us in touch with the Lodge should the need arise.
Matthew ran us ten miles up the river from the Maclaren River Lodge and dropped us off with our canoe (for the return trip) about a half mile from camp. This time of year the river is running low and the boat could not reach camp. We dragged the gear across gravel bars on a sled, feeling very much like the “stampeders” who made their way into the gold fields of the Klondike gold rush. Our camp is in the distance, the tents visible in the right side of the photo, and the glacier is behind “Big Rock” in the center of the frame.
The center piece of any adequate primitive camp might well be the outhouse, and this camp provided an outhouse with a view so fine she deserved a name. She is called Allison. Our first day in, dropped off about 3:00, we set out to climb “Big Rock” about a mile off for views of valley and glacier.
Atop Big Rock we have a splendid vista overlooking Maclaren Glacier, which we hope to reach by foot the following day. It is about four miles off, and the weather looks great. Tundra swans are posing placidly in the pond below. (Those two tiny white dots on the left side of the pond are the swans.)
Looking down valley from atop Big Rock, one can see our tent camp about a mile distant nestled to the side of the Maclaren River, which runs horizontal in the photo. It is late in the season,and we are the sole occupants in camp, so we get our choice of tents.
Given our choice of tents we have made our home on the banks of the Maclaren River, with the moon rising. Perfect weather, which didn’t last long. These are great tents, with floors and plenty of cots and camp chairs and room to move inside.
A perfect end to a perfect day, enjoying evening toddies, and the moonlight reflection on the Maclaren River. The haze around the moon looked like a fur collar framing an Inuit face.
We departed base camp under 18% gray cool skies for the five mile trek to the base of Maclaren Glacier. We wove our way across vegetated gravel bars and braided out wash channels (many of which were thankfully dry due to the late season) scaring up a covey of ptarmigan along the way. While we are not completely alone in this wilderness, we realize we are the only humans. Caribou are abundant in this country, though we do not see any, as it is hunting season and the caribou are well aware of the fact and have made themselves scarce, as is their custom in September.
On our hike up to the glacier, I turned and found I was being stalked by a terrorist. Thought it might be ISIS. Turned out to be MISSUS. You can perhaps sense in this photo the weather has taken a bit of a turn?
Here we have arrived at the main stream channel cutting through the glacial moraine, and the adventures took a new and interesting turn.
Through the gap and into the maze of moraines in the glacial till of Maclaren Glacier, we entered an other worldly environment where we threaded the needle through a labyrinth of lakes and channels as the sky dropped and shrouded the vaults that fed the river of ice still just beyond our reach.
In our explorations of the maze leading to the glacier face, we encounter a myriad of media in the moraines of Maclaren Glacier. Piles of gravels, plots of blackened moss-rich cracked soil that resembled spongy lava, and many terraced pond shores. We continue to wind our way through the maze to the face of the glacier.
We have reached the melt pond at the foot of the glacier, and clouds continue to drop. And here, at the end of our journey in, it started to rain, and continued to rain and blow as we walked the 5+ miles back to camp. We were well provisioned with rain gear, though our gor-tex boots gave out and soaked through about half way along the trip. The tripod and camera gear (wrapped well in garbage bags) weighed with increasing annoyance on my shoulder. Photography is not always convenient. Along our way home, we did come across fresh grizzly bear tracks (I believe we were carrying seasoning spray with us) which appeared to be heading toward the pond on the backside of Big Rock. Perhaps the bear was heading in that direction to enjoy the pastoral vision of the swans on the pond. We were happy to see no further sign of him.
To wrap up the story, we were happy to get back to our tent, and enjoy a hot meal of Mountain House before relegating ourselves to the confines of our sleeping bags by 8 o’clock. There really was nothing else to do on a cold and damp night but listen to the wind and rain throughout the night. I wondered through the night how much I would have to pay to cancel the canoe portion of our trip and call in a pick-up from the lodge. I did not see myself canoeing ten miles in the rain.
The next morning we could see we had made a good choice in our tent, which survived the evening storm while a neighboring tent had blown over. The river has definitely risen and the water is moving fast. Upon contacting the Lodge with our “what-could-possibly-go-wrong” radio, Alan (owner) delights me with a “no problem” response to our request for a pick-up. Matthew arrives a few hours later at our drop off point (I will say locating the drop off point was a challenge as earlier tracks had been erased in the rain, river channels had changed, and luckily the canoe was dragged far enough up shore to where is was still tied up, though at water’s edge) and he informs us that we made a good call for a pick-up. The river has risen about two feet, and he had a hard enough time navigating the river in a power boat. We all agree, there is a reason to return, and the cry goes up: “NEXT TIME!”
If you would like to see a full resolution rendition of this blog, visit the Blogs page in my Smug Mug gallery and enjoy the Maclaren River Diary
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