By Matt Beedle
With their initial steps along Lemon Creek Trail today, Juneau Icefield Research Program (JIRP) participants marked the beginning of an annual expedition to the Juneau Icefield. This hallowed academic expedition has roots reaching back to 1948, and a history of visioning and reconnaissance beginning in the early 1940s.
In August and September of 1941, a team that included William O. Field, Jr. and Maynard M. Miller (amongst others) studied the glacier termini of Glacier Bay and the inlets and fjords near Juneau (Field, 1942). Field and Miller would later recall that it was during this expedition of the 1940s that it began to become apparent that it was necessary to study the upper reaches of these Alaska glaciers to understand their disparate behavior (Field and Miller, 1950).
Until the 1940s the vast bulk of scientific observation of Alaska glaciers was of their termini, with many hundreds of stations established for repeat photography and surveying of glacier length change. What was apparent – and what dominated as the key ‘problem’ in the glaciology of southeast Alaska at the time – was how some glaciers (most notably those of Glacier Bay) were receding dramatically, while others (such as Taku Glacier) were advancing vigorously. What was the cause of this dichotomy? Field and Miller were being drawn to the upper reaches of these glaciers as the best place to uncover what was driving the terminus changes that had been observed for decades. However, these upper reaches – the massive icefields of the Coast Mountains - were still, for the most part, unexplored:
“Taku Glacier heads far back in the mountains, no one knows where . . .”
--Israel Russell, Glaciers of North America, 1897
At the American Geographical Society in 1946 Field and Miller began to collaborate on what would become the Juneau Icefield Research Project (Field, 2004). In 1948, with American Geographic Society funding, Field and Miller initiated which was envisioned then as:
“ . . . a program for which would initiate over a period of years comprehensive studies not only of the Juneau Ice Field but on other representative ice masses in both North and South America . . .”
--Field and Miller, The Juneau Icefield Research Project, 1950
JIRP work on the icefield began in the summer of 1948 with a reconnaissance party tasked with searching for routes to access the accumulation area of the Juneau Icefield, and to begin to determine the gear and logistics necessary to carry out thorough investigations. Over the course of three weeks a team of six carried out this early reconnaissance and also initiated glaciological, geological, botanical and meteorological studies.
Following the early, more exploratory years of JIRP in the late-1940s, extensive field research in the 1950s was lead by a host of collaborators, including Calvin Heusser, Art Gilkey, Ed LaChappelle, and Larry Nielson along with Field and Miller. These early years of JIRP are brilliantly chronicled in a recent retrospective by Calvin Heusser, complete with wonderful journal entries from the early expeditions on the Juneau Icefield (Heusser, 2007).
In the late-1950s and early-1960s JIRP the 'Project' became JIRP the 'Program'. This transition, and subsequent half-century of JIRP, was lead by the team of Maynard and Joan Miller. And while it was Maynard and Joan who were the driving force behind JIRP for many decades, I would be remiss if I did not mention the efforts of hundreds of devoted volunteers and financial supporters that have brought to fruition this experience for further generations.
JIRP truly has become multi-generational, with the children and grandchildren of Maynard Miller and Tony Thomas (both members of the 1948 reconnaissance) also participating in and helping to lead JIRP in subsequent decades. And while JIRP can count familial generations as participants, it has also inspired multiple generations of scientists, adventurers and artists:
“My JIRP experience strengthened in me a love of exploration that ultimately led to my participation in the space program, including the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity. JIRP was fundamental to my growth as a scientist and as a person.”
-- Dr. Steven Squyres, Professor of Astronomy, Cornell University; Principal Investigator of Mars Exploration Rover Project
“I’d always wanted to be an explorer when I grew up . . . JIRP essentially taught me how. It’s not about being the first person to plant flags and leave footprints somewhere. It’s about mapping the world in new ways, and in the process, discovering untrammeled territory in yourself.”
--Kate Harris, author and adventurer, named one of Canada’s top 10 adventurers by Explore Magazine
And today, 65 years after the first reconnaissance team of six, JIRP continues as an unrivaled academic expedition. Over the next seven weeks, across the Juneau Icefield from Juneau, AK to Atlin, BC, 25 new JIRPers will join the storied history of JIRP. From the Vertical Swamp to the Vaughan Lewis, the Lemon Creek to the Llewellyn, Split Thumb to Storm Range, this country, this experience never ceases to inspire. Be inspired, JIRPers of 2013!
Field, W. O. 1942. Glacier Studies in Alaska, 1941, Geographical Review , 31, 1, 154-155.
Russell, I. C. 1897. Glaciers of North America, Ginn and Co., Boston, 220 pp.