Glacier Blues

Prose + Photos by Tyra A. Olstad

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The weather certainly is beautiful, but it’s ruining the very thing you’ve come to see.

The first day with no rain was a relief. Still a low ceiling of clouds, but with a bit of a glow and, by late afternoon, glimpses of blue sky—welcome after days of continuous showers typical of south-central Alaska’s rugged, rainforested coast.

The second day with no rain was a gift. Altostratus slightly higher, plowing around the peaks, broken by bigger patches of blue and moments of actual sunshine. The third day, then, was an even brighter gift. Only the highest summits snagged a few cloud-wisps and warm light flowed through the valleys. When a quilt of cirrocumulus speckled in, late afternoon, we all thought, Well, that was it—our monthly dose of vitamin D before the rain returns.

But no, the next day dawned as a dream. Pure blue sky, as intense as the glacial ice it illuminated. Is that Mount Carpathian?, I asked a fellow ranger, pointing out a high, sharp peak. For several weeks, I’d been telling visitors about it—at 5,991 feet, the highest point around, and the headwall for the area’s main attraction, Portage Glacier—but I’d never actually seen it, nor the glacier in all its glory. They were always shrouded in clouds. Yes, and Begich Peak, Byers, everywhere, snow-capped mountains ringing white.

If day four was a dream, day five was a miracle. Blue sky, blue ice, willow-spiced breeze. Flowers erupted in early color. Heat radiated off dry rock and desiccated moss.

By day six, we were suspicious. Wary. Forecasts for thunderstorms had old-timers shaking their heads, Well, I never. We held our breath as dark skies filled the far end of the valley, but not a drop fell. Instead, a curtain of cirrus swept in, late evening, treating us to a rare, magical double halo. My co-workers and I gawked with mingled awe and anxiety. These rainless hours were no longer a delight, but an aberrance, we knew, an indicator. The new abnormal.

Empty blue again the next day. And the next. Was it day eight or nine without rain? We lost track.

I missed the rainbows, missed the mist. Although it felt luxurious to be warm and sunburnt, wearing sandals and unburdened by a just-in-case jacket, I also wanted to cover up the glaciers, to keep the ice insulated and snow in shadow. The weather certainly is beautiful, I agreed with the tourists, silently adding, but it’s ruining the very thing you’ve come to see.

Portage Lake, Chugach National Forest, South-Central Alaska
Portage Lake, South-Central Alaska.

Most people don’t want to hear that. They come to Portage Valley and the broader Chugach National Forest for vacation—a break from routine life, a chance to relax and/or recreate, an opportunity (once-in-a-lifetime, for some) to witness the grandeur and wildness of these sky-stretching mountains, salmon-laced streams, bear-haunted forests, and, above all, blue-gleaming glaciers. Thousands of glaciers: tidewater glaciers, lacustrine glaciers, piedmont glaciers, valley glaciers, hanging glaciers, ice fields, ice complexes, ice bergs, bergy bits, brash ice. There is so much ice here because the mountains are tall, the air filled with moisture, and, at a latitude of 60 degrees north, the temperatures low. Summers are supposed to be cool and cloudy, winters long and snowy. (An average of 260 inches of snow falls in Whittier, the closest town to Portage, tucked in a fjord on Prince William Sound. Mountaintops might catch twice that.) The Kenai and Chugach Mountains jut out of the ocean, grabbing and holding as much precipitation as possible. As long as some snow persists through the summers, it collects and begins to recrystallize into firn ice. Given more snow, time, and pressure, the solid water metamorphoses into true glacial ice and flows down the mountains, scraping at and sliding over the bedrock. A glacier—a river of ice.

By best estimates, Alaska contains somewhere between 27,000 and 100,000 glaciers. Of those, some 10,000 are found in Chugach—the country’s northernmost and second-largest national forest, covering 5.4 million acres from the eastern Kenai Peninsula and the Kenai Mountains around the Chugach Mountains and Prince William Sound through the Copper River Delta to the edge of the Wrangell Range.

Ninety-nine percent of Chugach’s glaciers are retreating.

