The Mendenhall Glacier

News & Politics
a glacial view

To the northeast of Juneau lies hundreds of square miles of barren ice fields, the origin of many of the indigenous glaciers of Juneau, including Mendenhall Glacier. Some of the most dominating physical features I've ever encountered, a glacier is a vast mass of ice formed from the accumulation of snow that compacts faster than it melts and sublimates. This process occurs over thousands of years. As a glacier flows through a valley, it literally destroys all in its path, carving and scarring the earth, and often leaving an utterly desolate world after its retreat. There is an extraordinary power in these natural beasts, and they leave one speechless when in their presence.

I visited Mendenhall Glacier twice -- once on my second day in Juneau; again in early March. While the first visit was exciting, the second I have more to say about. A friend invited me to make my second visit with her and one of her friends visiting from out of town. We were guided by a young man called Charlie to some of the glacial features that were more difficult to reach. I found our guide to be of an interesting breed -- a bartender at a local saloon and an experienced outdoorsman. I was a bit uneasy, at first, of his chosen profession (bartender), classifying him with the general stereotypes of "his kind," but soon learned that he was more than fit for the job of guiding us. He seemed to also be aware of these stereotypes and jokingly referred to himself as one of Juneau's "low-lifes."

Upon arriving at the Mendenhall Glacier Information Center, we took a short hike through the rolling snow-covered woods to make a visit to a small waterfall that poured out from between two rocks. Then we proceeded to the glacier.

Charlie led us to Mendenhall Lake (also called Dredge Lake), where we stopped momentarily while our guide checked to make sure the ice would be thick enough for our crossing. I found his techniques to be simple, yet true to the art: he vigorously stomped on the frozen shoreline. When this critical experiment proved to be successful, we continued across the lake towards the distant turquoise ice.

(Now would be a good time to explain the turquoise coloring of glaciers. While ice traditionally holds a clear, whitish color, glacial ice is of such a high density, it traps all blue as the rest of the spectrum passes through unscathed. In many respects, it's a prism which will not allow blue to pass through it. It's really a beautiful sight.)

The four of us trekked onward toward the ice cave, our agreed destination; the glacier imperceptibly dumping its tons of ice just a few hundred feet in front of us, we took a left and ascended a lateral moraine left behind by
the glacier, and then descended into a frozen creek bed. Following the stream through crags of rock and ice, Charlie took us to the ice cave as promised. By means of persistence, the tiny stream had worn a hole some twenty feet in diameter through a glacial mass that extended over the creek, leaving an arching arm of ice over the water.

the ice cave

We approached with caution, Charlie warning us to be very quiet, so we would not upset the glacier and cause any unwanted calving, particularly on top of us. We entered in at the right, avoiding a large overhanging piece of ice on the left, cut behind a massive ice boulder, and then we stopped. The only word I managed to muster up was "wow!" I will only venture to say that I was standing under tons of cerulean ice, more than enough to crush me, polished so smoothly, that even with the little light in the cavern, it seemed to glow with an extreme brilliancy; it seemed to possess a sort of effulgent phosphorescence. Anything else I could say about it is beyond my poetic capabilities.

The history of the Tlingit people (the indigenous inhabitants of Juneau) tells of a similar experience, although much more epic than what I had experienced. Thousands of years ago, the Tlingit tribe began a massive migration from their homeland in Canada to the Pacific Ocean, which eventually led them to an impassable glacier. They spent days searching for ways around it, and finally decided to send two women through an ice cave dozens of miles in length to see if an opening could be found on the other side of the glacier. Hours went by, then days and weeks, and finally the two women reemerged with good news. The leaders of the tribe began the assiduous task of sending the entire clan under miles of glacial ice, silently hoping to avoid catastrophe. Nevertheless, their history tells of their fearless success and the establishment of many prosperous villages, which thrived for thousands of years, on the Inside Passage.

After exiting the rear of the cave, we sat palavering between precipices of glacial ice and a slope of rock and snow. I took a few photos and had my friend snap a shot of me crouching just under the ice. I packed up my camera and sat listening to Charlie brag of his past adventures, when he was interrupted by a groan. His facial expression turned grave and he ordered us to run. We scrambled up the side of the hill away from the glacier, stopping once we had put enough distance between us and the glacier, and turned back to see what all the commotion was about. My heart rattled in my chest, but the glacier stood just as peaceful and placid as it was seconds before; except for one disturbance: a large crack had developed in the ice, beginning the lengthy calving process.

Unpredictably -- maybe in a few hours, or even a few months -- a large piece of ice would collapse from the side of the glacier. We sat contemplating the amazing danger we were just in and then finally continued along the edge of the ice, following the frozen stream further uphill, until we found a point where we could easily step onto the glacier.

another glacial view

I sat in the snow momentarily, ruminating over the idea of going on to the glacier. I was aware that walking on glaciers can often be dangerous, but, of course, this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; so I stood up, and taking a few steps through the snow, stepped on to a calved piece of ice, and then trampled through the snow up the glacier. I reached my three companions as they peered into a massive chasm, thirty or forty feet deep, maybe sixty or seventy wide, and we decided that this would be the conclusion of our hike.

We retraced our steps back to the car, making jokes and playing on the frozen lake, this time avoiding the ice cave and its potential wrath.

Mike Balonek is a writer, photographer, and activist based in Toledo, Ohio. He recently spent several months in Juneau, Alaska working as a VISTA volunteer and hiking many of the beautiful trails in the area. You can see more of the 20 year old's work at his website.

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