Departure

These photos aren't going to turn out like I want them to. I know that.

I know that shooting out the airplane window, looking down through the miles of atmosphere separating me from my topographic subjects, is far from ideal. The mid-afternoon light is harsh, the window's not spotless, and the motion of the plane means these images won't be very sharp. But it is clear today. Blissfully clear. No clouds in the way, bright sun shining over the mountains. With my atlas spread out on my lap I can call the glaciers by name as I tell them goodbye on this flight from Anchorage to Seattle, leaving Alaska behind.

The past eleven days have been spent mostly in motion, from Anchorage to Denali to Fairbanks to Talkeetna to Seward and back to Anchorage. Through the windows of the car, the buses, and the boat we watched the landscapes slide by. From trails and overlooks we gazed out at the world before us and marveled at its beauty and scale. Alaska is indisputably huge, and we traveled through just a sliver of it.

But nothing drives home the scale of this place like the view I've got right now.

Already on this flight I've seen Denali and Foraker to the north, two giant clouds made of rock and ice floating on the horizon where I stood just a few days ago. The Chugach Mountains have passed beneath our wings and the Copper River has slid in and out of view through this tiny little window. Great glaciers have lined the valleys below me, vast forests have mingled with the coastal mudflats, the islands and deltas, the blue waters of the Gulf of Alaska. Mt. Drum, Mt. Sanford, and Mt. Wrangell have loomed in the distance, far behind the lower peaks that crowd the view in the foreground. All of these features, and more unnamed here, merit weeks if not months of exploration each, yet my observations today have been measured in minutes. A new shape appears on the right side of my window, followed by a consultation of the maps and a moment of recognition. The time for admiration is brief, for the scene is ever-changing at 400+ miles per hour. Mountains slide out of frame to the left, immediately replaced by new wonders to the right. It's marvelous and regrettably rushed.

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Now in view is a feature I've wanted to see for years. It is the Malaspina Glacier, a giant of the icy worlds that lie in these northern latitudes. The Malaspina is the largest piedmont glacier on the planet with an area of roughly 1,500 square miles. That tally is greater than the area of Rhode Island (poor Rhode Island; always subjected to these unflattering comparisons) and just a touch less than the area of Glacier National Park. It spills out of the St. Elias Mountains and expands in a vast lobe that rests just inland from the sweeping shoreline before it. Scientists estimate that the glacier is 2,000 feet thick in places and that its base may rest a thousand feet beneath sea level. The Malaspina is sitting in a grand throne of its own creation, and I can see the whole thing from seat 31A.

I take a few more photos. Since I can't slow time or the progress of this airplane, at least I can enrich the memories with these visual aids, saving these images as parting mementos of this time in Alaska. It is always sad to leave a place, to end a trip. The bitterness is lessened here by the fact that in two days we'll be driving south to Yosemite, but lessened is not eliminated. I want to stay. How silly of me to think that eleven days would be sufficient. With just a small portion of this expansive state spread out beneath me now, it's obvious that a lifetime would prove insufficient, too. This place seems endless. There are more than enough mountains, glaciers, rivers, lakes, fjords, islands, forests, and tundras to supply a never-ending itinerary of exploration. The hope for a return is my consolation now. There's a next time, another chance to get out and wander in the wilds that harken back to days when the whole continent was wilder.

The mountains of Glacier Bay National Park are passing by my window now. They are another reminder of landscapes I long to experience, another place on a list in my mind. They also note our present location, more south and east than we were before. We are running out of Alaska. Soon, it will be British Columbia out my window. Then Washington, then Oregon. These final moments shouldn't be wasted. I'll stare at these peaks as I leave them behind, and I'll think of them often til I see them again.

Chaney

Naturalist, Photographer, Cartographer