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Tourists Head To Alaska's Glaciers

  • Joseph Mok
  • Zhan Jun

Juneau, the capital of Alaska, was founded as a gold-mining camp 200 years ago. Today, it is filled with cruise ship passengers and people known as trekkers, who are headed for nearby glaciers. VOA's Joseph Mok and Zhan Jun produced this report on an ice trekking trip. Elaine Lu narrates the story.

Helicopters take visitors to the glaciers, where they can walk the easier stretches, or after being outfitted with crampons and ice axes, do some climbing.

This group of women is on a trip to the Mendenhall Glacier.

Debby, a retired firefighter from California, moved here eight years ago. Lea, a dental assistant, has lived in Juneau for 25 years. Beth is from Juneau but lives in Oregon. She comes home every summer to be a hiking guide. And Sheryl works at a public radio station.

Becky is the guide for the others, who are making their first trek. Becky and her husband have set up their own business after six years of trekking.

The women are geared up and ready to go. But first, the group has to hike for five miles [eight kilometers] through a forest to reach the trail. Their gear is placed on a kayak, which will meet them later at the foot of Medenhall Glacier. When they first arrive on the glacier, even simple things have to be taught from the beginning.

Becky will guide the women on their journey. “What I am going to talk about now is how you guys are going to walk the ups and downs with your crampon. You have your ice tools, and this is your walking stick, and we use it for balance and stability. And then when you are going up a steep section, we are going to use a technique called 'front pointing'.”

Getting used to the hard and slippery surface and trying to walk with the abysmal crevasse underneath is a daunting experience. A slip of the foot could land you hundreds of meters down, perhaps to be frozen for thousands of years.

Lea was brave enough to go first. Planting the anchor firmly, she slowly made her way up. Each step is a victory.

Mendenhall Glacier is one of the eight large glaciers that flow from the 1.3 million hectare expanse of rock, snow and ice known as the Juneau Icefield. Located in southeast Alaska, Juneau's maritime climate and coastal mountains make glaciation possible. As moist air flows toward the mountains and rises, it cools and releases snow and rain.

The Juneau Icefield has an average annual snowfall of more than 30 meters. Winter snow accumulation exceeds summer snowmelt at higher elevations due to Juneau's mild summers. Over the years, accumulated snow compacts underlying snow layers from previous years into solid ice. As glacial ice continues to build, gravity pulls the ice down slope. The glacier slowly scours the bedrock and grinds down its 21-kilometer journey to Mendenhall Lake.

Glacial ice appears blue because it is almost like a prism, or crystal, and absorbs all colors of the visible light spectrum except blue.

For all her years on glaciers, Becky is still amazed at the changing views of the seasons each time she is here.

One of the women, Sheryl, comments about the weather. “It was just a wonderful day. I want to come back tomorrow. It was fantastic.” A companion, Debby, says, “And I will be back…I'll be back.” Another trekker, Beth, adds, “Looking at all the different colors of blues, waterfalls and how everything has been formed. It's just so dynamic, it's constantly changing.”

Lea says she plans to return. “I am trying to talk my 16-year-old to come here, go out there with me, I think he will have a great time. It will be a great experience, too, to feel what it's like to live here. The amount of years I have lived here and not come out. It's just amazing.”

Unlike tourists who come-and-go seeking adventure, Becky and others have found a home in Juneau, with its crystal blue sky and the grandeur of the glacier.