Winter is the heart and soul of the Mendenhall Glacier.
[by Nick Jans]
Summer gives way to autumn in Juneau. The last cruise ship of the season departs. As the crowds by the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center dwindle, cottonwoods and willows glow, their colors shimmering in the lake. Bright, sun-warmed days alternate with brooding mist and rain; the cries of geese and cranes echo down the sky. Spawning salmon swirl in the creeks, and the bears shift into overdrive, foraging almost nonstop. Days shorten. As cold rains pelt from a lowering sky, leaves fade and fall. The land settles inward; its breathing slows. Snow dusts the mountains, then vanishes—but as the season progresses, the line creeps ever downward. High on the ice field, the first big snows have already fallen. The lake freezes around its margins; slush ice whispers down the river and clumps in eddies. One clear morning, the lake is sheeted with glass-smooth ice, and the wind falls hard from the north. The dark, cold dream of winter descends.
Winter is the heart and soul of the Mendenhall Glacier, a time of renewal. How much snow falls and sticks, and the total number of hours below freezing over days, centuries, and millennia will determine its future. Though the overall climate-warming trend is well documented by the glacier’s rapid retreat— over three miles and untold millions of tons of ice over the last two centuries, and hundreds of feet each year—each year’s winter is unique. In the span of my eight years living by the glacier, I can recall winters when the ground was nearly bare for months and rains swept over us in endless sheets; others half smothered in snow and the last drifts clung into early June. Memories of cold snaps down to 20 below zero balance against eerily sudden, warm chinook winds when temperatures soared into the 50s.
Though ice and cold make life harder— snow to shovel or plow, higher heating bills, more clothing, slower travel—little doubt that Juneauites, 32,000 strong, hope for the sort of winters the old timers recall: long, sharp bouts of cold; snow heaped to the eaves; huge, terrain-driven winds. They, like the glacier, are nourished by winter; it’s why they’re here. A few good storms, and the 6,000-acre Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area becomes Juneau’s winter playground.
Dozens of miles of interwoven trails are served by a variety of access points, some of them well marked, others neighborhood secrets. Regardless of weather or time of day, there are always a few diehards out there—hiking, skiing, snowshoeing, snapping pictures, sledding with the kids, snowmobiling, exploring the Mendenhall’s phenomenal ice caves, or just taking a lunchtime walk with a world-class backdrop. I’ve gone out for midnight skis, figuring to have the lake to myself, and seen headlamps flickering across the open distance. Head out into a nasty blizzard with damn near zero visibility, just for the experience, and chances are, someone else had the same idea.
Dogs are almost as numerous as people around the Mendenhall, and it’s arguable who’s having more fun. The whole lake becomes an Alaska-sized dog park. Not so many years ago, many local dogs socialized and romped with Romeo, the friendly black wolf, Juneau’s unofficial mascot, a magical hiatus that went on for six years.
Local volunteers set and maintain miles of cross-country ski trails, from groomed-skate skiing loops to bushwhacking two-tracks through beaver swamps. Spirited hockey games are staged on the ice by aptly named Skaters Cabin, a stone warmup shelter dating back to the 1930s that’s on the National Register of Historic Buildings. A hard-core cadre of adventure freaks engage in extreme sports, including technical ice climbing, parasailing, back-country hike-up snowboarding, and extreme snowmobiling along the glacier’s margins or high on the surrounding peaks—soaring, ice-carved pinnacles with names such as Thunder Mountain, Nugget Basin, and the Mendenhall Towers. Many don’t talk about it beyond their circle of friends, or whoop up their edgy adventures on social media. They just go.
On perfect days, snow-dusted or sun-bright, the glacier area absorbs hundreds of people, nearly all of them Juneau residents. But due to the expanse and the variety of possibilities, it seldom seems crowded. No doubt about it—winter at the Mendenhall Glacier is local time. They’ve earned it.
Nick Jans has been writing for Alaska nearly 30 years. His new book, The Giant’s Hand, is available at nickjans.com.