It was late November and Homer resident Kelsey Haas was skating to the Grewingk Glacier with a group of about a dozen others.
The glacier has become a popular destination in Kachemak Bay State Park, especially in the winter. After a boat ride across Kachemak Bay from Homer, it’s about a 2-mile trek in, some over a frozen lake, to get to the massive, 13-mile-long glacier.
Haas, a 29-year-old hiking and rafting guide, has been there many times before, in warm and winter months, and she said her friends were also experienced adventurers. They had throw ropes and rescue gear in tow, and were testing the thickness of the ice they encountered with ice screws.
But on this day, it wasn’t the throw ropes and rescue equipment that saved Haas. Her rescue story is pretty unique and involves a dead snowshoe hare. Haas said she wants to share the story to remind people about the risk of skating on thin ice.
“So don’t do what I did, folks,” she said.
As for the dead hare, Haas said she found the carcass on the ice while exploring around the glacier. She thought it was kind of mysterious.
“It wasn’t warm, it wasn’t super stiff, but it wasn’t like I wanted to eat it because I don’t know how it died,” she said. “It was interesting. There were no puncture wounds.”
Haas decided to hold on to the carcass. She wanted to take it home to skin it and save the fur.
Fast forward to later in the day. The sun was about to set and Haas and the rest of her crew discovered an interesting ice formation that she described as a “perfectly picturesque arch, right in the middle of an iceberg.”
“We all knew it was really thin ice and that it wouldn’t be a good idea,” Haas admitted.
But she said the arch was too beautiful and tempting, and that she wanted to skate through it despite the risk.
In hindsight, she said she knew there was a possibility that the ice might be too thin. But, if anything did happen, there was a trained group of people who were well-equipped close by who could help if she fell into the icy lake. Plus, Haas had extra warm clothes in her backpack. So she tempted fate and skated through the arch as fast as she could. But instead of finding thin ice, she found an open hole of water.
When Haas fell in the water, she said her instinct kicked in.
Instantly cold, she knew that she needed to turn around the way she had come, towards where the ice was at least somewhat stable. She also knew that she needed to position her body horizontally rather than vertically, which would make it easier to pull herself up and out of the water and onto the solid ice. Haas said the dry bag she carried on her back and the air inside it also acted as a makeshift flotation device.
And she still had the snowshoe hare with her.
“I don’t know how I didn’t let that go,” Haas added.
Once she reached the ice’s edge, she said she slapped the hare forward onto a shelf of ice. The wet hare quickly froze onto the cold surface. Haas said she used the frozen snowshoe hare like an anchor to pull herself out of the icy water.
Thanks to the hare, she was out of the water before her friends could help with their throw ropes and other rescue equipment in hand.
“I just looked at them, and I was like, ‘I just have to skate as fast as possible and work my body temperature back up.’”
Once she made it back to shore, there was a group waiting for her.
“It was like a pit crew, like everyone just swarmed me,” she said. “[They] took off all my clothes. I looked like a giant marshmallow.”
Haas said one of the biggest struggles was taking her ice skates off because the laces were frozen solid. She remembered three people tugging on each skate, struggling to remove them. After she was able to get her skates off, she still had a mile and a half hike to the water taxi pick up spot.
“My coldest thing was my feet,” Haas said. “On the hike back, my feet were definitely pretty numb the whole way.”
While Haas said she was able to laugh about the situation immediately afterward, she said it definitely affected her days later.
“Anytime I close my eyes, I kind of have a flashback,” she said. “I didn’t sleep for a couple of days. And that’s when I realized like, ‘Okay, this was probably more traumatic than I thought at the time.’”
Haas said the most important thing is to be aware of your personal safety while exploring places like Grewingk Glacier.
“It’s so important to recognize that level of risk,” she said. “Always have dry clothes, always use a dry bag, have a throw rope, have all the things you need to get people out of that ice, and just do it really safely.”
And as for the snowshoe hare that Haas used to pull herself out of the icy water?
“I want to make slippers,” she said. “Definitely want to make slippers out of it.”
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