The Life and Letters of John Muir
by William Frederic Badè
The Second Alaska Trip and the Search for the Jeannette
After his marriage Muir rented from his father-in-law a part of the Strentzel
ranch, and then proceeded with great thoroughness to master the art of
horticulture, for which he possessed natural and perhaps inherited aptitude.
But when July came, the homing instinct for the wilderness again grew strong
within him. He doubtless had an understanding with his wife that he was
to continue during the next summer the unfinished explorations of 1879.
The lure of "something lost behind the ranges" was in his case a glacier,
as Mr. Young reports in his "Alaska Days with John Muir." The more immediate
occasion of his departure was a letter from his friend Thomas Magee, of
San Francisco, urging him to join him on a trip to southeastern Alaska.
The two had traveled together before, and he acted at once upon the suggestion,
leaving for the North on July 30th.
To Mrs. Muir
Off Cape Flattery
My Dear Wife:
Monday, August 2d, 1880 10 A.M.
All goes well. In a few hours we will be in Victoria. The voyage thus
far has been singularly calm and uneventful. Leaving you is the only event
that has marred the trip and it is marred sorely, but I shall make haste
to you and reach you ere you have the time to grieve and weary. If you
will only be calm and cheery all will be better for my short spell of ice-work.
The sea has been very smooth, nevertheless Mr. Magee has been very sick.
Now he is better. As for me I have made no sign, though I have had some
headache and heartache. We are now past the Flattery Rocks, where we were
so roughly storm-tossed last winter, and Neah Bay, where we remained thirty-six
hours. How placid it seems now--the water black and gray with reflections
from the cloudy sky, fur seals popping their heads up here and there, ducks
and gulls dotting the small waves, and Indian fishing-boats towards the
shore, each with a small glaring red flag flying from the masthead.
Behind the group of white houses nestled in the deepest bend of the
bay rise rounded, ice-swept hills, with mountains beyond them folding
in and in, in beautiful braids, and all densely forested. We are so near
the shore that with the mate's glasses I can readily make out some of the
species of the trees. The forest is in the main scarce at all different
from those of the Alaskan coast. Now the Cape Lighthouse is out of sight
and we are fairly into the strait. Vancouver Island is on [the] left in
fine clear view, with forests densely packed in every hollow and over every
hill and mountain. How beautiful it is! How deep and shadowy its cañons,
how eloquently it tells the story of its sculpture during the Age of Ice!
How perfectly virgin it is! Ships loaded with Nanaimo coal and Puget Sound
coal and lumber, a half-dozen of them, are about us, beating their way
down the strait, and here and there a pilot boat to represent civilization,
but not one sear on the virgin shore, nor the smoke of a hut or camp.
I have just been speaking with a man who has spent a good deal of time
on the island. He says that so impenetrable is the underbrush, his party
could seldom make more than two miles a day though assisted by eight Indians.
Only the shores are known.
Now the wind is beginning to freshen and the small waves are tipped
with white, milk-white, caps, almost the only ones we have seen since
leaving San Francisco. The Captain and first officer have been very attentive
to us, giving us the use of their rooms and books, etc., besides answering
all our questions anent the sea and ships.
We shall reach Victoria about two or three o'clock. The California
will not sail before tomorrow sometime, so that we shall have plenty [of]
time to get the charts and odds and ends we need before leaving. Mr. Magee
will undoubtedly go on to Wrangell, but will not be likely to stop over.
Ten minutes past two by your clock
We are just rounding the Esquimalt Lighthouse, and in a few minutes more
will be tied up at the wharf. Quite a lively breeze is blowing from the
island, and the strait is ruffled with small shining wavelets glowing in
the distance like silver. Hereabouts many lofty moutonnéed rock-bosses
rise above the forests, bare of trees, but brown looking from the mosses
that cover them. Since entering the strait, the heavy swell up and down,
up and down, has vanished and all the sick have got well and are out in
full force, gazing at the harbor with the excitement one always feels after
a voyage, whether the future offers much brightness or not.
The new Captain of the California is said to be good and careful, and
the pilot and purser I know well, so that we will feel at home during the
rest of our trip as we have thus far; and as for the main objects, all
Nature is unchangeable, loves us all, and grants gracious welcome to
every honest votary.
I hope you do not feel that I am away at all. Any real separation is
not possible. I have been alone, as far as [concerns] the isolation that
distance makes, so much of my lifetime that separation seems more natural
than absolute contact, which seems too good and indulgent to be true.
Her Majesty's ironclad Triumph is lying close alongside. How huge she
seems and impertinently strong and defiant, with a background of honest
green woods! Jagged-toothed wolves and wildcats harmonize smoothly enough,
but engines for the destruction of human beings are only devilish, though
they carry preachers and prayers and open up views of sad, scant tears.
Now we are making fast. "Make fast that line there, make fast," "let go
there," "give way."
We will go on to Victoria this afternoon, taking our baggage with us,
and stay there until setting out on the California. The ride of three miles
through the woods and round the glacial bosses is very fine. This you
would enjoy. I shall look for the roses. Will mail this at once, and
write again before leaving this grand old ice-ribbed island.
