Prologue: John Muir and the Gospel of Glaciers

Glaciers move in tides. So do mountains. So do all things.



How sad John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, would be to learn that in the first decades of the twenty-first century many of the great glaciers of Alaska were melting away at an astonishing rate. Like the Creator himself, glaciers were architects of Earth, sculpturing vast ridges, changing bays, digging out troughs, making concavities in bedrock, and creating fast-flowing rivers.1 Global warming—the alarming increase of the Earth’s near-surface air temperature exacerbated by carbon dioxide emissions from gasoline-powered vehicles and by the burning of coal—was stealing away the glacial ice fields of Alaska. Nevertheless, big oil companies such as Shell, Exxon-Mobil, and BP still put climate change and greenhouse gases in scare quotes, as if the hard science were a myth conceived by tree huggers. Fossil fuel merchants were determined to keep Americans hooked on petroleum-based products until they choked. The Swedish physical chemist Svante Arrhenius was worried, in 1896, as the automobile revolution was just taking hold, that widespread fossil fuel combustion could someday cause enhanced global warming. Arrhenius, now considered the “father” of climate change, understood that the doubling of carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration would lead to a temperature rise of five degrees Celsius; glaciers would melt, seas would rise, and the Arctic would slowly vanish.2

John Muir—the naturalist whom Ralph Waldo Emerson called “more wonderful than Thoreau”—had erected a tiny observation cabin near a thirty-mile-long glacier that was one of Alaska’s stunning heirlooms.3 Born in Dunbar, Scotland, in 1838, Muir had immigrated to America in 1849, just after Mr. James K. Polk won the Mexican-American War. When Muir turned twenty-nine, following an industrial accident in Indianapolis that had caused temporary blindness, he made a far-reaching personal decision to dedicate his life to the natural world and to enduring wilderness. Although he was a talented machinist, nature was his muse. Solitary and on foot he roamed through America’s wide valleys, towering mountains, pristine woodlands, sublime deserts, and flower-filled meadows, filling his voluminous notebooks with vivid descriptions of plants, animals, and trees. Recording his scientific observations along the way, the peripatetic Muir tramped through the primordial forests and smoky ridges of the Appalachian Mountains, then headed south to survey the humid swamplands of Georgia’s Okefenokee and the golden beaches of Florida’s Gulf Coast. Shedding the dictates of his strict Presbyterian upbringing (his father was a fundamentalist minister), in 1867 Muir scrawled his home address on a weathered journal cover as “John Muir, Earth-Planet-Universe.”4 Eventually making wild California his North Star, Muir, a pioneer ecologist, began climbing the peaks of his beloved Sierra Nevada, camping under the stars, memorizing botanical details through the timeless art of sitting still. “The more savage and chilly and storm-chafed the mountains,” Muir wrote, “the finer the glow of their faces.”5

Despite all of Muir’s cross-country tramps, nothing prepared him for the sheer poetic depth of the Alaskan wilderness. Muir considered himself a student of Louis Agassiz, an internationally celebrated Harvard zoologist and geologist, whose Études sur les glaciers (1840) was the definitive word on glaciers in the 1870s. Agassiz had explored live glaciers, studying their origins in the Piedmont and Tidewater regions. Glaciers could be snow-white like typing paper or a brazen virtual blue, as gray as a gravel pit or as clear as H2O. Some extended over twenty square miles and could be as smooth as velvet or as wrinkled as a bull walrus’s neck. They had blotches, slashes, stripes, and swirls. Other cirque glacier remnants covered less than a square mile. When calving, a glacier rumbled and roared, then as the ice sank or floated a strange vibration, like wind chimes, curled the air as if a tuning fork had been bonked. Unbeknownst to most Americans of the late nineteenth century, glaciers constituted the biggest freshwater reservoir on Earth.6

Muir was frustrated that in Yosemite he could analyze only the effects glaciers had on mountains; it was all the geological past. For his professional glaciology career to advance, he needed to see the real deal—to experience glaciers themselves, in raw action. Alaska was, to Muir, the ideal laboratory for studying “frozen motion” as it flowed downhill as if icy blue lava. All glaciers were cold, solid, scalloped, and slippery. But besides those four basic features, each glacier had a distinct personality of its own. Muir, with the keen eye of a farmer inspecting his crops, was looking for fresh scientific evidence of glacial deformation, recession, and retreat. Every nuance mattered. Keys to Earth’s geological history could possibly be found by studying ice fields. Alaska’s umpteen glaciers were to become his field teachers. “When a portion of a berg breaks off, another line is formed, and the old one, sharply cut, may be seen rising at all angles, giving it a marked character,” Muir reported. “Many of the oldest bergs are beautifully ridged by the melting out of narrow furrows strictly parallel throughout the mass, revealing the bedded structure of the ice, acquired perhaps centuries ago, on the mountain snow fountains.”7

Muir, America’s legendary naturalist, first traveled to southeast Alaska’s Inside Passage from June 1879 to January 1880.8 Throughout his seven months in the district he wrote “wilderness journalism” for the San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin; one expanded article actually became a tourist booklet for the Northern Pacific Railroad.9 In April 1879 Scribner’s Monthly had published Witt Ball’s article on Alaska, “The Stickeen River and Its Glaciers.”10 A creatively competitive Muir probably figured he could top the pedantic Ball. Seeing the live glaciers of Alaska, and writing about them factually but with gusto, would allow Muir to verify his long-held hunches on glacial action and tectonic activity. Known for his abiding love of Yosemite Valley. Muir promoted the somewhat controversial notion that the gorgeous California Valley had been carved out by glaciers (not rivers). Muir’s first published work, for what was then a handsome fee of $200, was an article for the New York Tribune, “Yosemite Glaciers”; it appeared on December 5, 1871.11

