“Why do we have to go after dark?” I asked Dad as we packed our gear.
“Because we can only see the bioluminescent algae when it’s dark,” Dad said. He always used big words that didn’t make any sense to me. He might as well be speaking some old forgotten language. For all I knew, half the words that wandered out of his mouth were made up on the spot.
“Biolumi-what?” I asked, trying to repeat at least one of the words that he had said.
“Bioluminescent. It’s algae that lights up at night,” he said as he held up an Everlight and clicked it on. The hand-held light made me squint as my eyes adjusted to the glare. He continued, “Like this, but without a battery.”
“Like glow in the dark?” I asked.
“Exactly,” Dad agreed. He held the Everlight out to me. As I took it in my hand, he held onto it for a second longer while he looked me in the eye. “This is important. Don’t lose this one.” I nodded as he let me take it from him. I’m sure he could tell that I was embarrassed for losing the last one, so he patted me on the shoulder.
“Will it really last forever?” I asked, as I clicked the light on and off a few times.
“Longer than you or me,” he said as he knelt down and zipped up his backpack. I couldn’t believe we were actually going to march across the frozen wilderness in the middle of the night to look at some glow snow. Dad had promised that this trip would be an adventure; I just had no idea how cold of an adventure it was going to be.
Dad helped me get my backpack strapped on, double checking that I had everything I needed. He always made sure I was carrying enough stuff just in case we got stranded out on the ice and had to spend the night away from base camp. As we started walking toward the Seam, I remembered how much I liked to feel the crunching under my feet.
The wind and snow were blowing in pretty hard that night, but I made sure to stay close to Dad as we walked. His stride was so fast, I had to work twice as hard to keep up with his every step. I tried to put my feet in the tracks he left in the snow but I had to stretch almost as far as I could reach.
“Are you keeping up back there?” he called out. I glanced up to see that he had stopped a few paces ahead of me. I nodded, but then realized that he probably couldn’t see me because it was so dark. I clicked on the Everlight and pointed it at my face. I nodded so that he could see in the bright glare of the flashlight. He smiled, pointed his own Everlight at his face, opened his eyes wide, and said, “Good,” in a funny voice that made me laugh.
He turned and continued. After a while, I got bored with walking. It was just step after step in the cold wind. My throat was dry and my lungs hurt. All I really wanted was to crawl back in my tent back at basecamp. I started clicking my Everlight on and off like a strobe light to occupy myself. I could click it so fast that it looked kind of like miniature lightning strikes against the white snow. I was paying attention to my Everlight and not where I was walking, which is why I ran right into the back of Dad. He had stopped. He turned around and looked at me.
“Are you playing bumper cars again?” he asked. It’s what he said whenever I ran into stuff because I wasn’t looking where I was going. It happened a lot. He smiled as he put a hand on my shoulder. I glanced up at him where he stood.
“Sorry,” I said. As I looked at him, I realized he was more serious than I had expected. He reached out for my hand and squeezed. When he did, the force clicked the button on my Everlight to the on position. Once it was lit, I saw it- the Seam.
“It’s important to keep your light on out here. If you hadn’t run into me you would have fallen right in,” he said. The thought scared me. Even though I had been shivering all night, another shiver ran up my back.
I looked over the edge of the Seam. Dad called it that, because he said it was like a huge seam in the ice, as if two glaciers had been stitched together, but had torn apart like an old pair of pants. I liked the idea that the glaciers were the earth’s clothes. He said that a lot of the world used to be covered in ice and glaciers and these were all that were left. Standing in front of us, only partially lit up by my light, was the most enormous crack I had ever seen. If I hadn’t seen it in person, I would never have believed how big it was. It made me kind of sick looking down into it. Dad didn’t like me to get too close to the edge.
“Joshua, listen to me. When I climb down, you have to keep your light steady. It’s the only way I can see the
path back out,” Dad said. He knelt down in front of me to make sure I was listening.
“You are going down in the crack?” I asked. “It’s dark.”
“I have to if I want to get a sample of the glowing algae. It only lives in a few places on the planet,” he said. He was confident sounding, but the idea of crawling down in that huge canyon of ice made my stomach tingle. “We’ve come a long way, and the only way to study it is to go down to where it lives.”
“But what if you fall, or if you can’t find your way back out?” I asked, actually feeling a little scared about being left out here in this frozen desert alone.
“I will be fine as long as you keep your light on.” He reached out for the Everlight that was still lit up in my hand. “Your light is my lifeline. As long as you keep it on, pointing over the edge of the cliff, I’ll be ok.”
I nodded my head but I didn’t like the idea of standing up here by myself. I couldn’t believe what he was about to do. He pulled two ice picks that were strapped to his bag, poked them in the snow, and tied toe picks to his shoes. He looked at me for a long moment before he made a move toward the Seam. I followed him toward the cliff edge of the crack.
