Chat with Deb—Glacier Walk

Glaciers are freakin’ big. Yes, I KNOW they mention that in the brochure, but still…

Previously, on Deb & Jack’s Alaska vacation:

We’ll be pulling into Juneau “mid-morning,” so we get up at our “usual time”¹ and have a nice leisurely breakfast. Once back in our cabin, we mosey out onto our verandah to check out the area and the weather.

Damn! Weather is nice!

Cruising along the channel into Juneau, looking forward from our verandah on the starboard side. There are some clouds, but the sky is blue and the visibility is amazing! Great day for a helicopter ride to a glacier! (all photos by author unless otherwise stated)

DEB: Oh Jackster! This is… it’s like…

ME: My thoughts exactly, luv!

DEB: Can you believe how beautiful it is after a day like yesterday?

The Nieuw Amsterdam makes her usual flawless docking in Juneau, and we’re tied up by 10AM. This is before the “real” start of the tourist season, so the docks are active, but not crowded. Well, not until we show up and unload.

View of some of the Juneau docks from our ship. And the mountains that seem to start just on the other side of the main street.

DEB: Okay, according to the material they gave us about the helicopter excursion to the glacier, we don’t need to bring heavy-duty winter gear. They will supply us with everything we need, including boots and snow pants.

ME: Snow pants? They expect us to fall down?

DEB: It’s a bunch of American tourists, honey. What would YOU expect?

Mountains are on all sides of Juneau; the city is accessible only by sea and air. Even in mid-May, the snow was beautiful. At sea level, though, the sun was bright and the air temperature comfortable in winter-weight jackets.

The dock area was somewhat chaotic, with passengers milling about looking for their excursion guides, guides looking for their customers, freelance tour leaders trying to drum up business, passengers who were looking for bargains wandering around with no particular destination in mind.

Fortunately the helicopter glacier excursion leaders got us rounded up with no trouble, got us into vans, and headed us toward the Juneau airport. The town of Juneau is very long and rather narrow is some spots, and the mountains come up right to the water more often than not. If Alaskans are into big showy buildings for their state capital, they must have kept them elsewhere; we did not see a whole lot of identifiable “government” buildings aside from the signs in front.

The airport was mostly smaller planes, with some occasional medium-size commercial aircraft. The helicopters had their own section (not unusual), and the seaplanes (with a long canal that was actually their runway) had their own section (okay, that was different!). Our vans took us to a building just off the helo area, and they double-checked our weight and shoe size. Then we got our gear and went into the locker room.

The locker room. Really more like a bunch of benches we could sit on to don snow pants, jackets, and boots. Deb at left with her pants and boots on, about to don her jacket.

ME: Wow. Red jackets. BRIGHT red jackets.

DEB: That’s so they can identify the bodies from the air if we crash, honey.

ME: (look)

DEB: What? Makes sense, right?

We got our safety briefing, then headed to the helipad to board. There were six of us in each helo, plus the pilot, loaded in specific order.

DEB: This is where the weight information comes in. They want the helicopters to be balanced.

I and Deb in our glacier gear, ready to board. Deb and I in our assigned seats, with our headsets on and our mics in place in case we needed to ask questions or point out the smoke coming from the rotors or whatever.

We took the long route to Mendenhall glacier, which was a good thing. Turned out there are quite a few glaciers in the area, some still expanding, but most retreating.

PILOT: You folks are really lucky! The weather is just amazing today! Yesterday we had snow, hail, and rain — sometimes all three at once! This is just clear as can be!

Our view out the forward windows from our seats. A view of one of the glaciers; material gets scraped from the sides as the glacier advances, gradually gets moved to the middle, and makes a “dirty spine” that is actually rocks and other large debris. Ever been to New England and seen boulders all over uncultivated meadows like somebody just scattered rocks everywhere in weird patterns? That’s what glaciers leave when they melt.
Mountains on the way to Mendenhall Glacier. Keep in mind that ten minutes before, when we departed sea level, we’d left trees sprouting new leaves and spring flowers all over everywhere.

DEB: Jack! Can you get a video of that?

ME: Sure! (take photo) What did I just shoot?

DEB: It’s the other helicopter.

