Nature Notes

Vol. XII October, 1934 No. 10

Lines on the Nisqually Glacier

To stand in the warm sunshine among the summer flowers and face a cliff of chill black ice towering a hundred feet in the air directly overhead is an experience certain to quicken the imagination. What tremendous mass is represented in this silent, frozen form patiently awaiting certain destruction under the shimmering heat of an alpine sun. The snowfalls of a century seem to have been clutched where they fell by the flinty fingers of basalt lining the canyon on either side. After the first impressive thrill at the sheer bulk of the glacier, we begin to be aware by certain signs and marks that here, however, is no mere passive block of ice, but in fact, a giant of stupendous strength, straining and writhing in chains, clawing with slow but desperate fingers and toes into the walls of his rocky prison. Look at the shattered wreck of boulders lying in the trail of the glacier! Look at the path gouged from the virgin walls of the canyon! Then compare with the narrow stream-cut valleys hanging high above the cliffs;--valleys whose rushing, sparkling cascades seem like children at play about the laboring bulk of the glacier. And 'though in course of time each stream may carve deeply into its rocky bed, the force it spends is pounded on the bottom of the bed and not against the sides, thus wearing down a narrow, graceful gorge unlike the open, rock-strewn course of moving ice.

Look at those queer black banded lines of dirt standing out against the snout of the glacier. These were torn from pumice ridges by the gales of winter, and scattered on the snow between successive falls. But now instead of lying flat as they fell, the layers of dust are turned and warped in keeping with the contour of the glacial bed; another sign that shows how ice, 'though hard and resistant to the blade of the climber's axe, is yet a slowly bending semi-fluid mass. Now watch the churning Nisqually River that pours full-formed from the end of the glacier day and night, year in and out! We puzzle as to why the stream continues scarcely undiminished through the winter when the mountain slopes are buried in snow and the waterfalls are choked by freezing temperatures. Here again we consider the tremendous size and weight of the glacier; a solid block piled several hundreds of feet at the point of greatest thickness, and bearing the brunt, in a measure, of the column of ice that slants for miles above to the eternal feeding snow-fields on the summit of Rainier. Under the back-breaking pressure of its own weight, the glacier dissolves into flowing water; --droplets squeezed from the myriad crystals of ice that make it up.

--Victor Scheffer
Season 1934

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