On an unseasonably warm day during a victualing stop in Juneau we resolved to visit two of the thirty-eight named glaciers fed by the Juneau Icefield. The most exciting and efficient way to access these particular glaciers is by helicopter and airboat.
A majestic helicopter flight up and over the Coast Range brought us to a remote airboat base on the Taku River. We boarded a swift vessel which draws practically nothing, and skimmed unimpeded across the gravelly alluvial delta formed by the outflow of the Taku glacier.
The Taku is a tidewater glacier, one mile in depth, and the only one of the named Juneau glaciers that is currently advancing. The boat allowed us to travel along both sides of the proceeding tongue of this river of ice. What a spectacle!
At first the ablated end of the glacier seemed almost volcanic in appearance as cryoconite cloaked icy floes in sedimentary debris, but each planing turn of our boat revealed the naked ice in every conceivable sculptural form, sometimes compressed into deep blue metamorphoses as hard and brittle as translucent metal.
At the conclusion of this marvelous airboat tour, we re-boarded our helicopter for an overflight and a landing on Norris glacier. Locations sufficiently level to alight a heavy turbine aircraft are few, and the risks many, but a suitable plateau was found adjacent to a spring of gelid water. Descending katabatic winds hurtled down the ice field enhanced by the otherwhere warmth of the day.
As we embarked once more to return to town we witnessed the course of this river of ice from its source at the Juneau Icefield including a dead-end arm of static ice which melts into an underwater lake that infrequently but regularly delivers a glacial lake outburst flood, a Jökulhlaup.
“The glacier was God’s great plough set at work ages ago to grind, furrow, and knead over, as it were, the surface of the earth.” – Louis Agassiz