Historic and modern-day Alaskans ‘break the ice’ on niche frozen economy

Taku Lodge caretaker Mike Ward steers the skiff to find more icebergs in Twin Glacier Lake. Ray Friedlander | For the Capital City Weekly

Taku Lodge caretaker Mike Ward steers the skiff to find more icebergs in Twin Glacier Lake. Ray Friedlander | For the Capital City Weekly

Mike Ward of Taku Lodge has harvested icebergs from Twin Glacier Lake since childhood. His technique involves three tools: a flat-bottom river skiff, a metal rod called a St. Angeles bar, and a pair of industrial tongs most commonly used for clamping onto logs. The 5-foot long bar serves as a dinner fork, allowing Mike to either flip over and inspect the clarity of the iceberg in question or break it up into smaller pieces so that the tongs can grab ahold of the ice and haul it onto the skiff.

“I bring big, strong guys out there all the time that can’t lift half the size of ice that I can because it’s strictly technique — do it a couple times and you’ll get good at it,” Ward said.

Like many of the residents of Taku Inlet, Ward uses glacial ice to refrigerate perishables. Any ice left over from the harvest can then be served in drinks or even left in the front yard of the Taku Lodge as lawn art so that guests can intimately experience what comprises a glacier.

Most people who find themselves in the presence of a Juneau Icefield glacier have to experience it in some way, whether it be touching or licking the scalloped blue walls of ice caves or, as recommended by Carl Reese, using the ice to make chilled coffee on summer camping trips. Reese is the Southeast Regional Manager for the water section of Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Division of Mining, Land, and Water. His office is currently processing what he thinks is Southeast Alaska’s first glacier ice harvesting permit request.

“That’s the first one from southeast ever, that I’m aware of,” Reese said. “The (state’s) database doesn’t divide these (permits) out so when you search for ‘ice’ it doesn’t necessarily come up but I can say in Southeast, no one has done it. In Southcentral, there have been several.”

The State of Alaska has issued glacier ice harvesting permits primarily in Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound for at least 30 years. Management of this frozen water resource is accounted for under Article VIII of the Alaska constitution. Under this article, all resources occurring in their natural state are available for common public use. Permission from the state to harvest icebergs from calving tidewater glaciers is granted by either a temporary five -year water use authorization or a perpetual water right. So far, all state glacier ice harvesting permits have been allowed under the temporary water use authorization, which allows a harvester to take either 500 gallons of water (roughly 4,000 pounds of ice) every day of the year or 5,000 gallons of water (roughly 40,000 pounds of ice) for 10 days out of the year. These thresholds make it so that only someone who is harvesting a very substantial amount of glacial ice needs a permit.

“I think people actually used ice a lot more before statehood — before refrigeration — than they do now,” Reese said. “There’s been history of people shooting cannons at glaciers and things like that because the large fishing operations wanted to have large amounts of ice to ship to far, far away places. That was frowned upon by the framers of Alaska’s constitution in the ‘60s and the ‘50s so they put in that we manage water but they also saw that one-fifth of the state is covered in ice, so they included that in with part of the story because nobody knew at that time whether or not harvesting glaciers — mining glaciers — was going to be a big deal or not a big deal.”

Scott Lindquist of Alaska Glacial Ice in Wasilla has commercially harvested tidewater icebergs from Prince William Sound since 1992. He is the only Alaskan to pursue commercially harvested icebergs for over two decades while also owning and operating Alaska’s first and only glacial ice processing plant, which is regulated by the State of Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation.

While passing the Columbia Glacier aboard a fishing vessel in the 1980s, Lindquist saw his first iceberg and asked the skipper to haul the ice onto the deck so he could take a closer look. Fishing and life at sea had been Scott’s livelihood until the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill damaged the fishing grounds that had financially supported him. Suddenly Scott was a deckhand stuck on land, but his knack for creativity made sure he didn’t stay still.

“I was not born with good vision,” Scott said. “My optic nerve never developed. The cord between my brain and eyes shorted out since birth so I’m legally blind. I have to create my own jobs and I know how difficult it is as a low vision person to operate and support yourself.”

Scott created a bottled water company that delivered five gallon jugs of Eklutna Lake glacier water to homes and offices. While Scott was working in the bottled water industry, his uncle told him about an application issued by the state that gave the public an opportunity to apply for a glacier ice harvesting permit. Scott was one of a handful of folks that attended the informational meeting in the Anchorage Federal Building. After successfully securing his permit in 1996 and starting up operations, Scott’s glacier ice traveled internationally with requests made by his first two customers — iceberg centerpieces gifted to South Korea by the State of Alaska and drinking ice for German-based company Lufthanfa Party Service. Twenty-two years later, Lindquist’s most recent markets include craft ice company Melt New Orleans and Penny Pound in Los Angeles, as well as Anchorage’s Fire Tap Alehouse and Chilkoot Charlie’s nightclub, and Juneau-based cocktail bar The Narrows. Lindquist’s primary product is a hand-carved 3.5 oz. cube that fits perfectly into a typical whiskey glass.

“Unlike your standard small ice that melts really quick, the glacial ice is this big, huge cube that stays frozen for a long time and looks really neat,” said owner of The Narrows Jared Curé. “It keeps your drink cold without melting and diluting it.”

