It used to be right here.
If I'd come here the first time I was in Alaska, if I had stood in the precise spot where I stand now, I would have been a lot colder. I may have even had trouble breathing, depending on how thick the ice was. But in the seventeen years that elapsed between my first and second visits to Kenai Fjords National Park, the ice has raced backwards.
Exit Glacier, the most easily accessible glacier in the park, has been in a steady retreat for well over a century now. As we drove towards the trailhead, we passed signs marking the former ends of this particular river of ice. The late 1800s rolled into the mid 20th century as we parked the car, and then our hike carried us through the warming decades to where we are now. The sign by me now says 2010, but it's 2018 so the glacier's toe lies beyond, upstream where the gray water gushes out from beneath the ice.
There is very little vegetation here where I stand, less up there at the glacier's edge. Time is required for the forest to take over as it has done back down the trail. About halfway here, we stopped at a pavilion constructed in the 1980s to provide an unimpeded view of the glacier. It was a short stroll from the parking lot to that spot where one could witness the mass of blue and white, the icy tongue reaching down from the mountains. Our view from that spot today was lovely, to be sure, but altogether different. No glacier was visible, no peak discernible through the tangle of branches and leaves. The alders have claimed the land vacated by the exit of the Exit, replacing a sweeping glacial vista with a serene forest scene. If the current trend continues, the same fate will come to the rock upon which I now rest. The trail to Exit Glacier, it seems, is destined to grow longer as the glacier recedes towards its source.
That source is a wonder of its own. To me it is a known unknown over the ridge, hidden from view but placed in my mind by books and maps. The Harding Icefield is what its name suggests: a vast expanse of ice covering more than 700 square miles of the Kenai Mountains. At its edges, where the ice crests the ridges that hem it in, more than 30 glaciers flow down towards the sea. Above these outlets, the ice is thousands of feet thick in places, hiding peaks and valleys that have been buried since the Pleistocene. Only the highest summits protrude above the frozen plain. I can't see it from here, only one of its products. Imagination has to be enough for today.
In every hike, every foray into the wild landscapes that remain, I have a similar experience. I see and admire what lies before me, I walk the trail I've chosen, I return thankful for the time I've had, the knowledge I've gained, the contact I've made with the land and its inhabitants, both plant and animal. I am satisfied and yet I am left wanting and wondering. What if I'd hiked to the next junction? What if I'd sat in that spot a little longer? What view does that ridge provide? What else lies undiscovered somewhere out there?
I feel this now. There is grand beauty on display here. The mountain peaks in the distance frame this scene where the braided river below courses through a wide valley fringed by forest and a wall of ice climbs up the rocks before me to a line in the sky. It is lovely to behold, but my mind is straying beyond that line in the sky. I want to keep hiking upslope, over the ridge, out to the edge of the icefield. When I get there, I'll want to start out across it. And when I get to the other side, I'll want to descend to the fjords below.
I think this is a good problem to have, this never-ending wanderlust. It's not really disappointment that I feel now, knowing that today won't include a view of the Harding Icefield. Instead it is hope, a desire to return, a drive for the future. I'll come back, I tell myself. I'll see it someday.
I wonder where the Exit Glacier will be when someday arrives.
Naturalist, Photographer, Cartographer