As President Obama embarks on the most ambitious presidential exploration of Alaska in U.S. history, he hopes to call attention to the threats facing that state's precious and majestic glaciers, attending a State Department-sponsored conference on glaciers and meeting with locals concerned about their melting.
That probably means he won't do what the last president to spend a lot of time in Alaska did: have the Navy bombard a glacier for his amusement. That was part of the entertainment for President Harding during his historic tour of Alaska in July 1923. With the president aboard the USS Henderson going from Juneau to Skagway, the ship's gunners fired several rounds of 5-inch shells into the wall of the Taku Glacier "so that Harding could watch the flashing ice avalanche," according to Harding's biographer, Francis Russell.
What Harding saw is called "calving," when huge chunks of ice "calv," or break off, a glacier. "It is very dramatic. I'm sure President Harding liked that," joked Michael Hawfield, an expert on Alaska history and an associate professor at the Kachemak Bay campus of Kenai Peninsula College in the University of Alaska system.
The glacier survived Harding's trip, though the president himself didn't. He died just 10 days after leaving Alaska exhausted and worn out by the exertions of the trip. Harding was the first president to visit Alaska, followed by Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II, and nine of the 11 presidents after Alaska became a state in 1959. But most of those were refueling stops as they jetted off to Asian summits. One met a pope in the state and another met a Japanese emperor. But none had Alaska as the prime destination between Harding in 1923 and Obama, who will be in the state Monday through Wednesday.