Have Twins, Will Travel

Mendenhall Glacier

What’s in a name?

Juneau, Alaska – Apparently, the original Tlingit name for Mendenhall Glacier was Sitaantaagu, or “the glacier behind the town.” My source (Encyclopedia Britannica) says the Tlingit also called it Aak’wataaksit, which means “the glacier behind the little lake.” Neither of these names makes sense to me, since the town has only been here since the 1880s and the lake has only been here since the 1920s, and I know the Tlingit have been here longer than that.

Nonetheless, there is now a town and a lake, so I guess the Tlingit had foresight?

But in the meantime, the glacier has been renamed for Thomas Corwin Mendenhall, who defined the boundary between Canada and the United States. The glacier flows from the huge Juneau Icefield, which begins in the Boundary Range along the US-Canadian border. So that explains the glacier’s present namesake. (Incidentally, Mendenhall was also responsible for converting the US from the imperial system of weights and measurements to the metric system. That didn’t go well! But I digress…)

Getting to Mendenhall Glacier

Whether or not it was ever called “the glacier behind the town,” the Mendenhall Glacier is in fact only about 12 miles from Juneau. For a mere $45 per person, you can take the Glacier Shuttle from the cruise ship port to the Mendenhall Glacier visitor center. Or, you can do what we did, and take the city bus for $2. (Do you see the recurring theme here?) It’s worth noting that the city bus actually stops 1.5 miles from the visitor center, but it’s a pleasant, easy walk with some glorious scenery. For us it was a no-brainer.

Once on site, the visitor center has some cool exhibits about the history and geology of the glacier. Within the surrounding grounds, there are several lookout points and a couple of hiking trails.

Nugget Falls

The most popular hike is a two-mile out-and-back trail to the scenic Nugget Falls.

Shortly after setting out, we came across signs warning us that the trail was flooded. And shortly after that, we discovered what they were talking about: six to eight inches of water completely covering the trail for as far as we could see. Some people were turning back; some were stripping down to bare feet; most were standing around looking confused.

One couple was putting their shoes back on after returning from the falls. I asked them if it was worth it, and they answered without hesitation: “Definitely.” The water is cold–obviously–but the submerged portion of the hike is relatively short. And with that, I said “We’re doin’ this.”

Glacial foot bath, anyone?

The water was, in fact, numbing. V balked and turned back before we had barely set out. I feel certain he would have persisted if he could have seen how far we had to wade (which was not very far). But he could not, so he did not. Instead he chose to sit by the side of the trail and wait for us to get back. Daddio and I forged ahead, leaving S hemming and hawing about what to do.

Our glacial foot bath only lasted 5 minutes or less. It was refreshing! And then, just as we were lacing up our boots and lamenting our children’s lack of adventure, S came strolling up with a self-satisfied smile. It warmed my heart (if not my feet).

The hike–which was really more of a walk– was indeed “worth it.” We made the acquaintance of this cuddly porcupine, which was a first for all of us. I had no idea they were so cute!

The trail terminated at a rock-strewn bluff with the Nugget Falls crashing into the lake behind. The boulders were prime scampering and climbing territory, but also perfect for sitting and staring at the spectacular surroundings.

When we returned, we found V sitting where we had left him 45 minutes earlier. He regretted missing the porcupine, but he did not admit regretting his decision to stay behind. (But I bet he comes along next time!)

Visitor Center

The visitor center is a nice facility with a huge picture window overlooking Mendenhall Lake and the glacier in the distance. We learned that the lake has formed as the glacier retreats. In fact, the glacier has retreated 1.75 miles since the lake started forming in 1929. (At that time, the glacier actually extended all the way to where the visitor center is today.)

Mendenhall Lake

At the visitor center, you can also watch the film Landscapes of Change about the historic and evolving connections between glaciers, land, wildlife, and people. But we skipped it (I heard the film is pretty slow). Instead we followed the Trail of Time back to the road, and walked back to catch our bus. At least, we walked most of the way.

Fortunately, V broke into a sprint at the end when he saw the bus coming; he caught the bus and convinced the driver to wait for us. That definitely warmed my heart.