Comet Heli Hiking and Spencer Rafting Tour
By Marc Donadieu
Glacier City Gazette
There is no shortage of interesting outdoor tours offered by Turnagain Arm outfitters. Chugach Adventures offers one of the most exciting tour options in the day long Comet Heli Hike and Spencer Raft.
Besides spectacular scenery, perhaps the most interesting facet is the number of ways clients get around during the tour: by van, by helicopter, on foot, on a raft and finally the train. Each transportation mode offers a different perspective on a tour that covers a lot of air, ground and water.
The tour begins at Chugach Adventure’s office that shares parking space with Slack Tide Gallery, which has a large sign near Alyeska Highway. The gallery is run by Melanee Stiassny while her husband Ari Stiassny runs Chugach Adventures.
After a short van ride to Girdwood airport, we were ushered airborne in an Alpine Air helicopter for a 25-minute flight with Pilot Shane Patrick. The day was flawless with ample sunshine and zero clouds.
As Patrick lifted us into the air, all of Girdwood Valley was visible and Turnagain Arm was prominent. Heading east and closely hugging the mountains to ride the thermal draft, we climbed out of the valley and into 20 Mile Valley. Soon, Seward Highway below was buzzing with traffic. Next, we flew over glacial-silt covered Skookum Glacier, over a small pass and into a scenic basin at about 2,000 feet and two miles above Spencer Cabin.
We landed near what is locally known as Comet Glacier, hence the tour name. Patrick took off, and another set of clients landed in the distance. Ari was our guide during this first portion of the trip.
The 360-degree view was special. I quickly scanned to landscape to find interesting foregrounds to compliment the snow-patched, green mountains in the distance. Large swaths of melting snow had a fascinating, uniform texture that riveted the eye and contrasted the green tundra.
We easily walked the varied terrain and stepped across a couple of streams. Our descent was a general route, not a trail. The snow quickly thinned and the stream volume increased dramatically. Then Spencer Lake and Spencer Glacier come into view. We caught up with the other guide and clients, but we hiked at our own pace on an informal trail to the cabin.
The descent from the cabin features an engaging perspective that is constantly changing. The iceberg dotted lake and crumbling glacier are seen in increasing detail as one walks closer to the lake below. Each viewpoint reveals different details.
We arrived to the cabin but did not stay long. It was occupied, as it is most nights in summer, and to disturb its guests is bad etiquette. Below the cabin, the trail is firmly established. The descent is a bit steeper yet still easy. It is 5.4 miles to Spencer Lake, with many special views to be had along the way.
When we reached the lake, it was time for a lunch break: a sandwich, Mandarin orange, cookie, and chips from local eatery Spoonline. Everything about this trip is local, including the guides who live in the area year-round, giving them great knowledge of local information.
Our next activity was boarding the rafts with two other clients after being given safety instructions and life vests. Ari rowed us to a pick-up of the two clients we saw earlier in the day. They and guide Erin Henszey had hiked along the lake to where the formal trail ends and an informal one leads close to receding Spencer Glacier. Henszey took over the rowing, and Ari hiked back to the staging area.
Henszey noted how the ice changes and moves around, making for a dynamic, daily scene. We were close enough to touch a few smaller icebergs and even break off some fragmented ice. As we floated past, the perspective of the icebergs changed constantly. Henszey pointed out the different types of ice decay and explained how the varied tones of blue reflect ice density and exposure to sun and water.
Green mountains and light cloud wisps in a blue sky were the perfect backdrops for capturing the icebergs photographically. It was relaxing watching the ever-changing scenery as we floated along. Then Henszey rowed us to where Spencer Lake spills out to become Placer River, beginning the seven-mile float through Placer Valley.
The roughest stretch of river occurs early, and isn’t much more than a few big splashes. We flowed beneath the trail bridge and train trestle as well as passed downstream remnants of the trestle destroyed during the 1964 earthquake. All the while we kept our eyes on the shifting scenery while scanning for wildlife.
Since our party had left early, we had bonus time, so Henszey guided the raft to a sandy, level patch before hauling us out to explore for a half hour. I set out alone to cast my uninterrupted gaze in search of images and was rewarded.
In the sand, I found recent moose and bear tracks with solid impressions. I also saw older, slightly decayed tracks of what was likely a wolf due to the size and canine appearance. Another highlight was finding a very small, lower half jaw with black and green stains, suggesting it had been in place for a while. There is a single, sharp, chisel-like incisor in the front and five tiny molars in the back. We deduced the jaw piece came from a very young beaver.
We donned our life jackets and boarded the raft for the final float to Lubner whistle stop and the train to Portage. Chugach Adventures has an arrangement with Alaska Railroad to pick up rafts and rafters in the late afternoon. The train is a pleasant change of pace and a relaxing finish to a fine day, offering just enough time to drink two cans of Alaska beer from the bar. The ride back to the Girdwood office was a breeze.
Chugach Adventure’s Heli Hiking and Rafting Tour is a long day of activities with many sights to see. The sheer variety of views combined with the different modes of transportation is staggering. The tour begins in the sky, lands in an alpine basin and hikes to a glacial lake that becomes a river flowing into the ocean at Turnagain Arm.
It is an amazing journey.
Chugach Adventures offers a variety of tours, which are described on their website.
1553 Alyeska HWY