– Unsettling observations as a continent dies
Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska. The park was established in 1980 and covers over 1000 semi-submerged square miles of former glacier canals. There has been little human activity here over the last century, but archaeologists have unearthed evidence of permanent occupation at various points spanning a thousand years. This evidence had been partially hidden until recently by a combination of rising sea levels and sinking shorelines. The road to Seward drops out of the visitor centre at the threshold of the park. It’s lined by dated signs tracking the ever more elusive terminus of the once mighty Exit Glacier as it slowly dies.
The Harding Icefield Trail handrails the north edge of Exit Glacier as it flows slow eastings down through the Kenai Mountains. Exit is one of around 40 tendrillic babies to wriggle out of the 300 mi2 Harding Icefield glacier machine. The frosty crown of Kenai Fjords. Scary things occur on the shapeless tundras of Harding Icefield and few ventured near until the 1920s. Even then, it was 1968 before the first successful traverse was documented in the hand of the white man.
Westward trails through mud and mosquito. Cottonwood and alder and my secretary and I begin uphill. Dense foliage glows bright green even under these grey skies. Long switchbacks regulate our ascent.
The Icefield is named for Warren G Harding, 29th president of the United States. Warren G Harding looked a bit like disgraced British morning television presenter and amateur fascist Robert Kilroy-Silk. Despite being born 77 years apart and Harding being very dead, they could easily be mistaken if it weren’t for one thing: Kilroy-Silk has a rare congenital skin disorder that causes him to photosynthesize at high latitudes (note the strange orange pigmentation of his skin), and, as you undoubtedly know, photosynthesis is deadly to all racists. Thus, any Kilroy-Silk spotted north of 48 can only be an imposter.
Warren G Harding’s time in office, like Kilroy’s breakfast time slot, was marred by corruption, scandal, unwitting involvement in organised crime, being a Republican, infidelity, sex cults and alleged links to the Klu Klux Klan. In a confusing twist that Kilroy-Silk would never approve of, Harding was also an early proponent of civil and women’s rights movements.
One thing that is clear, however, is that Harding was the first president ever to visit Alaska, staying in Seward in July 1923, only to die in August 1923, assassinated by poisoned Alaskan crabs. The Kenai Peninsula is not a good place for weird Republicans, it would seem.
Trees begin to thin; flagging seen in naked branches. East views of Resurrection River open up behind us as we move ourselves further into the mountains that hold the Harding Icefield. Dense plumes of fog seep through the hills like upside down smoke. Wildflowers in Marmot Meadows. Past small viewpoints of Exit glacier. No stopping now; we have to get to the edge, as we always do.
We follow the ridge up towards the plateau for first snow. The trail snakes around large glacial erratics until no further trees occur. Nearby moose. We spring into stealth pose and render our voices unsubtle whisper for no good reason at all. It doesn’t care about us. It has no interest in or fear of us. Mr. / Mrs. Moose reclines in the scrub. Every day is a Sunday here. No office or Monday morning traffic beyond the timberline. I think it was a Mrs. Moose on account of all the reclining. It seemed just too graceful to be male. Graceful things are rarely male. Either way, he or she remained fully unperturbed by our intrusive ridiculocities and continued his or her silent ponderings on space and time and other things that are real and relative to each other.
Drizzle is real and rain is now and more snow on ground. Deep striations of crevasse on the glacier, visible even from our high ridge. Fog, mud and snow approaching equilibrium.
Suddenly deep in Bear Country. The Alaskan bogeyman will remove our skin and make our blood go on the outside if we continue in this fashion, that much is sure. Everything points to this conclusion. All the signs are there. “Warning: Bear frequenting area. There is no guarantee of your safety while hiking in Bear Country”, says one. But how can we know for sure? We need a test. I happened to pick up some particularly odorous meat based product from a gas station on the way out of Seward. Packet opened and noxious stench of machine mangled carcass fills the air around us. Ingredients: assorted chemicals, processed turkey hearts. Sounds delicious and intriguing. What is this mystery process? Removing hearts from turkeys is a process, assorting chemicals is a process. But what process did it undergo to become this grainy brown paste filled oblong before us?