Muir’s journey began aboard the Dakota, which steamed out of San Francisco near Alcatraz Island and two days later churned past the high cliffs and tree-lined shores of Puget Sound, and then entered the waters of British Columbia. The Inside Passage, through which Muir was traveling, included all the waterways from north of Puget Sound to west of Glacier Bay. Next the Dakota threaded through the Alexander Archipelago islands to Sitka, Alaska. The ship, though occasionally protected by land, was terribly vulnerable to the Pacific gales. To the lean, bearded Muir, however, these 10,000 miles of southeastern Alaskan islands and fjords (long, deep arms of the ocean, carved out by a glacier) and 1,000 camelback islands, dense with western hemlock and Sitka spruce, were “overabundantly beautiful for description.”12 Giant cliffs billowed straight out of the seawater, rising 500, 600, 700 feet over the Pacific Ocean. A frustrated Muir kept pleading with the captain to stop and let him quickly climb a mountain, but to no avail.

As the Dakota ventured farther up the Inside Passage (now the longest protected marine waterway in the world), Muir—a taut man of forty, with red-brown hair and beard, always stooping over to jot notes—played the populist professor. He kindly explained to tourists aboard that the snouts of glaciers shed blocks of ice in a “calving” process. With his thick Scottish brogue, Muir, a natural raconteur, made even the most citified tourist ready to paddle into quiet coves around Baranof Island, to kayak down a cleaved river as it roared out into Sitka Sound and then out to the Pacific. So excited had Muir become by the breathtaking scenery that he fantasized about climbing mountains up to Alaska from California someday, exploring Mount Shasta, Mount Hood, and Mount Rainier. What made Muir so special, the quality in his character that had made Emerson take note, was the way the enthusiastic naturalist fully integrated scientific knowledge with romantic wildness. Nobody could resist Muir’s charm.

That fall of 1879 Muir furiously scribbled astute observations about Native Alaskan people, gold seekers, lumberjacks, canneries, and cosmic natural features. Muir even developed his own “glacial gospel”: that fjords and wilderness, like gentle magic, lifted the soul on a journey of self-discovery filled with an infinity of unknowns. Inner peace could be found in glaciers. Southeastern Alaska was an immortal land that would, in turn, immortalize him.13 Picking his way through a sea of sparkling bergs, sometimes leaping across slippery, deteriorating ice floes, Muir reveled in the innate dignity of his surroundings. “A new world is opened,” Muir wrote in his journal, “a world of ice with new-made mountains standing vast and solemn in the blue distance roundabout to it.”14

It took Muir only a day to become a booster for Alaska’s magnificent Glacier Bay. The land uplift rate—1 inch per year—was among the highest in the world, because the glaciers receded, thus removing their considerable weight from the land. In his wilderness journalism Muir urged Americans to journey to paradisiacal Alaska and let their jaws drop. Although Muir didn’t discover Glacier Bay, his enthusiasm made the bay internationally celebrated. “Go,” Muir cried, “go and see.”15 Alaska, purchased from Russia for $7.2 million only twelve years prior, had just started to be discovered by nature lovers who cruised up the southeast coast from Seattle. Muir, in a way, was the first great ecotourist of Alaska. Go to Kachemak Bay . . . Catch a halibut . . . Go pick yellow-reddish salmonberries and currants on the banks of the Chilkat River . . . Tramp the glacier ice mantle of the Coast Range . . . Go eye bald eagles nesting in Juneau . . . Go gather seashells at Calvert Island beach during low tide . . . Go spy on the white mountain goats of Howling Valley . . . Go to the boulder-bound Chugach Mountains . . . Go see the northern lights’ “auroral excitement” and “bright prismatic colors” flash across the starlit night at the Yukon River . . . It was the Earth’s halo . . . Didn’t you know?16

Muir’s first landfall aboard the Dakota was Fort Wrangell, Alaska. Here he joined thirty-year-old S. Hall Young, a Presbyterian missionary hoping to Christianize the Chilkat Tlingit. Together Muir and Young would travel all over the Inside Passage, constantly in ice range, to Sitka, the Stikine River, Fairweather Range, and, last but not least, Glacier Bay. Young later wrote a memoir—Alaska Days with John Muir—about their fine times together. But Fort Wrangell, crude and vulgar, devoid of even an iota of charm, was an end-of-the-line outpost where lawlessness reigned supreme. A grumbling Muir didn’t cotton to the devil-may-care attitude of the Euro-Americans looking for quick mining profits in such a picturesque setting. Fort Wrangell was an ugly row of low wooden buildings (not too far as the crow flies from today’s Misty Fiords National Monument Wilderness). Some of Muir’s “Go . . . go . . . go to Alaska” evangelism tapered off in Fort Wrangell, where he slept on the dusty floor of a carpenter’s shop. Muir described his quarters as “a rough place, the roughest I ever saw . . . oozy, angling, wrangling Wrangell.”17 Locals didn’t know what to make of Muir. “What can the fellow be up to?” one resident inquired. “I saw him the other day on his knees looking at a stump as if he expected to find gold in it. He seems to have no serious object whatever.”18 A few years earlier, Young had tried breaking colts but had ended up with both shoulders seriously dislocated. Carrying a backpack up glaciers was understandably challenging for him. “Muir climbed so fast that his movements were almost like flying, legs and arms moving with perfect precision and unfailing judgment,” Young wrote. “I must keep close behind him or I would fail to see his points of advantage.”19

