Outdoors/Adventure

The Castner Ice Cave has gone from an isolated curiosity in the Alaska Range to major tourist attraction

There is plenty of evidence of foot traffic near the opening of Castner Ice Cave

A single-file line of Chinese tourists, dressed in spotless white, shuffled in close to the frozen glacial river. They tramped in silence, almost 30 strong. Not far ahead of them, but still within my sight, another group of 16 or 18 trekked in a similar formation. Small groups of other visitors were interspersed with the large organized tours. They were all headed to the same spot in this normally isolated part of the Alaska Range. They were headed to the Castner Ice Cave.

The Castner Ice Cave has been in existence since who knows when? I first saw the cave in the 1960s; not sure exactly because that was a darn long time ago. A lot of water has run down Castner Creek since. I do know that the Castner Cave has changed locations a fair number of times over the past 50-odd years. Every glacier in Alaska, and likely everywhere else, has some sort of cave.

What we term an ice cave is simply a hole under a glacier where the glacial creek begins from somewhere under the glacier. Some caves are large enough to walk into, some are not. Melt water from the glacier, caused by transferred summer heat, or heat from a geothermal source under the glacier begins the flow. The water, which is almost always at a constant temperature, carves its way through the glacier on its way to the ocean — whether that be 20 feet or 1,000 miles. The Castner glacial water will travel to the Delta River, then the Tanana and finally to the mighty Yukon on a nearly 1,500-mile journey to the Bering Sea.

The Castner is a typical Alaska Range glacier. Long and narrow, 17 miles, give or take, the ice snakes through jagged peaks on the way to the glacier toe. Just over a mile from the Richardson Highway, it is one of the most accessible glaciers in Alaska, and certainly sports the easiest ice cave in the state for tourists to see. Glaciers are formed by compressed snow. They must have snowfall year-around that does not melt for at least three years, even in the summer months. If that doesn’t happen, the glacier begins to retreat. The snow that falls compacts with the weight of each ensuring snowfall. A bit of summer melt, wet snow and more snow gradually compacts into an ice called “firn.” More snow compacts the firn and it is gradually turned into glacial ice.

The Castner Glacier is one of the few glaciers that is not in a full retreat. The lack of melting on the Castner is due to several factors. Number one: this section of the Alaska Range gets plenty of snow. Also, the lower section of the Castner carries a heavy debris load from constant rock slides on the upper sections of the glacier. This debris helps insulate the ice from summer thaw. Additionally, the glacier runs east-west, with high peaks on all sides, which limits the effects of the summer sun.

It is the spring sun that brings the mass of tourists to the Castner. That — and tour operators. Six years ago the Castner Cave was not where it is today. You could go there and never see another person. Three years back, you would see folks there on weekends during February and March. Last year I was amazed to see 50 people on a Saturday in early April. On spring break two weeks ago, more than 300 college kids and other tourists visited Castner Cave — on a single Wednesday. The majority were college students brought from Fairbanks by tour operators. Most of the others were individual groups from a wide range of countries. Maybe a quarter were visitors from the Lower 48.

The Castner Cave is on a list of “things to do” near Fairbanks; publicize something and folks will come.

The trail into the cave, which in the past was snowshoe or skis only, is now packed into concrete-like hardness. People with no gloves, jeans and sock-less tennis shoes make the trip. Some of them get cold, really cold, and need help out. They still come and the dress doesn’t change. With the crowds come the inevitable damage to the once-pristine ice cave. The damage is not meditated, it is just a product of numbers; “Leroy was here, March 2022″ is on the cave walls. Ice crystals are scraped from the ceiling. Chunks of overflow ice are broken loose and scattered across the floor of the cave. Ice blocks are stacked in the middle of the floor in monuments of disrespect. A group plans to hold a concert in the cave this spring.

All of this is a product of overuse. That said, if I travel as a tourist to the Petrified Forest, I would want to walk and experience that phenomena. I certainly understand the visitor’s desire to penetrate a glacier. There is a fine line between experiencing a natural wonder and disrespecting it. My line may be different than yours, for better or worse, but we all must establish our measure of respect for nature by considering those that came here yesterday and by thinking of those who will visit tomorrow. Nature is for our pleasure and enjoyment; it is not a toy on which to play and forget.

John Schandelmeier

Outdoor opinion columnist John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.

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