Winter Sparkles In Juneau

Monday, January 14, 2019 8:00 AM by Laurie Craig, Forest Service, Retired

In a landscape defined by dense towering spruce and hemlock forests, wide open spaces are rare. Residents with boats and kayaks escape the confines of trees. Climbers who reach above the treeline find daylight, too. But for the average Juneauite and visitor, we are normally sequestered in the forest. 

Until winter comes. Then lakes and wetlands freeze and a new opportunity of large flat expanses invite all types of exploration via skis, skates, sleds, snowshoes and ice-cleated boots. 

In winter months with about six hours of daylight, the most enticing place to explore is Mendenhall Glacier’s huge frozen lake. It’s easy to drive up to the lake’s edge, park the car, then head out. Since the publicizing of natural but temporary ice caves a few years ago, people have packed the lake’s snow into a one-and-a-half-mile meandering footpath to the glacier’s dynamic terminus. Lured by photos of otherworldly blue caverns beneath the glacier, people of all capabilities have made the pilgrimage in search of blue rooms made of ancient ice. 

In pursuit of the ice caves, people occasionally venture too close to the hidden hazards under the snow. No matter how cold the temperature gets, the lake is subject to harsh impacts that can shatter the frozen surface. Massive slabs of 200-year-old glacier ice drop off the Mendenhall Glacier unpredictably and crush the lake ice, turning it instantly into icy water. Landslides spill down the steep mountain slopes and crush the lake’s ice into pieces suitable for Sno-Cones. The abrupt crash reverberates under the ice to break up lake surface ice a half mile and more away. The intact segments of the lake ice ripple like rubber beneath feet. These events have been witnessed. Fortunately, people were not on the lake when they occurred.

For weekend explorers, however, someone drops through the thin terminus lake ice almost every weekend. Most often they hoist themselves out of the water and self-rescue. Other hikers nearby have helped pull someone to thicker ice for the hypothermic 1.5-mile walk back to their vehicle. Victims are so shaken by their experience and embarrassed at their folly they report the incident only a few days later, or never. Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center staff learn of incidents second-hand from bystanders or victim acquaintances.

To educate winter hikers, each January the Forest Service partners with Capital City Fire and Rescue to host an ice safety workshop and demonstration at the visitor center. Rescuers cut a hole through pond ice below the visitor center and demonstrate survival techniques. Each year public attendance increases as Juneauites become aware of the serious potential of injury or loss of life.

Outdoor enthusiasts need not be thwarted by ice safety threats. Excellent winter alternatives abound. Volunteers groom some wonderful Mendenhall Valley trails for free classic cross-country and skate skiers. A favorite location is the Forest Service’s Mendenhall Campground, closed in winter but open for terrific flatland skiing. Eaglecrest Ski Area has additional trails for both downhill and cross-country skiers. Snowshoeing on the shores of Mendenhall Lake, Eagle Beach or Mendenhall Wetlands offer grand landscape vistas without risk of falling through ice. Hiking trails in the forest can be accessed with snowshoes, skis and climbing gear. Certain trails are open for snowmobilers. Even fat tire bikes get lots of use in winter.

Recreationists need to be prepared for winter fun. Let someone know where you are planning to go. Wear bright-colored waterproof clothes. Carry a cell phone or beacon, but note these devices’ limitations, especially in cold weather. Carry water, a flashlight or headlamp, and pack extra warm clothing. Be aware of sunset time to avoid returning in cold darkness. Ring the visitor center doorbell for help during business hours and weekends.

Juneau has amazing winter outdoor opportunities. Because they are easily accessed, everyone has time to enjoy invigorating outside fun then return home in time for a night at the theater or symphony, or join friends downtown for dining celebrations. We have the perfect mix of exceptional outdoor and indoor activities to relish winter’s short days and aurora-filled nights!

Author: Laurie Craig, Forest Service, Retired

Laurie Craig was a naturalist and interpreter at the US Forest Service’s Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center for more than 14 years. She organized and hosted the popular Fireside Lecture series each winter. She became well-known for her year-round newsletter messages and familiarity with the glacier’s bears. An artist by training, Laurie built essential connections between visitors, Juneau residents and wildlife with the goal of mutual respect and understanding. Laurie is enjoying retirement in Juneau and the return to her other profession as an artist.