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Icy exploration awaits on Alaska's stunning Matanuska Glacier

  • Author: Erin Kirkland
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published August 3, 2015

SUTTON -- Our group of eight newbie ice hikers made its way up, then down, a short incline under the direction of MICA Guides leader Ben Burrell, who, I'm sure, tried not to laugh as we clomped and stomped in an effort not to hook ourselves in the ankles with the two-inch spikes protruding from our boots. Satisfied with our performance, Burrell quickly organized us into a multigenerational lineup.

"Let's go hike on some ice," he said.

That ice was Matanuska Glacier, a 26-mile frozen river representing centuries of compressed snowfall that offers visitors the uncommon opportunity to walk right up to and on its frigid flanks. Like most people who travel the Glenn Highway, I had stopped many times at pullouts to take pictures and ogle at the bluish ribbons of ice protruding from a cloudy Alaska day, but always on my way to or from another destination, and usually with children in the back seat. The glacier was too far away and too technical for my youngster to be trusted to explore safely. And, no doubt, it was too expensive to hire a guide -- or so I thought.

My 10-year-old son and I made our first glacial attempt this summer, during what I believe to be the "sweet spot" of his budding maturity -- that is, when he retained a desire to still hang out with his mother. What resulted was an excellent reminder that:

• Kids can do a lot more than we sometimes expect, and

• Glaciers, like children, ooze quietly forward, and eventually go their own way without us realizing it.

Thus, our three-hour hike with Mica Guides was a twofold journey of clarity in all sorts of ways.

Located at Mile 102 of the Glenn Highway, Mica Guides has been leading trips and climbs on Matanuska Glacier since 1999 and aims to present guests with an experience that will leave them with a healthy respect for climate, landscape, and the power of Mother Nature.

Other guiding companies in the Matanuska Glacier area include Nova Glacier Guides (1-800-746-5753); and Matanuska Glacier Adventures (907-745-2534).

Moving a foot a day

Matanuska Glacier, Burrell explained, is a valley glacier, which in laymen's terms means it is ice flowing like a river under its own weight through a valley. In this case, the originating mountain range is the familiar Chugach, and the valley is smack in front of the roadway, providing viewers the largest Alaska glacier that can be accessed by vehicle. Call it an educational gold mine for families.

Flowing at a rate of a foot per day, but with little change to its terminus thanks to a process known as "ablation," or the melting of snow or ice that runs off the glacier, Matanuska has seen little location change over the past few decades, at least that which is visible to the average visitor. Up close, however, Burrell showed off subtle, yet significant indicators that something is always happening, above and below the surface.

The advantage of a guided glacier hike is the opportunity to learn more about what you're walking on, through, or over. We did it all, from peering into the depths of a narrow crevasse to tossing pebbles down a stream of swirling water ending in a bluish bowl as clear as the sky overhead. We climbed up to face crags of ice, sides cupped by wind and sun, and witnessed hardy ice climbers making their way to the top with a whoop of triumph.

Ice scratched and creaked under those imposing crampons, and my son took a moment to pirouette through a thin layer of silt near a frozen pond in a moment of pre-teen bliss that he figured I didn't see. I also caught him staring, mouth hanging open, at layers of texture found on the glacier, inspecting the web of lines and cracks like pieces in nature's intricate, and sometimes confusing, puzzle.

But what a place to learn how to sort through those pieces in an effort to understand a bigger picture. And I'm not just talking about glaciers, either.

Matanuska Glacier: If you go

Find it: The glacier is visible beginning at Mile 100 of the Glenn Highway, north of Anchorage. Watch for waysides and the state-run Matanuska Glacier Recreation Area, located at Mile 101. Here, short trails lead to better viewing. A small campground is managed by Long Rifle Lodge.

Mica Guides is located at Mile 102, two hours from downtown Anchorage. Follow the directional signs to the parking lot and check-in yurt. (907-351-7587).

Exploring: Matanuska Glacier can be accessed through Matanuska Glacier Park, a fee-based site that permits both guided and un-guided adventures. However, due to the constantly changing conditions of a glacier and potential hazards, it is recommended that visitors consider a guide.

Mica Guides offers guided three-hour Ice Fall Treks for families with children over age 8, and the opportunity for a private tour for those with children under the age 6. Infants and toddlers are not permitted on the ice for safety reasons.

Advanced adventures can be arranged for those wanting to tackle ice climbing, available for those over 12 and a great outing for teenagers. The company provides training in crampon use, ice safety, and gives all participants hard hats in case chunks of ice or rocks tumble down. Tours last about three hours, and begin at $74/adult, $62/kids ages 8-12, and include a ride to the glacier, equipment, and a guide.

Mica Guides Logistics Coordinator Courtney Hague says the experience often inspires further glacier exploration -- and not just among adults. "We host a number of youth-centered adventure clubs each summer," she said. "Learning to ice climb is such a highlight, and our guides enjoy acting as instructors."

Things to know: Mica Guides conducts trips in all sorts of weather, but even on sunny days, the glacier can be cool and breezy. Dress in layers of weatherproof clothing, including wind or snow pants, and bring gloves and a knit beanie or cap to wear under a hard hat. Bring a lunch, water, and snacks for kids. There are no toilet facilities beyond those at the trailhead. Groups will stay together for the duration of the trip. Hague said Mica Guides maintains high safety standards, emphasizing that no one can embark on a guided trip with the company unless he or she completes safety briefings, demonstrating an ability to recognize safe areas, utilize gear, and follow directions.

Erin Kirkland is author of Alaska on the Go: Exploring the 49th state with children and publisher of AKontheGO.com, Alaska's only family travel resource. Connect with her at togoak@gmail.com.

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