Clad in a Scottish cap and long gray tweed ulster, Muir could have been a shepherd from the island of Skye. Lured by his ethereal surroundings, he even wandered around in a rainstorm, eager to learn what “songs” the Alaskan trees “sing” when wet.20 Muir wanted to map Glacier Bay—shaped like God’s horseshoe and opening out to the Gulf of Alaska, with immense glacial walls of ice tumbling out of snouts at Icy Strait—as a freelance service for the U.S. government. No cartographer had yet done the job. Mapmakers aren’t keen on moving ice. Yellowstone—America’s first national park—was only seven years old in 1879. Muir—who in 1901 would write Our National Parks, perhaps the most seminal preservationist essay in American history—wanted to see many such public wonderlands created by Congress. Perhaps Glacier Bay, he intuited upon his first visit, would someday meet that criterion. “Muir’s depiction situates Alaska as the New World’s ‘new world,’ ” the ecocritic Susan Kollin argued in Nature’s State, “a Last Frontier that enables the United States to once again unmap and remap itself.”21

Passing the coast of Admiralty Island, Muir and Young, canoeing amid the fjords, saw a couple of brown bears, which seemed to smell their leaf tobacco, rice, bread, and sugar. It was monumental scenery, wild beyond reach, with deep vistas and glacier-carved valleys that surpassed the Swiss Alps or the Norwegian fjords.22 Eventually they discovered an amazing ice expanse, soon dubbed Muir Glacier. Its terminus was at a maximum during the Little Ice Age around 1780 (between 1914 and 2010, this thirty-mile glacier retreated by almost twenty miles).23 Frequently paddling into eddies for breaks, their arms always sore from fighting currents, Muir and Young bonded. The Chilkat Tlingit village up the Lynn Canal, where they camped, became the village of Haines in 1884 (named after Mrs. F. E. Haines, chairwoman of the committee that raised funds for its construction). “I know of no excursion in any part of our vast country where so much is unfolded in so short a time,” Muir wrote. “Day after day, we seemed to float in a true fairyland, each succeeding view more and more beautiful. . . . Never before this had I been embosomed in scenery so hopelessly beyond description.”24

Glacier Bay was a touchstone landscape to Muir. The Tlingit, who had lived around Glacier Bay for 8,000 years, called the region Sitakaday (“the bay where the ice was”).25 Muir had spent 1861 to 1862 at the University of Wisconsin learning about glaciers from his geology professors. Hiking around the Sierra Nevada, Muir had been able to study the effects of the glacial process. But now, in October 1879, with four Tlingit Indian guides—experts at catching all five species of Pacific salmon (sockeye, king, coho, pink, and chum)—he was experiencing the glacial ice firsthand. The geologic force of ice, he was convinced anew, shaped Alaska and the canyon lands and peaks of the Sierra Nevada. Glaciers, he decided, were truly the divine spirit of nature writ large, more priceless than gold, able to carry away entire mountains, “particle by particle, block by block and cast them into the sea.”26 One of the Tlingit guides complained to Young that Muir “must be a witch” to “seek knowledge” in “such a place” as Glacier Bay, especially in the “miserable weather” of a blinding snowstorm.27

Muir admired the prowess of the Tlingit with their handcrafted thirty-foot dugout canoes carved from cedar, which had twin sails, allowing them to stealthily cover vast distances in good time. By the campfire, he enjoyed hearing their trickster stories about ravens, known to lead bears to their prey and even to play hide-and-seek with wolves. With a keen eye for masks, paddles, and jewelry art, Muir studied Tlingit totem poles. He chuckled, however, at ancient Native American superstitions regarding glaciers as supernatural or extraterrestrial or weird natural phenomena. For all of Muir’s high-octane romanticism and use of tropes about scenic wonders, he was a botanist-naturalist-glaciologist addicted to scientific fact. Tlingit folklore went only so far with him. The Tlingit, for their part, didn’t care that Muir was an encyclopedia of literature about moraines (both medial and terminal). Generally speaking, First Nation people interested Muir less than the glaciers; he still saw them as “savage.” In First Summer, for example, Muir wrote that the “uncleanliness” of Sierran Indians bothered him tremendously. If Young, the missionary, was going to help the Tlingit prosper, Muir thought hygiene had to come first.

At night while the Tlingit guides stayed at camp, the ecstatic Muir would climb up the glacial slopes to feel the full power of phantasmagoric geology at work. During the summer months it stayed light almost all night long in Alaska. This worked to Muir’s favor. At a glance Muir knew if a glacier was advancing or retreating, or whether the precipitation during any given year had caused the ice to surge.28 Like Michelangelo measuring luminosity in the Sistine Chapel, Muir studied the Inside Passage as light struck the dense glacial ice. Every shade of blue in the spectrum dominated by a wavelength of roughly 440 to 490 nanometers miraculously appeared, scattered by the crystalline ice; and the blue glow was dispersed and refracted in such a subtly distinguished array of tints that no words existed for them in Webster’s Dictionary.29 Unlike the Alaska Range, which lay in the district’s interior, and where the glacial process was slowed by the fierce cold, the Fairweather Range and Coast Mountains, where temperatures were mild yet there was lots of compact snow, were an ideal setting for glaciers to develop. A layer of snow could transmute into glacial ice in a few decades. For the study of glaciers, the Inside Passage was like Greenland, a hypernatural landscape that seared itself forever in Muir’s fervent imagination.

