ALL CRITTERS GREAT AND SMALL:
The Unexpected Resilience of Alaska
~ written and photographed by Alex Rubenstein ~
INTRODUCTION -The cold side of the pillowcase. Concrete walls slathered in spackle and chemical-laden paint. A rusty bathtub. What were the first things you saw when you woke up this morning? Where are you right now as you read this? Are you nice and cozy in a room or office or curled up on the couch somewhere? Odds are you’re surrounded by depressing beige-colored walls, twirling around in an office swivel chair, maybe on the train or in a weird-smelling Uber.
What sounds and distractions permeate around you? Try to drown out the chit-chat and the sirens and the incessant honking. Close your eyes and tune those noises out; now take a deep breath and look back up, but this time imagine you are staring at an enormous glacier. The most incredible thing you have ever seen or experienced in your life. Let yourself become completely overwhelmed by the pure majesty of this centuries-old mass of ice. Now keep your eyes open, you’re going to want to see this next picture.
A sneak peek at a field of floating ice set against the backdrop of the winding beauty of Dawes Glacier.
That’s where we were in early June, off the southeast coast of Alaska at Dawes Glacier. I didn’t realize it then, but that would be the most memorable experience of the entire week. The trip began with an exhilarating ride in between, and sometimes over, floating chunks of ice until finally we reached the glacier, safely a half mile away. Once stopped, our guide turned off the motor. The silence, as they say, was deafening. It consumed our entire boat. The pure absence of sound was just as overwhelming as the powerful roars of a waterfall or the maddening jolts of a calving glacier. But this time there was no calving, no sounds except for the occasional clank of the motor. It was one of the most serene moments of my life.
For a solid 15 minutes all dozen of us collapsed in complete awe at the magnitude of the mile-long gift of nature before us. There was simply too much to absorb. We were a sliver amidst a gargantuan body of ice; yet looking back up I noticed that the glacier itself was minute in comparison to the mountainous landscape that encompassed it. Just as the receding ice revealed the landscape it shaped around it, so too did those changes reveal things about us, humankind, and the impact that we have had on this environment. Shrinking glaciers, rising greenhouse gases, ocean acidification, our climate changing at a rate at which wildlife is incapable of adapting. All of it. And while the longevity of the human race might be a sliver in the grand scheme of time, the impacts of our actions have been anything but.
A lone bird spreads its wings across a stunning background of orange sunset.
EARLY JUNE, SOMEWHERE OFF THE COAST OF ALASKA — “Good morning. The time is now 7 a.m. and the doors for breakfast will be open at 7:30 a.m. Please join us in 30 minutes in the dining room for breakfast. Thank you.” It was smooth, cathartic almost. John, our expedition leader, had a pleasantly gravelly voice that never got old. It became a memorable staple of our week in Alaska.
I sit up, rub my eyes, and look around. This time, I don’t see those concrete walls or rusty bathtub. I don’t hear a barrage of traffic or screeching tires. Instead, I look to my right and water suddenly splashes against the window two inches from my face. I put my glasses on, adjusting the focus of my eyes (the camera of our brains), and peer out even further. Islands scatter the horizon as the sun perks up and spreads its orange wings across the glassy surface of the sea. My roommate Dan has already awoken and left. Why, you may ask? Well, there just so happened to be a mama brown bear and her cub grazing along a nearby shore. No big deal or anything.
A mama brown bear and her cub graze along the shoreline before taking a well-deserved nap.
When I started to think about what story I wanted to tell, I knew I wanted to explore the things that weren’t being discussed. My initial curiosity propelled me to ask the naturalists aboard the ship to share with me the issues and areas of concern that they feel don’t get enough attention. The tiny, less noticeable changes that are still major indicators for alterations in the ecosystem. The changes we see with our naked eye — the receding glacier or the beach covered in plastic — often overshadow the small-scale changes and deprivations, such as ocean acidification or the increase of invasive beetles or ticks.
