What to do with a runaway glacier?

Juneau may find it needs new ways to entice tourists

Posted: Friday, May 18, 2007

As Juneau residents, we need to face some cold, hard facts about our beloved Mendenhall Glacier.

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Yes, it's retreating. Yes, it's in recession. And yes, before we know it the whole thing will be gone. Then we'll have a nice visitors' center with no glacier, just as they do in Portage. After that, it's going to take a flock of silver-tongued salespeople to convince tour buses to drive out there.

"Fine," some residents will say. "It makes us happy that there will be fewer tourists."

I say phooey! As proud Juneau residents, we are all stuck out here in the wilderness. We can't subsist on salmon and spruce tips. Juneau has to have an economic base. And you never know when part of that base, such as gold panning, government or fishing, is going to disappear. It makes sense to encourage tourism, and of all the ways we could choose to make money, tourism is relatively benign and low-impact.

We can continue to sit on our hands while our glacier melts away, robbing us, in its absence, of vital tourist revenues; or we can get off our butts and do something about it!

Let's discuss some of the options:

1. Move the visitors' center. Push the road along the East Glacier Trail and build the new center right next to Swift Creek. Put a patio right where visitors can be misted by the waterfall. Admittedly, this option is just a stop-gap measure.

2. Find other things for the tourists to do. We can help the U.S. Forest Service retrain its interpreters to juggle fire, play the lute or unicycle around in bear suits. If global warming continues to raise temperatures, we can truck in sand and make Mendenhall Lake a tanning beach, with lifeguards - and guys in bear suits.

Actually, we could implement the bear suits thing right away. I can't think of any reason to wait.

3. Add snow. Gather a troop of intrepid bush pilots, and send them out into approaching storms to seed the already snow-laden clouds with special snowmaking dust. That way, the entire Juneau area could receive, oh, at least three or four times as much snow as we get now. That would put enough up on the Juneau Icefield to offset the yearly loss to glacial recession.

4. Create a glacier cozy. Basically, it's a sort of big insulating blanket that folds over the glacier, keeping heat from getting in. The cozy would be the same color as the glacier, even whiter, which would solve some of the complaints about the glacier's dirty appearance. We could paint some blue cracks on the front, too.

5. This only would be a last resort: Build a totally fake glacier out of plywood and spackle. Those icebergs floating out in the lake? Styrofoam.

But seriously, I used to turn up my nose at tourists. What do they know about Alaska? Nevertheless, when I accidentally started looking in their faces, I realized most of them are having a good time despite being herded around, stuffed into buses, and getting a hyped-up, watered-down version of what Alaska is all about.

How could they possibly be having a good time?

Think about what Alaska represents to these people. They're tourists, yes, but people, too. Alaska is unspoiled majesty. It has become part of their mythology. For people who have never seen Alaska, the state has come to represent something great and powerful and good - the way things should be.

A lot of the tourists are old. Why? Because they've been saving for a long time to afford the trip; it is important for them to see Alaska before they die.

Alaska still is largely unspoiled and gorgeous. But it's changing, like everything. The glacier? Let it go. Take away all the glaciers in Alaska, and there's still enough beauty to defy description. Let the people come and see the glacier while they still can.

And while I admit most of my ideas were pretty bad, I still like the bear suits idea.

• Derrick Snyder is a chef and instructor living in Juneau.

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