The snow seems to have vanished from the glacial moraine, uncovering dead grass, bare blueberry bushes, bones, and a scattering of feathers. Aki finds the feathers fascinating. The bird that sported them must have died near winter’s end. The little dog rarely shows an interest in old feathers.
The lake is now ice free, if you don’t count icebergs recently calved by the glacier. Some sail like boats across the lake. Most have come to rest in the shallows. Most look white after escaping from the glacier. The older ones crystalize into super-clear ice. Then, they melt away.
I wish Aki had the patience for kayaking. If she did, I’d be on the lake right now, making the long paddle to the glacier’s foot. After beaching the boat, the little dog and I would look for translucent-blue caves in the melting ice. I usually make such a visit in early May, before the cruise ship tourists arrive.
This year, cruise ships will not their usual disgorge their usual million tourists onto the Juneau docks. They have cancelled all sailings to Alaska. Aki, the other locals and I will have the moraine to ourselves. I’ll have the pick of summer days to paddle out the great river of ice.
One of Aki’s other humans and I paddle toward the glacier into a rain bearing head wind. Kittiwakes from the nearby rookery watch us from a small iceberg. They don’t stir as we pass. Members of their clan mew and keen before diving on sockeye salmon smolt in the lake waters. I worry that we will face worse conditions when we round a point of a rocky hill that has been partially blocking the wind. I am glad that Aki is home snug and warm.
It may be the lovely month of May but today is a wicked-wet day. It’s the only day I have to sneak in a kayak trip to the glacier. Soon an eco tourist company will be hauling cruise ship tourists across Mendenhall Lake in faux Chippewa canoes and lead them into the shrinking ice cave. I want to enjoy it when empty.
Pulling past the point we get an unblocked view of the glacier descending out of rain clouds. A rocky hill rises to our left, colored by low growing plants fertilized by kittiwake guano. It seems to take hours to paddle the mile to the glacier in the now unrestrained wind. An empty tourist canoe sits on the beach where we haul out the kayak. Who, I wonder, would pay big money to ride here in an open canoe today? Must be a group of hardy Australians.
Listening for ANZAC accents, we walkover a landscape as barren as the moon’s surface. At first appearance, the trail seems to be well graveled. But I find myself slipping on portions that are really hard glacial ice covered with a thin layer of mud or pebbles. We pass torn chunks of trees just released from hundreds of years of icy imprisonment by the glacier’s retreat. The only bird sound we hear is from the keening kittiwakes. No songbirds could earn a living in such a sterile place.
The glacier seems to be collapsing into itself like an overripe pumpkin. Mocha brown water rushes from beneath the ice. I worry that the mystic blue ice that formed the glacial cave will now be fragile, and opaque. But in spite of our recent heat wave and the subsequent days of rain, the cave retains its basic shape and color. Rainwater streams from cracks in the overhead ice and some of the old entrances have collapsed. It is still a suitable venue for a religious ceremony or at least a brief prayer for our challenged world.
I can’t believe we are back on the ice cave trail, slipping along the edge of an open crevasse. Because of a recent cold streak, I thought the path would be safe. But I hadn’t given full credit to the power of winter sun.
We had no trouble crossing the ice of Mendenhall Lake. One of Aki’s favorite human friends joined us. The easy trail allowed us to enjoy watching the glacier grow in size as we approached it. Snow still covered the rocky peninsula that serves as a kittiwake rookery each summer. I searched it without success for ptarmigan feeding on willow catkins.
A large slab of ice formed from snowmelt covered the trail just above the lake. Instead of the easy walking we enjoyed on our last visit, we had to scrabble up and over ice to leave the lake. The trail improved after that so we could appreciate the jumble of pyramid-shapes that form the glacier’s icefall.
We stop to check out a minor ice cave but It looked like a muddy hole so we didn’t go in. We pushed on to the second cave, which is lined with aquamarine ice. To get there we have to pass through a section of icy trail and steep, snow-covered chutes.
Aki watches her humans slip and slide down the trail, like the nursery maid she thinks herself to be. A golden retriever joins us just before we reach the cave. The big dog distracts Aki for a few seconds. Then she is back on human duty until I pretzel my way through an ice labyrinth and disappear into the cave. Neither she nor the retriever followed me.
Aki is leading some out-of-town guests and me across Mendenhall Lake to the glacial ice cave. Mount McGinnis and the Mendenhall Towers form a jagged skyline against the indigo sky. It’s easy walking. Previous ice cave pilgrims have pounded our path smooth.
We got a late start. It’s still only 23 degrees F but the temperature is rising. Even now snow melt is seeping onto the moraine trail, making it too slipper to use without poodle paws or ice cleats. We have both. I ask hikers returning from the glacier if they made it to the cave. None managed it. Undeterred, Aki presses on, leading us across the mile-wide lake and onto the moraine.
To avoid sliding into a crevasse or rocks, we climb up hillsides rather than risk ice-covered sections of the trail. Translucent slabs of ancient ice line the trail, encouraging us to press on to the cave.
A jumble of clear, blue-tinted ice forms the only access to the cave. Aki refuses to enter. But her humans pretzel their way into the aquamarine-colored chamber. It has the same scalloped roof of the other ice caves we have visited. The roof and walls of those caves imprisoned round, foot-sized rocks. None decorate this cave.
Drawn by a patch of bright, white light striking the floor on the opposite side of the cave, I cross a still-frozen stream and enter a vertical tube of scalloped ice. Above a series of ice lens offer circular views of blue sky and clouds. I can’t think of another view like it.