Traversing the Juneau Icefield

The University of Alaska Southeast Outdoor Studies Program has a yearly leadership capstone trip to compile all of the skills learned over the year. This year’s capstone trip was a traverse of the Juneau Icefield from Haines (Meade Glacier) down to the Mendenhall; around 70 to 80 miles.


I’m exhausted and we haven’t even started. We all met at the ferry terminal at 6 a.m. There are eight of us, 11 if you include Forest Wagner and Kevin Krein, the instructors. I have packed 17 days of food for breakfast, snacks and dinner. The most important of these was the chocolate. I couldn’t seem to fit it all in my pack so I brought an additional duffel that I stuck in a sled to haul behind me for all of those miles I just mentioned.

[PHOTOS: Traversing the Juneau Icefield]

We arrived in Haines May 11 (two days before Mother’s Day, a big no-no to be out of town). Just a normal ferry experience. Rain from the solarium ceiling dripped onto our already wet sleeping bag while we tried to get comfortable on rickety plastic lawn chairs. And why is there always a smoker getting their nicotine fix unnecessarily close to you? As soon as we got there we were put on weather-hold because of poor flying visibility, so we just hung out in Haines for five entire days. We spent most of our time building bonfires, eating at Mountain Market and competing at frisbee golf. The first 48 hours we slept outside the airplane hanger in tents. The other two nights were spent at Jason Eson’s house, a friend of Wagner’s, the program and now all of us. That was a lot better then the cold wet alley between the hangers. Thank you, Jason!

I think we explored everything in Haines: Battery Point, Mud Bay, Chilkoot Lake area, Dalton City and downtown. Haines is a lot like Juneau. It’s small, the weather sucks but it’s beautiful.

The morning of the 16th the weather cleared up and we took off onto the Meade Glacier. From our landing spot we skinned (skiing with traction adhesed to the bottom of the skiis to make cross-country and uphill travel possible) a few miles and then made camp. That kind of stop-and-go living continued for a while. Wake up, eat, poop, skin, eat, skin, eat, sleep and so on, for days.

At some point we ran into Wagner’s buddy Jacek Maselko, who from the stories we’ve heard seems like one of those crazy awesome mountain men. He was out for a mid-May ski on the icefield. Something you can do when you have your own plane.

We hit bad weather again and had to lay low at camp for a few days. Wind, snow and no visibility means … no moving. The boys and I were thinking a skate park would be a good idea up here but decided on building a snow cave instead. After having some deep cave conversations we headed out of camp to keep with our limited travel time. Skin, break, skin, sleep …

We finally made it to the dog camp and — you guessed it — weather standby again. We were on the next helicopter deadhead, when you and your stuff occupy the empty space in the helicopter back to town after they drop tourists off at the dog camp (that way they don’t waste half of the operation energy).

We finally touched down in Juneau at 4:30 p.m. on May 27. That was a long one.

I called my mom when I got back to Juneau. Late for Mother’s Day but she was happy to learn I was still alive.

• California-born and Alaska-bred, Gabe Donohoe has taken photos daily for the past five years. He is currently a student of the University of Alaska Southeast’s Outdoor Studies program. His photo archives can be seen on “Rainforest Photos” photo blog publishes every other Friday in the Empire’s Outdoors section.


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