Braving the ice

Winter glacier visits rewarding, but lake walks carry hazards

Posted: Sunday, January 09, 2005

As Liz Quinn of Sheridan, Wyo., got help adding traction to her shoes from her daughter before stepping out on Mendenhall Lake Friday, she said people were swimming in it the last time she visited.

Tess Quinn, who works as a glacier guide during the summer, said her footwear was up the challenge of checking out the lake on an icy Juneau morning. Companion Mike Wilmot, a 12-year resident of Juneau, said the lake appeared too rough for skating, but he has walked on it many times.

"It's neat to check on the icebergs," Wilmot said.

Mountains of ice calved from the glacier appear suspended in the frozen lake.

They still move and shift, though, said Larry Musarra, director of the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. And the glacier still calves icebergs in the dead of winter.

The most interesting features of Mendenhall Lake are the most hazardous to visit when it's frozen, Musarra said.

Signs warn people that lake ice is always dangerous.

"It's pure physics," Musarra said.

People should have no worry walking on ice that's four inches thick, he said. But the ice is often thinner around the icebergs, he said.

When the icebergs move - "even if they jiggle a little bit" - they have enough leverage to break open or crack the ice. Temperatures may be cold enough to refreeze the lake water, but it could leave the ice around an iceberg only an inch thick.

Ice is thinner around Nugget Falls, Musarra said. Although the waterfall may appear to be suspended in ice, "there is still water coming down," he said. And that makes for thinner ice.

The face of the glacier itself can be one of the most hazardous places to be. He pointed to a deep blue spot where there was a recent calving. Such events lead to open water or thin ice.

After a fall through the ice, it's a matter of quickly getting out of the water and getting help. The face of the glacier, where there is a strong current running under the ice, is a mile from the visitor center, Musarra noted.

"If you go out on the lake, you're taking a risk," he said.

Even without the glacier-related hazards, there are thin-ice patches at Twin Lakes, a popular place for ice skating, Musarra said. "But at Twin Lakes there are more people nearby."

People find other reasons to visit the glacier during the winter, he said. There may have been 100 people who vistited the area on Christmas Day. Still, the signs warn that people are taking a risk even on the trails.

Musarra said there are electric heat mats in the walks up to the visitor center and halfway up the stairs. The top half of the stairs have to be shoveled manually. The trails can't be salted, though, because that could harm salmon habitat.

Some people find footing treacherous enough in many places in the heart of Alaska's capital.

Scott Fischer, who owns Foggy Mountain Shop with his wife, said the store has been selling a lot of the ice creepers that Liz Quinn was strapping to the bottom of her shoes.

"We sell mountain climbing equipment," he added, noting that people can get a serious grip in the ice if they need to. But he sees people walking into his store with the creepers, which give people more traction without risking damage to floors.

Fischer said he believes most people wear them just to get around the city. By Friday he had sold out of the 70 or 80 the store had on hand, although he expects to get more in early this week.

Musarra said he prefers wearing actual cleats to keep his footing, even when he's walking the dog at home in north Douglas.

Adjacent to the glacier visitor center's parking area, the ice is flowing down the stairs.

"The stairs?" asked Joe Sadlier of Ketchikan, a Juneau native visiting the glacier Friday. He shook his head and smiled. He said he wouldn't think about walking them.

Safely walking up the stairs, Albert Wells of Juneau said he is careful. "Just take it easy." He visits the glacier because, he said, "I like to look at it."

In one of the pools near the lake, he pointed to a beaver dam and said he often sees a beaver there. He pointed to the mountains towering above the visitor's center and said he sometimes sees mountain goats.

The glacier itself, he added, "is nice and blue. It has that aqua glow."

He said he doesn't walk out on the lake, but he can understand why people would want to get closer to the mountains that surround it. In Native culture, they have spiritual significance, he said.

Walking on the lake, though, would be "kind of risky," Wells said. "You might fall though."

Sadlier recalled that the glacier stretched out farther when he was a kid. And it wasn't just people walking out on the ice.

In territorial days, someone would drive a truck on the lake to get to the glacier to chip off chunks of ice, which would be broken up further to use in drinks in bars downtown.

"They said the ice from the glacier didn't melt as fast," he said.

• Tony Carroll can be reached at

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