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Thursday, 31 August 2006

On the Ice: Exit Glacier, Alaska

Written by Alison Drucker
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glacierThe adventure began with a phone call to the tour office asking whether we should bring lunch along on the five-hour hike, and a nonchalant response: “we advise against that because of bear danger” – a statement that made me decidedly nervous.

Fortunately we got through the day free of bear attacks, though we did see a few at a safe distance.  From three hundred yards away, black bears look like Labrador retrievers or something else equally innocuous, and our guide’s bear alert whistle (to alert the bears of your presence, not to signal for help if under attack, as I would have guessed; apparently a surprised bear is an aggressive bear) lent us all a sense of security, false or not.

We arrived at the Exit Glacier Guides office in Seward, Alaska, to meet our guides and get outfitted with the necessary equipment: helmets, walking sticks that doubled as ice picks, and crampons (contraptions you strap onto your hiking boots, with little metal daggers all across the bottoms that dig into the ice and allow you to prance around on a glacier with the same stability you’d have on a soccer field wearing cleats).  These would come in handy.

train wreckThe tour office was in a little complex called the Train Wreck – several abandoned blue-and-yellow Alaska Railroad cars arranged in a circle, gutted, and redecorated into functional space for a bike shop, a restaurant, and our departure point for the day’s adventure, among other things.  The Exit Glacier Guides office has a homey feel to it, and upon venturing into its depths to find a restroom, we were delighted to discover makeshift bunk beds and overflowing laundry baskets; the place is homey for the singular reason that it’s home to the Exit Glacier Guides themselves.

The guides number only two – Ryan Fisher and Brendan Ryan, both young, energetic, engaging, and adventurous, all natural requisites of people who lead ice-hiking expeditions for a living.  They double as owners of the enterprise, which just wrapped up its second full season of business, and operates only during the summer (because, really, who wants to go hiking on a sheet of ice during an Alaska winter?).

Some winters they’ll stay in Seward; during others they plan go back to their respective hometowns, and the Exit Glacier Guides train car will stay boarded up for the colder, darker months.  A third guide moonlights with them once in awhile, but he’s only thirteen and thus can’t lead expeditions on his own.  Ryan and Brendan let him be their sherpa, carrying guests’ backpacks if they get tired and distracting antsy kids so their parents can enjoy the scenery in peace.

We departed in an old Mercury Mountaineer Brendan borrowed from a friend, since the 15-passenger van they normally use to shuttle people back and forth to Kenai Fjords National Park (home to the Exit Glacier) had broken down after violently spewing all sorts of fluids in the Train Wreck parking lot.  Their side business of transporting tourists to the park who just want to explore on their own, without the guided hike on the glacier, had to be temporarily put on hold because of the van’s demise.

Approaching the park in the Mountaineer, we saw chilling signs posted by the park service at various points along the road- indicating how far the glacier extended in certain years.  Some dated back from the late 19th century; due to global warming, the Exit Glacier recedes about 50 feet a year – a noticeable distance, yet a figure that’s even higher for a lot of other glaciers.



iceAt the park, we set out on the two-hour hike up 1300 vertical feet of mountain that would ultimately lead us to the Exit Glacier.  Along the way, Brendan instructed us in the proper use of the walking stick, regaled us with stories of some of the more colorful hikers he’d taken on this expedition (including a 72-year-old man with a brand new hip, who, in retrospect, I deeply respect for making it all the way up and down the rugged and sometimes treacherous trail), taught us about the processes that go into forming and altering the landscape of a glacier, and gave us a crash course in bear etiquette.

Namely, a surprised bear is a bear likely to attack, so the alert whistle is key.  If you encounter a bear in your path, our cavalier guide informed us not to run (she may chase you); rather, stay calm, huddle close to your fellow hikers to appear bigger and thus more intimidating, look the bear straight in the eye (easier said than done, I’m sure), and talk to her in a normal, conversational voice as you slowly back away, saying things like “hello, bear.”  We got a kick out of this, and so traipsed around for much of the day calling out pleasantries to imaginary creatures in the meadows.

The hike to the glacier was, as the 72-year-old hiker quickly realized, rugged and sometimes treacherous.  We encountered most of the treachery when we diverged from the park’s established trail, which doesn’t lead to the glacier, only to points where you can view it from a distance.  Our own personal trail led us across shallow creeks, through patches of snow left over from the long Alaska winter, amid assorted shrubs, and down a petrifying 45-degree incline to the edge of Exit Glacier itself.

Along the way, per Brendan’s guidance, we were careful to walk on rocks and dirt as much as possible and avoid all plant life, to leave as little trace of our existence as we could on the landscape.  We were also instructed to not follow directly in each other’s footsteps so as not to stamp out a new trail in the wilderness – except on the snow, where we were to absolutely follow directly in Brendan’s footsteps, to avoid a startling drop into thigh-high drifts where the snow was soft.

glacierAnd finally: the glacier.  Exit Glacier is relatively small, compared to some of the mammoth glaciers that dot Alaska’s landscape, and is framed by mountains and rock on three sides and the Harding Icefield on the other.  The Harding Icefield has spawned more than 40 glaciers, some of which descend into the ocean (called tidewater glaciers) and some of which, like Exit, descend down mountain slopes (hanging glaciers).

