We will Always have Mendenhall
With Nugget Falls acting as our North Star, we paddle tandem kayaks in jagged rhythm on Mendenhall Lake. The blue sky plays peekaboo behind the soft grey clouds; the lake water frigid. Though the month of July is fresh, the temperature feels a brisk 60 degrees like an early fall day in Pennsylvania. Our group, consisting of my husband's immediate family, is giddy. We are ready, at the helm of our guides, to marvel and meet the Mendenhall Glacier.
Resting just outside downtown Juneau, Alaska, the Mendenhall Glacier is an accessible, yet deceiving wonder. Paddling from a launch point in Mendenhall Lake to the physical glacier, approximately a three-mile trek, there is no question of its brilliant scope. My wonder escalates to awe upon learning it stretches more than 13 miles long. This is equivalent to 221 football fields (its football season, be prepared for references in the months to come). One of the 38 glaciers flowing from the Juneau Icefield, the Mendenhall Glacier is nature in all its massive glory.
Our adventure begins in downtown Juneau. We are picked up by our excursion company and shuttled to a home base where the necessary gear is collected. During the 20 minute drive, between the nonstop chatter, we approach a clearing. In a flash, a golden field peppered with white. Thirty plus bald eagles perched as if posed for a National Geographic cover shot. It's as though we accidentally crashed an exclusive party. The moment is fast. Nature's magic works this way. In one fleeting drive-by this area makes a lasting impression, and we haven't even reached the main event.
As our day packs are loaded with extra clothing, crampons, and bite-size chocolates, we set sights on our launch point, a nook of Mendenhall Lake. The lake is serene as lakes tend to be. It is calm, yet very much alive. Alaska weather is unpredictable, but the sun peaks through right as we launch from shore. The blue sky, the only clear sky we saw throughout the day, giving us good blessings on our adventure ahead.
Upon hitting the rocky shores, we secure the kayaks. Some of us trade out clothes because a sleeve dipped below the boat soaking underneath layers (the "some" was me, just me). I am thankful for a brother-in-law who overpacked an Omni-Wool long sleeve. We then snack a bit, play a name association game by our own request (Corn Kernel Katie was the BEST and brightest answer) and trek in a single file line toward the second leg of our journey.
Exploring Mendenhall's ice caves up close and personal is made possible because of our two badass guides, Brittany and Katie (yes, that is the aforementioned Corn Kernel Katie). They venture ahead to determine the safest entries, exits and passageways. Hiking under a massive ice structure is not something recommended to do on your own accord without proper training or informed guides.With caves changing due to the constant flow of water, each of them are experts on the stability of the glacier. This change is what differs ice caves from bedrock caves. Ice caves, unlike bedrock caves, are quite temporary adding to their allure and beauty.
Underneath the mammoth ice structure a whole new world emerges. It is ethereal and enchanting. The aqua blue color envelops us. If dreams had an opening color, this would be it. No filter, no presets necessary. Pure, naturally chilled water is everywhere (in that moment a pour of whiskey would have been ideal). Katie and Brittany shout above the raging ice rivers spouting tidbits of knowledge such as the bluer the better. One should avoid where deposits begin to peek through the blue. The convergence of this sentiment means there is a weakness in the ice. The bluer the color, the less penetrated the ice has been.
Exploring the underbelly of the beast marks the halfway point of the excursion. We still have the top deck to explore. With our crampons, think ice picks for your feet, locked in place, we slowly and meticulously follow Brittany and Katie along the tops of crevasses and slopes. I feel frail on top of the ice. The power of this frozen water is daunting. There is more than 200 feet, more than two football fields, of solid ice beneath our feet. The power is not lost on me. Certain directions only reveal ice until it meets the horizon; the frigid temperature adding to the mysterious magnetism.
Our guides explore Mendenhall on a daily basis, yet still discover different pathways to explore. One particular location appeared fake (or Photoshop as some of my friends describe). The blueness from below emerges to kiss our crampons. The skate park set-up was a safe place to snap a memory, and the good ol' iPhone pulled through with a good one.
We approach the end of our exploration; time to return to the sea. As we descend the glacial ice as carefully as we entered, we land at an overlook to remove our crampons and prepare for the kayak trip back. We linger here. Each of us find our own private space to rest and inhale the surroundings. As I turn to my right, my one brother-in-law stares off toward the lake, hands folded as though he could be praying. Looking toward the base of the Glacier, my other brother-in-law rests with an mischievous smile, a smile even my iPhone camera could capture.
Then my mother-in-law catches my eye. She is holding back tears. We have our differences from time to time, but in this moment, we embrace. Recognizing the importance of experiences is a quality we both share. We are able to understand the weight of a moment, while still in it. It is a quality very dear to me. The embrace may not be obvious or elaborate, but it is both of us recognizing the significance of this day.
Two months removed from the adventure, and it is amazing how quickly life speeds into motion. Coaching, teaching, traveling, writing, we have returned to our regular schedule programming. One of the big reasons I write is to encapsulate memories and emotions. Life blazes on, but reading and writing can slow it down, even if it is only for an instant. No matter what life may throw at us as a family, as a unit, we will always have this one afternoon among the ice. We will always have Mendenhall. And, it will live right here in case we forget.
Our excursion was booked through Alaska Shore Tours, specifically the Private Mendenhall Glacier and Kayak Trek. This group was the perfect fit for us. Katie and Brittany led us safely, yet did not hold our hands. I greatly appreciated this about them. Their priority was to create a one-of-a-kind experience, even though, they themselves visit the Glacier six out seven days of the week. You accomplished your goal, ladies. Thank you for a lasting memory and another layer of bond for our family.
I HIGHLY recommend booking this excursion company.
**note, this post is not sponsored