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The Intimate Feeling of VASTNESS

ALE Explorers Club Alaska Expedition 2017

The intimate feeling of VASTNESS. I think that is a word but I'm not 100% sure. Then again, I don't know if words could adequately describe what I witnessed at Camp 18 on the edge of the Gilkey glacier. Endless vistas that defy perspective yet in the midst of this I feel comfortable, like I belong here. So why not, intimate VASTNESS.

Camp 18 is home for a couple of weeks of 50+ amazingly dedicated glacier research students, staff, and faculty. I arrived by helicopter from Juneau Alaska but this band of curious journeymen traversed the Taku Glacier conducting research studies along the way and documenting the changes in the glacier and its surrounding habitat from the previous year.

This adventurous tribe belongs to the longest running continuous glacial survey program in North America; the Juneau Icefields Research Program, (JIRP). The 2017 JIRP Team will complete the 70th consecutive year of research on the Taku.

Camp 18 is one of several encampments the JIRPers will inhabit along their six week trek across the glacier. This is a place where the scale of the natural features provided for us to witness is impossible to comprehend. Distance can’t be measured by the naked eye. The landscape constantly evolving with the changes in light beckons one to venture closer but can’t be trusted. 50 meter deep Crevasses loom under thin layers of ice and snow and calving seracs four stories tall up glacier tumble down to the floor of the ice flow followed seconds later by a thunderous roar. I figured I could apply my childhood scientific distance measuring stick of lighting and thunder by counting Mississippis but I couldn’t catch the sight of one I heard falling before it was too late.

All of this visual and audible stimuli contributes to the infinite surrounding beauty, which is not wasted even when nature calls.

The width of the glacier behind my companion Patrick looks as though it might be the length of a football field but in reality is wide enough to land a 747 on.......though it might be a pretty sketchy landing.

A crystal blue crevasse on the slope of an ice field looks like a narrow crack that I could slip my head into for a better look at the iridescent indigo glow but up close I'd find that I could fit the entire cast of the blue man group within the ice fissure.

The majestic snowcapped peak radiating the soft rose hues of the setting sun I'm told is a hundred and fifty miles away. A hundred and fifty miles away? What is that? Thirty, fifty, a hundred... there's no way to tell; these mountains don't seems to get smaller with distance.

There's something indescribably fulfilling about being in this vastness; standing on a rocky nunatak and feeling so small that I really might not even exist. It's a feeling of gratitude that fills me because I’m fortunate to witness nature in its purest form, without Nature even knowing I am there. I appreciate feeling aware that there is higher power present and forces much greater than human beings are at work here. And yet there is also a feeling of uneasiness, sadness that percolates up from a pit in my stomach; maybe it’s sadness. I know that the majestic glacier before is retreating, thinning at a progressive rate and I am contributing to this. My generation is leaving the ones following us, these students, a world that will challenge them in ways I can’t imagine at this moment. And with all the advances in humanity we have discovered, all we are doing about it is arguing if it's actually happening.

The next morning Camp 18 comes to life around 6:30. Excitement about the day’s prospects fills the air and breakfast conversations. Daily the JIRPers are assigned work detail following breakfast then research projects to be conducted in the area around camp, in the exact same GPS coordinates of the prior year’s studies. With no regard to weather conditions these hearty researchers suit up and head into the wilderness in pursuit of data to help shed light on the fate of these glaciers.

The returning team traversing the ice field after a day of digging mass balance pits and measuring the water content of the ice and snow fall from the previous year look like tiny ants frozen in place, lonely and lost. Fourty-five minutes later their strides are visible and shortly thereafter their banter and laughter is distinguishable.

Back at camp 18 we gather for dinner with our temporary tribe of 30 students and 20 faculty and staff followed by evening lectures from visiting scientist and faculty. Our discussions centered around the research projects of the day and the observations made and implications for our planet.

The scientific work that the JIRPers are doing demonstrate that while I feel insignificant up here, nature is very well aware of my presence. The research demonstrates that the glaciers are thinning exponentially each year and our way of life is contributing to the forces that excel these changes.

In The evening hours when the sun finally sets as do the people here in Camp 18, I take a moment to reflect on my thoughts about how the natural world is altering in front of my eyes. It's quiet up here and easy for me to get in touch with my thoughts which seem so clear and simple.

We can change all this; we are changing this all but not in a way that preserves it. But we CAN CHANGE THIS.

I know that human nature is to hold on to what we have, our way of life, until a life threatening crisis forces us to change. I’m confident that I will witness such a crisis in my lifetime, and I know that we could have delayed it, if not prevented it all together. I wonder if more people could have this opportunity to come here and see this intimate vastness, witness the work the JIRPers are doing, would they too appreciate it to a level that would motivate them to accept that our climate is changing and we are contributing to these changes. Would it motivate them to change their behaviors and fight to reverse these climate trends, reverse the retreating glaciers? I wonder when human beings will come to realize that the more we strive to disregard or destroy nature, the closer we come to destroying our race. It seems all so simple and clear to me in these quiet evening hours up here; if we respect, preserve and work in harmony with nature, our civilization will endure. So simple, yet so hard to accept.


Check out our gallery for more photos of this epic adventure.

Thinking about joining us for our next ALE Explorers Club Alaska Expedition?

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