A blue cake with speckled white frosting; that’s how I’d describe Franz Josef Glacier. The blue carried notes of the Caribbean Sea, but that didn’t quite match the hue exactly. Franz Josef was a tinge of blue my eyes had never seen before. Weeks later, I’d identify it as glacial blue.
When Beth and I arrived at Franz Josef Glacier we lingered at the roped off area, taking in our surroundings. Chalky water, rainforest greenery, rock face waterfalls, clouds mingling with mountain peaks, and Franz Josef Glacier dead ahead. With numerous signs warning of danger, Beth and I wondered why a permanent barrier was not in place. No matter the risk or countless signs warning of the rivers unpredictable nature, we witnessed several groups of people cross the yellow rope.
A short walk to Sentinel Rock revealed a new dynamic from above, exposing more of Franz Josef Glacier, the waterfalls, the river, the hide and seek of the cloudy summits. With the sun shining, we were grateful for a beautiful day. And so, we lingered on our walks and at the viewpoints.
The following day, Beth and I joined an Eco Tour to learn more. Our tour guide, Laura, was talkative, fun, conscientious, and engaging. With two small kids in our party, I was a little leery. Christopher James, a four-year-old, became our leader for much of the excursion. His two-year-old brother Dominic, was quieter; a mama’s boy. Christopher kept many people on their toes as he ran a little wild. He was an adorable Asian Australian, and he was fortunate to have enough people chasing him down to keep him safe. Christopher and Dominic’s 18-year-old brother Ben was very happy that university was in his near future.
Rose and Angie were visiting from England. Unfortunately, the pound lost its strength and they had to adjust their itinerary. They didn’t complain, they just enjoyed a different type of adventure.
The track to Franz Josef Glacier was washed out in places; workers were making repairs. On our tour, we learned about the track and its propensity for constant change. It’s not that the water floods over the banks, it changes direction, continually reshaping the landscape. Therefore, the Department of Conservation (DOC) installs temporary barriers which are adjusted as needed. Thus, the answer to our question the previous day.
On our Eco Tour, Laura talked about the trees and the plants. Laura picked a leaf from a tree and handed it to Rose. “Here, chew on this; it has a peppery taste, then your gums go numb.” Rose’s face distorted a bit. Laura continued, “You don’t have to chew for very long. This plant was used as medicine for people in the early days.” After several others in the group tried the numbing leaf, I put it in my mouth. Peppery, numb: exactly what Laura described. “This is a young rain forest, about 1,000 years old.” Laura went on, “Age of the rainforest is measured by the foliage. As the glacier recedes, the rainforest comes to life.”
Another guide, Cliff, joined us as we rounded a corner. Cliff had been assessing the recently damaged track. With Christopher James in his arms, Cliff set off to check the progress of the DOC. After climbing over the barrier, our group met up with the big man, little man. The DOC men were working with a small bulldozer and shovels to keep the track open. Our group was advised to go far right to pass. With the water’s edge very close in my periphery, I heeded the warning. Cliff handed Christopher over to us and bid us ado.
As we walked, Laura said, “We are really lucky today, we are the only group down here. If everyone is willing, we will cross the water several times.” I smiled when I heard that, but I noticed Angie’s hesitancy. Thankfully, in the end, everyone wanted a closer glimpse of Franz Josef Glacier. The journey was incredible. Phil, the father of the boys carried two year old Dominic on his back. At a crossing his foot dipped into the water. Phil was the only person to get a wet foot yet, surrounded by all of the beauty, it seemed to go unnoticed.
“Look at the rocks in front of you. In 2008, that had been the glacier. There was much growth in the glacier from 2004 to 2008. It started to recede in 2010. The changes continue as the tectonic plates keep moving. That’s what makes this land more alps than on the North Island which has more volcanoes.” At another spot where we could see the entire glacier, Laura continued to educate us. “The reason you see the color blue is because blue is so dense. All the other colors are absorbed by the ice and the snow. You’ll also see blue in the small glacial pools. Reflections of the light from the sky contribute as well.” In a quizzical tone, almost to herself, Laura continued. “I wonder what colors other animals see? We see blue, they may see something else.”
Laura was carrying a full backpack filled with an orange tent for 20, a first aid kit, and thermoses full of hot water. Our guide was prepared for the elements. Once we were as close to Franz Josef as safely possible, Laura offered us tea, coffee or cocoa. Staring at the glacier, watching helicopters buzz the peaks, with waterfalls gushing from the rocks nearly everywhere we looked, we had cookies and hot cocoa. Many photos were taken to preserve the memory. After our “high tea,” we left to seek the dead ice.
