We are caved in, isolating ourselves from each other. Our world is changing because of an ominous virus that is stealthily spreading. Several weeks into this strange and troubled time, we practice social distancing, quieting down, finding a new normal. There are books to read, online courses to work on, lots of time to write. Luckily, the great outdoors in Alaska, vastly unpopulated, still provides us with opportunities to go outside. If we cannot regroup with others just yet, at least we can seek out venues where we are not likely to come into close contact with people.
“Let’s go see an ice cave!” I propose.
After several days indoors, the teenagers are immediately animated, not even balking at the idea of going for a hike, even if it means getting off the couch, sorting out winter gear, filling water bottles. Eagerly, we leave our self-imposed den for a different type of cavern: the Castner Glacier Ice Cave.
It is an easy, straightforward hike, we were told, a manageable day trip from Fairbanks. “Just drive past Delta Junction to the Castner Creek Bridge,” were the instructions. “Then you’ll see cars parked at a pullout. That’s where the trail starts.” We drive, in snowy conditions, visibility low. Squinting through the windshield, we wonder about this excursion. Should we have picked a better day for this? We pass only a truck or two on the otherwise deserted road. Would we even be able to find a cave in such weather? But then, just beyond the bend and the bridge, in an otherwise people-less landscape, we see a row of parked cars. The trailhead.
On the creek bed, people are heading towards the glacier. We follow, pondering the wisdom of our boots when everyone else is wearing snowshoes. Not long into the walk, sinking knee deep with every step, no inkling of the so-called trail beneath our feet, we understand why. Arms flailing, trying not to topple over, sinking into deep potholes, we must look like the epitome of gracelessness. Helen tries to run quickly across untrodden snow in an effort to not sink but lands, face-down, in deep snow. Yanni opts for a “short cut” across to the right riverbank, seemingly higher, less slushy, only to double-back to our original trail when he becomes stuck. Periklis, a Greek student Yanni brought home from college with him, gawks at the terrain, telling us he has never seen so much snow in his life. I try to follow in Nick’s deep foot imprints, huffing and sweating with the exertion. Where is the leisurely walk we were promised?
There is no sign of a glacier cave until we practically stumble into it. Hidden from sight, its opening suddenly gapes at us around a corner of the steep, snow-covered moraine. And then, we are literally beneath the glacier in an enormous ice cave. We are astounded by its beauty. Formations of ice, scalloped along the cave roof, shimmer translucent and blue. Further in, deep indentations in the walls are encrusted with hoarfrost and glitter in the half light. Our feet crunch on ponded water that has frozen solid on the bedrock, reflecting shiny silvery light. It feels as though we are in a fragile glass house that is nevertheless as massive and strong as the enormous glacier above us. Silence grabs us as we take it in, almost as though we entered a sanctuary, one the earth has gifted to us. In time, the earth may reclaim it, as the cave shifts – widening, lengthening, melting, possibly collapsing. For today, however, we feel enriched, fortunate to simply have beheld it for an afternoon.