In 2004, I went with my then-partner on an Alaskan adventure. Our group numbered only about fourteen and the crew came to five, so we were in a boat, not a ship. Because of the small size of our vessel, we could go into secluded and special areas to watch black bears catch some of the hoards of salmon swimming upstream. One of the most memorable moments of this trip came the day we motored quite close to Dawes Glacier and dropped anchor. We’d been traveling in the huge glacier’s moraine for a day or so because 10,000 years ago it extended almost into the sound we left to go find it. The water in the moraine was that unique aqua blue green that is unmatched either in nature or art. We got closer, we began to see small land then larger icebergs floating by the boat, going in the opposite direction from us. When the entire glacier came into view, it reminded me of those wonderful dioramas of my childhood that had wrapped around corners and stretched as far as my eye could see. Because our boat was so small, we could go within half a mile of the actual glacier, so winds coming off it brought the temperatures down from the 60s into the 30s within seconds. Our naturalist proposed that anyone who wanted to could go in the skiff over to the shore and then hike closer to the “toe” of the glacier. The terrain was sheer rock and the path was indiscernible even with binoculars, and because the water was well below freezing and I do not know how to swim, and because I was sixty-seven at the time albeit it in fine physical shape, I decided not to go.
As it turned out, that was the right decision because when the glacier finally began to calve (break off huge chunks of itself into the water), I was hunkered down on deck dressed in every piece of outer clothing I’d brought, whereas those adventuresome hikers were situated laterally and so were waiting for the skiff to rescue them. They missed the drama. I sat in my little deck chair a long time, patiently waiting for a calving to begin. At one point I needed to go to the bathroom, so I said to Gary, the engineer who was the glacier’s surface with me “What it if calves whilst I’m below deck? Dear man that he was, he replied, “I won’t tell you.” When I returned in about two minutes, he assured me nothing had happened, so I took up my lookout at the very front of the boat. After two hours and fifteen bone-chilling minutes, the major event began. Huge slices of ice began cascading from the glacier’s face into the sea, producing tremendous thundering sounds followed by tall sprays of water displaced by the falling bergs. Then a wave began forming, visibly, and making its way towards us. When it reached the boat’s side, we rocked like a baby’s cradle for about three minutes. The calving had two phases, the longer initial one lasting about eight seconds followed by a brief second one of three seconds. I was told that is a very long display of reshaping–usually such cascadings last a split second only.
The newly exposed glacial face was a more intense version of the unique slightly ghostly blue associated with glaciers. The added intensity caused by our seeing the face not exposed to any air. The older color is a faded hue because of long and gradual exposure. The naturalist explained, when I asked her what caused the unique shade of blue, that the overpowering weight of the glacier presses on all new and old moisture, forcing every single oxygen molecule out of it. So it is no longer H2O but rather only H2 and H2 is that color.
Today, if I close my eyes and enter memories of my time at Dawes Glacier, I am overcome with sadness and fear. What I saw there literally took my breath away and seemed ultimately spiritual to me, especially as I was by myself on deck for most of the time of my vigil. I have never forgotten that color, that letting go of tons of old material, or that sound. There is an old hymn in the Episcopal church that declares that the voice of God is heard “through earthquake, wind and fire.” Well, I think “glacial calving” could be added, even if it lacks a certain poetic flare. The fact that Dawes and other glaciers are vanishing at a staggering rapid rate because of our failure to take global warming seriously enough is a powerful indictment of us humans as failed stewards of our precious earth. If we do not reverse course soon, there will be fewer and fewer calving moments and the old maxim about something’s moving at a “glacial pace” will no longer apply.