The JIRP Truth

by Gillian Rooker

For those of you reading, I won’t be deceiving

Living on an icefield is hard.

It’s dirty yet white, the rain is a fright

Clouds hover over camp like a guard.


Once you arrive, you mutter, “how will I survive?”

That hike was like hell never ending.

And inside the camp, you notice “hmm, everything’s damp.”

Oh… Wow, that trench-foot could sure use some mending.


Day after day, we do the plan of the day

Learning ‘bout safety, science and skiing.

So when out in the white, we’ll know more how to fight

Against the hardships we’ll probably be seeing.


PITS! Dig till you’re weary, yours will also get hairy,

There’s no showering up here you see.

We smell but no one’s cried, since our olfactories have died

But air passengers, prepare once we’re free.


Blisters here and there, but mostly everywhere

It’s a struggle and a constant fight.

But these JIRPers you see, we stay happily

We know it will all be alright.


Fast friends we have made, these bonds we will save

It’s good that we all are so close

‘Cause out on a ski, when someone needs to pee

There’s nothing we can do but be close.


Camps 10 and 17, 26 and 18

We traverse unlike most of the masses.

It truly is far, a total of 70 miles (no car)

Writing this I think, “Damn, we’re badasses!”


JIRPers are strange, our hobbies they range

From furrows to pole dancing and more.

But it’s not what you think, although we all stink

Living here is anything but a chore.

Interview with Ben Santer

by Laurissa Christie, University of Guelph

I feel privileged on this expedition to be meeting and learning from such experienced staff, faculty, and students.   Ben Santer was a visiting faculty at Camp 10.  He has a PhD in climatic research and has served as a lead author for the International Panel on Climate Change Assessment Reports.  For the JIRP 2014 field season, he is a guest speaker talking about the earths climatic systems.   I planned to do a formal interview with Ben, but ended up dropping my pencil and instead having a two hour conversation about the challenges we face as climate change communicators.

As a motivational speaker myself, his advice was reassuring. My own climate change presentations include a What Should We Do Next? section. When I asked him for advice on this, he recommended mentioning the importance of talking to local politicians. He also stressed the importance of being an informed consumer, and learning about the science behind the decisions we make. He also notably expressed that, what defines us is humanity and not the number of letters which are in front of our names. 

So far, the Juneau Icefield Research Program has done an amazing job teaching us about the planet on which we live.  We are working on long-term data sets which will be used to predict future changes and climatic patterns. My conversation with Ben was one of the most moving conversations Ive ever had.  Ben is a great role model, and I look forward to continuing our correspondence in the future. Im grateful that JIRP offers its students an opportunity to learn from many amazing teachers like Ben.

Id like to end with one of my favorite quotes about our planet: We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, but rather we borrow it from our children.

 Ben Santer and Laurissa Christie

Ben Santer and Laurissa Christie

Words Aren't Wind

by Erik Tamre, Harvard University

Thus arise all those works of art in which a single individual lifts himself for an hour so high above the sea of suffering that his happiness shines like a star and seems to all who see it as something eternal and as a happiness of their own.

– Hesse “Steppenwolf”


The ultimate scientific product of this summer is text. JIRP will generate previously unwritten reports, unheard lectures, unpublished articles – unspoken words.

Most students will not remember words as defining this summer. We’ll see flickering images: fleeting smiles, laughing eyes, white vistas and black frames. We’ll renew unshaped feelings of amazement and fear to do with the place, of sympathy and friendship to do with the people. In the wind howling and the raindrops popping into the snow we will hear voices, mysterious and elusive and such that we cannot make our own.

Words of a lecture are simply human – and as such less exciting than whisperings of the wind. But we understand words so much better than wind, as a vanishingly small fluctuation in their delivery remains meaningful. Therein is the power of lectures: sometimes, in a champagne moment, the speaker makes choices so apt and accurate in his diction and inflection that his voice rings true in the ears of the audience and holds onto their memory.

These are the moments I ultimately remember – the only ones in a world where both lecturers and listeners overestimate the amount of memories an attentive audience can take away from a talk. Select sentences, points and conclusions will stay with me for years, but they really need to be expertly and often painstakingly crafted and are thus few. To expect more would be to expect too much.