For Young, keeping up with Muir’s glacier terminology could be frustrating. Absolute verity was essential to everything Muir did. When the professor espoused the gospel of glaciers, Young was reduced to listening. There was a glossary of Muir’s terms to understand: hanging glacier (above a cliff or mountainside); kettle pond (created when a massive iceberg melted, leaving behind a water-filled hollow); firn (grainy ice, which is formed from snow about to become glacial ice). Before traipsing around Glacier Bay with Muir, Young hadn’t realized that in 1794 the British explorer George Vancouver (British Columbia’s fantastic city is named after him) had demarcated the entire Glacier Bay area as a single ice mountain, which then separated into the twelve smaller ones. For Young every moment with the great Muir was like being taught by Charles Darwin or Thomas Huxley. Naturally inquisitive about the Glacier Bay, Young asked his naturalist friend a lot of questions. The world’s authority on glaciers—John Muir—was canoeing with him for hours at a time in Alaska, espousing the glacial gospel like a preacher at a revival meeting.30

Instead of being self-centered, Muir at Glacier Bay was life-centered. Feeling he belonged to wild Alaska, a child of the tidal flat, Muir understood anew that the whole Earth was a watershed, just one giant dewdrop. He thanked God for such a magnificent plan. To get around the Alexander Archipelago, Muir used a reprint of George Vancouver’s old nautical charts to help him navigate.31 At Glacier Bay he filled his journals with vibrant writing about his canoe trips, the maritime currents, and the ice features. Ice chunks drifted all around them as they canoed; they felt minuscule. Wave-sculptured pieces of ice floated by blue-green runaway rafts with a mind of their own. Alaska—whose name derived from the Aleut word aláxsxaq, meaning, roughly, “great land”—truly came as advertised. And glaciers spanned the entire southern perimeter of the colossal territory, from just north of the Canadian border in the southeastern region to midway along the Aleutian Islands chain. Less than 0.1 percent of the nearly 100,000 Alaskan glaciers had a name. “I stole quietly out of the camp, and climbed the mountain that stands between the two glaciers,” Muir wrote from the Coast Mountains. “The ground was frozen, making the climbing difficult in the steepest places, but the views over the icy bay, sparkling beneath the stars, were enchanting. It seemed then like a sad thing that any part of so precious a night had been lost in sleep.”32

Muir ended up publishing numerous articles in the San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin about the Inside Passage, where “ice and snow and newborn rocks, dim, dreary, mysterious” had engulfed him. An outpouring of theological emotion about Alaska emanated from the great naturalist. All these Inside Passage glaciers regularly thawed and refroze as they muscled and ground downslope. Nothing lasted forever in glacier country. Using religious language, Muir declared the glaciers God’s temples, the theology of ice, frozen temples. Many of the glaciers seemed to have a heavenly blue lantern light glowing from within. Even in wild weather, with “benumbed fingers,” Muir had eagerly investigated the “shifting avalanche slopes and torrents.” With so much weird, picturesque, sublime ice all around him, Muir could barely sleep at night. Every minute he paddled around the Inside Passage, even with constant foggy precipitation, he felt “wet and weary and glad.”33

Regularly, Muir shouted “God Almighty!” and “Praise God!”34 when confronted with a spectrum, or crazy quilt, of icy green-blue hues. The colors of the bay were his stained-glass altar. With his narrow attentiveness to every detail of glacial ice, Muir might as well have had a full-immersion baptism in the Gulf of Alaska. In the surrounding waters Muir continued watching humpback whales showing their flukes, barnacles visible on their sleek backs. Nearly all of Alaska’s glaciers were within six hundred miles of the Pacific Ocean, so there was plenty of whale watching for fun.35There was a glassy tranquillity to the currents of the Inside Passage that Muir hadn’t expected, adding to the spiritual aura. According to Young, Muir was a “devoted theist” at Glacier Bay, melodramatically paying homage to the “immanence of God in nature [and] His management of all affairs of the universe.”36

In the fall of 1879, Muir left Alaska a changed man. En route back to California, he first traveled around the Pacific Northwest, journeying up the Columbia River, preaching the gospel of the glaciers to anybody who would listen. Just a few months later, he married Louise Stenzel, the daughter of a wealthy agriculture businessman. As a wedding gift, Stenzel’s father gave the Muirs a ranch house with a twenty-acre orchard—including a lot of pear and cherry trees—in Martinez, California. Working as a fruit farmer now, Muir nevertheless remained committed to preserving the integrity, stability, and beauty of Alaska’s glacier community. When picking fruit and filling baskets for market, Muir daydreamed about Alaska, wishing he could slide down an ice sheet on his back, as he had done on a toboggan during his youth in Wisconsin.


The following summer of 1880, Muir returned to Alaska’s tidewater glacier land. The Reverend S. Hall Young, recently married to a fellow missionary, was very excited to see his naturalist friend. “When can you be ready?” Muir said upon greeting him in Fort Wrangell, cutting to the chase; “get your canoe and crew and let us be off.”37 Young hired three Tlingit guides in Fort Wrangell—the ones he had been Christianizing—to help him get around the Inside Passage. On this trip Muir, anxious to observe the summer moods, visited by dugout canoe Sum Dum Bay and its maze of tributaries, Taku Inlet, Glacier Bay, and Taylor Bay.38 Glaciers are particularly stunning when viewed from the water level of a canoe or kayak. And the arrogance of sightseers is likely to be squelched by the feeling of smallness that a boat’s-eye view induces. Sailing through glacial fjords was the outdoors thrill of a lifetime for Muir and the others. “Every passage between the islands,” Young wrote in Alaska Days, “was a corridor leading into a new and more enchanting room of Nature’s great gallery.”39

When hiking in Taylor Bay by himself, with only his mutt Stickeen as a companion, Muir had a hair-raising near-death experience. The higher they climbed, the less hemlock and spruce forest there was; then there was no plant life at all. Muir had brought with him only an ice ax and half a loaf of bread. Foolishly he had left his gun, rain gear, blankets, and matches back at camp. Impetuous enthusiasm had its shortcomings. A sense of doom now fell over the outing from the first. Stickeen was limping. A thunderstorm soaked them. Muir was determined to find Taylor (now Brady) Glacier, even in the rain. But then ominous darkness started to close in on man and dog. It was clearly time to head back down to camp.

