I’ve been swanning about the MatSu Valley as a guest of the local tourism bureau. Nearly all of my expenses, down to the sack lunch from Sheep Mountain Lodge, were paid for, including this glacier walk with MICA Guides.
“I think you’re going to like this,” said Claire, the glacier guide.
She was answering the family from California who wanted to walk over the to the water pouring out of the glacier face. There was an ice climbing class between us and the waterfall, a pile of clawed gear behind them. I believed I would like it; I’d already spotted the silver mirror and wanted to get a closer look. That’s the destination the guide had in mind, not the falls.
We’d walked for a little over a mile over the crunchy ice of the Matanuska Glacier. At first, it’s dirty and gray, filled with silt and topped with rocks that the ice spits out. Claire took her ice axe to the surface to show how thin the dirt was — when the axe blade hit the surface, a shower of white snow flew around us. I took a piece of the broken glacier and rinsed it in a puddle, it was clear as glass, clean, sparkling. I held it out in the sun and then let it melt in my mouth.
The last time I walked on a glacier, in McCarthy, Alaska, I tried very hard to face plant while picking my way down a steep inline. The spikes of one crampon got caught in the straps of the other. I tripped, stumbled, and recovered. This time, I was more thoughtful, more careful. “Walk high, wide, and flat,” said Claire, “and you’ll be fine.” This time, the California boy from the ‘burbs was the one to lose his footing on the steep incline. He was in front of me when the nerves hit.
“Take all the time you need,” I said, meaning it. I didn’t want him to feel rushed, and I remembered exactly how I felt when nearly ate the ice on that previous walk. My hiking companion was visibly more relaxed when the ground evened out.
The glacier carves out a bowl at its base. If it’s been warm enough, the water melts into a lake. Where we were standing, the lake was frozen to the surface, covered with inch or so of melt and a mercury like silt, fine and soft. The sun had come out and turned the surface into a flat shining reflection of everything above. Our hiking party cast shadows onto the surface, but from some viewpoints, it looked like we were suspended. “It’s like walking in space,” said Claire.
Some practical stuff: If you’re an experienced hiker, you can walk out on the glacier on your own. Unfortunately, there’s a guy that owns the access road and you’ll have to pay 20 dollars per person — that’s right, it’s stupidly expensive — to get him to open the gate.
I was a guest of MICA Guides and the Mat-Su Valley CVB, you’ll have to pay (as of typing this) 45 dollars a head for the crampons, helmet, boots, and a guide — that does not include the per person gate fee. You should wear weather proof gear, bring sunscreen, sunglasses, and snacks. Oh, yeah, and your camera. Because… whoa. The hike I did — the short one — is easy, but ask for poles if you’re unsure on your feet.
MICA will let you cancel if the weather is just foul, but you have to be onsite to do so. Don’t be fooled by the weather at all — in the morning the fog was so thick we couldn’t see past the end of our headlights, but by the time we were heading back off the ice, I was peeling off my outer layers. Just look at that blue sky.
To get back to the parking lot, our little group of hikers tumbled into an early 80s Chevy Suburban. “I love this thing,” said Claire. “Not only does it start with out a key…” She turned over the ignition and the engine roared into life. “… but it comes with sweet tapes. Sometimes, we drive into Palmer and go to the thrift store and get boxes full of old cassette tapes for no money at all. I think this is Paul Simon.” She turned up the volume. It was.