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Hiking Across the Juneau Icefield

by Nikhil

When I arrived in Juneau for my 2 month long expedition across the Juneau Icefield (which runs from Juneau, Alaska to Atlin, British Columbia) I was expecting to see penguins and polar bears freely ranging on the icebergs floating along the coast. Boy, was I wrong. In fact the June weather was pretty nice. What would you expect when the sun never sets? The trip began soon after and on our first segment of the trip we went from hiking through a fairly steep, mossy forest (a.k.a. the VERTICAL SWAMP) to hiking up a glacier (this part was called the WALL). It was 100% pain the entire way up. And all I could think about was the fact that I had 2 more months of this ahead. The first look onto the icefield was amazing. I had never seen one so I wasn't sure what it was going to look like. It was an incredibly large, flat, white area. Sounds pretty boring, I know. And after that first view I was pretty much tired of it myself. It's not like it ever changes. >From my perspective it was just a lot of snow. Actually, glaciers, a bunch of which form an icefield, move about a meter a day. Not too speedy in our every day life but when you consider how much driving force that is it's pretty incredible.

We spent about a week taking classes and learning to cross country ski. Ah, yes, this will make the trip much easier, I thought. Skis. I'll just stand up and coast to the next camp. Ha, that strategy doesn't work too well uphill. I found out the hard way as I went backwards for about half a mile on the first day out. But I caught up and we were on our way to the next camp.

Now you'll have to understand something. I've never been a very big guy. And here I am carrying a pack weighing in at around 50 pounds (which was pretty nearly half my weight at the time) attempting to carry it and myself up a hill on skis that want to go down. Sound easy? Well it wasn't. Especially when each day of skiing was about 20 miles. (I can see Steve reading this saying "ah, no problem").

On the way to the next camp we saw lots of tiny crevasses. Crevasses are cuts into a glacier formed as the glacier tries to bend over and twist between the underlying mountains. Big ones can go down hundreds of feet but the wee ones we saw that day got narrow a few feet down. We arrived at camp and had to carry our stuff up the huge hill the camp was positioned on. On an icefield, since it is moving, any shelter needs to be built on a rock outburst to make sure it's in the same place the next morning or next year. This is a nifty idea but it isn't so popular after a long day on the ice when your body just wants to collapse.

So its pretty much the same routine for the next few weeks. Take classes, ski, take classes, ski. And supposedly sleep in between somewhere. But it got really interesting at camp 18. This camp was located at the Niagara's of the Juneau Icefield. Just like water, glaciers can go down pretty steep slopes creating really cool locations. It looked just like a waterfall that had frozen over, but it was still moving. That was a really bizarre idea to me.

Other than skiing and taking classes we were put to work pretty well. We had to keep up the camps, shovel the outhouses (the most cherished of all jobs), monitor the radio (the job that seemed so cool at first because of all the cool lingo we got to use but turned out to be the most boring job of all), and cook. That was my specialty. Just ask my mom. I am not a gifted man but when it comes to cooking I am even less gifted. And to think, all those people had to eat my food. Those were the days when people usually opted for the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

The views were great and the people were even better. I was one of 10 high school students allowed to participate in the program and consider myself very fortunate for the experience. I loved the adventure and hope to find another adventure soon. Its been WAY too long. We go to school, get jobs, start families, and then realize we are too tied down for adventure. I don't think I like working enough to fall into that just yet.