The milky water which flows out in front of the melting ice at dawn is a mere trickle compared with the mighty torrent which comes later in the day. As the sun rises higher in the southern sky, temperatures climb and by midafternoon there is water aplenty, gurgling and ringing as it spreads out in bifurcating streams over the gravelly land in front of the ice. This is another world from the usual romantic depiction of a glacier. John Muir’s pristine glaciers — “filled with light, shimmering and throbbing in paleblue tones of ineffable tenderness and beauty” — have no place here. This is ice in decay, turquoise turned to dirty grey, a mushy mix of mud, gravel and not-quite-frozen water.
Over thousands of years this ice sheet has pushed south, bringing with it a rich medley of foreign boulders. With the warming climate the ice is doomed, and though the chill temperatures of a clear night recall the good times, the eventual demise of this once-ambitious ice sheet is now inevitable. The question is only whether the final disappearance of the very last ice is still decades hence, or will it all be gone in just a few years from now.
Animals and birds come scavenging early in the day when the flow of water is just modest. They feel the biting north wind that sweeps down from the ice, fur and faces sand-blasted by the fine sediments carried in the breeze. As the land once covered by ice emerges like new-born tundra, there are huge stones which are like orphans: here a great boulder of granite which the glacier has transported hundreds of miles from where it rightly belongs. And there a colossus made of gneiss now stranded far from its natural home in Sweden. Each great boulder has a rare beauty defined by myriad shades and shapes.
Over decades, the imperceptible warming brings a mellowing of the environment, the first mosses and lichens giving way to hardy grasses and sedges. Lemmings, hares and Arctic ground squirrels begin to make their home in this watery tundra. But in many parts the vegetation is still sparse and the bare ground is sculpted and shaped by wind and water and by endless cycles of freezing and thawing. Where once there was ice away to the north, now there are dunes, swarms of crescentshaped accumulations of sand which are inclined to march with the wind across the landscape.
Over long, long years the water from the melting glacier has done what water does best and found a way to the sea. It is the gentlest of valleys, a spillway which allows the water to drain away to the north-west. Looking down this vale, there is higher land away to the left, and to the right the great gravelly outwash, with its myriad braided streams flowing down from the last remnants of the dying ice sheet. That higher land to the left is formed largely of the detritus left by a much earlier, even bolder, glacier which penetrated further south. This wooded ridge, barely rising 40 metres above the vale, marks the furthest extent of an earlier phase of glaciation.
But we shall focus on the valley today. It is no more than a slight declination between the low ridge away to the south and the land to the north where the last of the ice lay.