ME: Really? I don’t think so. (examine still of what I just shot, see little bitty thing, start video, see it moving) Nope, that’s our shadow, I think… no, wait, you’re right, one is our shadow and one is the other helicopter! Wow, we’re pretty high up! (but not worried, because we had bright red jackets on in case they needed to find our bodies)

Landing was uneventful. As we got out, the staff conducting the glacier walk took charge of each person and gave us the rest of our kit: crampons and walking poles. Then we got instructions on how to walk. Or clomp, really.

Deb getting her crampons tightened up.

GUIDE: Keep your feet apart as you walk! If you put one foot next to the other, you might get tangled up and fall over. Do not fall over! If you do, please keep your gloves on at all times, because parts of this glacier are like broken glass. Use your poles! They give you extra stability. Make sure you step forcefully! Because some parts of this glacier are like UNbroken glass, and you WILL go sliding if your crampons are not forced into the ice!

Having instilled into us that we were in an environment that could kill, maim, or injure us at any time, our guides allowed us to go wandering about to take in the pretty views.

GUIDE: The spot you are standing on is ice and compacted snow; it goes down hundreds, or in some places tens of hundreds of feet.

Us and the glacier.
The glacier without us. That ice wall is not a set from Game of Thrones, that’s the living glacier, “dirty” from debris it has carried along over the millenia.

GUIDE: Look over there! That’s a mountain goat.

We look. We look at a vertical dark rock wall, with bits of white where snow remains. We do NOT see a mountain goat.

Then one of the snow patches starts moving. I adjust my sense of scale by a couple orders of magnitude.² WOW that cliff is far away!

Mountain goat on a sheer cliff face, at my phone’s maximum magnification. Look for the white patch. No, not that one. No no, more in the middle! <sigh> Erika, where is your telephoto camera when I need it?
Helicopter (obviously) with a glacial stream in front. Yesterday it snowed, today it melted; all a day in the life of the glacier.

GUIDE: You folks have those water bottles we gave you? You can fill them with the water from one of the glacier’s streams. You’ll be drinking water that has been frozen for thousands of years, before industrial civilization.

GUIDE 2: If you come back here next week, to this exact spot, you’ll notice some changes here and there. If you come back in two months, it’ll look totally different. Next year, you’ll need GPS to figure out where this spot is, and it wouldn’t even be this spot on the ice, because the glacier has moved. THAT is how fast these glaciers change.

GUIDE: See the blue in the ice over here? That’s because of the compression the ice has been through.

I tried to capture the blue in the ice, but my photos do not show it the way my eyes did, alas.

After about three-quarters of an hour or so, they loaded us back up and took us back by a more direct route. We went from mountain ice field to sea level springtime in less than ten minutes.

NNW of Juneau, approaching the airport. If you look up in the middle upper third of the photo, you can see our ship. (Okay, maybe not, but it’s there.)

DEB: Wow, honey. That was…

ME: It really was, honey!

The excursion group took us back to our ship. We wandered around the dock area in Juneau for a bit, and took the tram up the neighboring Mount Roberts (“Twice as high as the Empire State Building!” said the poster) to take a look around.

View from Mount Roberts, looking down on the the docks in Juneau. The “Nieuw Amsterdam” is the ship on the right.

DEB: It’s pretty, honey, but…

ME: It’s no Mendenhall Glacier.

We had a lovely dinner, enjoyed the view from our verandah, and turned in.

Evening in Juneau, a little after 9PM local time. Nearly full moon above, clouds colored by evening sun.

DEB: And when we wake up, we’ll be in Skagway!

¹As shown on the ship’s clocks. By this point we were four time zones from home after erratic sleep schedules, so neither of us worried about what the “real time” was. “Where we’re at is when we’re at” is the approach I try to take. I realize not everyone can do that.

²This was a recurring problem I had. “Wow, that must be a couple miles away!” I see something to put the view in perspective. “Or, I dunno, ten miles? More?” Sometimes the clear weather made estimations worse, with near-unlimited visibility. #firstworldproblems

We did not get to see much wildlife in Alaska, but Erika Burkhalter did! And she is a much better photographer:

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Jack Herlocker

Jack Herlocker

Husband & retiree. Developer, tech writer, & IT geek. I fill what’s empty, empty what’s full, and scratch where it itches. Occasionally do weird & goofy things.