According to the most recent U.S. Forest Service regional climate assessment, “during the last decade, much of Alaska has warmed twice as rapidly as the global average. This pattern of warming is far more pronounced in winter and spring than in autumn or summer.” The trend is only going to continue. The Forest Services shares the glum prediction: “[a]cross the region, winter temperatures are expected to warm by about 3 to 3.5 °C” in the next 50 years, tilting over the freezing point. Milder winters mean less precipitation falling as snow, more as rain.

You can’t make a glacier out of rain.

And hotter, sunnier summers means more melting, of both snow and ice.

Exact figures vary based on the elevation, aspect, and terminus (on land or in water) of individual patches of ice, but Chugach’s glaciers are losing a total volume of six cubic kilometers of ice per year. One point four cubic miles. One third the volume of the Great Salt Lake. Since it began retreating in the 1980s, Columbia Glacier—a tidewater tongue of ice which flows into Prince William Sound from the heart of the Chugach Mountains—has melted back more than 12 miles and lost half its mass and volume. It’s expected to retreat at a rate of nearly half a mile per year for the next two decades—a total of nine miles—at which point it will be confined to land, no longer calving off city-sized bergs. Meanwhile, Portage Glacier—my glacier, where I work, giving tours via a boat; a lacustrine glacier, prone to breaking off into the lake it exposes as it melts—retreated at an average of more than 180 feet per year throughout the 20th century. When the Forest Services opened the Begich, Boggs Visitor Center in Portage Valley in 1986, they designed its auditorium’s grand wall of windows to celebrate the spectacular view of Portage Glacier and its huge icebergs filling the lake. In less than a decade, the terminus had disappeared behind the corner of a mountain, no longer visible from the visitor center. Two decades later, it’s continuing to retreat at a rate of “only” about 90 feet per year, and rarely heaves grand bergs into the water.

Of course, the cryosphere is changing well beyond Chugach. Researchers write, half-panicked, that “most of the glaciers of the [Southern Patagonian] ice field are decaying, with several undergoing ‘catastrophic’ retreat”. A thorough assessment of the Hindu Kush-Himalaya reports that even under the best-case scenario—“if [global] warming can be limited to the ambitious target of +1.5 °C”—“volume losses of more than one-third are projected for extended HKH glaciers [by 2100]”. On average, Greenland has lost 286 billion tons of ice per year for the past decade—a sixfold increase in the rate of annual melting since the 1980s. This statistic is likely to change due to an unprecedented warming event in late spring 2019, when 80 billion tons of ice melted in just ten days. Eighty billion tons of ice, gone. Meanwhile, Antarctica—the coldest continent, which boasts the planet’s thickest, oldest ice, up to two and a half miles deep in places and up to one and a half million years old—went from losing an average of 40 billion tons of ice per year in the 1980s to 252 billion tons between 2009-2017. What researchers had believed (or hoped) to be some of the most stable ice on the planet—the sheet, shelves, and glaciers of East Antarctica—is officially beginning to decay.

Not to mention sea ice, ice-lake duration, snowfall and snow cover, permafrost, frost days. Worldwide, nearly all components of the cryosphere are affected by the changing climate. And, in turn, changes to the cryosphere amplify climate change. Thawing soils release methane. Thinning ice packs alter ocean circulation. Expanding meltpools absorb solar energy. Researchers are scrambling to predict what might happen as positive feedback loops kick in. As the bright, reflective glacier retreats, I simplify the concept of albedo for visitors aboard the tourboat, it exposes the dark bedrock underneath, which soaks in the sunlight. The rock heats up, melts more ice, and as the glacier retreats, it exposes more rock…. I see people nodding along, as they witness the glacial melt flowing off the bedrock and understand the implications.

Do they feel as guilty as I do for enjoying the feel of warm sunshine, the sight of clear sunny skies? For hoping to hear the crack and crash of a giant chunk of calving ice?

Seracs and subglacial stream, terminus of Portage Glacier
Seracs and subglacial stream, terminus of Portage Glacier.

