We didn’t know about Matanuska Glacier until we passed it off of the Glenn Highway on our route to Hatcher Pass. It was designated by beat up little A-Frame sign and we both wondered aloud what that modest sign might be advertising, but kept on cruising. A few minutes and several miles later Ry made the executive decision to turn around and check it out.
The sketchy little dirt road was promising, and the small glimpses of a large, white mass started stirring up the butterflies in my belly. We stopped by the welcome center, and I started to get a bit discouraged. The walls were lined with tchotchkes and trinkets and there was a definite tourist vibe that was quite off-putting. Would this be some over commercialized landmark where we had to stand on the edge of the glacier and take photos from behind cables and ropes?
No, Matanuska Glacier was not that at all.
The recommended and unguided trail led us right onto the glacier. We slipped our spikes over our hiking boots and traipsed across the ice. We giddily followed the orange cones, both of us cooing with “oohs and aahs,” sharing devious smiles. We admired the stark contrast between the glowing white we were standing on and the rich black of the lateral moraines. The mountains of the Chugach Range reflected beautifully in the still ponds.
The ice was magnetic, pulling us over it’s uneven ground.
The afternoon sun added an angelic shimmer to the crevasses and runoff. For hours we admired the slick, blue surface. My toes were numb, my fingers had a gentle throb, and my nose was Rudolf red, but I had a hard time tearing myself away from this spectacular mass of frozen water.
Eventually, the only thing that could possibly convince me leave began to stir inside me- hunger. We submitted to our grumbling stomaches and headed back to the picnic area in the parking lot.
Shortly after we dove into our two-day-old-leftover tacos a cheery voice called out to us with a familiar phrase; “can I pet your dogs?” We turned around to see a tall, striking blonde sauntering towards us.
“Of course!,” we exclaimed, and the friendly stranger bent down to receive 170 pounds of mutt climbing all over her.
She introduced herself as Kathleen, and explained that she was a guide on the glacier. We unabashedly started pestering her with questions, about the glacier and Alaska, about herself and her dog. Our most pressing inquiry was if there was another glacier that she’s worked on that she could recommend to us. She took a moment to consider this, and told us that the one we had just spent hours enjoying, that was just thirty feet from where we sat, was her absolute favorite. Kathleen likely noticed our desire to immediately head back in when she told us that with a quick trip to the office to sign some additional paperwork, she could take us deeper into the glacier to show us a little discovery she had made a week before.
There was no discussion, we were absolutely joining this lively badass into the belly of the beast.
Kathleen outfitted us with helmets, placed her side shield sunglasses delicately on her face, and we started walking. Within minutes I noted that if she were to leave us where we stand I wouldn’t have any idea what direction to walk to find our exit. She knew this glacier, and I mean really, really knew it, and credited her remarkable ability to navigate the landscape to a photographic memory. Kathleen told us about the glacier’s history, it’s importance, and it’s likely gloomy future. I bombarded her with every question as they popped into my head, and just as she answered one another crop of ten would appear. I was absolutely being one of ‘those’ tourists but I couldn’t help myself, I was fascinated with this woman and her glacier.
I am not sure how far we walked. I could feel the cold from the ground seeping through my shoes and the afternoon sun burning my neck, but the miles went by in a blur of cloudy blue formations streaked with ribbons of gritty black sediment.
We descended a small hill and suddenly, there it was, an azure blue tunnel, at least twenty feet high and leading into complete darkness.
“Can we go in?,” I shrieked at Kathleen.
“Definitely,” she replied with a laugh, “that’s why we’re here.”
She continued to share facts about the structure as we walked and gawked.
As we worked our way deeper, the tunnel narrowed, the sound of rushing water increased, and my heart beat faster. I ran my hand over the wet, glassy walls of the ancient ice. I was acutely aware that the deafening sounds of rushing water beneath our feet was a product of the melting of this great glacier. As it retreats under the pressure of a changing climate, it’s shape and structures shift and disappear. The idea that no one would ever have this exact experience consumed me.
Touching, smelling, breathing in this glacier was emotional. I have a hard time describing the experience because it was so profoundly personal. It’s a kind of special that sits, just as the caves of the Matanuska Glacier are tucked deep into it’s folds of ice, in the deepest abyss of my heart.
To read about Kathleen’s experience guiding on the Matanuska Glacier, please check out her beautifully penned reflection, written for She Explores, here.