Saturday, October 17, 2009

Mendenhall Glaicer Flightseeing and Walk-about Tour - by Justin

On August 4th, 2009, my father and I woke up very early. It was not even 6AM, and yet my father and I had already started dressing in heavy jackets and thick pants, just as one would expect of two mountaineers. In essence, we were, as this land excursion would take us onto a river of ice in the middle of a mountain range- Mendenhall Glacier.

After we disembarked the cruise, the short bus ride to the Juneau International Airport was uneventful, with several bald eagle sightings at the nearby Douglass Island. At the airport, there was a special building for this excursion. We watched a short safety video there, then we were required to fasten ice boots over our normal shoes and walked over and climbed into the helicopters. With me and my dad being lighter than the other travelers, we got the privilege to sit up front next to the pilot. We were given headsets to dampen the sound of the helicopter blades and so the pilot could communicate with us. Our safety instructor gave a thumbs up, which our pilot returned, and with a lurch, we gained altitude. We rose higher and higher until the landing pad was only a speck in the distance, and the mountains were looming before us. Fortunately for us, the Yukon wildfire smoke had cleared up, giving us a good view of the ice field.
When we reached an altitude slightly higher than that of the mountain peak, we made our way up the mountain ridge, till we got a panorama view of the entire area around the glacier. The glacier itself was a river of ice, white mottled blue, with flecks and streaks of gray and black, like someone had taken a paintbrush and dabbed and brushed on ugly streaks of dark color on a bright and awe capturing scene. The melted glacier water ran off the end into a lake. The lake, like all glacial waters, was a silt-like gray-green color, complete with several chunks of ice floating in it. The mountains around the glacier were gray and brown around the glacier, but as they rose up, the green trees and shrubs appeared, every once in a while layered over with a blanket of snow. It was a beautiful sight, green mountains, white ice, and blue sky. We climbed over and around the mountains, and we saw more of the glacier. In actuality, the glacier is a half mile wide by seventy six miles long. As we landed, I could see that there was more blue ice than the eye can perceive from looking from a bird’s point of view. The area of our immediate landing was a clear blue patch of ice. The wind whipped my hair, and now instead of a range of green mountains looming in front, a sheet white and blue ice stretched from where my feet touched, all the way through the mountains, twisting and turning.

As we walked along the ice, we observed many interesting natural phenomenon. The ice remains at a constant temperature of thirty one degrees Fahrenheit, just below freezing, yet there are several streams of rain water and snow melt that flow on top of the glacier, which remain liquid year-round, and have the duty of carving and shaping the ice, much like a river shapes a canyon. The natural blue ice also intrigued many people within out group. Every year, there is a heavy perennial snow, which means it doesn’t melt, and the snow compacts upon itself, forming a very tight crystalline ice structure that has little air. When sunlight hits the ice, it absorbs all the colors, except for blue, which has the shortest wave length. When more air is let into the ice, like the top layers, it will absorb all the colors, leaving white for the eyes to perceive. Before it was time to go, we got the privilege to drink crystal clear, ice cold, mineral rich water from one of the small streams on the ice face. Before we knew it, we were all piled into the helicopter again, as it gave a small lurch during the vertical takeoff.

Experiencing a glacier by walking up on it was thrilling. I wish one day to go back there and go hiking up and around the glacier.

Note: The day before, in Haines/Skagway, smoke from a forest fire in the Yukon Territory of Canada drifted over the sky, we had a less clear view of the glacier we saw that day than today.

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