Winner, Terrain.org 10th Annual Contest in Nonfiction
On maps of southeast Alaska, if you trace your finger over the broken coastline 50 miles south of Juneau and just east of Admiralty Island, you’ll see a pair of twin fjords that share the same mouth. These topographical maps, with their tricolor representation of water, rock, and ice, serve as catalogues of change. The steep-walled fingers of blue: evidence of a land in flux. Today we call these fjords Tracy Arm and Endicott Arm, but these names, like the fjords themselves, are recent affectations. I could say the land used to be Tlingit land, under the Western assumption that all lands must belong, rightfully, to someone human. But the Tlingit, or Tide People, would likely say this land no more belongs to them than it does to Raven, who made the world and brought daylight into it from way up the Nass River valley.
It was ice that brought me to this place, although I came by plane, and then skiff, and then kayak. I came to see ice. Or rather I came to witness the rapid wastage of ice, giant hunks the size of three-story buildings buckling into the sea. A kind of in medias res form of disaster tourism, for sure. I came to do what a scientist might do—grapple with change over time—though I am more metaphor-tourist than scientist. I wanted to go to Alaska to study what is fleeting: the thinning, fragmenting glacier. But then, the day before I left on the trip, Liz, my girlfriend of three years, announced that she wanted a break. Even though I didn’t go to Alaska in order to face up to the reality of my ending relationship, that is what happened. I came in June, on the precipice between winter and summer, the seasonal glacial tipping point between snowfall accumulation and surface melting. Everywhere I look is allegory. In this giant place with giant phenomena happening all around me, I am stuck inside my single-generation timescale frame of mind, worrying the threadbare connection between my love and me.
For seven days, three of us—a U.S. Forest Service wilderness ranger, a Student Conservation Association intern, and me, the writer-in-residence—mark the passage of time by the ebb and flood of tides.
Our first night, we spend in a Forest Service wall tent on Little Harbor Island in Holkham Bay. It’s the week before the summer solstice, the week of the new moon. I pluck the laminated tide chart from our pile of gear and look out at the horizon. The hues in the distance are muted—misty conifers, snowcapped peaks, and slate gray ocean. But this is a place of extremes. The south shore of the island is alive with purple sea stars, bigger than my own splayed hand, incandescent anemones, and bright orange tunicates. The tide chart shows twice-a-day, 24-foot exchanges, more than double the exchanges on the Salish Sea that I call home. In the morning, we’ll catch the slack tide right before the low tide mark, ride the ebbing current over the sand bar at Wood Spit, leaving Holkham Bay and Little Harbor Island behind, and enter into Endicott Arm. The tidal flats at Wood Spit mark the former terminus of the Dawes Glacier. The sedimentary apron here is indicative of glacial deposition from over a thousand years ago. Now the snout of the Dawes Glacier calves icebergs some 30 miles away, a distance we will travel over the course of the next seven days.
That night, I walk around the perimeter of the island, my meditation barely straying from the canister of pepper spray in my back pocket. I startle an otter out of its den, and, for a second, I mistake its snorts for the brown bear I am wound tightly to expect. Earlier that day, Sean, the wilderness ranger, had me proofread an email to his boss outlining why we were not bringing a rifle, which is mandatory for all Forest Service backcountry trips into grizzly habitat. If all went as planned, we were going to be boarding multiple tour boats, and had no locked safe to keep the rifle inconspicuously. Plus, he reasoned, his intern and I had not been trained on how to properly handle or use the weapon. It had been four months from the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School, and this was Sean’s small insurrection within a federal agency, dictated by a federal catastrophe. Sean is from Chicago. He’s in his mid-30s and, for the past ten years, has spent his summers in Juneau and his winters in Antarctica guiding sea kayak trips.
