I skinned up Miller Creek in the Alaska Range to visit Canwell Glacier earlier this week. Often, the snow will have a firm crust or else snowmachiners will have left a hard packed trail I can follow, making the three miles between the Richardson Highway and the glacier a total breeze—but I had no such luck this time. My skis sank deep into the snow with every slide, and my legs, still a little sore from hiking to Black Rapids Glacier a few days prior, tried their best to convince me to turn around. But the temperature was a balmy 20 °F and I was determined to enjoy the warm weather.
After 15 or 20 minutes I reached the big mound on the north side of the creek where I usually stop to shed a layer and adjust my pack. It’s one of few notable landmarks along the creek and lies about a third of the way from the highway to the glacier. About the same distance ahead I neared the ridge separating Fels Glacier from Canwell Glacier where the creek bed bends to the right, opening into a wide, windswept plain of overflow ice with Canwell Glacier coming into view less than a mile away. I kept the skis on as I crossed the remaining distance to the glacier, though I could have easily walked it. There are only a few sections of exposed glacier ice visible as you approach the glacier in winter—the rest is buried under snow and rock. I steered toward the left side of the glacier where a big wall of blue ice had been the year before. As I approached, I spotted a new tunnel in the center of the terminus of the glacier which I planned to visit second.
I was only a couple hundred feet from the glacier when I felt my ski pole sink into a patch of slushy ice. Water flows out of the terminus of the glacier in all seasons, and it tends to keep some spots near the glacier unfrozen throughout the winter, which I have a checkered past trying to avoid. (That’s what waterproof boots are for!) The ice to my right looked like it was frozen solid, so I sidestepped to it and started shuffling forward, only for my skis to suddenly become glued to the ice. Apparently, I had failed to keep my skins out of the slush, and the water they absorbed immediately froze when they encountered solid ice. I stepped out of my bindings and peeled the skis off the ice, then chipped away the ice on the bottom with a ski pole. I put my skis back on and tried to stay on snow the rest of the way.
The wall of ice at the left edge of the glacier is crumbling apart now and there were several large ice boulders lying scattered beneath it. On one side there was a small cave but it didn't look interesting enough for me to risk sticking my head under the questionable ice around the front. If you visit, be careful where you stand!
After taking a few pictures of the ice wall, I headed toward the tunnel. I passed through one of two openings in the front separated by an icicle curtain and emerged through the far side, taking off my skis and retrieving my camera equipment from my pack. I scampered back into the tunnel with my camera on the tripod, taking care not to slip on the floor made of smooth ice.
The details in the ice of the tunnel were mesmerizing. I found it fascinating to focus on a rock inside the ice while shifting my viewing angle, watching as the irregular ice surface distorted the image and sometimes caused the rock to appear in two or three places at once due to refraction. Glacier ice outside of a cave or tunnel just doesn't look quite the same.
After photographing to my heart's content, I ate a roast beef sandwich, drank some water, then packed up my camera gear and started heading up the glacier toward a massive funnel-shaped depression I spied earlier. As I crested the edge of the funnel I saw a cave opening down and to my right. I maneuvered to the cave entrance, planted my skis in the snow, then plunge-stepped inside, scrambling over some collapsed ice to a flat spot. There was a hole in the ceiling, and a narrow tunnel extended in two directions beneath the cave walls where a stream flows in the summer. I didn't think the cave was worth photographing but when I saw my footsteps leading out of the entrance I had to fish my camera out of my pack for one quick shot before I left.
At this point, the sun had already set (though twilight would last for another hour or so), and I started skiing back to the highway. About halfway there, I noticed my shadow in front of me. I glanced backward to see a nearly full moon peeking over the mountains behind me. It cast a perceptibly warm glow on the snow, mixing with the faint bit of twilight remaining in the southwestern sky. I skied the rest of the way without bothering to break out my headlamp.
Sometime soon, I'll return to Canwell Glacier to check on an amazing cave I've visited a few times since 2014. It changes as it melts throughout every summer and it's been getting harder to access over time, but I expect to find it alive and well.