Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau, Alaska. Photo by Matt Artz on Unsplash

On beautiful summer days in Juneau and Glacier Bay, there’s much to admire and food for thought.

On the one hand, it’s tempting to say, “better go see Alaska now, before the glaciers are all gone!” In fact, that’s exactly what my family recently did. All of us love to travel, crave the peace and sublimity of the natural world, and are fascinated by animals and plants of all sorts. We tote our binoculars and field-guides and almost no trip is too short or urban not to warrant our taking sturdy shoes and hiking-appropriate clothing. So a trip to Alaska, part-cruise, part-overland, was a no-brainer. In one sense.

On the other hand, all signs point to human mechanisms accelerating the shrinking of the glaciers and countless other ecological changes, such as the loss of high-arctic sea-ice, that have been documented in the last fifty years or so. Undoubtedly, travel is part of the problem. But I think it’s only a small part, and perhaps not the part that warrants the most attention and effort at this point. I hope that’s true, anyway.

From a standpoint of curiosity and a tendency to be awed by the incredible variety and beauty of the terrains of this planet, it’s hard to pass on an opportunity to see glaciers and tundra.

Let’s say your closest thing to an experience of “tundra” is a memory of your high-school history teacher enunciating words like “tundra,” “taiga,” and “perma-frost” in that emphatic way she always spat out key words that you’d better be sure you knew for the test (pinning you in her steely gaze if you so much as thought about yawning in her class; hell to pay if you were unable to suppress it). Or let’s say Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” lit a fire under you to find out the unimaginable places signified by words like “tundra” and “Yukon.” Or perhaps you read the account of Christopher McCandless’ death in the Alaskan wilderness as told by Jon Krakauer in Into the Wild (Villard, 1996) and tried to imagine the terrain that had so captivated that young man.

Of course, our travels in Alaska were nothing like those of McCandless, who hitchhiked and then walked out for miles with little more than rice to fuel him. We and thousands of others rode comfortably aboard what I came to think of as a floating Las Vegas, waking to find ourselves, one morning, docked in Juneau, where we could take a bus out of the city to see the Mendenhall Glacier, and another day, cruising into Glacier Bay National Park with rangers and a naturalist narrating our views.

We heard, several times over, about why glacial ice is blue (compressed, it has less air in it than your freezer’s ice cubes, so it absorbs the red end of the light spectrum but scatters the blue). In the visitors’ center at the Mendenhall Glacier, a large slab of glacial ice sat out in the open, a bit of the past for us to touch. The trails in that park take hikers through the geological history of the area, marking the extent of the glacier as it has receded since the mid-1700s — a total of 2.5 miles, notes the U.S. Forest Service. Now, a short, easy trail runs to a spit of land near the glacier’s terminus. Nugget Falls cascades nearby, while bald eagles perch on promontories to take in the view.

I stood for a while on that gravelly shore, pivoting a slow 360 and trying to envision the valley as it was 300 years ago, a vast river of ice.

It was green and misty, lush as you’d expect a rainforest to be, and the gray, silty lake was glass-calm, except at the base of the falls. The blue-white cliff of glacier was incongruous in the scene, though if I’d been looking at it from the perspective of the ice-field that feeds it, all this green and vapor and liquid might’ve looked out of place. Point of view matters.

A couple of days later, the ship entered Glacier Bay on a day that was as warm and clear as any advertisement for summer vacation spots much further south. For us as viewers, it meant sharp, glistening panoramas of the fjord’s waters and glaciers. It meant that sea-otters and seals sunned themselves near the ship on icebergs (very small ones that looked sort of like bright ice-cubes in a punch-bowl), and every spout released by a humpback whale sparkled, alerting us to the possibility of seeing flukes or a breaching body. It was glorious and awe-inspiring.

With every layer of clothing we peeled off, though, we felt the pangs of knowledge.

It was not difficult to imagine the glaciers melting in all that intense sunlight. The park rangers pointed out to us the Lamplugh Glacier’s ridge of orphaned ice at the terminus that marked clearly its retreat. And as we slowly pivoted in the fjord’s cul-de-sac to see the brilliant, robust Margery Glacier, we also saw the Grand Pacific, now receding and blackened with silt and debris. The juxtaposition of Grand Pacific to Margery’s white and turquoise face was like an illustration of before and after. Though the truth is more complicated than that, the visual image is haunting.

That was the beginning of the summer of 2019. By August, all the sea-ice within 150 miles of Alaska’s ridiculously long coastline had melted, far earlier than is normal. Meanwhile, in Iceland, scientists posted a plaque with the following message on the side of a mountain by the Okjukoll Glacier:

Ok (Okjökull) is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as a glacier. In the next 200 years all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.

I’m glad to have seen glaciers, glad I’ve had the chance to marvel at the ecosystems that have formed around them while they’re still thriving. It’s difficult to think about the future, that time that only exists in imagination and may or may not include us, but it’s not much of a stretch to think that humans of the future would not thrive in climates and weather much more extreme than what we now face. For my family, and for many others on board the ship with us, the resplendence of each ice-vista was set off by a shadow of the uncertain future. Both are memories we’ll return to.

Copyright © 2019 Jennifer Brown. All rights reserved.