Before They Are Gone: Documenting the Shrinking Glaciers with the iPhone 7

In January of 2017, while looking over old photos from my trips to Glacier National Park and Denali National park, I found myself comparing the size of the glaciers fifteen years ago to their current state. The glaciers were obviously shrinking. I already knew that they were, but to see the difference in my own photos made it more real. Comparing my photos to current photos online, you could see that they were noticeably smaller in just the last 15 years. In just a few days’ time our new President would be taking office. His proposed platform appeared to have little regard for even acknowledging our changing climate.  In was in this moment that I hatched the plan for my summer motorcycle tour. I would be taking an 18-day motorcycle ride from my home in SE Iowa to Alaska to see as many glaciers as I could and I would be packing the best iPhone gear and downloading the best iPhone apps for the trip.

I mapped out a route that included stops at mostly National Parks and Forest. I would be riding my 2013 BMW F800GS, an Enduro-style adventure motorcycle that is very capable on the highway but also affords you some excellent off-road agility. It also has the ability, unlike a proper dirt bike, to haul enough gear to support the rider on an 18-day camping trip. Think of this bike as the SUV of the motorcycle world. I incorporated as many trails and backcountry camping opportunities as I could fit into my time schedule.

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Six months later, I was packed up and the Glaciers Before They Are Gone Tour was underway. I had everything I needed to make this trip go smoothly. The camping gear that would constitute my home for the next two and half weeks, the tools necessary for keeping my bike running in good condition, my trusty iPhone, and the appropriate motorcycle clothing to keep me safe and dry.  In addition to the basics, I also had a number of items and apps on my iPhone to help simplify and improve my trip that are worth mentioning as you prepare for your next big adventure.

Every good road trip needs a great soundtrack, and for this trip, I relied heavily on the Pandora app's Radiohead station. In my opinion, it’s the ultimate road trip companion; The perfect balance of Radiohead’s library, mixed with music by early 90s icons like Nirvana and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, classic rock gods such as Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, and the Who, and rounding out with nicely with modern female fronted powerhouses like Florence and the Machine and Phantogram. 

I am able to listen to all this great music because I have installed the Sena 20s Bluetooth Headset ($299) on my helmet. It connects speakers inside my helmet to my iPhone via Bluetooth. I am able to listen to music or audiobooks, make calls, use the voice text feature, listen to GPS instructions, or talk to other riders (if there are any); and it can mostly be done hands free, using voice prompts, so I am able to keep my attention on the road and ride safely. It holds a pretty good charge too. I am able to use it for about 8 to 10 hours while on the road before needing to plug in to the bike to charge it up. When not in use, the 20S charge lasts about two weeks. I have done several long motorcycle trips in the past, but this was first with the Sena. I can say it was a fantastic addition to my trip. It’s easy to use makes for a simple user experience. I can clearly hear an audiobook even with the wind noise generated by my helmet doing 85 mph.

When I wasn’t listing to music, I was listening to audiobooks I downloaded through iTunes. Audiobooks are a nice back up for those long hours when you have no data reception out west. I had downloaded a few that I felt would hold relevancy to the route I would be traveling. I started with Stephen Ambrose’s classic Undaunted Courage and then went on to Cormack McCarthy’s brutal novel, Blood Meridian. Both stories are rooted in the formation of the American West and convey the hardships of that journey. 

While riding, my iPhone was held securely on the dash of my motorcycle in a device called the Ram Mount X-grip (starting at $27.99). It’s protected from the wind and rain mostly by the bikes windshield, so there wasn’t any need for an additional phone case. It’s actually better off there than in a wet pocket. The X-Grip is a well-designed product that can be easily mounted to your instrument panel or to a number of other locations. I use the handlebar mount. The X-Grip uses a compression fit to hold your phone in place. Because of this, you do not need to by a new case or attachment each time you upgrade your phone. While bouncing over rocks on trails in Colorado and Utah I have never had any slip. Ram Mounts are very rugged and reliable. The X-grip makes it easy to quickly look at your map when using GPS Apps like Google Maps or the free Rever app (which I use when going off road) and to mount your device close to your charging port to keep it juiced up on your travels.

Finding a good way to document your travels should be a priority on any trip. I recently bought the iPhone 7 Plus for that reason. The quality of the photos are fantastic. Portrait Mode makes you a superstar at any event. I needed to take great pictures on this ride. I am the editor of an adventure motorcycling and overland travel website in my spare time and it’s key to produce great pictures of my trips. I brought the Magicook Flexible Tripod to assist with time delayed shots, self-portraits, and added stability for landscape photography. I typically try to limit the amount of gear I bring because space is so limited on a motorcycle, but this little guy is small enough to stash anywhere and can be used in a number of ways.

As part of any good riding suit, you need a solid pair of gloves. Safety is paramount while doing a tour like this, but why not have function and style as well. I ride with the Rev-it Dirt 2 Gloves. A comfortable and stylish three-season glove, they have aggressive styling and include the connect tip fabric at the thumb and index finger. A feature that is so helpful when needing to operate your phone. Putting a leather glove on and off each time you need to skip a song or enlarge a GPS map is incredibly frustrating and realistically can’t be done safely while riding. No need to worry about that with these gloves. They work pretty well for most actions on your device, but don’t expect to be able to text on the little keyboard with much precision.

After pressing west for a few days, my heading turned to the north and I started to see some glaciers in Glacier Nation Park and then along Icefields Parkway in Yoho, Banff, and Jasper National Parks. They certainly were smaller than I remembered them. I bathed in glacial rivers and lakes, not having access to a shower where I was camping. I was introduced to an App called AllTrails (free) by a fellow hiker while in Glacier National Park and found it to be very useful the rest of my trip. It is a GPS-based app and user reviewed. The app uses your location to suggest all the nearby hikes. The trails are shown with maps, descriptions, and difficulty ratings or each one. I ended up using this app a lot because my trip took an unexpected turn. After spending a few days in Yoho and Jasper National Park, I again headed west toward coastal British Columbia and Hyder, Alaska, but I was stopped by the RCMP and told that I would not be able to go the way I had planned due to all the wildfires in British Columbia. The roads were closed and the only alternative routes would not have been doable in the time I had available. There are only two or three roads once you get that far north.

Forced to turn back, I spent more days hiking and riding in Jasper and Banff National Parks. The most excellent consolation prize you can receive. The beauty of this place is unbelievable. Post card worthy vistas around every corner.

I had not achieved my goal of reaching Alaska and the Pacific Ocean, but I found something equally great. I had been forced to slow down and really appreciate the place I was in. It really makes you relate to it on a deeper level. Rather than just say that I went to Jasper National park once, I can know tell you all about the trails, the overlooks, the little roadside cafes, the lakes, the glaciers, etc. I wanted to be able to say I rode to Alaska on my motorcycle and that I dipped the front tire in the Pacific Ocean. It didn’t happen on this trip, but I can always try another time. I got to do this adventure instead and I get to say I spent a week stranded in Jasper and Banff while British Columbia was on fire just on the other side of the Continental Divide and that’s a pretty great story to tell.

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Paul Strubell's picture

To read more about Paul’s trip you can check out his website www.dirtorcas.com and his daily trip journal for the Glaciers Before They Are Gone Tour. A lover of all things wild and true, Paul finds his balance in exploring the complexities of wilderness and sharing that passion with others. He started Dirt Orcas because he has a passion for overland travel, nature, wildlife, camping, and overland vehicles, and their accessories.