Glacier Glissading

Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.                –Rachel Carson

When I close my eyes I can still feel the crusty snow under my tennis shoes. I’m trying to keep my balance while sliding down a mountain into dark nothingness. As we slide way too fast the cold night air makes my eyes tear up. I feel like I’m sliding off the edge of the earth.

Glacier National Park, summertime, 51 years ago. The carload of college kids gathered without much of any planning that I remember after our evening work shifts ended. Did I want to go glissading? Sure, although I had no idea what that meant. By the time we reached the deserted parking lot and hiked in, it was late evening, but a nearly full moon that moved in and out of clouds transformed the night to dusk.

Fifty-one years ago. Long before anyone was concerned about glaciers disappearing or protecting what was left of them. Oh, they might be losing an inch or two a year, but they’d be around….well, for hundreds of years, at least.

As I stood at the top wondering how it was possible to ski down a glacier in tennis shoes, the surrounding dark peaks offered somber reassurance and even invitation.

“Come on!” Someone grabbed my hand and we were off–running to get a start and then skid-sliding down the crusty surface, down and down. We were alone in the world–nothing but a wide expanse of white below us and then beyond it, a dark wilderness. I felt every thought or concern of that day melt as we slid down the slope. None of us had winter clothes, but the thrill and the beauty of the night warmed us.

Last week when I saw the title of the coffee table book on a top shelf at my favorite little resale shop, I didn’t even hesitate. I grabbed it–even though I usually get my books from the library now and am making a serious effort to thin my collection.

Glacier Panorama by Will Landon, a photographer, was published in 1992, before global warming had burned off quite so much ice. It’s a large book–14 inches wide and 8 1/2 inches high, and every page holds a photo, often a wide panorama shot that covers both pages. When I got it home, I quickly scanned through the achingly beautiful shots of jagged peaks and delicate alpine blossoms, looking for glacier shots. I could see what remained in 1992 of Chaney, Salamander, Gem, and Grinnell glaciers.

My eyes teared up again, but this time not from the cold wind. Why?

Perhaps from the nostalgia of seeing all of those striking and familiar views? I grew up not far from Glacier Park and spent that one summer waiting tables in a West Glacier cafe.

Perhaps grief at the loss of those glaciers? Many glaciers are already gone in the park. About 150 glaciers existed in 1850 and most were still present in 1910 when the park was opened. In 2010, the USGS estimated that only 25 glaciers larger than 25 acres remained in the park. They foresee its glaciers possibly disappearing completely within “the next several decades….may occur even earlier as many of the glaciers are retreating faster than their predicted rates.”

And tears perhaps from anger at those persons who early on laughed at global warming when I mentioned it. “The world has always had climate changes–this is part of a natural cycle!” But now we know–not at this rapid rate of change. Sure, over hundreds or thousands of years, but not like this. And most scientists now agree that the build-up of human-generated greenhouse gases has strongly contributed to it.

This, of course, is more than a matter of beauty in Glacier Park. Glaciers and snow melt feed streams, rivers, and lakes that support all kinds of wildlife. The forests dry out. In 2003, 10 percent of the park burned.

One bright spot–emissions are falling slowly in some countries, including here in the United States. Researchers speculate that is due to the economic slowdown, some serious efforts to limit emissions, the boom in “cleaner” natural gas, and moving some manufacturing to other countries–countries who, of course, have fewer restrictions on emissions.

I never realized that quick excursion into night beauty would be frozen in my memory for the rest of my life. I believe it is part of the person I became. Nor could I ever have imagined the loss of that beauty.

Note: This is my 25th posting on my blog. Purely by chance I’m writing this today on Earth Day. Celebrate and re-dedicate!

Also, don’t miss the prize-winning documentary movie CHASING ICE. I’ve got it on my Netflix list. You can see the official trailer for it on YouTube. The National Geographic photographer who filmed it was once a skeptic about climate change–but no longer.

Chaney Glacier in Glacier National Park (U.S.)...

Chaney Glacier in Glacier National Park (U.S.) as seen in 1911. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Chaney Glacier in Glacier National Park (U.S.)...

Chaney Glacier in Glacier National Park (U.S.) as seen in 2005. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


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