Alaska without the Cruise Ship Part 14: Touring the Glaciers of Skagway by Helicopter

Alaska without the Cruise Ship is a 17-part series exploring the ease and advantages of touring Alaska on your own steam and at your own speed.

We saved our very best Alaskan experience for the last day of our trip.

I had never been on a helicopter before and was quite disappointed when an earlier trip out of Juneau was cancelled due to weather. Weather happens, however, especially in Alaska and we hoped for the opportunity to try again.

So, early one morning we found ourselves at the Skagway heliport walking single file out to one of five helicopters lined up on the grass-covered landing strip. We had signed up for the Glacier Discovery by Helicopter tour with a company called Temsco. The 80-minute tour was a bit pricey at $249 but it turned out to be the best $249 I’ve ever spent. If you do just one excursion in Alaska, save your money for a helicopter glacier tour; you will not be disappointed!

The ride itself was especially exciting since it was my first time on a helicopter; it’s a very odd, yet exhilarating experience bobbing around in the air like a yo-yo without a string. When we moved forward it wasn’t too different than being in a small plane. However, going straight up, hovering, or banking sharply was a bizarre, breaking-the-laws-of-physics feeling that was unlike any aeronautical experience I’ve had before.

We took off and began slowly gaining altitude as we flew over the massive fjord which terminates at Skagway. Enormous mountains rose on either side of us and as we climbed higher, small plateaus and lakes began to come into view–wonderful scenic little pockets hidden from the rest of the world.

It wasn’t too long before our pilot banked to the left and started following an alluvial floodplain crisscrossed with interconnected streams and rivers and strewn with boulders carried down from the melting glaciers above. Shortly after, the glacier itself came into view, an enormous frozen river of ice that carved through the rugged mountains. This was the marvelous Meade Glacier.

Our pilot circled around, flying close to trickling waterfalls and fantastic ice formations before landing the helicopter on the glacier itself. Climbing out and into the foggy landscape of the icy, rock-strewn glacier was like stepping onto some distant moon.

Despite its reputation for rigidity, a glacier is a living, moving entity. Countless rivulets etched themselves into the ice, trickling away into cracks, pausing in frozen moments, or coming together to disappear into frightening, gaping holes that seemed to go on forever. It was rather unnerving to toss rocks into these holes and listen to them bounce off walls before disappearing in silence, probably somewhere in China.

We had the fortunate good luck to have a pilot who had studied geography in college and was therefore a walking encyclopedia of glacier knowledge. Our flight up was a 25 minute Glaciers 101 instructional course, crackling in from the speakers in our headphones.

One of the more interesting nuggets of information we learned was that glacier ice absorbs every color of the light spectrum except for blue, which it then radiates out. Even though we visited the glacier on a cloudy day, the shades of deep blue were mesmerizing in their beauty.

We spent about 30 minutes on the glacier hiking around, peering into various cracks and fissures, and otherwise soaking up this otherworldly place. We picked a great day. The fog added an element of mystique and wonder to an already spectacular location and I was sad to leave after such a short time on the ice. The solace and bliss found in such a desolate landscape was intoxicating and comforting at the same time.

Meade Glacier, like so many glaciers across the world, is receding. As we climbed back into our helicopter and flew away, the prospect of this glacier one day disappearing was a depressing thought which stuck with me in a mournful sort of way for the remainder of the day.

Yesterday: Boots, Boats and Trains in Skagway
Tomorrow: Eating Well in Skagway