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June 17, 2024

Kingdom of Ice

By Susan C. Waters

Kingdom of Ice

Scouring through the books in a small Alaska library, I found amid the aging, brittle, and crumbling paper of countless scientific surveys, a book about “listening” to nature. It contained exercises and quotes from writers like Goethe and Frost. Still, how do you do that when the wilderness is so silent and so seemingly indifferent? How do you explain a wilderness on the scale of Wrangle-St. Elias National Park?

The usual adjectives do not work: majestic monumental magnificent. All of them apply, but none of them explain or give insight. A wilderness this large may be too much to comprehend. At the entrance to the Park, Mt. Sanford and Mt. Wrangell rise out of nowhere, towering and every bit of how Oscar Wilde described beauty: “a form of genius.” Yet the plain and mountains, which many visitors travel long distances to see, are only a partial frame for what the Park contains within its 13.2 million acres of sheer wilderness: 5,000 square miles of glaciers dipping at odd angles, impossibly wild, changing daily, carrying ponds and even lakes with them. No man or woman can live there. Truly venturing into this icy kingdom requires rigorous backpacking by highly skilled people. Or it requires a plane or helicopter. Even then, only a fraction of the Park is seen. A lifetime would not be enough to briefly explore all the glaciers. An eternity of ice and movement is hidden beyond the entrance to the Park. Rivers of ice are in perpetual motion.

Violent forces created and are creating the mountain kingdom of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. In essence, the thrust of the Pacific plate beneath the North American plate created the mountains. Even as you read this, the mountains inch their way up toward the sky as glaciers move downward at varying speeds.

Not only do the glaciers significantly alter the landscape, utterly transforming land, they are also important to many life forms, far, far away from the Park. Some of the sediment and silt “flour” carried by glaciers eventually ends up in the offshore waters, “fertilizing” the Continental Shelf with nutrients. Long days of sunlight make possible the transformation of these waters, and those of the Bering Sea and the Arctic Ocean, into a highly productive feeding ground, a feast worthy of leviathans. In one of the planet’s most magnificent processions, a host of marine mammals make their way up the Alaska coast, some as far as the Arctic Ocean. Gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) journey from winter grounds in Mexico to the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort seas. Weighing between 30 and 40 tons, males are between 45 and 46 feet long and the females are larger. Bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) winter in the Bering Sea and journey to the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. These whales can reach a length of 60 feet and can weigh 60 tons. To survive, gray whales and bowheads must filter about two tons of food from the water every day. Despite their large size, these whales are dependent on very small—and sometimes minute—crustaceans.

What is this Kingdom of Ice? It is like the still exterior of a great composer as his heart and soul creates. It is like looking at images taken by the Hubble Telescope and feeling, in one’s bones, that there are worlds and forces we can barely comprehend. It is the young person, full of desire and a fate which she must follow and pull closer to herself than a lover. It is the older person, beyond the point of starting over, feeling the full impact, the crushing pressure of years, like ice carving through stone, of a world gone by: what is done is, and cannot be changed. It is the toddler taking the first steps toward a life which will always be in motion.

When water from a glacier—drop by drop by drop of water times a million drops of water—falls into a pond at its terminus, its ending point, it sounds like applause if you close your eyes. It should.

Article © Susan C. Waters. All rights reserved.
Published on 2023-08-21
Image(s) © Susan C. Waters. All rights reserved.
3 Reader Comments
Eisenhower Girl
09:55:26 AM
I never knew of the existence of this Park!It gives one the impression of a truly huge and wonderful oasis of frozen peace in winter. One hears how much wildlife is being driven to extinction by the careless hands of humans.Your piece was inspired, and I can only thank you for making me see and feel the drops of frozen water trickling from my hands. Thank you, dear friend
Richard Beckley
09:55:42 AM
Susan I could hear your every word awe inspired and left me wanting more.
Thank You, I'll be watching for more
Tricia Crisafulli
08:46:50 PM
This beautifully written essay transported me to the "Kingdom of Ice." The sheer transformative power and sense of place come through every line.
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