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Alaskan icefield, an other-worldly discovery

THE first thing I noticed was the feeling of an ice-cream headache. It meant we were getting close.

But the chill off the massive Harding Icefield and wind funneled through the surrounding mountains was part reward for the sweat-inducing hike to get there, and part reminder that we were entering a foreign landscape.

To many travelers, Alaska represents adventure, and my visit to this glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park with a friend included rigorous hikes amid sweeping, beautiful landscapes.

We went from the marshy-grass tussocks and stark, brown-red, up-in-the-cloud peaks of Denali National Park, where we encountered Dall sheep and were soaked to the bone on ridgetop trails, to Kenai in Southcentral Alaska, a few hundred miles away.

There we climbed rocks, hop-scotched across boulder fields and creek beds only partially filled with cold, late-summer water, and traversed snow and ice to get to the glaciers.

Our first glacier and the highlight of the trip for me was Harding Icefield.

Getting there takes some doing: It's nearly a 13km round-trip hike, one the National Park Service brands strenuous because it gains about 305 meters of elevation for each mile. Some stretches are fairly steep but the trail is in excellent condition, which helps with footing.

Farther up, there were flower-filled meadows and then, much starker landscapes: alpine tundra, stretches of soft snow and barren brown rock leading to edge-of-nowhere cliffs. The cliffs overlooked the icefield and seemingly everything else - clouds, lakes, mountain peaks.

The only word that came to mind was other-worldly. It was wonderfully desolate, stunningly quiet, except for the roar of falling water. I felt very small.

It was hard to leave but the waning sunlight sent us on our way. On our descent, we encountered a small herd of mountain goats that were seemingly oblivious to our existence.


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