By Matt Beedle
Repeat photography tells a story. Traditionally, the story that is often told is one of landscape change. In the case of glaciers, the common story is one of melting and retreat. While this story is captivating to me – particularly in regard to the amazing dynamism of glaciers (they’re alive!) – I’m more intrigued with a wider plot: the inclusion of a more human story that might be told through repeat photography. Here is one of these stories.
This story starts about three years ago at the British Columbia Archives at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria. I spent the day looking for historical images of glaciers that I might repeat. (While you can browse many historical images online, there are many photos that have yet to be digitized.) In particular I was looking for glaciers I recognized, glaciers that would be relatively accessible, and images that were older but of high quality. I found some quality images that day that lead to repeat photo pairs of the Bear, Salmon and Berendon glaciers of BC. However, I also found some photos that intrigued me not just for their potential to show glacier change, but in the possibility to use them to tell a different story of change, a story of human change on a glacial timescale. The historical image featured here is from the year of my birth (1978); it is of Bear Glacier and in the foreground is highway 37A with a logging truck kicking up a dust cloud as it rumbles towards the port in Stewart, BC.
Bear Glacier, BC as photographed in 1978. This photo (I 66512) is used by GlacierChange.org with the permission of the Royal BC Museum, BC Archives.
So, two days ago I set off on a repeat photography adventure from my home in Terrace, BC. I had with me a small stack of historical photos of Bear, Salmon and Berendon glaciers that I hoped to repeat, but my main goal was to repeat the 1978 “logging truck” photo. As I drove the three hours north from Terrace to Bear Glacier I was filled with more than a bit of doubt: Do logging trucks (loaded with logs) still pass by on their way to Stewart? How often? Are the drivers working on this particular Tuesday in July? Is the spot where this 1978 photo was taken now covered in dense vegetation? If I can get to the right spot, how long will I have to sit and wait for a logging truck?
Within a couple minutes of turning to the west onto highway 37A at Meziadin Junction a heartening sign rumbled toward me heading east: an empty logging truck. “OK, this may yet work,” I thought to myself. As Bear Glacier and Strohn Lake came into view I slowed down and started to look at the hillside from where the 1978 photo was taken. Another good sign: not much vegetation had taken root on the steep slope in the past 35 years.
I parked my car a bit further down the road, realizing that I didn’t necessarily want it in the shot. As a swarm of black flies attacked my arms and neck I packed camera, tripod, and a copy of the 1978 image, as well as enough water and food to get me through a day of waiting on a hillside. I started down the road and a loaded logging truck roared passed. I was heartened that I wasn’t there in vain, but, at the same moment, also fearful of how long it might be until the next one came by.
After about a half hour of scrambling about the hillside, I settled on a spot that was likely within 20 m of the position where the 1978 photographer stood. This is done by lining up features on the ridges in the foreground with those in the background to match the 1978 photo (a nice video on this technique). I set up my tripod, mounted my camera, and was working on determining the focal length and getting the same framing of the 1978 photo when a second logging truck came around the bend. I had a few seconds to switch my camera to burst mode and make a minor tweak to the framing before capturing a handful of shots as it rolled through the scene. Doesn’t get much easier than that!
The framing wasn’t perfect, but I had captured a passable shot within about 5 minutes. I rationalized that the rigs might be passing by roughly on the half hour, or perhaps hourly, so I made some further tweaks to the framing and exposure and eagerly anticipated the next truck. For the next 2.5 hours I ate lunch, waved at tourists who noticed the strange guy standing on the hillside above the road, sketched the view, swatted flies and mosquitoes, stretched, cursed at caravans of RVs that parked in what would be the shot had a logging truck passed by, checked and re-checked the framing of the shot, was excited then let down by ore trucks that sounded like their cellulose-hauling brethren . . .
It was time to go. There were other glaciers to visit and I did have an OK shot. I packed up and headed back to the car. On the way, I took two more Bear Glacier repeat images from locations along the roadside. Back at the car the black flies were still swarming. I ran around the car, hoping to lose the biting hoard before opening the car door and jumping quickly inside. As I pulled out of the dirt siding, another logging truck – seemingly a perfect match of the one in the 1978 image – thundered by. Oh well, c’est la vie.
For me, this photo pair reminds me of a beautiful day in a stunning corner of northwest BC, but also leads to reflection on change, both in terms of glacial time and human time. What are we to make of 35 years? The 35 years of one’s life, of visitors to Bear Glacier, of rising temperatures and melting ice, of a natural resource as an economic anchor of a rural town, of forests that once were. The glacier becomes a backstory, a marker of change on a more geologic timescale, a yardstick with which we might measure change in our own lifetimes. What adventures from the past 35 years shape your story? Where will the next 35 years lead? The story continues . . .