Glacier Rain

The moment I arrived in Juneau, I realized the inevitable: rain. Lots and lots of rain. I grabbed a seat on the city bus that goes airport to glacier and in 10 minutes I was gazing at a muffled, drizzle smeared Mendenhall Glacier. So much for the photos I’d hoped for, or for the up close access, I thought. Rain sifted down in quiet sheets, glossed over the tourists swathed in Gore-Tex and plastic ponchos that milled around the Mendenhall Visitors Center. Groups crowded around view points, snapping shots of the glacier and iceberg dotted lake stretched before it. Everything was grey–the trees, water, icebergs, clouds. The only thing blue was the glacier itself.

I needed to get closer to the ice and picked up a trail baring warning signs of recent bear activity. Southeast Alaska is dominated by temperate rainforest and the trail wound through moss-covered trees, fern forest floors, dripping leaves and pine needles. The glacier appeared occasionally in random trailside clearings, then hid from view again.

A glacier in the rain is blue and grey and soft. Cloudy skies smooth sharp crevasse edges, muffle the chunky chaos of the icefall. All of the forest was damp and quiet including the glacier, save for choppers that hovered slowly toward the icefield carrying credit card toting tourists fresh off of cruise ships. I clapped and sang as my boots hit the soft understory, hoping to alert bears that may be wandering the same trail.

Suddenly a rumble like thunder cracked through the muffled air and was followed by a crash. I hurried to the nearest clearing and watched a car-sized ice chunk fracture, fall and crash at last into the lake surface. The chunk left behind an open wound of pure, ethereal blue. Glacier blood. Glacier flesh compressed into blue by centuries of pressure and movement. The broken piece bobbed in its wake of waves––a new iceberg in the Mendenhall Lake; a lake formed by calving and melting. A lake that didn’t exist a century ago. A lake that today is a mile long.

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Kayakers paddle in front of a blue spot revealed by the recent calving on Mendenhall Lake.

Eventually, that iceberg like all icebergs, will melt and flow down river. It’ll seep into the rich rainforest soil, evaporate to cloud mass, and, eventually, feed the sea.

I didn’t grab my camera fast enough to capture the calving, and as the day wore on my progress was limited to being increasingly soaked through my Gore-Tex. But there was something magical about watching ice fracture, about watching nature take its perfect, unpredictable course. A glacier in the rain may not be ideal, but it’s beautiful, no less.

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