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Day 111: Ice

We call it “The Gut”, the Hobbit Hole’s narrow entrance through which the protected cove ebbs and floods, and trollers and skiffs of all sorts have passed for decades, and Tlingit canoes before that.  Watch for rocks — big boats can’t make it through at low tide, but a kayak can paddle into the Hobbit Hole most anytime.  And after 2000 miles, The Gut swept me in like the opening lines of a favorite book.  The Inians loomed 1000 feet above me in the fog, the cove opened up wide, and the Hobbit Hole revealed itself one structure at a time: dock, guest cabin, workshop, Greg and Jane’s house, Fred’s house.  What character is invested in this little spot in the Wilderness!  I felt all the long miles in my body as I pulled up to the dock, knowing this was a rare sort of gratification.

I stopped at quite a few remote field stations and institutes along my trek, and I’ve gotta tell you, the Hobbit Hole has got the coolest location of them all.  Turn West, and you’re looking over the edge of the continent, a precipice that plunges for miles, filled in with the grey waters and tempests of the Gulf of Alaska that religiously batter the outer Inians.  Turn around to the East, and you’re migrating with Pacific salmon and humpback whales through the northernmost entrance to the rich and protected waters of the Inside Passage (what my Uncle Greg calls a “biological choke point”).  Look South, and the Tongass National Forest leads away for hundreds of miles, horizon after horizon, its mountains like an artist’s palette: just add a  dab of blue for every few miles distant.  And back over your shoulder to the North, Glacier Bay waits across the water, the striking entrance to the largest expanse of protected land in the world, a whole series of parks and preserves here and in Canada, that the UN has called a World Heritage Site.

It's not so easy to see in this photo, but in the center is the southern tip of the massive Brady Icefield.

It’s not so easy to see in this photo, but in the center is the southern tip of the massive Brady Icefield.

A big part of what makes the Hobbit Hole’s location so special is the closeness of ice.  The tip of the Brady Icefield noses out into Taylor Bay a few miles distant, and beyond that, the tidewater glaciers that have made Glacier Bay world famous, whose calving of great blue chunks of ice sends waves through the fjords and rumbles through the bedrock.  If Southeast Alaska has a story, ice is both its author and lead character.  Look around you: if you don’t see the ice itself, you can bet you’ll find its initials carved in every rock (“Glacier was here”).  You’ll see huge mountains with rounded tops, their sharp peaks hewn off 20,000 years ago by an ice sheet nearly a mile thick.  You’ll see long, straight fjords where the glaciers carved out the weakened rock along fault lines in the Earth’s crust, the valleys subsequently filled in by rising sea level.  And where the sea didn’t rise high enough, you’ll see U-shaped valleys ground out by the glacier, as opposed to the V-shaped valleys left by rivers.  You’ll see land rising up like a beast of burden after millions of tons of ice melted off its back, rivers running storm grey with glacial silt, and boulders the size of houses where no boulder should be, carried here in the maw of the now vanished glacier.

How do you make a glacier?  Southeast Alaska would seem to have come up with the perfect recipe.  First, you need a big ocean to evaporate water from, and if the ocean feels a little influence from the warm tropics, so much the better — it’ll evaporate even more.  The North Pacific will do nicely.  Then make the dominant weather systems move ever eastward toward the continent, and put the highest coastal mountains in the world right in their way.  All the storm clouds will rise up over the topography and drop their moisture — 200 inches of rain annually in parts of Southeast Alaska.  Get up high enough so all that precipitation falls as snow — dozens of feet of it each year — and high enough so it doesn’t melt away in the summer.  A permanent snowfield is what’s needed: that way, the snow can stack up and stack up, year after year, century after century.  Stack it up high, and the snow will begin to compact itself into ice.  Stack it up further still, and the tremendous weight will cause the growing ice sheet to melt on the bottom, right where it contacts the earth.  Lubricated by this liquid water base, like a skate on a rink, the ice will begin to slide, flowing downhill towards the sea.  Keep stacking and stacking the snow and ice, and the flowing glacier takes on geological powers, a plowshare of earth-shifting force.

