Castner Glacier Ice Caves
Three Jan-Feb 2020 trips to the Castner Glacier ice caves
January 25, January 30, and February 4, 2020
The word “otherworldly” gets used a lot when describing outdoor places, and it’s true that there’s no shortage of strange and surreal landscapes on this planet. But I have never seen–nor can I even really imagine–a place more alien than the Castner Glacier ice caves in the Eastern Alaska Range. Between late January and February, 2020, I visited the caves three times to explore, take photos, and ice skate.
I’m occasionally asked what my title is in the outdoor world. Writer? Photographer? Adventurer? None of those seem to fit quite right. But I will say these trips are the closest I’ll probably ever come to feeling like an astronaut.
Trip 1, January 25, 2020: Exploring
In the middle of an extreme cold snap across much of Alaska, Daniel Volland and I left Anchorage on January 25, 2020, for a roadtrip to Chena Hot Springs outside of Fairbanks. We planned to take the Glenn Highway and then head north on the Richardson so that we could check out Castner Glacier. I’d seen a few photos online and it looked like a good pit stop.
The temperature dropped as we drove north, eventually hitting -24 °F as we climbed into the Eastern Alaska Range. At Castner Creek we pulled off the highway into the small lot and bundled up.
I’d read that the “trail” to Castner Glacier can be dodgy in the winter. Sure enough, it wasn’t a trail so much as a criss-crossing web of wind-smeared boot, snowmachine, ski, and snow shoe tracks on the creekbed. But luckily we were able to stay on top of the crust without sinking too much and quickly covered the 1.2 miles to the face of the glacier.
All of the tracks and trails converged in a small bowl, and as we entered it we saw the blue mouth of the ice cave. The floor of the cave was a flat frozen creek, and the roof was a scalloped turquoise arch decorated with rococo chandeliers of frost crystals.
As we pushed farther into the cave the ice formations became bigger and bigger, until we found ourselves walking through a upside-down forest of hanging crystals over a foot long.
The source of the spectacular frost crystals soon became clear. The air inside the cave was noticeably warmer and wetter–so much so that I could comfortably take my gloves off. The warm, wet air flowing out of the cave collided with the bitterly cold air outside, causing the moisture in it to condense out and and freeze in the form of frost. Protection from the wind allowed the delicate crystals to grow to enormous sizes.
Beyond the frost formations I could see a large, dark room with big walls studded with a web of sparkling crystals. But without adequate light, I was reluctant to push farther. We turned around and headed back for the car.
The wind was stronger on the return, and we pulled our hoods tight to ward off frostbite. Below -20°F in stiff wind, everything freezes quickly. We made it back to the car with warm core temps but frostbite nipping at our cheeks.
The car started fine despite the cold, and we continued up the Richardson Highway toward Chena Hot Springs. The rest of the road trip was a blast, but I couldn’t get the ice caves out of my mind and I knew I’d have to come back.
Trip 2, January 30, 2020: Photography
After posting a few videos from my first trip to Instagram, Kerry Tasker reached out to ask about the cave. Kerry is a well-known Anchorage-based editorial, portrait, and outdoor photographer. On January 30, 2020, we jumped into my car and headed north.
For this trip I rented a Nikon D850 from Stewart’s Photo and brought several LED headlamps. With proper light, I felt good about pushing farther back into the cave. Beyond the long dangling ice crystals I found a big room of black, crystal-studded ice streaked with golden silt. I set up my tripod and took a few shots before moving back toward the mouth of the cave.
Of course, I was really looking forward to seeing what Kerry would do here. For a lot of this visit, I held various types of lighting while Kerry photographed. Walking through a glacial cavern with a road flare shooting sputtering red light between thousands of ice crystals was as surreal and amazing as it sounds. I can’t imaging a better gig as a photo assistant.
Kerry also got some shots of me with my camera toward the mouth of the cave. I often come back from the outdoors with so many photos of other people it almost looks like I don’t go on my own trips. It was fun to be on the other side of the lens a little this time.
Just as we were packing up, it struck me that the entire floor of the cave was smooth, bare ice. That meant it was skatable. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of it earlier, but it meant one thing: round three.
Trip 3, February 4, 2020: Skating
On February 4, Jeremy Martin, Dana Kerr and I piled into my still-messy car at 7am and we blasted back up the now-familiar highway.
Now that I was more comfortable in the cave and had even more light, I felt good about pushing in even farther. Beyond the big room the ceiling dipped abruptly. Dana and I got on our hands and knees and wriggled through, backpacks occasionally bumping the ceiling and sending showers of crystals onto the floor. The ice on the floor of the squeeze was rotten in places, and shattered into chunks like broken safety glass. It soon became clear we were on a layer of ice suspended over the rocky bank of a subterrainean streambed.
Past the squeeze there we found another room, with a floor of wavy ice and open water from the creek. This must have been the source of the moisture in the air.
It would have been possible to push farther, but this was enough for me. With our lights off, we were in an utterly black void.
Occasionally a loud crack or boom would echo through the cave, an audible reminder that even if it was moving in slow motion, this was a dynamic place. How safe is it to be in here? It’s hard to know exactly. I’ve written about the dangers of Alaska glaciers elsewhere. But I felt fairly comfortable here now. Castner Glacier terminates on land, not water, and moves so slowly that there are bushes growing on its surface. There were no visible signs of activity or glacial movement. I wouldn’t go into this (or any) glacial cave in above-freezing temperatures, but I felt that the the risks of being here now were the same or lower than, say, those of the drive. The biggest risk in here during the winter would probably be an earthquake.
Dana and I took a few photos and then headed back through the squeeze. Of course, what we were really here to do this time was skate, so we headed back to the mouth of the cave and grabbed our gear.
Jeremy’s video captures the experience better than I could with words:
Before leaving, I pulled out my phone and skated a few quick laps in and out of the caves. It was a short run, but at speed it was even more surreal. It felt like I was piloting a spaceship through the inside of an asteroid.
After the encouraging reaction on social media I decided to submit my photos to the art/design/culture blog Colossal. They accepted the submission and published an article, “Massive Ice Formations Crystalize in Incredible Photographs by Paxson Woelber” on February 25, 2020. Not long after, Wired Italy ran a March 5, 2020 feature titled “L’artista che fotografa massicce formazioni di ghiaccio cristallizzato” – “The artist who photographs massive formations of crystallized ice.”
This wasn’t the first time I’d submitted to Colossal. Art and illustration was my main focus for much of high school and undergrad, and I spent a year at art school in San Francisco. It was both ironic and rewarding to finally make it into Colossal by moving to an artistic “backwater” like Alaska and just going out and doing what I love. And to be called L’artista by the Italian press!
It looked like other publications might also be interested in the ice cave photos, but something called “Covid-19” suddenly swamped the headlines. Almost overnight, otherworldly adventures in Alaskan ice caves felt a little unserious. Our own world needed a lot of attention. For a while, at least.