And now, my dear Louie, keep a good heart and do the bits of work I
requested you to do, and the days in Alaska will go away fast enough and
I will be with you again as if I had been gone but one day.
Ever your affectionate husband
To Mrs. Muir
August 3, 1880, 3.45 P.M.
The Vancouver roses are out of bloom hereabouts but I may possibly
find some near Nanaimo. I mailed you a letter yesterday which you will
probably receive with this.
Arriving at Esquimalt we hired a carriage driven by a sad-eyed and sad-lipped
negro to take us with all our baggage to Victoria, some three miles distant.
The horses were also of melancholic aspect, lean and clipper-built in general,
but the way they made the fire fly from the glacial gravel would have made
Saint Jose and his jet beef-sides hide in the dust. By dint of much blunt
praise of his team he put them 142 to their wiry spring-steel metal and
we passed everything on the road with a whirr--cab, cart, carriage, and
carryall. We put up at the Driard House and had a square, or cubical, meal.
Put on a metallic countenance to the landlord on account of the money and
experience we carried, nearly seared him out of his dignity and made him
give us good rooms.
At 6.45 P.M. the California arrived, and we went aboard and had a chat
with Hughes, the purser. He at once inquired whether I had any one
with me, meaning you, as Vanderbilt had given our news.
Learned that the California would not sail until this
evening and made up our minds to take a drive
out in the highways and byways adjacent to the town. While strolling about
the streets last evening I felt a singular interest in the Thlinkit Indians
I met and something like a missionary spirit came over me. Poor fellows,
I wish I could serve them.
There is good eating, but poor sleeping here. My bed was but little
like our own at home. Met Major Morris, the Treasury agent, this morning.
He is going up with us. He is, you remember, the writer of that book on
Alaska that I brought with me.
About nine o'clock we got a horse and buggy at the livery stable and
began our devious drive by going back to the Dakota to call on First Officer
Griffith and give him a box of weeds for his kind deeds. Then took any
road that offered out into the green leafy country. How beautiful it is,
every road banked high and embowered in dense, fresh, green, tall ferns
six to eight feet high close to the wheels, then spiraea, two or three
species, wild rose bushes, madroño, hazel, hawthorn, then a host
of young Douglas spruces and silver firs with here and there a yew with
its red berries and dark foliage, and a maple or two, then the tall firs
and spruces forming the forest primeval. We came to a good many fields
of grain, but all of them small as compared with the number of the houses.
The oats and barley are just about ripe. We saw little orchards, too; a
good many pears, little red-brown fellows, six hatfuls per tree, and the
queerest little sprinkling of little red and yellow cherries just beginning
to ripen. Many of the cottage homes about town are as lovely as a cottage
may be, embowered in honeysuckle and green gardens and bits of lawn and
orchard and grand oaks with lovely outlooks. The day has been delightful.
How you would have enjoyed it--all three of you.
Our baggage is already aboard and the hour draws nigh. I must go. I
shall write you again from Nanaimo.
Good-bye again, my love. Keep a strong heart and speedily will fly the
hours that bring me back to thee. Love to mother and father. Farewell.
Ever your affectionate husband
To Mrs. Muir
On board the California
10 A.M., August 4th, 1880
We are still lying alongside the wharf at Victoria. It seems a leak
was discovered in one of the watertanks that had to be mended, and the
result was that we could not get off on the seven o'clock tide last night.
Victoria seems a dry, dignified, half-idle town, supported in great
part by government fees. Every erect, or more than erect, backleaning,
man has an office, and carries himself with that peculiar aplomb that all
the Hail Britannia people are so noted for. The wharf and harbor stir is
very mild. The steamer Princess Louise lies alongside ours, getting ready
for the trip to New Westminster on [the] Fraser River. The Hudson's Bay
Company's steamer Otter, a queer old tubby craft, left for the North last
night. A few sloops, plungers, and boats are crawling about the harbor
or lying at anchor, doing or dreaming a business nobody knows. Yonder comes
an Indian canoe with its one unique sail calling up memories, many, of
my last winter's rambles among the icebergs. The water is ruffled with
a slight breeze, scarce enough for small white-caps. Though clearer than
the waters of most harbors, it is not without the ordinary drift of old
bottles, straw, and defunct domestic animals. How rotten the piles of the
wharf are, and how they smell, even in this cool climate!
They are taking hundreds of barrels of molasses aboard--for what purpose?
To delight the Alaska younglings with 'lasses bread and smear their happy
chubby cheeks, or to make cookies and gingerbread? No, whiskey, Indian
whiskey! It will be bought by Indians, nine tenths of it and more; they
will give their hard-earned money for it, and their hard-caught furs, and
take it far away along many a glacial channel and inlet, and make it into
crazing poison. Onions, too, many a ton, are coming aboard to boil and
fry and raise a watery cry.
