There is a stark, alien beauty to Exit Glacier, which flows from Harding Icefield in Alaska’s Kenai Fjords National Park, and, with each passing decade, the name has become more apt. Looking out to the end of the glacier, you can see where the ice once extended, far beyond its current boundaries. Each year, the glacier recedes a little bit more, so I feel extremely blessed, if abjectly terrified, to be able to walk on its surface before it is gone.
The ice behemoth slinks down the valley, immense, monolithic, and, up close, much dirtier than I’d expected. Great, gaping fissures scar the ice, which turns from newspaper-white to glass-cleaner-blue the deeper the crevasses run, as pressure from the ice above drives out the air between the frozen water molecules, allowing only certain bands of light to escape. In places, water trickles, carving out gullies and caves. The vastness of the glacier distorts visual perspective; landmarks appear simultaneously near and far. In places, the snow and ice form near-vertical descents, and my stomach lurches every time I dig my spiked boot into the ground, certain I’ll tip over, break through a deceptively thin layer of ice, and fall, fall forever.
The Kenai Peninsula, which juts from the south-central coast of Alaska, is an ecological dreamscape. Coastal rainforests crowd the cliffs that cast their shadows over the inlets and bays of the Gulf of Alaska, home to a swell of marine life—whales, porpoises, seals, otters, puffins, and all manner of sea birds—in addition to bears (grizzly and black), moose, and other land creatures. Eagles are comically common here, perched on Seward’s docks, which extend into Resurrection Bay, where orcas hunt and where, in 1964, a 9.2-magnitude earthquake sent a tsunami that all but wiped out the tiny waterfront town.
Afterwards, recuperate at the charming Bear Paw Inn
While many glaciers remain off limits to tourists, there are a few, like Exit, that you can explore with guides. We hiked about an hour and a half along a challenging, sometimes steep trail that wound through damp forest. We were halted once to let a black bear skitter ahead of us into the brush—then, a nerve-wracking descent down a 45-degree rock scree to the glacier’s entrance point.
Our guides from Exit Glacier Guides helped us with the awkward crampons, ice axes, and helmets, then shuttled us along with dire warnings to never veer from the tracks they laid out, lest we plummet through a thin patch in the ice. A couple ice-climbers descended into crevasses, and our guides held us while we leaned over these long, deep slashes in the ice to look down toward a bottom we couldn’t see. There was plenty of goofing off, along with photo-ops in the grand style of the 19th– and 20th-century Artic explorers. And there was plenty of feeling incredibly minute, helpless, and generally inconsequential in the face (or rather, on the face) of geologic history.
Winding our way back after the glacier, we chatted up our guides, who proved to be the kind of itinerant outdoorsman who spend half their time leading hikes, half their time in kayaks, and all of their time deeply in love with this alien world where eagles are like pigeons, bears are neighbors, and the ground we stand on is constantly changing. We headed back to our cozy room at the Bear Paw Lodge—a stunning, custom-built log cabin converted to a small, owner-operated hotel just outside downtown Seward—peeled off our drenched layers, and fell deeply and immediately into blissful unconsciousness.
Details: Bear Paw Lodge prices range from $125 a night for a bunkroom to $185 for the master suite; the entire house rents out for $600 a night. The owners also run Kayak Adventures Worldwide (www.kayakak.com), which offers excellent adventure packages with Exit Glacier Guides (www.exitglacierguides.com). Guided hikes start at $115 per person for a five-hour tour.