“Are you taking a selfie?” asked a man who had been introduced earlier as Glacier Bill.
I shook my head and showed him a picture of the crumbling hemispherical mound of glacier 30 yards away that could pass for the foyer of a James Bond villain’s hide-out. Shielding his eyes from the glare of the sun ricocheting off the ice, he squinted at the little screen and gave a curt nod of approval.
“Well, you know we still get 4G out here, right?” he said. “So, if you wanted, you could take a selfie and text it to your friends from all the way out here.”
“All the way out here” being the middle of Matanuska Glacier, a 26-mile-long, 4-mile-wide glacier two hours northeast of Anchorage.
Our trip had started three hours earlier at the Salmon Berry Tours headquarters. A family of four from Shanghai (whose selfie skills far surpassed mine) and I were the only people signed up for the tour on a balmy (read: just above freezing) tail-end-of-winter day.
Outfitted with winter parkas and waterproof boots, we loaded into the van and took off toward mile marker 102.
That’s where we met Glacier Bill. Bill has been a hobbyist overseer of the glacier for 26 years. He knows where the ice is shifting, where the gnarliest crevasses are and which routes are the safest — he’s even been known to go out to rescue rescue teams.
“Stay on the trail, OK?” Bill said, just before we began our trek.
“Not here,” he said, jumping left of the trail. “Not here,” jumping right. “Not here, not here, not here, not here,” he said, jumping wildly from the left side to the right side of the trail again and again, like someone playing double dutch with yards-long, invisible jump ropes. The Shanghai family laughed uproariously. “On the trail, on the trail, on the trail.”
Off we went, single file toward the glacier’s terminus, the only sounds the rush of wind sweeping down from the mountains and the crunch of ice and snow under our crampons.
As we strolled, Bill explained that the subterranean glacier could be up to 3,000 feet thick in places — a measurement that would make it taller than the summits of any of the surrounding mountains — and is a body of solid ice that flows like a river under its own weight.
He explained that while the ice we’d see is only about 1,000 years old, 20,000 years ago the glacier extended to and past the Anchorage area.
And he explained that the glacier is helping with a mass migration of boulders. When the ice melts in the summer — about a foot a day — it creates a pedestal, from which the boulders eventually dislodge, moving a few yards in the process.
“Also, if you see a fat fox, it’s not because we’re feeding him,” Bill said, pointing to some tracks in the snow. A winter storm had blown a bunch of migrating birds off course. When they settled on the glacier, the fox apparently had a heyday.
“He’s almost too fat to hunt now,” Bill said, chuckling.
When we reached the first bit of exposed glacier, Bill invited everyone to run their hands over the crystalline ice. Stuffing our gloves in our pockets, we ambled over to the 40-foot wall of frozen water.
The glacier felt like it had been polished smooth. We rubbed our hands against the massive slab and marveled at the fact they were still dry when we stopped.
As we trekked along, up hills and over mounds of snow, passing more exposed bits of glacier, we realized it wasn’t fair to simply call the glacier “blue.” In some places, there’d be a lightning bolt-shaped streak of cobalt disrupting an expanse of cerulean. In others places, lapis would fade to sapphire, which would give way to a gray-blue. Occasionally, bits of teal could be seen trying to burst through the recent snowfall.
After about 40 minutes — we stopped a half dozen times to climb through caves and crevasses on the way — we reached the terminus. There dozens of great shards pushed their way skyward, stretching for the clouds.
If you’ve ever wanted to play in the ice castle from Disney’s “Frozen,” this is probably the next closest thing.
We spent the better part of the next hour or so climbing higher to get better views of the spires and then sliding down the opposite side to see how far down a narrow passageway we could wriggle.
As the clouds rolled in, we reluctantly made our way back to the bus. Halfway back Bill beckoned us over to another section where tectonic plate movements have caused the ice to buckle, resulting in a frozen wave-like formation.
“Just listen,” he said. “We might be able to hear the glacier moving.”
We crowded around the ice mass, putting our ears close to the exterior. For a minute, all we heard was the wind and our own breathing.
“Be patient,” Bill said. “Stay still.”
And there it was, the soft snap, crackle and pop of the ice shifting around us. Bill gave another satisfied nod and continued up the trail, swinging his walking stick as he went.
When the group made it back to the cabin, peeling off layers and crampons, Bill stood outside and gazed out on the glacier.
“I’ve been doing this for a long time,” Bill said. “But it never gets old.”