Glaciers change fast. I’m talking about the surface of a large glacier during the summer months. Particularly at the elevations below fern line (the level at which snow will no longer remain due to the warmth of the summer days–generally below 6000′ in the Chugach mountains). It’s very difficult to capture, or experience these changes until you visit the same area week-after-week, or even day-after-day. There is relatively little known of these behemoth monstrosities of ice, and I claim to know very little. All I “think” I know is based on what I experience on a daily basis, as we use the glaciers for landing zones. This photo shows an ice pan that was perfect for landing for the first two weeks of hunting season … and then it threw me a curve ball.
We had dropped a couple of sheep hunters off for the opener at a spot about 1.5 miles up glacier from here. The wind was blowing about 20 knots and the air was cold. I’ve often said the best performance enhancer for your cub is a steady breeze in cold dense air. I saw a spot I knew I could land and plopped down with a 200 lb hunter and a full load of gear…I don’t think it was 200 feet long, and I virtually did a stop and go. Stop, unload the hunter and gear, and takeoff going uphill. This was only possible because of the wind, not because the man or machine. I knew if the wind was not blowing when we came back to pick them up I would be in a pinch. And sure enough, 10 days later I was in a pinch. The hunters took a beautiful 39″ ram, but on the day of the pickup the winds were not agreeable for a landing or takeoff in this tight little location. We had the hunters hike down glacier 1.5 miles to the location pictured above, and there was no stress.
A week later we used this same landing zone to drop off some more hunters. The ice was more or less the same, but when we returned 5 days later it had rained several inches. The appearance of the surface of the glacier was unchanged, other than a slightly deeper blue … which made me wary . As I mentioned earlier, glaciers change really fast. What bothered me was the slight bowl shape of the landing zone. The ice appeared dry but these things can be very sneaky, and we had seen a lot of rain. I set down gently on a slight hump and rolled out into the ice pan. As the plane decelerated the left tire punched through the slushy surface and I pegged the throttle, the tire popped out of the hole and the tail slammed back down. I slid to a stop and got out to walk around the icy surface.
The amount of change was surprising. The rain water had settled in the landing zone area and permeated the ice. It was extremely crunchy underfoot, and occasionally the crunch would give way to a splash, and a wet sock. Sorta like a slurpee from the 7 eleven that’s been mostly frozen and then soaked in water … Glaciers are odd, and make for a challenging landing surface. I had landed here 5 times previously and it was the sixth one that surprised me. I even found a hole right in the middle of the airstrip that was 5 feet around, 12 feet deep, and chuck full of water. A little treat like that is the sort of thing that gets expensive. I used a jacket and a backpack to mark the holes, and then did a zig-zag-dodging takeoff. When I returned for the second hunter I did a zig-zag dodging landing, picked up my coat and replaced it with a rock and did another zig-zag dodging takeoff. All-in-all it was uneventful, which is just the way I like it.
This same landing zone can be seen in the 2014 calendar month of August.