Mary Ann Thomas: Brown Queer Travel Writer

The Ice Beneath My Feet

 

“That’s the moraine!” Julie says, furiously waving her finger towards the pile of rubble to our left.

“Moraine. Man, that’s a word you only hear up here, only hear when around glaciers and mountains and rocks,” I tell Kasey in the backseat. I turn my head and shut up. The moraine to our left is on a scale I never encountered before: hills of rock stretching out for miles. My gaze follows the undulating reds and greys and blacks, until I reach the hidden mountain that serves as the source of the glacier.

Blackburn Mountain.

Blackburn is thirty miles away, they tell us, but the Kennicott Glacier spills out from it and carves this valley. Carves, present tense. The glacier sculpts the valley with each microscopic movement. Water digs into the mountains over hundreds, thousands, millions of years. The depth of the glacial ice itself stretches hundreds, thousands of feet below what we can see.

Our guide, Emma, stuns us when she tells us that this moraine is not simply heaping piles of rubble, but that two inches of rock sit atop hundreds of feet of ice. An unseen ice world lies below.

Today, we enter that world.

We wobble as the van clunks up the washboard road full of potholes. We walk two miles to the Root Glacier. We can clearly see its face, what Emma calls the icefall. It stretches between mountains, a wall of textured blue filling in the gaps between the stone. It looks close enough to touch, but Emma tells us it’s eight miles away from where we stand.

“Eight miles?” I repeat all day, incredulous. “Eight miles?”

“And almost a mile vertical,” Emma adds.

I’m lightheaded thinking about the vast expanse of ice, thinking about how miniscule I truly am, in every way, compared to this old ass glacier. I can’t conceptualize it for too long, so I turn to the task at hand.

I set my bag down and slip on mountaineering boots and crampons. It’s my first time walking on a glacier of this scale. I don’t trust myself or the crampons and I gingerly tiptoe out onto the sloping ice. Within a few minutes, the five of us travelers and our two wilderness guides are all hopping across the Root Glacier like it’s no big deal. I’m feigning confidence, but full of fear. I ask Emma if it’s okay to pee on the glacier.

“Sure.” She gives me a puzzled look, like no one has asked that question before. Our other guide, Hannah, chimes in.

“They actually say that pee disperses in less than twenty minutes. And, unlike camping everywhere else, you’re supposed to pee in the running water if you can, to help it scatter,” she tells us knowingly.

It was a silly question. How could I think a few hundred milliliters of human waste could touch a glacier that’s existed for tens of millions of years? How could I possibly imagine myself so important to affect an ecosystem this vast?

We continue past a teal pool. The collected minerals show us a color so strange to see in nature. It’s the same teal outdoor stores use to market things to women; it’s the same loud teal that would be unacceptable to wear in the city I’m most familiar with, New York. Glacier teal.

“Wow, this is totally different than last week,” Emma tells us. A few days before we arrived, glacial movement caused the Kennicott River, which flows out from the Kennicott Glacier, to rise five feet. A “glacial outburst flood”, technically called a jokulhlaup. There are so many unknowns here. Answers only reveal more questions. It’s unknown whether the glacial movement happened on Root Glacier, and pushed the lower areas of Kennicott Glacier, or whether it happened thirty miles away at Blackburn Mountain. Regardless of where the ice fell to make so much glacier move, everything is actively changing now. Locals say it shifts by the hour: hikers and ice climbers compare notes and find that deep pools in the ice, called moulins, are empty one hour and full the next. Draining and filling, draining and filling, the moulins serve as piping for the glacier. So much happens hundreds of feet beneath the ice I stand on, and I know so little.

We ice climb, digging axes and stabbing toes into walls of ice, stretching fifty to a hundred feet high. Between routes, we learn about ogives and accumulation zones, moulins and glacial succession. We wander from one wall to another, zig zagging our way along a narrow river formed by the recent icefall. It’s almost a canyon, walls of radiant compressed ice on either side with just an inch or two of water in the center, trickling down the glacier. The walls ripple, solid scoops removed in symmetrical patterns. Lines, some as wide as several feet, some as narrow as my pinky, stretch horizontally and vertically. I see Hannah taking a picture of one vertical line and, since it’s the first picture I’ve seen her take all day, I ask what it is.

“Foliation. How’s that for a word?” she answers.

“What’s it mean!” I exclaim.

