July 21, 2019
“A man who keeps company with glaciers comes to feel tolerably insignificant by and by.” -Mark Twain
Here I am. Alaska. The last great American frontier. The drive took days. Miles turned into kilometers then back to miles. The Canadian border official at the port of entry asked me three times if I was carrying any firearms. “No sir” three times. Still he acted like he didn’t believe me. The road through British Columbia was lined with bears, greeting my arrival deeper and deeper into the wilderness. Eventually the fellow travelers disappear. Alone on the longest stretch of highway I have ever seen. The cellphone signals faded long ago. GPS long gone too. Even the satellite radio comes and goes with long stretches of silence. At some point, even the lines on the road vanished. All this sets the stage, makes the mood, and prepares you for a land of rugged self-reliance. After hours of silence, the GPS lady that lives in the dashboard springs to life and says “Welcome to the United States of America!” I almost jumped out of my skin – not expecting to hear from anyone. And then, there it is, the Welcome to Alaska sign.
Early in the morning, standing in the cold rain, I’m waiting to board the tour boat at Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. The owner of the Bear Track Inn told me which part of the boat I should sit so I could get the best view of the wildlife in the Bay. We depart. There are a couple of families and some younger couples, but most of the people on the boat are retired and older. Soon, it starts. First several sea otters floating on their backs. Some with pups resting on their mother’s bellies. Next, sea lions resting on the rocks in the bay. Gulls, cormorants, puffins and a multitude of other birds are flocking and feeding and nesting on the cliffs. Then the humpback whales, blowing and diving flapping their huge tails in the air. Spooked by the boat, a brown bear darts down the rocky shore and into the thick woods. High on the cliffs, a family of mountain goats rests just below the low clouds. Up and up the bay, the boat engine drones on. Finally, we come to the end of Glacier Bay and glide slowly alongside Margerie Glacier. The thin mist that shrouded the 200-foot-tall wall of jagged ice begins to lift just as we arrive, like a curtain opening a stage play. The captain turns off the engine and we float still and quiet. The water is calm. The mountains are dark, and the pale blue glacier sits between the two. Massive and alien like a living organism. It takes a moment to understand what you are seeing. All the passengers are quiet except for the sound of camera shutters. Then a sound like the pop of a riffle, deep and echoing across the bay. A moment later, a block of ice ten times larger than the boat I am on, falls a hundred feet into the water of the bay and sends an enormous splash of cold water upward like a geyser. A few minutes later, it happens again. A deep pop, and my ears perk. It is a sound unlike anything I have ever heard. You can feel it in your spine. Another cascade of small ice chunks splash into the bay. This is the first tidewater glacier I have ever seen. It is an otherworldly and humbling experience. Primal and haunting. Beautiful and sad. It evokes a deep emotion in me that I have only experienced at the sight of the purest natural phenomena – like the feeling I had at the last total solar eclipse. Although most of Alaska’s glaciers are in retreat, Margerie Glacier is still advancing. The slow-motion river is in a constant cycle of birth and death.
It is 11pm and still light enough outside to easily read a newspaper. This land is untamed. Internet is scarce. The weather is dynamic and unpredictable. The people here are unique – rugged, independent, and among the most genuine and kind I have ever encountered. The pace here is mellow and it suits me just fine. It feels like a land lost in time. It feels like another country. It feels like the Earth before humans arrived. I have come to feel tolerably insignificant in this place, and there is still so much more to see.
Parks visited since July 11th:
Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park (Skagway Unit)
Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve
Sitka National Historical Park
Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve