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Portrait of change

A journey retracing photographer's footsteps shows evidence of ice melt

1940, The Hugh Miller Glacier, photographed by Bradford Washburn, who shot thousands of pictures of Alaskan glaciers from the 1930s to the 1960s.
1940, The Hugh Miller Glacier, photographed by Bradford Washburn, who shot thousands of pictures of Alaskan glaciers from the 1930s to the 1960s. (Bradford Washburn/Courtesy Panopticon Gallery, Boston)

GLACIER BAY NATIONAL PARK, ALASKA -- We are less than 700 feet above icy waters frosted with whitecaps off Cape Spencer. The left wing of the single-engine Cessna 185 seems within tickling distance of cliffs that rise vertically from the ocean into a mercury sky overhead. Rain starts pelting the windshield; the lousy visibility just got worse.

Bush pilot Les Hartley is flying me toward a glacier I had hoped to photograph from the air, but the forecast is not cooperating. In pilot-speak, we are now encountering minimal ''visual flight rules" conditions. That's giving a lot of breadth to ''minimal."

The rain comes hard and drives us lower. We are alone, with no radio communication, and we appear to have no emergency landing site if the engine conks.

I look at Hartley and try to sound conversational.

''I suppose we could always make a water landing if we lose power," I say.

''Wouldn't last 10 minutes in those temperatures," Hartley responds.

This would be the first of many times in the next four weeks when I would conclude: It's not easy chasing the shadow of Brad Washburn.

Last summer I embarked on a project in Alaska and the Alps rephotographing glaciers that had been shot decades earlier by explorer Bradford Washburn. My goal was to take large-format, black-and-white aerial photographs at approximately the same angles, positions, and altitudes used by Washburn.

Similar to his old friend Ansel Adams, Washburn's goal had been to artistically capture the earth on film, particularly confrontations of natural forces. My goal was to illustrate a chapter of the global climate story as told by retreating ice.

My planning had not factored in almost four weeks of rain, an emergency flood evacuation, a touch of hypoxia at 12,500 feet, and a lesson learned as members of an airport security team insisted on opening my box of exposed film: Never shout at TSA agents.

Washburn, a director at the Boston Museum of Science for 41 years, nurtured the museum from a musty collection of stuffed animals on Berkeley Street to the energized institution now encompassing Science Park. As a mountaineer, he made eight first-recorded ascents of North American peaks; as a cartographer, he authored two-dozen maps, several of which -- the Grand Canyon, Mount Everest, and Mount McKinley -- remain state of the art. As a photographer, he pioneered the high-resolution, large-format aerial picture.

Washburn hailed from a bygone era when social status, scientific investigation, mountaineering, and exploration all combined into a ''true Victorian style and character," biographer Michael Sfraga has written in ''Bradford Washburn, A Life of Exploration."

Today, Washburn is 95 years old and resident of a small home in Lexington that he shares with his wife, Barbara.

''I just took a picture when I thought it was worth taking," he explained recently, seated in a living room that offers no hint of the 13 honorary degrees and 30 major awards he has received, a few of them with his wife. He is a thin man with a slight frame that moves at a considered pace. Although staying on task can be challenging, Washburn's eyes don't appear to miss a thing.

It was more hubris than expertise that led me to duplicate a Washburn perspective. If he could shoot more than 15,000 pictures, then surely I could knock off a half-dozen twins without breaking a sweat. After all, he was burdened with a monster camera -- 75 pounds with film -- that he roped with himself into the removed cargo door of aircraft. He processed film in tents with 1930s photo chemistry and a makeshift film rack the size of a paddle wheel. My camera was a 5-pound miniature that could be operated in one hand, and I left the processing to others.

In the end I was able to create several pairs of pictures, particularly in Alaska, ''that show dramatic evidence of the disappearance of large areas and masses of glaciers," said Bruce Molnia, a research geologist with the US Geological Survey who specializes in climate change in Alaska.

The world is getting warmer. How much of that is due to human interference remains unclear.

''The pictures illustrate rapid change. They don't tell us why," he said. Nor do they hint at the challenges involved with chasing a Boston icon.

One of the most striking elements in many of Washburn's aerials are the ubiquitous clear skies that pull the eye to horizons a hundred miles away. Because he spent many decades of summers in Alaska, he had the luxury of cherry picking his days. Surely I could get just one such day in two weeks . . .

I arrived in Anchorage in the midnight light and rain. Local television showed the next week's forecast with those little pictographs. They were all clogged with raindrops.

My hope in Alaska had been to copy three photographs. Of my potential targets, the only Washburn image with clouds was a 1940 shot of the Hugh Miller Glacier, located in Glacier Bay National Park, some 500 miles southeast of Anchorage. With clouds in the forecast, it would be a good start. I split the difference between Anchorage and the glacier and flew commercially to the coastal town of Yakutat (pop. 800) to be within bush pilot striking distance of three potential targets.

Ten steps from the airport terminal is the Yakutat Lodge, flagged by a large sign promising ''Food. Shelter. Booze." It's a salmon-fishing camp, where the smell of diesel fuel, fish, and cigarettes comes with the lodging and friendly staff. This turned out to be home for the next two weeks. One companion of sorts was Igor, a bald eagle that liked to perch atop the airport's rotating beacon so he could get a 360-degree look-see without moving a muscle.