The Narrows has been carrying Lindquist’s glacial ice for about six months. Curé first heard of Lindquist’s glacial ice through his distributor, Bacardi. The spirits company wanted to start bringing glacial ice into the Southeast bar scene and offered to supply the ice to The Narrows in exchange for Curé serving it with Bacardi’s liquor lineup. Out of all the high caliber cocktail drinks concocted by The Narrows, Food Network selected one of Curé’s glacial ice drinks — the Blue Bear — as the top frozen drink of Alaska. The drink includes Bacardi 10 year-aged rum, a local blueberry syrup, lemon juice, and mint, topped with ginger beer and a little bit of St-Germain liqueur, all on crushed glacial ice. Bartender Matt Marr said when he gets to use large cubes of the glacial ice in drinks, it’s “like being the monkey in ‘Aladdin’ that reaches for the crystal.”

A business with history

Glacial ice in high-end cocktail bars may sound like an emerging market for Southeast, but this is no new story for Juneau. In the late ‘40s, Juneauite Sam Perry started a Mendenhall Glacier ice harvesting and delivery company permitted by the U.S. Forest Service that he then sold to Henry and Edith Mead in 1951. Growing up, one of their daughters, Linda Mead Wahto, accompanied her parents down to Mendenhall Lake where she would watch them harvest ice from shore. In the summers, her parents used a skiff stored close to where Skater’s Cabin stands, while in the winters, her dad would drill holes in the frozen lake to make sure it was thick enough to drive his jeep on.

“Well I ate ice all the time and it cracked all my teeth because it was so hard,” Linda said. “I had terrible teeth and there was no fluoride out here you know but we always in the wintertime went skating. We would go down on the lake and my dad would be getting ice and my sister and I would be skating.”

Like Mike Ward, the Meads used a metal rod and tongs to harvest the bobbing icebergs. Along with hand tools, the Meads also had a truck and powerwinch to transport the ice to a long, flat-roofed, windowless storage building that had three-foot thick walls insulated with sawdust. It was here that Linda’s parents stockpiled ice that was then delivered mainly to bars in Juneau four times a week. Bars would receive the Mendenhall Glacier ice in large blocks that would then need to be broken up with small ice picks. Edith was the company’s accountant and kept notes on all the customers the business served during their six years of operation from 1951-1957. Names on the delivery list included Thibodeau’s cash grocery, Baranof Hotel, Red Dog Saloon, the Governor’s Mansion, and the East Coast’s New York Shrine Imperial Council. The Meads also brought ice to the airport so Juneaites could safely ship fresh seafood, and residents knew to stop by their Montana Creek home to purchase ice directly.

“I remember Senator (Ernest) Gruening and his wife, they had their cabin out the road and they would stop by on their way out to buy ice,” Linda said.

It was the onset of the ice machine that eventually ended the Mead’s glacier ice harvesting business since bars could produce their own uniformly shaped, silt-free ice cubes. For the modern day glacial ice harvester, however, it is going to take a force much larger than industrialization to end their business endeavors. All of Scott’s ice harvesting has taken place in Prince William Sound but he is currently looking at Southeast Alaska to expand his business so that he may have a more reliable source of icebergs. Right now, his usual sources are rapidly receding.

“I’m looking at a glacier called Surprise Glacier, Beloit Glacier, and Blackstone Glacier, and these are noticeably starting to recede to where they are not producing like they used to,” Scott said. “Yes there is still plenty of ice and they are a tidewater glacier still, but they are starting to roll up on land. When that happens and ice lands on ground first and then into the ocean, it falls directly in mud and the ice is completely worthless. You have to have ice that falls into clean seawater.”

From a management standpoint, Carl says the state’s first priority is to protect the public’s interest. Right now, the state is fine with the harvest of icebergs because the resource is available, and if left to its own devices, would eventually melt in the ocean anyway. As tidewater glaciers recede onto land and icebergs subsequently become more limited however, it is safe to say the state will become more stringent of large harvests of bergs.

“If icebergs became less prevalent, we would need to be more watchful on what was left because it is something that could be a resource,” Reese said. “It is a resource visually. We would not want to see out there any noticeable change to say Tracy Arm. There’s lots of bergs out there, and people go out there to look at that stuff.”

• Ray Friedlander is a freelance writer based in Juneau.

DNR Regional Manager Carl Reese considers what the State’s management of icebergs would be like as glaciers continue to recede. Ray Friedlander | For the Capital City Weekly

DNR Regional Manager Carl Reese considers what the State’s management of icebergs would be like as glaciers continue to recede. Ray Friedlander | For the Capital City Weekly

Juneauite Linda Mead Wahto holds up the very tongs her parents used to haul icebergs out of Mendenhall Lake. Ray Friedlander | For the Capital City Weekly

Juneauite Linda Mead Wahto holds up the very tongs her parents used to haul icebergs out of Mendenhall Lake. Ray Friedlander | For the Capital City Weekly

The Narrows owner Jared Curé uses a 3.5 ounce glacial ice cube in a cocktail known as Penicillin. Ray Friedlander | For the Capital City Weekly

The Narrows owner Jared Curé uses a 3.5 ounce glacial ice cube in a cocktail known as Penicillin. Ray Friedlander | For the Capital City Weekly

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