The most striking thing about the drive out of El Calafate on the way to the Patagonian glaciers is the trash. Sheer, flimsy, white plastic bags, tens of thousands of them, are strewn across acres of land. The harsh wind has blown them in curtains up against the chain-link fences around construction sites; thousands have been tilled into the mud of wide tire tracks; thousands more, tattered by sharp nettles, festoon the low, clumping bushes that cover the landscape.
The plastic bags have become such a problem that the local grocery store will no longer supply them to shoppers. El Calafate exists for glaciers and its proximity to Los Glaciares National Park. The town is a hodgepodge of houses, sheds and stores; the old section is clearly demarcated by the rows of tall, thick-trunked poplars that are to yards in Patagonia what privet hedges are to those in New England. The town is growing rapidly, with cinder-block hotels and vacation condos springing up everywhere, thanks to the tourist dollars pouring into its coffers. The shops are full of souvenirs, their windows plastered with posters of glaciers and ads for boat tours. Finishing touches are being put on a large casino.
Los Glaciares National Park was declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 1981. Argentina’s park service controls the number of visitors and the modes by which glaciers can be seen. Tour companies run boats of various sizes several times a day across the enormous Lake Argentino. Its peculiar blue-green water, called glacial milk, looks opaque because of the way light refracts off the silt and sediment it contains. We arrive at the boat to which we’ve been assigned and climb the stairs to the upper level, having paid extra for a V.I.P. area, the better to savor every moment of what we fully expect to become one of those memories of a lifetime.
Before we’ve even pulled out of El Calafate’s harbor, a fight erupts among several passengers over seating; the armchairs aren’t arranged in such a way to allow all the couples to be together. An elegant Frenchman, his head and neck swathed in an expensive vicuña scarf, is furiously berating the young boat attendant who, it seems, didn’t appreciate just how V.I.P. the man was; he wants the seats being occupied by a hip young British couple, who are not budging but yelling back at him. Their voices grow louder as the engine picks up.
To end the tirade, I offer my seat next to my teenage niece; she is plugged into her iPod and isn’t going to hear anything outside her own head anyway. The man looks disappointed and barely thanks me; his partner, whose melancholy hauteur is achievable only by elegant Frenchwomen of a certain age, buries her nose in a magazine article called “The Voice of Hamas” and does not look up again.
From the deck outside, I watch chunks of ice bob around us, and it’s disconcerting because the water looks as if it should have a Caribbean warmth. The scenery is stunning, a tableau off an inked Chinese screen. Cliffs rise straight up out of the water; evergreens cling to the rocky faces, their forms tortured and extruded by the fierce and unrelenting winds. Eagles soar over the boat. We nose into an inlet and the smell of fuel wafts through the air.
As I am an eco-tourist, I try to calculate how many years of subway rides it will take to atone for the carbon miles I have burned in the flight from New York City, but I lose track of the decimal points. The sun is so intense that my lips and skin burn even under a thick coat of sunscreen. We are following the exact route of the boats ahead of us, as there are, I suppose, only so many ways to get to a glacier.
Probably a hundred people are on our boat, and as we draw closer to land, the deck grows crowded. All of a sudden loud music blares through the speakers; Argentines seem fond of ’80s-era soundtracks and lose no opportunity to pipe them into any space. The disco beat reverberates across the deck, drowning out the engine and the wind. I expect other guests to make a run on the captain’s quarters to beg for relief, but instead a few make tentative Village People dance moves. Everyone has to shout to continue conversing.
The pieces of ice in the water around us are now larger; their shapes are mesmerizing, as are their colors, varying shades of an intense, crystalline blue that I’ve never before seen in nature. As if we were children watching clouds float through the sky, we start pointing out ice in the shapes of whales and giraffes, or fallen columns; the larger icebergs, showing only 15 percent of their incredible mass above water, look like ruined temples and amphitheaters.
We come in sight of the first glacier and it is strange and magnificent, a frozen river of jagged peaks. Water pours off the sides. Glaciers worldwide have been receding for more than a century, but the melting has accelerated catastrophically in the last few decades. The tree line has not had time to advance enough to catch up; the ice has left behind wide scars of bare, hardscrabble earth. All the glaciers in Patagonia save one are shrinking more rapidly every year.
To my teenage niece, who has unplugged herself and joined me on deck, I explain all the science of climate change I can muster. Every once in a while a thundering crack is audible over the human din, as a huge piece of ice breaks off the face of the glacier. By the time you’ve heard it, you’ve missed it, and can see only the widening ripples radiating from the water where the newly calved iceberg has fallen. We watch melting ice cascade off the glacier’s crenelated face. “I guess this gives new meaning to ‘a glacial pace,’” my niece remarks.
I try to imagine what it must have been like to see glaciers looming 19 or 20 stories above, as the guide puts it, from a small, fragile craft, rather than from our three-story-high cruiser, and then I realize how strange it is that we resort to the architectural measurements of skyscrapers to wrap our minds around such grandeur. Getting to the glaciers in a small boat as a backpacker might have done a mere 20 years ago is now a privilege reserved for the very wealthy. Our cruiser cannot get too close for fear of a chunk of ice breaking off and sinking it — in revenge?
The ancient, mythic language we use to describe the effects of climate is distorting, but hard to resist. We should know better, but we still refer to Mother Earth and her fury at our polluting ways, unleashing hurricanes, hurling tornadoes into strange places, punishing us with heat waves. We can’t seem to get past putting ourselves at the center of everything. Gazing at the glacier, I feel as if I am in the presence of a dying beast. But it isn’t the glacier that is dying.
By now, the deck is crowded and people are arguing, pushing and shoving each other aside to get pictures of a companion with the ice in the background. We drop anchor at the edge of the park and are told to follow a path to a beachfront on which to picnic and admire the view.
Walking the length of the beach is like crossing a city and hearing accents change along the way: there’s the German area; the Italian neighborhood; the Japanese block. Next come the Israelis, the British and of course the aloof French in a choice arrondissement. There are surprisingly few Americans on our boat. All along the water’s edge men and boys are picking up rocks to try to hit the ice chunks floating past. One child has gone so far as to wade in to drag a piece closer, and he is thwacking it urgently with a stick, desperate to break it. The stick shatters.
At the signal to get back on board we are reminded to leave nothing behind. I linger a bit, trying to steal a quiet moment in front of the glacier. I cannot seem to feel, in a deep way, the awe I know this spectacle deserves, a response more profound than the simple excitement that makes us reach for our cameras — closer perhaps, to a state of grace and wonder, the feeling of being in the presence of something holy. I cannot push aside the clamor of our journey or the mess of my companions. How can we expect anyone to care about melting glaciers in the abstract, in news articles and scientific papers, when even in the face of their stupendous presence we remain careless? Along the path grow exquisite, miniature Alpine flowers in every imaginable color, so tiny you could easily miss them. Among the delicate blossoms are bits of foil, trash, cigarette butts, broken glass and plastic water bottle caps. We can’t seem to help ourselves.
On the ship, people settle sleepily into the upholstery. We have four more glaciers to visit, but I suppose the general feeling in the napping class is that if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Meanwhile, life out on deck becomes friendlier, more cooperative. The music is not as loud. People give way at the rails to let others have a turn, and take pictures for one another. The feeling out here seems to be that there are plenty of glaciers to go around, more than enough glaciers for everyone.
By the time we pull up to the last one on the tour, only a few of us are left on deck. Everyone else is below, where I find that Champagne and chocolates are being served. Someone raises a glass.
“To the future!”
Dominique Browning, the former editor of House and Garden and the author of Around the House and in the Garden.