Posted by: jsmcfadden | August 14, 2009

Mendenhall Lake and Glacier

So, then, on Wednesday, after a morning of approaching Dawes Glacier, we dock in Juneau. It’s drizzling, chilly. But this is the day to see a glacier from a human perspective. Not from an airplane, which was lucky because the airplane and helicopter tours of Mendenhall were cancelled the day we were there — visibility bad. And not from a gigantic cruise ship dozens of yards above the surface, on an enormous floating resort. From the lake into which the glacier often drops house-sized chunks of ice. From a canoe on the lake.

Now, the canoe was not exactly the same as the one on the website photos when we bought the excursion. Smaller, for one thing. For another thing, not as big.

I was afraid.

I pictured being in the canoe with the other 10 or 11 people, paddling across the frigid waters of the lake and shifting my weight a little and all of up toppling over into the water. I pictured being in the canoe and a house-sized chunk of ice collapsing from the glacier into the lake and capsizing us. I looked again at the rain gear: heavy chest-high waders, parkas that fit over everyone’s jackets and sweatshirts. We would simply descend to the bottom of the lake. Our rain gear would simply fill with water and we would quietly sink.

But I didn’t want to be a wuss.

So I put on the parka and life jacket (no waders for me — insufficient rain gear also contributed to my skepticism about this whole thing) and stepped into the canoe next to James, a guy from Maryland who was really looking forward to this adventure.

And we set off. It was great. Despite the cold drizzle and fog which meant I was afraid to get cameras out. Despite not knowing how to paddle with lots of others so that the canoe makes good progress. It was great.

We rounded a point coming up to the glacier, and then a whoosh of cold wind and rain hit us in the faces — this wind off the glacier like a snowstorm’s wind. The water had little waves in it but we weren’t going to topple. We stopped to look at this amazing glacier.



John took these pictures with his camera that can go underwater; I really didn’t want to risk the rain and wind.

What you see is from a couple of football fields away. On the right is the waterfall which is the melted runoff.


After awhile, we paddled a bit closer, and I noticed a little orange buoy-marker which I assume marked the place where it might be too close for safety. We stayed this side of it, I’m relieved to say.

And then we headed for a spot we could get out of the canoe, over by Nugget Falls.


This is what it looked like when we kind of turned and headed that way.  That white thing to the right of the falls is glacial ice — it’s a little iceberg. We headed about mid-way between the iceberg and the falls, where our guide said there was a pebbly beach and we could get out of the canoe there. If we looked all the way to the right — and if we could have seen to the shore through the fog, which was getting thicker by the minute — we could have seen the park buildings where people can drive and look at the glacier from the safety of the opposite shore of Mendenhall Lake.

There were other big chunks of glacial ice in the lake which we canoed past headed toward the rocky beach. The falls got bigger and bigger. We picked up speed so that we could get the canoe up onto the beach solidly; we felt rocks under our paddles and then we were there. Our guide hopped off — she had high boots on as well as waders and parka — and she and the two teenaged guys in the front got the canoe pulled up onto the beach a little more, and we got out of the canoe and stepped onto the beach.

yesscaleagainAnd once again it became clear that this is all about scale. 














Here we are, in case you didn’t recognize us.


 johnandjeriglacierSee how foggy it was becoming? We couldn’t see the shore where we had stepped into the canoe. It became an eerie thing, looking at the icebergs on the lake, standing in front of the huge Nugget Falls, looking at the Mendenhall Glacier and the canoe, the dozen people or so who were in our group.


thelakethecanoeAn experience like this — well, it was unlike anything in my normal life. It was stepping into a different time period, or a different reality.

Hey, and see? That canoe was pretty small, don’t you think?



  1. […] The width of the river there was 10 or 12 feet, and then the wild drop into the gorge. The cold mist reminded me of the mist off the glacier when we canoed across the lake. […]

  2. Isn’t it great that not all the adventures end with your twenties?? Not all of them involve children!!

  3. Your concerns about the canoe seem completely logical. Don’t think I would be too gung-ho either. What an adventure!

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