Exploring Ice Caves and Hiking on Mendenhall Glacier

During a week long family trip in Alaska, Andrew and I break off from the group for a single day to do what we do best — adventure.

It’s day 2 of the trip. We’re in Juneau and have only 8 hours to do something epic.

A few weeks ago, I found a company called Above and Beyond Alaska that offers guided trips. Their Glacier Canoe, Paddle and Trek included canoeing to the base of Mendenhall Glacier, and then hiking on it — all in about 7.5 hours.

Sold.


We arrive at the ABAK offices and meet our guide, Ben. He had our gear for the trip laid out and ready to go.

Trying on rain pants, rubber boots and a PFD at the ABAK offices

The day so far is wet and overcast. Rain continues on and off as Ben drive us and our gear towards Mendenhall Lake.

The rain turns out to be a slightly lucky break. A bright and shiny day usually means high winds — and makes canoeing on the lake and trekking on the glacier too dangerous.

At the launch site, Ben preps the canoe and gives us a quick paddling lesson
On the lake, a jetty to our left blocks the view of the glacier

As we paddle, a massive waterfall looms ahead. Ben says that the falls typically amount to a trickle, and that the recent rains have turned it into a monstrosity.

The falls are about 2 miles away in this shot

As we glide along the lake, Ben gives us a history lesson on the glacier. In 1911, it stretched across our current view, blocking the waterfall, and extending far right towards a visitors center on the opposite side of the lake.

Getting closer, we get our first view of the base of Mendenhall Glacier.

The base of Mendenhall Glacier. A small black sand beach sits just out of view on the left

Beach access to the glacier only became possible a few years ago as the glacier retreated and the beach appeared.

At Ben’s advice, we drag the canoe far up onto the shore. The year before, Ben told us, a group had set their canoe too close to the water. The glacier calved, sending a huge chunk of ice splashing down and creating a wave that took their boat away…

Standing on the beach and taking in the view, I’m in my happy place

After a brief snack we don our helmets and harnesses and start hiking towards the glacier.

Ben points at a small and decaying cave that is too dangerous to approach. He says that the cave used to be the one that the glacier was famous for, but now it is almost gone.

This once famous ice cave is now too dangerous to approach

To the right, two new ice caves had formed. Their roofs are low, and the entrance dark. A small river runs through the mouth and I watch it rage as Ben gives us a quick safety briefing about entering the caves.

On the inside the walls are a deep bright blue and the ice smooth to the touch.

We travel through the cave and out on the other side, arriving at the ice shelf separating rock from glacier. We strap microspikes onto our shoes and take our first steps onto the ice.

Ben leads the way, making sure to point out dangerous features we should look out for, and also getting a bit closer than Andrew’s mom might approve of ?.

Ben shows us a moulin. Also known as glacial wells, moulins can be 10 feet or hundreds of feet deep.

Hiking higher up the glacier, we see shallow crevasses filled with brilliantly blue water. I wish I could bottle this shade of blue.

These water channels often can find their way to the bottom of the glacier.

We reach an overlook with sweeping views of the glacier to our left and Mendenhall Lake to the right.

We explore and eventually head back down the glacier towards the beach. It’s almost 8PM, but the sun will stay out until past midnight during the summer months here.

We set a record breaking pace as we paddle back to the car and just barely make our 8 hour adventure deadline.


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