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Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau Alaska

I’ve always been enthralled with glaciers, and of course I love hiking and  jump at every chance. Glaciers are funny things though, because they’re often really far away, or on the tops of mountains. I always think to myself “wow, that’s really big and beautiful” in a kind of abstract way – it’s just too far away and too big to be tangible.

That has been my experience with glaciers – until now.

The Mendenhall Glacier is 20 minutes out of Juneau, and sits at the far end of a lake of the same name. In summer you can stand the usual distance from the glacier and think about how big and beautiful it is. In winter, when the stars align just right, the lake freezes and it’s possible to walk right up to the face of the glacier.

It just so happens that our visit during winter was during a cold snap, and the lake was frozen thick and strong.

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Mendenhall Glacier at the far end of the lake

It’s a beautiful clear, crisp and cold day as we start walking down the lake. Because everything is so big, it’s virtually impossible to tell how big or how far away the glacier actually is.

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An iceberg trapped in the lake ice

As we get closer, we start to encounter glacier icebergs frozen into the lake ice. It takes me a second to realize these must have calved off the glacier and floated down the lake while it was still liquid. When the lake froze, the icebergs become trapped in place. They’re every shade of blue you can imagine, and extremely beautiful when the sun shines through them. I like to imagine them waiting out the long cold winter, and resuming their journey down the lake once freed from the lake ice in spring.

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Approaching the face of the glacier, which was easily 100meters high

Once we’re within a few hundred meters of the face we realize it’s bigger than we thought. Way, way, way bigger. The vertical part alone must be 100 meters high, and the glacier is much thinker and broader the further back it goes. Once we get closer, we can’t even see the rest of it anymore, as it’s all blocked by the vertical wall of ice in front of us.

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Dan in front of the massive cave

We find an enormous cave in the glacier that goes in at least 20 meters. Standing at the entrance is a very strange feeling as there are continuous cracks and groans from the glacier. Dripping water is also very loud, which makes us uneasy given we’re standing on a lake.

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The advancing glacier is cracking the lake ice

The groaning and cracking continues, and looking around we figure out whats going on. Because the glacier is advancing, it’s pushing up against the frozen lake ice, and causing that to buckle, crack and break. When we stand still for long enough we can actually see pieces of ice move ever so slightly, and we watch new cracks form in the ice we’re standing on. It’s extremely unnerving, though I never find a single weak spot in all my wandering in an out of the ice formations.

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Dan and Heather at Mendenhall Glacier

The sun striking the face of the glacier makes it glow the most amazing shades of blue I have ever seen. None of it looks real.

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Dan not going in the ice cave

Heather finds a much smaller ice cave, where she has to bend down to walk into – and goes in at least 30 meters under the glacier ice. Given all the cracking, groaning and moving ice, I firmly plant myself outside the cave. No thanks.

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Inside the ice cave

Walking in and around the glacier is without a doubt the best “glacier encounter” I’ve ever had. I now have a new respect for these monsters, and hope I can experience more of them so up close.

-Dan

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