Nostalgia: Searching for the Bomber Glacier

About  year ago, I was hiking around the Reed Lakes Trail in Hatcher Pass, south-central Alaska, with a good friend.  We passed a group of trail workers who were working on a re-vegetation project on the slope.  After we had moved about a quarter of a mile past them, I suddenly remembered a story someone had told me about a World War II bomber which had crashed on a glacier in the area nearby, and I hiked back down to the group to see if they could offer any advice about how to find it.  I hailed them with a wave and a smile, and began the conversation.

“Hey, I had a question.  Maybe you can help me.”

There were about four or five people in the group, and one of them waved back.  “What’s up?” the young man asked.

“Are you familiar with the area?”  I squinted in the sunlight.

“Roughly.  Vaguely.”

“So, I was staying with this guy in Talkeetna–”

“I used to live there!”  he interrupted in a surprised voice.

I dropped a few names of the people I’d been staying with.

“Yup, yup.  Know ’em both.”

“So, he said that somewhere up here there’s a bomber that went down?”

“Uh, no, that’s actually back Reed Lakes Trail.  That’s called the Bomber Traverse.  So you gotta keep following Reed Lakes Trail.  You gotta go over both lakes, and then up around the glacier.  It kind of goes around and comes up by the Mint Hut, and then you can actually go back–”

“Is it backcountry or has there been a path worn?”

“Yehhhhh….”

“Yeah.”  We both laughed.

“They call it the Bomber Traverse.”  He shrugged.  “I mean, it’s definitely doable.  Up over and back there.”

I was keen to try and find it, but I wasn’t sure if my hiking companion would be up for it.  “So my friend in Talkeetna said it was all picked out, that all the artifacts and stuff have been taken away, but the hulk of the aircraft is still there?”

“Yeah.”

“Have you seen it?”

“I’ve seen pictures of it.  I haven’t actually personally seen the glacier.”

“Yeah, what about you guys?”

Another guy ventured to answer.  “I’ve tried to make it, but it was too late in the day for me.  I wasn’t able to.”

“Okay, well, I brought my tent and I’ve got my stuff and I’m kind of on the hunt for it, so I was just curious to see if you guys…”

“Keep following the lakes.  It’s past the second lake.   Danny, have you seen the Bomber?  On the Bomber Glacier?”

Danny shook his head.  “No, but it’s up past the second lake.  Yeah.”

“Cool, well, thanks guys.”  I took a deep breath and turned to go.

“Camp out on the shore of the second lake.  I’m sure it’s just a short hike from there,”  another member of the group called out.

“Oh, it’ll only be twenty degrees tonight, no big deal.”  I laughed.

“Naw, it ain’t gonna be that cold!”

“You don’t think so?”

“No.”

“It’d be worth it, regardless,”  chipped in another voice from the group.

“I thought so, so that’s why I brought my stuff.  Okay, I’ll see if I can talk my friend into staying.  I don’t know if he’s into it, but maybe!”

“It’d be so worth it.”

“I think so.”

“You’ll get to go see an old World War II-era bomber crashed on a glacier.  I think it’s a B-17 or a B-19.  But I can’t remember which one it is.  You’ll catch me lying if I keep talking.  It’s one or the other.”

“Just tell me a good story.  That’s all I care about.”

“Everybody survived.”

“Oh yeah?  And they walked out?”

“Yep.”

“Cool.”

“That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.”

“I like it.”

“Well, you said tell you a story, so…”

“That’s good.  See ya.”

“Nobody resorted to cannibalism.”

“Good!”

“They all ate ground squirrel.”

“And pika.”  I said, laughing.

“And pika, yeah.  Good luck!”

“Bye-bye!”  I turned to hike back up the way I’d come.

My friend and I did hike back to the second lake that day.  The trail followed rocky terrain, past two turquoise, shimmering, shallow pools fringed by reeds and edged by boulder fields.  Below us stretched emerald green meadows down into the valley towards Palmer.   And there were a few other people out hunting the Bomber as well in that rock-strewn cul-de-sac.  A group came towards my friend and me as we rested at the edge of the pool.  As we greeted each other and learned about our mutual interest in finding the trail, we began exchanging information.

“You say there’s more of a trail coming down the other way?”  One woman asked her partner.

“It’s rocks, rocks and more rocks!”  he exclaimed.

“Oh yeah?”  I queried.

“Yeah,”  he confirmed.

“Which way did you go?”  another woman asked him.

