Reflections Travel

The Juneau Ice Field: Setting Alaska Apart

The Juneau Ice Field and surrounding mountains reflect the state's rugged wilderness and isolation.

Author’s Note: This is the fourth and last installment in a four-part series covering cruising through southeast Alaska. See the previous posts, “Tip of the Iceberg”, “Viewing Wildlife”, and “Forests & Fjords” here. 

The Juneau Ice Field was by far the most impressive sight I experienced during our cruise vacation in Alaska.

Hovering above the furrowed ridges that peer from pillowy puffs of snow, you catch a glimpse of the primitive: an Alaska that is far more vast, sequestered and unstirred by outside forces. This sheltered landscape is a realm of its own.

Prior to our plane ride, our photo safari tour guide told us that even though the state’s capital seems relatively developedfull of shops, government buildings and restaurants– this part of Alaska is so remote that its residents have to use planes or boats to get to other parts of the state. Some areas are just shielded by ice. They are isolated because it is impossible to build roads over moving ice, and the Juneau Ice Field is evidence of that.The floatplane excursion over the field was worth every penny of the $400+ (for two people) we spent for it. 

In some areas, the corrugated stretch of ice resembles the twists of a river: The fissures, which contain hundreds of feet of compacted snow over time, appear a bright blue due to the the light refracted from dense snow particles. They have squeezed out air bubbles through the ages.   

Life in Alaska is slower and more secluded than in the lower states. Residents plan grocery store visits based on the days the store gets fresh shipments of food. Many jobs are seasonal, and the region has experienced an overall downturn in recent years with the drop in oil prices, he said. The people enjoy the outdoors, retreating to the mountains, forests and lakes to spend their free time. For awhile, the only high school in town had to have intramural sports because there weren’t any other teams to play, until a second high school opened, he said. That’s just life in Alaska.  

A view of Juneau from the floatplane.

After the whale-watching and Mendenhall excursion, Jis and I walked along the streets of Juneau, checking out the many souvenir and jewelry shops near the port, and even trying some local beer. All the shops here cater to cruise ship visitors. Tourism is the second largest source of employment in Alaska. Beyond a souvenir spoon and miniature totem pole figurine resembling those carved by the local Tlingit (pronounced cling-it) tribe of Alaska, we purchased nothing. We were just killing time before our late afternoon floatplane ride. Finally, 3 p.m. rolled around, and it was time to board the floatplane.

The plane seated about 10 people, two seats per row, and we were each provided a set of headphones through which we received pre-recorded information about the sights below.

From the skies, the dynamics are clear: although frozen, this landscape of the ice field has been anything but still. The field is 3,000 years old, but here the ice remains young because it constantly replenishes itself. Coils and deep crevasses indicate that the glaciers in these valleys are on the move (and ironically, reminded me of the serpentine folds trapped in the hardened lava rock of Hawaii).

Don’t for a second think that the peaks are barren, either. They, like the neighboring coastlines and forests, are thriving with life forms such as fungi, shrubs and insects. Since glaciers advance and retreat, vegetation eventually replaces ice on the rocks. In fact, students and professional researchers of the Juneau Ice Field Research Program have been studying changes in the ice field, glacial movements, and life forms along the folds of the mountains.

Looking down on one side of the range, you can see grassy valleys bordering bodies of water, and on the other, the rugged rock faces, draped in white pleats.

It’s these diverse landscapes found abutting one another that make Alaska such a mystifying frontier.

I’m grateful to have been introduced to Alaska’s mountain ranges, wilderness and waters through the one-week cruise. My family and I enjoyed ourselves onboard the Celebrity Infinity, and it was thrilling to witness Alaska’s geography, ecosystems, people and lifestyle in person. I can’t wait to go back to explore further.  If this small strip of southeast Alaska could be so captivating, surely the “great land” must contain far more alluring gems within its depths.

[This concludes the series on southeast Alaska.] 

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