When my parents first told me they were taking me to Alaska, I had lots of mixed emotions. First, being pure excitement. Alaska is high on the bucket list for me, like many others. Getting to cross it off this early in my life is a real treat. Then the second part, it’s an Alaskan cruise. To me, experiencing wide-open spaces and vast snowy mountains is a very intimate experience. When I go on a trip into the mountains with my friends, it’s rare if there are more than four of us. I was feeling very indifferent about seeing this magnificent part of the country without truly earning the sights alongside a couple thousand other people.
I don’t want to come off like a pompous snob because I’m extremely grateful my parents brought me on this trip. Frankly, seeing Alaska from a ship is exceptionally convenient. Much of Alaska’s coast is only accessible from seaplane or boat, so being able to bounce from port to port really allows you to see as much of it as possible. Everything I saw was awe-inspiring and breathtaking, from the wild humpback whales, to the endless coastal mountains, to the magnificent glaciers. In fact, these glaciers are what really left a mark on me.
Many of my posts are short recaps of a hike or backcountry ski tour I did. I’m obviously taking a different approach with this one. The story of glaciers melting to the point of extinction has become a staple of any climate change march, movie, or speech. It’s almost become a cliché in its own right. Why is their demise becoming such a talking point? Well, in short, it’s true.
Our ship spent a day in Glacier Bay National Park. Beautiful is a lackluster word to describe this special place on our planet. The bay itself is essentially one massive glacier that has been receding since the end of the “mini ice age” roughly 250 years ago. The landscape and forests along the coast are all in their infant stage and the signs of glacial retreat are evident all around the valley.
We arrive at Margerie Glacier and our ship stops for everyone to view it from the deck or window. I start shooting some photos and suddenly there’s a rumble and then CRACK, a sizable piece breaks off. Holy shit, I gasp to myself. Wow, we got lucky. I bet that never happens. I’m looking at the photo I was able to quickly snap, then suddenly again, CRACK, another chunk breaks off. Alright, what’s going on here? That’s not supposed to happen right? Then it happened again. And again. It happened so much I left my camera recording for no more than a minute and was able to capture a calving (that’s the term for it) from beginning to end.
After each piece that broke off my mouth was left agape. I could hear some of the people to my left and my right hooting and cheering, like it was a football game. “I hope that big spike up there falls off, that would be cool,” some guy says. “Hey asshole you know it doesn’t grow back right?” I didn’t say that. I don’t want to make a scene on the crowded deck so I say nothing. Inside I’m seething.
Is glacial calving common on an unusually sunny day? Maybe it is. I’m not an expert on glaciers. I haven’t taken a science class since 2013. What I do know is seeing it happen over and over again with my own eyes was daunting.
In the great state of Alaska there are roughly 100,000 glaciers. About 1% have a name, even less are studied. What we know is that almost all of them are receding at increasing rates. This is not some hoax that China made up to destabilize our economy. This is a real thing.
I spoke with some guides who lived in cabins outside of Skagway less than a mile from the Davidson glacier. One of them had been there for only three years and said he could blatantly see how far this glacier has receded. For a sense of scale, it had retreated 300 feet a year for those specific three years, and lost somewhere around 50 feet vertically. Another guide in Juneau pointed out where the glacier was when he first saw it ten years ago. It was roughly a three quarter mile difference. He also said how most of the loss was height rather than length.
So what now? Is this the part where I tell you to emit less, eat meat less, and recycle more? To call your local congressman? Naturally, you should, but I barely stay true to that stuff myself. I think the one thing I can definitively tell you to do is see these wonders before they’re gone. I know not everyone has the means to make a journey to this place but if you do, then do it. Just watch out for the yuppies.
"Man as he came from the hand of his Maker was poetic in both mind and body, but the gross heathenism of civilization has generally destroyed Nature, and poetry, and all that is spiritual."