Field Trip: Mendenhall Ice Caves


As a boy, I was introduced to the joy of paddling canoes on a small lake in Ontario, a generally placid body of water with little cause for concern about wind and currents. I was taught that the cardinal rule of paddling is to avoid overloading the canoe.

And so it was that I found myself, forty-some odd years later, somewhat conflicted about being in the middle of Alaska’s Mendenhall Lake in a grotesquely overloaded canoe – four of us (!) plus daypacks and copious amounts of photography gear. We’re heading for the Mendenhall Ice Caves at the head of the lake. The owner of the canoe, handling the stern was Doug, a bear of a man and a team leader with the Juneau Search and Rescue. He must know what he’s doing, I thought. Maybe overloading a canoe is OK under certain conditions. Perhaps like today, when the lake is vast, wave-tossed and wind-whipped, and boasts copious amounts of floating ice. Waves splashing over the gunwales, we tossed and turned across the tempestuous lake. Our arrival on a rubble-strewn beach at the base of the Mendenhall Glacier was welcome indeed.

Photo by Laurie Clarke


A short hike up the moraine led us to the mouth of the ice cave, a fantastic gleaming portal into a polished world of indescribable blue. A stream flowed through the cave and water dripped constantly from the ceiling, along with the occasional spattering of viscous glacial slurry. A second cave branched off and I followed it to its end, where the blue light grew dim and exceptionally rich. The walls were carved in remarkable sculptural forms; delicate and sensuous curves, multi-faceted geometric abstractions and bulbous frozen ice bubbles, like a garden of burnished clown noses.

It was the landscape of a dream and just as vivid. We lingered in the magical light, exploring nooks and crannies, finding astonishments everywhere. Imagination given free reign: horse’s heads; brass knuckles; vertebrae, carved in ice. When finally, we emerged back outside, I took a few minutes to allow my eyes to adjust from the cerulean blue light of the cave to the brilliant sunshine of the moraine.

The hours beneath the ice were among the finest of my life.


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