A Thom Style Adventure...
06/09/2013 51 °F
It is raining as I step off the number three bus and onto the side of the Mendenhall Loop Road. It has been raining since I woke up hung over at the Alaskan (a Juneau tradition), and it has been raining all morning. I don’t mind. Rain is a fact of life in Southeast Alaska, and you can’t let it get to you lest it crush your spirit.
The bus pulls away and I am free to choose my own adventure. I have only a rough idea where I am going. I vaguely remember the roads on a Google map I looked at earlier in the morning. I also have a soggy paper map that shows the bus route and a glacier towards the top of the map. This map is not to scale, and I don’t know how far away the glacier is from the road.
I’m aiming for that glacier. If all goes well, the road I’m walking will lead to Mendenhall Lake. If I can find the lake, I can find the glacier. If I can’t find the lake, then I have no idea where I’m going.
I met a guy in Antarctica who put the idea of this adventure in my head. That was back in November. It’s been simmering in my mind since then. I purposely chose to fly out of Juneau so I could make this day happen. As I walk, I try to remember what he said about the trail. “I walked up the trail and there was a sign that said, ‘West Glacier Trail’ with an arrow to the left and another arrow to the right that said, ‘Primitive Trail.’ I went to the right.” Once I find the lake, I have to find the trail.
I feel good. My stride is strong. My pace is quick. It isn’t long before I find the lake - right where I hoped it would be. I pass a small covered shelter near the edge of the lake. Applause erupts from within. I know it isn’t for me, but I pretend it is. “Why, thank you,” I say. “I’m very happy to be here.” Smiling at my own silliness, another bout of applause opens up and my smile grows.
There it is - the west glacier trailhead. I stop briefly to text a few people my exit time. I often travel by myself. If I know I’m heading in the wild or about to do something dangerous, I will text a few buddies who I can count on to send help if I need it. My text said: “Hi. I’m in Juneau and taking a hike on the west glacier trail. I should be out by 9 a.m. tomorrow. I’ll text you by then. If not, wait 3 hours, and then call the cops. Thanks.” Now, I didn’t mention the fact I was going to the glacier. I also didn’t mention that I was looking for ice caves. But, at least it would give them a place to start looking for me. By the way, nobody in their right mind should go looking for ice caves on a glacier by themselves. I am the only exception! Remember that!
Anyhow, I have my safety net in place. I turn off my phone and start up the trail. It’s a great forest trail. Moss covers everything. The forest is green. The path crosses several creeks gushing with clear water. The air is cold, and the rain continues to fall. I’m very tempted to take pictures of the forest scenes, but my camera would be soaked in minutes.
I stop briefly at a viewpoint with a covered roof. There is a family taking a break. They ask me to take a picture of them. I’m happy to do it. In return for my good deed, they tell me how to get to a good ice cave. The information matches what I already know about this enterprise. I thank them and head back onto the trail. My confidence grows.
The trail starts climbing the ridge and it gets steep and rocky in areas. The rocks are wet from the rain, and the tree roots are slick. I slip a couple of times, and I remind myself to take it easy. Getting hurt is not an option.
Finally, I reach the sign I am looking for. The main trail cuts to the left, the primitive trail goes to the right. I step off the easy path onto the rough track. It passes through a thick stand of twisted alder trees. I slip several times on the roots. Picture James Brown in his prime dropping down into the splits. Now picture me doing that on a steep rocky trail. I bet if you compared screams, they would sound oddly similar.
As I walk, I start putting together a songline of my landmarks. If I remember this little song, I will be able to find my way out if I get lost. It’s an idea I’ve taken on from the aboriginal people of Australia and I find it works rather well. The landscape is a song, you just need to remember the lyrics.
The trail leads to an open rocky area. I jump across two creeks and follow small rock cairns which now mark the path over the rock. It isn’t long before I’m looking at the massive expanse of the Mendenhall Glacier. It is truly awesome.
I have seen many glaciers in my life, from Alaska to Antarctica. I’ve watched them calve off huge chunks of ice. I‘ve flown over them, and I’ve stared at them from a ship. This marks the first time that I have seen one on foot. I smile. I love it when a plan comes together - especially a half ass plan such as this one.
I pick my way down the side of a rock bluff and skip down a steep talus pile to the very edge of the Mendenhall Glacier. I take a few tentative steps on the ice. I feel tiny. I am treading on just the tip of the toenail of this giant moving ice sheet. I know enough about glacier trekking to know I am not prepared. I’m not wearing crampons. I don’t have an ice axe. I don’t have any line. I don’t have a partner. I am smart enough to know that I have no business walking around on top of the glacier. However, I’m hoping to walk underneath the glacier on solid ground, and that is a different matter.