Yet there are lecturers who deliver consistently the magical moments when their ingenuity meets the response of the audience in a brief flash of understanding. This consistency is a great marvel, for I do not believe such flashes can simply be repeated from lecture to lecture. They need to have about them an air of discovery, an implicit understanding that the truth was in this moment seen for the first time. They have to be small epiphanies, but still such that can only once befall a human soul; twice it cannot happen.

I can only imagine the passion one needs for reproducing always the excitement of the first time. Some lecturers perhaps have it in them from the beginning – a match made in heaven with their chosen subject – and while they speak, their happiness shines like a star and seems to all who see it as something eternal and as a happiness of their own.

Others have found and nurtured this passion only in time, perhaps owing to some detail in their personal or professional history. None strike me more clearly as a possible example of such kind than our own Ben Santer, the one – one of many – behind the famous “balance of evidence” conclusion in the Summary for Policymakers of the 1996 climate assessment report by the IPCC. Together with his colleagues, he was conscious of the punch that this confirmation of a human-induced global climate change would carry, and they accordingly took a great deal of care to communicate with this sentence precisely and beautifully exactly what they had in mind.

I think it worked: after an initial storm of vicious criticism, the report’s conclusion became widely accepted and, in time, iconic. If it weren’t for the composed and competent aptness of each sound in the sentence, would it still have happened?

Whether owing to this defining episode or some other confluence of reasons, Ben Santer’s calm, competent, and controlled lecture style remains a benchmark – at least in the context of JIRP. He imperfectly reflects the idea of a lecturer that I have been painting: I can devote my attention to the minute fluctuations of his voice and meaning in the reassuring knowledge that they are there for a reason, and I can see truths that would otherwise elude me, and I will remember. God is in the details, and I can finally catch them.

The Final Trail Party Finally Makes it to Camp 10

by Kim Quesnel, Stanford University, photos by Alexandre Mischler, Yukon College

After sleeping for a few hours, we woke at our campsite, the Norris Cache, to another precipitation-free day. Some people meandered out of tents while others crawled out of sleeping bags after spending the night outside. We slowly tried to make sense of what had happened the day and night before and of what had happened earlier in the morning when three snowmobiles came to pick up more than half of our group members.  People who wouldn’t be able to complete the traverse that day included students who had to catch a helicopter for their field work, those who had blisters the size of index cards, or other ailments so pressing that they were not able to make the final push to Camp 10 on skis.


As I zipped open the door to the tent that I was sharing with Stephanie and Natalie, I couldn’t help but smile at the hectic journey of the day before.  My smile got bigger because Kate, the wonderful staffer who had come to help us finish the trek, was dancing around in the “kitchen”, boiling water for breakfast and making cowboy coffee to get us excited for the day to come. I walked over to her and noticed that in addition to the best oatmeal and coffee of my life, there was also a homemade lemon cake with marionberry frosting that had been sent in the snow machines as a present from Camp 10.  The second round of snow machines came around 10:30am to pick up the tents, extra food, some of the gear from our backpacks, and the final few members of the group who wouldn’t be able to complete the ski.

 Cake from our friends at Camp 10

Cake from our friends at Camp 10


 Kitchen at the Norris Cache

Kitchen at the Norris Cache

Moving slower than usual, we got our belongings together, and by 12:15pm we started skiing. There were 7 of us left out of the 16 who had started the traverse day before- Luna, French Alex, Natalie, Tristan, our incredible staffers Annie and Stan, and myself.  Kate also joined us for the traverse, probably mostly as a safety concern since we were all exhausted from the day before.  The trip started off on a positive note as we realized within the first ten minutes that the skiing was going to be infinitely better than the conditions we had experienced the day before. All that we had to do was a simple kick and glide instead of struggling across icy suncups. To make things even better, we were following a snow machine track and could ski side by side instead of in a single file line, so we could chat while we moved. Kate even brought her JammyPack (fanny pack with built in speakers) and three fully charged iPods, so we were rocking out to music all day as we skied.

 Kate and Annie skiing

Kate and Annie skiing


We followed a 50/10 schedule, skiing for about 50 minutes and stopping for 10 (with the exception of one slightly longer break to re-tape blisters). We skied and skied and skied, practically in a straight line across the entire Taku glacier with Camp 10 in sight (yes, C-10 is real…) for the majority of the day. We were tired, burnt out, and sore, but morale was high and we were all happy to be spending the day together. Luckily, Luna kept us laughing all day while we trekked along.

