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After a nearly three-mile hike, members of the class make observations along the South Fork of the Eagle River where Dolly Varden trout live among blueberries and above the reach of spawning salmon.

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Summer Study: Dispatch from Alaska

July 31, 2015

The following three essays were written by students as part of their summer study course in Alaska. “Essay Writing on Nature: Alaska and its Char,” was co-taught by Professor Matthew Dickerson and Middlebury alumnus David O'Hara ’91, a professor of philosophy at Augustana College.

Yaktrax on the Matanuska Glacier
Julia John ’15.5 contributed the following reflection from the course, which was the last course of her Middlebury career.

Massive mounds of ice rise before my eyes from a basin muddy with contrasting charcoal grey silt. At twenty-six miles long and four miles wide, Alasksa’s Matanuska Glacier is the largest one accessible by road in the nation. I admire the glacier, framed on both sides by jagged green and tan mountains, as our summer environmental writing class hikes over the ridge leading into it. Visible shafts of sunlight play softly on the mountainsides, casting cloud shadows and Kinkade glows upon them. The view alone seems enough to dispel the damp discomfort of ten minutes sloshing through the rain from our campsite, to dry my wet leggings and revive my spirits. But we have come for more. Equipped with trekking poles, Yaktrax, and two trusty guides from Alaska Pacific University, we are all ready to set foot on the ice sheet, the very stuff of National Geographic covers and global warming documentaries.

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At the Eagle River Nature Center, members of the class (seen from above) study the riverscape, stream ecology, and aquatic invertebrates in an unnamed creek where old beaver dams have created a meadow and where salmon will soon come to spawn away from the glacial waters of the nearby Eagle River.

Multiple large tour buses are parked in a row where the road ends to our left. Groups of domestic and international visitors plod along the rain-soaked dirt, through the rock-strewn sludge of glacial deposits, and across the rolling canvas of the glacier. Although some appear dressed for a picnic in their skirts, sandals, and umbrellas, most are as well-prepared as we are.

To start, we follow a series of orange traffic cones over the moraine, past hills of till, mucky puddles of rainwater, and grey pools of alluvial tar that pulls the fumbling foot in like quicksand or pushes back at the curious touch like Jell-O. As the ground gradates toward ice and the air becomes frigid, we halt at one of the large wooden benches erected in the silt to slip on jackets, Yaktrax, and gloves.

I lean against a boulder about ten yards behind the bench. In order to avoid getting my torso wet and minimize the clinging of clammy clothes on my skin, I clumsily yank my rain jacket off and add another layer beneath it as quickly as my cold-bitten fingers will allow.

"Is everyone good to go?" hollers Raina, our primary guide, as the others finish securing their Yaktrax to their shoes.

"No!" I yell as I throw my rain jacket back on and hurriedly reach for the ice traction device. The entire group is waiting for me. Although near numb, my fingers hurt as I struggle to stretch the taut black rubber of the new pair across the bottom of my sneakers. As a classmates beside me puts it, once on, they look "really badass," as though they would make a fitting addition to a gothic or punk metalhead's closet. After pulling on my gloves, she and I cautiously crunch over the crystalline surface at the beginning of the glacier to the rest of the class.

"We have to stay together," directs Raina. "Watch where you're stepping and use your pole for support."

"When you take a step, make sure to plant your whole foot down, both heel and toe at the same time, so that all the spikes on your Yaktrax are engaged," chimes in Robin, our other guide.

As we proceed down the moraine and into the white expanse of the glacier, I carefully follow these instructions and accustom myself to the rhythm of my pole and Yaktrax on the ice. Surprised by my firm foothold, my gait gains confidence as we trudge over each frozen undulation. Despite occasional momentary losses of balance that make my knees wobble and my hands reach for the rough ice in front of me, I cannot help feeling like a member of Robert Peary’s early-twentieth-century expedition to the North Pole.

The inspired hands of time and gravity have persistently carved this glistening gallery of glacial sculptures as the ice transmutates under its own weight. Raina identifies many strange, fascinating formations as we tramp along the glacier with growing wonder at nature's art unfurling around us.

“These are crevasses,” she says, pointing to one of the dark, deep gaps all over the ice that remind me of the fractures that split the ground open in earthquakes.

Water runs through some of the cracks, which appear only a few inches deep from above. One of my classmates tosses a large rock into one. Several long seconds later, a muffled thud sounds from below.

"Wow, that took a while," he says, looking up at us, eyes and mouth wide open in astonishment.

"Yeah, you don't want to fall in there," Raina says. "When it gets really deep, it’s called a moulin. If you go into one of those, you can’t climb back up because of the ice.”

"How many people get hurt on the glacier?" asks a classmate.

"Most people just get scrapes and sprains, minor injuries from falling on the ice,” replies Raina. “A few do lose their lives, though. Last summer, an APU graduate camping out here for an outdoor program slipped into a moulin trying to collect some water. The only trace they found of him was the pot he had carried for the water.”

