Table of Contents
Featured Inuit Dog Owner: Dr. Lucien Ockovsky
The First Official ISDI Gathering
Nunavut Quest 2001 Diary
The Song of the Glacier
An Arctic "Fish Story"
Defining ISD Purity
Distemper in the North
Brucellosis in Arctic Marine Mammals: A threat to team dogs?
Poem: But, I must be dreaming, that's years ago...
Book Review: the latest Coppinger book
Janice Howls: Who Belongs in the ISDI?
Page from a Behaviour Notebook: Inuit Dog Stereotypes
Frankly Speaking: Zombies
The Rhone Glacier Socha photo
The Song of the Glacier
by Tim Socha
As I drove up the valley, I spotted the glacier in a side valley. At its highest visible point, the seracs jutted skywards, just where it came over the horizon from what I knew was an enormous ice field. On either side were steep walls of what appeared to be dark bare rock, and about halfway down the icefall was a sheer sided, black island of rock. It looked very much like a fairy tale castle from a distance. It had been my intention, anyway, to get close up and explore one of these glaciers. So why not this one?
When I shut off the engine, I realized just how loud the glacier stream was that I'd been driving next to. Above its roar I could hear the rumble of boulders being propelled along, crushing and grinding against each other, producing even more fine gray silt. I was wondering if one could ford it on one's own, when I realized that it was about two in the afternoon and at that time the water would be at it highest point because of melting. Perhaps at about six in the morning when the water level went down, it could be crossed.
The valley, which was quite narrow where the gravel road started, had opened up and was about a mile wide. It was completely flat at the bottom, being mostly gravel with stands of alder and small shrubs, flanked by high lateral moraines, which appeared to be barren, though I saw mosses, lichen and sometime tufts of grass growing out of the ridge. The mountains proper rose steadily behind the lateral moraines, their sweeping sides covered in grass. Here and there were rocky outcrops with fan-shaped screes below them. These peaks weren't really that high, maybe only a thousand feet above where I was standing, but farther up the valley they rose higher and higher, preventing me from seeing the full height of the range. The stream roared straight down the middle of the valley in which I was standing, but I could see that it cut quite close in to the moraine as it came around a bend higher up. The glacier was no longer visible, being hidden around the bend.
Well, why not start out? I had plenty of time. Here in Alaska, I was close enough to the Arctic Circle to ensure there'd be lots of daylight. While I was trying to decide what to do, word had obviously spread among the mosquitoes and no-see-ums that there was fresh blood to be had. I started swatting the air to keep the little buggers out of my eyes and mouth. Frantically, I dug out some mountaineering pants, trekking boots socks, thermal T-shirt, and windbreaker, threw them on and doused myself with DEET before I could consider the next step. I grabbed some emergency food, a bottle of water, extra socks, a thin thermal pullover, threw the lot in a small backpack, slung it on, locked up the car and strode off, hoping to leave the cloud of insects behind. They still sensed that there was much needed food in the area and were trying to find ways to get to any skin that hadn't been treated by repellent. The more adventurous found it by crawling up my sleeves and pant legs unbeknownst to me until the bites started to itch later that evening. In any case, the slight movement of walking against the cool air flowing down the valley created enough wind to confounded their further attempts.
I couldn't help wondering who had made the faint path leading to the glacier. It was used very rarely, but I remembered that any scar left on the land could last an incredibly long time because nature recovers extremely slowly at this high latitude. The path wound among the alders, the tallest being about three meters high. After walking about a half an hour, I came to the place where the valley curved around a buttress to the right. From there, the path switchbacked through the moraines, while the valley narrowed slightly. There was less vegetation now and the path twisted around rocks ranging from the size of footballs to house sized boulders. I caught a flicker of brown fur off to my left on the far side of the stream, about a hundred meters away. I was partially hidden by a boulder at that moment and froze, just moving my head slightly to see what was there.
A large bull caribou delicately made his way down the slope to the grinding glacial stream. I was entranced at how easily such a powerful animal could pick his way over the rough scree. He approached the stream, and without hesitation, stepped into the rushing water. He continued walking, sure-footed, never slipping and never hesitating, past submerged boulders in water that would have instantly swept a human away. He started up the other bank and came quite close to where I was standing. When he was about twenty meters away, I moved into full view. He didn't acknowledge my presence in any way but simply went his way and disappeared soundlessly over a pile of rock debris. I felt strangely privileged to have observed him.
The valley slowly widened. Now I had the feeling immense space, with the mountain sloping up behind the moraines. It was possible to see the end of the glacier, but it wasn't what I had expected. It looked like a huge pile of incredibly dirty, slick black rock. From out of a large cave in a streaked ice wall raged the stream. I walked on. The valley was so vast that my steps didn't seem to carry me forward at all. It seemed like I was simply staying in the same place.
I finally drew closer to the glacier, its walls rising above me. As I came over the mounds of boulders, I could feel the cold emanating from it, as though I was standing in front of an open freezer. Off to the right was a fairly gradual slope. The ice was covered with sharp broken bits of rock, which I thought I would give me safe purchase without crampons or an ice pick. I started up, reminding myself that I was alone and needed to be cautious. It was a strenuous walk up the first slope and also a little frightening because I came quite close to crevasses. Again I had that feeling that I wasn't getting anywhere; the slope seemed to just keep going up and up. Every time I thought I was coming to the crest, it sloped up over the horizon. Finally, I could see the expanse of the river of ice extending to the seracs on either side of the "castle". I had underestimated the immensity of everything.
