It was 1957 when I first laid feet on the Athabasca Glacier in the Columbia Icefields near Jasper, Alberta.
I was with my parents and my grandmother, 70 years old.
We and twenty others went out on what was called a “snowmobile”: It had skis on the front so it could slide on the surface of the ice, and on the snow that had accumulated on top. It was July — summer, as my 13-year-old brain insisted. That was an eye-opener for me, and an experience that burst past the gates of memory with the brilliance of fireworks.
Forty-nine summers later no grandmother, mother or father was still drawing breath.
But my wife was alive, and we were making a trip across Canada. We’d got off the train at Jasper, rented a car, and spent a couple of expensive nights based at Lake Louise, about the most beautiful place I’d ever seen.
Then we drove north, returning to the train. En route we found where the glacier lived — but it was unrecognizable.
Less than a human lifetime had passed, but our glacier had aged along with us. Our poor glacier began a mile farther away…
Did that mean that 434,000 tons of ice had melted? I think Yes!
Since that teenage visit the snowmobile, a device created by us endlessly inventive humans, had been revolutionized four times, as we learned in the outdoor museum and photo exhibit. The current model, the fifth, looked like an enormous insect with jumbo rubber tires — something like the transport that had taken us out on the beach to where the Skagerrak strait connects the North Sea and the Baltic, a few weeks earlier in northern Denmark.
With the new vehicle we managed to reach what remained of the glacier with no difficulty. But this time, unlike the home movies, there were no laughing faces or snowballs thrown. My late wife and I looked at each other as people do when they feel something that they’d counted on to be solid and strong was sliding through their fingers like so much dry sand.
For us individual humans, the clock hands had spun around many, almost countless times. Sunrises and sunsets for my grandmother, father and mother — who’d accompanied me on the glacier surface so much earlier in our lives — had decades before run out; for my wife there were still 5 years left. But weren’t glaciers supposed to endure, to grow and shrink in their own time-frame, of thousands or tens of thousands of years? – beyond, certainly, any ordinary sequence of individual human deaths and births. Instead here was a massive shrinking within a single lightning flash in the earth’s history.
Wasn’t this awfully quick, to see so vast a shrinking in less than one’s own threescore and ten? And apart from the loss of beauty, apart from the loss of an effortless apprehension of wonder — apart from the indication that the earth was somehow running down — what would be the consequences of this disappearance?
Four years previous, when we’d based ourselves in Lucerne, we drove to the canton of Grisons, and along the Em River, where I thought it would be easy to get Emmenthaler Swiss cheese. And in Pontresina we found a modern hotel with a good one, plus good red wine and a friendly fire.
Next day we went to explore the glacier which had once begun several kilometers closer to the hotel. We passed signs with dates from the last 40 years marking where the glacier had then extended to. And of what remained, much of it looked to be full of holes — unsafe to traverse. A modern hotel, good cheese, yes — but beauty and wonder were fading at head-spinning speed; speed that was, for our part of the solar system, difficult or impossible to grasp.
2004. Since Switzerland the earth’s made just a circuit and a half around our sun, so it’s January — but somehow it’s summer again. Well, that’s how it works when you’re in the Southern Hemisphere — in New Zealand, not far from Aoraki: Mt. Cook.
We’re taking a boat ride on the lake where the glacier — who felt like an old, old friend — like a doddering old man — was breaking down, “calving,” its ice-cliffs collapsing and tumbling as though in slow-motion into the lake, in some grandeur.
As we approached, we were surrounded by milky-gray glacier water.
And this meltwater, having been locked in thick-ribbed ice1 for eons, looked different from normal, ice-cube meltwater from your refrigerator’s freezer. Indeed we were told that the water being released from the glacier was thousands of years old. Was this in some way like being released from prison?
As we hiked back from the drop-off point and went in and out of views of beautiful snow-capped peaks, I brooded. And when we crossed a long skinny, shaky rope bridge — I have a fear of heights — I could, finally, seem to see where we — all of us — were.
It once seemed to be but “early” in human history. We know now we have the means to make it very late… And here, late in 2017, an enormous chunk of Antarctica has broken loose and drifted off in the ocean, a chunk so big that cartographers have complained they need to revise their maps.
What about the north end of the planet? In fourth grade they kept telling us there was a search for the fabled Northwest Passage to the East Indies that supposedly inspired Columbus’s voyages. The Hudson Bay Company and the Dutch East India Company and their European explorers of yesteryear who pursued this mercantile holy grail can at last claim a success as the polar icecap rapidly melts down to nothing. In addition many newer corporations are thrilled to have only a familiar liquid for their smiling cargo-laden ships to plow through. And the mighty Titanic, a mere hundred years later, could have lived up to its abortive boast of being tougher than Nature’s quaint defenses and could merrily steam on to a career of wondrous exploits to compete with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show.
The most calamitous effects we face are not centuries away but only years. We may be watching not the beginning of our short history but what could be the beginning of the end…
It’s now eleven years since my second trip to Athabasca Glacier. What revolution in snow vehicles will have taken place — perhaps they’ve reached the 7th generation? And for me what unknown number of winters and summers remain, to keep recording developments that are worrying? In fact so worrying that I find them impossible to truly believe — because they involve actual annihilation.
Astronomically the earth will be here for billions of years more, no matter how we wound it and mess it up — even as a burned-out rock; it will survive no matter how quickly and how thoroughly we may destroy ourselves and most of the life-forms we count on. But the brave new world my wife and I had been viewing in 2006 wasn’t exactly the eternal and magnificent one we hoped to leave for future generations. As a thirteen-year-old in 1957, I imagined all this would be forever. How terribly sad… Sad, to finally recognize that our planet, in the age of humans, can no longer take care of itself — and frustrating, that humankind has made it that way — humankind — us — this resourceful but careless species who have been here for not even a ten-thousandth of the earth’s existence — sad, that we are failing in our stewardship — failing catastrophically — and that at best we have to work with all our strength and all our resources to keep the worst from happening.
© Jerry Kurtz 2018
1. Interested parties should see Claudio’s speech in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, Act 3, scene 1:
Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprison’d in the viewless winds,
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendent world; or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thought
Imagine howling: ’tis too horrible!
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death.