What’s on your bucket list? This summer, I checked off an item from my list of things I’d like to see, experience and accomplish in my lifetime: photographing an ice cave.
I have always been fascinated by photography, and one particular photo I’ve always wanted to capture is the glacial beauty underneath the ice. This summer, that dream became a reality when I visited my family in Alaska.
My brother and I signed up for a tour of the ice caves at the Mendenhall Glacier, a large river of ice flowing about 13 miles from the Juneau Icefield to its terminus at Mendenhall Lake.
According to the USDA Forest Service website, snowfall exceeds 100 feet per year on the Juneau Icefield. As the snow accumulates, it compacts the snow from past years into ice. As the ice builds up, gravity pulls it down, and a glacier is formed.
Growing up, I heard stories of how ice worms make glacier ice blue.
According to the Forest Service website, “Glacial ice appears blue because it absorbs all colors of the visible light spectrum except blue, which it transmits.” Ice may also look white if it contains air pockets that scatter the light.
The Mendenhall is receding because ice is melting faster than it is being formed. As a result, the ice caves, which are created by meltwater flowing through glacier ice, exist only temporarily as the glacier continues to retreat.
On the day of our tour, our two guides outfitted us and the nine other members of our group with waterproof and protective gear from head to foot, everything from hard hats to Xtratuf boots.
Armed with one paddle each, we rowed in one large canoe to the base of the glacier. It took an hour-long paddle to get there.
After we reached land, we embarked on a bit of a climb over rocky terrain. The glacier appeared very unassuming at first glance. Massive, yes, but dirty white, with a generous dusting of sediment and surrounded by barren, rocky crags left behind in the receding glacier’s wake.
Our guides showed us a melting cave, too unsafe now to enter. However, a new cave had been formed, and, stooping low, we entered the narrow opening, only waist high.
In that moment, ice that was white and dirty transformed into a turquoise paradise, a crystal cavern shaped and formed by the stream flowing beneath our feet. The glacial water had sculpted the ice in angular crystals, emblazoned in a shade of blue and beauty I cannot begin to describe.
Water dripped from the ceiling and fell through the ice. The light from above lit the ethereal cavern, and I couldn’t wait to begin capturing its raw and wild beauty.
I had purchased a tripod specifically for this purpose, and I set it up while everyone else pulled out their iPhones. The end result was worth my effort, as I now cherish a collection of photos I plan to print on canvas and use to decorate my home.
After exploring the cave, we got to walk on the glacier, too, slipping on crampons over our Xtratuf boots so we wouldn’t slip at all.
I’m sure there’s an analogy there somewhere—traversing a slippery and sometimes steep, icy surface, trusting the spikes to do their job while walking boldly forward, even when it’s scary. But that’s a story for another time.
For now, I’m reveling in the opportunity I had to spend quality time with my brother and check off a bucket list item in the process.
Janae Rempel is sports editor for the Free Press. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.