Both Muir and Stickeen did a lot of fancy footwork, leaping across crevasses like Dall sheep in search of lichens. When a forty-foot crevasse manifested itself in front of him, Muir feared death. Somehow they had gotten themselves stuck in an ice maze. Muir was not a man prone to panic. But the only way out of his predicament was to cross an ice bridge eight feet below him. Muir dropped down, somehow managing not to slip—a slip would have meant instant death. The warm rain was creating a melting effect. Using his ax pick, Muir now made his way across the bridge, inch by inch. Poor Stickeen was terrified, howling and barking in fear of being left behind. Muir coaxed his dog to muster courage and follow his path. Eventually the frightened dog scaled down the glacier and somehow managed an acrobatic walk across the ice bridge. Muir and Stickeen embraced each other with a kind of shivering born-again love. “The joy of deliverance burned in us like a fire, and we ran without fatigue,” Muir wrote, “every muscle with immense rebound glorying in its strength.”40

Once back from the trip, Muir fleshed out the story to publish as an article for Century and eventually as an essay-length book, Stickeen. When it finally was published in 1909, it became a solid best seller. Besides using his journal notes, Muir had drawn on George Romanes’s Animal Intelligence, published in 1881, to include new scientific data on the psychology of nonhumans.41 “The spread of evolutionary thinking, animal-welfare legislation, bird-watching, and other challenges to homocentrism all gave this story of an ordinary-looking but brave little dog a deeper significance,” the biographer Donald Worster explained in A Passion for Nature, “exactly as Muir had hoped.”42

The Tlingit had made Muir an honorary chief during this visit in 1880; they called him “Great Ice Chief.” The indomitable Muir routinely camped alone to study the calving glacier more closely.43 Crouching to study the ice for hours at a time, he gleefully started naming landmarks around Muir Glacier as if they were boyhood friends dyed blue: Black Mountain (5,130 feet), Tree Mountain (2,700 feet), Snow Dome (3,300 feet), and Howling Valley—all part of today’s Muir Glacier, which is a feature in Glacier Bay.44 He drove stakes into the ice so that he could take measures on future trips. Young tells a comical story about what a powerful whim it was for Muir to designate nameless features. One afternoon Muir named an entire area after his Presbyterian friend. “Without consulting me, Muir named this ‘Young Glacier,’ and right proud I was to see that name on charts for the next ten years or more,” Young recalled in Alaska Days. “But later maps have a different name. Some ambitious young ensign of a surveying vessel, perhaps, stole my glacier, and later charts give it the name of Dawes.”45

Pilgrimages to Glacier Bay became Muir’s Alaskan trademark. After his second trip in 1880, he returned to Alaska four more times, longing for the ethereal highs of Glacier Bay, the life-affirming crisp gray weather, the no-man’s-land of wingspread mountains unfolding seemingly forever.46With imaginative leaps Muir’s Alaskan journals sang Whitmanesque rhapsodies about the dazzling “thunders of plunging, roaring icebergs,” surrounded by avalanche chutes and ice fields. And then there were frozen granite wilderness places—like Tracy Arm, Misty Fjords, and South Prince of Wales—which Muir embraced with the same love he held for Yosemite. Travels in Alaska was published in 1915, the year after he died. It’s a valentine to Glacier Bay.

On all of his trips to Alaska, Muir sketched glaciers with pencil or ink in his journals. Some of the drawings—housed in the Holt-Atherton Special Collections at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, the primary depository for Muir’s papers—stand alone on single sheets. Considering that many were drawn from a canoe or in the rain, they are quite remarkable.47 Little has been written on Muir as a visual artist, but his drawings of glaciers were impressive. (By contrast, whenever he included humans in an Alaskan landscape, they looked like mere doodles, stick figures, or silhouettes.) What fun it is to study thirty-plus drawings of glaciers sketched between 1879 and 1899. There are pictures of glaciers at Kachemak Bay, Chugach National Forest, and Prince William Sound. But his most loving studies are of Muir Glacier at Glacier Bay, drawn from many different angles.48

After two summers in Alaska inspecting glacial motion—essentially, a study of velocity—Muir returned to northern California a changed man. The American West held a highball fascination for him, and Glacier Bay joined Yosemite as his obsession. “I am hopelessly and forever a mountaineer,” he wrote to a friend. “Civilization and fever, and all the morbidness that has been hooted at me, have not dimmed my glacial eyes, and I care to live only to entice people to look at Nature’s loveliness.”49 Modest, self-effacing, and with a permanent twinkle in his intense eyes, Muir was nevertheless zealous in his approach to everything wild. His enthusiasm for Alaska was so intelligently real that even his critics never tried to belittle him by calling him fanatical about glaciers. “Waking and sleeping, I have no rest,” Muir wrote. “In dreams I read blurred sheets of glacial writing, or follow lines of cleavage or struggle with the difficulty of some extraordinary rock-form.”50

