Last week, the members of my team and I came in absolute dead last at trivia night. I normally wouldn’t share this with so broad an audience, but it’s the prologue to the tale I’m about to tell.
One of the rounds in which my comrades and I performed the worst was that of geography (who would have guessed Kazakhstan is bigger than Bolivia?). To our surprise, about half the questions in that round focused on the geography of Alaska. Questions that first appeared as low-hanging fruit in fact became our downfall, and I was left wondering how, after more than three and a half years in this state, I could still be so clueless about its major landmarks.
One question in particular turned my cheeks red. We were asked to name the glaciers along Kachemak Bay. Turns out, there are five. Five! Did you know that?! We sure didn’t.
With a halfhearted flick of the wrist, I wrote down the only one I knew at the time: Homer’s beloved Grewingk. No mention of Doroshin, Portlock, Dixon or the delightfully named Woznesenski.
We may have failed miserably at our task that night, but the glacier question did bring me back to a more successful venture, a time when I interacted with the only glacier I knew.
I was lucky enough last fall to host two of my very best friends from college for several days. No strangers to hard work or to the outdoors (the three of us are from Michigan, after all) they squeezed onto my sofa-turned-bed each night and attempted to bypass their jet lag. Armed with little more than deodorant and a few changes of clothes, they insisted on getting the authentic experience of “roughing it” and happily stayed in my dry cabin with me.
The best day of their visit (as far as I’m concerned) was our sunny trip across the bay to Grewingk Glacier. A scenic, not-too-challenging hike inland takes you through coastal terrain, dense forest and rocky, shrub-filled land that looks almost out of place in Alaska before revealing the great ice sheet over the crest of a hill.
After taking a break to enjoy the view and marvel at our own tiny existence, we took a walk around the glacial lake that separates hikers from Grewingk in the warm months. Every few minutes, we’d look up and see the glacier at a different angle — by the time we got to the far side of the lake it looked completely different, almost as though we were at a totally separate landmark. The myriad shapes, tones and moods of the scene delighted me. It was as though we were getting 10 glaciers in one.
Back at the beach in front of Grewingk, the kind young stranger who had become part of our hiking party earlier that day kicked off his shoes and socks, and ventured into the frigid glacial lake. Earlier, we all had remarked how close a broken-off piece of ice had floated to the shore. The boy took only a few steps into the icy abyss before realizing his folly, and promptly retreated.
To this day, I’m not sure what possessed me. I had very little to gain by attempting to copy him, and many things to lose — my dry feet chief among them. What came over me I can’t say, but before I knew it my boots were off and I was inching into the lake myself, feeling along the bottom with my toes for the least offensive rocks on which to step.
Call it curiosity. Call it wanting to impress my Outside friends. Call it craving the taste of victory. If we had any beer with us, I would have asked someone to hold mine.
I don’t think I’ll ever, ever venture into that lake again without a dry suit, but I do have to say something surreal came over me as I stretched out my fingers and touched the giant hunk of ice floating near shore. Up to my waist in glacial melt, I was in contact with an entity whose history stretches back further than my human mind can surely fully comprehend. I felt the urge to let out a nervous laugh.
That moment in itself was worth the hike, the freezing water taxi ride, the soggy pants. I don’t think I’ll use such drastic means in the future, but I’d sure like to shake hands with the rest of Kachemak Bay’s glaciers sometime soon.
Now that I know their names, of course.