ES 771 with Dr. James Aber, Emporia State University, Final Project, Fall 2005


by Larry Kuss

Harlequin Lake near Yakutat, AK


In 1991, I was looking for an adventure. I had about ten days available, but I wanted to explore a remote wilderness area. A travel agent directed me to Mountain Travel-Sobek, an adventure travel company out of California. Using the parameters I supplied, it was clear there was only one place that would fit the bill...Alaska! After some discussion, it was recommended I do their kayaking trip with Alaska Discovery to Icy Bay, a little visited or explored region in southern Alaska. At sea level, yet adjacent to 18,000 foot Mt. St. Elias, this region is a remarkable study in contrast. The purpose of this project is to demonstrate how traditional 35mm photography can be used to examine various glacial and related features from the air as well as from high vantage points obtained on land. The purpose of this project is also to show off some really cool photos.

Yakutat Forest

Yakutat, AK

I flew into Yakutat, AK a day early to explore on my own. Located between the Fairweather and St. Elias mountain ranges on the Gulf of Alaska coast, Yakutat is a town of more than 600 people, mostly commercial fisherman and Tlingit (pronounced "Klingit") Indians. Although the people of the town appeared somewhat friendly, it was clear the commercial fishermen considered kayakers a nuisance. I drove a rental car to Harlequin Lake on the only 60 mile stretch of road in the area. This magnificent lake, displayed in the opening photo, is filled with crackling chunks of ice recently broken off from the glacier feeding this body of water. The ice migrates across the lake and flows out into a waterway aptly named the Dangerous River. After returning the car, as there was nowhere else to drive to, I hiked through this lush forest shown to the left to find this spectacular black sand beach, created from weathered volcanic basalts, shown below.

Beach near Yakutat, AK

The next day, the real adventure began as five of us and one guide flew in this small Gulf Air single engine airplane to our final destination; Icy Bay, AK. Gulf Air Plane

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Flight to Icy Bay, AK

Enroute to Icy Bay, we flew over some amazing scenery. We crossed the >1000-square-mile Malaspina Glacier, often described as larger than the state of Rhode Island. Flowing out of the Seward Ice Field, the Malaspina is the largest and most famous example of a piedmont glacier in the world. A piedmont glacier occurs when steep valley glaciers spill into a relatively flat plain, spreading out into bulb-shaped lobes. Two wonderful satellite photos of this glacier are visible at these two links, Aster Image and Landsat Image.

After crossing over the huge glacier, our pilot landed on a remote beach within Icy Bay. Below are some images showing the diverse landscapes of the region, mostly created by the advance and recent retreat of the glaciers originating on Mt. St. Elias.

Flight to Icy Bay 1

It was surprising to see such rich, thick vegetation in proximity to such stark, seemingly lifeless landscapes.

Flight to Icy Bay 2

Notice the strong solar reflection from the trees coaxial with the shadow of the plane on the land, as the Sun's rays are obviously directly behind us. This is a type of back scatter resulting from strong solar radiation striking the antisolar point on the ground, indicating that the sensor, or camera in this case, is between the sun and ground target. This results from the lack of shadows at the "hot spot", also refered to as the opposition effect. This bright spot often leads to sun glint when water or ice is involved. The trees cast shadows in a radial pattern, radiating away from the center of the scene. This distorts the appearance of the trees, making them appear to be leaning away from the scene's center.

Flight to Icy Bay 3 Flight to Icy Bay 4

This region was covered in glaciers until about the 1940s. As the ice advanced, it created these characteristic patterns of debris on the ground called moraines, shown in the two images below. Medial and lateral morraines are found along the middle and edges of the glacier.

Flight to Icy Bay 5 Flight to Icy Bay 6

In the following image, in addition to the "fingerprint" left behind by the retreating glacier, there is distortion to the land surface similar to the "washboard" effect on a dirt road.

