It’s winter and I’m thinking about how much snow we’ll have in Southeast Alaska. I think about the snowpack on the Stikine Icefields and the retreating glaciers in our backyard. Like the Mendenhall Glacier is to Juneauites, Shakes Glacier is in Wrangell’s backyard, less than 20 miles from our island. But to get to our glacier we must brave the fastest, free-flowing, navigable river in the United States, the Stikine River.
A new glacier forms when snow remains in the same place year-round and enough snow accumulates to transform into ice.
It’s August and my daughter Vivian Mork Yéilk’ and I ride on the back deck of a jet boat with a cottonwood breeze in our hair. We’re traveling up the Stikine River to Shakes Glacier with Alaska Waters, a local Alaska Native tour company. Vivian is filling in as a cultural guide, and I am along for the ride. Guiding visitors has been a tradition in my daughter’s family — a relative on her father’s side, Sitka Charlie, led John Muir into Glacier Bay.
It grows colder as the boat navigates through Shakes Slough. We slow and motor into Shakes Lake, weaving around icebergs. Visitors gather on the back deck with us and I hear sighs of amazement and cameras unzip from pockets and backpacks.
We pass so close to an iceberg I can smell it. The scent and sensation triggers a memory and I say, “I was born of ice.”
A puzzled look crosses my daughter’s face. “My parents moved from Alaska to Hawaii for a few months when they were a young couple. My mom, your grandma, was five months pregnant and she started to miscarry. She’d had one before. Someone in the same apartment complex, an elder, mentioned an old remedy of packing the abdomen in ice. So they did and it worked. I’m here.”
I can’t take my eyes away from the blue ice floating on the silty green lake. “I think I imprinted on ice,” I say.
Every year, snowfall covers the ice, and year after year, compresses the layers from previous years.
Shakes Glacier is retreating. Within the next 15 years, experts say Shakes Glacier will recede far enough to separate from its sources and divide into two glaciers. Eventually it will retract from the lake all together, making it difficult to access. In addition, the Mendenhall Glacier, since the mid-1700s, has retreated 2 ½ miles, 1/3 mile in the last decade. And then there’s the Taku Glacier, one of the thickest alpine glaciers in the world. Once the last advancing glacier, the Taku is also retreating.
Glaciers are a part of my life. My Sámi ancestors’ migration story is woven with receding glaciers. In an oral tradition, at the beginning of time, a giant being named Biegolmai, the Wind Man, used two giant shovels to create a glacial landscape. With his first big shovel, he whipped the wind. With the second big shovel, he dropped snowfall after snowfall, to create a land that no humans could live on. One day, his big wind shovel broke and the wind died down and it became clear enough for the Sámi to migrate into Sapmi.
Compressing layers on a building glacier makes the snow re-crystallize into a form resembling sugar.
As we get closer to Shakes Glacier, still at a safe distance, my daughter and I are silent as we gaze at the glacier with rock canyon walls on either side.
Carol Williams, a tradition bearer from Hoonah, once instructed me that glaciers listen, so we must talk respectful.
My children are Tlingit with ancestral roots that begin with glacial activity. Their clan, T’akdeintaan, is from Sít’Eeti Geey, Glacier Bay.
The grains of ice grow bigger and air pockets between the grains shrink and the snow slowly compresses, which causes the layers to thicken.
This glacier already knows us, I consider.
Drumlins, bands of snow, like tree rings, provide a record of the last ice age and the memory of our ecological story. Between the years 1698 and 1948, the annual terminus recession rate of Shakes Glacier was 85 feet And from 1948 to 2016, Shakes Glacier’s been retreating an average of 350 feet per year.
After about one year, the layers turns into a firn, which is well-bonded snow, a state between snow and ice.
The boat motors away from the glacier to a boulder scoured area near a stream. We nudge the boat against the bank and disembark.
We walk around a bit and then it’s time for my daughter to give her talk. The visitors gather around as she starts to speak. She explains that in her culture, before entering a new landscape, they must have an attitude of respect.
She speaks in Lingít first, then says in English, “Please forgive me for anything I say or do that might offend people or the animals.”
She reminds the tourists to be respectful as a few small birds rise up from the willows near a stream beyond us. She points to the birds. “These little kittiwakes are my family. They saved my ancestors from a famine a long time ago.”
The age of the oldest glacier ice ever recovered from an Alaskan glacier is 30,000 years old, from a basin between Mount Bona and Mount Churchill in the Saint Elias mountains in eastern Alaska.
She introduces herself in the Lingít language. After a couple minute introduction she says in English, “That’s Tlingit for hello.” She smiles and the tourists laugh.
My daughter’s voice rises above the wind and rushing creek. “This river is one of the most beautiful places in the world. We’ve lived here for more than 10,000 years.” She tells them the Tongass Rainforest is one of the largest producers of oxygen in the world.
“Of course this air isn’t just important to my family, it’s important to the entire world. All of our ecosystems, we’re all attached. It’s one planet.”
When snow falls on a glacier and is compressed, air bubbles are squeezed out and the ice crystals enlarge, and the ice appears blue.
Vivian continues to explain that the Tongass National Forest is one of the most diverse ecosystems left. She shows them the alder, willow and cottonwood and describes how they’re medicine trees.
She talks about the importance of the Stikine River to the Tahltan, Tlingits, Haidas and Tsimshians. Lastly, she thanks them for taking the time to visit this beautiful place. “Gunalchéesh,” she says.
Glaciers are the largest source of fresh water on the planet, storing 75% of the earth’s fresh water.
After the talk and a bit of exploring, we get back onto the boat and settle in for the trip back. As we head out of the lake and past the bergs I take a last look at Shakes Glacier. I address it according to protocol: Gunalchéesh Léelk’w — Thank-you Grandmother, for providing us safe passage.
Watching our wake, I marvel at this glacier. She’s an old grandmother — Grandmother, you’re as ancient as bits of pine needles and alder pollen, articles kept in your medicine bag.
You hold a pine needle from a fall storm that thundered through 500 years ago, a sliver of cedar from the raft that floated local clans down beneath the ice and pollen spores from 10,000 years ago. I wonder if you’re recording our visit this day.
• Wrangell writer and artist Vivian Faith Prescott writes the column “Planet Alaska” with her daughter, Vivian Mork Yéilk’.