A Chain of Mentorship

Matt Beedle

Director of Academics and Research

Today is a special day on the JIRP calendar. As you read this, the 2017 JIRP staff team – with excitement for the new field season despite the weather – is hiking to Camp 17 for “Staff Week”. These 12 days of opening JIRP’s first main camp, wilderness first aid training, glacier travel/rescue training, and (let’s be honest) at least a few runs on the Ptarmigan Glacier to test skis and snow conditions, kicks off the field season. It establishes more than physical goals and hard skills, however. The culture, community and camaraderie of JIRP 2017 begin to form today. While each season is unique, there are threads of commonality that span the many generations of JIRP field seasons and individual JIRPers. One of the most powerful threads in each field season is that of mentorship.

We’ve done quite a number of short pieces on JIRP history in recent years (see some of them here, here and here), but a component of JIRP that hasn’t been communicated in particular is the long history of mentorship. Post-JIRP, students regularly comment on the value of having tremendous access to inspiring staff members and faculty. The often cheek-by-jowl conditions of a JIRP camp, skiing for hours in a driving rain, discussion of ideas, problems and dreams allow for JIRP students to get to know one another well. These moments, however, are also shared with faculty and staff, moments that have been shared on the Juneau Icefield for decades. The JIRP story begins in the 1940s, but a chain of mentorship can be traced back in time even further.

John Muir first ventured to Alaska in 1879 for the first of his fabled canoe journeys through southeast Alaska. He wasn’t the first to journey here, as western sailors had been poking into the bays and fjords of southeast Alaska since Chirikov’s voyage of 1741, and the Tlingit people had called this part of the world home for many thousands of years prior. Muir’s 1879 voyage, however, did initiate a western investigation of the glaciers of southeast Alaska, enabled by his Tlingit guides.

John Muir and Reid's team at the Muir cabin in Glacier bay, 1890. Source: National Park Service

John Muir and Reid's team at the Muir cabin in Glacier bay, 1890. Source: National Park Service

On a subsequent trip to southeast Alaska in 1890, Muir spent time in Glacier Bay with Harry Fielding Reid and a team of scientists investigating the dynamics of Muir Glacier.  Reid’s subsequent Variations of Glaciers work would be a foundational effort for the World Glacier Monitoring Service of today. One of the individuals that Reid mentored and inspired was William O. (Bill) Field, known as one of the founders of modern glaciological study in North America. For his 1941 expedition to southeast Alaska, Field inquired with Bradford and Barbara Washburn in looking for a capable field assistant.The Washburns pointed him to Maynard Miller, a Harvard undergraduate who had been on their expedition to Mount Bertha the previous year. Field and Miller’s shared field experiences in 1941 and subsequent years gave rise to this important new direction to explain glacier behavior:

It became fairly clear to us in 1941 that a full explanation was more likely to be found in the upper elevations rather than at the terminus.
— W. O. Field and M. M. Miller, Geographical Review, 1950
Maynard Miller (right) explores the remnants of the Muir cabin in Glacier Bay during the 1941 expedition led by Bill Field. Source: Field, William Osgood. 1941 No Glacier: From the Glacier Photograph Collection. Boulder, Colorado USA: National Snow and Ice Data Center. Digital media.

Maynard Miller (right) explores the remnants of the Muir cabin in Glacier Bay during the 1941 expedition led by Bill Field. Source: Field, William Osgood. 1941 No Glacier: From the Glacier Photograph Collection. Boulder, Colorado USA: National Snow and Ice Data Center. Digital media.

After a few years of aerial reconnaissance and further investigation of the termini of glaciers of southeast Alaska, followed by a first exploration of the “high ice” of the Juneau Icefield in 1948, JIRP the annual field expedition began in 1949. It has continued ever since, and this chain of mentorship has been ongoing, from Field and Miller, to individuals such as Ed LaChapelle, Austin Post, Kurt Cuffey, Christina Hulbe, Steven Squyres, Kate Harris, Alison Criscitiello and many hundreds more. From this annual traverse of the Juneau Icefield, dreams, careers, adventures are launched.

It is challenging to keep track of the inspiring work that recent JIRP alumni are taking on, let alone the many hundreds who have come before them. A part of this inspiration has come from interactions with JIRP mentors: the long ski traverses filled with academic discussions, songs, and stories; the hardships and smiles shared in the field and back at camp; the guidance during the season and in the years that follow. With this view back at the long chain of mentorship through many decades of exploration of the icy corners of southeast Alaska, it is exciting to think of the JIRP staff of 2017. Slowly making their way to Camp 17 today, hiking in the literal and figurative footsteps of the many hundreds before, they are setting in motion the foundational community of JIRP 2017 - the community of staff, faculty and students that will continue this chain.

Note: Thanks to Bruce Molnia for being a JIRP mentor of mine and for pointing out the linkages back in time from Mal Miller, to Bill Field, to Harry Reid, and to John Muir.

