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September 2007

The Impact of Climate Change on Florida’s Everglades, Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias

What do Florida's Everglades and Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias have in common? Both face uncertain futures as temperatures rise.

The next day, I kayaked out to North Nest Key, a trip that promised (on paper, at least) seclusion and Caribbean-quality water. But I spent my outgoing journey dodging drunken powerboaters, then listening to competing stereos as revelers partied the afternoon away on North Nest’s beach. Later, I drove back through the Keys, running a gauntlet of cell-phone towers, screaming billboards, Winnebagos towing SUVs, and road-construction projects that scientists have blamed for a recent rash of toxic algae blooms.

The fact that much of this ordeal took place within the national park’s borders should tell you something about the frontcountry Everglades experience. But now, in Hells Bay, I am alone in the backcountry, hanging in a hammock and surrounded by water and trees and blue sky. As the sun begins to smolder on the horizon, two dolphins swim past, splashing and chasing each other’s tail. The sun goes down quickly, leaving me submerged in an overwhelming silence, under a sky dotted with cool, bright stars.

I became a father at the age of 43, a little late in life. I had reported all over the world, and I had seen enough of the consequences of greed and desperation up close–genocide in Rwanda, assassinations in Colombia, Ebola in Uganda–that I found it difficult to overcome the paralysis of pessimism. In particular, I found it hard to believe that any world my offspring might inhabit would be worth living in.

But I had also experienced the flip side of human folly, in the many generous, undaunted individuals I have gotten to know–people who believed they could make the world better, for humans and for nature. Having children was, for me, a tremendous acquiescence to their optimism. It has also turned out to be the best decision I have ever made.

Our oldest son, Charlie, is 4 now, teaching his younger brother, Joe, how to chase frogs and butterflies around our backyard. But in Vermont, we can see the changes; the average winter temperature in the Northeast has risen 2.8°F since 1971. Summers are rainier, the ski season is shorter, and the maple sap doesn’t run the way it used to.

One of the great joys of parenthood is the chance to share outdoor experiences with your kids. I’m guessing there’s still time to bring my boys to the Everglades and the Wrangells. But what about their children? Will they be able to paddle through these shadowy, jungled passages, and walk among these magnificent glaciers? From what I’ve seen so far, the odds are not good.

On the second day of my Alaska hike, I wake with an energy I haven’t felt for some time. The world might be crumbling under the weight of humankind’s ham-handed machinations, but here I feel nothing but the unfathomable space of blue sky, the press of the mountains, the sharpness of the air in my lungs.

Millen and I break camp, strap on our crampons, and head across the Root Glacier, a river of ice that flows into the Kennicott Glacier just before its terminal moraine. Snapping and cracking all around us and under our feet, the glacier feels very much alive. We skirt glacial ponds of unimaginably blue water, and dodge the crevasse-covering remnants of winter snow, knowing that a careless step could make us part of the history of this place.

Coming off the Root Glacier’s western moraine, we walk through ankle-deep mud at the transition zone, then up a steep hill and onto the scree slope leading to Mt. Donoho’s saddle. Upon topping the scree, we bushwhack through thick underbrush, choking on clouds of alder and willow pollen.

Over the next two days, we push through a landscape that very few Americans ever have the chance to see, a landscape whose scale can be appreciated only on foot. We go from glacier to moraine and moraine to glacier, crossing striped highways of ice and rock and chaotic hills of Marslike rubble, feeling the catabatic winds go from cold to warm in an instant. We spot grizzlies and marmots, ptarmigans and eagles; we hike into the alpenglow, crossing streams and tightrope-walking sharp arêtes, treating blisters and setting up camp as the last of the sun reflects off the high snowfields.

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