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Tuesday, 24 April 2007

Friends of the Pleistocene: Alaska's Copper River Basin

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.

When we turned up the Richardson Highway the weather shifted to ever-growing patches of blue sky. The mood quickly improved; my old college roommate and I broke out the trail mix and recommenced our moose-watch with gusto accompanied by bright yellow birch trees along the fast-running Gulkana River. We were off on an adventure as random as all our college hi-jinx had been: a rendezvous with a loose group of Alaskan geologists called Friends of the Pleistocene. view

We were to spend Labor Day camping with a bunch of people we didn’t know, visiting geologic sites and hearing lectures on rocks. When we neared the town of Paxson, the meeting point, where we were supposed to set up camp at a gravel pit, we were surprised to find that Paxson consisted of only a lodge.

We headed into the lodge, an odd family-run establishment where the inquiry about gravel pits started a spat between grandmother and granddaughter. We escaped amidst their bickering, and scouted “behind some trees across the road,” banking on the grandmother’s recommendation. The sky was still clear as we crunched across the gravel along the river. Everything looked right – except that the area was empty. Confusion and doubt reigned. It was late Friday afternoon. Where were our Friends of the Pleistocene?

We strung up a tarp between some small trees and pitched the tent. It was almost dusk when we saw a van pulling in; as it got closer, I could read the writing on its side: Geology and Geophysics, UAF. The University at Fairbanks -- we yelped with relief! But the crew of six that hopped out looked just as lost as we were.

“Are you the Friends of the Pleistocene?” we called out.

“Oh, yay, we’re in the right place!” chortled a young woman with a cherubic face and wool hat pulled down over scraggly blond hair. “You guys are the geologists?”

“We thought you were the geologists!” I pointed to their van as evidence.


At least we were all trying to find the same trip – it was just that the leaders were missing. There was nothing to do but get the stoves going and wait. Before dusk fell fully, I went down to take a picture of the Gulkana River, and found myself kneeling to examine the rocks of the gravel pit. They were mostly fist-sized or smaller, all different textures and shades. I could recognize granite, but my mind strained to dredge anything more out of college geology courses. The terms that floated in my head – basalt, olivine, metamorphic – had no relationship to the mixed bag of shapes and colors under my boots. I lifted my eyes and instead studied the yellow birch leaves; they were somehow less complicated

It was late, after eleven, when another van pulled in. Those of us who were still up, huddling around stoves, shuffled over to see who it was: another motley crew of graduate students, this time from Juneau.

By the next morning, a solid gray sky was producing steady gray rain. By the time we got the gear stowed, things were getting pretty wet. I was already aware that the level of Gore-Tex and boots I had were pathetic by Alaskan standards. In fact, I’d learned that Gore-Tex itself is considered a joke and a ripoff in Alaska, where rubber raingear is de rigeur. Everyone else in the group was wearing X-tra Tuffs, the brown rubber boots with distinctive yellow around the rims. It would be another couple hours before my boots began to leak and it was too late, here in Paxson, to do anything about that now.

We were ready to head over to the Paxson Lodge to search for information when I looked out towards the open gravel, and did a double-take: like a multi-colored ring of mushrooms springing up, there was suddenly a circle of people in rain slickers. A third van and several cars were parked nearby. Last night’s grad students were already circled up, and we hurried to join them.

dirt girlsOur leaders had arrived from Anchorage at last. The two Patties, as they were called, were young geology professors who were so immediately exuberant, they easily could be taken for camp counselors.

“Okay, we’re the Dirt Girls! We assume everyone loves dirt, in one form or another, and that’s why you’re here.” It was true: everyone was a geology student, professor, or worked for the USGS, except me, an English teacher, and Laura – who’s at least a civil engineer.

At our first stop, nearby at Meier Lake Overlook, we began with a rainy trudge down the road, single file. Then we climbed the loamy soil, pushed through low brush, and looked back over the landscape. One of the Patties described the mystery here, the bone of contention among scholars: in a 1950s photo of the area, there was no lake. What geologic phenomenon was responsible for the lake? Or was it something non-geological? This spurred a lengthy discussion about beavers, glaciers, earthquakes, and melting permafrost. Patty took her shovel, dug a hole in the earth, and reminded everyone about the layers of soil: the O, A, and E layers. I was startled to learn that the soil topic was worthy of a 45-minute talk. I photographed the lecturing geologists, a voyeur to their excitement.


