Our axes firmly in uphill hand and crampons clipped to our boots, we're out for an afternoon stroll on the Mendenhall Glacier.
Eight-year-old Melanie nimbly follows our veteran NorthStar Trekking guide, Matt Whitman, as if she's been ice climbing in crampons her whole life. Fifteen-year-old Matt and 13-year-old Reggie are up and down steep ridges (``seracs'' in glacier terminology), digging their crampons into the ice, peering into 100-foot crevasses, slurping glacial water that runs from narrow waterfalls. My husband Andy gamely follows the kids as if they're on a ski slope. We're all dressed in red waterproof climbers' gear. So unreal is this scene that I'm compelled to keep snapping pictures.
Surrounded by acres of jagged ice waves that look like dirty blue cotton candy -- all colors except blue get absorbed into the ice -- we're surprised to learn the glacier is actually retreating about 30 feet a year because it's melting faster than it's moving forward.
The Mendenhall is one of Alaska's best-known glaciers and one of its most accessible. It's about 12 miles long and 1.5 miles at its widest point -- just a small finger of Juneau's 1,500-square-mile ice field, a virtual river of ice flowing slowly down into a glacial lake, explained Dale Campbell, director of the U.S. Forest Service's Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center.
You can see it well from the big picture windows of the visitor center a dozen miles outside Juneau and learn about glacier geology there, too. But the glacier is still a frustrating half-mile away. And like a lot of families these days, we were out for a more hands-on adventure in the Land of Glaciers -- the state's ice fields cover more land than Vermont, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New Hampshire combined.
We were determined to reach out and touch a glacier before we went home. We wanted to see what it felt like crunching under our feet and melting in our hands.
Glacier-viewing helicopter tours, I knew, have been a staple of the Alaska tourist scene since the early '80s, drawing more than 100,000 people a year, tour operators say. But now ``they want to do more than just step on the glacier and leave,'' explained Bob Engelbrecht, a helicopter-tour-business veteran who started NorthStar Trekking expressly for would-be adventurers like us.
All over Alaska, younger and fitter tourists are increasingly seeking such once-in-a-lifetime adventures, and more and more accompanied by their grade-schoolers and teenagers. ``People don't believe us, but the average age on our ships now is 48-52,'' said Holland America's Eric Elvejord, noting that there can be as many as 150 kids on board.
``Sixty percent of our passengers vie for the more active excursions,'' added Denise Seomin, a spokesman for Princess Cruises. ``Five years ago it was just the opposite.''
These days, they're floating through a Bald Eagle Preserve, heli-hiking within sight of Mt. McKinley, fly-in fishing, white-water rafting or dog-sledding on a glacier.
Such adventures don't come cheap -- as much as $250 or $300 a person. ``Sure, you think twice before you spend that kind of money but this was the most fun we've ever had as a family,'' said Karen Bunting, who doesn't regret a penny of the $1,000-plus she and her family spent to dog-sled on the Mendenhall Glacier with Iditarod champion Libby Riddles on a Temsco Helicopters tour. ``Alaska understand what families want. We got our money's worth.''
Neal Gross agreed. The glacier trekking he did with his wife and two kids was the best earth science lesson they'll ever get, the Washington, D.C., businessman said. ``Education was our priority more than the adventure,'' he explained. ``This was an experience we couldn't get anywhere else.''
All of this enthusiasm despite the fact that there were two tourist helicopter crashes this summer -- one killing all seven on board. Tour operators are quick to argue that you're more likely to get killed by a moose than in a helicopter crash. More than a million Alaska visitors have taken a helicopter tour without incident, reports Tour Operators Program of Safety, whose members pledge to uphold higher safety standards than the federal government requires.
``You have this one tragic incident, but you have to look at the overall record, and it's excellent,'' observed Terry Gordon, who oversees the flight tour operators from the FAA's Juneau office. FAA's advice: Make sure you get a detailed safety briefing before takeoff. If the weather's iffy, skip the trip or, if it deteriorates, insist the pilots return. Be prepared that wind and rain routinely ground tourist flights in Alaska.
The gods must have been smiling on us because days of unrelenting rain stopped on the last afternoon of our trip, and the skies cleared enough for us to chopper from Juneau, landing in the middle of the Mendenhall, getting an eye-popping view of the ice field along the way.
We snap on our crampons, trying to look like we know what we're doing, and flash each other that I-can't-believe-we're-really-here-doing-this look as we head off for a walk the kids won't ever forget. No one is whining or complaining.
If only all family vacations could end like this.
IF YOU GO
Ask about family rates. The glacier-trekking trips cost just under $300, dog sledding slightly more and traditional glacier tours less. These three respected Alaska helicopter-touring companies are members of Tour Operators Program of Safety: NorthStar Trekking (907-790-4530 or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org) specializes in the glacier trekking; Temsco (877-789-9501 or www.temscoair.com) and Era Aviation (800-843-1947 or www.eraaviation.com) offer dog-sledding, heli-hiking and glacier tours.
For general travel information for Southeast Alaska, call 800-423-0568.
If you're overnighting in Juneau, the Mt. Juneau Bed and Breakfast has family cottages starting at $120 per night and freshly baked cookies on check in. Call 907-463-5855 or www.mtjuneauinn.com.
(c) 1999, Eileen Ogintz. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate