The Silence of the Skies

As I adjust the bulky headset over my ears, as the tiny plane careens to the left, as five passengers simultaneously sense the shift of balance in the inner ear, a huge spreading glacier appears below under the wing.  Shredded crystalline wedges of blue and grey ice wrinkle the surface under a frosting of snow; silt, mud and ice weave through the rocky moraine;  turquoise alpine tarns pool and disperse into braided glacial streams; rivulets of water thread a complicated pattern among the debris; another glacier ends abruptly in a bright aquamarine lake; hunks of blue and white ice fragment and float away; the snow hides secret crags, avalanche washes, scree-lined gullies bare of trees; all slide by under the glasslike, effortless air.

glacial wash

We fly over north over the Kenai Peninsula, veer off the highway and sail through the Chugach.  Vast valleys of silence tended by wandering winds appear and disappear, their twisted slopes carved by ancient glaciers long melted.   We’re losing visibility and as the snow-crusted spruce gain stunning detail, I notice the two German girls ahead of me clutch hands for courage.  The grey tides of Turnagain Arm stretch out underneath us, Anchorage comes into view and while the others angle for photographs of Fire Island, I run a searchlight gaze along the front range, naming silently each familiar slope and crest: Ptarmigan; Flattop;  O’Malley; the Wedge; Wolverine.  Snowy paths my boots have crossed.

german girls

Eagle River emerges below from a pattern of new developments, cut-out houses closely set along curved streets.  Knik and Cook, silty and shallow and grey and cold.  I imagine falling into the water, the thick grey mud coating the frame of the plane, the icy cold as we sink in.   Ice chunks float on the surface; massive deadwood tree trunks, white as bleached femurs, criss-cross at odd intervals on their slow journey out to sea.  I saw them on a black, roaring beach at night at Captain Cook last November.  I saw them again in September on a windswept beach at Point Possession, heaped high against the sandy cliffs, like a mess of bones.  Colossal white birches stripped of their skins, washed ashore in some tempest, displaced.

Great swaths of the river stretch out frozen, coated with ice, and the marshy ground is white with winter’s tread.  We fly above winding moose trails which reveal the broad pattern of their travels, their spatial discourse with the land.  Heavy clouds descend, blurring the peaks, whitening the sky; the ceiling is a foggy mist.

And now the snow starts to fall.

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