On a long-awaited family trip to Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park, one writer finds an elemental landscape that holds powerful lessons in loss and rebuilding. By Leslie Hsu Oh
Peering through my camera lens, a finger on the shutter release, I held my breath as the sun ignited a turquoise sheen on a wall of ice. My husband, children, and I had taken a high-speed catamaran to the face of Johns Hopkins Glacier, which towers 76 metres above the waterline. Black-legged kittiwakes soared above, waiting, like the rest of us, for ice to crack and fracture into the ocean.
Our three-year-old, Logan, sat on my husband’s shoulders, clutching his hair for balance whenever the catamaran swayed. Six-year-old Riley wrapped herself around my leg. Fourteen-year-old Kyra and 11-year-old Ethan had already disappeared onto the upper deck, each armed with their own camera. With just two days in Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve, I didn’t have time to kayak among the icebergs or dive to the depths of the ocean to see the marine snow drifting down. I only had enough time to fulfil a fraction of my mother’s dying wish.
My mother believed that life was short and we had to seize the day. With cameras around our necks, we’d raft down rivers or leap onto the backs of horses. A photographer and artist, she taught me that art could say the things that we are afraid to say, that it could deliver a message beyond the life of its creator. She would ask me, “What story are you trying to tell?”
We had visited nearly all the national parks in the United States and Canada except for those in Alaska by the time my mother died from the same disease that had claimed my 18-year-old brother a year earlier. She had asked my father to take me to Alaska after her death, but I refused, angry that he grieved by distancing himself from all evidence of our tragedy—including me. While he moved on to a new wife and son, I looked for answers in the natural world, and in the Indigenous communities most intimately familiar with these places.
Growing up, we’d never stayed in one place long, so the closest I’d come to a sense of belonging was on those trips to the national parks. When I became a mother, I brought my kids to these lands, hoping to anchor them to something that endured beyond the brevity of human life.
When we arrived in the park, I teared up as I pressed the Glacier Bay cancellation stamp onto my national parks passport. Such a simple act, yet I felt like I had run marathon after marathon for 25 years just to collect this marking. My husband and I had lived in Anchorage for seven years and explored Denali, Katmai, Kenai Fjords, Gates of the Arctic, and Wrangell-St Elias. But Glacier Bay remained out of reach—too remote and difficult to visit while juggling our responsibilities raising four children.
This trip had only become possible when we were invited to the nearby town of Yakutat for a Tlingit memorial potlatch, a ceremony hosted a year after someone dies, where rituals are performed to remove grief. We were there to celebrate my late mentor, Elaine Chewshaa Abraham. Elaine was Naa Tláa (clan mother) of the Yéil Naa (Raven Moeity), K’ineix Kwáan (people of the Copper River Clan) from the Tsisk’w Hit (Owl House), whose ancestors have lived in this part of Alaska for generations.
Elaine’s family would be carrying out her request to adopt me and the kids at this potlatch. There would be a naming ceremony, and though I didn’t know it yet, we would be given Tlingit names of landmarks in and around Glacier Bay, binding us all to this place and its people.
Among ecologists and the Huna Tlingit people who have made their home here for centuries, Glacier Bay is known as a living lesson in resilience. In 1750, the Grand Pacific Glacier advanced so swiftly it wiped out entire Huna Tlingit settlements, replacing their valley of grass with a river of ice—then retreating in equally dramatic fashion. We weren’t able to grasp the scale of the destruction and recovery until we had sailed nearly 105 kilometres up the bay, in the path of the 32-kilometre-wide glacier’s withdrawal.
Over the past century, scientists have studied how this place rebuilds itself. They’ve documented the transformation of plant life and streams, which were initially full of sediment and midge larvae but are now home to significant salmon runs flowing through cottonwood forests. “The wilderness is very efficient at re-establishing itself in the wake of a catastrophic event,” explained park ranger Rebecca Miller, our guide for the boat tour, “and Glacier Bay is a prime example of the phenomenon.” Around Johns Hopkins Glacier, the land was rocky and bare. But on the southern fringes of the bay, where the ice receded decades ago, life had edged its way back. At Glacier Bay Lodge, we picked beach strawberries and slept beneath a canopy of old-growth Sitka spruce forest.
Our first night in Glacier Bay, my husband and I had walked along the shore of Bartlett Cove while our kids dipped their feet in crystal-clear waves. Kyra nearly stepped on a mottled starfish that had been stranded by the tides. She picked it up gently and returned it to the ocean. As I watched her, I thought of all the adopted mothers I’d been lucky to have, like Elaine Abraham, who had loved me like her own and, even after her death, helped me to anchor my children and myself to her ancestral lands.
Riley found a white, cone-shaped mushroom with upturned scales and gills that stained her fingers black. Ethan chased after Logan with the molt of a Dungeness crab. I chuckled remembering how I’d once sworn I did not want to have kids or get married—a daughter who couldn’t imagine building a life without her mother, or maybe just someone who wanted to protect herself from the possibility of more loss.
My husband warned us to watch our steps. Scattered up and down the rocky shore were dozens of nearly invisible moon jellyfish, some drifting in the current, others glistening on rocks, translucent on their edges and transparent in the centre, reflecting the colours of the setting sun.
Back on the boat, Ranger Miller continued her narration as we waited for a piece of Johns Hopkins to break off into the sea. “What happens when nature decides to wipe things clean? A cold, rocky, wet, barren landscape. But somehow, life finds a way.” Suddenly, a cannon-shot sound startled us. A teasing trickle of ice collapsed into the sea, followed by a modest chunk of the glacier’s terminus. It wasn’t the most spectacular calve I had ever seen, but Logan and Riley, who had never witnessed a calving before, were ecstatic. My kids would leave Glacier Bay the next day with Junior Ranger badges pinned to their chests, showing they learned something from the forces of nature in this place.
I left the park wishing I had more time to digest what my mother wanted me to take from this journey. I was 46, a few years shy of my mother’s age when she died, and part of me felt as though there was a reason I hadn’t made the trip until now. Perhaps only after becoming a mother myself, after years spent learning that things don’t always happen the way we want them to, could I relate to the creatures who choose to adapt to life here. Beneath a calving glacier, a place of biological catastrophe, a sudden drop in temperature or increase in freshwater runoff can be enough to determine survival. Only now, at this stage in my life, could I understand that I’m not the only one struggling with change.
After returning home, I read everything I could on the discoveries scientists have made in Glacier Bay. For a long time, it was believed that nature rebuilt sequentially: moss colonised glacial sediment, then fireweed moved in, then the enriched soil gave rise to alder and cottonwood, spruce and hemlock. But in 2017, a biologist studying this park found that plant succession isn’t an orderly process. One glacier-scraped plot of land had 2.5-metre willows. Others hadn’t changed at all over 100 years. Nature doesn’t heal as tidily as we thought. Just as all of us don’t heal from grief in the same way. What matters is resilience, finding some way, however messy, to deal with catastrophic events that advance and retreat unpredictably through our lives. What matters is how we adapt.
One day, long after I am gone, I hope my children will return to Glacier Bay. I hope they’ll walk intertidal zones hand in hand with someone who loves them as much as I do, rescue a stranded creature, photograph a jellyfish, find a glacier or passage that shares their Tlingit name, and feel like they have finally come home.
Glacier Bay Lodge (doubles from INR 18,235) houses the park visitors’ centre and is the departure point for the Glacier Bay Day Tour, an eight-hour ranger-narrated seasonal expedition.