Glacier Ice Ice Baby

Glacier Ice Ice Baby
The blue glacier ice of a cave wall under the Canwell Glacier – Eastern Alaska Range | Purchase Print

Over the years I’ve become a lot more refined in my live “filtering” process when it comes to taking photos. When I first started with digital photography, I had a tendency to just photograph everything from every angle I could and hope that something looked good. Nowadays I’m pretty selective and definitely more thoughtful about every shot. Except on Sunday. Sunday was definitely a throwback to the old days. I spent the day exploring a series of Röthlisberger style glacier caves under the Canwell Glacier in the Eastern Alaska Range.

A couple of these tunnels and caves had some of the clearest ice I’ve seen at the base of similar glaciers. Unlike other glacier caves in the area, they were not 100% debris-covered (covered in rocks and talus), so a fair amount of light was able to filter in, providing a wonderful blue glow all around.

Opening in a glacier cave in the Alaska Range
The blue glow of one of the Canwell Glacier ice caves and one of the smaller openings | Purchase Print

The tunnels and caves were fantastic, but so were the detail and texture in the ice. It was so clear enough to sometimes see over a meter into the glacier ice and peer into all the sediment and tiny air bubbles that became trapped nearly half a millennia ago.

I took a lot of photos. Over five hundred. I guess I didn’t quite throw my discernment out the window. Using a tripod, I carefully set up the majority of my shots. At least with my primary camera. I just walked around with my secondary shooting everything. Imagine giving a digital camera to a 5-year old. That was me.

Glacier ice in the Canwell Glacier
The icy ceiling of one of the shallower caves | Purchase Print
Person in a blue glacier cave
Self-portrait at the entrance | Purchase Print

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As the day went on, the melt intensified. The trickle of water pouring off the entrance turned to a small waterfall. A lot of rock was pitching off the entrances. I was happy to have my helmet on the whole time, as there were even some plucked rocks falling off the cave ceiling (I took it off for a minute for another self-portrait, but I checked the area first).

There are a lot of caves in the area, mostly formed by one of the main water channels running up-glacier. The moraine in this area is now dead ice, most of it disconnected from the main body of the glacier, no longer flowing with it. This section is just withering away, melting down until all that’s left are piles of rocks. Further upglacier, more may form in the same way in the coming years as air melts out these old water conduits. Usually, once they become exposed on two sides and air is able to flow through they melt out relatively fast. Of course, that means they will also become unstable and collapse in the not-to-distant future. The largest cave I explored in this area probably has another year or two.

Looking over the moraine into one of the shorter tunnels lower down on the moraine
Looking over the moraine into one of the shorter tunnels lower down on the moraine
Looking through a glacier ice tunnel
The interior of the tunnel pictured above
Rocks frozen in glacier ice
Rocks suspended in the ice of another cave
Blue glowing glacier cave under the Canwell Glacier
Wide-angle view of the largest of the caves, so much blue glow! | Purchase Print
Blue glow in glacier ice
Blue glow in the ceiling | Purchase Print
Looking through a glacier ice tunnel
Looking toward the entrance of the large cave from another tunnel | Purchase Print
Smooth textures of a glacier icewall inside a cave

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Blue glacier ice in a Canwell Glacier ice cave
Sunlight reflecting off the blue glacier ice | Purchase Print
Entrances to glacier caves and tunnels
Caves and more caves
Blue glacier cave in the Canwell Glacier
Purchase Print
Till under the ice on the Canwell Glacier
Clear ice at the ice-bed interface | Purchase Print
Blue glacier cave
Blue and shiny cave | Purchase Print

Over the next few weeks I’ll be working on a few additional edits for print media. Many of these will be included in my ongoing Water and Ice project.

Person standing in the entrance of a glacier cave
Me at one of the entrances

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A few days earlier I hiked out to the Gulkana Glacier with one of the climbing team kids and his mom. We hoped for a team outing, but between the weather and school, it was difficult to get everyone together on the same day. It was a bit of a rainy day but still had an incredible time. We visited the Gabriel Icefall up close. It was really nice for me to have someone else to hike with too! My wife has a damaged ankle that is awaiting surgery from a climbing gym incident earlier this year, so she maxes out at about three miles before she can’t walk on it anymore. I’m really looking forward to her recovery!

Hikers on the Gulkana Glacier
Hiking on the Gulkana Glacier during one of the brief moments of sunlight
Seracs in the Gabriel Icefall
Seracs in the Gabriel Icefall
Fog in the mountains over the Gabriel Icefall
Fog rolling over the mountains and icefall | Purchase Print

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Moulin in the Gulkana Glacier
Looking straight down one of the smaller moulins we encountered
Moulin in the Gulkana Glacier
Waterfalls down a moulin
Moulin and Gabriel Icefall on the Gulkana Glacier
Moulin and the Gabriel Icefall | Purchase Print
Blog Comments

Hey Lee, do you have coordinates or decent directions for the Canwell Glacier ice cave? I’ve been before, but it was 6 years ago and when I went down there today I ended up at the Castner Cave, not the Canwell. I didn’t know the name before today and assumed the one that showed up on Google Maps was the one I was looking for. I want to head down there again, but don’t want to miss it again!

Thanks, great photos.

Latitude 63.36211
Longitude -145.64454
It’s tough to give detailed directions because the system is in a messy bit of moraine. The easiest approach is from Red Rock Canyon Road, which might be snowed in already. About 1/4-mile beyond the first creek crossing (about mid-way up the hill on the jeep road) you start cutting down toward the moraine. There is a tall talus slope with a wood post near the caves, but it’s not very visible because the entrances face the other way. The alternate approach is from the Miller Creek pull-off on the Richardson Highway. It’s about 3 miles one-way to the glacier toe. If you hike up to the tallest lateral moraine near the north margin of the glacier, you should start to see some of the caves to the south after about another mile.

If you go, I highly recommend wearing a helmet. There’s a lot of rock falling off the top of the entrances as well as the cave ceilings. Some very large ice chunks fell (car-sized) between two visits I made in late August a week apart. I fully expect this cave to collapse before this time next year, so be aware.

Great info, thanks!
I think that cave has been there a long time. This is a photo from when I was there 7 years go (not six it turns out). It was gigantic, which is why I’d love to return. We’ll see how the weather turns out. Thanks for the reply!

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