Spoiled by Alaska’s wild wonders, Muir had a hard time readjusting to living in Martinez, California. Domestic life had all the appeal of being chloroformed. Stuck with paying bills, operating an orchard, and answering an ever-increasing amount of correspondence, Muir constantly dreamed of Glacier Bay. He regularly complained to Young, who was doing missionary work in southeastern Alaska, about being stuck in California, and he was desperate for news about his beloved glaciers. Celebrity in America had its strains. Muir was constantly grappling with editors while trying to manage land tracts. Politically active in the saving of Yosemite, Mount Shasta, Kings Canyon, Mount Rainier, and other treasured American landscapes, Muir missed being a wandering glaciologist, working in the glacier lands of Alaska and mastering the art of not fatally slipping. One afternoon Young, who was in the San Francisco Bay area on church business, unexpectedly dropped in on Muir. The naturalist was out in the fields, supervising cherry picking, holding a basket full of fruit. “Ah! My friend,” Muir exclaimed like a wistful prisoner hoping to be freed. “I have been longing mightily for you. You have come to take me on a canoe trip to the countries beyond—to Lituya and Yakutat bays and Prince William Sound; have you not?”51


In May 1881, Muir expanded his Alaskan knowledge base by joining the USS Corwin on an expedition up the Arctic coast to search for the missing steamer Jeannette. This voyage afforded Muir the chance to explore the Bering Sea while simultaneously doing a good deed. Muir’s primary goal was to study the ice on the frostbitten islands in the Bering Sea and the Bering Strait. The Jeannette had disappeared off Point Barrow when Muir had first traveled up the Inside Passage. Muir, on the Corwin, now got to expand his field studies to the Pribilof Islands (the largest fur seal rookery in North America) and Kotzebue Sound (home to polar bears and a wide variety of birds). The Lower Forty-Eight had less than 200 square miles of glaciers, in nine states: Washington, Wyoming, Oregon, California, Colorado, Idaho, Utah, Montana, and Nevada. All those glaciers, taken together, didn’t equal a single large one in Alaska. Further expanding his sightseeing, Muir became one of the first humans to set foot on rocky Wrangell Island (between the Chukchi and East Siberian seas at meridian 180). This island had the highest density of polar bears in the world and was believed to be the last place on Earth inhabited by woolly mammoths. “How cold it is this morning!” Muir wrote to his wife from aboard theCorwin. “How it blows and snows!”52

Throughout the six-month Arctic cruise, to contribute to glacial science, Muir kept a daily record of the landscape he encountered. He also discussed the history of New England whalers, who had plied Alaskan waters since 1848. There were approximately 100,000 glaciers in Alaska; his fieldwork was endless. He wrote a handful of letters to be published in the San Francisco Evening Bulletin. His botanical reports on the flora found in the Arctic were elegant and pioneering. In 1883, the U.S. Treasury Department printed Muir’s botanical investigation as Document No. 429. “I returned a week ago from the polar region around Wrangell Land and Herald Island,” Muir wrote to the great protégé of Charles Darwin, Asa Gray, on October 31, 1881, “and brought a few plants from there which I wish you would name as soon as convenient, as I have to write a report on the flora for the expedition. I had a fine time and gathered a lot of exceedingly interesting facts concerning the formation of the Bering Sea and the Arctic Ocean, and the configuration of the shores of Siberia and Alaska. Also, concerning the forests that used to grow there, etc., which I hope some day to discuss with you.”

Near Cape Thompson, Muir discovered a new species of Erigeron. Asa Gray was astounded. The asteraceous plant resembled a daisy and grew in clusters of three. Muir reported that it was abundant in the Arctic—confusing people who thought that the northern latitudes were a wasteland of ice. Gray classified it as Erigeron muirii (known to botanists as Muir’s fleabane). A decade earlier, Gray had challenged Muir to discover a new flower. “Pray, find a new genus, or at least a new species, that I may have the satisfaction of embalming your name, not in glacier ice, but in spicy wild perfume.”53

Although not published until 1917, The Cruise of the Corwin, Muir’s account of the Arctic trip, became one of his signature books. Unlike Travels in Alaska, which was primarily about glaciers, this new memoir expressed Muir’s deep compassion for animals. When members of the Corwin’s crew shot at a nearby harbor seal (Phoca vitulina), Muir flinched, writing that the creature had “large, prominent, human-like eyes,” and therefore it was “cruel to kill it.”54 When a steamer owned by the Western Fur and Trading Company pulled up next to the Corwin, Muir sadly inspected the huge bundles of black and brown bearskins, marten, mink, beaver, lynx, wolf, and wolverine. “They were vividly suggestive of the far wilderness whence they came,” Muir wrote, “its mountains and valleys, its broad grassy plains and far-reaching rivers, its forests and its bogs.”55 In The Cruise of the Corwin, Muir presented himself as an advocate of wildlife protection. Chapters were titled “Caribou and a Native Fair,” “The Land of the White Bear,” and “Tragedies of the Whaling Fleet.”


Twenty years after Muir’s first visit to Alaska, the tycoon E. H. Harriman, owner of the Union Pacific Railroad, assembled a group of elite scientists and Thoreauvian naturalists for a ten-week cruise on the custom-built steamer George W. Elder to Glacier Bay and other Alaskan landmarks; the steamboat was, as Muir called it, “a floating university.”56 The entire party—including the ship’s crew and officers, and servants—added up to 126 persons from both the Atlantic and the Pacific coasts.57 This was Muir’s seventh trip to Alaska. After boarding in Seattle, the sixty-one-year-old Muir would get to visit Victoria, Fort Wrangell, Juneau, Glacier Bay, Sitka, Prince William Sound, Cook Inlet, Unalaska, and Saint Lawrence Island—and to play the distinguished glaciologist and resident wise man on the 9,000-mile voyage. He didn’t get back to Martinez, California, until late August. Never before had he seen such a variety of glaciers and ever-craggier peaks in such a short time span; the Chugach Mountains and Prince William Sound made him incredibly happy. Here was the greatest concentration of tidewater, calving glaciers in the world.58

The Harriman Alaska Expedition of 1899 voyaged up the Inside Passage, passing hundreds of forested islands, isolated coves, towering glaciers, and white-dipped mountains rising in waves against the mainland. The expedition—which included Muir’s fellow naturalist John Burroughs, the scientist William H. Dall, the botanist William Brewer, the conservationist and ethnographer George Bird Grinnell, the artist Louis Agassiz Fuertes, and the ethnographer and photographer Edward S. Curtis—eventually crossed the Bering Sea all the way to the Chukchi Peninsula to catch a glimpse of Siberian soil before heading back to Puget Sound. They spent five days in Glacier Bay—one of the first scientific expeditions to this ecosystem—with Muir as their teacher with regard to glaciers.

