Kluane and Wrangell-Saint Elias National Parks: A Rock and Ice Empire

Name: Kluane National Park & Preserve and Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park & Preserve (Canada and United States of America).
Location: northern Yukon, near Wrangell-Saint Elias in south central Alaska.
Area: Kluane National Park and Preserve: 2,201,500 has (5,437,705 acres); Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park and Preserve: 3,382,014 has (8,353,574 acres.)

Kluane National Park and Preserve

In the southern border of the Canadian province of Yukon with Alaska, the coasts of the Pacific Ocean are being flanked by a huge mountain barrier, which encloses the highest peaks in North America, with the exception of Mount McKinley (Alaska).

These mountains are sometimes 9 and a half miles away of the coast, avoiding the presence of any coastal settlement. On a complex of more than 13 million protected acres, hundreds of glaciers and a dozen of peaks give shape to an impressive landscape, where it is located the world's largest non-polar ice cap.

Ice and Volcanoes

According to the plate tectonic theory, both the submerged Earth surfaces and the marine beds are located on a series of large plates that move over the interior magma. In some spot lines, the semi liquid magma rises to the surface, whereas in other plates gets stuck, sinking itself very slowly to the inside of the Earth. One of the main sinking lines runs parallel to the American Pacific Coast, and the tensions originated from the contact between both plates, Pacific and American, have triggered the elevation of the Rocky Mountains and the Andes, the authentic peaks in the Americas.

The Kluane and Wrangell-Saint Elias National Parks are a fantastic scenario for detecting the effects of these tectonic movements. The unnoticeable sliding of the oceanic plate under the continental one, is a direct cause of the amazing altitudes of these mountains, and of the frequent seismic manifestations that struck the area (a seismograph is installed in the Haines Junction Visitor Center and shows the visitor the so often seismic movements that the park has recently registered). The process is also witnessed by the wide range of active and extinct volcanoes which made up the "Fire Ring" in the Wrangell Mountains, and by the thermal waters that are born in in the foothills of Mount Drum. Large surfaces of volcanic ashes, some of them originated a thousand years ago, cover the surface of the mountains with a variable thickness in both sides of the border between Canada and Alaska. The presence of bumps and basalt rocks originated from the Pacific plate on the banks of Mush Lake and along the Kaskawush Valley (34 miles towards the interior of the continental crust of granite nature) constitute a new sample of the tectonic activity in the zone.

Kluane is articulated around the large coastal range that, going in southeast direction, encloses high peaks like the Mount Logan (19,516 feet high), Mount King (16,967 feet high), Steele (16,639 feet high) or Saint Elias (18,000 feet high.) Towards the east from these massifs it can be found the narrow Duke depression, beyond which appears a new mountain range known as Kluane Mountains, with average altitudes of about 8,200 feet, parallel to the coastal mountain range and which flanks the road between Haines and Alaska. The complex represents the youngest and most active mountains in America, both for the tectonic activity and for its acute glacial dynamics.

Before proceeding to describe the ice caps which isolate the massif, it is necessary a reference to the weather of the area. The high mountains of the coastal range act as a wall that stops the humid winds from the Pacific, which discharge there their large amounts of water. In fact, annual precipitations there are above 120 inches (snows up to 5.9 feet high are very often in the massif of Saint Elias). The elevated latitude of these mountains, is responsible for the long winters when sunlight is only a pale reflection for months. So, winter temperatures in this area can perfectly drop down to -58 ºF, while the summer is short and with cool temperatures. The result of combining both factors, high precipitations and low temperatures, is the formation of large snow accumulations on the glacial caps and allows the presence of large surfaces subjected to the domination of the perpetual ices.

The glaciers and ice caps which cover more than half of the surface of the Kluane and Wrangell-Saint Elias massifs constitute the most representative aspect of the area. They were originated in the last Quaternary Glaciation, which happened around 15,000 years ago, having suffered from little modifications since then. The glaciers cannot be more abundant and they are present in almost every valley and gorge that separates the different peaks of the Icefield and Kluane Mountains. It has been described and baptized more than 100 different glaciers. Among those, the ones that stand out are: Steele, Seward, Hubbard, Logan, Donjek and Kaskawulsh, existing others unnamed of smaller proportions (some authors talk about 4,000 glaciers in the area). From all of them, we have to highlight the Seward, with an extension of 444,920 acres, and the Steele, characteristic for its rapid advancing speed. During the summer of 1967, the Steele glacier advanced up to 40 feet per day, increasing its length in more than 5 miles, in a period of 2 years. This feature has given the Steele the name of "Galloping Glacier".

