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Know the West

Living on Glacial Time

The places we love are changing fast


Jon Riedel and I stand at a trailhead that leads to Washington's Mount Baker with nine high school students who have come to the Pacific Northwest for a month to learn about climate change. Jon, a geologist at North Cascades National Park, is here to talk about his glacier monitoring program, and I'm along for the ride. We readjust pack straps and scrounge for water bottles as clouds swirl and settle in tall trees. At last we make our introductions and head out.

If you want to stand on a glacier, there are plenty to choose from in the North Cascades. In fact, if I were to start walking from my front porch in tiny Stehekin, 100 miles to the southeast of us, I could stand on one before dark. Ditto for my friend Jon from his home in Marblemount, 40 miles to the east. It'd be a long walk for me -- five miles on a gravel road, seven by trail, gaining 7,000 feet, then the dicey part, up and over the ridge to stand on the Sandalee -- and a slightly longer one for Jon. He'd have to trudge 20 road miles to a trailhead. Once he got there, though, he could choose from several glaciers -- including Sahale, the one his oldest daughter is named after.

Still, whenever Jon and I tried to make a plan to visit a glacier together, our complicated middle-aged lives got in the way. This roundabout journey was the only way it could work. Yesterday I took a three-hour boat ride, then a four-hour drive, to Jon's house. For the chance to learn about climate change, I've left a carbon footprint the size of Yellowstone. Add up the flights the kids took -- plus the two group leaders, two documentary filmmakers and one journalist -- and that footprint might be the size of Connecticut. I wonder: Is it worth it? Today's plan was to hike to the Easton Glacier, but it's clear from the crummy weather and the inadequate gear the kids have (some are in tennis shoes) that the group will not make it. Jon stashes our ice axes and we set off, hiking through forest and meadow, hemlock and cedar, huckleberries and valerian. We can at least get within sight of our goal.

The first time I saw a glacier up close, I followed a trail out of a book. Encounters with the Archdruid, John McPhee's classic triptych featuring David Brower, devotes one section to a hike near Lyman Lake in Glacier Peak Wilderness. One weekend, I backpacked up a long river valley just to camp there. The lake was lovely, of course, but a short walk farther, through a lime green meadow, all heather and wildflowers and patches of snow, I came upon a second lake. Upper Lyman, a translucent jewel-like blue, nestled up against the jaggedy granite peaks, and right there at the inlet -- right there! -- sat a glacier: vertical slabs of ice, moving imperceptibly like the colliding continents of the past, protruding over the water, breaking off in loud ka-splashes, floating white on the blue.

That's when I started to fall hard in love with this place. My partner and I bought land and built a cabin, and from there the changes grew harder to pinpoint. For the next 15 years, I worked on trail crew and spent most August days clearing brush -- waist-high ferns, head-high nettles -- within view of a glacier, one or more, white against gray granite and blue sky, hanging out over green valleys, and dripping, always dripping. When did it become clear that they were shrinking? Right away. There was less ice farther up, less ice everywhere. Even though I knew about global warming, even though I tried to make conscious choices -- about what car I drove, say, or where my lettuce came from or who I voted for -- I still considered climate change just a concept, a vague threat, something that loomed like nuclear annihilation or a meteor striking the earth, only more thwart-able. It seemed so wrong to see it happen with my own bare ignorant eyes.

Jon took a more empirical tack. While I was hacking at brush and notching logs for bridges, he was measuring glaciers, four of them: Noisy, Silver, North Klawatti and Sandalee. The results were unsurprising: They're all shrinking. I'd have been happier to know my eyes were deceiving me.

As we walk through the misty forest, Jon throws out numbers, casual as baseball statistics, for whoever will listen. Glacier numbers: Seventy-five percent of the glaciers in the Lower 48 are in the North Cascades, 312 in the national park alone, at least according to last count; researchers estimate that since the late 1800s, the park has lost 40 percent of its total ice pack. Climate numbers: Over the past 2 million years we've had several long ice ages, with intervening warm periods lasting 10,000 years or so. Now it's been 11,000 years, which means it's time to start cooling, but we're warming instead. The kids nod solemnly. They know this, at least in theory, and they're learning more about it each day they're here.

