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The Helicopter Commute

Helicopter over a Glacier Waterfall

When you think of commuting to work, thoughts of saddle bags on bikes and honking horns might come to mind. In Alaska though, the trip from home to work can be, well, a bit different. Especially for second year guide at MICA, Nell.

Glacier Camp

Nell’s day starts with rolling out of a tent, getting ready for the day, and hitting the morning meeting with the rest of the crew. Oh, and then hopping into a helicopter to work on one of the most secluded areas of the Matanuska Glacier. Nell is one part of a sub-committee. This committee is dedicated to executing one of the most epic adventures on an Alaskan glacier; being camp host for a glacier overnight experience.

glacier tent on Matanuska Glacier

Matanuska Glacier Overnight Camp

This is Nell’s second year with the locally owned and operated Alaskan guiding company. She first came to the team as an intern, in the tumultuousness of 2020. This came with the draw to expand her knowledge and skills as an outdoor leader.

In the first season, she had no idea coming to Alaska, that her work would entail riding in a helicopter. And then, not too long into the season, she was asked to be a part of the glacier camp crew.

The Genesis

That summer was filled with lots of hands on learning, planning, and communication with the small team. Nell reflects back on the first helicopter ride she took. It was an off day, and perfect weather to get exposed to the widespread beauty of the Matanuska.

After seeing the convergences of ice, mountains, and the forces of nature from a holistic view, it was hard not to look forward to the commute. From there it was learning procedures and safety with the helicopter. She found the trick to success was to stay focused on the systems in place. Simultaneously, to stay calm and collected during loading and unloading. All in the face of spinning propeller blades above and climbing gear in hand.

The Second Summer

This year Nell has gone from being a support crew to taking on the lead role of camp manager. This adds a bit more responsibility and adventure to the job. Being the camp manager means being on site on the glacier for 7 to 10 days. That is opposed to the 2 to 3 day lengths that the crew takes on for the first year of providing glacier support.

So as the glacier world turns, interns, new groups of guests, and pilots come and go, Nell is there pivoting with the changes. She has her own routine and personal tent area for her to retire to at the end of the night. And a list of schedules, needs, and logistics to tend to daily.

Managing Camp

This camp manager is responsible for letting base know the needs for the next trip headed out. Additionally, any maintenance that may come up on the semi-permanent structure that this luxury glacier experience is centered around. Nell isn’t in it alone though.

Hot Cocoa on the Glacier

Hot Cocoa on the Glacier

Interns fly out with each new group. They offer the same support and attention that Nell learned in her first year. Many hands make light work out of the continual stream of details that needs to be tended to on the ice.

There are gourmet meals to be made in the kitchen structure, linens to be turned in the canvas tents, and gear to be organized. These are just a few items on the list of to-dos. While Nell is backed by others on the glacier at times, she manages independently while the turn around occurs between trips.

Glacier Interdependence

With this independence comes the necessity for advanced problem solving skills. Like when the handle falls off the kitchen door, locking you inside. Nell reflects with laughter on this memory of her awaiting a heli-drop and becoming stuck inside the kitchen structure. With quick wit and the need to get out to support a heli landing, Nell assessed her newly found escape room. Call her MacGyver, she was out in no time with the help of a butter knife to open the door.

With these small challenges comes the joys and trials of bigger responsibilities and the natural flow of varied chaos. Nell gets the pleasure of observing and tending to the glacier realm and also the responsibility of making sure everything is in line. If something goes right, she reaps the rewards. If something goes wrong, she answers with the necessary accountability.

Glacier Sized Changes

When Nell and I discuss her progression as a guide and working with a helicopter it seems akin to the glacier. A slow process of great force and change. By the minute you might not be able to see the subtleties of this metamorphosis. And then one day you spot a feature, so immense and full of grandeur. The importance of all the forces, big and small, becomes undeniable to what is.

Sometimes we do not see how life changes us until we spot ourselves in a mirror. One day a guest shared a video with Nell of her helping people load into the helicopter for a trip. Herself, on her umpteenth load, moving seamlessly with guests and gear.

Until then, she had no idea how far she had come, how much had changed. She found herself becoming acquainted with this glacier professional on the screen. Acknowledging all she has done and where she is now.

The End of a Work Day

Glacier camp is hard work, and not your typical job. Yet, the same small nuances of human joys come out to meet you on the ice. Nell explains that the glacier is full of wonders. And one of the best in her opinion is the communal connection at the end of a long day on the ice. Dinner time, when everyone gathers. Guides and guests alike enjoy a gourmet meal and a space to share and commune.

In that environment you get to see the pieces that make us human and connect us. Whether you are the glacier camp manager or the dad on vacation, we are all trying to do the same thing, in different ways. And for Nell, taking the Alaska commute is the best way to get there.