Across the bay, a flock of silent white birds lift off the ocean and fly in unison, confetti against the Tongass. Directly east off the island, Sumdum Glacier shimmers in perpetual alpenglow. The name itself, Sumdum, is an archive of change. It’s a Tlingit word for the booming sound made by calving icebergs. But today its terminus sits retracted, hanging over a southfacing cliff on Mount Sumdum, 3,500 feet above the sea. Dylan, the Student Conservation Association intern, is a Juneau local in his early 20s, skinny and tall. He’s humble about his climbing, but it’s clear it has been his life’s work. He spent the previous summer guiding on Denali and the Mendenhall glacier until Sean hired him for his hardiness and quiet, committed backcountry ethic. Dylan and Sean both knew the Juneau-local half of the climbing duo that had gone missing only three months earlier on the main Mendenhall Tower just north of Juneau. Dylan’s dad was also an avid mountaineer and had climbed Mount Sumdum sometime before Dylan was born. As we eat our dinner, Sean and Dylan debate about what route, which aspect, which gully, what time of year, and whose boat they might be able to borrow to get back in here on a personal trip without the Forest Service’s skiff.
In the morning, an hour before the low tide, we carry our kayaks down to the water’s edge, load them with dry bags and bear kegs, and push off. In that moment, these 18-foot fiberglass hulls become an extension of our own bodies, this trick of buoyancy fixing us to the upward-facing lip of this permeable and unstable world. The seawater all around barely 40 degrees, a calm sheen of glass on an overcast and windless morning.
Liz and I met the week of the winter solstice at a bar. She had come straight from her wilderness EMT class. I was eating up time before my hockey game. I told her I was working on a lesson plan to teach my high school students to add in the names of places and plants, and origins of those names, to their place-based writing. I was wrestling with some half-hatched theory about how knowing the name of something activates some antennae in our brains. I had been told by my sixth-grade art teacher that an artist’s talent is first and foremost their ability to notice details, and I had worried ever since then that I was too unobservant to be an artist. But now I was beginning to wonder if naming begets noticing and not the other way around.
The next day, Liz came over to my apartment with books. I lived in the attic apartment of a three-story house in Everett on a bluff butting up against the Salish Sea. I was a recent transplant from Michigan by way of Colorado and then Idaho. Liz had lived her whole life in Seattle. The west wall of my house, where there might have been a window onto the water, was a closet and bathroom, tucked under the slope of the roof. But we sat under the south-facing kitchen window, where I fixed my gaze past Liz, through the bare branches, down to a sliver of water and, on this clear day, across to the Olympic Mountains.
She brought tea and botany books, a book on David Douglas, and a history of Seattle’s waterfront. We took my dog for a walk in the neighborhood, and she pointed out the sarcococca bush blooming in my front yard. How many times had I walked past it without noticing?
On our second date, Liz and I hiked up a defunct logging road, snowshoes strapped onto our backpacks, in anticipation of higher elevations. The road switched back beneath a canopy of conifers, and Liz was a fast walker. We peeled off layers as the road continued to climb. Liz wore an oversized red t-shirt with Search and Rescue lettering on the back tucked into her rain pants that swished when she walked. “Which one is this?” she quizzed, holding an eye-level conifer branch for me to study. “See the way the needles are kind of feathery and all different lengths,” she said. “See the way the top of the tree droops over?”
“Hemlock?” I guessed.
“Yeah,” she said, smiling. “You have the Eastern hemlock in Michigan. See this one,” she said, grabbing an adjacent conifer. “The way the needles are more rigid than the hemlock and whorl around 360 degrees to make a star? This one is a Doug fir, Pseudotsuga menziesii.”
At some point the gravel road had turned to snow, but neither of us stopped to put on our snowshoes. “How am I supposed to learn their common names and the Latin?” I asked.
“Well pseudo means fake and tsuga means fir,” she explained, “so it’s not even really a true fir.” As if etymology served, for her, as a kind of mnemonic.
At the end of the road, we sat on our packs and sipped the thermos of tea I brought and shared Liz’s two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, then hiked back the way we’d come, the snow softening everything: her ponytailed blonde wisps poking out from under her hat, her red red t-shirt, my acute attention on our two separate bodies moving through space and time. At some point, her hand reached for my hand, or mine for hers, and we walked that way, saying nothing about it, the rest of the way to the car.
Back in the parking lot, Liz wandered over to a maple. And in what seemed like a singular motion, she plucked a fern out of the trunk of the maple, came over to me, and placed the root in my mouth. “What does it taste like?” she asked.