“Dead ice isn’t really dead, it is ice that has broken off the glacier. Due to the constantly shifting landscape I ask that you not get too close. I’d rather not have a rock fall on someone’s head,” Laura said. All eyes focused on Christopher. As we stood before the chunk of dripping blue ice, many small rocks fell. Unfortunately, photos of the dead ice melting were too hard to capture. After the dead ice, we walked the public track.
A glacial pool kindly posed for more pictures. I noticed Beth crouching down to capture the pool so I moved on. On the way back, people in our group were happily socializing. However, we did pay close attention at the river crossing as the terrain had already shifted. Looking back, we noticed Franz Josef disappear behind a layer of clouds. Two DOC workers were by the water plunging the bulldozer shovel along the water’s edge. The other two were on a lunch break. I thanked them for their work and we continued on the track. Once we crossed the roped barrier a man approached me. “Excuse me, why can you go there but we cannot?”
“Well, we are with a tour guide. You can only go beyond the rope with a guide. The track is washed out, but they continue to work on it. It’s too dangerous without a guide and they won’t let you past a certain point. The tour is well worth $75.00.” He nodded and we parted ways.
Laura thanked us and said, “Usually ‘Franz Josef’ are the most frequently spoken words on a tour. Today I think it was ‘Christopher’. We have had a small peek into your daily lives,” she said to Phil and his wife. They smiled.
Upon returning to town, Beth and I went to Snakebites for some lunch. While Beth waited by the table, I ran for the bathroom. When I returned to the table, Beth was nowhere to be found. After our three hour tour, I assumed she had to relieve herself as well. What really happened was the terrifying realization that her jacket was gone … and the car key was in the pocket. Frantically, Beth ran over to the tour office to check our rain gear and the van. As I was perusing the menu and waiting for my beverage, Beth ducked in to tell me what happened. In a flash, she was gone. The waitress overheard Beth’s horror story. When she asked, “Are you ready to order?” I responded, “I do, but I can’t until I know what is happening.” She nodded and walked away. Left at the restaurant, I felt like Elaine in a Seinfeld episode. With a beer in front of me, I wondered what to do. Guiltily, I slowly sipped the beer. Eventually, I placed a food order. All the while, I kept an eye out for Beth. Halfway through my meal, Beth returned without her coat nor the car key. She was totally depleted. Although I was still thirsty and hungry, I passed over the beer and the food. As Beth slowly raised her fork I said, “I’m not Elaine.” At first it didn’t register, but as Beth sipped the beer she smirked at me. Beth was harried and out of sorts. After a few bites of food she put her fork down, totally defeated. Later she told me she just felt sick.
My concern was real, but there was nothing to do but wait once Beth disappeared. Hungry and thirsty, I did what I could; I looked up a locksmith, contacted our host for the night, and remained calm. At that point, our choices were limited. If the car key was lost it was going to cost us both time and money, but we were safe and sound.
As soon Beth stormed the tour office, our tour guide Laura stopped eating her lunch and she drove Beth back to Franz Josef Glacier. She told Beth that she was going to drive faster than she did with the group. As they flew over the speed bumps, Beth knew Laura wasn’t kidding. When they arrived at the parking area Beth said she was ready to climb the glacier again. Fortunately, Laura stopped her; it wasn’t safe without a guide. Cliff’s group was heading out so they would look for the black Arc’Teryx jacket. Not only was the key lost, but Beth’s favorite and only warm coat was somewhere on the glacier as well.
At Snakebites I asked, “When was the last time you remember having the jacket?”
“At the glacier.”
“Okay, well let’s look through our pictures to see when you last had it.” After the dead ice, the photos revealed her coat was missing.
With that knowledge, Beth again ran over to the tour office and revealed our findings. They contacted Cliff and we were back to waiting. Cliff’s tour was due to return at 5PM. Beth checked the police station and grocery store to see if anyone turned in the missing items. No luck. In the meantime, I went to see about possible accommodations for the night. When the locksmith returned our call, I discovered he’d be happy to take the two hour drive in the morning for a mere $500+. I told him I’d let him know asap.
As we waited at the information center, several texts came through … no jacket on the track … no jacket at the rest stop. The sick feeling intensified. Then about 4PM, a miracle text appeared, “They found it.” Beth was ecstatic. At the last minute one of the people on Cliff’s tour had walked over to a glacial pool. As he turned something caught his eye, something black. The state of Pennsylvania holds a special place in our hearts as we now refer to them as our saviors. The man’s wife said, “From now on you need to tie your coat around your waist.” A given. Although Beth’s coat pocket was a secure place for the key, her coat was free to leave her body. With a three hour ride ahead of us, we bid Franz Josef Glacier farewell. With everything that happened I reminded Beth, “It is a wonderful day AND we are okay. That’s most important.” Franz Josef Glacier will be remembered for many reasons. And for that I am so grateful. Be well… Nancy T