RoadTrippin': From the railroad to a river raft, Spencer Glacier's bluebird day delights

Published: Jun. 5, 2018 at 5:23 PM AKDT
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The Spencer Glacier is truly 'off the beaten path' of travel, even for Alaska. Until recently, the only way to reach the glacier was by trail or sled dog.

Today, thousands of Alaskans and even more tourists take the Alaska Railroad to the Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop. The glacier is named in honor of Edward A. Spencer, general timekeeper for the Alaska Central Railway.

On November 16, 1905, Spencer attempted to travel via trail from Camp 52 to Camp 55, in the area of what is now the glacier that bears his name, and though traveling at night Spencer was allegedly confident he could make the trek. His body, travel pack, and papers would be found a year later and in 1909 the United States Geological Survey named the glacier in his memory.

Channel 2's Jack Carney and photojournalist Shawn Wilson traveled to this hard-to-reach region of the Chugach National Forest on the Alaska Railroad. Here's their story:

According to the US Department of Agriculture Forest Service an area now at the water's edge near the train stop was the glacier's edge in 1958. Since that time various studies have shown that the glacier has receded on average 103 feet, between 1990-2007. According to one of the guides with Chugach Adventures, the receding rate is only increasing.

"It's shocking sometimes just even coming out between seasons and seeing how far it's receded," said Chugach Adventure Guide Illiya Pekich.

After pumping up his rafts, Pekich paddled out onto the water where he pointed out the valley walls' fresh vegetation line, marking where the glacier once covered. It's less than 100 years old, Pekich said.

Chunks of the glacier float in and around Spencer Lake, but what you're able to view on top is only the tip of the iceberg.

"Eighty percent is below the water. So they mushroom out and shelf out underneath," Pekich said, "so they're much bigger than they seem and this lake can get up to 400 feet deep."

It's estimated that the glacier wall at the lake's edge is 300 feet deep.

"The great thing about Spencer is that you're experiencing a nice wilderness environment. There's no road in here. Because there's no road system, the rail's the only way in here," said Pekich.

As we paddle out into the lake, we continue down a river system that's ever-changing depending on the water's flow and levels. There's evidence of wildlife along the water’s edge, birds making their nests, trees growing sideways, roots of bushes hanging onto what little land they can as they fight to stay dry and not become the next piece of debris that guides like Pekich are able to somehow avoid as they makes their way downriver.

Two hours later and we've made it back to a shore point just off the tracks of the Alaska Railroad. Boats are docked and everyone makes it safely back onto the train. According to Pekich, trips to the glacier where conditions include little to no wind, calm waters, and clear skies are the rarest of treats; it feels good to have been so lucky.