I spent two days doing field work on the Black Rapids Glacier in the Alaska Range. Since I was using helicopter support to wrap up equipment for the season there was no need to camp on the glacier. For two nights I slept at a campsite in the Donnelly Flats under Donnelly Dome. On the first morning I woke to some cool clouds in the sky and the next morning to a moose in a nearby pond. One morning I woke up early to find some pretty nice aurora in the sky.
I made some coffee and saw that a text had just come in from the pilot, John. He was about to leave Fairbanks to head for the Black Rapids air strip. After packing up my campsite I hopped in the truck and headed south. It’s about a 15-20 minute drive between my campsite and the airstrip, depending on how many RVs and tourists you get stuck behind. Just north of Donnelly Creek I could feel the wind pushing the truck around. There were big, stacked lenticular clouds over a few of the mountains which meant that up high the wind was probably ripping. I stepped out of the truck to find a fairly constant 40 mph wind with some much stronger gusts. I tried to call the pilot, but he was gone, so I sent a text in case he happened to stop in Delta.
I arrived at the airstrip and waited for about 45 minutes when the little red R44 whipped in. John powered down the aircraft, stepped out and said, “we’re not flying today.”
Frankly, I was surprised he even made it down. The wind had picked up quite a bit and now it was dumping rain on us too. He through some of his gear in the truck, tied down the helicopter, and we drove up to the Lodge at Black Rapids to wait. And wait. Check the forecast, nope. Wait. Around noon the sky started to show promise. Curtis, the chef at the lodge made us some sandwiches for lunch and about 1 pm we decided that the wind had died down enough to give it a shot. By 1:30 we were in the helicopter and flying out over the valley.
On our way to the glacier we could see that the river was full, really full. This is all run-off from precipitation and melt from the glacier valley.
There was so much water as we flew over the terminus that it looked like a lake-terminating glacier.
The work on this trip entailed bringing in 400 lbs of batteries to three continuous GPS stations and installing air vents to boxes (the batteries need to breathe while staying dry – a challenge in this environment). Six seasonal GPS stations needed to be removed along with 4 camera boxes up on the mountainsides and we needed to do end-of-season mass balance surveys at a number of sites higher up on the glacier.
One of the continuous GPS stations with super hi-tech pvc air vent installed.
The lowest of the four cameras and easiest to access.
After winterizing two of the three stations and pulling out five of the six stations and a camera, we made way to the top of the glacier and start pulling out the rest of the cameras and last GPS on the way down. The weather at the top of the glacier was far from ideal. We ran into snow about 1500 ft. below the area we were headed too. We made an attempt to access the highest camera, but couldn’t find a place to land and the snow was starting to fall pretty hard. We headed down to the next camera to find about a foot of fresh fallen snow. We had to land much higher up than normal because visibility was an issue. Jumping out of the helicopter and found myself waist-deep in snow. About 20 meters of post-holing led me to a rocky slope with just a dusting. I walked fast to the camera.
The lake that the camera monitors was partially full. There is some heavy snow falling to the south. Here is the same view on a nicer (winter) day.
The weather started turning bad fast and I was fumbling to get this box off. There were so many thick, plastic zip-ties and wires holding the solar panel on it took me at least a few minutes to cut it all off. After a year and a half the box was totally stuck to the tripod. I couldn’t get the handle to release, even with channel locks. I had to twist the whole box until it loosened enough that I could get it to separate. That nastiness to the south must have turned while I was focused on the camera box.
There was some kind of winter hell-hole looking down the Susitna Glacier valley.
Follow the post-holes back to the helicopter.
I lost my breath a few times trying to hurry back to the helicopter with this 25 pound box in my arms. The sky turned white with snow as we lifted off, hugging the south side of the mountains for visibility. We got one of the cameras and that was it for the day.
Thursday was to be the day. The forecast had a wind advisory back in the mix for Friday into Saturday. Rain was forecast for the whole weekend with rain/snow mix at Isabela Pass on the Richardson Highway. We got out early and winterized the last station. A little bit of light poked through the clouds.
Everything down low on the ice was now done. Everything else was in weather. We made another attempt to get the highest camera as the weather just went to hell again. This time it became apparent that I was not going to be getting to it. About a foot or more of new snow had fallen on large talus. There was nowhere to land above the camera, the base was nearly surrounded by a mostly full lake and mote.
While trying to find a place to land we were once again chased out by white-out conditions. We went to the highest mass-balance site and last GPS site that could be accessed where I just needed to take some measurements and run the GPS for 1/2 hour. Ten minutes in John had to take the helicopter down-glacier because the snow had descended. We made arrangements for him to try to come pick me up if the weather cleared, or I would just start walking east until we were out of the weather. Once I wrapped up I saw the helicopter flying low in the distance before setting down again and started walking toward it.
Before it got dark we hit all the mass balance sites we could and stopped to grab a pressure sensor in one of the lakes, the last bit of accessible equipment I needed to take out.
Surface stream near one of the other mass balance sites, right on the edge of the frozen form of precipitation.
Getting around by R44 helicopter on the Black Rapids Glacier
All photos from this trip including the drive down can be viewed here: https://lwpetersen.smugmug.com/Date/2013/September/Black-Rapids-September-2013/
Watch videos of some of the flights here: Some videos from Black Rapids