Saturday, August 29, 2015

Rafting Alaska's Spencer Glacier and Placer River

"No roads lead to Spencer Glacier. Fortunately, the Alaska Railway does!"

That is how the brochure reads. This rafting excursion was sponsored by The Alaska Railroad and began with the train ride from Anchorage to the quaint town of Whittier (photo below), where we had 30 minutes to see the town. 

For decades, no highway went to Whittier, so they paved the one lane Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, originally just a 2.5 mile long railroad tunnel (the longest in North America), and every 30 minutes the tunnel is open for ten minutes to one-way car traffic (alternating direction every half hour.) The tunnel is designed for 40 degree below F. temperatures and 140 mph winds, and the tunnel has to be aired our regularly using jet turbine engine ventilation! Perhaps that is why few cars drive here but there are lots of boats?

We then re-boarded the train and traveled to the Portage area where we had a short bus ride to the raft launch. Along the train tracks, we passed the "Ghost Forest," created by the devastating 1964 earthquake. Before the quake, this land was above sea level and the forest thrived, but the quake caused the land to sink eight feet, the sea inundated the area, and it became a salt marsh, and since salt is a preservative, the trees remain petrified -- intact, supported by the three feet of silt deposits left by the surge tide. The ocean is a mere 100 feet away on the other side of the tracks.  I also saw this area again as I biked the Girdwood Bike Trail.

After a nice picnic lunch, we began rafting towards Spencer Glacier through nearly frozen water and passing many icebergs. As seen in the photo below, the water was frozen near the put-in, and the oars were breaking the ice so the raft could move.

This next photo shows Spencer Glacier in the background as we work our way around the many ice floes towards it.

The guides did all the rowing so we were free to photograph to our heart's content -- no pressure on us to supply momentum to the raft -- which let me know we wouldn't be hitting any large rapids on the trip. This was to be more of a relaxed float trip with scenery and enjoyment as our main concern.

This photo below demonstrates our proximity to the icebergs. We could not approach the glacier itself too closely, for fear that a new iceberg forcefully breaking off the glacier edge (calving) would swamp us with a large wave.

Seeing the beauty of the icebergs themselves from so close, especially when the deep blue color was evident, made the $159 (2004 price) worth it! We were warned, however, that since 90% of an iceberg's bulk is beneath the surface of the water, if a berg decided to roll over, we'd be inundated by the wave action caused by the weight of the glacier shifting.

See the raft on the other side of the bergs?

After leaving the lake, we floated the Placer River (pronounced plasss- er), enjoying the scenery and solitude as we floated the miles back to the train. There were a few bouncing rapids to add a little excitement, but the train trip and experiencing the glacier and icebergs was the big draw of this trip.

Though rushing rapids would have been wonderful, simply drinking in the majestic scenery and wildlife sightings was not a bad alternative. 

There are no roads to this area, so we ended our excursion right at the train for the trip back to Anchorage.

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