After three miles and lunch, we reach a stretch of trail atop a lateral moraine. The ground drops steeply at our toes, loose rock and dirt skittering into a wide cobbled creek bed, the space where the glacier used to be. Suddenly the number that stands out most starkly, of the many numbers, is the smallest: 100. That's how long ago the glacier was here -- right here! -- less than 100 years. It's not hard to imagine how it looked, white and full. Confronting its absence is like staring into an empty swimming pool.

The group settles on rocks along the trail, and Jon begins his spiel: The more the climate warms, the more the glaciers melt, which causes oceans to rise, which causes the landscape to change. As he speaks, climbers scurry past hauling packs the size of Igloo coolers and a wet film settles on jacket sleeves, not quite rain.

When it's time for questions, a student pipes up.

"How did you end up here?" she asks.

She sweeps her arms wide toward the summit hovering in the cloud and tiny rivulets trickling through the meadows, the pink phlox and the green trees, the impossibly gorgeous whole of it. Other kids crane their necks and grin.

All eyes are fixed on Jon.

He took a year off after high school, he explains, and worked in a garment factory for $2 an hour, hard boring work in Wisconsin. During that year he also read a book called Sand County Almanac

"Aldo Leopold," he says. "That book changed my life."

Now the kids nod exuberantly. They know this book, or at least some of them do, and they like Jon's story. No matter what happens, this month in the North Cascades -- camping, hiking, canoeing -- will change their lives.

Everyone is silent for a moment as the clouds lift and the lower glacier is visible in a swatch of sun: blue-tinged ice and smooth sloping snow and distant jagged crevasses like scratches on a mirror. 

Glaciers move. That's what differentiates them from snowfields. The heavy ice on top pushes out the ice underneath, like toothpaste. Even as they are melting, they are moving. The Easton, Jon says, moves five or six inches a day. From here, that's hard to believe. The glacier seems so settled, so permanent, so static. But it's not, of course. Nothing is.

Last night, at Jon's house, rare summer sun lit the fluttering leaves of alders and shifted through open glades. When he and his wife bought their land, there was nothing but logging slash and mud. To see the place now, you'd hardly believe it. We toured the fruit orchard, the half-finished greenhouse, the treehouse for his girls, the hard-earned fixed-in-place accoutrements of home. Then we settled on the porch to swap stories.

We talked fire. Gazing up at the thick forest foothills, he described a fire that burned to within a half mile of the house. A neighbor woke him after midnight, claiming evacuation was imminent.

"Tell me about it," I said. Back home on the east side, wildfire acreages have grown like Wall Street bonuses.  In the past 15 years, we've watched fires in the surrounding wilderness areas -- fires within one windy day of our cabin -- burn 500 acres, then 5,000 acres, then 50,000. Part of the problem, foresters tell us, is too many years of fire suppression that allowed the trees to grow too tight, the brush too dense, the forest litter too deep. But part, too, is the changing climate: the lack of winter snowfall that leads to drought, longer summers that allow pine beetles to hatch double broods, and hotter summers that make fires harder to stop. A few years ago, in a fit of civic duty that I sometimes regret, I ran for fire commissioner. Now, fire district volunteers hold weekly clean-up parties around cabins and train for structure protection. We all know the big one will come, the one our best efforts won't stop. All we can do is mitigate.

We talked floods. More and more often, in November, warm rain falls on new mountain snow, and the Skagit and Stehekin rivers leap their banks and splay out into the woods, over roads, sometimes into cabins. You can read the river level in cubic feet per second on an Internet gauge, and those numbers keep going up, too: 15,000, 20,000, 25,000. In the same 15 years, we survived two 100-year floods and one 500-year flood. Our garden washed away each time. The postmaster's cabin swept into the churn. As part of his job, Jon designs bank barbs and grade controls, structures that deflect the force of the water, spread it out. We know more big floods will come. Again, all we can do is mitigate, be flexible, adapt.