“It’s Polypodium glycyrrhiza. Licorice fern,” she said, smirking. “Many-footed-sugar-root.”
And so it was with Liz. Over the course of the next three years, she would turn me into a person who notices.
Back in the Southeast Alaska backcountry, I’m with two people I hardly know. Everywhere the sun can filter through there are familiar wildflowers: chocolate lilies and single delights and columbine and twin flower. In the shade: ragbag lichen, devil’s matchstick, lipstick cladonia, witch’s hair. And common scissor leaf liverwort, a 1970s-esque goldenrod shag rug blanketing rocks, tree limbs, everything. Of the round leaf sundew, my field guide says: “a carnivorous plant that ensnares the same insects who pollinate it.” “Lover’s moss,” the field guide continues, “appears only early in succession.” I am left running my synapses raw, retracing my recollection of a name to the memory of her teaching me, and I don’t know how to disentangle what it means to love being in the forest from what it means to love her.
Of course to name something is also to be complicit in its theft. Today, Endicott Arm and its twin to the north Tracy Arm technically make up the Tracy Arm-Fords Terror Wilderness, a 650,000-acre wilderness designated as a part of Jimmy Carter’s Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1980. ANILCA set aside more than 100 million acres of land in Alaska for conservation, nearly doubling the acreage of federal wilderness-designated land in the U.S. Baked into the bill was a $40 million annual subsidy for timber sales and the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development.
U.S.G.S. maps outline this wilderness boundary with a red-shaded line. Stolen land, by its very definition, has a slipperiness to it; the stealing gets easier at each handoff. This particular land was stolen first by the Russians, then by U.S. Senator William Seward, then by Jimmy Carter, and then by the timber and oil tycoons. More than anything, to me, the red-shaded boundary line stands as a reminder that the Tlingit never had ceded any of this so-called “public land” in the first place.
In October of that first year we were dating, Liz took me freshwater snorkeling. We went to see salmon spawn in the Skykomish, a river in Washington state that retains its indigenous name; a Lushootseed word meaning “upriver people.” The Skykomish flows westward where it joins with the Snoqualmie River and the two portmanteau into the Snohomish, which drains into the Salish Sea. We wore wool under our wetsuits, spit into our facemasks to keep them from fogging, grabbed silently for each other’s hands underwater: Look!
Underwater, everything was silent. The salmon schooled in the shadow under the bridge where the water was deepest. They moved as a unit, like some sort of hive-mind at work, rather than hundreds of individual beings obeying the same stimulus response mechanism simultaneously. We stayed in the backwater near shore, watching. One salmon, longer than the span of my outstretched arms, bulldozed into view, sending the school scattering.
After, we brushed our hair and split a burrito. Her cheeks, her hands, her chest, everything was flush.
I have read that salmon quit eating when they transition into their freshwater morphs, that their bodies become single-minded vessels for spawning. They begin to mold and decay even while they are still alive.
Later, when I recounted the size of the salmon we saw to my coworkers, who are bona fide marine scientists, they said that water is magnifying, that even a Chinook, the king of the salmon, may look larger than it really is underwater. The way the telling and retelling of an exaggeration becomes its own kind of self-deception.
We’ve pulled our kayaks up high into the goose tongue on the tidal flats just south of the abandoned Tlingit village at Powers Creek. On Sean’s to-do list from the Forest Service is monitoring some out-of-use campsites here. Sean says this spot used to see heavy use by kayak outfitters in the early 2000s. Now, we’re checking for their “wilderness character,” where signs of humans are “substantially unnoticeable.” Sean says the forestry term “old growth” is a misnomer. What old growth actually means is that a healthy forest has trees of diverse ages. “Second growth” is obvious, he says. It usually makes an outer husk on the forest, trees all the same age, planted by humans. He uses plyers to pull a ten-inch nail out of a young, second-growth Western hemlock and pockets it. I’m realizing there are other ways of seeing humans’ trace than just rusty nails and fire rings and social trails and wires strung up for bear hangs. He points out a tree trunk rubbed smooth. “Bear rub,” he says. He points out a checkerboard pattern of alternating patches of mud and grass stretching between two stands of trees. “Hot feet,” he says. “A bear trail.” I’m realizing there are other ways of seeing wilderness other than enumerating all the ways humans have scarred it.
