Dan Szczesny continues his Alaskan search for discovery by hiking into a glacier.
Near the bottom of the Worthington Glacier, where the run-off evens off into a small pond before continuing into the valley, there sits a single cairn. Just one.
I pause for a moment there. My wife has already begun the hike across the braided inlets toward the foot of the glacier itself. But I can’t help wondering: Why was this cairn built?
It makes a fine picture, nearly perfectly aligned as it is with the towering glacier. Perhaps it marks some past geological border from which the glacier has retreated.
Or, more romantically, perhaps this single cairn is not a way-mark at all. Maybe the pile of rocks is a stop sign, a way to allow wanderers like us to pause and fully appreciate our place at the foot of an ice age.
We are not off the beaten path. The Worthington Glacier is one of the most popular tourist spots along the Richardson Highway, deep into the Copper River Basin. We are en route to Valdez, and once we came down off Thompson Pass and began the long turn to the south, the Worthington was impossible to miss from the highway.
Still, as crowded as the information stand and view pad of this state recreation site is, few appear to have any stomach today for the extra, unmarked mile hike of moraine and glacier run-off that is required to get close, to actually touch the thing. Perhaps the raw, icy rain up here in the Chugash Mountains is keeping the tourists at bay.
That’s fine with me. The chilling cold and blustery rain lend the glacier a far-away, dangerous feel. The bad weather makes this place feel like it’s not one of the most highway-accessible glaciers in the world. As we begin the final scramble up the glacier wall, it feels like the rest of the world could be a thousand miles away, or nowhere at all.
Worthington’s immediate history is sketchy. The glacier is named after a surveyor who was part of an 1899 team sent out from Valdez to find a route over the passes into the territory’s interior. He has no first name, or perhaps Worthington is his first name, but part of his legend is that he survived being swept away in a glacial stream — maybe this very stream.
The trail narrows as we approach the glacier head wall. On one side is Mount Billy Mitchell, the nearly 7,000-foot hill that borders one side of the glacier. The ice pours down off this mountain in a 5,000-acre-plus blast of ice age snow crystals. The glacier is melting, of course, and the roar of water pouring over the top, and tearing down Billy Mitchell’s walls is deafening. We inch our way over loose scree and crumbling rock, the glacier melt roaring down a slot flume to our right. One slip here, and we’ll be washed right back into that glacier pond with the cairn.
And to our left, the glacier wall grows higher and higher. Soon we are in a canyon, the glacier on one side, the mountain on the other. Icy mist sprays from a hundred different spots, like the glacier is leaking.
We find a thin entrance, a sideways crevasse where we can walk straight into the glacier mouth. The hole is not wide enough for two people, so we have to take turns. Here, inside the glacier, and at eye level, the ice is bright blue. I take off my gloves and run my hand along the glacier wall, as smooth and uncreased as marble.
It’s quiet in here. I look up. High above me the blue ice thins into an arched ceiling of ice. I sidestep as deeply into the slot as I can, but soon find the walls closing around me. I stand here, tiny. I am a blink of an eye to this monster, this grinding creature that has existed for thousands of years.
To be fair, like water traveling down a river, even though the glacier has existed since the ice age, the glacier ice is only a hundred years old or so. Still, that little myth-busting factoid in the back of my brain doesn’t defuse the experience any. This thing is too big to let geology get in the way of thoughts of greater purpose and our generally miniscule place in this world.
We move out of the glacier, and I want to try one last thing. I cup my hands under a ledge of glacier where water runs off freely and bring the liquid to my lips.
And there, the glacier and I become one. It tastes a bit gravely and I hope there are no glacier worms in this bit of water, but the taste is almost sweet. The water drips off my beard and a bit gets under my jacket and runs down my neck, and I look out and down the alley – the same view that this glacier has had for a long, long time – and feel comfortable about my place in the world.
Small though it may be.