Monday, May 27, 2013

Alaska Shorts: Glacier Bay, 1980, by Harold Brink

Harold Brink


After scouting around camp I picked out a route I thought would be good to take us farther into the country. It called for descending White Thunder Ridge onto the Muir Remnant. The Muir Remnant, a huge piece of ice several miles long and two miles wide, had once been part of Muir Glacier. The glacier had melted back and left this piece behind to sit and melt on its own. The remnant was relatively flat and crevasses presented no danger as the surface was bare ice and crevasses were exposed. We would go exploring, the reason we came here: cross the remnant to get to the other side. This plan made perfect sense to Bob, and we agreed. But Kathy shocked me: “I don’t want to go down there.”  “Why not?” I said. “It’s tough hiking but we can do it.”

Certainly the remnant did not look inviting: a huge expanse of dark ice surrounded by darker mountains. The place loomed dim, dreary, and mysterious.

“I had a bad dream about a place like that. I don’t want to go down there.”

I could have asked her about her dream and tried some reassurance, but I didn’t think of it. I said: “There’s no other place to go unless you want to go back to Wolf Point and wait for the tour boat to pick us up.”

We weren’t going to do that. Bob and I had already decided what we would do, and I felt Kathy should push through her fear. We had just begun our travels together and our cooperation showed serious cracks.

We hiked down off the ridge onto the remnant and it was not a pleasant day. Annoyed, I hiked down as fast as I could to get Kathy on the ice and show her she would feel better once she got there. Bob was upset I’d walked so fast when he wanted a slower pace to enjoy the views. Kathy felt angry about being forced into following us. To get onto the remnant we waded through pools of mud around its edge and up onto the ice. The remnant felt unwelcoming and I could see why Kathy felt spooked, but I didn’t say anything to console her; I let her work it through for herself.

Clouds covered the sky and squalls of rain drifted by. The remnant sat at the bottom of a bowl of mountains that offered no cheer on a day when we walked in full rain gear into a cold wind. But the remnant was fantastic, much different from the gray mass it appeared to be from atop the ridge. It’s surface was a dirty gray, but looking down into the cracks and crevasses you peered into an ethereal world of blue shading deeper in color the farther your vision penetrated. And the sound! The remnant was melting and the sound of melt water swirling down through the ice to form streams on the rocks below was entrancing. Near the surface the melt twinkled and teased your ears as a spritely dance across the upper register of a tiny piano; where it fell through the ice the sound deepened to a hollow roar, like water falling through a tomb.

We crunched our way across the remnant, stopping to peer into crevasses, hoping to discover an ice cave to explore. Blackened cones of ice dotted the remnant: hats on top of wizards’ heads, wizards buried in ice. Rock slides clattered down the mountains and it was easy to imagine you stood in the bottom of an enormous witch’s caldron. We pressed on, crossed the upper end of the remnant, and found ground to pitch our tents. We were all in a somber mood given the spookiness of our surroundings and the emotional uproar we had brought here. To sit inside a tent and not have to see everything around you was a relief. A nylon cocoon, roaring cook stove, and a hot meal made the world comfortable again. Or so it felt to me.

Harold Brink says he has seen a bit of Alaska. He tried to move there twice but it didn’t work out. He loves Alaska but live in Colorado. His passion now is doing wilderness float fishing trips down rivers in Southwest Alaska. He doesn’t go with guides, and he builds small fires. This piece is part of a memoir-in-progress.  

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