Boulder on Ice

Walking on glaciers.

I’ll admit it: when we went to Alaska in June 2007, we did 2/3 of our visit the lazy tourist way: on a cruise ship. (Seeing what the cruise ship companies did to the quaint port cities is why we’ll probably never cruise again.) Of course, you don’t spend all your time on the ship unless you’re easily entertained by on-board activities. We’re not. So each day, in each port, we went on an excursion.

In Juneau, we took the “Pilot’s Choice” flight with Temsco. Temsco is a huge helicopter tour operator in Alaska with bases in most of the port cities. They fly A-Stars — at least they did in Juneau and Skagway. The Pilot’s Choice tour is supposed to be exactly that: the pilot’s choice of where to fly and land. What interested us is that the tour included two glacier landings. So not only would we see our first glaciers from the air, but we’d actually land on two of them and walk around.

Sounds great, right? It is! This tour is what sold me on the idea of working in Alaska next season. The pilot flies up and down these glacial valleys with all that blue ice beneath us. There are waterfalls and lakes and the clear lines of glacial moraines. The pilot explains what we’re seeing, so it’s a great introduction to the shrinking world of Alaskan glaciers.

Then, of course, he lines up for approach and lands on a relatively flat bit of glacier. He cools down the engine for a few moments, shuts down, and lets us out when the blade stop. We can then wander around the glacier for about 15 minutes before loading back up and repeating the process on another glacier with different views miles away.

Glacial Boulder on IceI took this shot on the first glacier. It’s a huge boulder — probably 8 feet long by 6 feet wide by 3 feet tall — and it’s being held horizontally off the surface of the glacier by a column of ice. The ice, of course, is melting — not from global warming but by summer warmth — and I suspect this boulder is now lying elsewhere on the surface of the glacier, a bit downstream as it moves with the flow of the ice. Perhaps it’s sitting in a similarly awkward position and another tourist has snapped a shot of it — maybe with his wife or kid sitting or standing on it! That’s the weird thing about glaciers: they’re always changing, always moving. The rocks and boulders on their surface are just along for the ride.

I don’t remember the names of the two glaciers we landed on. All I remember is the beauty of the flight. I flew for an entire season at the Grand Canyon and thought that was beautiful. But in Alaska, with the constantly changing terrain and flight plans that vary based on the weather, I don’t think I’d ever get tired of flying. So I’m getting my instrument rating to make me just a little more attractive to employers next April when the season starts.

Who knows? Maybe next summer I’ll be spending more time walking on glaciers.

What do you think?