Pedersen Glacier

August 5, 2021, Continued

[Note from the present. It's March 13, 2022, at about 4:00 in the afternoon. Patsy and I are alone on the Endeavour, bobbing around in the northern lobe of Sitka Sound, engine off. It's grey and almost cold, but the wind isn't bad and there are whales everywhere, humpbacks, three or four there, five or six here. They're being lazy, though, lounging around near the surface, none of them actively bubble feeding. Yet. Bella's driving herself crazy, running up and down the deck barking at them whenever they surface. Patsy is back in the galley starting dinner. I'm in the pilot house using a zephyr of internet signal from a mountain behind Sitka . Our three whale researchers, Andy, Lars, and Fabien, are off in the inflatable with their expensive drone. The drone's sensitive guidance system wasn't calibrating on the deck of the Endeavour. It's all the steel, we think. In any case, they're off to try it somewhere else. Tomorrow they'll spent more time attaching cameras with radios and four little rubber suction cup feet to the backs of whales. These "tags," as they are called, fall off harmlessly in about 12 hours, and then we follow the tag's signals to go find them, like little red and yellow bath toys in the ocean, each one filled with data on the life and health of these gentle creatures. Now, back to the past....]

This is 7 of 11 log posts covering The Glaciers of Kenai Fjords expedition.

Dilles, Urschel, and Molnia in the Pedersen Glacier lagoon. (Photo: Kim Angeli)

Up the Lagoon

We anchored the Endeavour off the mouth of the lagoon, launched the Scout, and headed inside. Around the backside of the moraine we tied up and went looking for photo locations from 1909 and 2006.

In 1880 the terminus of the glacier was right here, at the moraine. In 1909 Grant and Higgins photographed it 400 yards back. Now, it had retreated so far up the valley we couldn’t see it from where we were standing. We had to triangulate off trees in the old photo (which were dead trunks now) to find the exact spot so that we could photograph a glacier that was no longer there. We could feel the glacier, though. The cold air was pouring down the valley like an open freezer at the supermarket.

The birds here were more interesting than the gulls and cormorants at Squab Island. There were dozens of Horned Puffins and a few Tufted Puffins in the water, the males of both types with white faces and thick orange beaks that looked like wire cutters. The two varieties are similar, except the tufted type has a long set of fine blonde feathers over their eyes that flow backward, like a wind-blown comb-over. There was a pair of Black Oystercatchers pecking on the sand. These are dark birds the size of a small chicken with intensely orange beaks the size and shape of a crayon. Orange again.

Back at the Endeavour, we picked up Patsy and headed back into the lagoon to go find the glacier. In the lower part it wasn’t obvious where the channel was. The lagoon was shallow and packed with seaweed. I had to stop the motor three times, hand Patsy the rifle, and pull weeds out of the jet pump intake. Further up, the river picked up speed and the little 30-horsepower jet outboard did its best, but it was slow going even at full throttle with the six people and a dog on board. The boat would have been flying with a 60-horsepower outboard.

The river snaked left, then right, then left again and entered a huge empty canyon with bare rock walls about 2,000 feet high on the south side and almost as high on the north side. The face of Pedersen Glacier was in front of us, across a deep lake. It was almost two miles back from the moraine. Kim pulled out the big white binder and he and Bruce started holding up the old photos, turning one way then another, trying to figure out where Bruce took the photo from in 2006. They triangulated peaks, found the spot, and Bruce took the picture.

Meanwhile, Patsy and I had been in the stern, having a silly moment, making faces at each other like first graders in the back of the class, trying to crack each other up. Bruce – like a teacher calling for attention – said,

“You know, when I was last here, all this was ice.”

The Void

The emptiness was sobering. A rough estimate of the glacier lost since Grant’s time, is a block of ice two miles by half a mile wide by a quarter mile tall, and it’s gone. It’s melted away into the ocean. We could feel it gone.

And Pedersen is a speck of the Harding Icefield that covers the Kenai Mountains, and the Harding Icefield is just a postage stamp of the glacial ice in Alaska. And all the glacial ice in Alaska is just one tenth of one percent of all the glacial ice in the world. And this melting is happening everywhere.

Down Aialik Bay to Crater Bay

Back on the Endeavour, we had a 15-mile run south down Aialik Bay in the fading light. I continued with my questions:


Bill: How do you respond to climate deniers?

Shawn: So let me give you a personal experience. I’ve been having a discussion with a friend for about 20 years on this. He has a lot of Exxon stock. He’s a lawyer. He acknowledges that it’s warmer, but he refuses to acknowledge that it’s human-caused. He doesn’t want any culpability for himself, or for the fossil fuel industry, or for America as a country. It’s strictly financial. He doesn’t want to pay a cent by being tagged with responsibility.

What I said to him is: I’m a big advocate for renewables and electric vehicles for three reasons:

First, I grew up in New Jersey and I don’t want to see and smell refineries, deal with the pipelines, spills; I’d rather not have them.

Second, I’d rather be energy-independent than having to worry about how many barrels can be pumped and where they come from.

And third, our power grids are fragile and need to be rebuilt anyway: if the new grid is taken out, renewable energy makes us incredibly more resilient. Here’s an extreme case of that: if someone nukes two-thirds of our country the other third will still be 1,500 years ahead of the rest – you’ll save 1,000 years of civilization by being able to restore not just personal and local power but restore regional power.

So, when he says, “Are you telling me global warming is man-made?” I tell him, it doesn’t matter. Why wouldn’t you use renewables and electric vehicles? Right? Fewer moving parts. Cheaper. More secure and resilient.


We turned west at Aligo Point, running six miles behind long thin Granite Island in protected waters before turning in to Crater Bay for the night.

- William Urschel