Dog-mushing tour group Knik Glacier Tours was forced to shut down operations weeks earlier than planned when Troublesome Glacier, in Southcentral Alaska near Palmer, began to split open beneath the crew's feet on Saturday, following weeks of hot weather that caused rapid melting on the glacier despite a thick covering of snow.
"I've never seen a glacier deteriorate so fast," Owner Rick Casillo said on Thursday. He has been leading tours on Troublesome Glacier for the past 10 years.
Knik Glacier Tours leads 2-mile dog sledding tours on the glacier, using veteran Iditarod dogs that seamlessly navigate the route, allowing tourists to steer a second sled behind the lead musher.
At the beginning of the season, the crew sets up camp at lower elevations; as summer progresses and snow melts, the crew moves to higher elevations to stay on deep snow pack and away from bare ice. They had been camping at a high-elevation spot for around two weeks, where snow cover was measuring nine feet deep, when the glacial crevasses began to form. "That was the crazy thing about it," Casillo said. "(Crevasses) usually don't open up with that much snow."
Crews discovered the first glacial crevasse, a 6-inch-wide hole in the glacier, in front of crew member Nick Guy's tent on Saturday morning. The crevasse was only wide enough to stick your foot into, but it extended "probably 1,000 feet" into the depths of the glacier, Casillo said.
The crew marked the crevasse's location, repositioned Guy's tent, and continued on with their day. But soon, they discovered a second crevasse of similar size near the dog's kennels. Then, a third.
As the extent of the rapidly-developing crevasses became clear, Casillo took to the air to survey the glacier's conditions. Cracks were showing on the side of the glacier, and there didn't appear to be anywhere safe to set up camp. So Casillo made the call to end the season then and there. "That was the first time I've actually had to shut down because of crevasses," he said.
Snow is constantly melting on the glacier during summer months, but this season's heat took the melt to a whole new level. Cloudless days and the burning sun brought temperatures that normally hover around 50 degrees on the glacier up into "t-shirt weather," Musher Eric Rogers said.
Crews will also normally dig a ditch to position melting water away from the camp, but this year, "it turned into a stream, flowing down the glacier like a bandit," Rogers said.
Casillo had more than 100 people booked to tour the glacier in the next few weeks. "That was a tough thing to stomach," he said, but he noted that the season had been profitable regardless. Among the cancellations were military veterans with the Wounded Warrior program, to whom Casillo had donated free tours. Casillo, an Iditarod runner who has renamed his kennel Battle Dawgs in support of Alaska's Healing Hearts program, was most upset about having to cancel on the veterans.
This was Rogers' first summer working on Troublesome Glacier. While he has seen operations shut down by snow and fog while working on glacier tours in Juneau, "I've never been chased out by crevasses," he said.
Outhouse accident a bad omen?
Saturday was a surprise, because everything was "looking really great, everybody's happy, and all of a sudden we start stepping in these holes in the ice," Rogers said.
Rogers said that Saturday's troubles really began, however, in the outhouse, after an accident proved to be a bad omen for the rest of the day.
Rogers described the tour group's make-shift outhouse as a wooden structure sitting on two PVC pipes, which keep the structure aloft above the snow. Inside is a honey bucket that acts as the toilet. Every morning, Rogers gingerly steps into the outhouse, testing to make sure it's stable on the snow.
All seemed well on Saturday, but the hot days had melted the snow from the outhouse's exterior, leaving it on an unsteady pedestal of snow.
Rogers writes on his blog:
"I settled on the throne and was entering deep contemplation when the outhouse shifted on its base and tumbled over backwards. Oh Fecal Material! Literally! I climbed off my back, opened the door and stood there in the toppled structure bare from the waist down. Luckily the honey bucket didn't spill -- thank you God."
That's when his coworker, Nick Guy, emerged from his tent and found Rogers standing amid the tumbled toilet. Guy helped Rogers resurrect the outhouse, and even resisted making fun of him.
After the outhouse incident, Rogers was struck with the feeling that "it was going to be a bad day," he said.
The bad omen was soon confirmed. Hours later, as glacial crevasses cracked open around them seemingly out of nowhere, the tour season came to an abrupt halt.
"As Saturday progressed we went from no surface expression in camp to doing one-leggers into 4 different crevasses that spanned camp from one end to the other. Nothing wider than half a foot, but the fact we had been walking on that surface for a week and not known there was anything there got our attention. Like the outhouse, very disconcerting, but nobody hurt."
"What a crazy summer," Rogers concluded.
Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com