I have a fickle relationship with ice. I 1) Admire it, 2) hate it, 3) fear it or 4)cuss it.
1. Admiring Ice. I love ice when cruising on a boat through the Kenai Fjords National Park. Cerulean glacial ice rules the landscape in the small bays as the boat hovers nearby. I anticipate the next calving event, hands struggling to hold camera high in a brisk, katabatic wind. The captain warns of the strong winds barreling downslope on the glacier. I clutch my camera like forbidding death, determined the wind won’t whisk it into the iceberg-laden bay. Someone shrieks. Whoops, the wind scored a camera. Plunk! Into the sea, it goes. One for nature.
I grit my teeth, tightening my grip. Must get—this photo—for the tenth or eleventh time over the course of several decades. I have photo albums full of these shots. I compare them to see how this glacier changes through the years. Glaciers are hypnotic, I’m a hostage to their grace and elegance. I know they may someday disappear—and all I’ll have are my photos. A weird feeling.
The glacier pops, thunders, rumbles. I scan the broad, horizontal ice walls like a periscope. Boom! I snap my head to the right, in time to witness the slow-motion calving finale. A tall, thin chunk cascades to the sea. Water engulfs the newcomer, and christens it an iceberg. A determined, gentle wave travels to our boat, a safe distance away. I barely feel motion as it passes under our 95-foot vessel.
The ice chunk sacrifices its higher geological rank as a glacier. It’s been demoted to an iceberg. After a time, it becomes the ocean. Centuries of accumulated snow formed this glacier on a mountain slope, which in turn formed the valley. Its terminus moves forward faster than it melts, advancing to the lowest point—into the ocean. The glacier moves through these stages, only to melt into the sea. I think of the massive effort the glacier took to calve its ice here. It reminds me of Chinook that swim boundless distances to spawn in their waters of origin, another immense undertaking.
“This is where glaciers come to die,” I say to myself, suppressing a rise of emotion. This is the process. I learned this in geology, years ago. I am grieving a loss for something that hasn’t yet disappeared. Maybe I should look at the glass half full. This process creates more ocean. Is that so bad?
A jovial outburst disrupts my reverie.
“We’re making Glacieritas!” he grins, as two other crew help him muscle the ice to the ship’s bar to chip it for complimentary margaritas.
“We’re about to drink melted ice, thousands of years old!” I proclaim to visiting friends, as I capture a photo of a crew member plunging ice picks into what was once a glacier. People ooh and ah at the prospect of glacier ice in their drink. I flinch from a twinge of guilt at the idea of drinking melted glacial ice. Chip, chip, chip—the disparaging ice-picks reduce the former glacier’s noble status into measly ice cubes. I feel humiliation for the ice, and can’t help but think this is demeaning to the dignity of a glacier.
I understand the novelty of drinking a Glacierita. Besides, it’s yummy. But I feel like I’m betraying the glacier. Doesn’t it deserve more respect? I stare into the blue drink in my hand, liquid swirling around ice, melting this ancient element. The ice tinkles as if it rolled out of an ice-maker. We may as well use the ice for our drinks, I reason—it’ll melt anyway.
Hey, what’s the deal, I’m getting emotional about a glacier. Time for another Glacierita.
2. Fearing Ice. Glacial ice morphs from a thing of beauty into something to be feared. When boating through icebergs near calving glaciers, I think of Titanic, then chide myself. I meander to the stern window, peering to gage where the big icebergs are, making sure the captain doesn’t ram one and put a hole in the boat. This is absurd, I came here to admire the ice, why am I now letting it freak me out?
The glacier recedes from view until it becomes a thin white line, blending into Alaska’s plentiful coastline. We sip our Glacieritas as our vessel picks up speed and enters the ice-free waters of Resurrection Bay, back to Seward.
Once home, I compare photos to those I took on the same cruise in 1983. I can’t believe the amount of cliff rock now visible along the glacier wall. The ’83 photo shows only ice, with fewer icebergs in the water. The glacier has lost considerable ice mass over thirty-three years.
It really is happening. A twinge stirs my chest, remembering as a kid in Montana, how spectacular the glaciers were in Glacier National Park. On a recent trip through Montana, I was astounded to learn twenty-five glaciers remain from one-hundred-fifty that were documented in the 1800s. Park rangers said the rest will disappear in the next ten to fifteen years. I joked about having to rename Glacier Park when that happens. I joked to choke back feelings of anticipated loss.
Yes, it really is happening and we’re all witnessing it. The thought of glaciers disappearing from Alaska seems ludicrous. Alaska, for gosh sakes! Get out there to kiss and hug those glaciers, folks. Time’s a-warming.
Glacieritas won’t be the same with boring groundwater ice cubes.
3. Hating Ice. I hate ice when it rains in November and the temperature hovers at freezing. Here we go again with the Alaska ice follies, as our vehicles ballet and frolic on freezing rain. I firm my resolve and set out with my studded snow-tires, white-knuckled and determined. I haven’t been knighted as a ditch-diver yet and I don’t plan to be—I’ve driven decades on Alaska’s roads commuting to work and managed to make it in one piece. Ice won’t get the best of me.
4. Cussing Ice. “Mother-freaking ice!” I yell as my studs pummel the icy road, torturing it, to show it who’s boss.
The ice mocks me. It sputters back, “Is that all you got?!”
Sand trucks skitter by and man reigns supreme over the ice once again. I love the sound of studs in the morning.
The windshield is another ice-battling endeavor. Nature went to all that trouble to caress my car with frozen water, it seems disrespectful to attack the ice with a scraper. After all, it’s a fractal design, a work of art. Unfortunately, one must see through a windshield when one drives down the road, so removing ice is a necessity so as not to crash. A fleeting moment of guilt pauses my scraper in mid-air—I’m about to destroy nature’s art. I get over it and scrape it all off.
Ice Philosophy. Alaskans are a fickle lot when it comes to ice. We admire it, hate it, smash it or eat it. We use tools, large and small, to get rid of it, break into pieces, or carve ice sculptures under multi-colored lights. A block of unimaginative ice magically transforms into a dragon, a diving whale, or Darth Vader. Pieces chip away to reveal the truth of the beauty inside. True form emerges from what was envisioned.
The way we chip at ice reminds me of how we get to know one another. We chip away at human exteriors to know the real person inside—the way we chip at ice. These geological processes take time—and patience. But the rewards are many.
And as for glaciers… I’m trying to view the ice in my glass as half-full instead of half-empty. Like the quote from a William Wordsworth poem that I changed to fit my feelings about melting glaciers: “Though nothing can bring back the hour of splendor of the glaciers, glory in the cirque and crevasse, we will grieve not, rather find strength in what remains behind.
Maybe I learned that in geology too—or was it English lit…
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