Lingering in a brilliant white cloud of ice crystals

Out of the Woods

Posted: Sunday, June 03, 2001

"Dear Boss: By now, you have noticed I am two days late for work. I'm on an icefield, the weather went schmaggy, I can't fly out. Desperate to get back to work, I am suiting up to snowshoe out, but want to let you know what's up. I'll drop this note into a crevasse, it will turn up on the coast it in a matter of years - wait, I hear a plane. Never mind. Nita"

It's hard to feel bad about being AWOL when filled with such euphoria. Through a mental whirl of brilliant ice crystals, I recall it was our Whitehorse friends' turn to pick the spot for our Memorial Day get-together. They came up with an overnight stay, maybe two nights, at a camp on the ice in the St. Elias Mountains. My husband and I flew to Haines on Friday and drove to a rendezvous in Haines Junction. We four camped at Kluane Lake, listening to the "candle ice" tinkling as broken floes shifted with the springtime breeze. In the morning, we met our pilot and flew in clear, calm weather up, up and up to winter. In a huge white spot at 8,500 feet, we aimed for a small huddle of tents and landed.

"So, by 'on the ice', you mean actually on the ice," I said.

No one answered, squinting in open-mouthed awe at a 360-degree view of dazzling massive white peaks under a painfully blue sky. The plane left and there was no sound but the greeting of our host at the camp with a strong suggestion to slather on some industrial strength sun screen.

The Kaskawulsh-Hubbard Divide is in Kluane National Park Preserve and is the accumulation zone for several huge glaciers that wander off at gravity's pleasure, carving the St. Elias Mountains along the way. The view is dominated by Mount Logan, 24 miles to the west, Canada's highest mountain at 19,500 feet. We sat in lawn chairs and admired it after settling into camp. A couple days later, after the first white-out cleared up, we sat and admired it some more. We learned two technical bad weather terms: "clag" and "schmag." A bunch of clag on the Kaskawulch prevented our plane from coming back for us, then it got schmaggy, prolonging the problem. We dutifully tsk-tsked about being stuck an extra day on Monday, but enjoyed seeing and learning about Dickie birds (a technical Canadian term for a bird group that includes pine siskins, tree sparrows, etc.) who blow over the icefield. They land in exhaustion, get drifted over and die, then ravens on regular patrols find and eat them. We agonized that we were not back in our offices on Tuesday as we learned that small colonies of picas live on the nunataks to the west.

Wednesday morning was windless with a bright fog. A white arc of refracted light formed a fogbow. The sun burned through, the mountains returned sharper than ever and our plane appeared as a tiny white speck over an ocean of crisp snow.

I hustled back to work, but my keenly perceptive boss can see I'm in a lingering, brilliant white cloud of ice crystals. I am burrowed with the picas on the nunataks and resting with the Dickie birds in the snow at 8,500 feet as clouds waft past Mount Logan. Otherwise, I am totally into my work.

Nita Nettleton can be reached at

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