The Valley of the Glacier

pic0069by Karla Fetrow

This is the land of fire and ice. On one side of the twisting Turnagain Arm, grey silt waters of a tumultuous inlet, seething with trembling fault lines, jellying clay and vicious bore tides; are the active volcanoes of the ring of fire; bellowing sometimes, blowing steam, shaping their own vision of the future. On the other side are the glaciers, set deeply into the mountains, nestled like splayed fingers over the jagged tops, covering a secret land of seeds and soils, within their outstretched hands. They, too, wait for a future of warm, brown earth and flowering plants.

Some find the Turnagain Arm desolate. The winding road, the violent winds, the long slate grey mud flats, stretching out for miles. They rush in their anxiety to travel south to their favorite fishing spots, oblivious to the mountain goats that sometimes wander down the cliffs for a few bluebells, or the whales that occasionally come in with high tides, leaping and bowing. The Arm takes you deeper and deeper into the rain forest, the deep, lush country of waterfalls and tall, thick trees. Across the inlet, blue tipped mountains appear, holding the emerald green valley of Hope at their basin. On the Arm, the frozen silence of glaciers tumbling from a wall of snow and black, sharp ledges.

The area around the inlet and back into the long valley left by the glaciers’ passage, is marshy, filled with mallards, loons, geese and swans. If you look closely along the inlet, you will spot a reindeer farm and the remnants of the town that had once been Portage.

Perhaps no spot along the Turnagain Arm could emphasize more clearly how this is a land of constant and often very abrupt, change, than these last decaying buildings, nearly settled into dust now, that memorize the town of Portage.

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Portage, Alaska, was a very small but thriving town before 1964. Only forty miles from Anchorage, its eastern face sheltered from the worst of the inlet’s violent winds, abundant with fish and wildlife, it was a popular place to go for a weekend’s recreation. It had a restaurant, a gas station, a dance area, and a half dozen nice little fifties style cottages with orderly lawns and carefully cultivated gardens. On March 28th, 1964, with a massive devastation never recorded before, a five minute, twenty second, earthquake crumpled many of Anchorage’s city streets, sending an entire avenue sloughing off into the ocean, and demolished the town of Portage. The topsoil washed away, along with the lawns, the automobiles and equipment. What was left standing, was covered in silt. The inlet reclaimed Portage and now murmurs along the banks of what had once been a town.

Portage has perhaps the fastest receding glacier on the Cook Inlet. The rapidity of its withdrawal is striking. Forty years ago, it tumbled from its mountain walls in a wide, sweeping arc, caving into a lake of its own creation, heaving with giant ice bergs. Now, the lake is nearly all open water. The glacial path has narrowed and shrunk. What had once been a fortress of ice and snow is nothing more than a churning mix of slush, frozen shelves, and sharp, spiked rocks. It slides bashfully through the canyon it had ground down with its first crushing fist of movement. Above, in the mountain cradle of its birth, the snowy blanket that covered its millennia of sleep lays rumpled but unperturbed under a distant sun.

When you enter the valley of the glacier, you enter a bowl with towering mountains on all sides. The snow in this area melts slowly. While the inlet, with its open water, sunlit days and eastern currents, opens virulently to summer, the Portage Valley remains within a state of seize; somewhere between spring’s first opening of life and the reminders of winter’s return. The five mile radius within the bowl is littered with ponds and small lakes, many of them no more than a hundred yards from each other. Even the smallest of these ponds are slate colored and white capped. They churn perpetually under the icy spray created by the melting glaciers.

Strange dominion, this thawing precipice of once great forests and giant mammals. It must have been in a land like this that our first ancestors followed the retreat of the ice mantle that had petrified their existence. We find at times, the evidence of their passage; those who had slipped and fallen into the treacherously shifting ice flow; trapped for an eternity until the slow thaw of the glacial river brings them finally to the surface; some so perfectly preserved, a dissection of the stomach would reveal the undigested foods they’d eaten that day.

It’s wonderful in its way, this proof that despite all humankind’s most foolish endeavors to dominate earth’s forces, nature continues to reveal her own designs; partly by the choices we make and partly by her own determination. On one side, we have the ring of fire; a volatile range of volcanoes; some connected to land mass; others reaching far out into the ocean. On the other, we have the deep blue fjords, the glacial rivers and giant ice fields, the remnants of the last great age of ice and snow. In between, we have the trembling crevice of an active earthquake fault, jellying clay and silt grey waters.

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The glaciers are melting now at an unprecedented rate, pouring their fresh, cold water into the ocean. There is much debate on how this will effect global climate. In the bowl, you can see how the evaporating snow and ice affect the surrounding area. The evaporation forms thick clouds of icy sprays and wintry gusts, that roll down from the mountains and lie trapped in the valley. Cold rains swell the ponds, the lakes and the creeks. Relentlessly, the water moves down, streaming into the inlet.

There is a school of climatology that believes with global warming will come rapid global cooling. Basing this on models of how fresh, cold water streams affect the oceans currents, they predict a rapid transition into a time period of glaciers spreading rapidly over the western and eastern mountain ranges. The evidence is clear from the refuse left behind by the shrinking ice cap, that the bowing ridge of the Chugach mountains had once been tropical. There are still standing stumps of giant petrified trees, the imprints of warm climate conifers, flowering plants and ferns. Those ancient ancestors, locked in the frozen aspects of time, had eaten beans and lentils, foods unable to thrive in the chilly Alaska of today. They believe the ice age came suddenly; perhaps through a shift in gravitational fields or other world wide calamity.

It’s possible. This wild streaming obeys only one call, the reactive forces of nature. It rushes into sunlit sea, settling deeply at the ocean’s bottom, rumbling with its own determination. Yet, on the other side of this tumultuous mix of waters into waters, are the volcanoes, arrogant with their own pressure system. In between, is the trembling fault line, slipping when and where it pleases. This is the life of the Cook Inlet, a life that stands between the beginnings and the endings of creation, a life where man and machine can crumple at the first whim of nature’s demonstration of power. As our glaciers unravel the mysteries of the past, they are inexorably shaping the future. We don’t truly know what future is looming just around the corner of our unstable climatic conditions. We don’t know how much longer earth will stagger under the load of chemical and biological imbalance, of over-population and diminishing renewable resources before she shudders, upsetting the structure of our mad race to over-power her, and we don’t know the decisive direction nature will take when this happens. All we know for certain is that change has begun and life as we know it will be different; very different.