The Forest Services also uses wilderness rangers to monitor “outstanding opportunities for solitude,” which means Sean writes down the date and time of every human-made noise we hear: the outboard motor of a fishing boat, the PA on a tour boat, the buzz of a helicopter we hear on day six. The wilderness designation is for the land only, after all; water is both less colonized and less protected. So it is no surprise when we push off from the campsites we’d finished evaluating that Sean quits paddling and gets out his clipboard. A massive cruise ship slides into view from around the corner. “The Carnival Empress,” Sean says. Its size is impossible. Its 15 terraced decks glittering with electricity are impossible. Atlantis emerging from the deep. A floating hotel, a diesel-propelled city on water, 3,000 people on board, and seven times that in gallons of human sewage dumped overboard in a single day.
And as suddenly as the cruise ship appeared, as if they could read my purist thoughts, authentic wilderness experience interrupted, a pod of orcas is suddenly right here.
Male orca dorsal fins are five feet tall. Before: I’d been surrounded by nothing but silent fjord. Then: apropos of nothing, this autonomous being lifts itself from below, breaking the surface, and breathes, not frenzied or frantic, but deliberate, its dorsal towering. Now: here are the orcas, the cruise ship, the water so close and so dark and cold. I’d seen orcas before from the deck of an aluminum research boat in the Salish Sea. But seeing their jet black dorsals shining and slippery not more than 50 yards away while sitting low and prone in the water is to erase that imagined partition between their world and mine.
Liz had only ever seen orcas once in her life, on Christmas day a few years before we met. They were way off in the distance, and her brother had spotted them from the ferry deck on the way home from her aunt and uncle’s house. I notice myself, for the hundredth time on this trip, wishing she were here.
In December, a year into our relationship, Liz and I rented a cob house on San Juan, the biggest island in an archipelago halfway between Washington state and Vancouver Island. I had met a San Juan Island National Park biologist studying the island marble butterfly at a poetry symposium and had signed up to volunteer. Liz came to photograph foxes.
The butterflies are endemic to the island. Not officially an endangered species, but officially under review as such by the federal government, they build their cocoons exclusively on a non-native mustard plant and, more recently, the coconut husk coir logs used in a highway embankment project adjacent to the park. The park biologist’s primary concern in December was not with the butterflies themselves, but with rearing a native mustard species in the greenhouse. The goal was to eventually repopulate the island’s prairie with native mustard in place of the invasive variety that comes so readily by wind and bird and hiking boot. Though none of the lab-reared butterflies had successfully cocooned on the native mustard yet.
After dinner we said goodbye to the park biologist. Alone for the first time all day, we hardly knew what to say to each other. The week had been busy. The marina was lit up with Christmas lights, doubling in the reflection on the water. Liz futzed with the manual settings on her camera trying to capture it.
We argued our way to the Airbnb, lost on the island’s backroads with no cell service and no map. That night it snowed, tiny flakes silently accumulating, thinly blanketing the ground beneath Western red cedar boughs. I’d brought wine. But Liz was more interested in the build-your-own-cob-house coffee table book left by the Airbnb hosts.
The next day, the foxes proved equally as curated as the butterflies. They were brought to the island in an attempt to control the European rabbit population, also introduced. We had pulled off the road at a barren meadow, our best guess for where the foxes would be hanging out. Eventually Liz spotted some rabbits through her telephoto, “Here,” she said, and put her arms around me from behind, giving me the camera so I could see. Her hands, out of habit, snuck into my coat pockets, and she held me against her. “The rabbits are here. So where are the foxes?”
“Maybe they’re cold,” I suggested.
Some time passed. We stayed quiet, partially hidden in the winterized Nootka rose. All the time in the bush, I wondered how much of her affection was given genuinely, impulsively, and how much was calculated, doled out in daily rations because she knew it was what I craved.
After almost an hour, off in the periphery, some black-tailed deer entered stage right. Their lope more carousel than prey. When they’d disappeared, I hopped out of the Nootka rose and pranced in front of the camera, my hands cupped into ears. “Are you a rabbit or a deer?” Liz said, taking my photo.
