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Alaska’s ice fields and ice caves are worth exploring — but do so cautiously

  • Author: John Schandelmeier
    | Alaska Outdoors
  • Updated: March 26, 2018
  • Published March 26, 2018

Visitors enter an ice cave in Canwell Glacier. (Photo by John Schandelmeier)

Ice fields are special places. Alaska has several huge fields that are larger than some states. The Bagley Icefield, which is the largest non-polar icefield in North America, covers approximately 1,900 square miles. It is the size of Delaware and a third bigger than Rhode Island.

It is not surprising that these vast expanses of ice carry their own weather. Winter and snow rule the ice fields and their interconnected glaciers for most of the year.

Recently, I traveled to a glacier not far from our home. It was spitting snow south of the Alaska Range, but once in the Pass it was clear and calm. The ice field that coats the upper reaches of the Alaska Range east of Isabel Pass has many accessible glacial offshoots that come within a few miles of the Richardson Highway. These glaciers can be fun and interesting, or extremely dangerous, depending on your  approach.

Almost every year a careless snowmobiler or unwary hiker dies on the ice near the Richardson Highway. The Arctic Man ski/snowmobile event in early April has been a notorious contributor to these accidents.

Summer visitors are not immune to the dangers either. Every few summers or so, an inexperienced would-be explorer slips into a crevasse or glacier stream.

Caution needs to rule actions in the mountains, especially when exploring these rivers of ice.

However, "careful" doesn't mean eliminating fun. The glaciers along the Richardson commonly have significantly more snow than either end of the Pass. The temperatures are generally 20 degrees warmer, and you can count on a breeze.

Steer clear of the sides of glaciers in tight valleys. There are avalanche chutes on the steep slopes surrounding glaciers. There is little vegetation to hold the snow in valleys recently scoured by ice, and snow slides are common, especially toward spring.

It is wise to travel in pairs, carry a rope and bring a pole to probe with.

Crevasses can be bridged by a light crust of snow that will support very little weight. Skis are generally the preferred foot gear for those with some experience. Snowshoes work well in brushy approaches and soft snow.

An entrance to an ice cave in Canwell Glacier near the Richardson Highway.  (Photo by John Schandelmeier)

For those who don't see the attraction of trudging up a winding stream of ice, there is another option. Explore under the ice. All glaciers have rivers or streams running out from under them. During the summer, this rushing water creates large thaw bulbs through the base of the glacier. A cave will form under the ice by these rivers. Cold winter temperatures naturally freeze the stream under the ice, allowing access.

Some of these ice caves can be quite deep. There is one that I know of that I paced at nearly a mile without reaching an end. How much ice is overhead one mile deep into a glacier? I can't tell you except to say "a lot."

Never venture into an ice cave without an ax in hand. The temperature under a glacier will stay relatively constant inside — 20 degrees is about as cold as it gets once away from the entrance. The ice underfoot may not be solid everywhere. Move carefully and check the ice thickness constantly as you move.

Fantastic ice crystals hang from the ceilings just inside cave entrances. These ice formations change the farther one goes inside. The entrance will have relatively thick, solid crystals. A hundred feet in, delicacy rules –touch one and it collapses. Three hundred feet into a cave and the ceiling becomes clean because there is little moisture that far inside. The ice will be clear, filled with suspended sand and rock.

Ice crystals hang just inside the entrance of an ice cave in Canwell Glacier.  (Photo by John Schandelmeier)

Each cave is different. Some will have sand "beaches" in spots where water was held stagnant long enough for the silt to settle out. Many years ago I found an animal frozen into the ice several hundred yards into an ice cave. The pressure of the ice had crushed it into an unrecognizable shape. I spent an hour chopping out the block of ice containing the unknown creature and later sent it off to UAF in Fairbanks.

Shortly after, I was informed that my strange critter was an ordinary Varying hare. It was old, but not at all unusual. The ice pressure had deformed the skull without breaking it. So much for my rare find.

Ice caves are fascinating places. They are well worth a long weekend trip. Arizona has the Grand Canyon. New Mexico has Carlsbad Caverns. Alaska has ice.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson.

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