What shocked members of the Harriman Expedition more than the wild beauty itself was how imprudently coastal Alaska was being stripped of its natural resources. They noted deforestation, clear-cutting, overfishing, animal slaughter. Canneries and extraction companies were in the process of recklessly slashing many natural features. “At places,” Burroughs wrote, “the country looks as if all the railroad forces in the world have been turned loose to delve and rend and pile in some mad, insane folly and debauch.”59 Most troublesome of all were the fifty-five salmon canneries along coastal Alaska, many around the Inside Passage and far west at Bristol Bay. Refusing to pay Native Alaskans fair wages, these big canneries hired cheap Chinese labor. Determined not to be federally regulated, these canneries formed the Alaska Packers’ Association.60

In Prince William Sound the Elder explored the largest concentration of tidewater glaciers in Alaska. Many were actively calving. The surrounding Chugach and Kenai mountain glaciers were so powerful that they had cut more than forty fjords into the margins of the sound. The expedition spent perhaps the finest hours of the journey at College Fjord, twenty-five miles long and three miles wide. The members even discovered an unmapped inlet, dubbed Harriman Fjord as a tribute to their benefactor, containing over 100 glaciers. Muir burst with childlike excitement at seeing these glaciers. Instead of sleeping on the Elder, he pitched a tent along the shore to be closer to them. Grove Karl Gilbert, a glaciologist, always with binoculars in hand, likewise thrilled at seeing the Prince William Sound glaciers, taking invaluable notes on the stunning topography. “Gilbert’s work on the Harriman Expedition was a major contribution to glacial geology,” the historians William H. Goetzmann and Kay Sloan wrote in Looking Far North. “He had described the Ice Age horizons and he had outlined the physical mechanics of glaciers and glacial action.”61

What came from the expedition was the publication of the thirteen-volume Harriman Expedition reports (usually called the Harriman Alaska Series). These scientific volumes, organized around information gathered on the cruise, captured the public imagination about wild Alaska as nothing had before. The fact that the northern third of Alaska (above the Arctic Circle) had yet to be properly explored or mapped excited people’s imagination. Want to have a mountain named after yourself?—head to the Brooks Range or the Aleutian Range. Also, Harriman’s eminent scientists brought back a wealth of data that opened up Alaska to natural history for the first time. Muir, however, was frustrated with the penchant of the expedition’s members for hunting bear and catching the biggest fish. Muir also found the opulence aboard the Elder (the expedition’s ship) off-putting; too much faux positioning went on. “Why, I am richer than Harriman,” Muir bluntly declared. “I have all the money I want and he hasn’t.”62

Some fifty scientists compiled the Harriman Alaska Series; editorial work was done in New York; Washington, D.C.; and Berkeley, California. Harriman, as always, was generous with pay. The team modeled the scientific volumes on the old U.S. Geological Survey reports once famously issued by Clarence King and John Wesley Powell. Never before had coastal Alaska been analyzed from so many scientific perspectives. Every contributor revealed in detail what he had learned on the Elder. Grove Karl Gilbert wrote on glaciers; John Burroughs provided the definitive summary text; John Muir also wrote about glaciers and the harmony of nature; George Bird Grinnell wrote on the Tlingit, Aleuts, and other Native Alaskan peoples; Charles Keeler wrote on birds (with Louis Agassiz Fuertes brilliantly illustrating the descriptions of tufted puffins, harlequin ducks, and cormorants); B. E. Fernow wrote on forests. Unlike the expedition’s other intellectuals, Muir wrote his reports in a lyrical tone. Upon seeing College Fjord’s Western Wall in the Chugach, he wrote of the glacier group that “they came bounding down a smooth mountainside through the midst of lush flowery gardens and goat pastures, like tremendous leaping, dancing cataracts in prime of flood.”63

What these reports accomplished was to teach Americans that Alaska was a unique, untrammeled, sui generis wilderness in need of preservation on many levels. In Henry Gannett’s General Geography, written after Gannett participated in the Harriman Expedition, Alaska is envisioned as a future gigantic national park. “For the one Yosemite of California,” he wrote, “Alaska has hundreds.” Doubtful that mining gold, coal, and copper could be sustainable in the long run, Gannett prophesied that Alaska’s destiny was wilderness tourism. “The Alaska coast is to become the show-place on earth, and pilgrims, not only from the United States, but from beyond the seas, will throng in endless procession to see it,” Gannett wrote. “Its grandeur is more valuable than the gold or the fish or the timber, for it will never be exhausted. This value, measured by direct returns in money, received from tourists, will be enormous. Measured by health and pleasure, it will be incalculable.”64

Muir has been called the “mentor of the conservation movement”; it’s a reasonably apt accolade. Better than George Bird Grinnell, John Burroughs, or C. Hart Merriam, he understood nature’s rhythmic cycles both emotionally and scientifically. While Muir has been given a lot of well-deserved credit for helping to create Yosemite National Park and starting the Sierra Club in 1892, he was also America’s most enthusiastic Alaskan glaciologist prior to 1900. His teaching method wasn’t merely to illuminate listeners about snouts, crowded bergs, calving, or retreating ice. Glaciers, to Muir, were great indicators of weather, climate change, and tectonic plate shifts. As a glaciologist he held his own with the brilliant Gilbert. But as a preacher of the “glacier gospel” Muir was a one-man show. Burning with enthusiasm, Muir promoted Alaska’s seacoast wilderness, temperate rain forests, and green-ice glaciers as ever-changing masterpieces of creation. When Muir was on top of glaciers, he could see the ocean. Muir even dug a snow pit to study the layers within; all of Glacier Bay was his field laboratory; every inch of ice was a psalm.