From the Archives: JIRP 1953 Forecasts Mild Winter in 2053

Recent communication between George Argus (JIRP '52) and JIRP surveyor Scott McGee (JIRP '88) has brought to light a short piece on JIRP in Popular Science - "Scientists Probe Glaciers for Tomorrow's Weather" - from November 1953. Most enlightening, perhaps, are the aspects of JIRP that have not changed in the 60+ years since this article was published.


As we prepare for JIRP 2016, it is these commonalities that are striking. Dr. Calvin Heusser was one of the on-ice leaders in the early 1950s, and his quotes on botany, ecology, glacier surface color and the riddle of the advancing Taku Glaicer resonate and continue as areas of study today. And with humanity continuing to grapple with the challenges of climate change, it's with more than a bit of awe to read about some of the early understanding and indeed forecasts of a warming Earth. 

Look forward to announcements of JIRP 2016 details in the coming weeks, including core research areas, participating faculty and the fantastic group of students we look forward to welcoming to the JIRP family in 2016.

As you wait, enjoy this short article and delight in what has made JIRP a phenomenal experience, and vital scientific endeavor for 70 years. In the words of Dr. Heusser:

"It makes you feel all's right with the world, and is a big reason you go up there aside from the scientific purposes."

Access the November 1953 Popular Science article here.

The Hidden Messages of JIRP

By Annie Cantrell

When I headed to Juneau I did not know where I would be living.  I assumed  it would not  be in tents for most of the time. I had everything on the packing list and I knew I was physically and emotionally capable. All that had propelled me into JIRP was curiosity. I was curious about myself and who I would be when surrounded by white. Another thing I did not know, was how many years of great people before me have been curious about themselves in the same way. The legacy of JIRP was completely unknown to me.

Back in January my dad told me about how a close family friend of ours had done this thing on the Juneau Icefield where he stayed on the ice for two months and helped students with research. I decided I wanted to go almost immediately after our phone conversation. I was accepted, but our friend died a bit after, so I hardly heard about it from him.

Upon entering the world of JIRP on the van from the airport I got my first glimpse into the legacy when I was told that the founder and long-term director of JIRP lives in my hometown (Moscow, Idaho). I knew nothing about Maynard M. Miller at the time, just as I knew nothing about the spirit of what I was getting myself into. A couple of days later, while we were in lecture in Juneau, Dr. Alf Pinchak comes in looking like someone out of another era, and he listened to the lecture with us. Simply seeing him filled me with this strange sense of awe. I was thrilled to learn that he would be coming with us to the Icefield.

I started to get little hints of what I was a part of.  These camps we were living in were built in the 40’s, largely through military funding and have been in use since then.  The first part I saw of Camp 17 were stone structures that had been built for a  temporary shelter while these men built the formal camp.  In the C17 cook shack, the first JIRP building I entered, the walls were  covered in Sharpie writing going back to the 70’s.

I did not quite know how to take it all in. Every building is covered in writing. Some of it is really funny.  Reading the walls is a common past time. Sometimes I search for names I recognize. To know you are staying in a place where past JIRPers have also been tired, had cabin fever, waited anxiously for mail, and made games out of nothing, brings that place to life.

Right before I left Camp 17,  I signed by my bed, 15 years before someone from the town where I go to school also slept. I commented enthusiastically in Sharpie on the coincidence and dated it. There was also writing above the staircase where I slept, to be careful not to slip as the author had done (and I almost did many times during my stay). 

At Camp 10, signatures in the girl’s cabin ranged all the way back to the 60’s. These past inhabitants wrote some funny stuff. They also wrote some dumb stuff. We wrote some responses to these things. There was writing about being tired and sore after the very same traverse we had just completed. The very same older man I talked about seeing in Juneau at the lecture signed my bed in 1963. As did one of this year's safety staff members, in 2011.

All these things on top of one another slowly made me feel like maybe I was also a part of the legacy. I will not forget when I came to Camp 9, a tiny shack, where a small group of JIRPers stayed for two nights to dig Mass Balance pits, and I saw the name of the man from my hometown who told me to come here. He scrawled it inconspicuously on the ladder. I had found him. I signed beside it and felt I belonged.

Miller, who seems like a legend of a man to me, has been written about everywhere. In the cook shack the words “Miller Rocks” are scrawled messily up high on the wall. There is a tiny loft in the girls’ cabin where the words “FIRE ESCAPE/M3 (meaning Maynard M. Miller) AVOIDANCE DEVICE” are written. Apparently he did not like going in there since he would hit his head on the ceiling. I hear he would often say “Mighty fine, Mighty fine.” These words are written all over the buildings.

I stayed at Camp 18, the favorite camp of my family's friend. With the Gilkey Trench below and the sound of chunks breaking off the icefall, the Icefield really feels alive. I feel so close to the past when I read and connect to the wonderful and ridiculous things written. I was feeling bittersweet, with the beauty of this camp and the ending of JIRP, when I saw this quote written on the wall of the Camp 18 cookshack:   

“Such a long long time to be gone, and a short time to be there.”