“Certainly I could pick that glacier out of a line-up of glaciers anywhere. That’s how well I know the long swoop of ice spilling from the sky, the way this ancient hulk has wedged itself between mountains, grinding them bare in a slow-motion fender bender. And on a cloudy day, when that surreal blue radiates from fresh splits and crevasses — that’s a color I’ve committed to memory, one that deserves its own Crayola. Mendenhall Blue, they’d call it.”
“For locals , the Mendenhall is a gigantic backdrop against which to play out the domestic transactions of ordinary life. People walk their dogs along the lakeshore. At night dating teenagers park at the visitor’s center and steam up car windows doing who knows what. (As a former teenager, I’m afraid I do know what.) Walkers and runners make the glacier their turnaround point, pausing for a moment to inhale chilled air before they plod away again. People marry there, attend Easter sunrise services there, pose for Christmas pictures there.”
“And there is a glacier that belongs to children alone. It is not so much a place as a time you belong to when you’re of a certain age. When I was that age, my friends and I biked the mile to the glacier almost every day, a great pack of us racing each other and waving at tour buses grinding past. This was long before playgroups, safety helmets, and fears about child snatchers. This was a time when special effects meant attaching a playing card to your bike wheel because it made a cool thrumming sound in the spokes that echoed something vibrating inside you. This was a time when the world was a lot more fun.”
“A kid who grows up glacial knows things most people don’t. We regarded icebergs the way Midwest kids must study clouds. ‘Look, it’s a swan,’ I’d say, pointing out a twisted bit of ice floating in the lake. ‘Not a swan, a Viking boat, you dope,’ someone would retort, and so on. We broke personal Popsicles from the glassy pieces that washed up along the gravely shores. One piece could last forever in your mouth, a shard of the past melting on your tongue and clicking against your teeth. Or you could carry a chunk home in your bike basket, bust it up to make ice cream, and slip a piece into some lemonade while you waited, listening to released air fizzing and popping as the years and decades and centuries decanted into your glass.”
“This is a child’s history, the kind I hope Juneau kids are still living, but I suspect most people who grew up in the Mendenhall Valley carry a private history of the glacier, too. My first real boyfriend told me he loved me on New Year’s Day while we were hiking at the glacier. I was thirteen, and when I am an old lady I shall recall the crystalline intensity of that sunny day. Years later, college friends and I drank cheap red wine and skied across the lake, yelling and carrying on, but a tornado of green aurora rose behind the glacier and hushed our voices.”
“The glacier I knew as a child has changed radically, but what hasn’t in this life? Who among us does not feel nostalgic, even a bit dotty, about some lost bit of childhood landscape – an abandoned lot next door, a scrap of woodlands, a swimming hole? Once I heard California legislator Tom Hayden talk about the importance of a folkloric landscape, of knowing a piece of ground so well that you could discuss, say, that old stubborn boulder in the north pasture.”
“The Mendenhall Glacier, I realized is layered with such stories and anchored by local history. It is a place so familiar that surrounding mountains seem like cherished elderly uncles, and the luminescent blues are as sentimentally evocative as your high school’s team colors, and the feel of a pebble smoothed by ice is as soothing in the hand as a rosary bead.”
“For those of us who grew up with it, the glacier is a calendar, a place holder, a reminder that time scrapes against us, too. The past, I’ve noticed, recedes far more quickly than ice.”
Sherry Simpson is an author and associate professor in the Creative Writing and Literary Arts Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage. She grew up in Juneau, Alaska, with the Mendenhall Glacier and surroundings as a playground. Excerpts from Growing Up Glacial are reproduced here with Sherry’s permission. Learn more about Sherry and her work here.
(Note: See reproduction of text below)
On this overcast Saturday in July I hiked the short distance past the observatory to a place that was marked in the rock as the site of the glacier terminus in the 1930s.
My dad was a boy then and so this spot provides a visual perspective of time, glacier time and family time.
The glacier has receded in length but also in width and depth, exposing new bedrock on its eastern and western edges.
The walk to the point where visitors, thousands of them, go winds through a growing alder-willow-cottonwood thicket but was mostly smooth rock when I first visited the place about 45 years ago. Then, it was fun to find a myriad of trails up and over the rocks.
Dwarf fireweed grow in improbable cracks with only a few millimeters of lichen-moss-soil to support it.
The view – my own, the fireweed’s, the visitors’ – is out toward the glacier – as people on the shore when a ship sails – stunned that it could really think about leaving us.
July 17, 2004
Used with permission from Margie Beedle.