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Ten Thoughts From A Once-in-a-Lifetime Trip To Alaska

A bald eagle takes flight in Tracy Arm Fjord.

Ten Thoughts From A Once-in-a-Lifetime Trip To Alaska

Abigail Dillen / Earthjustice
A bald eagle takes flight in Tracy Arm Fjord.
August 18, 2016
Map of Juneau and the glaciers.

This past June, Marie Claire made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. To accompany the magazine’s Creative Director, Nina Garcia (of Project Runway fame), to Alaska to visit Juneau’s famous ice field and see first-hand the march of climate change.

Nina is serious about elevating the issue of our time, and so am I. Every day, we hear stories of a new disaster caused by climate change. This August alone, we’ve seen deadly flash flooding from extreme rainfall in Louisiana and Maryland, monsoon flooding that has displaced millions in India and Pakistan, an unfathomable heat wave in the Middle East, with temperatures reaching 129°F in Iraq and Kuwait, raging wildfires across the American west, and the rapid escalation of the Zika health crisis. All of us should be alert to the crisis we are in, but we aren’t yet.

While climate change is slowly making its way into the front pages of newspapers, it is still discussed as a problem for the future. It isn’t. Disasters we have been dreading for years are now in full swing. To avoid locking in the worst potential of climate change, the latest science gives us 15 years, if that, to get off fossil fuels and transition to clean energy. While it’s hard to overstate the scale of the challenge, the technological solutions are arriving in time to meet it.

But change won’t come fast enough unless millions of people are demanding it and holding leaders accountable for achieving it—at the polls, in the courts, and in the streets. In this hottest year on record, my hope is that the millions of women, men and kids who care about climate change speak up!

It took me 44 years to get to Alaska, and every day was full of interest, worry and, most of all, wonder. Huge thanks to Marie Claire for bringing together a wonderful team, including author and journalist Kimberly Cutter and National Geographic photographer and conservationist Pete McBride, to raise consciousness in the fashion world. We had an unforgettable trip together. For once, I wrote some things down.

Here are a few of my notes from three packed days:

One Landing.
View of Lynn Canal.
Abigail Dillen / Earthjustice
View of Lynn Canal.

Nothing prepared me for the view from the plane window as we descend over Juneau. Now I will hear the word ‘archipelago’—a sea or stretch of water containing many islands—as even more beautiful. Fingers of green land break the surface of shining water. Snowcaps are the vivid contrast to the dark hulks of mountains, which rise up fast without a prelude of hills or even much valley. The mist blurs the edges of everything you see.

Ice cave at Mendenhall Glacier.
Abigail Dillen / Earthjustice
Ice cave at Mendenhall Glacier.

My spirits are lifting! I spent much of the flight Googling the possibility of dying in ice caves. As glaciers melt, ice caves that were stable for decades are collapsing.

This is a new fact of life in Alaska along with sea level rise engulfing Alaska Native villages, melting sea ice stranding hungry polar bears, and, of course, retreating glaciers.

My Internet searches revealed a whole new genre of tourism with “Bucket list” destinations for people who want to see places and creatures that won’t survive climate change. It’s all about collecting, and I am unhappy to be a part of it. But I can’t deny the thrill of landing in Alaska, in one of the planet’s last and largest temperate rain forests, with an ice cave in my future.

Two Eagles.
Bald eagles at Lemon Creek, near the 'dump' in Juneau.
Abigail Dillen / Earthjustice
Bald eagles at Lemon Creek, near the 'dump' in Juneau.

Bald eagles are everywhere. They are all along the road, presiding over signposts, light poles, the dump.

My heart is skipping beats at the prospect of wild riches all around. The Tongass forest, the salmon, the bears feel close. The abundance! In the lower 48, we’ve worked for so many years to restore salmon runs, to push grizzly bears back from the brink of extinction.

I’ve never been to a place where you don’t have to count the fish or the bears to know they are not in imminent danger of disappearing.

Three Cruise Ships.
A cruise ship, docked at Juneau.
A cruise ship, docked at Juneau.

In downtown Juneau, it feels like you’re under a mountain, which you are—Mount Juneau. The mountain defines the scale of the town, until you turn a corner and see a cruise ship, which upends all sense of scale. You might as well pick up whole crosstown blocks of midtown Manhattan and put them to sea, skyscrapers and all. And with the expansion of the Panama Canal, the cruise ships that come to Alaska can now get bigger.