The view of glacier-strewn East Baranof Island.

The view of glacier-strewn East Baranof Island.

By about 10,000 years ago, when people descended from people who walked across Beringia were first arriving here, the ice that had covered the Inside Passage was well on its way out.  By 1792, when George Vancouver began mapping the fjords the glaciers had carved, fantasizing about one that would carry him and his fellow Brits all the way back to the Atlantic Ocean (the coveted Northwest Passage), the ice was mostly gone — yet near the Inian Islands Vancouver found no Glacier Bay, only a towering wall of ice.  By a century later, when John Muir built a cabin near the snout of the glacier that bears his name, the wall of ice had retreated some 30 miles deep into Glacier Bay.  And by 2012, when I hiked up a ridge and looked down on it, Muir Glacier had receded over 30 miles further still, beyond the tidewater, grounded well up its own valley on a bed of silt.

And as the glaciers go, life follows, like glowing algae in the wake of a ship.  First your pioneering lichens, then a few hardy flowers and mosses, hugging the ground for warmth in the windy barrens, then the alders, adding crucial nitrogen to the developing soil, then cottonwood and spruce, and in a couple hundred years, western hemlock may come to dominate the mature forest.  They say that going up into Glacier Bay is like traveling back in time: starting in Bartlett Cove in the shade of an old growth forest, getting on the day-boat for the 65-mile trip up-bay, the plants seem to shrink away and finally disappear altogether, until the bare rock is revealed, the very “bones of the earth” as my friend Jess put it, and finally the blue of the glacier itself.  Glacial retreat and biological succession have got to make Glacier Bay one of the most dynamic places on earth.

Twin U-shaped valleys in British Columbia, a telltale of glacial history.

Twin U-shaped valleys in British Columbia, a telltale of glacial history.

It’s tempting to blame the recent ice retreat in Glacier Bay on human-caused climate warming, and certainly this is playing a big and growing role in the fact that some 99% of Alaska’s thousands of glaciers are retreating.  But tidewater glaciers are a different breed, moving to their own rhythm.  Seawater, although it’s awfully cold up here, is still a lot warmer than glacial ice, and that can have dramatic consequences.  An advancing tidewater glacier, bulldozer-style, pushes many tons of rock and sand in front of it, a moraine that helps protect its face from the ablation of a warm seawater bath.  As long as that protective barrier lasts, and as long as snow falls up high, the glacier can keep on advancing out into the sea.  But if the face of the glacier somehow gets separated from its moraine shield — if it encounters a drop-off in the ocean bottom, or an earthquake opens a gap, or a few warm decades slow the glacier’s advance — now the warm seawater washes over the glacial face, and might cause a runaway retreat like the one at work in Glacier Bay.

Will the glaciers of the Hobbit Hole’s neighborhood keep right on retreating until they’re gone?  It’s hard to say.  The North Pacific is warming, which should translate into more evaporation and more moist air slamming the continent and dumping precipitation.  If it falls as snow, the glaciers may advance.  If it falls as rain, they’ll melt away even faster.

The view from the bath house at White Sulfur Hot Springs on Chichagof Island.  Pure magic.

The view from the bath house at White Sulfur Hot Springs on Chichagof Island. Pure magic.

I know the glaciers won’t be gone in our lifetime.  But if they’re one day reduced to tiny patches on the northern slopes, like pools in the bed of a dying river, I know that the glaciers will return — it will just take time.  The forces that raise the coastal mountain ranges, bring the moisture from the sea, and compact it into flowing ice are ever present, and ever patient.  Still, there’s no need to wait that long — with the glaciers up here right now, it’d be great to give some more students the chance to see and study their majesty.

So my dear friends, I’ve reached the symbolic endpoint of my journey, from Stanford, California to Hobbit Hole, Alaska.  But there’s still one more leg of kayaking to do: 20 more miles to my home-town of Gustavus, the “gateway to Glacier Bay.”  Talk to you then.

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