Backstory: Crevasses and cocoa on Juneau's icefields
Nature's laboratory can be both fearsome and mundane.
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Program alumni, whose signatures festoon the rafters of each camp, now number over 2,000, and include outdoor leaders and scientists of nearly every description. Eric Reynolds and Dave Huntley, students in the early 70s, were part of a group of young icefield mountaineers called the "Marmot Club," a name the pair revived when they founded the high-end outdoor gear company Marmot.Skip to next paragraph
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The icefield even inspires its graduates, such as Steven Squyres, to strike out for new worlds. An astronomy professor at Cornell University and the scientific principal investigator for the Mars Rover project, Mr. Squyres says, "I spent a good chunk of the summer going places and seeing things no one had ever seen before, and it left a very deep impression on me. The icefield was my very first exposure to professional scientists and to hard-core, expedition-style science. It was my first experience with science as it's actually done."
During my week on the icefield, I join photographer Barbee and a trio of researchers, including program director Miller, on a helicopter flight across the Taku Glacier.
Unlike most glaciers, it is advancing, not retreating. Since Miller began exploring here in 1946, the Taku has expanded about two miles. The phenomenon is at least partly an accident of topography: The Taku originates at a higher elevation than its neighbors on the icefield, so it has been slower to respond to rising temperatures. Yet studies show that since 1990, the mass of the Taku has slowly diminished, suggesting that this glacier, too, will eventually begin to retreat.
Our pilot touches down where the glacier snout pushes into a coastal inlet. Cold breezes rush down the ice, mixing with the relatively balmy sea air. It's an exhilarating place for Miller, who has spent most of the two months since his wife's death at the project base in Juneau.Unhesitatingly, he scales rock ridges pushed up by the moving ice, and yodels across lupine and fireweed.
"Do you feel like you're at home now?" he asks former student and longtime staffer Guy Adema.
"I do," Mr. Adema smiles.
"I do, too," says Miller.
Adema, chief of physical resources at Denali National Park, has spent time on the icefield every summer since the mid-90s. "It's just so nice up there," he sighs.
Nice isn't the first word that comes to mind after a week on the icefield, during which I've been cold, soggy, filthy, and often exhausted. But after a second or two, I'm nodding in agreement. Life on the glaciers is wonderfully simple: There's little to do but carry out daily tasks of survival, enjoy the pleasures of fellowship, and absorb the lessons of the grim, gorgeous, and inexorably changing landscape. What's more, after a week of freezing rain and whiteouts, you might be rewarded with crystalline skies and the spectacular green shimmer of the Northern Lights.
Over dinner in Juneau, the night before my departure for the Lower 48, Miller warms up for another of his famous lectures.
"It's so important what we do out there," he says. Then he pauses for a few moments, and a smile creases his face. "It's also a pleasure, and a joy, and a whole lot of fun. As long as you don't get yourself killed."
• Part 1 appeared in Monday's Monitor.
(Travel for the reporter and photographer was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. See more icefield reporting at www.pulitzercenter.org/alaska.htm .)