 Skiing across the Taku glacier

Skiing across the Taku glacier

 Taking a break during the traverse

Taking a break during the traverse


While our trail parties may have taken the longest amount of time to complete the first part of the traverse, we had one of the fastest times for the second section as we skied the 12 miles from the Norris Cache to Camp 10 in 6.5 hours.  We were met at the bottom of the Camp 10 hill by bear hugs and cheers from our friends, some of whom we had been separated from for almost an entire week. As promised, Camp 10 was sunny with gorgeous views, overlooking the entire Taku glacier with endless mountains in sight. It was the perfect way to begin the next chapter of our JIRP experience.  

 The final trail party makes it to C10!

The final trail party makes it to C10!

Put One Foot in Front of the Other: A 24-Hour Day on the Trail to Camp 10

by Natalie Raia, University of Texas at Austin

After several days of inclement weather at Camp 17, the clear morning on June 16th was a more than welcome sight for the final two trail parties! Our crews woke up at 04:00 to pack up and finish closing camp. Trail party one was off before 05:30, and the traverse began!

The first portion of the journey was a ski down Lemon Creek glacier. After spending two weeks on the Lemon Creek glacier practicing skiing and learning new mountaineering and glacier travel skills, it was a bittersweet goodbye to the familiar, gently sloping, and rather benign glacier we called home.

 Members of trail party two begin the traverse by skiing down the Lemon Creek glacier.  photo by Alexandre Michler

Members of trail party two begin the traverse by skiing down the Lemon Creek glacier.  photo by Alexandre Michler

However, the Lemon Creek glacier soon showed its icier side—rain during the bad weather days had exacerbated ablation near the terminus of the glacier. We had been warned by the second-day crew that crampons would be necessary to safely and efficiently cross the lower Lemon Creek glacier. So, around 07:00 we strapped crampons to ski boots, skis to packs, and trekked onward. For most of us, it was the first time back on crampons since our initial practice hike at the Mendenhall glacier in Juneau. It was a welcome break from skiing, and the crampons allowed for an enjoyable hike with phenomenal views as the good weather miraculously continued.


 Members of trail party two navigate exposed blue ice and crevasses on the lower Lemon Creek glacier.  This was an added challenge for the final two trail parties, after days of rain increased ablation.  photo by Alexandre Mischler

Members of trail party two navigate exposed blue ice and crevasses on the lower Lemon Creek glacier.  This was an added challenge for the final two trail parties, after days of rain increased ablation.  photo by Alexandre Mischler

After a snack break near the end of the Lemon Creek glacier, we began a slow and steady ski ascent on a snow ramp in pursuit of the Thomas Glacier. With Director Jeff Kavanaugh expertly kicking steps and routing switchbacks, we proceeded up three separate slopes that had initially appeared to be dauntingly steep.


 Staff member Stanley Pinchak and student Maya Smith ski up a track near the Thomas glacier with blue ice exposed on the Lemon Creek glacier in the lower background.  photo by Natalie Raia

Staff member Stanley Pinchak and student Maya Smith ski up a track near the Thomas glacier with blue ice exposed on the Lemon Creek glacier in the lower background.  photo by Natalie Raia

With stamina rapidly decreasing, we reached Lunch Rock around 15:30 and took a nice break, refilling water at a clear pool in the rock outcrop and munching on a few of our five (yes, five!) allotted sandwiches. Trail party two caught up with us as we prepared to leave Lunch Rock, so we were able to compare notes on the traverse, the beautiful weather, and share a few skeptical glances at our watchestime was ticking and reaching Lunch Rock in mid-afternoon was not ideal! Our agenda after lunch initially included a short uphill and then contouring across a gently sloping ridge. At this point, we encountered some mist, but Camp 17 prepared us well! Without a hitch, we reached the base of an exposed rock outcrop. At its peak was Nugget Ridge.

Strapping skis to our packs, we began a slippery uphill rock scramble that was difficult for everyone, and downright grueling for those with large plastic all-terrain ski boots. Nevertheless, we made it to the top and immediately prepared for the crevasse field on Nugget Ridge.


It seemed as if all of the preparation at Camp 17 had been leading to this moment. We tied into our rope teams, building the fairly extensive system of knots and prusiks without a second glance, and set off cautiously into the persisting mist. Our practice traveling together in rope teams allowed for an amazingly smooth section of the traverse, and as the mist cleared it became clear exactly why we were roped up. Amazing, gaping crevasses suddenly appeared along with a spectacular view of the final two portions of the traverse: Death Valley and the Norris Icefall.

