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Polar Plunge

“THREE . . . TWO . . . ONE!” Tara yelled, and on “Go!” I flung my sixty-year-old body into the air—bare arms raised, palms to the sky, bare legs kicked up behind me, off the Zodiac’s platform. I felt the little ruffles of my bathing suit flutter in the twenty-mile-an-hour wind and watched the deep green water of Carlsbad Fjord rush toward me. It took my breath away, an overused expression, was entirely apt when, on that thirty-six-degree day, the thirty-four-degree water closed darkly over my head. It seemed at first I would never breathe again, but then I was clawing back toward the surface, back to the boat, as alive in every cell as I had ever been.
That morning, we had taken the Zodiacs out for a close-up look at the face of the Greenland ice sheet at one of the many places it plunges and calves into the sea. Icebergs, some large as cathedrals, sparkled their one thousand shades of blue. Yuki, our driver, lifted a melon-size chunk up to the sun, and we saw how it had weathered and worn. She pulled smaller bits from the ocean for us to suck on—a rare opportunity to taste ten-thousand-year-old ice—and suggested we take some to put in our drinks at lunch.

After the polar plunge and ancient ice-chilled ginger ale, the captain announced it was time to head south, toward Ittoqqortoormiit, then back across the Denmark Strait to Reykjavik. We pulled up anchor and set sail, not back the way we’d come via Davy Sound but through a narrow channel separating the mainland with its rugged peaks and tumbling ice from an ice-free island to our west.

“That is Uunartoq Qeqertaq,” the captain said, “one of the world’s newest islands, discovered and named in 2005.”

A brand-new island seemed one more wonder on a day full of wonders, until our brains made sense of the discovery. “As recently as 2002,” he continued, “this island was attached to Liverpool Land by the glacier, but that was the start of radical recession.”

And then we could see the whole geologic story, how the ice had pulled back, orphaning the striated island, how the sea had rushed into the space left behind.

“Uunartoq Qeqertaq,” he said, a catch in his voice now, “translates to Warming Island in the Greenlandic language.”

At that we fell silent, thinking of the Greenlanders, the skinny polar bears, the still beautiful Earth, and stayed quiet a long time, until we reached the open sea.

Pam Houston is the author of the memoir, Deep Creek: Finding Hope In The High Country, as well as two novels, Contents May Have Shifted and Sight Hound, two collections of short stories, Cowboys Are My Weakness and Waltzing the Cat, and a collection of essays, A Little More About Me, all published by W.W. Norton.  Her stories have been selected for volumes of The O. Henry Awards, The Pushcart Prize, Best American Travel Writing, and Best American Short Stories of the Century among other anthologies. She teaches in the Low Rez MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts, is a professor of English at UC Davis, and cofounder and creative director of the literary nonprofit Writing By Writers. She lives at 9,000 feet above sea level near the headwaters of the Rio Grande.