Before this, I was just like most people.
My experience with helicopters having been only sight and sound related. I’d seen them, up there, flitting (or chopping?) in the sky, reporting on traffic among other things that people in helicopters do. I’d seen and heard them on screen, chasing, swerving, exploding, being stolen, serving as an escape vehicle for the good-bad guys and the bad-good guys. I’d never been close enough to a live-action one to see that, yeah, it totally does look like an enormous, steel dragonfly. I’d never grasped the edge of the cockpit’s frame, fingers dented with the imprints of the welded bolts that hold it together. I’d never smelled the not-at-all-new-car smell of a vehicle used countless times daily to ferry tourists to and fro. It wasn’t anything I’d ever really thought about doing, it didn’t factor too high on my cliched bucket list. But sitting in that helicopter (shotgun and pilot adjacent, front row center, uhuh), wearing those heavy black headphones to hold the propeller’s ruckus at bay, would have defied any expectation I might’ve had.
As cool and badass as riding in a helicopter is (oh, it is), it beyond pales in comparison to walking around an honest-to-goodness glacier. The glacier in question? Mendenhall, located just outside the state capitol Juneau (not Anchorage as some people might still be inclined to believe).
Flying over the ice fields, the pilot was quick to point out the jagged crags of the glacier’s surface, over which we were circling closer to make our touchdown. A wall of fierce blue and white ice extended up from the flat surface we were going to land on, looking just as friendly as pressing your naked cheek against a skating rink for an hour might be. Friendlier, even. Hovering over that shock blue ice made it really difficult to discern the scale of what I was seeing. How tall was that natural fortress of frozen water? How expansive? The pilot pointed again, down below, indicating a small huddle of ants scurrying over the ice to a big neon orange flag. It took a second or two, but the ants eventually grew in size, proving to be our guides and other tourists, seeking a lift back to solid concrete.
Glacier walking itself isn’t a difficult feat when supplied with the right equipment. On a normal day, it’s extra windy and rather cold. On a normal day, even in the summer, there’s a good deal of cloud cover. On an extraordinary day, the clouds have dissipated (mostly), the sun is glowing so bright off the ice that sunglasses are essential. On an extraordinary day, the wind’s presence isn’t much of a bother and a sweatshirt works to cut through the minimal chill. (Have you guessed it yet? What kind of day it was?) Our guide was a tiny thing, and for a tiny thing to call something else tiny you know that other person is clearly pint-sized. She bubbled and smiled and educated us; a perfect people pleaser. She had the usual rules for walking on ice fields left in the wake of the Little Ice Age: watch where you step, don’t walk backwards. And she laughed at the second one, because I saw my strange, perplexed expression mirrored on the rest of the people in our group. The guide (Tiny Bubbles) held up her hands, framing them as one might when miming a camera.
Because you folks like to take pictures. And who wouldn’t like to take pictures, look at this place! Except when you’re backing up like that, to get everyone in, to get the whole scene, you’re not watching where you’re going. You could slip. You could trip. Or you could fall into one of those cracks over there, we’ll get closer in a minute, and those are a lot deeper than they look from those helicopters.
And as she led us around, explained that the ice was so blue because of the highly dense concentration of water, told us to try some of the exhiliratingly fresh glacier juice (h2ohyeah), smiled widely and took pictures for us, I took a closer look at the cracks she was talking about. The ones that were misleadingly deep. Tiny things don’t do well in deep crags. I decided not to venture any closer.
Before I knew it, the sound of choppers hit my ears and we were being loaded back onto the red steel dragonflies. The chill had started to cut through my sweatshirt, but it wasn’t enough of a bother to detract from the giddy feeling I had as we lifted off again. Back in the helicopter, staring down at the retreating body of Mendenhall, it was strange to think that some day… it might not be there anymore.
Check out more pictures from my Mendenhall Glacier Walk on Flickr.