On a spring hike to the ice cave near Haines Junction, we found that the ice cave looks more like a bridge. Neither did we cross that bridge nor did we go under it.
After reading a CBC news story called “Once a local secret, visitors flock to Haines Junction ice caves,” by Karen McColl (April 7, 2017) I really wanted to go see these this.
Just a few weeks before, I had hiked the skidoo trail on Bear Creek Summit into Mount Decoeli, which is very close to the ice cave. Upon hearing the news about the ice cave, I felt wistful that I had not known this secret and had been so close only recently.
After asking around, I discovered that some people had known about it. When Nancy Ohm, my hiking partner, and I finally found the narrow blazed trail, we saw old slash marks cut into the trees, indicating a long time existing route. Lucky for us there was also now some ribbon tied to the trees.
The secret of the Haines Junction ice cave might be out, but the entrance to the trail is still hard to find. As we didn’t know the exact location of the trailhead, we drove the Alaska Highway slowly after we passed Bear Creek, peering into the woods for signs of a trail.
I remember seeing a tiny piece of orange flagging, nevertheless, I drove on and we ended up at the Decoeli trail. There was a cold wind blowing and we checked the hardness of the skidoo trail and found it sufficient for hiking, but this was not our trail.
Back in the car, we backtracked down the highway and found that little piece of flagging that I glimpsed earlier, yet no sign of a trail and no parked cars or any other indication. I parked on the berm, and stepping outside to investigate, we happily noticed it was warmer here – and we found a trailhead, which is only slightly visible when you are actually standing on the trail.
Thank you dear people who came before us; thanks to you the first 0.25 km of the route was well marked. After this, we came out by a wide gravel creek bed, a fork of Summit Creek coming off Mount Archibald. From here on, there were only remnants of skidoo trails and yesterday’s footprints. However, after studying the map, we knew we were on the right track.
The trail followed the creek bed, which is a coarse gravel bed with a braided stream. It’s a rough hike. I suspect that in winter, after snowmobiles have made a trail, the going would have been easier.
Bounding over the gravel, carefully crossing the ice over the many braids of the creek, we encountered some postholing in the still abundant snow, with our feet sinking deeply into the snow, and sometimes we were lucky to find a stretch of easy walking. Once I tried walking on the bank, but there were too many bushes.
I love the openness of the route, only gradually becoming narrower and the banks higher. We were blessed with birdsong, get treated to a sun halo, and see a bee buzzing, sucking nectar from the pussy willows.
The weather wasn’t too warm, so our precarious snow trails don’t melt, which means the way back will be still stable.
Coming around a bend suddenly we see the blue ice of the glacier flowing down Mount Archibald, and underneath it we see something that could be the wall of the cave. As we get closer, that particular lens-shaped image from the CBC photos appears.
The wall, baby blue, with black streaks, is clearly glacial ice. Close to the cave we end up on a day old skidoo trail making the walking easy. Where the skidoo trail ends, we stand in awe.
We are still at least 100 metres away from the cave. Carefully, we inch a little closer. Immediately we sink into snow that is thigh-deep, and not wanting to posthole in an area where we have no idea what is underneath – such as water, air or endless soft snow – we decide to climb up the scree slope on the left.
From our new position we see daylight in the cave.
We have a windy lunch on top of the ridge among angular boulders looking into the mountainous snowscape of Mount Archibald. It is 3:30 p.m. It took us five hours to get here. On the way back we follow the skidoo trail, which takes us onto the bank and greatly improves the hiking, and we are happy to swing our legs in long strides.
When the trail turns to Decoeli, west of us, we leave this ready made trail and plow through deep snow and slide down the exposed bank to get back to the creek bed. Ready for a break, we see people ahead – which makes us speed up again. In a hop, skip and a jump, we catch up with them. Their story is similar to ours, but alas, they had started too late in the day, and had to turn back.
For the last part of the creek bed we see the bank is snow-free and the carpet of mountain avens feels soft to our tired feet.
Our tracks in the creek bed from this morning have mostly melted and we are glad we took note of the landscape to the highway. We arrive back at the our car at 6:30 p.m.
Trailhead: just past the 1,592 km post on the Alaska Highway
Distance: round trip is 12 km
If You Go, Go in the Winter
by What’s up Yukon Copy Editor, Tamara Neely
The ice cave in the Haines Junction area is a dangerous place to be when weather is warm enough to trigger the ice to thaw – and to thaw and freeze in cycles.
Jeff Bond’s advice to people who want to check out this glacial formation is to go in the winter time, because the ice will be stable and there is less risk of a slab of ice falling on you.
Bond is head of surficial geology at Yukon Geological Survey, which is a branch of Yukon Energy, Mines and Resources.
“It’s a hazard,” he says, looking at photos of the cave. “There is evidence of ice blocks falling from the roof. There are slabs on the ground, and any one of those slabs could kill a person. It’s a dangerous place, but you’re going to have more stable conditions in the winter.”
Entering the structure, whereby there is ice overhead, is the most dangerous aspect of a visit to the ice cave. Consider observing how cool it is from outside – don’t enter it, if you can resist.
“If you do enter the cave, do it one at a time, so not everybody in your group is exposed to the same risk at the same time – so somebody could run for help if need be,” Bond says.
He also advises wearing a safety helmet. It won’t protect from slabs big enough to kill, but it will protect you from smaller pieces of falling ice.