Holy Surging Glaciers, Batman: Alsek’s Lowell Glacier Surges, Clogging Lake for Paddlers

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Lucky enough to be heading to Alaska’s Alsek (only one of the greatest and most dynamic rivers on the planet)? Be prepared to dodge some ice in Lowell Lake a few days in.

Paddler Geof Corriveau, who has paddled the river’s 185-mile section numerous times with a group of friends from the Northwest and is heading there again this month, recently grabbed some Google Earth photos that surprised him. In July, the glacier surged across the lake, clogging it with icebergs. While the surge has ended somewhat, a lot of the ice remains. And what hasn’t, and has gotten swept downstream, is now waiting downriver, creating new hydraulics, clogging eddies and perhaps even jamming up the infamous Doors Number 1, 2 and 3 leading into Alsek Lake—perhaps joining icebergs from the lake and clogging the outlet even further.

“The July 26 image looks a lot better, but of course we have no way of knowing if the surge has ended.  Check out the face of the glacier from the photos on July 8 and July 18,” he says. “Word is that a lot of the ice has flushed out of Lowell Lake, but it’s now created 17 new keeper holes…that move around.”

 

Google Earth photos show the change in the Lowell Glacier surge from July 1 to July 26, pining rafters down at camp and forcing other parties to portage. Note the Alsek River, flowing north to south, on the far right.

Historically Lowell Glacier surges have dammed-up the Alsek, and created gigantic Lowell Lakes—no doubt, also gigantic flash floods when the ice dam is breached. One of the most recent glacial surges occurred in 1997, when Lowell Glacier surged three-quarters the way across the lake to a small rock island on the east shore. The last full blockade of the river came in 1952 when it surged forward to the base of Goatherd Mountain. Before that it was in the 1850s. In earlier times, when Lowell and Tweedsmuir glaciers surged forward and dammed up the Alsek, it cut off sockeye salmon from returning downstream. So they evolved into a landlocked salmon known as kokanee.

A topographic map at shows the extent of Lowell Glacier when the map was created, and how a north finger of the glacier is within damming range. That finger has receded by almost a mile.

Following is an excerpt from a letter to rafters, sent out by Parks Canada/Kluane National Park and Reserve’s Fitz McGoey

Hello Alsek Rafters, 

I am emailing to let you know that the last two groups to launch the Alsek River decided to fly over Lowell Lake because of the conditions on the Lake. The situation is dynamic where conditions could change day to day with high winds pushing the ice around. Please be prepared to make alternate arrangements if you are unable to navigate Lowell Lake. You could pack in a way that would make it possible to portage the lake to avoid the cost of an extra flight…Groups can pre-book flights around Lowell if they are feeling apprehensive before getting there. There is a good chance it would take days to get a helicopter if it was requested immediately once arriving at Lowell, so pre-booking may help….

Read more: Top 10 Rafting Trips 

Alsek
Lowell Lake how it normally looks when the glacier isn’t surging.

 

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