By Sarah Cooley
The final traverse from Camp 26 to Atlin Lake was definitely an epic and exciting way to end our trip across the Juneau Icefield. With the constantly changing scenery and gradual descent into greenery, it is a favorite of many of the returning staff and faculty. Though we were all sad to leave the Icefield, there was definitely excitement in the air when we set off in the morning. We did the traverse in three groups: two the first day followed by one final group the next day. I was in the second group, so we set off at 9 am, two hours after the first group’s 7 am departure. After seeing them off and eating a quick breakfast of instant oatmeal and pilot bread, we packed up, attached our skis to our packs and headed down the nunatak to the ablation zone of the Llewellyn Glacier. Once we hit the glacier, we began an easy few hours down the ice on the side of the medial moraine. After weeks in the accumulation zone, it was amazing yet very strange to be on bare ice, walking amongst melt channels, crevasses and the occasional moulin. We were all fascinated with these ablation zone features, and many pictures were taken as we reminisced about our summer while hiking across the ice. As the crevasses grew deeper and larger, we needed to put on crampons so we all could have a little bit more stability. Traversing the crevasses was slow, and we all worked together to get ourselves through the toughest parts, cutting steps and providing support to each other as we maneuvered through each ice bridge. A few hours later, we all were extremely relieved to be able to take off the crampons and return to flatter ice.
By mid-afternoon we had reached the toe of Red Mountain. After scouting a route, we left the ice for a quick climb to the top of the ridge followed by a long and difficult descent through scree and alders. The combination of tired legs, heavy packs and unwieldy skis added a significant challenge to the hike down, and again we all pitched in to help each other down the steep and slippery sections. When we had finally reached the bottom of the hill, we were somewhat tired, scraped, bruised and covered in mud, but all in good spirits, telling lots of jokes and stories as we waited for our trail party leaders Jeff and Kate to scout a route onto the ice. Once we had successfully gotten back onto the Llewellyn Glacier, slippery ice meant crampons became quite necessary, so we spent one last hour in our crampons before finally exiting the glacier for the last time. Leaving the icefield after seven weeks of amazing experience was quite emotional for everyone, and we took a few last pictures, filled up our water bottles with one last gulp of pure glacial water and put our feet onto dry land. I think we all are still struggling to process leaving the glacier, but in the moment we had no choice but to keep our goodbyes quick and continue the long hike to the inlet.
The next part of our hike included a beautiful segment known as the Ball-Bearing Highway. With the sun setting over the Llewellyn Glacier behind us, we followed the lake at the terminus until we hit the trail exactly as we lost daylight. After a quick break to get out our headlamps, we continued our hike around the lake in darkness. The surrounding trees and greenery were a welcome change after two months without large plants, and the smells of the flora overwhelmed us. Above us were some of the most beautiful stars I had ever seen, and our journey through the unfamiliar woods in darkness was almost magical. After two hours without much rest, we took one final break at midnight, exhausted but still in good spirits and excited to reach Llewellyn Inlet. As we all sat on our packs, contemplating attacking the remaining few miles after such a long day, the sky suddenly lit up with a fantastic display of aurora borealis. We all sat in silence for a few minutes, turning our headlamps off, all amazed at the wondrous timing of the first aurora of the summer. After searching all summer (and in summers past), it was the first northern lights I had ever seen, and combined with the emotion of leaving the amazing icefield, it was a really poignant and unforgettable moment. With the northern lights in front of us and shooting stars sweeping across the sky above us, we all felt prepared and excited to tackle the final few miles.
The final stretch of the trail includes multiple swamp crossings and some bush-whacking. Bush-whacking with skis on is, well, interesting, and for many of the parts we all assumed what we called ‘narwhal position’ which entailed squatting and bending over so that your skis come to a point a few feet in front of your head. It was tiring, but it was quite successful. With sore backs and our legs and feet wet up to our knees, we all sang and talked up the final hill towards camp, screaming and laughing at 1:30 am when we finally reached the inlet. Given the lateness of our arrival and the presence of another tired trail party who had arrived a few hours before us and were already asleep, we opted not to jump in the lake as is JIRP tradition, unlike the two other trail parties. However, despite the exhaustion, we all began to process the fact that we had completed the entire traverse of the Juneau Icefield, and our sense of personal accomplishment was palpable. We quickly pulled out our sleeping bags and all laid down right on the beach, just a few feet from the water. As we laid there in silence, the aurora reappeared, even more magnificent than before. The green lights curled with columns shooting upwards towards the stars, and with one last glimpse at the incredible sky, we all quickly fell asleep.
After barely three hours of sleep, we were awakened the next morning by the arrival of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who checked each of our passports and allowed us to officially enter Canada, despite the fact that we had crossed the border days before. The first trail party then promptly left for Atlin via boat. We returned to our sleeping bags for an hour or so, then cooked ourselves a breakfast of beans and Spam over the fire as we waited for the second boat to come pick us up. When it finally arrived, we quickly loaded up and headed for Atlin. The boat ride was fantastically beautiful but also quite emotional as we watched the high ice of our beloved Juneau Icefield slowly slip out of view. The excitement of trees, waterfalls and islands kept our attention as we moved closer to Atlin. After such a long journey, we were so excited to finally reach the small town on such a beautiful sunny day.