I have yet to meet anyone who denies that Portage Glacier is melting, and melting rapidly. Photographs from the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey in 1914 show the terminus three miles farther out, with what is now a lake unexposed. Photographs from a few decades ago feature one unbroken wall of ice dipping deep into the lake, where today the thinning and retreating glacier flows to either side of an exposed mound of bedrock, the left lobe barely touching water. Photographs from just a couple of months ago do not reveal the stream now gushing out from underneath the far left, nor do they include the surface meltwater falling into moulins, the continuous crumbling of seracs, or the lake’s outflow churning with cold, turbid until-recently-glacial-ice.

We’re not used to geologic processes happening on a human scale. “Glacial pace” is meant to mean slow, not fast. Where did the glacier go?, visitors sometimes ask, reminiscing about a time when they pulled up to see it from the roadside or fished bergy bits out of the lake. But that was just a few years ago!, they protest, trying to wrap their minds around the idea that something so large and seemingly-solid could disappear so quickly. Unnerving, like returning to Seattle or Tokyo to find Rainier or Fuji sunken below the horizon. Resource managers, city planners, and structural engineers can’t prepare for such sudden change. Cartographers can’t update maps fast enough, nor can tourism bureaus redo brochures at such a pace. From commercial fishermen to subsistence hunters, cruise companies to ski resort operators, people whose livelihoods depend on vast stores of beautiful, fresh, frozen water don’t know what to do. Struggle to adapt, or give up? Portage Glacier isn’t visible from the Visitor Center anymore, I tell disgruntled tourists every day, You have to take a boat out to see it.

In another 20 years, it might not even be worthwhile to take a boat, to see it halfway up a hillside.

Tourboat approaching Portage Glacier (lower left). The dark bedrock outcrops on either side were still mostly under ice twenty years ago.
Tourboat approaching Portage Glacier (lower left). The dark bedrock outcrops on either side were still mostly under ice 20 years ago.

In the meantime, for a brief window, business is booming. Call it “disaster tourism” or “climate change tourism”—people are flocking to places like Portage Valley to see imperiled natural wonders before they’re gone. The Great Barrier Reef. The snows of Kilimanjaro. The glaciers of Glacier National Park. Who knows if they’ll last our lifetimes. Don’t wait—visit now! “[W]e know you’ll make amazing lifelong memories here!”, Alaska’s Official Vacation Information Guide confidently proclaims.

In 2017, 2.25 million people visited Alaska—more than three times the state population. Those visitors spent nearly $3 billion and, accounting for taxes and labor income, had an overall economic impact of four and a half billion dollars. One out of ten Alaska jobs result from the visitor industry and an overlapping one out of ten is connected to outdoor recreation. Staff for airlines, cruiselines, railroads, hotels and resorts, hunting and fishing permits, guide services, restaurants, gift shops, and parks all depend on people’s desire “to see Alaska’s glorious mountains, rivers, and glaciers,” as acknowledged by Governor Dunleavy.

To get here, though, visitors have to fly, drive, or boat long distances. Once here, we rent cars or RVs, board tourboats and buses. Flightsee. Turn on lights and crank up the heat (or, this summer, the air conditioning). Charge phones so that we can take photos and call, text, or post what we’re doing to social media.

This all requires fossil fuels.

As of 2013, tourism-related activities—transportation, hotels, souvenirs, food, etc.—had a global carbon footprint of the equivalent of 4.5 gigatons of CO2, totaling 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions at that time.

Of all of the components of a trip, simply getting to Alaska has the biggest impact. On average, a round-trip drive between Anchorage and Portage burns enough gasoline to release 80 pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2) in a moderately-efficient vehicle and at least double that for an RV. If able to capture that carbon and asked to shoulder its weight, a family of four making a day-trip to Portage via an RV might not be able to heft the 40 pounds each. In comparison, an average round-trip flight between New York City and Anchorage burns enough jet fuel to release 3.3 metric tons of CO2 per person—about the weight of a small Class-C RV, and nearly double the average annual emissions of a citizen of India. As of 2015, domestic and international commercial flights to and from Alaska released 7.15 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents—more than the entire greenhouse gas emissions from the state of Vermont.

