The inky blue ice lets out mighty groans and grumbles. You probably would too as you were released from thousands of years trapped in a glacier. Passengers from the Seabourn Sojourn have reached the inner sanctum of the valley of the Briksdal Glacier and we’re being treated to a show of cracking and tumbling ice accompanied by thunderclaps of sound. It’s been a long climb to get here, but it was well worth the effort.
At every turn on the trail to the glacier, more waterfalls of melt water from dramatic snow-capped peaks have loomed into view. The path has been decorated by nature with wildflowers and made more thrilling by rushing streams splashing over rocks and pouring over cliffs. Occasionally the friendly face of a grazing goat pops up through the underbrush. And finally after nearly an hour of walking uphill came the grand finale, as a tongue of ice a gorgeous shade of blue came into view.
Norway’s storied Briksdal Glacier is so iconic that it was the a must-do destination for most of the guests on Seabourn Sojourn on the afternoon of the day we docked in the village of Olden, at the end of the Nordfjord, the sixth longest fjord on the coast of Norway.
Even the half hour drive to the glacier is gorgeous. The water of the glacier-fed lakes are in other-worldly shades of green and blue. Bell shaped foxglove flowers line the roads.
This can be a dangerous place in the winter, our guide says. Large swaths of trees on the slopes are tumbled into twisted piles. Some were downed by avalanches caused by heavy winter snow but many others were toppled by what locals described as a “hurricane” on Christmas Eve last year that left the whole area without power for days and turned entire forests into jumbles of logs. The soil on the rocky slopes is just so thin that trees have a tenuous hold, our guide explains.
When our bus pulls into the Jostedal Glacier National Park there’s no glacier in sight. It’s an hour’s walk away up on twisting road through a valley that’s a lesson in how quickly the earth can change.
Whether or not you’re persuaded that human activity is the only factor behind global warming, the trek to Briksdal glacier dramatically demonstrates that there’s a lot less ice here than there used to be even a few years ago. Only a few minutes after we start along the trail is a sign that marks awhat had been the glacier’s edge 1770. There’s nothing but forest to be seen here; we’re half an hour’s walk from even a glimpse of today’s glacial edge.
Much further along we reach a sign that marks the glacier’s edge in 1920. That’s still easily 15 minutes’ walk from the point where the glacier ended just eight years ago.
I’m on a tour booked through Seabourn and the bus and guide are excellent. Normann Kirkeeide who was a reporter for a newspaper in Bergen for 30 years is our guide and he’s seen the ice disappearing literally before his eyes. Until two years ago, the ice formed a tongue all the way into the valley but in 2010 a gap formed between the upper and lower parts and Briksdal is now technically a hanging glacier jutting out over the edge of a cliff rather than forming a continuous flow of ice into the valley.
A photo of the valley only eight years ago shows the lower edge of ice extending much further out into the valley, in an area that today is a shallow lake. But dramatic changes are regularly happening in glacier country, Mr. Kirkeeide says.
A pretty scary thing he points out at one point along the trail are a mass of building-sized bounders. These weren’t here two years ago, he says. A winter avalanche off the steep hills let these monster rocks tumble down the slope at the speed of an express train. Fortunately no one was underneath at the time.
There’s no reason to worry about our safety on today’s hike, though. The route is along mostly well tended paths so people with reasonable fitness are able to do the trip up on about an hour and a little less back because it’s downhill. For convenience there’s always been transport to the glacier face as an alternative to hiking. Until the 1950s there were horse carts but in the modern era they’ve been replaced by the equivalent of big golf carts that carry a dozen passengers. Their nickname is TrollCars, in honor of fables that friendly but mischievous families of little trolls inhabit the fjords.
A temporary barrier and warning signs are set up near the edge of the ice to keep visitors from walking out across the glacier at the face. It’s become dangerous to stand beneath the ice tonge when huge slabs of ice split off and tumble onto the snow field below. But we can get close enough to get an eye-filling impression of just how much ice there is and how incredibly blue that ice can become when it’s been compressed under huge weight.
Even on a clear day it can be a good idea to bring a rain-proof jacket and a hat for the trip to the glacier. There are places where cataracts of water plummet right alongside the trail and there’s such a heavy mist that it feels like walking through a waterfall. One of the passengers who had the foresight to bring a rain slicker decided to wrap up basketball size chunk of ice from the glacieer’s edge to take back to the ship as a souvenir. It wasn’t the most practical thing to do because it easily weighed 20 pounds but it made for a fascinating show and tell item.
Even though it came from the blue glacier, it’s not blue at all, but crystal clear. And it’s filled with bubbles of air that made cracking and popping sounds as the ice melted and the air escaped. It seemed remarkable to think that the air in those bubbles could be from a time before humans lived in Norway. Scientists study the air trapped in glacial ice to get an idea of what the atmosphere was like before humans even started polluting the air.
I felt better just holding it, and I even got a taste. The piece lasted long enough that when we got back to the ship there was enough left to break into chunks to chill our cocktails.
Here’s hoping there will still be plenty of ice left for future generations.