By championing Alaska’s Glacier Bay as a site that had to be seen to be believed, Muir helped create today’s national park as surely as he had done with Yosemite. Muir had asked Americans to imagine glaciers along a stretch of mountain-hemmed sea . . . to crave calving ice . . . prehistoric forests . . . gamboling orcas . . . thousands of bald eagles . . . salmon runs . . . ice floes like bottles with messages drifting in clear waters. In southeastern Alaska, he was like a happy-go-lucky marooned seafarer, pleased to uncork the frozen essence of pressure melting when ice flowed around to the downhill side and then froze. Muir believed that a glacier had five main parts: the face was the front; the terminus was the downhill end; the surface was the top; the base was like a belly where it scraped against the valley bottom; the source was the area from which it flowed.65

The Harriman Expedition of 1899 was Muir’s last visit to Alaska. Nevertheless, Muir continued to espouse the protection of the eighteen tidewater glaciers (the glaciers that reach the sea) as Glacier Bay National Park. The sheets of living ice were thousands of feet thick and a few miles wide. If lucre was the reigning force of American life, then Muir wasn’t above promoting tourism to Alaska to protect the “solitude of ice and snow and newborn rocks, dim, dreary, mysterious” of the Inside Passage, Prince William Sound, and Cook Inlet.66 Glaciers existed in the entire southern perimeter of the state from just north of the Canadian border in the southeast to the last Aleutian Islands. Glaciers bespread the Fairweather Range, in the Coast Mountains, on the peaks of the Saint Elias Mountains, and the Alaska Range. The Chugach, Kenai, and Wrangell mountains all have glaciers—though more are melting. Muir was the protector and poet for all of Alaska’s more than 100,000 glaciers.

Today more than 1 million tourists a year head up the Inside Passage and Prince William Sound on cruise ships, loosely tracing Muir’s routes from 1879 to 1899. What Muir—like the Harriman Expedition itself—was offering Alaskans was another revenue stream besides the extraction industries: ecotourism. The heavy cruise ship traffic in Glacier Bay and Prince William Sound, in fact, has caused the National Park Service to turn away business rather than overly disturb the harbor seals, orcas or icebergs. Few passengers study glaciation processes in detail, but Muir believed that the more people saw of Alaska’s frozen wonders, the more likely they were to become conservationists. “Muir believed with evangelical passion that nature’s glaciers could form men as well as mountains, and he might well have viewed the proposed trip to Alaska as a pilgrimage as much as a scientific expedition,” the historians Robert Engberg and Bruce Merrell wrote. “In this way, his motivation may not have been so clearly distinct from that of the modern tourist who wishes to get away from it all by a visit to Alaskan wilderness.”67

Alaska . . . the three syllables had a magic radiance in 1899. And its primeval tundra north of the Brooks Range had yet to be explored by a single Darwinian biologist. Serious dry-fly anglers of the Izaak Walton League sort had yet to feel the weight of the clear, cold, fast streams against their legs. Few sportsmen had ventured anywhere near Lake Clark–Lake Iliamna to hunt the free-ranging moose. (But Native Alaskan hunters were part of these ecological systems for more than 10,000 years.) Most adventurers, however, weren’t interested in the glories of Mother Nature—they were after a quick fortune in mining, promised to them by recurrent come-ons: “There’s gold in them thar hills.” With the gold rushes of 1897 to 1899, more than 30,000 people stampeded to the Alaska and Yukon territory, most with the sole intention of extracting riches from the suddenly valuable land. Alaska, once derided as “Seward’s folly,” the most foolish real estate deal in American history, was suddenly a glittering boom land where gold nuggets could be panned out of any swift-moving stream. For every John Muir who came to see the grandeur of huge glaciers spilling over the rough-hewn landscape, a hundred others stood by, ready to harvest the glacier ice and sell it for a profit.

A battle was on between those who wanted to preserve Alaska’s wilderness and those who wanted to extract wealth from minerals, salmon, glacier ice, timber, and, later, oil. The Nobel Prize–winning novelist Knut Hamsun, of Norway, once described Americans’ obsession with get-rich-quick commerce in this way: “They never allow themselves a day of quiet. Nothing can take their minds off figures; nothing of beauty can get them to forget the export trade and market prices for a single moment.”68 His words perfectly describe the mentality behind the dozens of Alaskan gold rushes and all the Alaskan oil rushes ever since. Yet there was from the get-go a cult of determined “wilderness believers” who fought against the private sector’s extraction mania in Alaska. To these nature lovers, often supported by the U.S. government, Alaska was a paradise for poets, scientists, recreationists, and tourists alike.

“In God’s wildness lies the hope of the world,” Muir wrote, with timeless Alaska in mind, “the great fresh unlighted, unredeemed wilderness. The galling harness of civilization drops off, and the wounds heal ere we are aware.”69



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