 Director Jeff Kavanaugh, Melissa "Luna" Brett, Tristan Amaral, and Lexi Crisp successfully clear the crevasse field and look ahead into Death Valley.  photo by Natalie Raia

Director Jeff Kavanaugh, Melissa "Luna" Brett, Tristan Amaral, and Lexi Crisp successfully clear the crevasse field and look ahead into Death Valley.  photo by Natalie Raia

Once reaching the designated safe waypoint, we unroped and looked at the work ahead of us. Now 20:30, it was overtly obvious that all was NOT on-track time-wise! Trail party two caught up with us again, and it was decided that we would finish the traverse as one group. The implied goal now became something like, Move forward at any pace you are capable of and KEEP MOVING! A large downhill slope, easily the ski resort equivalent of a serious dark blue intermediate hill, loomed below us. Five of us skied down, and the rest boot packed down the hill. That run was a personal highlight of the traverse and one of the best ski runs of my life (and dont let my current university location fool you, Ive been skiing since kindergarten!). I descended down into the valley as sunset began, catching perfect snow conditions. It was notably one of the only times my AT ski setup worked to my advantage!

Once everyone regrouped at the bottom of the hill, we began a fun but exhausting sidehill across the upper part of Death Valley. This route was faster, safer, and used less energy. Even as some of us became sleepy, our leg muscles were certainly wide awake during this 2-hour ordeal.  Sidehilling is no easy task, especially with 25-30 lb. packs!


 Now skiing as one group, members of both trail parties execute an extensive sidehill ski run, preparing to drop down into Death Valley.  photo by Alexandre Mischler

Now skiing as one group, members of both trail parties execute an extensive sidehill ski run, preparing to drop down into Death Valley.  photo by Alexandre Mischler

Eventually, we lost all elevation advantage and were on the true floor of Death Valley. Im not sure what the origin of Death Valley is (and probably dont want to know!), but in the case of this now 17-hour traverse, Death Valley caused the slow deterioration of morale and all sense of progress. It was here that the true scale of the Icefield became acutely apparent. With dusk now well underway, the temperature began to drop. We kept moving forward by a combination of sheer grit and determination, robotic momentum acquired from hours on the trail, and perhaps most importantly out of necessity to keep warm! The snow in Death Valley turned icy, which increased the energy output necessary to ski over the never-ending sun cups (essentially snow dunes resulting from the uneven heating of the valley floor during the day). Eventually, we reached the bottom of the Norris Icefall. Now with headlamps out, we bundled up and ate what food we had (suddenly five sandwiches didnt seem so extravagant!), waiting to regroup and decide whether we would attempt the Norris Icefall that night. In that numb and exhaustion-laden break at 00:30, the true quality of students and staffers shined. Gloves, extra layers, food, and hugs were shared, and eventually it was decided that we would begin one final push towards our ultimate destination, the Norris Cache.  After all, a group of tents and food were waiting for us somewhere just above the icefall.

With freezing hands, we tied into our original rope teams from earlier in the day and approached the icefall. It was the middle of the night, and with Jeff scouting a path through an extensive crevasse zone we proceeded.  Most of us were running off of adrenaline, the occasional granola bar, and the knowledge that eventually the ordeal would be over and we could crawl into tents and sleep.

As a testament to the safety training we received at Camp 17, we efficiently and safely ascended the crevassed snow ramp with excellent communication, especially given that there were four rope teams skiing consecutively. After reaching the flag marking the safe point, we unroped and looked forward, expecting to see tents nearby.

 With the early summer sunrise, members of both trail parties unrope after the Norris Icefall and prepare for the final ski to find our tents at the Norris Cache.  photo by Alexandre Mischler

With the early summer sunrise, members of both trail parties unrope after the Norris Icefall and prepare for the final ski to find our tents at the Norris Cache.  photo by Alexandre Mischler

Nope! Finding a wanded track we trudged forward at abysmally slow rates, some of us in serious blistered pain, others just overcome by mental and physical exhaustion.  WHERE WERE THE TENTS?! Looking forward about half a mile, it seemed that some of the faster skiers had reached a stopping point and were grouping up. But, wait! Why could I see half a mile in front of me? It was supposed to be the middle of the night, too dark to see any significant distance! A glance up at the sky (as opposed to the spectacular view I had been looking at for the past 22 hoursthe top of my skis!) revealed that the sun was rising! In that moment, there was nothing to do but laugh at the absurdity of the situation. 03:30, just half an hour shy of being awake and on my feet for 24 hours and I was still skiing toward the cache for day one of the traverse. Laughing, wincing, and crying with my fellow JIRPers, we skied toward the tents at the cache and collapsed on the ground at the camp.

