Child’s Glacier: Five Days of Ice, Mountains, and an Unreasonable Amount of Silt

I spent the past five days of my SCA internship at Child’s Glacier, a 300-450 foot tall calving glacier about an hour and a half from Cordova. My time at Child’s was undoubtedly one of the most surreal, incredible experiences of my life!<p>One of the great things about my internship is that although I am on the Trail Maintenance/Construction crew, the SCA reserves 30% of my work for experiences with different Forest Service jobs. I can do a variety of tasks, including waterfowl nest observations, cabin maintenance, and fishery restoration with this 30%. So when I learned that the Developed Recreation crew was going to Child’s Glacier to maintain the campgrounds, I was quick to jump on the opportunity. Child’s is one of the top attractions in Cordova, costing $150 for a daylong tour, and the opportunity to go for five days for free as a part of my work was just too perfect to pass up!

Developed Recreation Crew about to Drive to the Glacier Site in a UTV (Utility Terrain Vehicle)

First of all, what’s a glacier? If you’re not from Alaska or Canada, which I’m not, you might have no idea what to visualize. Before I came to Alaska I knew glaciers had something to do with ice, so I sort of imagined them as really big ice-skating rinks. Well yes, they’re made of ice, but their consistency is much thicker because they form when snow and ice accumulates and gains mass until it is heavy enough to move by its own gravity. Glaciers develop and move, slowly, for millions of years, changing geological landscapes by trudging through mountains and creating valleys. They vary in size, but many stretch on for miles and are hundreds of feet high. Over time, glaciers fragment due to the force of their weight, creating large crevasses. So, not quite an ice rink- think a lot thicker, a lot more powerful, and with a complex, ever-changing form. Some glaciers, such as Child’s, are considered calving, which describes the process of chunks of ice breaking off from the glacier and falling into the body of water below. This is how icebergs are created.<p>Why does any of this matter? Because it is impossible to ignore the geological properties of a glacier while maintaining the campgrounds across from one. The Child’s Glacier Developed Recreation Site is a quarter of a mile from the glacier itself, on the other side of the Copper River. While that might sound far away, from where we were staying, it looked like this:

Child’s Glacier calves all the time, and the sound of the ice rupturing from the body of the glacier and falling into the Copper River sounds like a cannon going off! The masses of ice coming off are at least the size of a car, but often the size of a house or even an entire city block. They make quite a racket! It took a lot of getting used to this booming sound, especially in the first few days, because my instinct was always to think “is someone getting shot?” or “are there fireworks going off?” It would take a few seconds to remember where I was and that this was perfectly normal. It was especially disorienting the first night I tried to sleep through this phenomenon and awoke to the sound of the glacier calving at least four times.<p>The calving process can also create large waves that lap up on the shore of the campground, so we had to be very aware of our surroundings. This was especially true after larger pieces calved, because those created larger waves. As a result, the campground was covered in signs like this:

And this:

The other geological process that was impossible to ignore was the accumulation of glacial silt. As the glacier moves down the mountains, it carries tons of fine, powdery, light-brown silt along with it. Some years, not a whole lot of it ends up at the campground. But other years, like this year, an unbelievable amount is carried and blown down by the wind, getting absolutely everywhere- on picnic tables, bear boxes, the Forest Service shed, the informational signs, and building up in large piles on the ground. The silt is a problem because it can exacerbate asthma symptoms in visitors and, if not dealt with this year, will inevitably be even thicker and harder to manage the next. One of the days of our trip, I literally spent all ten hours fighting the silt’s takeover of the campground! I shoveled it out of the visitor’s kiosk for about five hours, swept it out of the large cooking pavilion, dusted it off of everything in the storage shed (the silt found its way through the cracks in the shed’s walls,) and even from in between the signs and their encasements. Somehow silt had made it under the plexi-glass as well, so many of the signs were dirty and difficult to read.

It took a while to deconstruct the plexi-glass and wash out all of the glacial silt, but we got them sparkling clean!

Aside from dealing with the glacial silt, I also spent two days using brush cutters and weed-whackers on the trails and roads of the campgrounds. Since Child’s is only accessible by boat, it is very expensive and time-intensive for the Forest Service to maintain. We have to load all of our equipment- food, fuel, cooking supplies, personal gear, tents, tools, etc.- into a small boat and make multiple trips out to the glacier. As a result, many of the trails and roads were overgrown, and it took two full days of three of us brushing, weed whacking, and cutting overhanging limbs with chainsaws to really make these areas usable again.

The work I did this trip really made me reflect upon how powerful the glacier, and nature in general, really are. Even after just one year of glacial silt buildup, there was enough work for me to dispose of it for days on end- and there’s still tons to remove! And it only takes a few years for the vegetation to fill in the trails and roads. I realized the work we do for maintenance here is short-lived, and must be followed up in later years to maintain accessibility for the site. We are really just carving a temporary shelter in order for visitors to witness the glacier, inhale its immense beauty and magnitude, and hopefully return to civilization with more humility and respect for the natural world. Maintaining the site is crucial to give visitors that opportunity, and it is perhaps even more humbling to do the hands-on grunt work of trimming nature back just enough for humans to get a good look at it.<p>To conclude, I want to emphasize just how thankful I am to the SCA for providing me with such an incredible experience. I knew my internship at Chugach National Forest would include some crazy experiences, but I definitely didn’t anticipate almost a week of unzipping my tent to behold a 400-foot tall glacier directly across a river from me. If you are on the fence about applying for an SCA internship, I would highly recommend that you just do it! There could be a wild, life-altering experience waiting for you. I know there was for me.