“I’m a fox!”
Finally a local runner ran by and told us the foxes liked to sit in the road less than a mile up from where we had parked. That they were used to being fed by tourists, so they hung out there. We drove up the road, following his directions, and sure enough, three photogenic foxes, tame and begging for handouts, were there waiting for us.
A good photo never reveals all the layers of charade that went into it. But to the photographer, when they look at it, they know.
It’s bird hour, likely sometime around 4 a.m., dimly lit out, and I hear Sean click on his radio and call “Liseron, Liseron, wilderness ranger, over.” There’s no response, so we curl back into our sleeping bags and listen to the pair of oystercatchers squealing one rock over, defending the nest they’ve made out of hundreds of shards of blue bay mussel shells.
We doze for another hour and try the Liseron again. The boat’s captain radios back to tell us they’re entering Endicott Arm just now at Wood Spit, 15 minutes if they go slow to our makeshift campsite on Bushy Island. We scramble to take down our tents and stuff everything into dry bags. The tide is going out, so we set the dry bags at the water’s edge and partner up to carry the three kayaks down and float them in the water.
My right boot has a crack along the ankle where it bends, and the seawater gushes in as I wade in to load my back hatch. They’re shin-high rubber boots from Fred Meyer with cartoon owls patterned on them. “Owlies,” Liz calls them, a barn gift she got me for mucking stalls. Sean and Dylan have Alaska’s state footwear: XTRATUFs, sturdy rubber boots that are brown with tan trim.
We push off and paddle away from shore just as the Liseron launches two of their aluminum skiffs to come pick us up. It’s a bit of a hassle to get our kayaks gently balanced on the skiffs without scraping or banging their fragile fiberglass hulls, but once we do, the crew drives us to a ladder dangling from the Liseron’s lower deck and we climb aboard. It’s 6 a.m. and the Liseron’s 20 passengers are all still asleep, save for a mother and her young daughter, both still in their pajamas, but the crew is awake and busy making breakfast. The Liseron is giving us a 20-mile bump to the end of Endicott Arm in exchange for some shipboard wilderness education.
The boat is beautiful. It’s 145 feet long and its hull and bulwarks are painted white with varnished oak gunwales. Every cabin has an oak door and porthole trimmed in oak and the main deck is planked in oak. The crew appears excited to have three new guests aboard and invites us into their mess for coffee.
Up on the bridge, the captain says this boat used to be a minesweeper in post-WWII France. Liseron, he says, is French for “morning glory.” He says some of the WWII mines were triggered by magnetism, so the boat is made entirely of non-ferrous materials: bronze, stainless steel, copper, wood. I think of how a minesweeper has all of the vulnerability of a warship and none of the violence.
The Liseron slips stealthily deeper into the fjord while we are served hashbrowns and fresh fruit and yogurt in the windowless crew mess. Sean puts on all the pieces of his uniform to talk in front of this pajama-clad audience, half of whom are under the age of 13. They are all from Kentucky on a family reunion trip. One is a professional whiskey photographer.
Sean tells them about the difference in goals between the Department of Agriculture-managed Forest Service—which emphasizes multiple use: hunting, logging, mining, ATVing—and Department of Interior-managed national parks. He echoes the oft-cited statistic that the Tongass National Forest, at nearly 17 million acres, is the nation’s largest national forest and the largest intact temperate rainforest left in the world. But only 4 percent is suitable for big-industrial logging—the rest is rock or muskeg or too remote—and nearly two-thirds of that low-elevation sprawling old growth has already been logged. He tells them that our human sense of time is short-sighted and nature is constantly in a state of dramatic flux. “Dawes Glacier used to reach all the way out to Wood Spit,” he says, “something like a thousand years ago. And since then it has had periods of advance and retreat. Right now we’re in the midst of a dramatic retreat stage.” He says nothing of the Trump administration or of the future. Instead, he says, “Nature is never finished, there is no ‘best time,’ no climax.”
