The GPS read a 15 mile distance. 45 minutes. In Alaska, there’s no such thing as a quick trip anywhere unless you’re talking the quick trip I took over my unlaced boots. We’d driven this road eight or nine times in the last two days and my brother was growing tired of me pulling onto the small out-coves each time I saw something new. Which was about every 200 feet.
“45 minutes my ass,” he said, piling his gear into the trunk and climbing into the front seat.
We were heading for Exit Glacier, whose magnificent, crystalline blue had caught my eye from many miles away the day before. It was pristine. Glorious. It rose proudly on the mountains, crowning them in the frosted glaze of compacted ice.
We drove the roads that were straight from the front page cover of a travel brochure, the great trees bowing over the crashing whitewater of turbulent rivers, the glacial water milky, rich with silt and sediment. Little signs dotted the road, wooden plaques with years carved out upon their surface, marking the distance the Glacier has retreated. 1899, the sign reads, and it lies a far distance from where the base of the Glacier sits now, well over 6500 feet, or 1.2 miles.
And we arrived at the trailhead and took off running, our feet crashing through the mud that splattered up against the lining of our jeans. Darting in and out between the tourists until we came to rest in the nestled out grooves of the mountain valleys. I watched the roaring of the waters, felt the fine spray of frigid water land in little dew drops on my skin. And before us, the glacier towered. Keeping watch over the flatlands, watering the vivid greenery with the meandering course of its melting.
And it is melting. Exit Glacier is melting at a rate far greater than it should. As the climate changes, the sun pushes its way through thin layers of ozone and changes the chemical compositions with each flicker of its rays upon the icy surface. Up close, the crystalline blue turned to streaking brown, and the rippling gloss became little caverns of missing ice, cratered like the surface of the moon. Thawing has eroded the ice and late summer rains have cleaved away at substantial chunks of the glacier’s face.
If I stood now where I stood less than a year ago, I would be under water. Thrown into the torrent of the glacial stream. Residents of Seward worry. They worry that their children or their children’s children will never get to perceive the majesty of this creation. And they’re doing what they can. But it isn’t enough. They’re waiting for the rest of the world to catch up. For the rest of us to understand that our footprints do not erode with the rains and the winds, but leave lasting impressions on the face of this world. And not the good kind.
This past year, California lost one of its greatest natural monuments–the Pioneer Cabin Tree. At least a 1,000 years old, maybe even 2,000, and rising to heights of more than 100 feet,this tree stood proudly during the era of Jesus’ preachings. Marinate on that for a moment. Let the weight of those words sit on your tongue. It fell in the storms that ravaged the state. And I speak with friends of mine who never got to see it, whose children will never get to experience the wonder of driving through its hollowed out trunk, of raking their fingers over its coarse, solid bark. The tree fell in the forest. And though no one was there to hear it, I imagine it still made a sound. A great and mournful crashing on the earth.
How many more monuments must we lose? How many more natural altars are we to sacrifice before we learn how to preserve?
Turn off your lights. Get that dripping sink fixed. Carpool to work. If you don’t turn off the sink when you brush your teeth you risk consuming 5 gallons of water. A 5 minute shower wastes 15-25 gallons of water. The average shower wastes 40. You waste at least 10 waiting for the water to heat up. That’s between 50-60 gallons each day. 3,500 a week. 168,000 a year. And those are low estimates.
One day, I want to take my children back to see the Glacier. I want to let them bask in its presence, hear it’s roaring waters, feel the coolness of the icy winds against their skin. I want to see the awe on their faces. I want to feel the awe upon my own. I still feel it, even now, as I remember my brother and I sliding to a stop, our boots sinking into the muddy valley floor, our chests heaving with exertion as they drank in the crisp, mountain air. There is nothing like it in the world.