Chasing Ice: Trekking Across the Mendenhall Glacier

A Journey through Alaska's Frozen Wonderland, Mendenhall Glacier

Located in Juneau, Alaska, this 13-mile-long glacier is one of the top attractions in the area. It is one of 38 glaciers that flow from the 1,500-square-mile Juneau Ice Field.

Over three thousand years old, the glacier is a major tourist attraction in Juneau. Even though the Mendenhall Glacier has a well-established visitors center and a simple walking trail to Nugget Falls, the vast majority of visitors never even leave the center’s observing platform.

Although it may be difficult for tourists to notice, the Mendenhall Glacier is rapidly melting away, transforming the landscape around it daily.

The glacier has been melting since 1500, although the most noticeable decrease, a total of 2.5 kilometers, has occurred since 1958.

The glacier’s workers and observers believe it will slow down and settle after it moves away from Mendenhall Lake. However, once this occurs, the ice caves will likely no longer exist, so you shouldn’t put off visiting this natural wonder.

Thomas Corwin Mendenhall (1841-1924) was the Superintendent of the U.S. Coast and the Geodetic Survey from the years of 1889 to 1894 after being appointed to the position by President Harrison. Mendenhall is a well-known scientist who also contributed his time to the Alaska Boundary Commission, which mapped out the border between Canada and Alaska. In 1892, the glacier was given its current name in his honor.

Mendenhall Glacier
Mendenhall Glacier

What is a glacier, and how is it created?

Southeast Alaska is ideally suited for glaciation due to its marine environment and coastal mountains. Wet air comes from the ocean, passes across the mountains, and drops snow and rain. The Juneau Icefield receives more than 100 feet of snow every year on average.

Due to Southeast Alaska’s mild summers, more snow falls during the winter than melts throughout the summer. The accumulation of snow from year to year compacts the snow from the years before into a thick coating of ice.

The Juneau Icefield, an area of rock, snow, and ice stretching over more than 1,500 square miles, is the source of numerous huge glaciers, among them Mendenhall. As glacial ice builds up, the force of gravity slowly forces it downward. The glacier grinds its way down the rocky terrain for 13 miles until it reaches Mendenhall Lake.

There was a neo-glaciation that started about the year 3000 and lasted until the early 18th century. The Mendenhall Glacier has advanced to its greatest extent, with its termination located about 4.0 km (2.5 mi) down the valley from its current position.

Around the middle of the 1700s, the annual rate of melt on Mendenhall Glacier began to exceed the annual total accumulation, causing the glacier to recede.

Mendenhall Glacier’s supply of glacial ice is constantly refilled by snowfall on the Juneau Icefield, but it takes the ice 200 to 250 years to make the journey from the icefield to Mendenhall Lake.

The depth of the water is 220 feet when the glacier ends. It would take the glacier centuries to melt away at the current rate. Mendenhall Glacier can only progress if either the snowfall on the ice field increases or the rate of melt decreases.

Mendenhall Glacier's View
Mendenhall Glacier’s View

Mendenhall Glacier’s foot is like a large sheet of sandpaper, smoothing out rough spots. Rocks from the valley floor become embedded in the ice as the glacier makes its way toward Mendenhall Lake. These grooves and striations are the results of the glacier scraping these rocks against the bedrock.

The glacier’s erosive strength tears away much of the soil and rock from the valley walls, transforming the landscape. Glaciers can act as conveyor belts, carrying rocks down the valley after they have been scraped off the surrounding valley walls.

Moraines, which are made up of debris, form around the glacier’s borders and at the point where two glacier tributaries meet. The glacier works like a conveyor belt, transporting material along its route and depositing it in Mendenhall Lake. The muddy hue of the lake is the result of glacial meltwater mixing with rock flour silt, which is ground up by the glacier as it advances.

Flora and fauna in Mendenhall Glacier

The wind transports seeds and moss spores onto bare soil as the Mendenhall Glacier recedes, exposing bare rock. Trees such as alder, willow, and cottonwood grow from seed in deglaciated areas.

Lupine and alder flowers are essential for nitrogen fixing in low-nutrient glacier debris soil. As they are eventually overgrown and smothered, all species contribute organic matter to the soil.

View of Mendenhall Glacier
View of Mendenhall Glacier

The tallest trees, such as spruce and hemlock, slowly shut the canopy of the forest, resulting in a mature forest. This plant’s successional cycle spans over 350 years and has supported a growing number of plant and animal species throughout that time.

The valley bottom is home to porcupines, squirrels, snowshoe hares, and short-tailed weasels, while the deciduous shrubs of the young forest provide cover for migrating songbirds.

Beavers build ponds at Steep Creek, which attracts spawning sockeye and Coho salmon, which in turn attracts black bears and eagles. Around Mendenhall Lake, gulls and Arctic terns build their nests, and mountain goats frequent the peaks’ rocky areas and alpine meadows.

Some tips for a better trip to Mendenhall Glacier

Lake ice is always dangerous. The Forest Service does not monitor or quantify the thickness. The amount of water flowing into a lake can cause the ice thickness to vary.

The ice is most treacherous to travel on near-moving water, such as the Nugget Falls or the mouth of Steep Creek.

Even though the lake is frozen over, icebergs might unexpectedly capsize at any time. Lake ice is broken up by icebergs as they float in the water.

At all times of the year, the glacier’s face is a calving zone. A calving in the winter might cause the lake ice to break apart.

Calving and glacial movement also weaken the ice along the glacier’s face. The face of the glacier is where most reports of individuals falling through the ice may be found.

Mendenhall Glacier in USA
Mendenhall Glacier in USA

Lake ice may and often is broken up by rockslides.

A trip to the glacier through land will take at least six to eight hours. Many people get lost and/or run out of daylight because they fail to spare enough time.

Layer up and bring along some spare clothes. An otherwise pleasant day may turn chilly and wet. Pack an extra set of dry clothes in case you get lost and have to spend the night outside. There is a real risk of hypothermia.

Put on some sturdy boots or shoes. Glaciers and rocks both present potential slipping hazards. Loose rocks and dirt are common occurrences. In order to safely traverse a glacier, hikers need specialized equipment and training.

Be prepared for your conversations. Tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to be back. If you don’t come back on time, they can summon assistance.

Since there are no complex maps of the route, you’ll need to use a GPS device or your phone. There is no guarantee that cellular reception will work. While many visitors succeed in making it to the glacier, many more fail to make their way back because the route is not obvious.

Hikers who become lost and try to make their way to the water’s edge usually end up on a precipice. You’d rather not be rescued and, instead, be among the survivors. If you find yourself staying overnight somewhere unexpected, be sure to pack accordingly.

View of Mendenhall Glacier in USA
View of Mendenhall Glacier in USA

How to get to the Mendenhall Glacier

Travelers can either go over land or across the lake to reach the glacier. It is highly suggested that you go with a local who is familiar with either path because there are risks that are not often seen on trails.

The lake path necessitates paddling a watercraft across a frigid lake close to the glacier face, where huge bergs might break off at any time. Only those comfortable paddling in cold water and capable of self-rescue should do this.

On warmer, sunnier days, the lake may get unstable with waves as high as 2 feet high from the strong, cold, downslope winds. Boats can capsize or be washed away by waves caused by glacier calvings (the collapse of the glacial terminal cliff). There are nesting birds on the landing beach, so stay away from that area if you can.

This path also necessitates 30 minutes of foot travel along the glacier edge, where rock is very unstable, or on the glacier itself, where crevasses and slick ice provide additional dangers.

How to get to the Mendenhall Glacier
How to get to the Mendenhall Glacier

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