On another cloudless new moon night two years in, Liz and I drove out to the Olympic Peninsula to visit her family. Her grandfather, three of her uncles, and two aunts lived in Port Townsend, and her parents ran an Airbnb there that her brother and sister-in-law and two nephews were staying in for the weekend.
I liked being a part of her family. It made me feel real, like we were trending toward something more permanent. Throughout that whole first year, I’d told Liz that I wanted something traditional, long term, stable, and she’d said she wanted something more spontaneous, ad hoc. None of this ever registered for me as diametrically opposed. I didn’t believe in the idea of either/or.
It was after 11 when we got to the house, and everyone was in bed, so we walked my dog to a bar uptown, where a bluegrass band was playing and someone had propped open the door. We stood outside, listening to the band, holding each other, flirting, until the bartender invited us in. Liz ordered a beer and we sat side by side in a wooden booth for the rest of the set, taking turns sipping the beer, my dog licking the floor beneath us.
After, we walked down to the waterfront, crouched over the edge of the dock, and dipped in our hands. Phosphorescence.
In thinking back now, I realize it was one thing for Liz to trust that magic exists, to reach over just once with confidence, knowing it will be there, both of our hands sparkling in an inky black sea that might just as well be sky. It was another thing for me to want to hold our entire relationship in the shackles of sureness, constantly reaching over to test and retest the water. When part of the joy is the not knowing. And part of the joy is the surprise that magic exists at all.
Tidewater glaciers, those tongues of ice that terminate in the sea, are not conventionally beautiful. They’re streaked with lateral and medial moraines, evidence of their conveyor belt movement, their indiscriminate abrasion breaking down and smoothing everything they touch. The Dawes Glacier looks like nothing more than a shopping center snowpile in March. Icebergs, on the other hand, are majestic. The bergs look like swans, like hyperboloids, like Chihuly glass sculptures.
We offload our kayaks from the Liseron soon after Sean finishes his talk, and the Liseron’s passengers buzz ahead of us on their aluminum skiffs while we paddle silently, picking our way through the icebergs the last couple miles to the head of the fjord to get an up-close look at Dawes. In this rock-walled amphitheater, our three yellow kayaks are mere specks on this glacially-carved finger of sea.
Dawes Glacier was named for the same Republican senator as the 1887 Dawes Act; the grandfather of assimilation. He proposed the idea of offering indigenous people citizenship in exchange for surrendering their tribal reservation land to the federal government. Essentially the law divvied up tribal land to individual indigenous landowners—160 acres for a head of household and 80 acres for single adults. The implications of this law incentivized the loss of what had been, culturally, a loosely defined concept of kinship in favor of the rigid settler-colonial definition of the family unit where the man is the head of the household. The U.S. federal government held the title for each parcel for 25 years, when landowners were then given citizenship if they could prove they had been successful at farming their parcel of land. All the leftover, unoccupied tribal land was then “sold” to the federal government, and made available for cheap to non-indigenous homesteaders.
Nowadays, the Dawes Glacier is thinning. The maps we carry are U.S.G.S. quads field checked in 1978, which show the main tongue of the Dawes connected to an unnamed smaller glacial tongue coming down a steep, u-shaped valley from the north. But today, the main Dawes Glacier has receded two miles from that point, and the smaller tongue is no longer a tongue—it’s a barely visible snowfield at the top of the saddle. The place we are planning to camp that evening, according to our maps, used to be under ice. Really, all of this used to be under ice. Call it progress? Call it ruin? Scientists hell-bent on blanching all subjectivity from their subjects of study probably just call it change. Either way, the land is literally rising, changing its topography, rebounding from the absence of all that weight.