Another companion was Jack Endicottt, a 53-year-old man with an ample girth and a passion for Hawaiian shirts. Endicott owns one of the few local businesses, the Icy Waves Surf Shop. He has enjoyed a burgeoning business of late that thrives, in part, on temperatures that have risen an average of 3.4 degrees statewide in the past half-century, according to US Geological Survey records.

Of the 160,000 glaciers on the planet, 100,000 of them are in Alaska -- and it would be a ''roughly reasonable estimate" to say that almost 99 percent of those Alaskan glaciers are melting, according to Rod March, glaciologist with the Geological Survey. Last summer, the water temperature off the Yakutat beach reached 67 degrees. That's about the mid-July temperature off Chatham Beach on Cape Cod.

Endicott also works for the National Weather Service, and on my first day in Yakutat his NOAA-12 satellite was predicting partly cloudy skies over Glacier Bay National Park and the Hugh Miller Glacier. It was the forecast that led Les Hartley and me into heavy rain and a futile attempt to photograph Hugh Miller.

Several days later the rain took a break, and I found myself in Juneau, searching for a cheaper path to my target glacier. I wended my way to Fjord Flying Service to meet Chuck Schroth, owner of a Cessna grounded with mechanical problems. So we took off in a small, two-seat 1968 helicopter from which the passenger door had been removed. As we flew over pods of humpback whales, wolves, and grizzly and black bears, Schroth stressed that nothing should fall into the void perhaps 3 inches to my left.

''Even a pencil might foul the tail rotor," he warned. ''Bad for both of us." The old Hughes 269 felt somewhat like a prop-powered chaise longue; during one water crossing, I asked if his machine could glide to land if we lost power.

''No way. We go straight down," Schroth said. I concluded that bush pilots don't beat around it. They ought to have flight jackets with the inscription: ''Fly with a bush pilot when you need to get there in the worst way."

Needless to say, we made it to Hugh Miller, where both of us were dumbstruck by the glacier's decline. I took the picture and returned to Yakutat via Juneau, coddling a box of my first exposed film after more than a week in the field.

Rain would dominate every remaining day save one. As Dave Russell, another Yakutat pilot, explained, ''To get rid of the humidity you will have to move the ocean."

On my last free day, the clouds yielded to a very hazy sun. Just maybe a deep yellow lens filter would give black-and-white film some X-ray vision. Russell and his Cessna 210 airplane provided the ride more than 140 miles inland to try to locate an unnamed glacier Washburn had photographed in 1936. Washburn had been intrigued by the annual snow bands illustrating how the glacier crept downhill. It took a few passes at 12,500 feet, but we found it -- a wizened ghost of colder times. Its flesh was decaying; bones of earth poked through.

The airplane heater was no match for the temperatures at this altitude and the open windows through which I was shooting.

''My fingers are getting really cold," Russell said.

''Done!" I shouted after our third pass. I was beginning to feel dizzy from the thin air. ''Let's go home!" I suddenly realized that my mind wasn't right. I had totally confused the film holders. Which ones held exposed film was beyond me.

''Got to do it again," I told Russell. He returned, with fingers turning white. Washburn got cold, too, but his logs on the subject may provide some of the driest reading in Alaskan lore. On July 12, 1934, for example, he and pilot Bob Ellis were at 14,000 feet without oxygen in a Lockheed Vega seaplane. The door had been removed much earlier; frigid air had settled into the interior. ''Lost all sensation in my knees," he wrote. Then, partially numb, he realized the engine was stopped. One fuel tank had emptied. It took a half-minute for fuel in a second tank to make its stubborn way through a frosty line.

''Nerve-racking wait in a seaplane . . . 30 miles from the nearest water," he wrote.

One thing Washburn did not have to deal with was airport security.

I had yet to walk through the metal detector when I noticed an agent on the far side of security peeling off the last of the black tape sealing my film box shut. I shouted as if my child were being kidnapped.

''NO, NO, NO!"

There was a long line of waiting passengers. They went silent. The airport seemed to go silent. Then I was surrounded by big men in white shirts.

It took 20 minutes, a head-to-toe body check, warnings from them, and flattery about the importance of their mission from me . . . but I got the film back undamaged.

My trip to Switzerland was tame by comparison.

There are 110 glaciers in Switzerland, and since 1850, they have lost more than one-quarter of their surface area. By 2030, 20 to 70 percent of Swiss glaciers will be gone, according to Swiss geologists.

Last summer, four Swiss ski resorts covered the tops of glaciers with insulated wrappings reminiscent of the artist Christo to try to preserve glacial mass.

''It's not a permanent solution, but at least we are doing something to fight back," said Urs Elmiger, a director of the Andermatt resort.

My fight turned out -- once again -- to be with the weather. Rain grounded me for 12 of 14 days.

Floods during my last stop in Interlaken forced emergency evacuations.

I left in a rubber raft. It seemed a fitting end to the pursuit of a legend.

David Arnold's trips to Alaska and Switzerland were funded by the Oak and Kendall foundations on behalf of the Museum of Science in Boston. Educators there hope to use the picture comparisons to challenge visitors to think critically about the physical changes taking place on the planet and the natural and human forces that can drive them. David Arnold can be reached at northwester@comcast.net.

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