We wait, waving our gas station weenies around like putrid sticks of mechanised death. In the battle between meat and machine, meat will invariably lose. We all end up as grainy paste filled oblongs sooner or later. We wait. Like meaty flares, like sirens for this remorseless plunderer of uncooked flesh, our message is clear: come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough. But nothing happens. We wait, meating our flarey death sirens. Nothing. Our convoluted logic has got us this far, so it seems reasonable to assume that since we are not dead (so far as we have been able to ascertain based on the evidence we have been presented with to date), our experiment is a success and we are now invincible to all future bear attacks. Onwards, carefree once more.
To the plateau. Almost fully snowed now. Daydreams of crampons. On our left is an unforgiving drop to Exit Glacier. To our right, jagged spires pierce the mist; relics of some unimaginable century old geologic violence. Jet black rock. Smashed batholith. Monuments to utter destruction.
Soon enough, we catch our first real view of the Harding Icefield. I begin to wonder what we are doing here. What question do we have that needs to be answered at the Icefield?
The snow around us is blood red. The discolouration is caused by an algae bloom. It sometimes smells of watermelon, but not today. Clamydomonas nivalis is a red species of green algae. It contains red pigment to protect the chloroplast from UV radiation. This misleading pigment also absorbs heat which melts surrounding snow to feed the algae. For years, I had believed that the ingestion of blood snow would lead to certain diarrhea, but a recent single-blind study revealed that clamydomonas nivalis has no effect on either frequency or intensity of stool production. Though what other organisms feed on red green algae is a question only dysentery can answer.
The red snow, the fog, the black columns enclosing us; this is the kind of scene that I imagine Other People have nightmares about. On the glacier, crevasses are choking and bands of snow across the surface become thicker and heavier as it joins the Icefield. Plateau snow coverage now total except for occasional piles of scree that have built up so high as to break the surface like the nunataks that punctuate the Icefield above us.
Harding Icefield Emergency Shelter. Last graffiti smeared bastion before the world becomes ice. Before perpetual winter perpetuates. With marked trail now behind us, we scramble along black plutons to the end of the plateau.
My secretary and I stand at the edge of a place not intended for life to occur. A swirling portal of cold malevolence lies beyond these endless ice cliffs and lattices of crevasse. A circular rage at the warm slaughter of the Icefield’s glacier babies below. Bitter wind cuts our faces.
Dark forces are at work here. Even the Earth itself has deemed this place unsuitable for continued existence. This is a subduction zone. We are standing directly above the collision of two tectonic plates. We and the Harding Icefield are on the North American Plate which is slowly being dragged into the sea under the Pacific Plate.
We pause to consider this static turmoil. The cyclic elegance of life, death and rebirth swallowed whole as the entire system erases itself. We are the humbled audience to the slowest of all suicides; a suicide of continental proportions. Death on this scale is always beautiful sight.
We make our return; back across The Plateau Of Other People’s Nightmares. Past the Emergency Shelter. Through Bear Country and Marmot Meadows. Mud and mosquito. People. So many terrible people. Kenai Fjords Visitor Center. Seward.
“The Harding Icefield Trail makes a great day hike for all but the fattest of the family. Discover the beautiful Alaskan wilderness and poke some wildlife along the way. It’s a scientistic fact that wild animals like being fed Starbucks pastries! If your cruise ship is stuck in Seward with a busted engine and a turn of the century twat at the helm, then get hiking! You can always get drunk in the ship’s bar later! And if you really hate it, just kill yourself and it won’t even matter! Don’t forget to wear jeans and sandals, and bring plenty of chai lattes to keep you going! See you at the top!”
– West Seward Tourism Bureau leaflet
We buy a six pack of Alaskan Amber Ale from a convenience store and, having learnt nothing from this morning, supplement it with some weird looking mystery jerky. We walk aimlessly around Seward until we pass The Fish House – an interesting store full of handguns, rifles, vacuum cleaners and duvets. My secretary and I look at each other and smile. Domestic bliss and death – the ultimate romance. A wonderful dinner, clean shirt and a bullet in the face. She heads off to the shotgun aisle while I inspect their selection of baking trays. Other People are so strange.
We leave, newly acquired firearms and pyjamas in hand, to walk a deserted Seward. We take covert drinks from the beer cans concealed beneath our jackets as the tired sun hangs low in the orange sky.
I remember us as silhouettes against the mountains. Mere outlines. Partially tangible and probably invincible.