We have a running conversation about types of fun on JIRP: Type A Fun is fun during and after the event, Type B Fun is not fun during the ordeal but is fun retrospectively, and Type C Fun is fun during but not after! Day one of the traverse to Camp 10 was most certainly Type B fun. That day we each learned lessons in perseverance, self-awareness, inner willpower, and teamwork. The traverse was rewarding not because of the absurd, JIRP record-breaking amount of time it took to complete, but because the not one of us could have completed the traverse alone. We learned that together we function at a higher level in adverse conditions than would be possible as individual entities.

Snow Throne Haikus

by Danielle Beaty, University of Colorado Boulder and Kirsten Arnell, Columbia University

Mass balance data collection is the heart and soul of the Juneau Icefield Research Program. The mass balance record kept by JIRP is key in understanding glacial processes as well as climate change. Furthermore, digging mass balance pits is one of the most fun aspects of JIRP, as its an awesome way to explore outside of camp and get to know everyone. On a particular mass balance digging excursion out of Camp 10, we had more diggers than work to be done.  We used this opportunity to construct a three tiered snow couch/throne out of all the snow we removed from the pit. Here we present to you some haikus we wrote about the throne, because who doesnt enjoy a good snow sculpture haiku?


A snow pit deepens

Shovels toss snow through the air

There, appears a chair


A snow throne tower

In the middle of Taku

What a stunning view


Ah, the sun is out

Should we dig a pit today?

How about a couch


Tired from digging?

Sit on this wonderful throne

Watch the pit get dug


Whats that over there?

Alas, its a three tiered couch

Ah, how fantastic


 The JIRP mass balance snow throne.  photo by Danielle B.

The JIRP mass balance snow throne.  photo by Danielle B.

 Danielle and Kirsten, overseeing the mass balance pit, and enjoying their finished product. photo by Aaron H.

Danielle and Kirsten, overseeing the mass balance pit, and enjoying their finished product. photo by Aaron H.

 Danielle giving two thumbs up to the stunning view.  photo by Kirsten A.

Danielle giving two thumbs up to the stunning view.  photo by Kirsten A.

 The south-facing side of the Taku glacier snow throne.  Matt P. and Alex Z. working hard digging the pit to the right of the image.  photo by Danielle B.

The south-facing side of the Taku glacier snow throne.  Matt P. and Alex Z. working hard digging the pit to the right of the image.  photo by Danielle B.

Camp 17 to Camp 10 Traverse

By: Melissa “Luna” Brett

Our team got an early start on the traverse from Camp 17 to Camp 10. The sky was cloudless and blue, and there was a sense of adventure throughout the group. A not-so-graceful ski down the Lemon Creek glacier ended at the blue ice, where we prepared ourselves for the trek with crampons and some excitement about the alien landscape.

On the traverse: Lemon Creek Glacier.

There is no other blue like that of a glacier, freshly exposed from the melting snow pack, alive and creeping slowly along. Aware of the quiet river beneath us, we trekked on and on, up and up, to Nugget Ridge. The clouds crept in around us just before the crevasse zone, where we roped up in teams, double and triple checking each other on the skills we learned at Camp 17.

Getting roped up in the clouds at the top of Nugget Ridge.

Slowly through the foggy mountain pass we forged ahead, watching our tracks and the slack in our rope with a heightened sense of things, ready to react to any movement, any change in landscape. The fog let up just as we finished the heavily crevassed trail, and we all stood in silence with our first view of the deep icefield. Peaks jutting from the ice as far as any heart could imagine, and farther than our eyes could see. The sun turned the mountains purple and blue, with soft orange and pink snow and ice hugging every slope. A view of our campsite, the Norris Cache, was a tiny spot in the distance, above the Norris Icefall, with Death Valley sinking between us.

Death Valley.

