What is it like to walk on a glacier in Alaska?

By Abi King | Best Places to Visit USA

Sep 25
Baird Glacier Alaska

Baird Glacier Alaska

 

What is it like to walk on a glacier?

Bright white and blue – that’s the typical image of a glacier, isn’t it? Milky glacial water, iridescent ice and a sky full of sunshine or perhaps the swirl of falling snow.

The Baird Glacier in southeast Alaska has a rather different chemistry. From a distance, it looks dirty, as though all the flutes and ridges have tumbled down a chimney and emerged with a dusting of soot. It also pulled off the usual optical illusion, refusing to change in size no matter how far our skiff travelled: an icy giant, forever immense, forever out of reach.

Even close up, the glacier had mind-melting tricks up its sleeves.

“This is the terminal moraine,” explained Kevin, our guide from InnerSea Discoveries, as we stepped and slipped onto dry land. “As a glacier melts away, it carries rocks, gravel and sand with it. These deposits form what is called the moraine.”

Incidentally, a structure far more exciting than it sounds.

Unusual landscape in Alaska

Silver magic mud and rocks like nuclear-powered mushrooms

Metallic Ribbons and Luminous Spongy Moss

Luminous spongy moss covered the first section, with boulders like polished eggs staring up at us from odd angles. Closer to the glacier, gold and silver flecks merged with the mud, capturing frozen veins of ice in lattices in between.

Kevin crouched down and rested his hand in one of the streams, causing metallic ribbons to flow away from his fingers. “I could sit and watch this all day,” he said.

I couldn’t, though. I was distracted by the stretches of magic mud. These sparkling expanses bounced and wobbled underfoot, reducing us to Lilliputian figures on a colossal plate of jelly. The suspension of earth and water held our weight for around three running jumps before the cracks, literally, appeared, and fluid rushed up, sinking our feet into the ground. Gleeful, childish fun!

Terminal morrain on a standard glacier

When are you actually walking on a glacier?

Yet for all the geological wizardry, the glacier we came to visit looked as far away as ever. Our boots crunched on dirt and ice. A few people fell, a few more contorted themselves in the acrobatic arts of camera protection. Finally someone asked the question.

“Er…Are we going to get to walk on the glacier?”

Kevin lifted his eyes from the kaleidoscope of minerals and his face crinkled. “This is the glacier.”

We spun around, confused by the vision in the distance, disoriented by the muddy ice underfoot (and let’s face it, embarrassed by the answer.)

“Listen,” he said and we huddled around a hole in the ground. From just below the surface, the rumble of a subterranean river urged me to take a step forward and look down into the void. Pure brilliant white and wild-eyed blue twisted into each other as the glacier dissolved into a torrent beneath me.

Alaska Small Ship Cruises Inside Passage

Glacial ravines underfoot in Alaska

Alaska, I thought. Pristine beauty beneath a rugged façade – and laced with danger, unless you know what you’re doing. I retraced my steps and allowed my mind to fill with a single thought.

Wow.

Alaska Small Cruise Inside Passage

Beyond Glacier Bay Alaska – Practicalities

Wear sturdy shoes and warm, wind-proof clothes. Make sure you are travelling with a guide you trust and who knows the area well. Glaciers can be dangerous, guys!

I visited the Baird Glacier as a guest of American Safari Cruises and InnerSea Discoveries, who run luxury and adventure tours through Alaska. As ever, as always, I kept the right to write what I like. 

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About the Author

Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Let's travel more and think more.

  • Slava says:

    Great read. Magic mud reminded me of MythBusters’ cornstarch experiments. Did the guide explain why is it like so? Also you mention that cracks appeared – did you mean little cracks, or huge ones that could sink you in?

  • Pokin says:

    Brilliant! I still vividly remember that moment – re: “This IS the glacier.”

    Love the landscape and texture pictures that you chose. :)

  • Mikeachim says:

    Loved this, Abi.

    Wow indeed. (The video! Looks just like….well, actually, no comparisons spring to mind. Haven’t seen anything like that before).

    (But also, part of my mind screamed a little. Walking on glaciers of any kind? Reminds me of being told in Austria how easy it is to fall through a crack in the surface and slip-slide onto the glacier edge where there’s usually a gap, or into a subterranean river, to be whisked down into the darkness, under the glacier, never, ever to be found again. Glurk.

    ‘Kay, I’m an alarmist wuss. Sorry. And yes, that’s what good guides are for).

  • Pat says:

    Brilliant as usual. It took me back to walking on the Fox Glacier in New Zealand, although very different of course as The Fox was glassy blue with deep fissures – scary to walk on.

    Your pictures and the video are amazing. I WANT TO GO THERE!!!!!

    lOOKING FORWARD TO READING MORE PLEASE

  • Abi says:

    @Slava…Hmm. Interesting question! The cracks were longer than my foot and a couple of times I sank up to my ankles when I wasn’t paying attention. I’ll confess I didn’t want to push it any further than that!

    @Pokin, Mike and Pat – Cheers! Scary – but definitely worth it…:)

  • Donna Hull says:

    No wonder our slower group made it farther onto the ice than the advanced hikers. You stayed too long playing in the mud.

  • Steve says:

    ‘Wow’ works for me too!

    Beautifully descriptive writing and fantastic photos to back it up. Almost as good as being there myself!

  • Abi says:

    Thanks Steve – I really appreciate the comment.

  • Jason says:

    Abi,

    Nice post and that’s one of the best mud videos I’ve seen. The reaction to jumping on it looked like slapping someone’s fat tummy. Thanks for taking us along on your galcier tour.

    Jason

    • Abi says:

      That’s such a great description! Wish I’d thought of it myself ;)

  • Kimberly says:

    Nice pictures! I’m envious=),Hope to see some ice real soon.

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