Openhearted Heartbreak: Reflections on Climate Change

“What do I know now? I know that heartache is nothing more or less than a possible opening through which the power that sustains life can be glimpsed.”

Paula D’Arcy

Nothing could have prepared me for what I experienced last week. Although I’ve made several pretty memorable trips to Alaska in my almost 52 years—including taking my only-ever cruise with my family along the inside passage (a life-long dream of my mother’s) and a unicorn backcountry week based out of Kantishna, 94-miles into the heart of Denali National Park—this week was like nothing else.

Sunset over Surprise Glacier, Alaska, 2019

I have read reports of how over the last 60 years Alaska has warmed at more than twice the rate as the rest of the US. I have heard how Alaska is the site of the fastest loss of glacier ice on Earth, disappearing Artic summer sea ice, thawing permafrost, and more large fires in the last 10 years than in any decade since record-keeping began in the 1940s. I have listened to Alaska Native communities describe increasingly risky travel and hunting conditions that lead to food insecurity and loss of traditional knowledge, damage to and loss of settlements, not to mention the socioeconomic and health impacts from loss of cultures and forced relocation from traditional homelands. Alaska as we have known it in my lifetime is disappearing. I knew I would have a front row seat last week, but I didn’t realize how historic it would be.

Last week a trip to celebrate my upcoming birthday would take me into the protected waters of Prince William Sound for sea kayaking and camping in the Harriman Fjord. This isn’t the kind of excursion a raised-poor Chicana-Boricua from Detroit imagines experiencing or even knows it is something to imagine—not unlike 11 years ago, when I could barely wrap my mind around seeing Alaska from the deck of a cruise ship, which felt both fancy and a once-in-a-lifetime event. In 2008, though, I got a taste of something beyond what had been cruise-promised. I remember leaving my family behind at port on two occasions. I think those two solo days embedded in my heart like a mangrove pod and every Alaskan experience since has been slowly yet predictably capturing more of my imagination.

Nanci with Harriman Glacier, Alaska, 2019

The first of the two solo days was at Skagway. There, I felt called to use my day on shore to head up a trail with absolutely no idea where I was going or what lay ahead. I only knew I had to be back before the ship left port. I kept following the river, climbing over boulders and rocks, ascending what I now know was over 3,000 feet in five miles to Upper Dewey Lake. At the end of the trail, sweating and covered in mud, the trees cleared and I got a view of that lake. I remember breathing in air as if for the first time.

Upper Dewey Lake, Skagway, Alaska, 2008

The second time I left my family for a solo outing was at Icy Strait Point (ISP). ISP is an Alaska-Native-owned cruise ship destination developed to both provide economic viability for while also preventing tourists from overrunning the small neighboring village of Hoonah, Alaska: At least that’s how the Tlingit guide explained it to me.

Tlingit Kayak Guide, Icy Straight Point, Alaska, 2008

There was a small group of us “cruisers” who had decided to kayak the bay at ISP. Our guide had us singing Tlingit songs and using the excuse of the outing to educate us non-Native Alaskans on his terms. He proudly told us how 85% of the those employed at ISP were local Tlingit, like himself. And without their ingenuity many of the young people, like himself, would have to leave their village in search of jobs. He had left for a time and was able to return when the Huna Totem Corporation, the economic development entity for the village, converted ISP from an abandoned salmon cannery to a viable cruise ship port. There’s a term I’ve only recently learned that he foreshadowed for me: indigenizing. It’s a step beyond “decolonizing” (which still centers the narrative and dominance of colonization). These Tlingit people were indigenizing the cruise ship industry.

That afternoon I had a close encounter with a humpback whale. She swam around us, breaching and blowing while our guide had us link our paddles, creating a visible clump of kayaks for her to see from underwater. It was exhilarating.

Harrison Lagoon, Alaska, 2019

My next encounter with humpies, as these whales are affectionately called, happened this week. It was no less exhilarating and also compelling. These creatures pre-date human existence by 40 million years, were almost eliminated by commercial whaling in the last century (with their global population hovering around 30-35% of their pre-whaling numbers) and now face another crisis due to human-caused climate change.

This week Anchorage broke daily temperature records five out of six days. On July 4, the new all-time record temperature soared 5 degrees higher than the previous one. During a season when drizzle is typical and average temps are 69 degrees (average!), having a 90-degree reading is unfathomable. It didn’t help that the lowest recorded rainfall in June helped set the conditions for a wildfire on the Kenai Peninsula. The smoky haze hung over the city like a veil.

