Blue like Glaciers, Grass, and Glassy Seas

Aboard the Serac, the Park research vessel, we bob gently in Aialik Bay, listening to the sound of gulls, surf, and an ancient tidewater glacier calving. Every 5 minutes or so, a piece of the massive ice wall half a mile ahead rips away with a noise like thunder and gunshots all at once, plunging into the sea below and sending up a cloud of spray. Icebergs float by on either side, gliding serenely across the surface of green-blue silt-tinted water. Day 3 on the coast, and I’m still being blown away by the sheer power present in this landscape.

This is our small world for a few days out on the coast: a boat named for glacial ice cliffs, with a deck for sunbathing, fish cleaning and glacier watching, and the whole grand realm of the Kenai Fjords coast ahead. Tim, from the Regional Office and Eric, the EPMT Education SCA, are joining Travis and I this week to help with the monumental task of pulling weeds in the furthest reaches of the park.

Most of Kenai Fjords National Park is inaccessible unless you have a boat, a helicopter, or both. That’s a big reason why there are so few weeds here—with few boots and wheels to track seed in, the glaciers and fjords remain pure, untainted. This is probably one of the most beautiful places in the universe, these rugged miles of spruce-set coastline home to whales and otters and birds and salmon.

But there are a few nasties here. Bluegrass and dandelions ride in on kayak gear, or boots hauled from Colorado. “Bluegrass? I’m tryna grow that in my front yard!” one visitor laughs. “I wish it grew as well back there as it does here!”

Plants are a blessing in one place and a curse in another. Such is the way of ecological invasion.

We’re all cursing dandelions (and maybe the people who brought them) when we’re pulling Taraxacum officiale ssp. officiale by the pound on the mosquito-ridden cliffs of Dinglestadt Glacier, Day 2. The bugs are vicious, biting through gloves and clothes, hurling themselves with audible thunking noises against our meshy bug shirts. We look like aliens, or Druids, in our heavy green hoods.

We’ve been blessed with a window of glorious weather for four days—and subsequently cursed with bugs. Clouds of black flies, moose flies, and mosquitoes, commonly quipped as “Alaska’s state bird,” storm the shores, out for blood.

The view from the top of the cliffs is stunning. The glacier slumps down toward the shore on one side, pocked and riven with clear blue. The creek delta beyond winds across gravelly glacial deposit into the sea; all waters become light in the sun today. “It’s so beautiful,” I moan. “But I can’t enjoy it because I can’t sit still!”

And because Dinglestadt is still infested with dandelions, even after years of manual control. The lines and polygons of infestation data seem like they grow every year with the population, interrupting ecological succession on the freshly-shed glacial moraines. It can be discouraging to face the hordes of dandelions and mosquitoes and wonder if your blood and sweat and tears shed on the cliffs are all for naught.

After we finally pull a last lone dandelion, pass a population nodding cheerfully up a cliff, and plunge down a slick vegetated ravine to the shore, we pile into the Zodiac and zoom off across the water with no small sigh of relief.

Later, we take a detour to McCarthy Glacier on a mission. The otter that we’d hauled out the day before needs to stay fresh enough to be autopsied when we get back, and the little bag packed with the salad cooler ain’t gonna cut it in the heat. It’s the second one that’s been found dead this year, and Inventory and Monitoring wants to know what’s up.

When the first chunk of ice floats by the boat, I have to blink. Is this for real? It was my first tidewater glacier, its great crevassed front toe stuck out in the water where it crumbles away into icebergs. Then a whole flotilla of ice chunks cruises by, complete with basking harbor seals.

They’re delicate sculptures shaped like seals, and waves, and the gentle curl of a columbine petal. We stood clustered at the wheelhouse, watching the depth sounder—889, 886, 885—watching fossilized ice float past and melt into dissolution. There, it mingles with the recycled depths of the sea—all of it water circulated ‘round the bottom of the Pacific and back on deep-sea convection currents and rainclouds. What goes around, comes around, on ice.

And here we are, sitting in the biggest mixed drink in the world, packing a cooler with ice that froze several thousand years ago, to keep a dead sea otter from rotting long enough for an autopsy on shore.

“I’ve done a lot of weird things in my life,” Eric comments. “But this has got to be the weirdest.”

We’re back out in Aialik Bay the next day, surveying a new beach for weeds. Freshly uncovered by the receding glacier, this is newly birthed land susceptible to invasion without the inoculation of a native ecosystem. We find no weeds, but document a poppy to key out later. (It turns out to be a native).

As we watch from the beach, a large chunk of the front face, a vertical sheet of ice maybe a hundred meters long and weighing several tons, shears off with a thunderous rumble and falls into the sea. A cascade of snowy ice follows, pouring down from shelf liberated above it. Watching the chain reaction of glacial calving is addicting.

In the warmth of the afternoon sun, I am watching thousands of tons of ice build and break and melt and pass away in the forward march of time and tidal recession. Who needs TV when you have this?

The closest thing that watching thundering glacial ice evokes, ironically, is watching a lava flow. Echoes of the islands in the ice. The electricity of impending icefall, or lava bubbling, or surf pounding, is energy apparent in the world around us. The power to reshape a landscape in the merciless flow of molten rock, or the breaking power of tons of moving ice—it’s intoxicating.

Landscapes are historically static backgrounds, mere backdrops to be shaped, resources to be used, or even just habitats for wildlife. Watching bergs break off at the waterline, ripping away clear crystalline sizes as the whole massive slump of ice sloughs into the sea, is a present reminder that nature is anything but static. Even the dandelions that return relentlessly every year, spreading into far-flung pockets of the coast, don’t just sitting around waiting to be pulled.

There is no status quo on the ice. It is perilous territory to stand before a grinding glacier and dare house-sized chunks to plummet suddenly out of the air. Or to plunge beneath the surface of water cold enough to sustain icebergs, or carry the tsunami-like energy of an icefall across the bay.

This is a landscape that is anything but still. And time heals all things, in a way. As the glacier recedes, it leaves moraines sown with grass and geraniums, and blueglaical silt, and warmth, and the beauty of a calm fjordland bay on a sunny day. But I’ll be sad to see the tidewaters go. That power stilled and the landscape altered? The ecology of the North faces dire shifts with climate change, and the future, too, melts into dissolution—recycled, evaporated, the cold-loving seals and otters and glaciers long lost to the relentless northward march of climate warming. And dandelions.