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.


groupThe next day dawned with cloud cover but no rain, and the campground sluggishly came to life. The beer cans and gin bottles littering the fire-ring were quietly gathered for recycling. Along with learning some geology, I was also learning that geologists like to drink hard and sing loud. All morning the sun battled bravely against the clouds, and finally broke through by afternoon, warming us as we hiked up the marshy slope of a mud volcano.

“They’re not volcanoes, they’re mud springs!” groused the owner of the private campground whose road we had to use to access the site. He sounded a little defiant, and I wondered if he felt the term volcano was too volatile, bad PR for his little recreation area. I wanted to tell him that we were a geology group, that if anyone knew what a mud volcano was, it was these guys. But he was allowing us to park all the cars on his property, so I just smiled, “Okay, mud springs! Do you know which trail we take to get to the mud springs?”

Suzanne McCarthy, a volcanologist, had explained how methane gas was rising from deep underground, raising these hills a hundred feet or so, and bubbling up through mud at the top. At this so-called caldera, the mud was firm, easy to walk on -- except where the cool, watery pools were bubbling. The whole area was pockmarked with moose tracks; they use the volcanoes as salt licks. Laura found a long branch, and poked at the bubbling puddles. The guys from Juneau got themselves all muddy, reaching in to trap the gas in a jar, then igniting it. Everyone could find something to appreciate, it seemed, about the strange mud volcanoes.

On the hike back down, I sought out a geologist I hadn’t spoken to yet, either out of reverence or shyness. Dick Reiger was retired from the University at Anchorage, in his mid-seventies I guessed, and was clearly the quiet authority of the group. I’d heard him lecture about Paxson Mountain on the first morning, and watched the others turn to him when questions arose, and marveled at him scrambling rocky slopes like a mountain goat, carrying hammer and shovel.

“Dick, is this your first trip with Friends of the Pleistocene?” I asked.

“No, no,” he began slowly, almost seeming to time his words with the rhythm of the branch-hopping hike we were doing. “I was on a FOP trip down in the Mojave Desert in 1969….amazing formations we saw down there.” He launched into a series of terms I hadn’t heard yet.

“Sounds a lot different than up here…?” I said meekly, not sure what else I could contribute.


“Well, it’s a lot more mysterious up here, because it has only been uncovered so recently. With the desert, you’ve got the whole record, all of the history, exposed. Here, the ice is still just retreating. You’ve always got to dig some to get the story.”

Dirt detectives, I thought to myself, while I stepped over dark roots and squishy moss. It’s the mysteries that make these people tick. friends

That night we were camped on a wide moraine at the foot of the Matanuska Glacier. Emily and Yi-Ming came tromping towards us with their stove; we’d been cooking together every night. Soon one of the Patties came over to alert us that there was a keg of Moose’s Tooth beer available to celebrate the trip’s final evening, and there would be closing ceremonies around the campfire.

When we’d cleaned up dishes and joined the group, a lecture was underway about the Matanuska Valley. I stood at the edge of the firelight, looking up at the ridgeline of mountains. Words of the weekend floated in my head, and Alaska’s Pleistocene period felt more powerful than ever – permafrost, glacier, esker, tundra. “All these little ice-age features we’ve been exploring,” Patty remarked, “leave a lot of questions that still need to be uncovered.”

Then it was time for the presentation of the “ceremonial trowel,” signed by the Patties and bestowed upon Dick, who would be the leader of next year’s trip to the Kenai Peninsula. “FOP is a non-organization,” Patty stated with a note of pride. “There are no rules or membership fees; you’re in if you’re here!” With the cool closeness of the glacier in the breeze, we were all fully “here” in a visceral way. While Dick made a brief speech encouraging everyone, friends old and new, to come to his home on the Kenai next year, we were not quite geologists, but now we were FOP’s for sure.

©Toby Bielawski


Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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