Alice Friedemann Explores One of Earth’s Wildest Places on Foot: Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park

Posted on June 1, 2016

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By Alice Friedemann

If you want to find out what it was like to live in the Ice Age, you might want to head for Iceberg Lake in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.  It’s about a 7 hour drive east from Anchorage.  But you can also fly into that dot on the map that is remote McCarthy, Alaska, looking down all the way on this” other world” few have ever seen.

We were going to be one of the lucky few!!

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Wrangell-St. Elias National Park has to be the most beautiful of all of our country’s national parks. Normally, well, I hate to tell people about the secret great places, but, somehow, I’m not worried I’ll run into you. This largest park in our entire park system covers more than 19,000 square miles! If you include nearby Glacier Bay National Park (5036 sq. miles) and Canada’s Kluane National Park (8500 sq. miles)as well, this is a wilderness area about the size of the state of Maine or Indiana.   HUGE!

Not only that, but nine of America’s 16 tallest peaks are in the Park.  Over a dozen glaciers flow into the Park’s Iceberg Lake and Iceberg Valley.  Beyond the lake itself, we also could view Bagley Icefield, North America’s largest subpolar ice field.  Mind-blowing.

It is so remote, with so much ice and snow, you actually can feel that a mammoth might come around the corner any minute…

It is another world . . . like no other we have ever seen after a lifetime of travel.

Google satellite image

Google satellite image

Long before we arrived in the town of McCarthy, where my husband Jeffery and I were going to catch our Wrangell Mountain Air flight, I was having second thoughts.  In fact, I was so nervous about being in the middle of a frozen wilderness that I’d decided to change the destination to a lovely lake and mountain meadow area not far from McCarthy.

I mean, what on earth was I thinking, arranging to be dropped into an inaccessible, icy wilderness area without a guide, or even a gun to keep bears at bay?  We were car campers. Our biggest adventures so far had been a few backpacking trips – trips where there were plenty of other hikers to help us if we got in trouble.

But now, there would be no other hikers at Iceberg Lake.   What would be there were several rivers far too deep and swift to cross.  Massive glaciers would block the way as well.

What had we been thinking?

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Our pilot told us that it wasn’t going to be possible to fly to the lovely mountain meadows that seemed safer.  Right now, there was a raging forest fire causing havoc there.   So the destination was to be Iceberg Lake after all!

We each kept our own private thoughts to ourselves.

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We landed on what appeared to be 300 foot high sand dunes, leveled flat by icy winds. The “sand” was actually very fine glacial till, a powder really, from rocks ground up by the glaciers all around us. Needless to say, it was surreal to land on what appeared to be Middle Eastern sand dunes, but be surrounded by the white of glaciers and icebergs in every direction.

When our little plane coasted to a stop, a couple ran toward the airplane with their backpacks.  They were very scared and exhausted.  Breathlessly, they told us they’d been kept up all night by a bear with two cubs, constantly circling their tent.

Great!!!  Now my own worst fears were realized — and even before we’d  gotten out of the airplane!

The weather in Alaska changes incredibly abruptly.  We’d landed in the sunshine.   Yet, only an hour later, as we were setting up the tent, a fierce cold rain began pouring down. Then to make matters worse, the wind picked up, and we began to shiver uncontrollably.  To be honest, I am as afraid of getting hypothermia as I am of seeing bears!  There was to be more.  We had no way to make a campfire, as we were well above the tree line!    I tried to tell myself:  At least we were not getting wet, since all of those travelling to Alaska know that the #1 gear you must have with you are the indispensable waterproof gore-tex  jacket and pants.

Our next step was crucial though.  We knew that we needed to get warm again fast.  We needed to cook dinner and boil water. But now, how could we do it?   One attempt told us that it was impossible to do out in the open!    The lashing rain, fueled by fierce winds, would blow out our matches in a single second.  Above the tree line, there would be no trees to shelter under.

Just as we’d feared, we’d gone way past our outdoor skill level.

But fortunately, I’d done some research on rigging up shelters, and it wasn’t long before I’d put up the tent tarp with my hiking poles to protect the camp stove from the lashing wind and rain.  The hot food and cocoa we drank soon warmed us up.  Actually, we grew quite cheerful once we weren’t so cold, pleased we had managed to cope, and it wasn’t long before the rain subsided and wind died down.

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When we woke up the next day, we headed for the lush green valley beyond where our tent lay, and where the three bears the hikers had feared for their lives about were likely to be found.  We saw many rocks that we thought were the bears –a few of them were the bears—but they were sleeping and didn’t bother us.  For the entire 3 days we were there, the bears never did find our tent – we were up above in the rocks and about 2 miles away.

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Hiking up above where we were camping to see some of the glaciers spilling down the hills all around us resulted in perhaps some of our most memorable moments in this world apart.     

Alice Friedemann next to the blue-tinged glacier in Iceberg valley. Photo by Jeffery Kahn.

Alice Friedemann next to the blue-tinged glacier in Iceberg valley. Photo by Jeffery Kahn.

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Not far from our campsite was Iceberg Lake, chockablock with icebergs, amidst scenery that seemed of another world.

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You can see the Bagley Icefield beyond the lake.

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Iceberg reflections. Photo by Jeffery B. Kahn

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This lake and valley has to be one of the wonders of the world, with huge glaciers that anywhere else in Alaska would be a big tourist spot.  But here we were with glaciers spilling everywhere, and we had it all to ourselves the entire time.

Four days later, it was time to leave this icy paradise.  But because the weather is so crazy in Alaska, you can never count on the airplane arriving the day you expect, so I had 2 extra days of food.  But luckily the weather was sunny and the plane arrived on time to take us to our next destination, Tebay Lake.

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I don’t think any other place could match the amazing, unique, and spectacular ice-age scenery that we alone had to ourselves!!

The following  3-day adventure actually looked like a tropical paradise from the air, extremely lush and green with a 10-mile tropical turquoise lake, glittering below our plane.  Nothing but sunshine beamed warmly down.  A true paradise seemed to lie below.

The little-known area, called Tebay Lakes, was tantalizing from the air.  We soon were to be able to explore another wilderness area of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park before our return home.  .  . and we plan to take readers along with us as we discover more of the largest and most remote national park in the U.S. in the coming week!!!

Alice-thumbnailAfter 25 years, Alice Friedemann managed to escape her day job as a systems engineer and architect. When she’s not traveling, throwing dinner parties, reading non-fiction, baking, volunteering to take 4th and 5th graders on hikes at Audubon Canyon Ranch, gardening, or walking, she’s in the back yard with her husband Jeffery listening to the birds and breezes, watching redwoods sway, and enjoying the cats, squirrels, scrub jays, skunks and other wildlife that roam our back yard. She’s been baking with whole grains for ten years, and spent the past three years making many batches of chips and crackers, which resulted in her cookbook “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers.”

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