Glacier Trek to Donoho Lakes: Day 3, June 18, 2019
Updated: Oct 1, 2019
Day 3 of 5 in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, land of the Ahtna people. It's time for a rest day! We keep our base camp by a meltwater lake and have the day to ourselves. Elu and I decide to take short hike up a ridge line with just snacks, water, and bear spray. We enjoy some epic views of the Gates Glacier and Kennicott Glacier. All photos by Tenley Lozano unless otherwise noted in the caption.
Cold rain patters on our tent's nylon rain cover through the night and Elu is a ball of warmth cozied up to my side. In the quiet stillness of late morning, she hears me stirring and lays her head directly in my lap, staring at me with expectant eyes and her alert ears. She's silently asking for chin scritches and belly rubs. If I don't comply, she'll raise a paw and lay it on my arm or chest until I wake up enough to give her some cuddles. I sit up and start rubbing Elu's belly as I stretch my neck. This is our daily morning routine and the twenty to thirty minutes of stretching and snuggles puts us both in a good mood.
Elu and I emerge from our tent to overcast skies and chilly but gentle katabatic winds coming off of the two glaciers positioned above our campsite. I put Elu's red raincoat over her down Groundbird Gear sleeping quilt and we step out of the tent to wrangle up some breakfast kibble. The rest of the group is still tucked into their tents, so we walk around exploring and wait for the sun to rise over the side of Donoho Peak to hopefully burn off some of the cloud cover and warm us up.
It's peaceful walking around the little lake, and Elu enjoys our rambling walk. I always let her have a "sniffing walk" each morning and every afternoon, so she gets time to just be a regular dog for a bit in between her service dog duties. When she's on duty, Elu has to focus on me and she's not allowed to be distracted by interesting smells or tracking other animals. The service dog rules are a lot more flexible in the backcountry, but I still rely on her to lead me safely along a route when I get vertigo hiking on uneven ground, or when I'm dizzy and nauseous from headaches and nerve pain.
We watch the wind send ripples over the surface of the lake, and Elu starts to wade out a couple steps then stops to drink from the cold water. Small particles of glacial silt, also called glacial flour or milk, are suspended in the water, which makes it this lovely light blue color. Sometimes the lake looks turquoise in the sunshine, or a deeper blue and even green when clouds are overhead or the angle shows the reflection from Donoho Peak.
One by one, the rest of the group gets up and joins us by the cooking tarp, hungry for breakfast. Mat cooks us coffee first and we start to discuss plans for the day.
We'll be camping in this spot for one more night, so we're free to day hike nearby or just lounge at camp. Gabby and Brett want to take the day to rest and recover. I'm looking forward to exploring the nearby area and getting a better view of the two glaciers just over the hill from our campsite.
Linda wants to look for wildflowers, and Mat lends her a book so she can identify the different flowers. Andrea is the ambitious one of the group and she decides to go for Donoho Peak at 6,695 feet with Mat leading the way. My competitive side kicks in and I decide if anyone is hiking to Donoho Peak, I don't want to be left behind, even though it's a slog of a hike up loose rocks much of the way. After our late breakfast, the group splits and Elu and I follow Andrea and Mat to the far side of the lake to start towards Donoho Peak.
Within a few minutes, we're walking over large water-worn round rocks and the earth feels like it's tilting as they move under my feet. I usually get vertigo the worst when I'm really tired and hiking on uneven or wobbly ground, but I'm surprised to feel that way at the start of the hike. I have to wonder how I'll feel on the way back when I truly am tired. Elu is walking very gingerly and slowly, clearly telling me she's not excited for this hike either. I don't really mind making myself miserable, but I'm always worried about ruining hiking for Elu. It's so much easier for me to put her needs first, so we wish Andrea and Mat good luck then turn around to head back to camp. We loop around the lake and hike up the hill surrounding it on the other side from our tents.
Elu and I walk up the lateral moraine at the edge of the Kennicott Glacier to find interesting ice formations and a very dirty and gray meltwater pond.
The clouds to the north are starting to clear, but they're still dark gray and thick to the south, huddled around Donoho Peak. We explore around the edge of the Kennicott Glacier, then head uphill to walk a ridge-line between the Kennicott and Gates Glaciers.
There's no trail, and no set route, so we can amble along at our own pace exploring the ice and rocks. It's a lovely day for a rambling hike, and Elu's enthusiastic now that we're going slower and stopping to sniff.
I want to keep moving so we can take in the glacier views, in case it starts to rain again and we have to turn back. The glaciers are endlessly fascinating, with dramatic rock and ice formations reaching as far as I can see.
We hike up the ridge along the loose gray rocks and I clip Elu's leash into her harness, so she can help guide me if I get vertigo. As we hike higher, the ridge-line narrows and steep drop offs on both sides make me a little nervous, but Elu is sure-footed and steady.
We continue hiking upward and are treated to some pretty epic views of the glaciers, moraines, and the seasonal meltwater lakes fed by the glaciers.
The Gates Glacier looks completely different from the Kennicott Glacier at this elevation. It's covered in thick piles of rocks, but meltwater streams running under and along the sides hint at the ice underneath. Wet dark patches show through the rocks in areas where the debris cover is thiner and occasionally we hear rocks tumble down the sides of the hills as the underlying ice melts.
I'm having fun comparing the differences in the two glaciers, and Elu's enjoying the breeze and our mellow pace. The rock-covered Gates Glacier is on the right side of the ridge as we hike up and northwest while the bare ice of the Kennicott Glacier is to our left.
From our vantage point on the ridge, I can spot rocky mounds or medial moraine on the Kennicott Glacier. As the glaciers carve through a valley, they pluck up rocks from the surrounding mountain sides and from below, then the rocks travel downslope along with the ice, or they remain behind in giant piles as the glacier narrows.
We stop at the edge of the ridge-line, which provides some excellent views of the Kennicott icefall, where the ice seems to pour down from the steep mountains.
The view of the Gates Glacier's icefall is even more impressive. This section of ancient ice moves much faster than the rest of glacier due to the angle of the mountain slope, and it's especially dangerous to travel near an icefall. It'd be awesome to see an icefall up close someday, but hiking on those rock mounds solo is not a good idea, especially on our rest day.
We stop on the ridge for a snack break, and Elu settles in to survey the land.
The wind from the glaciers chills us in a few minutes and we head back down the ridge towards our campsite. Elu and I spend the rest of the day hanging out with Linda, Gabby, and Brett chatting and enjoying the sunshine whenever it peeks out from the clouds. I wade into the lake to ice my legs (and the huge melon-sized bruise I got on one thigh the first day when I fell on some rocks) and take a quick bath. Elu watches me with amusement as I try not to squeal as my legs go numb the cold water.
Andrea and Mat make it back to camp around 8 pm looking exhausted. They didn't make it to the top of Donoho Peak, but had a good hike even though the views were mostly obscured by clouds. By the time they arrive, the rest of us are already snuggled in our sleeping bags having cooked dinner ourselves. Once again, I'm glad Elu is smarter than me when deciding when to rest instead of take on another challenging hike. We had a great time exploring nearby and I'm excited for the big glacier hike tomorrow. The clouds and cold wind stick around through the night, but the next morning the lake is calmer than ever. It looks like we might have perfect weather for our fourth day of backpacking.