My husband and I ducked our heads and ran, bent at the waist and covering our eyes from the whirlwind created by rapidly spinning helicopter rotors. As I quickly climbed into the back seat and the door slammed behind me, I started giggling. I felt like I was in some action adventure movie, heading out to save the world from a disaster. But it was no movie. It was a helicopter tour of Mendenhall Glacier and the Juneau Icefield, our favorite shore excursion out of a number of similar activities we had experienced on two trips to Alaska. Our journey this time was via Holland America cruise line and everyone we talked to said this was the best shore excursion for the money.
The 20-minute flight would have been enough for my husband, all but hanging out the door to capture photos of the rivers of ice and deep blue crevasses. Spitting cold rain pelted our faces on the 30-minute hike on the top of Mendenhall, but instead of being miserable, it was a part of the lesson about weather and environment that makes any experience in Alaska so stimulating.
This area is a part of the Tongass National Rain Forest so bring a hat, gloves and extra jacket, even if it’s a perfectly sunny day when you start out. Besides, the temperature on the glacier is about 30 degrees, even when it is a beautiful 80 degree day back in town.
TEMSCO is the helicopter company that most cruise lines contract with for shore excursions from Juneau and Skagway and the company has an excellent safety record for their nearly 30 years in business. It’s the company that first responders call when they need back up, so I felt pretty good about that.
In addition to a bright yellow life vest, every helicopter passenger receives a pair of delightfully clunky boots with small spikes on the bottom to prevent slipping and sliding on your bottom. Just wear your normal shoes and slip your feet right into the boots. It’s a good look.
The Juneau Icefield is basically the convergence spot for about 130 glaciers. At 12 miles long, the Mendenhall Glacier is not the biggest that feeds into the Icefield, but it is the most accessible and the one where we landed and walked around. The guide tells you a bit about what makes a glacier a glacier, as opposed to just a bunch of frozen water. You get to look down into beautiful blue moulins and deep crevasses, and jump over tiny riverlets of water trickling to the ocean.
Our time on the glacier was just about 30 minutes. We had done a day long glacier hike on the Root Glacier in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park a few years earlier, so we didn’t splurge on a longer trip this time.
But later in the day when we talked to the people who took the dog-sledding trip on the glacier – wow, that sounded like fun. Instead of walking around the glacier, you hop into a dog sled pulled by Alaskan huskies and let them burn their calories for about an hour. Ride in the basket or try your hand at mushing the energetic dogs.
Helicopter rides to the Juneau Icefield are available from both Skagway and Juneau. If you’re really into exploring glaciers, take part in both cities. The flights take you to different places and each day in Alaska, the weather and conditions provide for an entirely different experience.
But get to a glacier soon. They are indeed melting, not exactly as fast as the Wicked Witch of the West, but melting they are. This will be an experience to tell you grandkids about, back in the day when there were glaciers.
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A Midwest farm girl at heart, Diana Lambdin Meyer caught the roaming bug early in life. Diana married well - to a photographer who also has the travel bug and whose work in still and video complements her words. Now based in the Kansas City area, Diana is a member of the Society of American Travel Writers who makes a full-time living on the road and at the keyboard. Read about Diana's adventures on her blog, Mojotraveler or follow her on Twitter or Google Plus.
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