There are ways to make cruises less polluting and less carbon intensive, but how can it ever work to drive cities around our overtaxed oceans?

As someone who took several planes to arrive in Juneau, I’m in no position to criticize. And given the choice between tourism versus clear-cutting, I’m glad that tourism is taking pressure off the Tongass Forest, where an end to old growth logging is at last in sight (after years of litigation by our Alaska office). Still, there’s something amiss when we have to travel with all the trappings of super consumption. Having arrived in Alaska to witness a climate crisis in process, cruise ships look a little like the end of times.

Four Fur.

The fading lobby of the Baranof Hotel and its ever-closed restaurant, The Gold Room, are in line with my vague notion of Russian style in decades past, which leads me to inquire about Baranof. He was the Czar of the Russian-American Company, a fur-trading enterprise that, like the Hudson Bay Company, was as much an imperial venture as a commercial one.

A carved seal at the Mt. Juneau Trading Post, a stored owned by a Tlingit family.
Abigail Dillen / Earthjustice
A carved seal at the Mt. Juneau Trading Post, a stored owned by a Tlingit family.

The fur trade is a study in the kind of rapaciousness that now drives climate change. Having run out of fur-bearing animals in Siberia, Russia was looking for a new source of foxes, beavers, sables, etc., and most especially sea otters, who survive in cold waters by having the densest, most luxurious fur on the planet.

Baranof’s four-decade reign (1790–1818) bookends the time it took for the Russian American Company and its competitors, including the Astors’ American Fur Company, to exhaust the world’s supply of sea otters.

By 1867, when U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward paid Russia $7.2 million to occupy Alaska—over the objection of Alaska Natives who pointed out that Alaska was not Russia’s to sell—sea otters were nearly extinct.

Thanks to a 1911 treaty that put a belated stop to hunting, sea otters have made a partial comeback in some places, most of all in Alaska. But much like people, they are now threatened by the oil industry (oil spills) and unchecked pollution.

Five Nina Garcia.
Nina Garcia (right), with Barbara Frank, the long-time office manager of Earthjustice's Alaska regional office.
Abigail Dillen / Earthjustice
Nina Garcia (right), with Barbara Frank, the long-time office manager of Earthjustice's Alaska regional office.

The moment I meet Nina Garcia at the Juneau airport, I stop worrying about how the trip will go.

“I have been working so long on climate and energy issues, the concept that climate change should transcend partisan politics strikes me as a fresh idea.”

She is charming, gracious, and effective. Everyone who meets her in Alaska is visibly delighted. Even more than her charisma, it’s her fundamental decency. She cares about climate change for the same reasons everyone should. She loves her family. She is awed by nature. She worries about the future. She thinks that climate change should not be a political issue. I have been working so long on climate and energy issues, the concept that climate change should transcend partisan politics strikes me as a fresh idea.

Six Oil.

From the Visitor’s Center at the Mendenhall Glacier you get a clear picture of how far the glacier has receded. The Center, which looks, in a glamorous way, like a set from North by Northwest, was built to place visitors right on top of the glacier. Now its wall of glass looks out on a lake with a glacier in the far distance. We want to see the glacier up close, so we charter a helicopter.

From behind the Visitor's Center's glass windows, which once overlooked Mendenhall Glacier.
Abigail Dillen / Earthjustice
From behind the Visitor's Center's glass windows, which once overlooked Mendenhall Glacier.

The morning of our helicopter trip, Holly Harris (a veteran Earthjustice attorney and Alaska expert who managed so many logistics for the trip) arrives in a five-star state of joy.

We’ve just gotten extraordinary news in our long-running court case to block oil leasing in the Arctic Ocean. Shell and every other oil company that staked a claim to drill for oil in the Chukchi Sea have given up, relinquishing all but one lease. Maybe the oil companies will be back when oil prices rise, but I don’t think so. It will be decades before any company can hope to produce oil in the Arctic Ocean. Shell was playing a long game, and there was no reason to give up now unless they concluded, as any rational company should, that a long game in oil will never pay off in a carbon-constrained world. That said, if our Alaska office hadn’t kept Shell at bay, year after year with lawsuit after lawsuit, they would be drilling by now.

