Once a local secret, visitors flock to Haines Junction ice caves

An ice cave outside of Haines Junction has become a popular day trip destination for Yukoners, as evidenced by the 16 cars Brent Liddle recently saw parked along the Alaska Highway at the start of the route to the formation.

He says locals have known about the ice cave for several years, but interest from others has increased recently. 

"Its grown in size, so it's quite an attraction now," he said. "Once word gets around, it just becomes a destination." 

Liddle says the cave, located below the north face of Mount Archibald in the Kluane area, can be seen from the Alaska Highway, several kilometres away. He says it's an impressive site up close, but people should exercise caution. 

"It is a moving landscape feature, so you don't want to be there at the wrong time." 

And, with spring in full swing and temperatures warming, the risk of falling ice is ever-present. 

David Bryan of Haines Junction's Wilderness Technologies taught a crevasse rescue course near the cave for the first time in early 2017.  He says the cave is a good place to visit in winter, when the ice is cold and stable, but he recommends people avoid it in spring and summer. 

"We get a lot of meltwater happening this time of year," he said. "The meltwater goes into the cracks of the glacier ice and when it freezes it actually expands and pushes that glacier ice away. So you can get a lot of icefall inside the cave, as well as at the entrances." 

For those who still choose to visit the cave, Bryan recommends going early in the morning, before the sun hits its full strength. 

Formation

The cave was likely formed by water melting a tunnel through the toe of the unnamed glacier, according to Garry Clarke, a professor emeritus from the University of British Columbia. 

Clarke has been studying glaciers in the Yukon for 45 years, and has seen his fair share of ice caves.

Although he's only seen pictures of this one, he says warm air has probably been expanding it every summer since it was formed.  

"You can see that kind of scalloped look on the surface of the ice. And that's not caused by the water flow because that tunnel — I don't think — was ever full of water," he said.

"So I think it's more likely that the tunnel got expanded by the flow of warm air through it in the summer time." 

Clarke says that eventually the cave will grow to the point of collapse. When that will be, he says, depends on the weight of the ice on top.

Based on current images, Clarke says he doesn't think it's in danger of collapsing at the moment.