How We Measure Time
Descending the Juneau Icefield from Glacier to Ocean
WORDS & PHOTOS BY LEE HOUSE
The four of us looked out over heaving mounds of rock and ice, pressed on either side against eroding valley walls, and fanning out into a far off lake ahead of us. We had walked for the last two days to reach this point, but now the terminus of the glacier looked a lot different than the satellite imagery we’d studied in the months leading up to our trip. “Maybe getting off the glacier to the right isn’t going to work for us after all,” we agreed. We were about 58 miles north of Juneau, Alaska navigating down the Gilkey Trench, a glacially carved, 2,000 foot deep valley.
“This glacier loses 1 to 2 meters of mass each year,” someone in the group said. I was learning so much in the ranks of my three friends, Annika, Kirsten, and Kit, all of whom had past experience on the Juneau Icefield through an over 70 year old expedition-based science program, named the Juneau Icefield Research Program (JIRP). I looked up the valley walls to our sides to contemplate the fresh scars of ice that had etched away at the landscape around us. I scanned the wall imagining 2 meter increments year after year knowing I was simplifying the science. “Wow,” I thought, “this glacier is disappearing fast.”
New vegetation and trees crept into those freshly scarred mountain sides creating a poignant intersection and a symbol of our climate crisis. Ahead lay the forested valleys of the Tongass National Forest, a stronghold of carbon sequestration. Beneath our feet lay the glacier, a receding harbinger of what there is to lose. Both operating on a scale of time that dwarfs our life spans to proportions of dust.
We can measure time in tree rings, and I learned on this trip that we can also measure time in glacial ogives. Pronounced oh-jives, they are a glacier’s annual analogy to tree rings. Ogives are wave-like undulations of glacial ice that emanate out from below an icefall. Though the cause of these formations is still debated today, a widely supported explanation is that the ice that flows over the icefall during the summer experiences more melting, acquires more debris, and comes out at the bottom of the icefall as a sunken trough with darker coloring. Ice that flows over the icefall in winter experiences less melting and comes out as a taller bulge of light colored ice. The width of a darker trough and a lighter bulge of ice is said to show the distance a glacier has flowed in one year.
It was about one ogive ago when I first learned of this trip. Annika and I were skiing out the west ridge at Juneau’s Eaglecrest Ski Area on a bluebird February day when she told me the idea and invited me along. She mused about the plan, “I’ve always wanted to hike off the Icefield from the Gilkey Glacier and packraft out the river.” She’d dreamt of this for over six years while working in the field for JIRP. Each year Annika would look out over the Gilkey Trench from JIRP’s camp 18 and envision walking the sunken contours of the glacier far below.
The plan would go as follows: we would start at JIRP’s Camp 18, near the border of Canada, rappel into the Gilkey Trench, traverse the glacier out to the terminus, inflate our packrafts, float the river until we reached the ocean, and paddle until we met up with the north end of Juneau’s road system.
By spring, I was on a video call with the team. I felt humbled to be planning for a trip in the company of some of the most thoughtful and competent outdoors people I knew. Knowing of their various experiences on the Juneau Icefield, the Alaska Range, Antartica, and more, I couldn’t help feeling like I wasn’t bringing much to the table.
By summer, I was at my home in Sitka, Alaska, planning how to earn my keep on the upcoming trip. My goal was to create backcountry meals with dehydrated slices of wild sockeye salmon caught by net at the freshwater falls 12 miles south of town, a trip that my friends and I make annually in mid July. This year, I fished not only with the usual gratitude for being able to stock the freezer for the winter to come and share with friends and family, but also for the fish that would become the cherished protein for the approaching trip down the glacier. “Gunalchéesh,” I said aloud (the indigenous Tlingít word for thank you) and thought further, “Gunalchéesh for giving your strength for our journey!”
A few short weeks later, Annika, Kirsten, Kit, and I were spending our first night on the glacier. Our cook pot bubbled with slices of those bright red salmon. The meal was a distinct contrast to the barren landscape of ice, rock, and snow we were immersed in. That day, we had rappelled down into the trench of the glacier and walked the length of our age in ogives. A map would tell you we were in the Tongass National Forest, but a quick glance up from the cook pot would tell us there were no forests as far as the eye can see.
That is the funny thing about the Tongass: it is about 16.7 million acres large, but only half of that is actually the vast, green forest we imagine. The rest is shrubby mountain shoulders that turn to ridges of alpine tundra and crags of rock. Beyond that, there are the 1,500 square miles of ice swaths that make up the Juneau Icefield.
Too often the Tongass, and so many other landscapes of ecological abundance, are perceived as endless. We, as a society, toe the dangerous ideological line between infinite and abundant (see buffalos, wolves, and so many other collapses of the American West. See Salmon and Pacific Herring and so much more from our fisheries) when, in reality, science and decades of field research show that these vast, unfathomable sheets of ice are receding and that only half the acreage of the Tongass National Forest is actually trees, and even less so is old growth. But our world responds, "There's plenty for now," and forge ahead, business as usual.