The vastness of the landscape is unfathomable. From the outside it is difficult to fully grasp the struggles facing Alaska’s climate. Nonetheless, the water and land of Alaska face rising temperatures that impact the livelihood of not only the wildlife of the territory, but the entire world. The effects of melting glacial ice and rising sea levels are detrimental to our entire planet. It also shows the unfortunate dependency humans have on their water sources. According to Marylou Blakeslee, a naturalist aboard the National Geographic Sea Lion, one in five people get their water from glaciers. And one in five people, of the billions that populate the ever-growing sphere of life we call Earth, is no small number: it is over 1.5 billion of the 7.6 billion and growing inhabitants of our planet.
While I came to realization that life ultimately will find a way to survive, we as a society must not assume it will happen without us. One action that Marylou so passionately shared was the need to reduce our dependency on watering lawns, because 70% of urban water sources are put toward garden maintenance. And while it might feel “nice to walk on,” it is an example, albeit an unexpected one at first, of one of the many possible steps each and every individual can take to reduce the harmful bootprint of climate change. Whether it’s a hundred people or a billion.
A "gaggle" of sea lions indulge in a group tan session on the Inian Islands near Cross Sound, where the waters of the Pacific merge with those of southeast Alaska.
Barnacles taking over a thoroughly rusted piece of metal on the beach of Petersburg.
Yes, Alaska is beautiful. But it is vulnerable as well. At least, that’s the expectation. The narratives we so commonly hear in the nation’s capital and elsewhere constantly mention the drastic impacts of climate change, of the doom and despair we face. I came to Alaska with the preconceived notion of these changes that I would undoubtedly witness. And while I did see many of these clearly observational changes, I found something else, too. Something smaller, yet more meaningful; something that took a great deal more curiosity and patience to discover.
What impressed and shocked me the most while aboard the Sea Lion was the never-ending inspiration **seeded by hope and passion that was nonstop the entire week. A cautious positivity, or “guarded optimism” in the words of Marylou, motivated each and every naturalist that shared those passions with us. And it was infectious. Even while surrounded by destruction or calving glaciers, I started to carry with me a pinch of that guarded optimism. And even when I seemed alone, I knew if I looked in the right location I would find something truly incredible.
A particularly interesting “case study” of sorts came in the form of our visit to the small town of Petersburg. The moment we stepped off the Sea Lion and onto the dock, we were greeted by a plethora of swooping bald eagles. The nature surrounding this town was impeccable and the convergence and coexistence of wildlife with the town center was beautiful. But here we saw both beauty and destruction. Washed up boats and debris-ridden beaches were strikingly juxtaposed by the ability for life to thrive in the most unexpected places.
A shipwreck off the coast of Petersburg conjures up a whole world of possible endings.
A bog lily thriving in a muskeg, showing that life can survive even amidst a vast field of decomposing plant life.
On the beach of Petersburg, I could barely see the rocks because there was such a thick layer of broken glass, which formed a depressing mosaic of litter and jetsam as far as I could see. But again, that negativity was shattered when I ventured to the edge of the water and looked down again. This time there was no broken glass. No rusted parts of a ship or discarded trash. I bent down and turned over an endearingly white clam shell, only to discover a sudden scatter of movement. I had stumbled upon a family of hermit crabs!
What’s under that rock? A hermit crab peers out before scattering for cover.
After letting the hermit crabs grace me with their presence, I gently returned their "roof" to its rightful place, watched them scamper off, and carried on to the next unexpected adventure.
Friend or foe? The suspense is palpable as a daring slug and a stealthy fly cross paths.
A lone spider attempts to escape as my camera gets too close for comfort.
A curious snail surrounded by bear scat reveals the interdependency of nature and life, no matter how small. Looking down never hurt anyone, right?
In the end, I had to let all my expectations fall away. All my wants and desires. And simply allow the unpredictable and unexpected to embrace me when they so chose. Maybe it comes from the need to constantly be entertained, or expecting that beauty is supposed to just be there when and where I want it. I came to realize that that is quite a pompous and naive outlook to have. Instead, I realized I needed to be patient. Resilient. Just like the nature and wildlife that I so adored.
And it is that message of resilience that I hope to share. That life survives. It finds a way, somehow — whether big or small. It is there and it is beautiful. If you just know where to look.
Thank you for reading.
For more from Alex visit alex-rubenstein.com