I knew right then, that everything I had ever done had led me to this one moment, to this one place. I found my limit and left it 6 miles behind me, 1000 feet below, pushing past my breaking point to find out who I am, and where I belong. Down we went, following with tired eyes and weakened legs into Death Valley, which seemed to go on forever. As the sun sank behind the peaks, the sky gave up its starry secrets, and we pushed on under the shining constellations, the Big Dipper leading the way. We finally reached the base of the Norris Icefall, weary from the relentless push. Everyone was helping each other, from layering up, to eating and drinking, staying warm, staying positive, getting prepared for the final push. We roped up for the crevasses on the icefall, checking each other’s exhausted knots 5 or 6 times, just to be sure. We began the climb up the icefall, slow and steady, calling out to each other as we went along to help keep the focus. The crevasses were deep blue canyons, as dark in the bottom as the night sky above, only there were no stars down there. It was like climbing the back of a sleeping blue dragon, slowly we inched our way to the top. At last, the tents were in sight, and the sweet thoughts of a warm sleeping bag sank into our minds. We all arrived safely, together, and sleep came easily that night. The next morning was bright and quiet, with a long straight shot to Camp 10 across the Southwest Branch and the Taku Glacier. The aches and blisters were no match for the need to finish the trek. We geared up and headed out early, taking it hour by hour, minute by minute, step by step, and enjoying the wild view the entire way. After what felt like days we got a glimpse of Camp 10, perched high on the rocks ahead of us. The last push took us to places we never could have imagined, and there was no greater gift than taking off the skis and hiking up the rocks to Camp 10. Tears of pride and joy brought me to my knees, and as I looked back at the ice below I felt strong and happy. Happy to be part of something so vast and meaningful, proud to be here with this team, in the most wild classroom on Earth, the Juneau Icefield. 

Stuck At Camp 17

By: Maya Smith (Winston Salem State University) and Josh Ivie (Tarleton State University) 


Imagine being super excited about the next traverse to Camp 10. You have all of your bags packed and you’re ready to leave only to find out that the weather has decided that you need more time at Camp 17 before moving on to Camp 10. While we were all anxious to get to Camp 10 we never realized what Camp 17 had in store for us the next 5 days.

There were no more blue skies; it looked as if we were in a ping pong ball. It was a complete whiteout outside. The storm came like never before. We were all quite surprised; we had never seen a storm like that at Camp 17 before. Oh but the time that we would spend at Camp 17 was amazing.

For the first couple of days there were four trail parties left at camp so we made postcards for each other. We didn’t know what we were going to do. So we turned to BANANAGRAMS!! While this game was foreign to some, after a whole day of non-stop games we realized that Bananagrams would be a major part at our time at Camp 17.

After an entire day of fun the next day we were hoping to get the next two trail parties out (weather dependent of course). After a successful attempt we managed to get them out. This left the last two trail parties. Of course there was more Bananagrams played for hours, but after lunch our fearless leader Annie realized that our fresh oranges were beginning to go bad and that we would need to eat all four cases because they would not make it to Camp 10. So the challenge was accepted. Everyone had to eat four oranges and anyone who ate more than ten could get on the wall!! This is the most amazing experience to witness. 

 The Battle of Tang Mountain completed (Photo by Alex M. French).

The Battle of Tang Mountain completed (Photo by Alex M. French).

There were only three people who were able to get on the wall Dougal “Bane of Citrus” Hansen, Melissa “Luna” Brett, and Stan “The Ant” Pinchek. 

 The Tarp Fort in the Library. Story telling time (Photo by Alex M. French

The Tarp Fort in the Library. Story telling time (Photo by Alex M. French

Also doing our time at Camp 17 one of our safety staff members had an idea to build a tarp fort around the fireplace and shared many different stories. It was a wonderful bonding time. Lastly, we took our trail apples and made delicious apple pies that we ate for the next couple of days.  So, while we were anxious to get to Camp 10 we had a wonderful time at Camp 17.

 It was Surprise Postcard night (Photo by Alex M. French)

It was Surprise Postcard night (Photo by Alex M. French)

 Our Trail Apple Pie (Photo by Maya Smith)

Our Trail Apple Pie (Photo by Maya Smith)

Observational Science

By: Mariah Radue

July 7, 2014

At Camp 17, I have found a kindred spirit in John Muir. From the JIRP recommended reading list I was introduced to his book, Travels in Alaska, and decided to bring it along with me as a break from lectures and articles. I knew his reputation as a mountaineer, adventurer, environmentalist, and nature lover and I was eager to read his perspective on the Alaskan landscape.