The places we love, all of them, are changing fast in ways we never imagined: the broad amber stripe of beetle kill across the hillside, driftwood in the pine forest, blackened snags among the cedars, bears roaming in winter, geese staying year-round. No need to check the Internet gauge to know when the water's rising: Just stand on your doorstep and hear the roar. In response, we're readjusting, recalibrating our expectations and reactions. There's more than a hint of playground exasperation -- it's not fair! -- as the rules shift mid-game. None of it is easy.

Sometimes it's hard not to think in metaphor, to think we're like the glaciers: fixed in place, but elastic. When hard times push down on us like heavy ice, we feel the squeeze, and we move along. We change our ways. The problem lies in connotation, in how astonishingly fast, these days, we have to change. Didn't moving at a "glacial pace" used to mean "slow"?

Finally, Jon and I talked snow, our favorite topic bar none, since we're both avid cross-country skiers. Jon bragged about their winter, how he skied out his front door every day, while over on the usually snowy eastside we hunkered under a stagnant inversion: gray, dry, and bare. Not that Jon's winter was all fun. One night a storm dumped 36 inches of snow. The next day, temperatures rose and the snow turned to rain, bucketfuls, then barrelfuls, six or eight inches. The rain soaked the snow, and the snow started to slide, and his rain gutter sliced off his stovepipe, and water poured into the house. He climbed onto the icy roof to cover the hole with plywood. No big deal, he figured, since wood is not the family's main source of heat. Then the power went out. His family huddled around a heater run by a generator until the storm subsided.

"When you experience these things," I asked Jon, "do you connect it with your work, or is it separate, you know, because climate is not weather?"

Jon's no doomsayer, no exaggerator; he's Midwest-steady and Ph.D.-precise. I don't dare overstate.

"Sure," he answered, even-keeled as ever. "We know that we can expect extreme weather. This is extreme." 

I admire Jon for his long view, his knowledge, his reluctance to be histrionic. He's studied climate change, after all, for his entire adult life. In school, his professors taught him how to measure accumulation, how to model melting. Mine taught me to read Chaucer and Shakespeare. Sometimes I think I made a humungous mistake. Then again, imagination isn't a bad trait to nurture in these times. Where would we be, Jon and I, if not for Leopold and McPhee?

Back on the edge of the moraine, the city kids shift on the cold rocks and gather their gear. Despite the weather, it's been a good day. They've digested Jon's info, some at least, and they've seen their first marmot, their first mountain goats; they've seen red heather and white heather, trees thick as oil drums. Was it worth it? Maybe. Maybe the experience will prepare them for all the adapting and mitigating they're going to have to do. For now, they're heading down to camp. But I can't go yet. I came to stand on the glacier, and I won't leave until I do.

So I race ahead as the tread changes from dirt to slush, and farther, past climbers' tents and streaks of pink watermelon snow, to the middle of a swooping bowl where at last I can be sure there's moving ice below me. I stand stock-still, thinking about the melting and what there is to know, what I've seen change -- the last time I visited Upper Lyman Lake the glacier had shrunk by half -- and what these students, who are 25 years younger than me, will see change. I gaze down at the wide green Skagit Valley unfolding toward the horizon. The Cordilleran Ice Sheet covered everything in view a mere 17,000 years ago, all but the highest peaks. Once you start using Jon's eyes, or McPhee's for that matter, the earth looks different, older, shaped clearly as soft sand by a shovel.

If we're really like glaciers, I think, then we advance and retreat, and sooner or later we will disappear. That fact unnerves me. I am, by nature, an expert at denial, hopeful and resigned in equal measures, uncertain as hell. All I know is that, for now, we're still here, holding our ground the ever-changing best way we know how.


Also see the video documenting these students' experiences as they learned about climate change: Parks Climate Challenge: North Cascades 2009 by Benjamin Drummond and Sara Joy Steele.