Sunday, November 14, 2010

Bering Glacier

After many years in my career as an environmental consultant I finally made it to Alaska. Opportunities came but then went with project cancellations or over-commitment to some other project. With good fortune I found myself on an early morning flight to Anchorage skirting the western Canadian coast and southeastern Alaska (the “panhandle"). It was mid-September and the weather would turn out fantastic for the week I was there in Anchorage. This post focuses on one small aspect of the trip and maybe on future posts I will talk about other trip details.

I have to admit that I have a big picture idea of Alaska’s geography but the details and native Alaskan names for places leave me dazed and confused in a similar fashion like place names in Hawaii. Whereas native Alaskan words seem heavy in consonants, Hawaiian names seem heavy in vowels. The words all sound the same in the respective languages.

The plane was very light and so we were allowed to change seats once we were at cruising altitude. The good stuff was all to the right side of the plane as we flew up the coast. One feature that really caught my eye was a huge glacier flowing from an icefield, terminating in an iceberg-filled lake separated from the Gulf of Alaska by a thin spit. The lake itself was drained by short river that paralleled the spit and eventually found an exit to the Gulf. The spit and the river that aligned with it indicated the direction of the longshore current; in this case from east to west (or, in the photo, from right to left).



It turns out that the glacier was the Bering Glacier, the largest glacier in North America. The iceberg-filled lake at its terminus is Vitus Lake. And the short river is the Seal River. The Bering Glacier is fed by the Bagley Icefield, the largest nonpolar icefield in North America.

Bering Glacier and Vitus Lake were named after Vitus Jonassen Bering, a Danish navigator who served in the Russian Navy. Bering was credited with being the first European to discover Alaska and its Aleutian Islands as well as the Bering Glacier that bears his name. These discoveries were made during what is known as the Great Northern Expedition. In 1741, the expedition anchored off Kayak Island, just a little to the west and out of the picture to the left. It was here that the ship’s naturalist, Georg Wilhelm Steller, would explore and take notes on the plants and animals he observed. Here Stellar was the first to record the raucous blue bird that bears his name, the Stellar’s Jay, one of my favorite birds who kept me company in the upper elevations of southern California’s mountains and now feasts at our bird feeder in the Puget Sound lowlands.

A fascinating read on Stellar is “Stellar’s Island” by Dean Littlepage.

STELLER'S ISLAND: Adventures of a Pioneer Naturalist in Alaska