On top of Mendenhall Glacier, in one of the spots we landed with the helicopter.
Abigail Dillen / Earthjustice
On top of Mendenhall Glacier, in one of the spots we landed with the helicopter.

As we’re celebrating this fantastic victory, I’m acutely aware that we are embarking on an oil-fueled adventure. I have never been in a helicopter before, but I think you must get a special high from flying over an ice field, crabbing at the sides of mountains, where ivory colored dots become mountain goats and white stripes become waterfalls. What a rush to arrive at a remote stretch of ancient ice, a new world suddenly spread out before us.

A helicopter creates the illusion of mastering the planet. But the thrill gives way to the anxiety of extravagance. Even more than usual, I am squandering resources. Easy to say, now that I have been effortlessly transported to the top of the world and seen these transcendent views, but it’s a pleasure I’m ready to give up.

Seven Ice Caves.
View over the Aleutian Islands.
Abigail Dillen / Earthjustice
Pete (center) and Nina, with our guide Elliot, in the ice cave.

On a gloriously sunny afternoon in rainy Juneau, we kayak to the Mendenhall Glacier and hike into an ice cave. It is spectacular and strange. Experience doesn’t provide any frame of reference to describe it, and I’m skeptical that any picture can wholly capture it. To hear the ice dripping and the loud cracks of rock shaking loose from the melting ice. To touch the cave walls and feel water coursing down them.

It’s like being inside a time-lapse video of a natural process that ought to happen at a glacial pace. A wave of sadness takes me by surprise. On our way back, Elliot (our guide) tells us that the cave will be gone by the end of summer.

Eight Whales.

I still can’t believe the wildlife we saw on our gorgeous boat trip to the Tracy Arm Fjord. Describing wildlife sightings is like trying to tell other people a dream you had. It’s hard to understand or care if you weren’t there. But I have to write the words down just to record the pure joy of seeing: the bear that ran up the Cliffside, the bald eagle that flew from the top of the bright blue iceberg, the harbor seals and the polka-dotted pups that lounged on the ice floes. The humpback whale calf that breeched right beside us!

  • Tracy Arm Fjord.
    Abigail Dillen / Earthjustice
    Tracy Arm Fjord.
  • Steller sea lions in Tracy Arm Fjord.
    Holly Harris / Earthjustice
    Steller sea lions in Tracy Arm Fjord.
  • Steller sea lions in Tracy Arm Fjord.
    Holly Harris / Earthjustice
    A bear, along Tracy Arm Fjord.

At some point in the mid-1970s, my mother took me to a Save the Whales event and bought me a picture book about humpback whales. She is an animal lover but not an activist. It almost surprises me that we were there. But we were, and so were a lot of people. Save the Whales was a powerful public campaign that worked. While serious threats to whales remain, the humpback is not extinct.

These are different times but public pressure is as essential now as it was then.

Nine Calving.
Sawyer Glacier.
Photos by Holly Harris / Earthjustice
Sawyer Glacier.
A chunk of ice breaks off from Sawyer Glacier.
Photos by Holly Harris / Earthjustice

Minutes after we arrive at the Sawyer Glacier, which is where the Tracy Arm Fjord dead-ends, a huge chunk of the glacier’s face breaks completely off and crashes into the water, making waves big enough to rock our boat. Imagine the Empire State Building falling off the New York skyline.

It seems impossible until the moment it happens.

Ten Celebration.

Every other year, thousands of Alaska Natives come together in Juneau, some traveling for days by canoe. To be present at the kick-off parade was an incredible privilege. The exquisite imagery of the traditional regalia that clan members of all ages were wearing—Eagle, Raven, Beaver, Frog, Wolf, Salmon, Badger, Bear—distilled the natural world of Alaska and made its eternal power visible. Walking back to the Baranof, the sense of community was so strong, I felt like a welcome guest at a very big reunion.

I worry whether modern culture in the U.S. will rise to the challenge of climate change. But tonight, I’m willing to believe in that strain in us that honors all the wonders of the world.

Abigail Dillen.
Photo by Kimberly Cutter

Abigail Dillen is Earthjustice's Vice President of Litigation for Climate & Energy. She leads the organization's litigation and legal advocacy to achieve the essential shift from fossil fuels to 100% clean energy.

Read more about the trip described in this feature in the September 2016 issue of Marie Claire.

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