I’ve always said that a hike down the West Glacier Spur Trail to the edge of the ice offers the best “bang for your buck” of all hikes in the Juneau area (the world?). But when you throw a bike into the mix, I’m forced to reconsider. Not only does the Herbert River Trail lead to spectacular “erosion scenery”, but the ride is genuinely enjoyable. Feeling the air rush past your face as you look deep into a forest where moss laden hemlock branches hang over the spreading leaves of devil’s club plants is a completely different sensation than you can get in the younger forest around the Mendenhall Lake, even in the portions where biking is feasible. The trunks of the trees along the route to the Herbert Glacier dance with each other as your perspective changes, and almost before you know it, the five mile trip is complete.
The immediate result of your “labor” is a 180 degree view of classic Southeast Alaska scenery, which has been cleared for you by the constantly surging and shifting headwaters of the Herbert River itself. Just ahead, the river turns from its liquid form to a towering icefall of sparkling white and vibrant blue. The stands of cottonwood, willow, and alder that flank the river’s clearing provide a burst of leafy color that changes with the seasons under the consistent muted evergreen on the lower slopes of the sky-scraping mountains. To sit and stare, provided you can find a perch where a stiff breeze will keep the mosquitoes at bay, would be reward enough for a multi-day backpacking trip in most parts of the country. But if you leave your bike in the company of a sturdy tree, there’s so much more to see!
Having come this far in sandals or boots, you may choose to forge the shallower strands of the Herbert River’s braid instead of skirting the water on a brief continuation of the trail. On the far side of the clearing, the consolidated river splashes violently by as the edge of the glacier comes into view. The idea of reaching that glacial edge has taunted me for years, for though it sits at the end of an inviting ravine, I have never once come close to crossing the Herbert River, even in it’s gentlest states. While it hardly seems possible, the noise of the river builds over the next few steps of exploration. The sound is not deafening, but it is enveloping and palpable. The next turn reveals a series of spray spitting waterfalls, twists, and gyrations in the river’s course. The forceful movement of the water is intoxicating. Rainbows appear in the mist, and the sculpted granite bedrock gives an air of confidence to the footing, but careless steps have been deadly here before. It’s best to savor the scene with reverence for the things that are not so fleeting as our life in this world.
Water levels most often require a retreat into the alders in order to advance any further. Even in the thick shade of these small trees, your steps are really hops between boulders that have been left behind by the glacier and its river. By the time we reach another clearing, the river has flattened again to some degree, but this time you have the world to yourself. In spite of the wall of glacial ice (now only a couple hundred yards away), the clear streams lined with clouds of magenta fireweed blossoms, and the most massive waterfall yet; I’m sure I could count the number of strangers I’ve met here on one hand with digits to spare! My heart cherishes my time alone in this paradise. I love to share it with a close friend and proclaim my appreciation for its virtues. This final valley below the Herbert glacier is a sanctuary in every sense of the word. I can see with crystal clarity that God has been at work for His own glory and for my abundant joy.
Heading to the Herbert Glacier early in the afternoon a few days ago meant that I had plenty of time to travel as far as I felt inclined before turning around to look for opportunities to interpret the beauty through photographs. I was stopped short of where I had ventured previously by the forests natural reclamation project. As glaciers around Southeast Alaska recede, the forest grows to make up the difference. Some of the path I had followed before had crumbled down steep slopes into the relentless river. Other parts were now covered in alders just a couple feet taller than me, practically impenetrable. I stood on a bed of moss that helped to stabilize the loose sediment of the lateral moraine near the peak of my ascent. The photograph, in spite of it’s wide angle of view, doesn’t even encompass all the highlights of my view. My perspective left some of the valley’s treasures out of my view. The point is that a single photograph doesn’t begin to do justice to the landscape’s grandiose scenery. I think that’s part of the reason I tend to steer most of my photographic efforts toward isolated pieces from within the whole environment.
I also want to tell the story of some of the intangible qualities that make the upper Herbert River so resplendent. I had in mind to use other features in the story during this most recent trip, but I found myself drawn to the reflections in the shaded river once again. There are so many choices involved with photographing a river that it would be difficult to try and define how each choice tells a part of the story. Certainly, some choices end up being made based purely on aesthetics. In the end, hours of chasing reflections up and down the river can leave you empty handed, or it may be difficult to determine which image conveys it’s message most clearly. Fortunately, in its constant burbling or thundering, water has many messages, and occasionally I translate effectively.
The image below is not one where I felt satisfied with the composition or impressed with the color, but it tells me a story very pointedly. I had passed this crystalline chunk of ice and stood with my back to it for several minutes before I finally realized it was there. It was completely unexpected, and it reminded me that I have not actually “seen it all”. The unexpected context of this glacial ice forced me not to take it for granted. Like a diamond, the ice held a rainbow luminosity inside that seemed to be partially revealed through the way water had sculpted its edges. I couldn’t doubt, the magnificence of creation will not be exhausted by the likes of me, but what a blessing to be designed to long for beauty…and find it.
The message about the incomprehensibly intricate beauty in the natural world parallels a truth about all of life. God has a plan for you that trivializes your greatest expectations, and it is good to a depth beyond understanding. There is no greater joy than to see the God who promises good and never brakes a promise.
“I have seen you in your sanctuary and gazed upon your power and glory.” – Psalm 63:2 (NLT)