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Tuesday, 24 April 2007

Friends of the Pleistocene: Alaska's Copper River Basin - Page 3

Written by Toby Bielawski
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Out of Anchorage and through the Matanuska Valley, we’d been rolling along the Glenn Highway past mountains and glaciers, but in a steady rain that had us worried. The junction town of Glennallen was drizzly and dismal, nothing more than a gas station and restaurant. For the fifth time, I turned to check the back seat, making sure I had packed my L.L. Bean seam-sealed Gore-Tex parka, and was comforted by seeing its bright orange sleeve sticking out from under the tent and tarps.

While some were too focused to notice that the afternoon was progressing, others were feeling the same gnawing hunger that I was. I was introduced, by necessity really, to a delight of late-summer Alaska – blueberries. The beautiful red-leaved bushes we’d been kicking through for a couple of hours were full of tiny wet berries that I never would’ve recognized or dared to eat on my own, but seeing people intermittently crouch down as we moved towards the lake, I couldn’t help joining in. We straightened up to walk, munching handfuls, then bent again to pick, all colors of rain parkas dotting the slope.

As we stood at an overlook to the Copper River Basin in late afternoon, the many strands of river glinted in the sun, highlighting the vastness of the landscape. The group was slowly becoming comrades of the Copper Basin, and I watched at them surveying the scene, wondering what it looked like to them, what they saw that I couldn’t see, didn’t know how to see.

“What is an esker, exactly?” I finally took the plunge and asked a Patty. I’d heard the word too many times, and it was bugging me.

“Well, it’s a land formation that develops under a glacier, so it’s a telltale sign of glacial activity. You know that glaciers melt underneath, right? There’s often a sort of river flowing underneath them….” Patty assumed her teacher-voice. “So, what does water do as it flows?”

“Ah, it erodes the earth!” I said proudly, imagining the eskers to be some kind of grooves in the earth that I hadn’t noticed yet.

“Usually it does, yes.” Patty continued. “But when it’s flowing under a glacier, it’s actually easier for it to erode the ice above it, rather than the earth below.” She used both hands to illustrate the water carving a channel farther and farther upwards. “So what happens is that the earth builds upwards into these long ridges where the water flowed under the glacier.”

“Wow…kind of like an upside-down river!” I had that light-bulb feeling of understanding as Patty agreed that an esker could be thought of that way.

(Page 3 of 5)
Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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