John Muir began his career as an explorer in the Sierras in California at the end of the 1800s. He was awestruck by the majesty of the sloping granite peaks and giant Sequoias. In his wanderings around Yosemite he convinced himself that glaciers were the only natural force that could have formed the deep U-shaped valleys. His main motivation in traveling to Alaska was to better understand glacial processes and relate them back to his beloved Yosemite.

Though not as rugged or adventurous, my path to Alaska somewhat mirrors Muir’s journey. I first learned about glaciers in a college geomorphology course in Northfield, Minnesota. During the last glacial maximum, SE Minnesota marked the margin of the Laurentide Ice Sheet, which blanketed most of North American. As a result, the landscape around Northfield is not flat as many accuse the Mid-West to be but rather it is full of vestiges of a dynamic glacial system. In the class we mapped eskers (subglacial river deposits), kames (supra glacial lakes), and glacial outwash river plains. Imaging the power of ice on the landscape ignited my fascination with glaciers and drove me to Alaska and JIRP to better understand how glaciers work and to marvel at the blue glacial ice.

I have enjoyed reading Muir’s perspective as he discovers coastal Alaska because of his intense powers of observations. Muir describes the landscape of southeast Alaska poetically through colorful descriptions of fast flowing glacial streams and sharp mountain peaks. He also includes exact values that must the result of painstaking notes like calculated temperature averages and thickness of glacial deposits. His writing offers an insight to his field methods and field notebooks—how you need both numbers and language to describe a landscape effectively.

During JIRP, I am striving to see Alaska much like Muir would, quantifying my observations scientifically and reflecting on the extreme beauty that is around me. I think that this is the natural way to immerse ourselves in the Icefield. For the past two evenings, we have been graced with stunning sunsets from our vantage point at Camp 17. We talk about the orientation of the sun relative to the Earth, the path of the sun in the sky, the changes in length of day, and the rate that the sun moves. In addition to understanding the sunset scientifically, none of us can deny the depth and beauty of a sunset behind the Chilkats and the Fairweather Ranges. The colors in the sky range from deep purple to magenta to rose pink and mist in the mountain valleys captures the rosy pink light, spreading it across valley floor. The water of Gastineau Channel reflects pockets of the fading sun light creating a patchwork of yellow and deep blue. It is impossible to comprehend all of the mountain profiles as they extend inexhaustibly into the distance. We find ourselves lost in the splendor of the landscape.

As earth scientists we try to understand the natural world through numbers and equations, creating models to predict changes through time. The beauty of JIRP is that we are immersed in the landscape and experience the Icefield through snow pits, isotopes, and geophysical measurements and breathtaking sunset. We also get to appreciate the magnificence of the Alaskan landscape giving us a greater reason to try and understand how it works.

GPS Surveying

By: Kurt Powell

730am. Wake up call. I roll over to go back to sleep in an attempt to restore as much energy as possible before another day on the icefield begins.

745am. Someone’s alarm screams beside my ear. I roll over again in hope to regain my necessary slumbers.

755am. My alarm calls to me. I rise gleefully, knowing that by the time I arrive at the Cookshack, the breakfast line will be near empty, so I won’t have to wait for food. It’s a great start to a rainy day at C-17.

Promptly after smooshing into a packed table and eating a couple of spoonfuls of hot peanut butter oatmeal, Annie, the camp manager, calls out “Goood Mooorning”. We respond with a weary good morning as we have only finished a quarter of our coffees. Daily shout outs to the cook with resounding applause are heard from outside of the camp, today’s agenda and work details are quickly stated – today we are doing science. This is exciting as safety training has been successfully completed as of yesterday, and we are all ready for this new adventure of doing science. Probing, mass balance pit digging and GPS surveying are available to everyone’s excitement; we all become a little more eager despite the fact that our coffees are now only half drank. Annie announces all the assistant GPS surveyors have already been selected as the JIRPers whose first names start with the letter K; Kim, Kelly and Kurt. My name starts with a K! Thrilled, finally science is about to occur, science that mysterious thing that we have travelled so far for, I am about to do this thing called science and GPS surveying.

Shortly after finishing my meal, everyone is about to start their second coffee and the morning conversation picks-up, the buzz of excitement from today’s agenda flows into the conversation, people slowly begin to file out as time moves on. I make my way to my sleeping quarters to gather my daily materials.