“Lines are history. Up at the icefall, a chunk of ice will break off and hit the flatter area. It pushes the whole glacier. The pressure from it increases the ice density in certain spots and changes the crystal structure. Some foliation lines have lots of silt sticking to it and some are bare, from that change. Foliation. You see it everywhere here.”

Foliation. Crystal structure. A whole gang of people who know things about glaciers, who know things about this world of ice. I’m smitten.

 

The next day, Spencer is our pack rafting guide. He picks us up in the van, loaded with everything we need: dry suits, inflatable pack rafts, paddles, life jackets. He takes us to the put in spot for the “Training Lake,” which we skeptically determine will not be cool enough for us. We tell him to take us to the Worm Hole.

“We saw it from the road yesterday,” Kasey tells him. “I thought it was a bridge! But Emma told me we could get to it.”

“We can do that,” Spencer replies. “We’ll go through the lower lake, portage the rafts a little bit, and get into the upper lake. We’ll hike a little bit, but we’ll do it.”

I’m skeptical. The hiking, I can do. It’s the water that scares me. As an asthmatic, my greatest fear is drowning. I’ve gasped for breath too many times in my youth, struggled to inhale enough oxygen to make it to the next breath. I’ve felt the carbon dioxide build in my bloodstream as my breaths grow shallow and quick. Despite the best efforts of my parents—five years of swimming lessons, and weekends at the pool—I’ve never felt comfortable in water.

“How good are you at rescuing?” I ask Spencer.

“Oh, I do it almost every day,” he responds.

“I expect to capsize,” I warn. “At least once.”

We inflate the rafts until they can’t hold any more pressure. Then he tells us to slip the paddle underneath the rope on either end of the raft, and use it as a handle. Now, we can casually walk around with an eight-pound raft on one shoulder to the training lake.

The lake itself is rimmed in glacier. Sunlight glistens off the ice of the far shore, and in front of us are walls of rock. Glacier, I remind myself. Glacial ice that is covered in two inches of rock.

“How deep is the lake?” I ask.

“They just measured it last year!” Spencer says. “Two hundred fifty feet. Parts of the glacier are seven hundred feet deep with ice, and some parts are a few thousand.”

Holy crap. If I drop something in, it’s going down forever.

We meander into coves created by the recent jokulhlaup. I soon feel stable, and easily steer myself into small spaces without letting my boat hit the ice. Spencer tells us that everything we see is newly formed: the giant walls of ice before us, with a five-foot line water line cleared out from the recent rise in water; the canyons of blue with furious water flowing through its sharp edges; the enormous formation of ice that looks like a turtle rising majestically from the water, jumping into the sky. The bottle of Jim Beam that we pass between the rafts is the best motivation to stay close to the group; otherwise I could sit and stare at this ice all day.

We ferry across a small rapid and pull the rafts onto the beach. Spencer, excited, almost runs to the Worm Hole. We follow carefully, walking across brown scree that slides with every small step. With every slide, our footsteps expose the clear black ice underneath the rocks. We are walking on top of the Kennicott Glacier in beat up sneakers and dry suits.

When I approach the last ascent to the viewpoint, I see why no one speaks. The Worm Hole looks, from afar, like a bridge. A bridge naturally born from a glacier actively melting, whose water slices tunnels in the compressed ice and forms passageways to the river. A place where rivers are born. Up close, the Worm Hole looks like two hundred feet of confused water, water in a state of motion. Ice in thaw, ice becoming water, ice changing states before us. An archway with a texture of ripples. Black soot, glacier silt, covers the inside of the arch. At points where water drips, the ice glistens the purest, brightest white I’ve ever seen. With the ice melting, the two inches of rocks tumble to the ground, their footing disrupted.

We watch. Spencer tells us that, from his perspective as our guide, we shouldn’t go into the archway. Rocks are constantly falling and it’s hard to tell how big the next rock to fall will be. So we sit and stare, watching the tumble, listening to the miniature waterfalls etched into the ice, catching glimpses of the landslides before they plunk into the flowing river beneath us.

I take a long pull on the whiskey.

Alaska exists on a scale unknown to me anywhere else I’ve been. McCarthy and Kennicott, then, exist on a scale I never experienced in Alaska. Glaciers stretch for miles towards the horizon; valleys are still being unearthed by glacial movement. New canyons and coves are exposed by the simple rushing water. Ice formations are built and torn down within a single day. Active is the word I keep hearing: the landscape is actively changing, the pools are actively filling, the glacier is actively melting.

Rocks fall. Rivers born. Humans humbled.

Originally published in Alaska Women Speak.

 

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