November can be a low time of year in Juneau, Alaska with the snow birds leaving town, the days getting darker, and the realization that winter is coming! In between all the stormy weather that is known for this time of year, the weather occasionally breaks for clear skies and gives us a chance to get out and explore!
The Mendenhall Glacier was once described by John Muir in 1890 as THE most beautiful coastal glacier he had ever laid eyes on. This was when the Mendenhall, once called the Auk Glacier, touched the ocean in the north end of the Gastineau Channel covering what is now the Juneau International Airport. Fanning out over a mile wide delta and letting its ice bergs kiss Douglas Island sometimes creating too much ice to pass through Gastineau Channel! Over the last 140ish years the glacier has retreated miles back into the valley. In today's world there is now a lake which makes for fantastic recreation in both summer and winter!
In summer, this is a great place for paddle boarding, canoeing, kayaking, and hiking. You can even access the underbelly of the Mendenhall and explore her ice caves! If you do plan to get out onto the lake itself, know that the water temperature is around 35-36 degrees. Meaning if you go over, you have about five to seven minutes before your limbs go numb, and about fifteen minutes before you're no longer conscious. So it is VERY IMPORTANT to prepare for this. Always go with someone, wear a life preserver equipped with a whistle, and always let someone know what you're doing and when to expect you back. Safety is the number one concern for water activities at the lake, but if all your bases are covered it is incredibly rewarding and beautiful. Truly an unforgettable experience, every time!
In winter the Mendenhall Lake is great for cross country skiing, snowshoeing, ice skating and hockey! The scenery is unreal and skating along side ice bergs while they're frozen in the lake is mind blowing! This area is usually 10 degrees cooler year round, which means this lake will typically freeze first in the area. And since our winters typically hover around 30 degrees, having that extra 10 degree difference makes quite a difference since it allows the lake to stay frozen even if it is raining downtown. When you do play on the lake during winter it's very important to keep your distance from the ice bergs and the face of the glacier. The ice tends to be thinner around the edges of the ice bergs because they are constantly moving. And you never want to get too close to the face of the glacier as it can suddenly calve and you will be lost! As long as you keep your distance, you will still be in awe at the beauty and the Mendenhall's vastness.
There are two places to launch your gear, one is on the east side down Glacier Spur Road at the Visitor's Center, just to the left of the pavilion there is a trail that takes you down to the lake's edge. The second location is on the east side down Skater's Cabin Road. There is a lot of parking on this side and this is also where the river rafting tours launch for their summer tours.
Today's canoe trip was incredible because we caught it just as the lake was beginning to freeze over! The center of the lake had ice covering most of it, about a quarter inch thick while the shoreline was still thawed. It was one of those memorable times to canoe because the ice was thin enough to break through, yet thick enough to feel like I was a true pioneer, breaking through the ice all in the name of exploration and adventure!
What I wore
- Canoe and paddle
- Seat cushions doubling as floatation devies
- Life preserver and whistle
What's your favorite season to play at the Mendenhall Glacier?