Sean is visibly relieved when we finally go to shore for the night to make camp. He says he’s stressed from all the seal stress we inflicted. Harbor seals use these silty waters at the terminus of tidewater glaciers as a safe haven for pupping and molting. Besides having plenty of icebergs to haul out on, these waters are mostly devoid of predators, namely orcas, who rarely travel this far up the fjords. Sean says the Tlingit saw these ice-filled inlets as sacred nurseries and, during the spring, stayed out. Glacier Bay National Park, just west of Juneau, has seasonal closures in June and half of July. But no such regulations extend to the Tracy Arm-Fords Terror Wilderness. Counterintuitively, we notice the seals are more spooked by our kayaks than they are by the noisy skiffs. Sean speculates that it is because they are used to the skiffs coming in and out daily, launching passengers off larger tour boats that can’t make it through the ice. Or maybe that seals have some genetically encoded association with being hunted by people traveling silently in canoes, whereas they can hear the skiffs coming from far off and don’t associate danger with the noise. Whatever the reason, we keep our eyes out for icebergs with hauled-out seals on them and give them a wide berth. But no matter how much space we leave them—more than double that which the Liseron skiffs are giving them—they spook into the freezing cold water, an unplanned energy expense for already taxed nursing females and newborn pups.
That night, while Sean and Dylan cook dinner and Dawes calves off Liseron-sized icebergs, I read about glacial geology in my field guide. Across the water from where we’re camped, the north wall of the fjord is striated with vertical running grooves where mosses have begun to take hold, lines of florescent green accenting the dark gray tonalite. The rock appears scaly, a geologic pattern called “whaleback,” as if a sculptor took a giant flat chisel to the underside of each scale and chipped it off, leaving the top sides rounded smooth.
I think of the magnitude of change made visible in this landscape. It doesn’t take much imagination to visualize a time-lapse animation of an immense hunk of ice dragging itself up this cliff face, scraping and chiseling the rock as it goes. Later I learn that tidewater glaciers, unlike alpine glaciers, do not correspond linearly to warming and cooling climate. Their cyclic advance and retreat depend more directly on geology, the shape of the fjord they are moving through. This is why a tidewater glacier, like the Taku Glacier 30 miles north of Endicott Arm, can continue advancing during a period of warming climate. This phenomenon—when the value of an observable physical characteristic lags behind the changes in the effect causing it—is called hysteresis. A system is said to have hysteresis if the output—in this case, the net accumulation or loss of glacier ice—is not a strict corollary function of the corresponding input—warming climate. Or, put another way, the output depends on holding a long memory of historical inputs. Deniers point to the Taku as evidence that climate change isn’t real. But in reality the Taku is just at a squeeze point in the fjord, resting on underwater bedrock, biding its time.
When I was a kid, I used to think that for adults my parents’ age a week must feel the same as a day felt for me. And for adults my grandparents’ age, a whole year must feel like what a week felt like to my parents, or what a day felt like to me. I had other magnifying thoughts, too. That for a mayfly who lives out its entire adult morph in the span of a day, a millisecond must feel like a decade. Or how the maple saplings my parents planted in our yard the year my brother was born had begun to dwarf the house.
On a laptop in her lofted bed, Liz and I watched Bernie debate Hillary, certain one of them would be Obama’s successor, so certain we made fun of Hillary’s Battlestar Galactica outfit. “But you love turtlenecks,” she said, snaking her hand up the back of my shirt and unhooking my bra. My response was rote: “Turtlenecks hide cleavage.”
Two and a half years later, when I’m in the Forest Service bunkhouse in Juneau making my last phone calls before seven days out in the backcountry, she says, not for the first time, “maybe we should be on a break. Maybe we should see other people.” It wasn’t that I didn’t see it coming—input underemployment, input six months of no sex, input another broken fence board out at the barn—it was that I believed that love never operates as a logical corollary output of direct inputs.
Out in the field, I empty all the weight from the front and back hatches of my kayak and hook my arm into the footwell of the cockpit to hoist the kayak onto my shoulder for the nightly quarter-mile haul up past the high-tide mark.
We’d seen bear prints that day. Big ones in the sand next to the water’s edge at low tide. Less than an hour old, Dylan suspected. I could say that my thoughts stray to Liz, but really they had been on her all day, the whole week. Whenever I travel, I carry with me a melancholy. My preoccupation with whatever is going on back home becomes the lens through which I experience the present moment. The single-note eerie call of a varied thrush, harbinger of this pending loss. I think of that debate two years prior, Hilary’s outfit, the distance we traveled between intimacy then and intimacy now, and I wonder if election cycles will ever begin to feel like tidal cycles.