From inhospitable ice to lush trees, the four of us walked the timelapse of life that flourishes in a glacier's retreat. Steady trekking the following day brought us back within eye shot of the distant greenery creeping down the shoulders of mountains. We chose to set camp on the glacier to savor one last night on the ice before descending to the forested river valley below.
The next morning, Annika and Kirsten split up to scout a way off the terminus of the glacier from the left side as Kit and I searched the right side for passage through a labyrinth of crevasses and unstable rock piles. We were met with a dead end.
I could hear the rush of meltwater cascading somewhere below us in the infinite glacial depths below. The bellowing echo of the water shook me with a deep reverence for the glacier’s immensity.
I was reminded of the story my dear friend and Indigenous leader, Kh’asheechtlaa (Louise Brady) had shared with me earlier that summer. Louise recalled to me the Tlingít songs that tell of her ancestors’ migrations from the interior back to their coastal homeland after the glaciers had receded from the Little Ice Age. Her ancestors stood near the end of the glacier trying to find a way down to the water. Ultimately it would be the selfless actions of the clan’s grandmothers that got them down.
Louise tells the story, “as our grandmothers always do, they risk their lives so we, their grandchildren and great grandchildren, could live our lives abundantly on the coast.” Those grandmothers volunteered to paddle canoes down beneath the glacier to find a way through the ice. They paddled into the unknown with the goal of reaching their coastal homes on the other side. All the while, they sang their canoe songs with strength and trust. Their paddling eventually gave way to delight as they emerged back into the light of day, greeted by the vibrance of animals, trees, and the ocean on the other side.
My friends and I stood on a Southeast Alaska glacier hundreds of years later, looking for a way down to the water. I imagined the voices of those singing grandmothers reverberating up from the belly of glacier below. I thought of Louise back home in Sitka, of my gratitude for her leadership as an Indigenous woman in our community. I thought of how grateful I was to currently be in the company of three incredible women on this trip. I thought of how much we owe those grandmothers to be able to exist and recreate here on Lingít Aaní (Tlingít Country), the land of the people of the tides.
The sun shone down on our faces and a gentle breeze came from the glacier as we awaited Annika and Kirsten’s return. It was peace. They eventually came back with excited news that they had found a way down to the water. Kit and I followed them for one last length of glacier, we each took a large step between ice and rock, and landed with our feet firmly on land. We descended to the water’s edge, methodically loaded our packrafts, and pushed from the shore.
Everything came to life as we paddled into the valley. Our noses flared with the smell of cottonwoods and spruce. The braided river roared all around us announcing the seasonal home to runs of salmon and hooligan. On the shores, we saw sign of moose and wolf knowing that the bear, deer, and mountain goats were just beyond. Birds jeered at our strange floating dance along the water. Vast trees reached upward filling our peripheries with hundreds of years bound in their grains.
After a night on the shore of the river, our trip moved swiftly with the current. Trees turned to grasslands and the smell of the ocean wafted near. The sandy shores of Daxanáak (Berner’s Bay) unfurled along our sides. We weren’t far from the conclusion of our trip. Another day of paddling would bring us back to the northern end of Juneau’s road system. We made camp on the beach to enjoy one last evening on the sandy borderline where water turns to forest turns to mountain.
When we did make it back home, it wouldn’t be long before the digital world crept slowly back into our consciousness. As our days grew further from the glacial valley, the starkest image of all was a news image that made the rounds while we were out. It was a picture of Alaska’s Governor and our country’s President sitting in the sterile interior of the President’s Air Force One jet both with bizarre grins looking directly into the camera. The article read that the Governor and the President had been discussing strategies to remove protections and make vulnerable much of Alaska’s lands from oil in the Arctic, to salmon streams in Bristol Bay, and the vast forests of Southeast Alaska.
A CNN headline that later accompanied the image read, “How Trump may bulldoze ‘America’s Amazon.’” In reference to the Tongass National Forest and the push to remove the 2001 federal rule that protected the forest from road-building, and timber harvest. It clashed so disturbingly with the last week of backcountry travel we had experienced in such an alive and remote valley.
In direct contrast to those Tlingít grandmothers, our State’s Governor and our President had demonstrated that they were unwilling to paddle under the glacier for us. They sought to make quick gains that undoubtedly would support the few over the many. They were unwilling to consider future generations to come — a father and grandfather no less.
You see, we can measure our lives in tree rings or glacial ogives. We can measure them in summer paddles or winter ski runs, spring fishing or fall hunts, but without those grandmothers, without thousands of generations of women who have stood so fearlessly for these lands and communities, our lives would be immeasurable. Without their memory, our lives are short, our foresight stricken, and our actions unfounded.
After the writing of this, a summary of public comment for the Alaska Roadless Rule Draft Environmental Impact Statement showed that 96% of comments from across Alaska and the United States strongly supported keeping Roadless protections on the Tongass. Less than 1% of people commented in favor of a fully exempting the Tongass from protections. Despite this, the Trump Administration moved to fully exempt the Tongass from roadless protections in October 2020.