A hush falls over us as we stand by the edge of the crevasse and peer in. I leap across the watery fissure, shuddering inside as I imagine being trapped in that biting oblivion, unable to find a purchase on its slippery banks, resigning myself to certain death by drowning and a body lost in its depths. Nature spares no one, not even urban environmentalists like me or experienced outdoorsmen like that unfortunate camper.

The glacier groans like an ancient monster beneath us as it inches down the valley. As we continue exploring, we pass exquisite frozen arcs, some with a clean hole through their middle, others with icicles adorning their tops. Below some of these structures, small accumulations of clear, electric blue water shimmer, more light than liquid. These geological features are so unlike anything else I have seen that this place feels unreal and otherworldly, as though I am venturing through the surface of Pluto. Close by, a climber crawls up a sheer face of ice with the assistance of an axe, rope, and two companions watching out for him from the flat ground below.

Finally, we stop by a vast pool of gleaming steel blue water. I gaze up at the heaps of ice rising where the water ends. Marbled with dark bands of sediment, the slowly melting glacier reminds me of scoops of the chocolate ripple ice cream that used to be my childhood favorite, the serrated seracs like the kind that becomes flaky with ice crystals when left too long in the freezer. We pose for a few group pictures in front of the water, and I pester a friend into taking a couple more of me in different spots to capture the panorama of the glacier and surrounding mountains.

Standing atop this awesome ice river, I am humbled by my extremely privileged position. Given the unprecedented rate at which glaciers have been retreating since the early 1900s, the Matanuska Glacier and others like it around the globe will likely melt into obscurity in a few decades. If human civilization injudiciously continues devouring fossil fuels and spitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, prioritizing and maximizing short term economic gains, the glaciers will surely meet this fate. But I have now witnessed-no, felt-one of these natural wonders, scaling these icy waves and stroking these coarse, curving walls that will slice the gloveless hand.

This is one of the most breathtaking sights I have ever laid eyes and on, an unforgettable image of cold water, rocky debris, mountain, and sky that I will cherish for life as the highlight of my Alaskan adventure. I have already shared this experience with my closest friends and family, and will continue to relate it to many more over the years. Even if the worst prophecy of climate change plays out and all the glaciers vanish, they will endure in my story of this sublime landscape. 


The Dangerous Allure of a Moulin
Vanessa Dikuyama ’18, a student from Colombia, contributed the following essay.

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Student Vanessa Dikuyama from Colombia sits observing and writing on a hollow log in the middle of the South Fork of Campbell Creek in Far North Bicentennial Park during the second week of the class.

My friend Julia and I sat on the edge of an elevated terrain facing the Matanuska River. A thick layer of clouds had conglomerated above the valley, and now the sky and the river were the same silver color. Just in a small section of the sky in the northwest the sun had opened a hole in the clouds allowing itself to shine over the Talkeetna Mountains. It was dinner time but we still had many hours before it got dark enough for us to welcome the night. With the slow approach of bed time the temperature was starting to drop, and the gentle rain that would fall every now and then was not cooperating in our efforts to keep dry and warm. Thankfully some of the guys in our group were starting a bonfire where we would later warm ourselves up, and congregate for some more conversation.  

The second day of our three day long expedition was coming to an end. My class, comprising nine students from Middlebury College and our two professors had been rafting earlier that day. Our trip had started the day before when we hiked along the glacier that fed the Matanuska River.  This glacier, and the valley have the same name as the milky silver river that flows from and through them.

In the glacier the cold wind made my hands numb. We encountered several crevasses that we had to cross carefully, and one moulin, a deep mill-like shaft that forms when the water from the surface melts and moves towards the bottom of the glacier. The French name that denotes this kind of glacier holes literally means well.  Moulins have been deadly for many hikers that have fallen into them, but they are essential for the movement of the water through the glacier. The polished walls of ice, and the thunder like sound coming from the moulin was inviting. Attracted by its deceiving beauty I wanted to approach its mouth, which was about two meters in diameter, and look down to the mysterious depths of the moulin. But that would have been too dangerous. Instead, with my peers we took turns to carefully approach it maintaining a sensible distance from it, and watching out for each other’s safety.

In its way to the Cook Inlet, where it meets the Pacific Ocean, the Matanuska River crosses a stretch of land that divides the Talkeetna and the Chugach mountain ranges. We observed the cliffs of the mountains on both sides of the river as the current pulled our boats downstream. The Matanuska River is a compulsory route for the salmon spawning in its tributaries. But in the two days I spent rafting on the river I could not spot a single fish. The water, clouded by glacier flour, concealed well any form of life present in the river.

I expressed to Julia how much I valued the learning experience that we were having. I was not referring to the fact that we were in the beautiful Alaska, or to our adventures camping and rafting. I was referring to the experience of living and learning among people who were so different from each other. Looking at my peers and professors scattered between the camp kitchen, and the river side I had the impression that I was observing different worlds. We were an amusing assortment of personalities. A living experiment on coexistence. I thought of our group as an ecosystem where the different elements contributed to keep it in balance. This ecosystem would be a resilient one, where the elimination of one element will not make the whole system collapse; but it would alter its essence. The appreciation of nature was the force that was bringing us together. We had gotten to know each other during the long hours we had spent observing streams, and during the intimate experience of camping together.

