BYLOT ISLAND, Nunavut - I had always considered global warming an alarming, but strangely abstract concept, until the phenomenon took on a human dimension here in the Canadian High Arctic. Known as one of the great breeding grounds of northern seabirds, much of this eastern island is covered with a tongue of ice that remains from the Wisconsin glaciation, which gave up its grip on most of North America some 15,000 years ago. But here the glacier lives on, indistinguishable from the permanent polar ice.
Six dozen of us from a Cruise North expedition were hiking inland from a shore landing by zodiac to the looming face of the glacier. The Inuit-owned company makes several voyages into the Arctic netherworld from late June, when the winter sea ice begins to clear, until early September, when winter again descends.
Since 2003, Bylot has been part of the 8,500-square-mile Sermilik National Park, which receives only about 200 visitors a year. Our contingent would skew the 2006 statistics by a third. The name means "place of glaciers" in Inuktitut, the language of the people whose ancestors have embraced this terrain of stone and ice for at least the last 4,000 years. As we set out from the stony beach, Israel Mablick, a Parks Canada ranger who hails from the Inuit village of Pond Inlet (population 1,220), on the northeastern end of Baffin Island, offered his culture's classic caution to travel at the pace the land sets, as people have done for thousands of years.
And the land said slow. We hopped between boulders, jumped small streams, and forded large ones as we zigzagged toward the glacier. The scene was almost lunar in its desolation, yet the water teemed with green algae and the rocks were crusted with sage- and rust-colored lichens. In the long days of late August, tiny sedges poked their seed heads up between the cobbles, and minute flowers flourished in inch-high meadows.
For three-quarters of a mile our group picked its way through the boulder field. After an hour, we seemed to enter another climate - or perhaps another age of the planet - as the cold, dank breath of the glacier filled the air. We stepped forward and laid our hands on a mountain of gray ice veiled in dust and grit. Beneath that crusted surface, Mablick told us, the ice was the texture of thick pancake batter, slowly slumping across the landscape.
Carefully skirting the puddles of quicksand at the glacier's lip, we poked and prodded and took innumerable indistinguishable photographs of what seemed an elemental force of nature. If the glacier held any secrets, it wasn't giving them up. The return journey was subdued, perhaps quieted by experiencing the wall of ice. Meltwater flowed around our feet, sluiced through the cobbles, and washed down the gentle slope to the Arctic Ocean.
As we drew near the zodiacs we had left on the beach, Mablick stopped, pushed back the bill of his cap, and pointed to a small ridgeline no more than 50 feet from the ocean. "I caught my first Arctic hare there 20 years ago," he recalled. "The glacier came right down to that spot."
And then I understood. "Glacial" is an adjective we once used to mean "slow" - an action best measured in geological time, in epochs of the earth. But in the years it took for him to grow from boy to man, Mablick could mark a change that those of us from temperate climes could only imagine. He had seen the face of global warming on the landscape, and the retreat of the ice was no abstraction.
Patricia Harris, a Cambridge-based freelance writer, can be reached at email@example.com.