He spun around backwards and began to crawl over the edge of the ice. If it weren’t such a serious situation I probably would have laughed at the position he had to get into to crawl down. I’m sure my eyes were as big as the moon as I watched him disappear into the Seam.
For a while I could hear his ice picks digging into the cold hard wall as he climbed down, but it wasn’t long before I couldn’t even hear that anymore. I peeked over the side a few times but it was too dark to see anything. I hoped he found what he was looking for quick because I didn’t like being by myself out here. The wind picked up and it was getting even colder than it had been. I could see why no one lived out here.
I waited at the edge of the canyon for a long time... I mean a really long time. I looked over the edge a few times to see if Dad was done, but whenever I did, I couldn’t see anything. I tried pointing the Everlight around in a few different directions but couldn’t catch a glimpse of anything but ice and a really big hole.
I noticed, as I shined the light around, that wherever the light wasn’t shining seemed to have a slight glow. I passed the light beam over the ice down in the crack again to see if I was imagining it. Sure enough, when I passed the beam over the ice, it looked normal, but after the beam moved away, the ice took on a slightly green glow. This must be the bioluma-thingy.
I pointed my light in the complete opposite direction to see if everything would light up. The ice down in the canyon lit up with a faint greenish glow, brighter this time. I wondered if it would get brighter if I turned my light completely off. I looked down into the Seam for a second, trying to spot Dad. I was sure a few seconds with it off wouldn’t hurt anything.
I clicked my light off and watched the crack in the ice glow even brighter. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It was like a pulsing ocean of green. I laid my light in the snow next to me and reached over the edge of the canyon to touch the glowing green ice. The light was warm and sank into the snow as it melted. I was admiring the view when I heard a shout.
“Whooohh,” Dad screamed. It came from far below. I could tell something had gone wrong. I heard the sound of ice cracking. Tumbling chunks echoed. “Ahhh.” CRUNCH. I scanned the crack below with my eyes but the green glow wasn’t bright enough for me to see anything clearly.
“Dad, are you ok?” I shouted. I waited for a response but nothing came. I fumbled for my light, trying to find it in the snow. How could I be so stupid? I thought. He had told me to do one simple thing, and even that I messed up. I finally found the Everlight where it had melted below the surface. I clicked it on and pointed it down into the Seam. The green glow disappeared right away, but even with the beam of light, I couldn’t see Dad anywhere.
“Dad, can you hear me? Are you ok?” I shouted again. My breath came out in great clouds of white that blocked my eyes for a second at a time. I could feel my heart racing in my chest as it started to sink in that I was alone out here. I shouted again and again.
After what seemed like an hour I finally heard something. I got still, trying to hear it better. The voice was far away and echoey. He must have been a half mile down because I could barely hear him.
“I fell,” he shouted from below.
“Are you hurt?”
“I couldn’t see your light. I think I got on the wrong path. I can’t climb, I’ll have to go farther down and see if there is another way out,” he said. I could hardly hear him.
Tears started coming to my eyes. I tried hard, most of the time, not to cry but I knew it was my fault. I shouted down at him as I scanned back and forth with my Everlight.
“You have to climb back up, Dad,” I shouted. He couldn’t leave me alone out here- he just couldn’t.
“I can’t, son.” His voice was softer now. “You have to be brave.”
“I’ll drop a rope,” I shouted.
“No, I’m too far down. Save the rope, you might need it.” His voice was little more than an echo now.
“What do you want me to do?” I shouted back with my tears freezing to my face.
I expected him to respond but apparently he couldn’t hear me. I tried again.
“Dad, what am I supposed to do?” I shouted. My throat hurt from trying to be heard over such a great distance. I knew it wouldn’t work though. Even though he told me not to, I wondered if I could climb down to him.
I pulled my bag off and dug through it. He had put a lot of stuff in my backpack, but he hadn’t packed an extra set of climbing picks. I had heard him promise Mom before we left that he wouldn’t let me climb down into the Seam. He made sure I wasn’t able to.
“What should I do?” I shouted down toward him again. I was pretty sure I was just screaming at the cold air this time. I stared down into the pit for a long time trying to figure out what I should do. What would Dad do? I thought.
I couldn’t think. My heart was beating too fast. My mind was racing. I could see myself getting eaten by some massive snow monster, or something worse. I closed my eyes and tried to calm myself like Dad had taught me to do.
What would Dad do? I asked myself again. As I got still I could see it in my mind. Dad would hike back to camp and use the radio to call for help. That’s right. There was a radio back at the tent. I stood from where I had been kneeling and tried to dry my eyes. My tears had turned to ice and so they scraped across my cheeks where I rubbed them. I looked over the edge one last time.
“I’m going to go call for help,” I shouted down into the Seam. I was pretty sure he couldn’t hear me, but I couldn’t just leave without telling him where I was going. Without another word I turned and started walking back in the direction I thought we had come from. I looked for Dad’s footprints but new snow had already blown in to cover them.