After the point where we diverged from the established trail to reach the glacier, many visitors to Kenai Fjords National Park continue on up past Marmot Meadows (named as such because it’s home to innumerable of the adorable marmots, whose singsong whistles were at first indistinguishable from bird calls to my novice ears) on a seven-mile round-trip trail to the icefield, sometimes camping out overnight there.  The thought of sleeping on a sheet of ice in the company of bears makes me shiver with both cold and terror, but God bless the adventurous souls who can do it.



After donning helmets and crampons, it was time to hit the ice.  The steep hike to the glacier’s edge had warmed us up quite a bit in the brisk but pleasant 60-degree weather, but on the ice, it’d be substantially colder and very windy, so on went the fleeces, windbreakers, and gloves.  Taking my first few steps on the glacier felt like learning to walk all over again, but pretty soon I cultivated a trusting relationship with my crampons, which reliably gripped the ice no matter how steep the incline.  That fact gave me the freedom to confidently follow our guide across the undulating ice formations.crampons

It was spectacular.  In the muted light of the overcast day, brilliant blues emerged from the whites and grays of the glacier in nooks and cracks and waterfalls.  The ice rose up and down all around us in an unruly mess, punctuated by the peaks and chasms that inspired awe with their towering height or bottomless depth, respectively.  At the same time, the glacier felt like it had a sort of deliberate order to it, deliberate in the sense that it was created over eternities of geological processes, so that walking around on its surface made me feel incredibly small, and incredibly young.  It also made me feel cold.

Eventually we took a break, hiding from the wind at a place where a tower of ice wrapped around in a semi-circle like half of an igloo without the roof.  To our left was the wall of ice that shielded us from the wind, to our right was a perilous ledge leading to a bottomless pond of melted glacier, and in front of us was the source of the pond – a cool blue waterfall tumbling down from the ice above. ice

Warmed up and recharged, we proceeded to our next stop – a peak Brendan and Ryan call the Taj Mahal, the highest point on the ice we climbed to, from which you can see the vastness of the park in front of you and the vastness of the glacier behind you (desperately afraid of heights, I chose to scramble back down hastily instead).

The landscape of a glacier is always changing as ice melts, accumulates, or shifts – Brendan was constantly pointing out gaping holes in the ice that a week earlier had been mere cracks – but the Taj Mahal has been a constant presence on the landscape for a long time.  It’s the point of reference the guides use to pinpoint their position on the ice and navigate its daunting terrain.  So help us if one day global warming does away with the Taj Mahal, too.

Another thing being on a glacier made me feel was alone – not in an empty, desolate sort of way, but in a triumphant, at-one-with-nature, Henry-Thoreau’s-Walden sort of way.  And we were quite literally alone out there, except for the bears and marmots out in the distance.  Not seeing another human being anywhere in the distance was thrilling and practically spiritual, particularly for a city girl like me (who’s unfortunately acutely accustomed to things like metro area rush hour traffic and 90-minute waits for restaurant tables).



Exit Glacier Guides is the only Seward outfit that takes hikers out on the ice; technically, anyone can do it on his own, and assorted hikers sometimes follow Brendan and Ryan and their groups to the edge of the glacier, but they always receive a foreboding warning about the dangers of ice-hiking without the proper equipment.  The prospect of sliding to a hypothermic demise at the bottom of a crevasse usually stops even the most adventurous travelers in their tracks.

mountainsAfter nearly two hours of ice-trekking, our noses and fingers were begging us to get out of the cold wind, so we left Exit Glacier behind, packed up our crampons and helmets, and began the descent down the mountain (after a quick snack of peanuts and M&Ms to satisfy our stomachs, which were begging us for food equally forcefully).  We saw a smattering of hikers on the way down and took great joy in warning them about the bears in the meadows above and instructing them in the tried-and-true “hello, bear” technique.  We were seasoned ice-hiking pros.

It was difficult to leave the rugged natural beauty of the park and return to the paved streets of Seward, and then later, even more difficult to leave the quaint seaside charm of Seward and return to the endless bustle of life in the lower forty-eight states.  Something just seems strange now about being back in a place where black bears don’t cross your path on a regular basis and your backyard isn’t a national park.  It was incredibly refreshing to know we were all alone on a slab of ice that had dominated that particular landscape for an eternity, but that was living, breathing, changing right under our feet.

I returned home with the soothing knowledge simply that places like Exit Glacier exist, and that if you want to temporarily free yourself from the constraints of everyday life, all it takes is a plane ticket.  Take my advice and see the glacier now – before either the crowds discover it or global warming sucks it dry; it’s a truly unique and exhilarating experience.


If you go:

Exit Glacier Guides


Seward, Alaska


©Alison Drucker


Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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