I kept on walking, skirting the edge of the ice in case it was undercut and thin beneath the rocks. It was still easy walking, because the vibram soles of my shoes gripped the rock-strewn surface. As I headed out towards the castle, the rocks became fewer until there was only bare, fissured ice.
I decided to follow one of the many streamlets I had been crossing. It quickly got deeper and wider, cutting into the ice until, after only seventy-five meters, it rushed though a small canyon. The stream disappeared into a funnel-shaped hole in the ice. Although I moved cautiously, my inner voice was screaming at me not to go any closer to look over the rim. But I had to see. Hoping that my boots would hold on the rough ice, and staying back from the smooth glistening funnel, I looked down and leaned over to where the water disappeared into the glacier. On the surface, the ice was a brilliant white, gradually turning blue-green through black where the water disappeared. The sight was beautiful and frightening, when I thought what a slip would mean.
Continuing toward the castle, the ice became blanker, but with a greater number of holes where melt water disappeared into the glacier. That I was without crampons and ice pick nagged at me, for I knew that I wouldn't be able to stop a slip. I decided to seek the relative safety of the lateral moraines. On the way I had to navigate large crevasses. Soon I was at the base of the moraine, looking up and wondering just how stable it was. Any one of these car-sized, jagged boulders could theoretically come loose and start a slide down the side of the jumbled heap. I could either climb up or retrace my steps, but I didn't relish climbing down the face of the glacier either. Instead, I tried jumping from boulder to boulder to avoid the small undercut bergschrund, where the moving glacier broke away from the mountain. While picking my way up what I hoped were the more stable boulders, I experienced a few movements when the rock gave a harsh grating sound under foot. Soon, I was about a hundred meters above the glacier's surface on the moraine ridge.
The view was stupendous, and I felt fantastic. After having driven most of the night before, the exercise in the clear crisp air was invigorating. I wasn't too warmly dressed so the only discomfort was the itchy dampness under my backpack. As I continued up the ridge, I came upon stone cairns and a few low stone walls. I remembered that although they looked like they had been made today they were probably ancient. Someone must have built the wall for concealment or perhaps as a windbreak. I'd heard that in ancient times, the indigenous people made cairns to control the migrating caribou. The cairns were meant to scare caribou. The animals avoided them only to be ambushed at another spot with bows and spears.
It was while contemplating the cairns that I heard the sound, faint at first, merely on the threshold of hearing. It seemed all around me. At first, I imagined it was the distant howling of wolves but it was too constant for that. I listened in awe. The sensation was difficult to describe, because I felt it was more than just a sound. It had some similarity to singing glasses. You know, when you partially fill a glass with water then wet your finger and rub it around the rim. This was different than wolves, singers or glasses, yet similar to all of them. Waves of sound came from all around, merging together, separating, disappearing and coming together again. At times there was something like snatches of speech. There was no wind, and no people or wolves in sight. I could make out no definable source of the sound. With the crunch of my footsteps and breathing, as I resumed walking, the sound disappeared. As soon as I was still again, the sound returned.
As I listened, I couldn't help thinking it a very unusual phenomenon, and that people would hardly believe me if I described it. They would ask me if I had suffered from the altitude, or whether it was wind blowing over the glacier, or even if it had been someone's radio in the vicinity. I knew with absolute certainty that I was experiencing something that could only be described as "other worldly", certainly not aliens or anything like that, but nothing really to do with us humans. It was as if it belonged to another plane or dimension, but was still audible. I was there and listened, so could hear it, but whether I or anyone else heard it seemed of no consequence. I was moved by its strange beauty, but whatever it was it had no need to express it to me. There was no sense of foreboding, no feeling that the place was haunted. The source of the music was so detached that it made humankind insignificant. My thoughts at the time - what little thought I had - was that this would be just the kind of music that I wish I could compose, though it couldn't be played by any known instruments. The closest might just be the human voice.
I am a musician vocation. I used to like performing, but the study of music theory was constricting. I didn't like being stuck with half tones or even normal scales. I found it stifling, but here what I was listening to was the way I imagined music should be.
It was about 9:00 P.M. and I had a long way to walk back. It was difficult picking my way through the boulders. Occasionally I would pause and sure enough the sound was there. As I came parallel to the head of the stream at the glacier's mouth, everything was drowned out by the distant roar of the water. It was now 11:00 P.M. and twilight was falling. I got back to my car sometime after midnight.
I wondered later if I could talk to anyone about my experience, but thought better of it. I camped out near the glacier stream, got up about 5:00 A.M. and drove south. I stopped to have breakfast and some human contact at a small restaurant along the route. I was greeted by a Native American woman and I instantly had the feeling that I could ask her about the "music". Her response was immediate: "Oh yes, my people believe that those sounds are the voices of the spirits of our people who have died and have gone up into the mountains.".