A hundred miles up the coast from Juneau, Alaska, a mainline vessel for the Alaska Marine Highway System carries us down the Inside Passage, a thousand mile stretch of ocean protected by a chain of archipelagos west of the continent’s edge. For me, it is the final day of the JIRP season; tomorrow, I will be leaving for Anchorage to prepare my poster for the annual geochemistry conference in Florence, Italy. Funny to think this day has finally come.
The adjacent terrain is town-less and teeming with life; the fecund estuaries of the great grizzly bear and wolf. At the stern, I sip lukewarm tea from a styrofoam cup and watch the sea as it breaks against beaches littered with blue-ish white and pale-gray stones, delicately laced together by soft, green mosses. Tiny pools of rainwater accumulate amongst the till, beyond which grow virgin, old-growth spruce that cling to scalloped granite walls, and white-capped mountains draped with stringy curtains of clouds that seem to peel apart like pages in a pop-up book. It’s windy now, and the late afternoon sun is low in the sky, glowing the same dirty yellow as an old seaman’s slicker. The ship rolls atop the gentle waves, and as my friends sprawl out on their loungechairs back up on the deck, glacier goggles sliding down their sunburnt cheeks, I remind myself of a quote written in one of the outhouses back on the icefield:
“I feel more like I do now than when I came in!” – The prototype “Fugger”
[NOTE: 'Fugger' is a term (used endearingly) for a JIRPer, stemming from the name of the non-profit parent organization of JIRP - Foundation for Glacier and Environmental Research (FGER)]
Just think. Combined, we have traversed thousands of miles of beautiful, untouched snow, walked from ice to gravelly streambeds that billions of people will never, ever see; we’ve thrown rocks at other rocks that nobody else will ever know exist. Our burns, callouses, and minefields of blisters are signs that time does not pass gently by in climates harsh as these, a sentiment to which the jagged landscape before us can attest, and yet, what a splendor it has been to wake up at dawn and see the moon low in the sky, glowing pink, the Taku Towers to our backs. To feel so free and easy and full of light.
Does it happen in other people's lives, I wonder, that a single event influences all subsequent time? Because after this second summer in Alaska, I know that things have changed for me—and although I am unable to pinpoint some exact moment when the transition took place, I couldn’t be more serious when I say I am leaving the icefield a different person than when I arrived. My life has been forever changed; I can tell from this familiar feeling as I gaze out across the water, a feeling that I hope I will never forget. Of course, I can try to explain, but those of you who are with me right now, and will be reading this as it is posted, I know you will understand. And likewise, those of you who have seen it before, I have no doubt that you too will recollect the very sensation overcoming me right now as I watch the distant lights of Juneau slowly rolling in, how it all looks so new, so different from anything I have seen before.
I believe that for each of us, the pattern of our lives have and will continue to form around memories like these—whether they be of the early-morning smell of Spam grease and Kirkland-brand coffee, the sound of crampons crunching into crisp, blue ice, or the comfortable stillness of a sun setting over the Gilkey Trench. I don't know how many places, or times, or chances like this one person is allowed to have in one lifetime. I don't know if I’ll ever see some of these people, or some of these places ever again. Nevertheless, they will remain dear in my heart as we all part ways and return to school and jobs worldwide.
Like the hundreds or thousands before me, I have fallen in love with this icefield, this program, these people. How could I not? Here, I have found the scholars who have rejuvenated my curiosity and encouraged me to continue pursuing a career in the earth sciences. The strong women who have inspired me to seek leadership roles in expeditionary settings. The friends who have taught me to consider each day a blessing, who have lent me a hand and brushed snow off my pack after a tumble down the ski hill, who have schemed and laughed with me in front of gas stoves spattered with Spam grease and oozing pancake batter, who have smoothed over my anxieties with cups of tea and quiet conversation, who have read to me aloud under setting suns and waxing moons, who have guided me across scree slopes, vertical swamps and crevasse fields with ease, who have lain awake with me until two hunting for shooting stars and talking just to talk, even when they had to get up early for cook duty the next morning.
Now, I sip from my cup and lock my elbows against the railing, craning my neck for a better view. Juneau is coming, closer and closer; I swear it looks so bizarre glowing there in the dark, like a little figurine town, or like it all could be made of crepe paper, carefully folded and taped in place. Surrounded by little candles, just flickering there, waiting for us. Knowing where we’ve been. Occasionally during my time on the Icefield I have woken up in the middle of the night in a little panic, wondering where I am, and the idea of packing up my bags, leaving my JIRP family and flying to Anchorage tomorrow makes me feel eerily similar. Well, here goes.
To the friends I have made this summer, and to those of you who I’ve yet to meet, I thank you for giving me the time to explain that this place and the memories we have of it will cling hardily to these talus slopes for years and years to come, certainly for the rest of my life—and I hope for yours as well. To the FGERs I’ll never forget, may the roots we have firmed here withstand the tests of weather and time, and may this forever be our refuge, through and through. I can feel it in the light sea breeze, could hear it earlier in the promising calls of sea birds, and again now in the laughter of all you freaks and geeks as you gather and wait for the ship to port. I can see it in this skyline of crepe paper castles and candles.
Because while it’s true that for this summer, the icefield is behind us, in a few moments, we will be leaving this ship feeling more like we do now than when we came in.