Skagway is sparkling as our cruise ship slides into the frontier town's dock. In wild and wondrous Alaska, however, appearances can be deceiving. Under that eye-squinting sunshine, I'm given bad news: gloom has wrapped itself around the nearby mountain housing a team of sled dogs so my scheduled excursion is cancelled. The good news is I can switch to a helicopter glacier tour.
It doesn't take long to stop pining for those unreachable sled dogs – not when I spy the dinky red helicopters taking off in a dramatic single-file formation that looks like a scene straight out of Top Gun. After a safety briefing, we pile into one of Temsco's choppers heading for Meade Glacier, a glittering river of ice that drains the north-west part of the Juneau Icefield.
From the air, we trace Chilkoot Inlet south, zipping past Haines – billed as the adventure capital of Alaska – where another cruise ship is docked. Like a row of toy aircraft, we hang left at the mouth of the Katzehin River and the glacier materialises before our eyes.
The glacier's most distinctive feature is a sinuous dirty trail – it looks like a monster truck has somehow careened down the ice and disappeared into the water. A little further on, our group is decanted onto rough, crunchy ice and we make our way over to our guide, Benjamin, for an up-close look at the mighty glacier. Like many of the other icefield glaciers, it's in retreat, losing about nine metres of ice depth a year. The glacier guides' tent, which holds rescue and medical equipment, is repositioned weekly as the ice around it melts, leaving it perched on an improbable frozen mesa.
For those of us wanting extra support negotiating the slippery surface, trekking poles are available but most of us opt to keep our hands free and to step very gingerly over the ice. We're also warned not to wander off on our own. "You could be in a 200-foot [61-metre] hole 10 feet [three metres] away from me and I'll have no idea," Benjamin says.
We're standing on ice that's about 200 metres thick, comprised of flows from about 20 different glaciers, he says. "They've come from separate valleys and, once they meet in the lower spots, they fuse together," he says. "You guys probably saw from the helicopter those long strips of rock that follow the contour of the glacier. Those are like tree rings – that's how we can tell how many glaciers have come together to make this one here. They keep bringing that rock with them – it just travels on the surface like a conveyor belt."
The spot we're inspecting is a glacial seam with weaker ice, which means there are lots of features to admire, such as fast-flowing streams of blue-hued meltwater (the kids in our group can't resist lying down to lap it up). "If you find a stream and follow it, it typically comes to a really big hole," Benjamin says. These holes are called moulins – or mills – and if you fall into one, you just might be a goner.
The guides, however, are trained wilderness responders – they know how to go about a moulin rescue.
"The worst part of the system of getting belayed down is you've got to walk up to that hole backwards and put your heels on the edge and sit back," says Benjamin. "It just feels so wrong – all those instincts are flashing red."
Speaking of red flashes, our helicopter is back signalling that this short, sharp and exhilarating ice adventure is over. One more head-swivelling ride later, we gently plop back down to earth.
Katrina Lobley travelled as a guest of Princess Cruises.
Temsco's glacier discovery tours include about 40 minutes of helicopter time and 40 minutes on the glacier, and operate from May to September. Book the excursion through your cruise line.