In normal years, it’s a top Anchorage-area tourist stop. Exotic enough to feel like a remote Alaskan destination, but close enough for an easy day’s drive, the Matanuska Glacier typically attracts thousands of out-of-state visitors looking for a chance to walk on a glacier.
But 2020 was anything but a normal year, and the ongoing challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic are still having daily impacts on the state’s tourist industry. Caught in the middle are the owners of local tour businesses who rely on those visitors to make ends meet.
And swooping in to save the day for at least one Mat-Su destination? Local Alaskans.
“The residents have stepped-up this year and they have, for us anyway, they have saved the day,” said Bill Stevenson, the long-time caretaker of Matanuska Glacier Park, a business that sits near the toe of the glacier. “They’ve been so nice to be around and they’ve treated the guides so well.”
Stevenson and his team are offering Alaskan residents winter glacier tours for $25 per person, an excursion is priced at $100 per-person for out-of-state guests. That’s a special pricing they’ve offered for several years running, and In the past it’s brought out maybe one or two families on any given winter Saturday, he said.
But this season is a whole different story. His guides helped over 130 visitors on one recent non-holiday Saturday, he said — and only three of the visitors were non-residents.
Matanuska Glacier Park and Stevenson, who has operated as its caretaker for several decades, controls access to the most convenient glacier entrance point, a fact that has produced a glut of myths and plenty of resentment from would-be glacier visitors, especially those with credible backcountry and ice experience who do not need or want guide services.
Still, Stevenson notes, while the Matanuska Glacier itself is public land, the roads and maintained entrance point are not. Those are owned by the Kimball family, for whom he works, or by the Cook Inlet Region, Inc,. (CIRI) native corporation, which leases a portion of its land to the Kimballs and Stevenson’s management. The result is a series of maintained roads, bridges and parking areas that allow walk-up glacier access, and for which they can charge access fees.
“We have roads and bridges that were all built with private funding and private money. There’s absolutely zero government assistance,” he said. “The access that we use was all established with private means.”
More importantly, he said, the Park’s maintained road is not the only access — it’s just the only easy access. Users can also enter the glacier by Caribou Creek, but it takes time and work. Entering the glacier through the Park utilizes their maintenance services, he said, and the fees they charge cover that work.
“The service we provide is access to this part of the glacier for those who don’t wish to take the time to deal with the surrounding elements,” he said. “Anybody that’s in business understands we have leases to pay, insurance to pay, electricity to pay, roads to pay, employees to pay — it gets to be quite an expense.”
As Alaskans looking for a glacier experience have flocked to the Matanuska Glacier this winter, Stevenson said, he’s mostly seen an outpouring of support. That’s been especially true when it comes to paying and caring for his guides.
“What has been incredibly impressive is how the residents have stepped up and additionally treated our guides through tips and being nice,” he said. “Quite frankly it’s humbling.”
The $25 per-resident tour price will continue through the end of the winter season, he said, and unguided access via the park during winter is not permitted due to safety concerns. You can learn more about tours at Glacier-tours.com. During the summer visitors can pay for a guide or visit on their own for $25 per-person for residents and $30 for non-residents.