According to calculations by researchers at the Max Planck Institute and National Snow and Ice Data Center, each metric ton of CO2 emissions causes a sustained decrease in the extent of September sea-ice in the Arctic by 3 ± 0.3 square meters. By this metric, my flights to and from Alaska make me responsible for the loss of a hundred square feet of sea ice. One hundred square feet of ice, gone. My fault. As environmental journalist Andy Newman writes for The New York Times, “Going someplace far away, we now know, is the biggest single action a private citizen can take to worsen climate change.”

Do we know, though? Visitors may not deny that the glaciers are melting, but I’m surprised by the number of people—Americans, almost exclusively—who refuse to acknowledge humans’ role in global warming. Day after day, they repeat all the clichés, the standard denialisms: It’s just sunspots, they insist, fully believing the misinformation they read on a website or heard on TV; or, Scientists say we’re about to enter another Ice Age. Deflecting blame: It’s China’s fault. Ducking responsibility: We’ll invent something to fix it. Most popular: The climate has always been changing; this isn’t any different.

Whenever visitors approach me eager to pick an argument about climate change, I want to barrage them with facts and figures that aren’t part of my regular tour narrative. In 2017, I want to quote the UN Environment Programme, humans emitted a record high 53.5 billion tonnes of CO2 and CO2-equivalent greenhouse gasses such as methane and nitrous oxide—up 700 million tonnes compared with 2016. The trend only got worse in 2018: humans emitted 37.1 ± 1.8 billion tonnes of CO2 alone. Given the increasing concentrations of these gases in the atmosphere, their tendency to stay in the atmosphere for tens to hundreds of years, and, crucially, their ability to absorb heat energy, our atmosphere is now holding in roughly three extra watts of energy for every square meter on the planet (a phenomenon known as “increased radiative forcing”). This is what is causing the warming, disrupting climate patterns, I want to shout over the microphone. This is what is melting the glaciers: us! [Me.]

Guilt. Censure. Denunciation.

I stay silent. People aren’t here to be berated. Especially on these gloriously clear days, I too want to be able to just enjoy the place, to soak in the beauty and wildness.

But, nagging at the back of my mind is Newman’s question: “If seeing the world helps ruin it, should we stay home?” What do we have to do to make it worth it? Can any of us learn enough and change enough to account for the impact of the experience itself?

Carbon emissions are measured in gigatons; consequences in degrees of temperature increase, inches of sea level rise, dollar cost of disasters. Glacial retreat is measured in feet and miles; thinning in cubic units; melting in terms of mass lost and/or area of meltwater. How to measure the feeling of helplessness, witnessing the accelerating loss of the cryosphere? How to gauge the suffering of future generations, who will look out at empty mountainsides and drowned shores?

Then, how to weigh it all against the momentary joy of today, measured in units of warm sunshine and shimmering blue-white ice? We’re ruining the very thing we’ve come to see.

Visitors elbowing to see Surprise Glacier calve, Harriman Fjord, Chugach National Forest.
Visitors elbowing to see Surprise Glacier calve, Harriman Fjord.

Rain! After nearly two weeks of dryness, precipitation finally began to fall. My coworkers were ecstatic, as were the trees and mosses and ducks. The forest smelled alive again.

I was less celebratory. It was my weekend. I went backpacking, expecting to unfurl my sleeping bag in a valley ringed with glacial ice and watch the sky transition through the sun-tinged hues of a summer-in-Alaska night. Instead, I found myself huddled in my tent, listening to raindrops pelt the fabric. Outside, blue-grey ice lumps clung to cliffs and disappeared into clouds. A murky stream roiled out from under lingering avalanche debris and a few lonely shrubs struggled to survive in shifting gravel. Sometime after drifting off to sleep, I woke to the sound of water everywhere, and peeked out of the tent to see cascades ribboning off the cliffs, the stream raging with rainwater, and icemelt engulfing the shrubs’ lower limbs. I vaguely registered how unwise it had been to camp in a place where I was exposed to the possibility of flooding and/or rockslides, but it was too late—I wasn’t going to pack up and move while it was pouring. It was a restless night.