“Are you heading that way?”  he asked us.

“Yeah,”  I answered.  “We’re talking about it.”

“Right on!”

“Give us some advice,”  I smiled.

He looked back toward the back of the rocky bowl which extended past the shore of the lake.  “Did you see where we were coming down?”

“No, I just saw you at the rim of the lake.”

He turned back and pointed towards the shoreline. “Uh, so, there’s a trail that goes along the lake, and do you see that first little chunk of snow?”

“At the base?”

“At the very base, yeah.  The trail goes around that.  And right around that first chunk of snow is where the trail ends.  And then there’s really not a defined trail.  At all.”

Another guy chimed in, “How far up did you guys go?”

I broke in with, “Why did you guys start there?  Why did you think that was the right place?  Because it’s the back of the lake?”

The man hesitated.  “That’s actually not where we started. We started up over here.”  He gestured behind himself towards another part of the gray, rocky bowl.  “And kind of just went straight for the low spot.  And I would not recommend that.”

The other guy snickered.

“It’s really steep and mossy and kind of sketchy.  Like, it doesn’t look that steep, but it is.”  He wrinkled his nose and looked down and away.  “But there’s the trail that goes over there and there’s a trail that kind of goes up, but once you get about half-way up, which is about as far as we made it, it’s….it’s just rocks.”  He said this last word in an exaggerated way.  “Big rocks.”

“Mmhmm.”

“Big rocks and uh, slow goin’.”

There was a long pause after this declaration.  The group exchanged glances with each other.  Some people looked back at the rocks.  I tried another angle.

“So, did you ever get on the back side of this big overhang right here?  This mass?”

“Uh, no, we–”

“Could you see what’s back behind there at all?”

“No, we didn’t.  We basically made it in a straight line from here to that top notch, maybe halfways.  That’s as far as we got.”

I reflected on the information.  “So, it’s a bunch of rocks and scree and hard-to-scramble-on shit.”

“Yeah.  It’s gnarly.  Gnarly for sure.”

“Huh.  Think it’s more legend than fact?”

“Well, I did fly up here the other day and flew over the other side and saw the bomber… and it was way cool.  But once you get over the other side, it’s just like a short drop down and then a flat walk over.  And there’s a trail, so that you can tell a lot of people have done it.  But uh, yeah.  Lake to that is…it’s pretty serious business.”

“Maybe there’s another way.”  I wondered aloud.  “What about from the Snowbird Hut?  What about from the other side of this ridge?”

He squinted in the direction I was pointing and made a decisive nod.  “Clearly doable.  But…  I dunno.”

“‘Cause I heard there were a couple of different ways you could get to it.  Like, this is one way, but you have to go past this headwall, but there was another way from the other approach.”

“Sure….”  he trailed off, clearly finished with exploring the possibilities.  “Yeah, that’s the only one I know of.  That low spot there.”

“Hmm.”

“I saw a lot of snowmobile trails up there, though, like people’ve been riding their snowmachines up there.”

“What the heck?”

“In the wintertime.  On the back side.  Where the bomber’s at.  But uh…yeah.  It’s doable, but we didn’t make it.”

“Well you had poles.  Did you also bring some kind of little picks or something?”

“Yeah, we’ve got our little ax for just making our way across the glacier, but we haven’t been up there before, so we’re probably a little overprepared, but…”

“Better than underprepared.  There was another guy over here in a wife beater and some sneakers with a water bottle, and he was like, ‘I wanna do it!  Maybe later!'”

The group laughed, and someone else said, “I saw someone out here with flip-flops on.”

And I looked over at the couple with two young children which had just come up from the slope.  “And here we have a family.  Who knows?  All things are possible.  And there’s a dog.”

“I think the dog had the hardest time,”  said the father with a chuckle.

I looked back at the guy who had been telling the story.  He continued, “Yeah, there’s not really a trail. It’s just wicked, big rocks.”

“Wicked awful, huh?”

“Yeah, it’s a total free-for-all.”

And the conversation switched to discussions of camping out or returning to the car before nightfall.  It was then about 3:30 in the afternoon.  I did end up trying to make it up to the ridgeline over the steep boulders, but after making it about halfway up without my companion, I decided it would be better to try again earlier in the day another time.  I have yet to make it to Bomber Glacier, but it’s got a choice spot on my list of things to do when I get back to my home in Alaska.
For photos of the area mentioned in this story, you are welcome to browse through my Flickr album:  Reed Lakes Trail, August 2014

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