Cordova Chronicles: Skaters and glaciers are on the move

If some industrious fisherman is looking for an off-season occupation, try opening a skate-sharpening business

The ice skating season is here. Starting on Sunday, Nov. 11, more and more locals were seen venturing out onto nearby Eyak Lake, after patiently waiting for the ice to develop safe thickness.

That great font of collective wisdom, The Old Farmer’s Almanac, which was founded in 1792, recommends three inches of ice as strong enough to hold a single person on foot, and four inches for a group in single file. One wonders how many farmers crashed through ice over two centuries to come up with that empirical data.

And please note that the Almanac lists four inches for a group in single file. When was the last time you saw a bunch of skaters in that formation?

I recall an occasion several years ago when David Rosenthal, Jay Beaudin, and I were at Sheridan Glacier, checking out incredibly clear ice, which theoretically is stronger. We converged, and while standing there, saw and heard cracks forming beneath us. I believe it was Jay that shouted “Disperse!”

Strangely, despite a stretch of strong north winds and attending clear weather, the temperatures have not plummeted as one might expect. Most nights it has been in the mid-20s, which explains the amount of time it has taken for the ice to become safe.

Rosenthal, who spent a number of winters at various research station in Antarctica, can give an in-depth explanation of how much faster ice grows as temperatures decline.  However, plan on a wearing toe warmers for at least 20 minutes of discourse, and have a miniature physics text book in your backpack.

Many skaters have been battling northerlies further out the road at Sheridan Glacier in their quest for “first ice,” which forms more quickly there for obvious reasons. The Weather Meister is not always right, but give him credit for adding 15- to 25-mph when projecting wind speeds out on the Copper River Delta. The unfortunate side effect of this has been plumes of dust roaring down dry, exposed moraines and riverbeds, resulting in a layer of grit on what would otherwise be glassy ice.

If some industrious fisherman is looking for an off-season occupation, I recommend opening a skate-sharpening business. After one trip through a jumble of icebergs that have shifted to the near end of Sheridan Lake, I could barely stand up on blades that had absolutely no edges left.

And jumble is the right word. While glaciers around the world are receding, Sheridan is a confounding contradiction. In just one year, it has advanced so far that the trail used to reach the beach where skaters traditionally lace up is now partially blocked by gravel and ice, with tall towers of rock-embedded bergs overhanging.

Several years ago, a wooden footbridge supported on metal posts was built across a narrow arm of the small lake in front of the near face of the glacier.

The bridge is no longer there. Or so I thought. In fact, it still is there, completely submerged under frozen murky glacier water, as the lake has risen considerably in the past few years.

The good news is that the hike to Sheridan Glacier, despite a few inconveniences, is still worth it, any time the year. One doesn’t have to be a glaciologist to appreciate its splendor, nor note the fascinating changes occurring at anything but a glacial pace.

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Dick Shellhorn, author, reporter, ref and grandpa, can be reached at shorn@gci.net. Shellhorn was born and raised in Cordova, Alaska, and has lived there his entire life. He has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 40 years. In his Cordova Chronicles features, he writes about the history and characters of this Alaska town. Alaska Press Club awarded Shellhorn first place for Best Humor column in 2016.