It’s been a little more than 25 years since I took a college course on ice age geology. It would be easy to say I haven’t forgotten a thing. Proving it, of course, might be a different matter.
But in the years since, my travels around Minnesota and Wisconsin combined with hours of map study for various purposes have kept lots of those concepts alive and well in my mind. (A claim that can’t be made for every class that ever appeared on a report card.) I have traversed moraines, eskers, lake beds, and hummocks more times than I could ever count, always conscious of what took place there over 10,00 years ago.
And so, as my wife and I rounded a snow-covered moraine and literally walked into Castner Glacier recently, you might rightly guess it was the pinnacle of my glacial fandom.
A dream come true? That wouldn’t be a stretch.
This was near the end our winter trip to Fairbanks, which was our fourth time in the Last Frontier. When we landed, all we had reserved was the rental car, hotel stays, and an ice fishing outing.
No doubt that degree of uncertainty would be too nerve wracking for some. However, leaving things rather open ended would prove beneficial.
The week filled up nicely as we learned what was available: dogsledding, northern lights viewing, ice sculptures, restaurants, restaurants, restaurants. And when we learned the glacier was within drivable distance, there was no need to argue: snowmobiling would have to wait until next time.
The drive to the glacier was….memorable. It started rather flat, mundane, and icy. After we passed the Air Force base, it was seriously icy. It cannot be overstated how stressful it was; I had to loosen my grip on the wheel from time to time so my knuckles could return to white.
As we skidded southward, mountain ranges appeared in the distance, angling obliquely toward our destination. In the last stretch, south of Delta Junction, they finally intercepted our path. The way became much hillier and anything but straight, on what would become one of the most scenic drives I’ve ever encountered. We squeaked through, thanks to the fact that snow management in that area was much more diligently done than near Fairbanks.
There was some doubt whether or not we’d be able to determine the best place to park. The 8 or 10 other cars that beat us there put our minds at ease— sort of. That was far more company than we expected. The upside was that the path to the glacier was easy to follow and relatively well trampled. In no time we came face to face with the cave.
The opening was startlingly large, yet appeared small at the toe of the snowed-over glacier. The elliptical mouth was cleanly cut, like the first hole a baby bird or animal pecks from the inside of an egg.
Once we entered and our eyes adjusted, the depth of the cave became apparent, along with all the colors and textures. The walls and ceiling were of smooth, undulating ice. Periods of melting and freezing left it with a regular scalloped pattern, not unlike waves on the ocean. Also ocean-like was the aqua hue which, in some places, darkened into an unknowable depth.
Streaks of rocks and dirt—incorporated into the flow perhaps hundreds of years ago— hung suspended in the glacial blue. Like fruit swirled into Jell-o. Immovable until warm air returns to carve back the layers.
On the right lay a glassy floor, the normal runway for meltwater in the summer. Wishing not to incur concussions so far from the road, we stuck to the dusty, rocky path on the left. Many before had done the same, as could be seen by the frost deposited on the ceiling by their collective breath.
That frost took intricate patterns farther back in the cave, hanging down more than a foot in fragile formations. Some dangled in delicate strings. Some was like ostrich feathers. Other parts were built quite differently, with tiny plates forming stunted rectangular and hexagonal growths that clung much closer to the ceiling.
The cave gradually made a turn to the left. The ceiling came down as the floor raised up. Around the place we lost contact with outside light, we had to crawl to make it into the next room.
The ceiling soared upward in a domed space which was many times taller than we were. It felt like any terrestrial cave we’d previously toured—dusty, dark, cold. Strange now to think that someday that room will be at the opening of the cave, and sometime after that the glacier will have retreated even farther uphill.
Five years from now? Fifty? I don’t know, but it speaks to the ever-changing nature of glaciers.
We took photos and worked our way back toward the entrance. True to form, we seemed to linger there longer than anyone else. Though we were eventually driven out by the relentless, invasive yammering from a couple of guys who just couldn’t stop talking, it was fun to watch others as they arrived and observe the wonder in their eyes.
Slowly rotating heads. Gazing, pointing. Suddenly remembering to take photos.
I can recall that wave of wonder vividly now, and probably will at least another 25 years.