Yes, as everyone knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever.
—Ishmael, in Moby-Dick
After a morning of up-and-down, yo-yo hiking, Jess and I were lost. We had no intention of hiking across Sperry Glacier when we picked the off-trail route in the summer of 2008, but in the end, we had little choice but to chance the ice and hidden crevasses, regardless of our lack of equipment or experience. The landscape before us was a barren maze of glacial moraine and milk-blue meltponds.
Decades before, Sperry Glacier covered this terrain, scraping and gouging. By 2008, it had retreated so that only the deep pocks in the rock held ice and snow, now melting in the summer sun. The melting snow ponds were impassible. We spent an hour scrambling up and down, climbing from one low wall to another, always keeping three points of contact to avoid dangerous falls. Even a sprained ankle could prove fatal in the isolation of the Sperry basin. Finally, we gave up.
Despite our lack of gear, Jess and I now admitted that crossing the glacier was the lesser of risks. After an hour of scrambling, we stood at the edge. With my heart beating from exertion and fear and a whispered prayer, I took the first step onto Sperry Glacier.
—And we reached the other side. Step inside of step, Jess and I crossed safely. Standing at Comeau Pass, I looked out across the broad shelf below Gunsight Mountain. I could see where Sperry had dwindled from 800 acres to just over 200. Like a hemophiliac, the glacier was dying. Eventually, there would be no more flowing ice, only snow ponds among the barren, ragged rock.
Even then, Sperry seemed mighty, imposing, but I knew that it was a bluff, that had I known it only decades before, this traverse would not have been possible for us. I know now, as I have come to understand Sperry and the other glaciers of the park better, that Jess and I chose a fairly safe route. Likely, we never stepped onto the glacier proper, merely the shallow snowfields below its margins.
The consensus among climate scientists is that all of the glaciers in Glacier National Park will be gone by the year 2030. Sperry Glacier lost 34.7% of its land area from 1966 to 2005. Incredibly, losing more than a third of its acreage in forty years only puts Sperry’s recession in the middle of the pack. Miche Wabun and Shepard—much smaller glaciers—both lost 56% of their land area in that same amount of time. In 2010, they were declassified, casualties of the changing climate.
As a child, I believed that God would one day remake this world in heavenly fire. Now I understand that God’s ultimate judgment is to leave us with the smoldering fires of our own design. Our world is being remade in the fires of combustion engines, factories, and war-making. The best of our options is to let these fires burn themselves out to minimize the damage. Even so, Sperry Glacier is already lost.
I believe that the ability to say good bye is essential in this modern world—good bye soon to Sperry Glacier—good bye to the lakes and rivers that these glaciers feed and the wildlife that thrive in the disappearing high-alpine meadows. It is not good bye to a place, for the mountains will survive long after others must say good bye to me, but it is good bye to a place as I have known it, as I have been shaped by it, as I have loved it. It is the knowledge that my imperfect memories, journal scribblings, and pictures are souvenirs of a world in transition, being remade after our human likeness.
And so at nights, I lay dreaming of the world as it was before I knew it, of a presence that still haunts the ice-scoured rocks. I dream and pray for water.