When I awoke the next morning, the valley was both crashing with noise—the falls, the stream—and eerily silent. Not raining, I realized. I unzipped my tent to find the world ringing with blue—bright shadows reverberating off the valley walls and, high above, sunshine illuminating the top of the glacier. I watched as the ice grew brighter and brighter, brilliant. Although I knew that it was a matter of the sun rising, or, more accurately, the earth rotating, it really did seem as though the ice was glowing from within—all the radiance of a star, a supergiant. The whole summer seemed worth it for just those moments, that blueness.

It didn’t rain for another three and a half weeks. Twenty-five days, not a drop.

Ice above Portage Glacier, no longer connected to the main body
Ice above Portage Glacier, no longer connected to the main body.

June baked into July. Cottonwoods began to turn gold and drop their leaves with drought stress, no longer worth it to try to photosynthesize amid such thirst. Same for fireweed, blazing orange-red.

Speaking of blazes, a fire burned to the southwest. When lightning ignited spruces in part of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge at the beginning of June, managers figured they’d wait and let the next rainfall put out the flames. It didn’t rain. The fire grew. Five thousand acres. Ten. Teams worked to keep it away from homes and the only road in the region, but that was all they could do. Fifty thousand acres. A hundred.

In addition to the overly-dry understory—mosses, shrubs, and small trees that can go up in flames when touched by mere embers—the fire fed on trees that were killed or stressed by spruce bark beetles. Spruce bark beetles, in turn, have been thriving through milder winters. “The effects of climate change on disturbance regimes, both fire and insects, will indirectly affect vegetation,” the Forest Service observed three years ago. “In addition,” they warned, “disturbance regimes, fire in particular, directly affect humans.” Roads were closed, traffic rerouted. From Seward to Anchorage, the air was choked with smoke. Eyes watered, throats scratched. Visitors complained that they couldn’t see the mountains due to the haze. So much for the perfect weather.

By the end of July, the fire seemed to have burned itself out. Skies cleared. We breathed easy. Forgot.

Then, mid-August, still eerily hot and dry, fires everywhere flared back up with a vengeance. Across the state, headlines in the Anchorage Daily News shouted: “Caribou Lake Fire northeast of Homer threatens nearly 30 structures,” “Residents evacuate as wildfire approaches Levelock in Southwest Alaska,” “People in McKinley fire’s path recount last-minute evacuations.” Even for those not immediately threatened by flames, “Wildfire smoke reaches ‘unhealthy’ level in Anchorage.” The sun screamed red. Sky and glacier turned a dull grey-brown, defeated.

Sunset over Portage Creek, air thick with wildfire smoke
Sunset over Portage Creek, air thick with wildfire smoke.

Then there were the salmon. They came into Portage Valley right on time, the first week of August: a few lonely little pinks, then a wave of chums, then sockeyes, the pinks in earnest. Two weeks later, as the creeks dried up, the remaining rivulets were choked with fish struggling to breathe in increasingly hot, shallow pools. Elsewhere in the state, more headlines read: “Record warm water likely gave Kuskokwim salmon heart attacks” and “Alaska salmon deaths blamed on record high temperatures.” When river temperatures rise above 70 degrees, as they did in Bethel in early July for the first time, biologist Ben Gray explains, “salmon metabolism speeds up to the point that they’re having heart attacks and going belly up.” The die-offs are “directly in line with the predictions of what scientists like myself and other colleagues have been warning is likely to occur,” ecologist Peter Westley told a reporter, with a mix of exasperation and impatience, “and we need to prepare ourselves and not be surprised when it happens again in the future, because it will.”

July proved to be the hottest month on record for Alaska. And for the planet.

What affects fish affects whales, bears, eagles: “Fourth dead gray whale to wash up in Alaska spotted on the Kenai Peninsula” the Anchorage Daily News reported on May 29, 2019; “5th gray whale dies in Alaska waters” KTUU televised on May 31, 2019; national media outlet CNN picked up on the trend by July 11, with “7 dead whales were found in Alaska over the weekend, and experts blame the climate crisis.” Entire marine, freshwater, and terrestrial ecosystems have been suffering.

