One rainy day in late August my family and I set out on a new adventure – a trip to the Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop to kayak on Spencer Lake and the chance to hike on Spencer glacier. to get to Spencer, you’ll need to take the Alaska Railroad’s Glacial Discovery train from either Anchorage or Girdwood. We traveled by car to Girdwood along the Turnagain Arm and were lucky enough to see Beluga whales in route.
We parked at the Hotel Alyeska and checked in with Ascending Path at the yurt next to the hotel. In the yurt we were fitted with crampons for our walk on the glacier. The guides also made sure that we were dressed appropriately – full rain gear, many layers, hats, gloves and NO cotton clothing! Alaska weather is always an adventure and can be enjoyed as long as you are prepared. A good hiking shoe is a plus but I only had running shoes and did okay. My feet got wet due to the rain and a bit cold but the crampon attached comfortably to my shoes. The guide service, The Ascending Path, will also set you up with climbing boots to use while on the glacier. A few of us took them up on the offer, while I did not. In retrospect I should have as they were much more comfortable and warm then I was by the end of the day.
We then traveled by van to the Portage depot where we boarded the train that would take us to the Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop. Our guide Ryan brought us a lunch box which consisted of a sandwich, chips, an apple and a bottle of water. We made sure to use the restroom on the train before we arrived at Spencer! Onboard, the train car we were on was abuzz with excitement as passengers including ourselves were getting excited about arriving at the Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop. It was a short 20-25 minute train ride to Spencer Glacier where we disembarked the train and boarded a van to drive us to the lake.
We then gathered our gear including life jackets and went to the lake where the guides prepared and packed the kayaks. Ryan, our guide gave great instructions on paddling the tandem kayaks. It is about 1.5 miles across the lake to the face of the glacier. I shared a kayak with my 13-year old daughter and it was a bit of a workout to keep pace – my steering didn’t always keep us in the most direct path! It was an amazing experience to paddle among the icebergs and to see the face of the glacier get closer and closer – it is massive! Ryan landed his kayak first and then directed us to the beach. The rain had started so we had to quickly add a layer to our clothing (the kayak portion is aerobic so you don’t want too many layers at the start or you can get too hot)!
We were excited to begin our hike on the glacier. Ryan helped us into our helmets and crampons – the device that grips the ice and allows us to walk safely on the ice. Luckily Ryan gave us easy to understand instructions on how to walk as soon as we were outfitted. He taught us techniques on how to walk up and down hills and made sure we all had it mastered before moving on. Then the glacial exploration began!
It was such a thrill walking on the glacier. Glaciers are rivers of ice so are constantly changing. We saw tunnels, blue puddles, crevasses and moulins. Our guide had us lie down on our bellies at one point so that we could safely look down a deep moulin that had formed in the glacier. A moulin is a deep hole formed in the glacier by surface water. Another time he held our arms while we gently leaned over to see the beautiful deep blue color found in a crevasse. Ryan was an amazing guide and knew so much about glaciers and the geography and geology of the area. He was able to describe the changes that he had seen in the glaciers over the course of the summer in a way that was easy to visualize. He also made sure that we were comfortable – at one point my 16 year old daughter was cold so he pulled another layer out of his backpack to help her warm up. Thanks Ryan! It rained most of the day but it was still such a beautiful trip – a once in a lifetime experience.After about two hours on the ice we headed back to the kayaks. We removed our crampons, ate a granola bar we had brought along, drank some water and then helped repack the kayaks. Everyone has to help pack to keep on schedule. Once loaded back in the kayaks we paddled along the face of the glacier and Ryan took some pictures before we started back across the lake. This is a kayak trip with a purpose – to get back to shore in time to make the train!
Upon arrival we helped unload the kayaks, return the gear to its rightful place and store the kayaks. Then we hopped back in the bus and took a trip to the restroom and explored the viewing area developed by the U.S. Forest Service. It provided us one last look at the glacier and some interesting interpretive displays about the history of the glacier and the area.
We were back at the whistle stop area at 8:00pm in preparation for the trains’ arrival at 8:15pm. We were traveling in late August so the sun was setting and the temperature getting cooler. We enjoyed hot chocolate and snacks from the “grab and go” deli on the train while taking the opportunity to visit one last time with Ryan in route to the Girdwood depot where we disembarked. Ryan and another guide took us back by a van to the Hotel Alyeska to retrieve our car. We were weary as it was an active day but we were also excited about the amazing adventure we had at Spencer Glacier! Rain or shine, it is a journey I would love to do every year!
Alaska Tour & Travel now offers this trip directly from Anchorage. The train departs Anchorage at 9:45am and you would return about 10pm – a long and active day but I can guarantee it will be one of your most treasured Alaskan experiences!