Apart from wildlife conservation, which we learnt a lot about during our spectacular whale-watching tour (see here), a major theme of our Alaskan trip was discovering more about the effects of climate change.
This was especially apparent on our afternoon excursion out to the Mendenhall Glacier Protection area, a conservation area only a few miles out of Downtown Juneau. Regular shuttle buses run to and from the town centre to the park.
A beautiful pristine section of the federally protected Tongass State Forest, there are numerous hiking trails, lakes and streams and the opportunity to see the spectacular Mendenhall Glacier. There are a number of different trails you can take – we took the shorter one as we were a bit pressed for time, but there is a longer one that takes you through the rain forest right to the glacier’s edge.
It was a somewhat cloudy and grey day when we visited but it added to the atmosphere – the photos don’t do justice to the sheer scale of Mendenhall and the amazing wilderness scenery.
There is an excellent Visitor Centre, which has a wealth of information about the icefield area and the ongoing scientific research. Mendenhall Glacier, along with the other sections of the Juneau Icefield, has been monitored by the Juneau Icefield Research Program since 1942. It has retreated 1.75 miles (2.82 km) since 1929, when Mendenhall Lake was created, and over 2.5 miles (4.0 km) since 1500. This fact of course amply demonstrates that the ice has retreated far more rapidly in the last 100 years or so and this concerning trend is sadly continuing apace.
Humans are of course not the only visitors to the icefield. The salmon run season had started when we were there in August and hungry black bears like to take the opportunity to stock up on food supplies before the long hard winter.
There are information signs and warnings everywhere!
The shuttle bus from town drops you off near the creek where the salmon swarm towards the end of their annual run (see here for more information). This makes it a potentially excellent bear-spotting place. We spent a fair amount of time hanging around hoping that a bear would pop out of the bushes near enough so we could take photos but far enough away from us so we didn’t become afternoon tea! An important point – you’re not allowed to take food with you into the park for very obvious reasons!
Despite a couple of separate sessions bear-watching we finally left disappointed – we were getting very hungry ourselves by this stage not having had any time for lunch and so took the shuttle bus back into town. Our friends, who stayed on an extra half an hour, were rewarded for their patience by the sight of a mother bear coming out of the bushes feeding salmon from the creek to her young cub. Apparently she had been darting in and out of the bushes all day but the park rangers don’t give you that information for fear of scaring the bears off with a rush of tourists. We decided that “Mama Bear” must have come out of the bushes each time our backs were turned!
We did fortunately get to see a large black bear at close quarters the following day – we were safely in a bus near Skagway though! Here is some further information about bears. We were lucky enough to see both black bears and the larger grizzly or brown bears during our time in Alaska. You’d have to go far further north up beyond the Arctic Circle to have any chance of seeing a polar bear!
Just to reinforce the point!
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