And, of course, what affects fish affects people. For Alaskan villages and cities that depend on commercial fishing, 2018 was “a disaster. The fish just didn’t show up,” as reported in The New York Times. 2019 was shaping up to be even worse. The fish weren’t there, a visitor from Argentina told me while we were chatting on the tour boat, I’ve been coming to the Kenai for 20 years. They’ve always been here. I don’t know where to go now, what to do. He shook his head and crinkled his eyes, gazing at Portage Glacier, Well, I came to see this instead.

I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the glacier is going the way of the fish. They’re connected. And symptoms of larger change. We’re ruining the very things we’ve come to see.

Seals in front of Barry Glacier
Seals in front of Barry Glacier, Harriman Fjord. According to Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, icebergs that calve off of tidewater glaciers “serve as pupping and molting habitat [for harbor seals]…. Climate change models predict rapid loss of glacier ice with unknown impacts to seals that rely on tidewater glacial habitat.”

Then again, Forest Service researchers found that “the largely intact aquatic systems of the [Chugach] region, with extremely diverse conditions for salmon, are likely to be largely resilient to changing climate,” and slightly warmer temperatures could even suggest long-term “potential for increases in salmon abundance.” Wildfires release nutrients and clear space for a healthier mosaic of species; next year, the burned acres will erupt in lupine and fireweed. Glacial retreat exposes bedrock for pioneering mosses and lichens. When one of the Forest Service rangers came to Alaska in 1968, the glacier was here, I announce during tours, pointing at an outcrop now carpeted in healthy spruce saplings.

How to understand, how to explain the complexity? What am I supposed to say? What are we supposed to do?

Ask questions. Take responsibility. Make changes.

Celebrate the beauty and mourn its loss.

Another luxuriously sunny and heart-breakingly beautiful day at Portage Lake, smoke lingering in the air and massive iceberg melting in the water.
Another luxuriously sunny and heart-breakingly beautiful day at Portage Lake, smoke lingering in the air and massive iceberg melting in the water.

“Solastalgia,” philosopher Glenn Albrecht coined a term for “the pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault” or, more succinctly, “the distress caused by environmental change.” Land degradation, coastal erosion, resource extraction, urbanization and suburbanization. Permafrost melting. Flooding, drought, fire. Glacial retreat.

“The concept has universal relevance in any context where there is the direct experience of transformation or destruction of the physical environment… by forces that undermine a personal and community sense of identity and control,” Albrecht explains. But what if the people who are witnessing the transformation are also partially in control of it? We—I­—are/am contributing to the loss. A tragedy.

A travesty not to say anything? On tours, whenever there’s a calving event—at first, a few crumbles, a few splooshes, drawing attention; then a great crack!, a great splash! as a chunk the size of a car or house crashes into the water—we all gasp in awe and celebration. The sound! The immediacy! A geologic event, just like that!

And Portage Glacier loses a few hundred or thousand cubic feet of ice.

“The most poignant moments of solastalgia occur when individuals directly experience the transformation of a loved environment,” Albrecht observes. This “can be the cause of a profound distress that can be manifest as intense visceral pain and mental anguish.” As August rolls on and the calving continues, I fear I might start weeping in the middle of my narration. I can barely look at the glacier, gleaming in sunshine. All I can see is melting; all I can see is what once was, what will not be.

Recently-calved ice from Spencer Glacier collecting on the far shore of Spencer Lake
Recently-calved ice from Spencer Glacier collecting on the far shore of Spencer Lake, Chugach National Forest.

Portage is a relatively short, steep, fast-flowing river of ice. Whereas other glaciers may take centuries to form and flow, it churns through its ice at a rate of about 60 to 80 years, headwall to terminus. When the snow that became that ice fell, Alaska may not have been a state. Charles Keeling hadn’t begun to monitor atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations. My parents weren’t born. On a scientific and technological scale, 80 years is revolutions away. On a human scale, it’s generations. On a geologic scale, nothing.

Sure, the planet will eventually recalibrate…. I’m never sure how to answer visitors who ask why climate change matters. Who cares if a few glaciers melt away? If some fish die and some forests burn? If ecosystems shift and species go extinct? The boat tour is only an hour long; we have a schedule to keep to, so that visitors can disembark, get in their gas-powered vehicles, and continue on their ways. Can I explain why any of this matters in just a minute or two? But in the meantime, there will be an awful lot of suffering.