The trail has ended at the glacier, and I’m left to my own devices. I start walking along side of the ice sheet picking my way along a steep bank of loose talus. The stones are muddy from silt, and I sink up to my ankles in stones. A handful of rocks tumble down the slope with each step. It is not easy to walk here.
I follow the side of the glacier for about a half a mile before I see two waterfalls cascading down the side of the fjord. The two waterfalls meet at the base of the slope to form a larger creek. This creek disappears into the side of the glacier forming a giant ice cave.
“Holy shit,” I whisper. Good words fail me when I confront grandeur.
I slide down ten feet of loose rock to get to the waterfalls. I slowly spin in a circle taking in my surroundings. There are two waterfalls dropping down from the clouded heights of the fjord face. There is the glacier itself - massive and impassive. Finally, there is a jeweled ice cave cut into the ice. I’ve never seen anything like this, that’s for damn sure.
The entrance is large perhaps fifteen feet in diameter. On one side, an overhanging arch forms one-half of the ceiling. I’m a little leery about that arch. It doesn’t look very sturdy. The entrance appears more trust worthy on the other side of the creek. It looks more like a cave. There is a narrow gravel bank between the side of the cave and the creek. I pick my way across the waterfall hopping from rock to rock to get on the side I want to enter.
I pause at the entrance. This is scary as hell! The thought of stepping into the cave sends tingles down my entire body. My heart beats loudly in my chest. I start giggling. I love this high. I know I’m going in. I didn’t come all this way to chicken out now. Do you remember the movie, “Field of Dreams?” Do you remember the scene where the writer Terrance Mann was about to step into the rows of corn for the first time - to see what is on the other side? That’s how I feel. Though they are one in the same, I ask for courage from Buddha, The Universe, My ex-girlfriends, Tao, Zeus, Krishna, The Great Spirit, The Glacier, God, The Great Pumpkin - anyone I can think of, and take ten steps inside the cave.
It’s too much for my senses. The ice walls of the cave amplify the roar of the creek tumbling through the rocks. The sides of the cave are smooth, dimpled and sparkling like facets of a cut jewel. The ice is very clear. I half way expect to see an iceman frozen inside of the ice. Ancient rocks are stuck in the walls. Water drips from the ceiling. The whole cave glows with a dull blue color. I am standing inside of a cold sapphire. It takes a while to get used to this.
My initial high dies away, and I settle down. I walk deep into the cave. The creek tumbles over the bedrock creating a never-ending set of rapids and waterfalls. I can’t see the white glow of the opening of the cave anymore. I wonder if I kept following the creek would it lead me to the face of the glacier. I’m tempted to try, but the bank of the creek has ended. I will need a dry suit to investigate further.
I reflect on my situation. I am standing alone underneath a glacier. There isn’t a single person on this planet that knows where I am. “Cloud Hidden, Whereabouts Unknown,” I say to myself. It’s an interesting thought.
I start mindlessly humming aloud. It sounds really cool. The acoustics of ice caves are great. Soon, I am chanting “Ohmmmmmmm…” really emphasizing the mmm’s. My voice never sounded so good. I take it up another notch and try out a yodel. Now, yodeling can go one of two ways. It can sound amazing, providing the yodeler can hit the notes clearly or it can sound terrible, like a teenage boy reading aloud in English class. I’ve had it go both ways. I will only yodel under the right conditions. I’ll test my voice first, and if it seems like it will hold, I will let ‘er rip. I don’t know if it was the acoustics of the cave, or just being in that moment, but my voice rang loud and true over the roar of the water.
I’ve never yodeled this good before and I let it flow out of me (I know how ludicrous this sounds to those of you who don‘t know me). My last efforts end in a bout of laughter. I am a happy man.
My time in the glacier is nearing an end. I still have to find my way back to civilization. I knew before I entered the cave that I would have to keep track of time. I stick to my rules and leave the cave. I don’t want to overstay my welcome. I have no regrets. I’m riding an amazing high of discovery and I am tingling with the experience.
I back track down the glacier to the trail. I remember the lyrics to my songline: “Climb the creek to the shallow valley. Follow the cairns past the open rock area. Cross two creeks and follow the little snake through the alder. At the duck tape and orange flagging, veer left back to the bigger snake. Follow the bigger snake back to the lake and you are home free.” When I get back to the trailhead, I text my people. I let them know that I have made it out and all is well.
I am satisfied with my efforts. I am drenched to my skin, cold and hungry, yet I am completely euphoric. It has been a great day.
Life Accomplishment No. 37,824: Yodel Under a Glacier. Check!