The adventure began with a phone call to the tour office asking whether we should bring lunch along on the five-hour hike, and a nonchalant response: “we advise against that because of bear danger” – a statement that made me decidedly nervous.
Fortunately we got through the day free of bear attacks, though we did see a few at a safe distance. From three hundred yards away, black bears look like Labrador retrievers or something else equally innocuous, and our guide’s bear alert whistle (to alert the bears of your presence, not to signal for help if under attack, as I would have guessed; apparently a surprised bear is an aggressive bear) lent us all a sense of security, false or not.
We arrived at the Exit Glacier Guides office in Seward, Alaska, to meet our guides and get outfitted with the necessary equipment: helmets, walking sticks that doubled as ice picks, and crampons (contraptions you strap onto your hiking boots, with little metal daggers all across the bottoms that dig into the ice and allow you to prance around on a glacier with the same stability you’d have on a soccer field wearing cleats). These would come in handy.
The tour office was in a little complex called the Train Wreck – several abandoned blue-and-yellow Alaska Railroad cars arranged in a circle, gutted, and redecorated into functional space for a bike shop, a restaurant, and our departure point for the day’s adventure, among other things. The Exit Glacier Guides office has a homey feel to it, and upon venturing into its depths to find a restroom, we were delighted to discover makeshift bunk beds and overflowing laundry baskets; the place is homey for the singular reason that it’s home to the Exit Glacier Guides themselves.
The guides number only two – Ryan Fisher and Brendan Ryan, both young, energetic, engaging, and adventurous, all natural requisites of people who lead ice-hiking expeditions for a living. They double as owners of the enterprise, which just wrapped up its second full season of business, and operates only during the summer (because, really, who wants to go hiking on a sheet of ice during an Alaska winter?).
Some winters they’ll stay in Seward; during others they plan go back to their respective hometowns, and the Exit Glacier Guides train car will stay boarded up for the colder, darker months. A third guide moonlights with them once in awhile, but he’s only thirteen and thus can’t lead expeditions on his own. Ryan and Brendan let him be their sherpa, carrying guests’ backpacks if they get tired and distracting antsy kids so their parents can enjoy the scenery in peace.
We departed in an old Mercury Mountaineer Brendan borrowed from a friend, since the 15-passenger van they normally use to shuttle people back and forth to Kenai Fjords National Park (home to the Exit Glacier) had broken down after violently spewing all sorts of fluids in the Train Wreck parking lot. Their side business of transporting tourists to the park who just want to explore on their own, without the guided hike on the glacier, had to be temporarily put on hold because of the van’s demise.
Approaching the park in the Mountaineer, we saw chilling signs posted by the park service at various points along the road- indicating how far the glacier extended in certain years. Some dated back from the late 19th century; due to global warming, the Exit Glacier recedes about 50 feet a year – a noticeable distance, yet a figure that’s even higher for a lot of other glaciers.