And even as I held this reality, I held my breath as if breathing would cloud my view of the humpback welcoming us into the inner reaches of Harriman Fjord. (She also showed up days later as we kayaked the 12 miles out around Barry Arm to our pick-up point at Harrison Lagoon.)

Nanci and Todd Kayaking Harriman Fjord, Alaska, 2019

I was enchanted by the playful otter who seemed just as curious about us as we were about her, hanging out in our cove to greet us at the beginning and end of our days. I was delighted by the trio of Minke whales who announced their presence with almost discreet blows, teasing us with peek-a-boo glances at their sleek black backs. I saw lounging sea lions and harbor seals, white-capped bald eagles, and red, stick-beaked Oystercatchers; I even witnessed a black bear ambling toward our campsite (who gratefully never seemed to close the final one and a half miles!) And then there was our aptly named View Point campsite: I could see at least 5 glaciers without so much as a turn of my head, with Surprise directly across the fjord from our tent.

View Point Campsite, Alaska, 2019

I can’t definitively attest that human-caused climate change contributed to the size and frequency of the earth-shaking “booms” that announced chunks of ice, some as large as small cars, calving off the face of Surprise Glacier or the resulting morning ice fields that floated by like a walk of shame after the night’s escapades. Nor can I confirm that as we kayaked up to the glacier wall, the katabatic winds off Harriman Glacier were any more intense than on any other past July day, but it doesn’t take much to entertain the idea that a mere 50 miles-away-record-breaking 90-degree afternoon wasn’t producing some side-effects. We know that 80% of Alaska’s tidal glaciers have already disappeared.  

Even as I took in the life-giving and breath-taking scenery that seemed to my naïve eye to have recovered from the 11 million gallons of crude oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez on March 24, 1989, our pilot matter-of-factly reported that only 10% of the oil was ever “cleaned up.” The vibrant herring fishing industry never returned because the herring didn’t either, and the pod of orcas who call Prince William Sound home haven’t reproduced during the ensuing 30 years.

The once-in-a-lifetime-ness of this experience isn’t dimmed by acknowledging the impacts of fossil-fuel extraction and human-caused climate change. I’m more inspired than ever to learn, speak out, and take action to slow, stop and, yes, eventually reverse the rise of greenhouse gases. And this was the most precious part of this past week: falling ever more in love with this very landscape, these dear creatures even as they are being permanently altered, and in some cases disappearing, before my eyes.

Iceberg in Surprise Ice Field, Alaska, 2019

We are tempted to distract (shopping, movies, TV, video games) and to numb (sugar, caffeine, drugs, and alcohol) to not notice. We check out to avoid being fully present in this moment. I get it: being present to the beauty in front of me also means heartbreak. It means facing overwhelm. It means reckoning with our significance. We turn away from the joy and the majesty because we can’t bear the loss, the devastation, the genocide. But what if openhearted heartbreak is the key to being both fully present and engaged? What if wonder-grief moments ignite in us an opportunity, a way forward, a hidden path revealed?

My saltwater tears mixed with Sound waters. My exclamations of outrage matched the rumbles of glacier ice calving. My existence is intimately bound by the land and beings around me. I am called to notice, to stand in love, to be in the now, to embrace my heartbreak as the power that sustains life.

Links for more information:

Children of the Arctic, 2014, documentary film (123 minutes).

“See for yourself: Alaska’s disappearing glaciers, then and now,” Erin McKittrick, Anchorage Daily News, July 24, 2016. URL

Coffee and Quaq, “Decolonization,” Episode 6, June 5, 2019 URL

Third National Climate Assessment (NCA3) 2014 URL; Alaska Findings in Third National Climate Assessment (NCA3) 2014 URL

“Record Early Alaska River Thaw Follows High Winter Temperatures,” Yereth Rosen, Reuters, April 14, 2019 URL

“Alaskan Village Citing Climate Change, Seeks Disaster Relief in order to Relocate,” Rachel Waldholz, NPR, All Things Considered, January 10, 2017 URL  

“For Alaskan Coastal Village Erosion Hits Home,” Rachel Waldholz, NPR, Morning Edition, December 20, 2017 URL  

MarineBio Conservation Society, Humpback Whales URL