Glacial observations

Timing matters. My daughter and I had planned our trip to Alaska for late June, when the weather is warmer and when the sun never really goes down until after midnight, and, even then, it’s never really that dark.

Timing matters, and had we not stopped that afternoon to admire the eagles, to walk a path through a field of wildflowers at a roadside pullover, or to puzzle over an elevation map of Alaska that illustrated the number of feet the state rises above sea level, we would not have found ourselves, later, walking the trail to the glacier behind a family of three – two parents and a boy who was, perhaps, about 7.

Exit Glacier is one of the major attractions in Kenai Fjords National Park. Our Alaskan friends had told us that while this glacier was extremely accessible, it was also a particularly pointed indicator of glacial recession due to climate change.

Walking up the trail, we passed signs that made it clear that at one point in time, Exit Glacier had once existed at the point we were now walking by. But when we arrived, the glacier was roped off, like a museum painting not meant to touch – you couldn’t get near the face of it, couldn’t place your stretching arm or even a fingertip anywhere near the receding structure.

“You said we were supposed to be able to touch this thing!” said the boy, clearly dissatisfied but still a little hopeful as he leaned in to try and touch the ice, his arm straining, his fingers waggling as if their movement might get him just a little closer to the solid structure that was well beyond his reach. “You TOLD me I would be able to!”

He stood there in his muddy-kneed pants and sun hat, and when no response or explanation was forthcoming, stomped his foot and shouted at the top of his lungs: “This glacier is a RIP-OFF!”

And with that, his parents escorted him away from the powerful piece of ice, huge and still and looming a cool blue-white in the just-beyond our reach distance.

My daughter and I exchanged a look. Even coming from the mouth of a young boy who had probably traveled a very long way and was thirsty/hungry/tired/bored – to stand in front of such scenic beauty and utter those words seemed tantamount to profane.

“This glacier is a rip-off!”

It became a phrase in our house that my daughter and I used whenever we tried to find the humor in something that didn’t turn out quite as expected. We used it when light bulbs burned out. We used it for events that were canceled. We used it for milk that had gone bad well before its expiration date. We used it after some elections, because, we really didn’t know what else to say.

Recently, though, while retelling this story, I thought about that boy’s words through another lens, about the disappointment and anger behind them. I wondered about what his parents told him as they made their way back down the trail, back to the car – I wonder about their shared story, now, of their glacier experience.

By failing to rein in climate change impacts, the very rights of young people who are alive today and those that will be born in the future are being disregarded.

I thought about my own child, of all children – and of their children – in observing the effects of our beautiful planet hitting back after two and a half centuries of abuse. We need to change our ways. Timing matters.

Tami Mohamed Brown lives in Bloomington with her family