1025am. We all meet in the staff shack as Scott and the German surveyors, Martin and Paul, pull out the equipment that the team will be carrying for the rest of the day- a tarnished yellow bag with black alloy structure supporting the antenna, a controller, and a circular GPS unit node on a tall metal rod. They briefly explain the logistics of the system–find the spot, press buttons, move on, done. We divide into two teams to discuss how and what points of the Lemon Creek Glacier we will survey. We will be traveling by skis along lines of latitude measuring pre-arranged points every fifty meters or so.  This is done in order to find the glacier’s snow depths. Kelly and I throw on our personal packs with the teams’ lunches packed inside, and Kim throws on the GPS backpack. Raining more heavily now than early today, I feel that today will be amazing and we make our way down to the glacier.

1045am. With our skis strapped on, both teams head south making their way to the first locations. Martin begins to explain to Kim and I how to use the controller, a few swift button pushes and we arrive at the home screen. We select the point in which we want to measure, travel to it, locate the measuring point within a 50cm radius, press measure to send a signal to the satellites to ratify our measurement, alter a setting to show that we have measured this specific point and move on to the next point. Shortly after Kim nails her first point within a few centimeters, we move on and ski into the rain.

 Paul teaches Kim how to use the survey equipment

Paul teaches Kim how to use the survey equipment


In a short matter of time Kim is hitting every surveying point within a few very short minutes with wicked accuracy. As we cross beside Lake Linda and begin to ascend its mountain side, she hits her points and we travel north along the farthest reach of the glacier.

While Kim surveys, Martin and I ski behind chatting about the EU and the status of Germany post-2008, the cost of the equipment, his part-ownership in his surveying company and how he has been a part of JIRP for the past nine years.

Skiing along the mountain-side, the group begins to separate with the oncoming white out and intensifying rain storm. Feeling the distance grow between us, the gradient of the mountain side amplifies and I begin to realize that I am not as confident in my skiing ability as I once thought. Stopping and looking down, I stare at potentially steep fall downward, a blanket of white covers all that I see below, gusts of wind cause me to teeter side to side, the rain begins to seep into my jacket with its cold jaws clamping around side. One moment passes into another, and dazed, I think to myself that I could seriously get hurt here…  pausing yet again, I take a deep breath.  I stride forward attempting to catch-up to my team as I have fallen even further behind, the cold following closely behind me.

 Kelly taking measurements on the Lemon Creek glacier

Kelly taking measurements on the Lemon Creek glacier


Quick elongated strides allow me to close the gap, the cold fades away, and we reconnect at the end of the mountainside.  Relieved, we ski down a less steep hill side to group together to enjoy lunch – JIRPs famous peanut butter and strawberry jelly sandwiches.

Swapping packs with Kim, I begin to orientate myself with the cardinal directions and punch the first settings into the controller. Hopefully I will be as quick as Kim.  Beep…Beep, the controller received its coordinates from the responding satellites, I step forward, Martin and Kim follow closely behind me. Striding forward I am within two meters of the point of measurement, I stop and inch my way forward still, the screen on the controller flashes to show a display of my location as an X and my point within 50 cm as a large zero. I fiddle with the tall rod trying to place it correctly, one step this way, no the other way, no back again, damn – my frustration begins to build, all while Martin and Kim patiently wait for me to work it out.

Some five minutes later I feel satisfied with my work, I send off the coordinates, and I am finished my first point. My second point is quicker, third more efficient. My confidence grows, perhaps I’m not as fast as Kim, but I am capable.

The hours fade away just as the cold wind blows past us, and the afternoon slips away without hesitation until I arrive at my last few points. I notify the group that I am feeling relieved, and even victorious as we have finished this quest to acquire snow depth of Lemon Creek glacier! Martin looks at me with a kind smile and we turn to ski towards camp.

 Survey crew Paul, Kim, and Kelly pose in the middle of a cloudy Camp 17

Survey crew Paul, Kim, and Kelly pose in the middle of a cloudy Camp 17

??? pm. Cold, wet, sweaty, tired, hungry, I have lost track of time, it been a full day. From the bottom of camp I look up at the cook shack with icy, wet, dripping skies on my shoulder and I can only hope that there will be some food left for me, I don’t care if there is a line anymore.

Special thanks to the GPS crew, JIRP coordinators, fellow students, my family and especially my editor in Windsor for making all of this happen – its been a life changing ride.