A look back - 'Sapphire Drift'

I realized something, a while back. I have a bunch of photographs on this website – but most of them (my ‘older’ ones, at least) have never had their story told.

So, from time to time, I’m going to revisit some of my favorite images, and share a little about them.


'Sapphire Drift'

March 2nd, 2013

Scott Slone (aka 'My brother from another mother') and I stood just outside a large cavern.

The air coming out of it was cold, but not because it came from a source deep from within the earth.

This was an ice cave.

Ice caves typically form when melt water creates a moulin (a vertical or nearly vertical meltwater shaft in a glacier) during the warmer months. That inter-ice meltwater shaft, or river, can change course and move horizontally. Many times, this happens once the moulin reaches bedrock and can dig no deeper.

Glacial ice caves can be difficult to find, more difficult to reach, and can be extremely dangerous to explore. Whenever we venture out onto a glacier, I always hope to find an ice cave.

They are exotic locations, if a bit claustrophobic. The water laps at the inner surface of the tube, small inconsistencies in ice density and structure are amplified until they become beautiful scalloped divots, covering every section of the cave wall. These shallow cups reflect, refract, mirror, and confuse the visitor. Some sections can be so clear that it becomes easy to mistake solid ice for clear space.

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Where small fractures do exist within the ice, they appear like shredded diamond dust - suspended in multi-dimensional, erratic veins. The sparkle they emit, shifts and morphs with every slight change in position. Tiny bubbles appear are also scattered randomly throughout the ice, tiny pockets of air that last tasted freedom several hundreds years before.

Things echo and crunch within ice caves. Not a tremendously comforting sound. Creaking and popping are worse though - like standing on a questionably frozen lake, the uncertainty is always there. But instead of the concern of breaking through and falling into extremely cold water below, the worry is that the ice above will fracture - sending several tons of ice crashing down upon us.

Ice caves, by nature, are doomed to fail. The hope is to get in, get your shots, and get out. Every extra second inside an ice cave is courting time. And time never fights fair.

We had spent some time, the previous month, exploring a section of the Matanuska Glacier not far from this cave. But glacial features, like caves and crevasses, are naturally camouflaged. They blend into their surroundings so that there is equal danger in finding them as there is in missing them completely.

This particular cave was actually a tunnel, open at both ends. Our entrance was a gaping maw, like staring into the throat of a giant beast. It was twenty feet tall, but quickly narrowed to an exit only a few feet tall on the sides, and the top of the far opening sagged even lower. Once inside, I quickly got to work. I don't like tight places as it is - especially ones that can kill me.

After getting a few establishing shots that didn't do much for me, I was drawn to a snow drift, nearer the smaller (and hence, more claustrophobic) opening. It wasn't a large drift, perhaps only 3 feet tall at its  crest. But the lovely etched snow mirrored the ice above it, the scalloped forms creating a counterpoint to the rippled white powder. Looking at the image now, I can feel the soft snow beneath my knees as I got as low as possible - to give the drift more prominence. The ceiling of the ice cave felt as if it was slowly pressing down on me - waiting for us to linger too long.

As we were gathering our gear, to leave the cave, I glanced at the ceiling. It was like being in a circus funhouse - but instead of mirrors, my surroundings were made of sapphire panels. Each one was unique and offered a different view of the inside of a glacier. A place few people get to see. I took several handheld images of these forms in the ceiling, and although the surfaces were not mirrors, I still caught a few glimpses of myself inside that cave. Not literal reflections, just the opportunity to reflect.

We may go out to these wild places to photograph what we find there. But sometimes, if we are lucky, we find ourselves in the process.

I took this image at 9:58 am.

Sapphire Drift