Flight to Icy Bay 7

Flight to Icy Bay 8In the photo to the left, you can see the effects of the glacial action on the land. The vegetation zone ends abruptly at a point near the top of the scene, where the moving ice scrubbed the land bare of growth. As the ice melts, small streams form in the glacial till and flow out toward the bay, eventually mixing with the Pacific Ocean. When photographing bright, highly reflective scenes such as these, I used an ultraviolet filter to minimize the bluish tint that often accompanies such images. I also used a polarizing filter to minimize glare from the ice and water, as this type of reflection tends to be polarized due to the interaction of the incident rays of sunlight on some materials. Polarized light energy vibrates in one plane perpendicular to the direction of travel of the wave. A polarizing filter can be thought of as a series of stripes very close together, filtering out light energy vibrating perpendicular to those stripes. When the filter is rotated to the point of "extinction", polarized light cannot pass and glare is greatly diminished. This also enhances colors, giving photos an added richness. When using an automatic zoom lens, a circular polarizer is used to eliminate the difficulties inherent in the interaction between the filter and the automatic rotation of the lens.

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Exploring Icy Bay

We landed on a remote beach within Icy Bay, born of four huge tidewater glaciers that had retreated during the last century, including the Guyot, Yahtse and Tyndall Glaciers. Icy Bay extends over 40 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean, ranging from four to ten miles in width.

After unloading the plane, we assembled German-made Klepper folding kayaks which would be our homes and transportation for the next week. These sea-kayaks are very stable two-man vessels with inflatable ballasts to help prevent tipping in the frigid glacial waters. Gear was stowed within, and photography was challenging from the floating platform. I was shooting with 400 ASA film, but would have done better with a faster film. At the time there were no variable speed films on the market, but I later moved to an 800 ASA variable speed film which was much more versatile in such situations where movement was a factor, as well as constantly changing light conditions. I also find a monopod extremely useful in situations like this, where weight and space are limited aboard small planes and boats. It can be used in moving vehicles, allowing one to hold the camera almost as steady as with a tripod, and it doubles as a walking stick on hikes. It can also be partially buried in the sand on beaches, allowing the photographer to get into the photo.

Exploring Icy Bay 1 Exploring Icy Bay 2 Exploring Icy Bay 3

To the right is an excellent example of specular reflection, accentuated by the calm, cold waters of the region. The water acts almost as a mirror, reflecting virtually all light given off by the background scene. Glare from the water's surface is practically eliminated using the polarizing filter. Although it is hard to imagine much wildlife existing in such a harsh, stark environment, life was all around as evidenced by the grizzly bear footprints along the beaches, and the ever-present seals in and around the water.

Exploring Icy Bay 4Exploring Icy Bay 5 Exploring Icy Bay 6Exploring Icy Bay 7

We landed on a shore at the base of a glacial head and climbed several hundred feet above the glacier. From here we could get an excellent vantage point for examination of the structure of an active glacier. Snow falls high in the mountains, adding to the glacier's mass. As the snow accumulates, the lower layers become compacted and turn to ice. The thick ice pack flows down the mountain, pushing the entire structure forward. As the head of the glacier ablates via evaporation, calving or melting, a state of homeostasis is reached. This glacier is apparently retreating, as ablation excedes snowfall.

Exploring Icy Bay 8 Exploring Icy Bay 9

Notice the dark stripe parallel to the direction of flow of this glacier. As a glacier advances, it picks up rock and debris in its path. This can help in the calculation of the speed of advancement, as residue found within a glacier can be matched to the point of origin of the particular material. Along the beaches we found ancient wood from trees too large to be found growing in the region. This was pointed out by our expert guide, Andy Romanoff, to be old vegetative remains released from the frozen formations of the area. Apparently this area was completely covered by glaciers until perhaps the mid 1900s. At present the ice is receding, and the region is void of old growth forests. All live vegetation in this area is relatively new and not yet well established.

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Also notice the pieces of ice floating near the "calving" glacial head in the above photo on the right. As large pieces of ice break off from the forward edge of the flow, waves of energy are generated outward from the head. When we were on the water, we were directed to point the front of the boat toward the swell and ride it out. However, once the energy reaches a shore, it transforms into a large 10 to 15 foot wave, dangerous when landing the kayaks. The only other group we encountered on this adventure lost most of their gear this way and were lucky to have avoided injury. (Having a guide was a good thing!)

Exploring Icy Bay 10

Notice the bluish tint of the ice to the left. This is because ice buried and compressed for long periods of time becomes extremely dense, forcing out the tiny air pockets between crystals. At this stage, the ice absorbs all colors of the spectrum rather well, except for blue, which is reflected. White glacial ice contains more tiny air bubbles than the blue variety. The photo below was taken as the glacier was calving.

Exploring Icy Bay 11 Exploring Icy Bay 12

Numerous fossils of vegetation were also visible high above the bay in sediments previously deposited. To the left is a collection of deciduous leaf imprints, revealing the location was quite different prior to the present period of glaciation.

