Exploring the Canwell Glacier

Posted by lwpetersen | October 31, 2014 | hiking, outdoors, photo-blog
On the Canwell Glacier where the edge of the southern moraine meets exposed ice. Channels typically form next to moraines like this and since this is very near the toe of the glacier it's had a long time to form this deep channel.

A water carved canyon along a lateral moraine on the Canwell Glacier – gallery | prints

Living as close as we do to enormous glaciers that could only exist on the highest peaks in the lower 48 offers us a unique hiking opportunity. This summer I wanted to take my friend, Jenn to one of these glaciers during her short visit to Alaska. Unfortunately, the weather was uncooperative every time we tried to make a plan. It turns out that the summer of 2014 was one of the wettest summers on record in the interior. I don’t love being cold and wet, and typically that’s what you are when it rains on you on a glacier.

Finally, there was a day that looked like the weather would be good enough. A far cry from a great day, it appeared that the bulk of the rain was going to get hung up south of the Alaska Range giving us an opportunity to stay somewhat dry. Since this was going to be our last opportunity we drove down without much of a plan – we could hike out to the Castner, Canwell, or Gulkana glaciers fairly easily in a day so we’d just take the one that looked the driest. With dark clouds to the south and the Castner Valley totally sopped in, the Canwell was looking like the best shot.

We drove through Red Rock Canyon Road which is really the easiest way to access the glacier in the summer. It was raining lightly when I parked. A small, but cold ford starts the hike, followed by three miles of easy walking a rocky road. The scenery doesn’t change much other than the glacier’s ice tongue getting closer.

Then we came to a second stream. “You told me there would only be one stream crossing!” she said. This is a lesson in hiking with me. There’s always between a half-mile and a mile to go, there is only one more stream, one more ridge. I lie.

We successfully made it to another stream crossing! Jenn is not thrilled.

“You told me there would only be one stream crossing!” This is a lesson in hiking with me. There’s always only a half-mile to a mile to go, there is only one stream, one more ridge. I lie. – gallery

It turns out that the easiest descent to the glacier is just across the stream. Attempting to descend before the crossing looked to be a pretty easy way to die. So we spent a lot of time trying to find a way to cross without fording, wanting to keep our boots dry and not go through the hassle of changing into sandals again. Further uphill the glacier-fed creek breaks off into a few braids making it possible to cross with a little jumping after re-arranging some rocks.

We'll find somewhere else to cross - One more attempt to avoid having to stay dry put our sandals back on. The banks are steeper than they looked.

Searching for a good place to cross and stay relatively dry. gallery | prints

The descent is gradual at first, going through some nice camping terrain, before dropping on some steeper, yet stable terrain. There was a smooth transition from the valley sidewall to the glacial moraine. Another quarter mile of navigating through the up and down lateral moraine and we end up at a super awesome and deep channel separating the moraine from the ice tongue.

It looked like it might be difficult to cross from the trail above, but turned out to be quite easy. The stream was barely a trickle. The rain had stopped completely and the air was quite cold, so there was barely any melt water.

A short steep ascent on the ice gave way to flat terrain. I had to yell back at Jenn a few times to “walk normal” as she was strategically placing each foot as if walking on an ice rink. The glacier surface was actually quite well textured, but it does take some time and confidence to gain confidence in your footing.

Finally on ice after a long day of exploring and navigating the rocky moraine.

Finally on ice after a long day of exploring and navigating the rocky moraine. gallery

Since we had no destination we just walked up-glacier until it felt like it was time to turn back. Eventually we got hungry so stopped to eat. looking at my phone I saw that it was after 4 pm so it was probably time to head back. We could see the snow line ahead, and we weren’t carrying equipment to travel over snow where there could still be bridges over crevasses, so it wouldn’t be safe to go much further either. While we were eating it started to get windy and the temperature dropped considerably. My hands started to get cold even with gloves on – I’m fairly sure that it was below freezing. Definitely time to turn around. We walked back on the opposite side of a medial moraine for a change in scenery.

Looking back up the canyon that divides the southern moraine from the ice surface. Jenn is on the top left for scale.

Looking back up the canyon that divides the southern moraine from the ice surface. Jenn is on the top left for scale. gallery

On the way back we passed an impressive waterfall higher up in the ice canyon that we crossed earlier. It cut vertically into already steep ice, dropping 50 feet before joining the main stream. I kind of go into trance when I stare at waterfalls. Kind of like staring at the fire. It’s just one of those amazing, simple, beautiful things.

We made it back to the jeep road fairly fast despite the steep climb back up. Almost immediately the Sun came out. Figures. At least we got to see a bit of a sunset in the valley for the walk back to the car.

Cool light and better weather than we had for our hike - looking over the Canwell Glacier near sunset

Looking over the Canwell Glacier as the Sun comes out. gallery | prints

We finally crossed the last stream a little after 10 pm. The Sun was still setting – I love that about summers in Alaska.

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Blog Comments

I’m going to Canwell glacier and entering through richardson highway. Can you give me an estimate on where to go after turning on to the gravel road and an estimate of how long the hike to/from the glacier is. Any hell would be appreciated.

Unless your vehicle has some high clearance, there’s a creek a couple miles up the road that’s difficult to cross.I don’t have an exact mileage, but it typically takes me about 10 minutes. I park at the creek and cross on foot. From there it’s almost exactly 3 miles to where I cut down onto the glacier. There’s a second stream that I cross in the Rainbow Basin and I hike down on the other side. The footing is a bit loose, but nowhere near as loose or steep as it is before the creek crossing.

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