We’re ruining the very thing we’ve come to see.

A week ago, we woke to find a mound of ice floating on the far end of the lake. The size of an elephant? A plesiosaur? A whale? A true ice-berg, from the Dutch ijs-berg, “ice” “mountain.”

Leaving the dock for the first tour that morning, I could hardly contain my excitement as the captain deviated from her usual route and circled the berg. It was even bigger than I’d imagined from the shore—about 150 feet wide, rising at least 30 feet above water, thus an estimated 250-plus feet below. And it was even bluer than I could have dreamed. Rather than run through my regular narration, I rambled on about metamorphosed snow (i.e., ice) and the absorption or magnification of specific wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation (i.e., blueness). Forget the mountains and the mountain goats, the waterfalls, the natural and cultural history of Portage Valley; I just wanted to point and say, “Look at that blue!”

Once we turned away from the iceberg and aimed for the far end of the lake, the crew and I leaned in with anticipation as we rounded the corner to Portage Glacier, expecting to see a massive gap somewhere along the face. Instead, there was no discernible change. It was a shooter!, the captain realized—the whole mass of ice must have cracked off from the bottom, underneath the water, and burst to the surface. Hence the purity of the color and the size. On one hand, it was heartening to realize that the bottom of the glacier must extend more deeply than we’d realized—we’d estimated that only a hundred feet or so was submerged. On the other hand, at least a million cubic feet of ice had just detached from the glacier and was now floating freely. Melting.

Iceberg in Alaska calved from a glacier
Floating ice in Portage Bay.

During the second tour, I broke my professional demeanor and unabashedly oohed at and ogled the iceberg. Took photographs. Couldn’t look away. Could barely talk. Couldn’t think straight in the face of such a marvelous, horrifying thing. For the rest of the day, I kept looking for it, as if to reassure myself that it was real, not a dream, not a nightmare.

After work that evening, a friend and I borrowed kayaks, aiming to cross the lake’s cold, wind-whipped water to see the iceberg up close. It had already floated a mile, to a spot near where a spectacular waterfall had plunged down a mountainside for May, June, and July (now dry.) The berg was so big that its distance was deceptive. For the first half-hour of hard paddling, we didn’t seem to get anywhere. Between splashes off my hull and spray off my paddle, I was quickly soaked and shivering, increasingly afraid that I might capsize into the 38-degree water. Yet, the iceberg.

We paddled and paddled, quietly, purposefully, traveling at a tenth the speed of the tourboat. The sun sank lower and a line of shadow crept up the cliffs. Warm puffs of wind—radiation stored up during another day of hot, blazing sunshine—swept down in response. Surrounding peaks were suffused with alpenglow. The iceberg—closer, now!—shimmered away.

On we paddled. Past where the terminus of Portage Glacier had been in the 1940s, the 1950s. The iceberg—nearly there!—began to resemble a wall of ice, where the glacier would have stood some 50 years ago.

It towered over us, blocking the wind, enveloping us in its pool of calm and pure amazement. So close to the iceberg—too close to the iceberg, which could calve or flip without notice—we were enveloped in cold light. Sculpted, striated, every shade of blue I never knew existed. Ice-mountain, glowing.

To think that we might never have seen this, that it might not be. There is no way to explain, no word for this combination of sorrow and awe, fury and fear. Contrition. Confusion. Joy. Sunny skies and melting ice.

These particular shades of blue.


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Tyra A. OlstadTyra A. Olstad is a writer, geographer, and sometimes park ranger, paleontology technician, cave guide, and summit steward. In addition to one book—Zen of the Plains—she has published research articles, creative nonfiction essays, photo essays, and hand-drawn maps in a variety of scholarly and creative journals, including GeoHumanities, The Trumpeter, Written River, and Newfound. She currently teaches geography and environmental sustainability at SUNY Oneonta and serves as a prose editor for The Hopper.

Header photo: Ice-mountain dwarfing the glacier off of which it calved, Portage Lake. is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.