A complete hydrographic network allows the drainage of the glacial field, where participates three dozens of large rivers. Some of them pour their waters directly to the Pacific Ocean, whereas others like the Copper, Alsek and Donjek rivers, take their waters towards the north and they end up being poured into the Yukon. The Yukon mouth lies in the Arctic Glacial Ocean, at the same level of the Norton Bay. A cluster of glacial lakes sprinkle all the area, among these the Dezadeash and the Kathleen Lake are the most important ones.

Forests, Tundra and Taiga

Highlighting the high altitudes and the astonishing ice fields, a vegetation belt appears in the low-altitude areas. The lower zones, up to 3,608 feet high, are mostly occupied by forests of white, black, Douglas and Engelmann firs. These forests are inhabited by the black bear and the grizzly, having counted more than 400 individuals only in the Kluane National Park. The banks of the rivers are ornamented with European aspens and birches, separated by Artemisia plant extensions. The fluvial accumulations originate sometimes little sandy dunes on which is usually located the reed Carex sabulosa, an exclusive species from the area with a high scientific value.

The nearby prairies to the rivers are home to the elk, a large Cervidae that can weight up to 1,800 pounds. The damp zones of Bremmer river also constitute one of the three known spots where the Tundra swan (an endangered species) reproduces.

The woods are substituted by a huge subalpine vegetation belt, made up of heathers, willows and rhododendrons, overlapped by prairies of grass, epilobiums and lupinos. In this area, the Dall sheep finds refuge. This animal, named after its discoverer William Healey Dall, is perfectly adapted to the environment, to resist the harsh conditions of a winter that seems to have no end. Here, the Dall sheep has one of its largest population centers in the Rocky, with an estimated count of 4,000 individuals.

The conifer forests contain two species of tetraonidae, the hazel grouse and the spruce grouse. Two relatives of these species, the willow ptarmigan and the rock ptarmigan meet in the subalpine meadows. These species of birds have the particular characteristic of changing the color of their feathers depending on the season. So, for instance, in summer they have a plumage dominated by ochre colors, in winter this is exchanged by a white plumage. This change of colors has resulted from the adaptation process of the animal. In winter, when everything is covered by the ice and white snow, the white plumage makes them less noticeable by the predators.

The last vegetable vestiges of the area correspond to the alpine tundra, which doesn't contained bushes and it is dominated by mosses, lichens and annual plants. These surfaces are hardly free of snow for 3 months every year, lapse of time when the annual species must develop their whole vital cycle. Because of this, the short spring of the tundra is splendorous, with a simultaneous blooming of all species which cover the mountains of diverse color mixes.

Scarce Human Presence

On the contrary to what happens in most parts of North America, the Kluane area didn't count any permanent human population until the late 19th century, but some archeological remains suggest this was a salmon fishing and hunting area occupied by nomadic Indian tribes many years ago. This fact prevented conflicts with the gold diggers who adventured into these lands in three different migration flows, between 1897, 1904 and 1917. Currently, a small Indian village is located in Klukshu creek, a salmon stream which represents its main source of income. This village or town, which is less than a century old, is the oldest human settlement in the park.

At the end of the 19th century, the glacial fields made scientists and athletes interested. So, in 1897, the Mount Saint Elias was conquered for the first time by Duke of Abruzzi, in a highly technical expedition full of adventures. The climbing of Mount Logan, less interesting for the mountaineers despite its height, delayed until 1925.

The situation of Kluane, between Alaska and the western coast of the continent, was a very important strategic point during the Second World War. This fact provoked that, during 1941, and only in 9 months, the road that connects Whitehorse (Yukon Capital) with Anchorage and Fairbanks cities in Alaska was built. This road goes through the eastern limit of the National Park and allows the access to Haines Junction, authentic neuralgic point of Kluane National Park.

Kluane and Wrangell-Saint Elias remained out of reach for the successive invasions which, through the Bering Strait, managed to reach North America. The troubled orography of these mountains and the tough weather leave no room to human beings, keeping sure that these lands will continue creating what they have always been: a rock and ice empire.

Source: Wikipedia (Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park) | Wikipedia (Kluane National Park)

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