GLACIER VIEW — Matanuska Glacier is the most user-friendly glacier in Alaska — one of few major ice sheets in the world that visitors can drive to and explore on foot.
The glacier sits along a scenic stretch of the Glenn Highway about two hours from Anchorage, a frozen river sprawling almost 30 miles from the 13,000-foot heights of the Chugach Mountains to a toe hundreds of feet deep and miles wide that offers unique glimpses of usually buried formations.
The only road-accessible route to the ice is through property owned by Matanuska Glacier Park LLC. Tours are sold out of a gift shop and information center.
The company charges $25 per person for Alaskans — $30 for everybody else — to pass a locked gate and explore the glacier unguided. A guided tour costs $100 per person.
Before November, a tour was just one option for glacier-goers who wanted to spend several hours with a guide on a trail that loops past frozen caves, tunnels and canyons and avoids hidden crevasses, water-filled pits or holes that can descend hundreds of feet into the ice.
But that month, Matanuska Glacier Park began requiring any first-time winter visitor without glacier travel experience to pay for a tour — like it or not.
Spike in ice traffic
The new policy right now applies only to first-time winter visitors. The park is still crafting a policy for the hundreds of people who show up daily in summer but it's likely first-time visitors without outdoor travel skills will be required to have a guide.
The policy isn't in writing yet. Longtime park caretaker and glacier guide Bill Stevenson doesn't expect it will be universally popular.
"I've also got a huge amount of support," Stevenson said. "I haven't found one person that thinks inexperienced outdoor people should be running freely on the glacier."
The change reflects rising numbers of visitors to the glacier, many of them inexperienced in any kind of outdoor activity, according to Stevenson, a local landowner who grew up in the area.
It cost $1.50 to get to the glacier when the park opened decades ago. More than 20,000 people now visit the Matanuska every year.
Many come from cities or places without snow — from Florida to Asia and India — and sometimes don't understand how to move safely on the ice, Stevenson said. Making matters worse, some refuse to listen to directions to stay on the trail or steer clear of hazards.
He cites examples: guys jumping wide crevasses with a buddy on the other side to grab their hands, or clambering up icy slopes in sandals.
People coming to the glacier on organized tours — the park works with numerous tour companies including MICA Guides, Nova, and Salmon Berry Tours — won't see any changes, he said. Neither will experienced ice climbers and participants in glacier travel and crevasse rescue courses, although there will be designated ice-climbing areas in winter.
"I would prefer to leave it open and have it unguided as it has been for the last 50 years," Stevenson said. "However, all my experienced people come back and say, 'You wouldn't believe what's going on.' "
'Money grab' or life saver?
Word of the change is still getting out, to mixed reviews in the nearby Glacier View community and beyond.
Representatives of several local lodges in the area didn't want to comment though several reported complaints from customers about glacier prices.
Zack Steer, a well-known musher and former owner of Sheep Mountain Lodge 12 miles from the glacier, said he thought the price to access the glacier was already too high.
Steer said if he still owned the lodge, he would be concerned that a year-round mandatory guide policy at the glacier might trigger a drop in local business as disgruntled tourists stay away.
"This is just a money grab. Some people would call it brilliant," he said. "But it's really sad because he controls a public resource. … if he chooses to abuse that it's going to be to the detriment of the local Glacier View community and the Mat-Su borough as a whole."
Some in the outdoor recreation business hearing about the policy for the first time wondered if it would work in practice.
"The question is: what defines an experienced traveler?" asked Jason Buttrick at Alaska Mountaineering & Hiking in Anchorage. "Do you have to show up with a resume or do you just have to tell them that you know what you're doing? What does this actually look like?"
Joseph Davis, a Glacier View resident who chairs the community council, agreed the policy might be tricky to implement especially by summer guides working the counter when Stevenson is guiding.
But Davis said that personally he understands the need for the policy. He thinks it's a good idea given how easily tourists could get into trouble on the glacier.
"There are no villains in this story," he said. "It's a complicated issue and real lives are at stake."
Work in progress
Matanuska Glacier in February is a world-class gem of glassy ice with a pristine cover of snow. A short walk to the toe yields rare glimpses of exposed "basal" ice normally hidden deep in a glacier.
A tunnel-shaped conduit reveals layers of cloudy blue ice striped with black grains of sediment and clear translucent layers. At another spot, sheer scalloped frozen walls rise 30 feet high but just an arm's length across.
Only a handful of people usually come through on winter days, Stevenson said. Previous winter visitors who came back this year praised the untracked snow resulting from the new policy holding visitors to the trail.
He's still working out the summer policy.
Stevenson said he recognizes there are people who don't need a guide on the glacier. He said he'll probably require mandatory guided trips for first-time glacier travelers but not experienced ones.
Decisions about who needs a tour and who doesn't will be made on a case-by-case basis by Stevenson or trained staffers.
"If somebody exhibits a level of outdoor savvy, that's one thing," he said. "The vast majority of people we get, they grew up on pavement. They need a little guidance. It's gonna be a work in progress."