Journey to Alaska – Post 5 – Frozen in Motion

300 feet high edge of Columbia Glacier from helicopter

300 feet high edge of Columbia Glacier from helicopter

You know the old saying that “nothing is guaranteed/consistent/unchanging except for change itself.”  When thinking of dramatic changes in the vast landscape and web of life in Alaska the words motion and migration come to my mind.  The ever-daunting glaciers seem motionless, but they are always on the move.

Glacier flow destroys all life in its path. Nothing will survive its advances as it crushes forests and buries meadows, lakes, and wetlands under debris and ice.  Granted this doesn’t happen overnight.  But when the glaciers melt a whole new world is left behind. New residents move in and inhabit the plains, rivers and lakes.  Plants take hold and beautiful landscapes arise until the next glacier advances.

But naturalists, ecologists and geologists are rightfully worried that the natural courses of many glaciers are being altered at a rate the earth herself cannot handle.

Columbia001 web

The Columbia Glacier moves through three valleys.

The 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change declared that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global sea level.”  Fortunately we have the tools, knowledge and ingenuity to better understand these changes and make informed choices.  But do we as a species and as individuals have the “will and desire” to change our habits, consumerism, and use/abuse of the natural resources?

HSeal008a webHenry David Thoreau asked, “What is the use of a house, if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?”  And the earth is the only planet we can call home.

In Southeast and South-central Alaska the Harbor Seals make their home on the icebergs close to the face of tidal glaciers.  A seal will have her pup on the iceberg because predators like bears will not venture there. What a beautiful sight to see the harbor seals using these cold and barren icebergs as a sanctuary.

CraneFlying005 webA more noticeable movement is the migration patterns of Sandhill Cranes who have used the Tanana Valley near Fairbanks for thousands of years as nesting grounds and a stopover in their migration south.  They have been flying this route since the Ice Age.  At the end of August they begin to congregate in the fields of the once-productive Creamer’s Dairy in Fairbanks.

I was determined to spend time in Alaska photographing something new.  That subject turned out to be the Sandhill Crane. I watched their patterns of flight in the mornings and the evenings for three days.  The best time for me to catch these eloquent birds in flight, with light on their face and feathers, was in the evening as they gently flew from one field to another with outstretched necks and trailing long legs.

CranesField001 webThe young cranes are easily identified because they haven’t yet developed their red heads and use a distinctive high piping call.  My visit to these fields was at the beginning of the staging for their migration, so thousands of birds were still on the way in.  But the numbers already there made it obvious that this was their “home,” and the humans delighting in their beauty and flight were indeed the visitors.  Their flight is truly grace in motion.

For more than 16 years and at a cost of over 6 billion dollars, we in the Bay Area have been waiting for another kind of mass migration:  drivers on the new Bay Bridge between Oakland and Treasure Island.  Despite the many problems in its construction progress, the end result is beautiful and ensures our safety in an area where there is earth in motion.  Although scheduled for a Tuesday 5:30 AM opening, it looks like the chain will be cut anytime now (writing Monday at 5:00 PM).  More expensive but more modest than the November 12, 1938, opening of the first Bay Bridge, tonight’s event will still be a great cause for celebration.

Glaciers, cranes and bridge traffic are my favorite things in motion!

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