As a believer of global climate change, there’s something quite sensational about getting to see what I spend my life learning about, studying, and vocalizing first hand. Hiking to the topmost edge of a lateral moraine – quite literally in the space between spaces – where a glacier moved the Earth, where it scoured the landscape and receded to such a degree I can attest to its aftermath is mindboggling. A lateral moraine is created by glaciers, moving rocks, as it moves like a large icy bulldozer capable of molding the landscape; an incredible feat for frozen water in my opinion. Even more so is drinking water so pure it melted straight off a glacier and flowed underneath to the glacier’s toe/terminus, the tip of the ice and beyond in a stream of snow melt. A step further and I can stand on it and see the red algae that grow on it – my eyes scanning the porous ice crystals for a glimpse of the snow worms or ice worms that eat the algae. Swooping down to scoop some up, it smells of sea and watermelon. Bunching it into a snowball I hurl it at one of my instructors Shawn. She laughs and exclaims, “It’s on!” Right about now you might be wondering just what I am doing out here next to a melt pond of a glacier that’s been here before Homo sapiens roamed the Earth releasing emissions and pollutants depleting this centurion of a glacier gradually over time with warming temperatures. In fact, I am on a semester of summer school with the Wild Rockies Field Institute – quite unlike anything I have ever experienced in my Sonoran Desert home of Tucson, Arizona.
I wake up the morning after hiking the lateral moraine and before a day hike to an unnamed glacier for hot Echinacea tea and raisined oatmeal, my view is nothing less than spectacular. The roaring of a far off terminus glacier melt stream filling my ears and eyes. I smile at my companions as we have a morning class next to these glaciers. In the afternoon as I am discussing the landscape scale ecology of these northern mountains of the Purcells, a chunk of ice falls and the sound reverberates kind of like thunder, causing Natasha and our instructor Joshua to position ourselves between larches for a view. Finally I get my wish of watching the ice falling with its sounds – a surprisingly hard task amongst so large a scale of glaciers and their echoing accompaniments.
The alpine terrain in close proximity to these glaciers is full of surprises. There’s Western Yellow Paintbrush (Castilleja occidentalis) and dwarf fireweed (Charmina latifolium), wildflowers livening up the rock and ice that surrounds us with dashes of color. A stream of glacial till that originates from the glacier meanders through the shear sparkling rocks of all shapes and sizes that makes up the moraines we have been traversing throughout the day. These monstrous centurions of ice and snow loom above – advancing and receding. As I gaze deeper in wonder upon the glacier I realize I am capable of identifying the crevasses, the bone dry ice of the ablation zone, and the snow piled up on the accumulation zone. I even spot flakes that might eventually avalanche, predicting the path they might take. On the aged mountains I see an arête, a col, a collier, all carved by ancient glaciers and I even see a hanging glacier.
In these moments I feel the most privileged—I am not a passenger on an airplane yearning to explore the snow-capped mountains thousands of feet below me. I am not gazing wishfully at the picturesque postcards of a souvenir shoppe. I am not an onlooker. I am an explorer, a naturalist, a naturist, and a learner on the adventure of a lifetime experiencing the natural world up close and personally. As the juxtaposition of rock, ice, slow-growing larch trees and glacial till substrate streams I stand at the toe of a glacier watching what mankind has done to the ice that gives us water. With wind cooling the sun on my back I watch the pike and the ptarmigan that stare at me in return, with just as much curiosity. I send a silent plead out to the world to limit our consumption and emissions, to reduce our carbon footprint, to bring awareness as much as possible to conserve these sentient glaciers older than the dirt they created around them (glacial till is derived from glaciers scouring rock) in the northern Purcells of beautiful British Columbia, Canada. Will the humans of the world ever hear my plea? – For the pika whose habitat requires cold temperatures to thermoregulate, for the larch whose cold-loving branches are the softest conifer needles I have ever had the pleasure of caressing, for the red algae and the snow worms that live on the glacier, for the water that the glaciers produce, for the Purcells that act as a core habitat source for the increasingly endangered grizzly bear and its umbrella species, but most of all for the sentient (thinking, living, existing) beings themselves – the glaciers – who are more important than we realize, who speak to us with their advancing, receding and bone dry expansive ablation zone, and whose very ominous yet vast presence can never be captured in a photograph. More humbling than anything my travels have led me to before, they loom above and whisper with the rumbling of ice descending the mountainside – a glacier’s shout out to me, to us, to the world that plays a much larger role than should be conceivably possible in their future.