For whatever reason, cold weather completes me. I can’t rationally explain it, but there’s something about the feel of a cold wind chill that slips through layers of wool and warmth. It always makes me realize that I’m happiest when the temperature dips near freezing. Maybe it’s my Norwegian heritage, or maybe years of living in sunny southern California that has created a yearning for something different. Either way, I like cold weather. Which is why I decided to hop into a helicopter and fly to the top of a freezing glacier in Alaska.
Alaska has always been on my bucket list. There’s something alluring about a place on earth that is a true frontier. It has the lowest population density of any state in the U.S. There’s only one person for every square mile compared to 72 for the rest of the nation. Alaskans have only civilized 160,000 of the 365 million acres of land in the state.That’s pretty empty. Living in Los Angeles, surrounded by millions of people, isolation carries a certain appeal to me. To trade the commotion of the city for a chance to experience a simple sort of “nothingness” was an easy decision.
I figured the best way to get the most out of the week’s trip was to go by cruise. Many cruise linesoffer excursions inland to see the wilderness and travel up and down the coast, allowing you to visit different towns and cities along the way.“Cities” may be an overstatement. The capital Juneau is better described as an outpost. It can’t be reached by land as it’s ringed by impenetrable mountains and glaciers. One of those glaciers, keeping the rest of the world out, was the one I’d explore on a helicopter tour.
After docking in the harbor, our tour group traveled inland to a waiting pair of helicopters. I’d never ridden in a helicopter before, but that had always been on my list too. After a quick safety course, we were up in the air heading toward a wall of mountains hiding an unthinkable amount of ice behind them. The flight up was exciting. It was almost like the early scenes in Jurassic Park where helicopters dipped in and out of valleys and around peaks. Instead of the lush jungle, we had snow, rock, and hardy brush.
As our helicopter climbed the highest peak, we unexpectedly caught a glimpse of local wildlife. A solitary white goat was perched at the very top of the mountain. Apparently, it wasn’t lost — it’s just what goats do there. It was just an odd sight that always stuck with me.
We reached the glacier and what struck me the most was the sheer size of the thing. To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect. I was imagining something along the lines of a land-bound iceberg, a big chunk of ice nestled up against a mountain. Instead, I was greeted with a giant landmass made of pure ice, streaked with dirt and stretching from one side of an enormous valley to the other. It was as if a Great Lake had frozen solid.
After setting down, we donned special boots with extra traction and prepared to embark onto the ice. After the helicopter engines died down, I discovered a new definition of quiet. Itisn’t just a lack of sound, but it’s a sensation you get a lot of it at once. It was so quiet that you need to whisper because you don’t want to be the one to break the silence. The excitement of the helicopter ride fell away immediately, replaced with a serene sense of calm. And it sprawled for miles in every direction. I was washed over with awe as the true size and scope of the glacier set in. And, finally, I felt the isolation I was seeking.
As I was wandering around the ice, I noticed that it had its own unique topography with slopes, hills, and holes. These holes looked like they didn’t have a bottom to them and they were just wide enough for a human body. The pilot, who now played the role of tour guide, told me holes went down for over a thousand feet and if you went in, you weren’t coming back out. It was a reminder that while beautiful, it could also be extremely dangerous.