This is true.
Last spring, the Slims River in the Yukon’s Kluane National Park abruptly disappeared over the course of four days. A team of geologists and geoscientists that had been monitoring the retreat of the Kaskawulsh Glacier, the source of the Slims River, arrived to find dust where the mighty glacial river (one-third of a mile across at its widest places) had tumbled boulders and tree trunks just days before. Because the Alsek River, the glacier’s other outlet, had swelled to sixty times its usual flow, the field team concluded that the glacier’s intense, rapid melt had forced all of the water into the Alsek and away from the Slims.
This is the first time this kind of “river piracy” has been observed in recorded history, though the geological record indicates that it probably happened millions of years ago during other periods of extreme warming.
What matters: the Slims River is gone. What once roared toward the Kluane River and into the Yukon to the Bering Sea now spills south into the Alsek toward the Gulf of Alaska. Instead of river in that once green valley, the wind whips up dust storms; the air is oddly silent.
I walked along the Slims River twice. Once, in June of 2005, my friend Lia and I backpacked up the trail that followed its west side. We intended to hike all the way to the toe of the great Kaskawulsh, but the first day — a grueling fourteen miles that included an intense crossing of the swollen Bullion Creek, a grizzly bear encounter on the edge of some willows, a trudge through sticky glacial silt, and a scramble up and down a trail the park ranger at the Sheep Mountain information center had described as “more or less flat” — had nearly defeated us. We set up camp at Canada Creek, in full view of the massive river of ice, and poured vodka into orange Tang for supper. In the rose-red light, we grinned at each other, giddy with weariness and whatever was blossoming between us, which was not mere friendship anymore, and which seemed as raw and gorgeous as that landscape. Did we notice the Slims River? It roared, gray-blue milk, just yards to the east of our tent all night, as impassable as the steep walls of rock on either side of the valley. It roared, and there was never darkness; the sun set close to midnight; we could still see to trace each other’s faces in the early hours of the morning.
Eight years later, in June of 2013, I backpacked alone along the same trail on the west side of the Slims River, climbing up Sheep Mountain to a place where I could trace the braided curve of the Slims in the vast valley up toward the place where we had camped in view of the Kaskawulsh. In my two hands, I clutched a plastic Ziplock bag that contained some of Lia’s ashes. Not just ashes. Bits of bone. A piece of metal. When I sank my fingers into the bag, the white dust clung to my skin. I concentrated on the flowers that bobbed their heads in the wind on that rocky edge: the purple Ogilvie Spring Beauty, the yellow Maclean’s Goldenweed. Beyond, the Kaskawulsh curved in its frozen S. I knew the glacier moved, that it retreated daily, melting fast into the Slims and the Alsek, but I could not observe that action. I could barely breathe. When I filled my hands with Lia’s ashes, my fingertips remembered how soft her skin had been in the alpenglow at Canada Creek; when I opened my fingers, the wind swirled bone fragment and dust and threw it, laughing, into my eyes, my ears, my nostrils. Later, I crouched on the shore of the Slims, sinking my hands into the gray-blue milk. Ash swirled with silt, turning my hands to clay.
Sometime after Lia died, I wrote: The Kaskawulsh Glacier in the Yukon’s Kluane National Park moves forward in the summer at an average velocity of 16,380 meters per day. The current glacier reached to its furthest extent in the early 1700s, when Bach wrote cantatas, Louis XIV of Spain ceded world domination to Great Britain, the slave trade between Africa and the American colonies increased, hostilities between Native American tribes and the colonists increased, and the Persian army sacked Delhi. Scientists know the age of the Kaskawulsh because they have conducted dendroglaciological studies. “Dendr-” = “related to trees.” Ring series from white spruce trees divulge the advances and retreats because the Kaskawulsh sheared, tilted, killed. Velocity, simultaneous events, exact day and time. Shatter the ice, break the rock. I want to know what is inside.
The violence of the glacier fascinated me with its unpredictable advances and retreats, its ancient insistence on destruction. On the alpine ridge of Sheep Mountain that day in 2013, I stood feeling insignificant, aware of the mountains that rose ancient on all sides of me, of the glacier that told me time does not move as human beings believe it does. What is eight years, after all? I wondered, briefly, if the mud flats and the meadows purple and white with Alaska cotton remembered our footsteps, but I barely considered the braided river.
But now, when I visit that place again, I’ll find a valley of dust, sculpted by wind into phantom shapes, as if the Slims River never was.
This is what a death is like for those who continue living. Once, a person stood there, infuriating or enamoring us with a face alight with anger or sadness or frustration or joy. Once, a person reached out arms to embrace us or threw up hands to ward us off. Once, there was skin to caress, a mouth to kiss, a mind to question. And then, very suddenly, no matter if the person dies at forty-two, as Lia did, or at ninety-eight, as my grandmother did, there is an eerie, silent absence. As if the person had never been there at all.
The body is cremated or buried or donated to science. We stand in an empty room and try to remember how a voice sounded, exactly what a face looked like. Photographs are flawed historians; our memories tilt, filtered. If only we could ask her one more question, touch her cheek one more time, look upon her face just for one more moment. Only absence answers.
The Slims River in the Yukon is gone. I could walk across the entire broad valley from west to east, now. Lia is gone. Her raucous voice, her wild hair, her sacrilegious sense of humor, her paradoxical softness and edginess will never ripple in the world again. And others that I have loved are gone: Fern, John, Ida Ruth, Bill. I stand on a shore and close my eyes, straining to remember.
Years ago, when I wrote the first drafts of Grief Map, which releases from Brain Mill Press today, I was still desperate to recreate what was gone. I wanted my words to do what reality refused to do: bring back flesh, restore breath. Fiercely, I imagined myself walking that trail west of the Slims again: When I study the mud, I know I might find the overlapping footprints she and I left here in 2005 . . . Here in this air our laughter and our words exist, still. Here are the descendants of the same plants – lupine, penstemon, fireweed — that we flattened with our steps, touched with our fingertips, picked for each other’s hair. Here is the same grove of aspens, grown a little taller, and the same spruce forest . . .
What I did not yet understand was that I am still alive. It is not time for me to sink into the glacial silt and disappear from this world. I have more walking to do. I have other river trails to explore; I have others to love well.
In her poem “When Death Comes,” Mary Oliver writes that we can each make a choice about how to live until that inevitable moment when we must “step through the door” of death. She says:
When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this
In my dreams, I do sometimes walk through a meadow of Alaska cotton on the west shore of the Slims. I do sometimes taste orange Tang and vodka. I do sometimes hear Lia’s infectious laugh. But when I wake, I snuggle close to my wife, Meredith, delight in her soft warm skin, treasure the crazy energy of our ten-year-old daughter and the dog leaping onto our bed. I am here, though the Slims River is gone. I am here, and I do not plan to merely visit this world.
Sarah Hahn Campbell’s book of linked essays, Grief Map, published by Brain Mill Press, releases today in print and ebook, available from sellers and distributors everywhere, and in fine first edition print and ebook directly from Brain Mill Press.