For tidewater glaciers, net mass loss from year to year is as much a factor of bathymetry as it is of changing climate over time. When the tongue of ice reaches a geologic squeeze point in the fjord, the snout of the glacier sits on a rapidly building underwater pedestal of deposited sediment, and the glacier goes into a period of advance. At a widening in the fjord, the sediment pedestal disperses. And the snout, resting on nothing but seawater, lapping at the ice’s underside, rapidly retreats.
But of course, the geology of the fjord is not its own, totally isolated, rock-hard fact. The glacier itself changes the geology in which it is situated. A retreating glacier erodes a massive amount of sediment, sometimes reforming the underwater pedestal and restarting the whole cycle, sending the glacier into the advancing stage. In the mythology Liz and I constructed for ourselves, we said time was the agent of our erosion. But inside of that myth, I believed our polished and pocked selves would fall back in love, seduced not by the zeal of discovery but by the depth of familiarity, by treefrogs in March, belly against bedrock, hand against horse’s hock. Face-to-face with the most irrevocable truth of the epoch, I was grasping at straws to believe that everything that had come undone between us was reversible.
My modus operandi had, over time, turned into in-the-moment forgetfulness of Liz’s slights and inconsideration. To do anything else was to lose her. For me, coming to terms with being a woman had meant learning to love this illogical softness bulging from my body. All the vulnerability and none of the violence. But denial in the face of so much contradicting data is, at best, a naïve kind of hope, and, at worst, dishonest. I think I held on for so long because no matter how estranged we’d become, or how many late nights we’d been awake fighting, we’d always dead end in tenderness. As if a magnetic field existed between couch and bedroom, and somehow we’d end up skin pressed against skin, our bones made of iron instead of wood.
On our last day in the field, Sean and Dylan and I paddle for hours, our longest day. At Wood Spit, we start fighting the riptide, the bull kelp and rocky seafloor easily visible in the shallow water beneath our kayaks. I rest my arms for a moment and look back at Endicott Arm, thinking of the forest succession we’d traveled: smooth bare rock giving way to huckleberry to red alder to Western hemlock to Sitka spruce. Maybe there’s a patterned sequence to this succession, but I’m not sure I’d call it progress.
That night, we haul all our gear and kayaks up into the forest and set up tents on the beach. The campsite is riddled with bear sign, and we keep our bear spray handy, check all our pockets for wrappers, put all our trash in the bear kegs. The tide is out, and we make dinner on a rock outcropping around the corner from where our tents are, half expecting a brown bear to amble into camp while we cook. The sky is cloudless. Across the fjord, Sumdum Glacier is lit up with alpenglow.
After dinner, I carry my sleeping pad and bag and leaky boots across a bed of popweed, exposed by the low tide, up onto another rock outcropping. Judging by the line the blue bay mussels and algae make, I suspect the top of this rock stays dry, even at high tide. The high is forecast for some time after 10 p.m. and low for some time around 4 a.m., so I deem the rock safer than my tent on the beach and hope I’ll still be able to walk dry-footed to the mainland to pack up camp in the morning. From inside my sleeping bag, I watch the quarter moon rise over the rim of the fjord and think that all of this, except the nunataks, was not so long ago under ice.
I wake up that night completely surrounded by water that is four, then eight, then ten feet deep. In a world that transforms itself again and again, who am I to cling so desperately to permanence?
Nonfiction judge Alison Hawthorne Deming says…
I love the way this essay laces together reflection about a trip to Alaska to observe the disappearing glaciers with self-observation about an intimate relationship that also is melting away. The essay is astute in its attention to language as an avenue into cultural and natural history, and beautifully precise in its slow, unfolding acceptance of uncertainty. How are we to weigh personal loss against the scale of loss with climate change? Through language the narrator learns to notice and love her surroundings and see them in multiple time scales. The lyric moment resonates with forest, bear track, rising seas, orca fin, and bittersweet memory. A beautiful and smart essay.
Cara Stoddard’s work has appeared in The Gettysburg Review,Flyway, DASH, Bloom, Knockout, Educe, Ninth Letter and is forthcoming from Canary. She holds a MFA in nonfiction from the University of Idaho. She lives in Seattle and is working her first book, a memoir titled Spirography.