It occurred to me that perhaps our human inability to coexist dwell in our progressive detachment from nature. It dwells in our denial of the fact that we need each other to survive in an environment that offers the resources to sustain us, but that is hostile, and dangerous, especially when approached alone.


Finding Delicate Beauty in a Rugged Landscape
Julia Kendrick ’17, wrote the following reflection.

Today, I decide, I will be a naturalist. Armed with my pocket field guide, a hand lens, and my notebook, I sit down beside a yarrow plant, and look at it. I remember the delicate white flower from yesterday. At the Eagle River Nature Center, Ute, the naturalist on staff, pointed out various species of plants and animals as we walked down the trail to the unnamed tributary to collect macroinvertebrates. In her slight German accent, Ute told our group about the topical poison of cow parsnip, the sweetness of the watermelon berries, the feeding habits of moose, and the history of the local beaver population. I asked her what the little white flower beside the trail was, and, barely glancing, she answered, “oh, that’s yarrow.”

Today, just eight miles over the ridge in an alpine valley at the South Fork of the Eagle River, I recognize the clusters of pale lace. I pull out my foldable Alaska Trees & Wildflowers guide to be certain, and I match the white blooms and fern-like leaves in the illustration to the flower before me. The achillea millefolium appears frequently amongst the tall grass and scrubby vegetation between the turquoise glacial waters of the South Fork of the Eagle River and the crystal clear, spring-fed tributary that joins the river downstream. I look around me, using the two streams to mark off a section of the valley to use as my area of study.

I have never been good at identifying species, but I am willing to put aside my lack of skill. I draw the yarrow, my pencil sketching the long, thin stem as it branches out into the leaves, tiny fronds reaching up to the sky. The flowers on top are so small, each cluster shaped like a head of cauliflower, with white blooms and still-dark buds mingling.

Looking down at my sketch, I am satisfied that my efforts resemble some sort of organic matter, if not an actual representation of my subject. Scribbling the scientific name above the flower, along with a brief note recalling yarrow’s use as a mosquito repellent, I move on to my next query.

Here is a flower I have never seen before. Or I think I’ve never seen it before, because what do I know about wildflowers? It is simple, and it is pretty; a single white flower extends from a thin, pale green stem, and five soft petals sway in the valley’s wind. Several leaves, spade-shaped and flat, extend from the base of the stem, while one stray leaf has traveled halfway up the stem towards the flower, as if to join the petals in the sunlight. I look at my guide. The flower could belong to the Alpine Lily—the illustration shows an equally lovely, single white flower perched on a narrow stem. But the stem is too short, and the leaves are long and thin rather than small and rounded. I look next at the Single Delight, a suitable name for the simple, lone flower before me. The leaves are closer in shape to my specimen, but again, the length of the stem is too short, and the flower’s petals are too pointed.

Flipping through my guide again, I finally see an illustration that depicts a stem of appropriate length, leaves of identical shape and size, and perhaps most notably, that leaf in the middle of the stem—the Grass of Parnassus. Pleased at having identified something with no prior knowledge of that something’s existence, I note the details of the flower in my notebook like a proper naturalist and stand up to search for my next target.

Energized by my new knowledge, I scan the landscape around me, seeing streaks of yellow all over my area of study. I pick a cluster of these yellow flowers, and sit down to investigate. This flower is more complex than the last; a single yellow bloom emerges from a thicker, red-tinted stem, with many rows of leaves shooting off in all directions. The leaves are long but rounded on the ends, like a tiny rhododendron, but they are somewhat fuzzy to the touch. I brush my hand against the dew still clinging to the plant, cool on my fingertips.

I turn back to my guide. My flower could be a Subalpine Buttercup. But the leaves in question are not the three-pronged fans shown in the illustration. Perhaps it is Silverweed. Again the flower looks similar enough, but those leaves are serrated, and my flower is certainly not a six-foot long creeping plant. I stare at the pages of my guide, waiting for some missed detail to make itself known. Could it be an Alpine Avens? The flower in that illustration looks closest of all to the flower in front of me, with its identical shape and dark stamen, but once more, I am thwarted by uncooperative leaves.

I examine each illustration in my guide, even the ones that don’t remotely resemble my flower. Maybe my yellow flower was accidentally categorized with the blues.  Or it could have been lost amongst the pages of trees and shrubs. Eventually, I must decide between two conclusions: either my little yellow flower is a never-before documented mutation, or, much more likely, I need a better guidebook. 

I could feel disappointed as I fold away my guide. I failed to identify a simple, unremarkable yellow flower—a flower Ute probably could have named in her sleep. But for now, I don’t mind not knowing what that flower is. With a better guidebook, I know I can find out. That seems to be a good start.

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