Editor’s Note: The Yukon Geological Survey has since issued a public warning against entering the ice cave, as they note it will eventually collapse.
It was 6:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning in Whitehorse as my friend Nicole pulled into my driveway in her large black pickup truck. I threw my rucksack and snowshoes onto the back seat and we started our venture on the icy, dark Alaska Highway towards Haines Junction.
We slowed down as we spotted elk along the sides of the highway, visible only from a distance as the high-beam headlights danced off their eyes. I was certainly glad I wasn’t driving as I don’t have enough Canadian driving experience for the varying difficulties of ice and wildlife.
We continued our drive eastward with the dawn’s light, in the rearview mirror, slowly creeping and changing the black sky to hues of orange and pink. Once we had driven past Haines Junction, we turned onto the highway leading to mainland Alaska, watching the GPS to pinpoint the “hidden” starting point of the trail.
We arrived at an obvious pullout that had been specially ploughed out of the highway at the trailhead, and to numerous amounts of flagging tape. We began to wonder how much this was actually a “secret cave” anymore.
We prepared our gear and equipment. It was -40 C and our ice-frosted hair and eyelashes were immediately evident. We headed into the brush of trees and onto an open, hard-packed and tracked trail. We headed along the trail with the clearly visible, white Kluane National Park peaks in the near distance and a bright full moon in front of us.
We walked for an hour and the sun finally made its way over the peaks as the moon fell asleep behind the mountains. The false sense of warmth was a welcome feeling. However, as we ventured farther along the trail, we ended up on the north aspect, in the creek’s gully and hidden from the sun.
The hike was challenging as the extreme cold required constant face covering, which resulted in difficulty breathing. Although it is a small incline, the air was cold and brutal on our lungs, muscles and skin. One member of our group had his face uncovered for only minutes and white circles had preliminarily surfaced. Covering and immediate warming restored his face to its former pink.
As we drew closer to the mountains, we wondered how much farther this arduous journey would be … How would we spot the cave? Maybe it’s a secret because it’s tucked and hidden away.
After two and a half hours of snowshoeing in the cold shade, the higher altitude was making it increasingly difficult. The cracks and whomps from the frozen creek would sent shudders down our spines. In some places we could hear the creek pushing through the frozen wilderness, showing nature’s incredible determination to withstand the elements.
Suddenly we looked up and delight entered our spirits as we spotted a small view of the cave’s opening. “We found it!” one of our group yelled. Our renewed energies at almost accomplishing the trail gave us strength to continue on. We reached the knoll and the ice cave’s mouth opened up with textured blue enchantment.
The sheer size of the ice cave was unexpected. The photos do not do the beauty, magnificence and intrigue of its multi-textured layers justice. Immediately, we walked to its mouth and through the entrance where large ice shards and boulders lay in its belly.
Unable to understand how nature can build such an incredible structure and that there are so many different colours for blue, we ventured farther to the other side of the ice cave and glanced back at the sun-kissed mountains in the distance.
The freezing temperatures finally caught up to us as our adrenalin subsided, so we decided to head back down to get warm. Snowshoes off, we bade farewell as we hiked down in the sunshine.
Our first expedition in -40 C had proved fruitful but exhausting. Whether or not the cave is a secret is debatable, but it certainly is a journey worth making.