From this remote vantage point, below, the structure of a fiord can be clearly observed. The advance and retreat of the massive ice formation has carved a depression out of the surrounding rock. Fiords, or fjords, are long, narrow trough-shaped coastal valleys carved out by glaciers. Sea water has filled the void, mixing with fresh water runoff from the ice-melt. In the center of the image one can observe pieces from the calving glacier flowing out into the bay. The murky brownish regions of the water are due to the fine silt released from the ice-melt. These silts render the waters of the region undesireable for fishing, although the seals appear to have little difficulty keeping well fed. The glacial head is to the left of the image.

Exploring Icy Bay 13

Below are two closeup examples of extreme weathering and erosion. Glacial movements and wind contribute most of the horizontal "scraping" away of rocks and sediments, while the vertical erosion is mostly due to the flow of water from rain and ice-melt.

Exploring Icy Bay 14 Exploring Icy Bay 15 Exploring Icy Bay 16

In a region such as this, fog can be a constant consideration as cold air temperatures combine with high humidity. On one occasion, two members of our party in the photo to the right had to be rescued before heading out to open ocean as the thick fog made navigation difficult. Flying in these conditions can be treacherous, and use of navigational instruments is essential. As a sad footnote, our pilot, the owner of Gulf Air, was killed a week after our trip while on a return flight in bad weather.

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Return Flight to Yakutat, AK

Return Flight 1

On our return flight to Yakutat, we flew over more examples of how the advance and retreat of the Malaspina Glacier permanently altered the landscape. Notice the deep gouging of the surface of the land, and the "kettle lakes" formed as large pieces of glacier ice broke off and were buried by glacial till or moraine deposits. As the ice eventually melted, a small depression was left in the ground which filled with water. These bodies of water are actually very small, more like ponds than lakes.

Return Flight 2 Return Flight 3

This view, below, of the frozen ground is a good example of glint as described earlier, when an extreme reflection from the Sun's intense light is visible in the scene, in this case involving ice. The high reflectivity of the frozen ground produces specular reflection, often a problem when photographing surfaces such as this.

Return Flight 4 Return Flight 5

In the photo to the right, you can see how runoff from ice-melt can erode the surface soil and vegetation, leading to the formation of new streams and rivers. Meanders are obvious in the glacial till, as the fine sediments are easily redistributed by the more rapidly flowing regions of the moving water. Often sections of a meander are bypassed as water follows the path of least resistance, leaving behind horseshoe-shaped lakes.

Stranded Ice
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Every photographic opportunity is different, requiring specific equipment to meet the demands of the environment being studied. In remote places such as this, weight and space restrictions must be taken into consideration. I have found that digital equipment, not available back in 1992, is a fantastic way to reduce both parameters. Digital media cards require much less space than traditional film, and new smaller, lighter cameras and lenses deliver equivalent optical magnification as compared to the old zoom lenses. (As an aside, digital zoom is not important on a camera, as it can be done on a computer, and amounts to merely "empty magnification", providing nothing more than cropping of the original image. Optical magnification is a much more critical feature in selecting a piece of digital imaging equipment.) A large capacity media card prevents the need to open the camera to change film when in a region where sand, dust or moisture are a factor. If using traditional 35mm equipment, a variable ASA film, such as Kodak 800, avoids the need for multiple backs with different film speeds, and it works quite well. Plastic bags inside camera cases help keep moisture out, and packets of dessicant crystals placed in the case help as well, as digital equipment is much more sensitive to humidity than traditional cameras and lenses. A monopod is a wonderful addition to a wilderness trip such as this, and I also suggest a clamp for attaching a camera to a tree, and a light mini-tripod for use on rocks. Lugging around heavy equipment can definitely detract from the enjoyment of the experience. Ultraviolet and polarizing filters are the most useful filters I have found for most shooting situations. As a final suggestion, have equipment insured against loss or theft when traveling. It is very inexpensive and well worth it.


All Photos Taken by Larry Kuss Using a Nikon 6006 35mm Camera

The National Snow and Ice Data Center; All About Glaciers;

The National Snow and Ice Data Center; The Cryosphere;

Get To Know Yakutat, Alaska;

Kayaking Icy Bay;

Icy Bay, Alaska;

Kayaking Alaska's Icy Bay;

West Icy Bay Log Camp;