Alone on the wharf, I see a lone stranger dressed in shabby black. He
has a kind of unnerved, drooping look, his shoulders coming together and
his toes and his knees and the two ends of his vertebral column, something
like a withering leaf in hot sunshine. Poor fellow, he looks at our
ship as if he wanted to go again to the mines to try his luck. And here
come two Indian women and a little girl trotting after them. They seem
as if they were coming aboard, but turn aside at the edge of the wharf
and descend rickety stairs to their canoe, tied to a pile beneath the wharf.
Now they reappear with change of toilet, and the little girl is carrying
a bundle, something to eat or sell or sit on.
Yonder comes a typical John Bull, grand in size and style, carmine in
countenance, abdominous and showing a fine tight curve from chin to knee,
when seen in profile, yet benevolent withal and reliable, confidence-begetting.
And here just landed opposite our ship is a pile of hundreds of bears'
skins, black and brown, from Alaska, brought here by the Otter, a few deer
skins too, and wildcat and wolverine. The Hudson's Bay Company men are
about them, showing their ownership.
Ten minutes to twelve o'clock
"Let go that line there," etc., tells that we are about to move. Our
steamer swings slowly round and heads for Nanaimo. How beautiful the shores
are! How glacial, yet how leafy! The day becomes calmer, and brighter,
and everybody seems happy. Our fellow passengers are Major Morris and wife,
whom I met last year, Judge Deady, a young Englishman, and [a] dreamy,
silent old gray man like a minister.
We are entering Nanaimo Harbor.
To Mrs. Muir
A Few Miles from Nanaimo
9 A.M., August 5th, 1880
We are coaling here, and what a rumble they are making! The shores here
are very imposing, a beveled bluff, topped with giant cedar, spruce, and
fir and maple with varying green; here and there a small madroño
too, which here is near its northern limit.
We went ashore last eve at Nanaimo for a stroll, Magee and I, and we
happened to meet Mr. Morrison, a man that I knew at Fort Wrangell, who
told me particulars of the sad Indian war in which Toyatte was killed.
He was present and gave very graphic descriptions.
We sailed hither at daylight this morning, and will probably get away,
the Captain tells me, about eleven o'clock, and then no halt until we reach
Wrangell, which is distant from here about sixty hours.
I hardly know, my lassie, what I've been writing, nothing, I fear, but
very small odds and ends, and yet these may at least keep you from wearying
for an hour, and the letters, poor though they be, shall yet tell my love,
and that will redeem them. I mail this here, the other two were mailed
in Victoria, my next from Wrangell.
Heaven bless you, my love, and mother and father. I trust that you are
caring for yourself and us all by keeping cheery and strong, and avoiding
the bad practice of the stair-dance. Once more, my love, farewell, I must
close in haste. Farewell.
Ever your affectionate husband
Missionary S. Hall Young was standing on the wharf at Fort Wrangell
on the 8th of August, watching the California coming in, when to his great
joy he spied John Muir standing on the deck and waving his greetings. Springing
nimbly ashore, Muir at once fired at him the question, "When can you be
ready?" In response to Young's expostulations over his haste, and his failure
to bring his wife, he exclaimed: "Man, have you forgotten? Don't you know
we lost a glacier last fall? Do you think I could sleep soundly in my bed
this winter with that hanging on my conscience? My wife could not come,
so I have come alone and you've got to go with me to find the lost. Get
your canoe and crew and let us be off."
To Mrs. Muir
Sitka on board the California
My Own Dear Louie:
August 10th, 1880
10.30 P.M. of your time
I'm now about as far from you as I will be this year--only this wee
sail to the North and then to thee, my lassie. And I'm not away at all,
you know, for only they who do not love may ever be apart. There is no
true separation for those whose hearts and souls are together. So much
for love and philosophy. And now I must trace you my way since leaving
We sailed smoothly through the thousand evergreen isles, and arrived
at Fort Wrangell at 4.30 A.M. on the 8th. Left Wrangell at noon of the
same day and arrived here on the 9th at 6 A.M. Spent the day in friendly
greetings and saunterings. Found Mr. Vanderbilt and his wife and Johnnie
and not every way least, though last, little Annie, who is grown in stature
and grace and beauty since last I kissed her.
To-day Mr. Vanderbilt kindly took myself and Mr. Magee and three other
fellow passengers on an excursion on his steamer up Peril Strait, about
fifty miles. (You can find it on one of the charts that I forgot to bring.)
We returned to the California about half-past nine, completing my way thus
And now for my future plans. The California sails to-morrow afternoon
some time for Fort Wrangell, and I mean to return on her and from there
set out on my canoe trip. I do not expect to be detained at Wrangell, inasmuch
as I saw Mr. [S. Hall] Young, who promised to have a canoe and crew ready.
I mean to keep close along the mainland, exploring the deep inlets in turn,
at least as far north as the Taku, then push across to Cross Sound and
follow the northern shore, examining the glaciers that crowd into the deep
inlet that puts back northward from near the south extremity of the Sound,
where I was last year. Thence I mean to return eastward along the southern
shore of the Sound to Chatham Strait, turn southward down the west shore
of the Strait to Peril Strait, and follow this strait to Sitka, where I
shall take the California. Possibly, however, I may, should I not be pushed
for time return to Wrangell. Mr. Magee will, I think, go with me, though
very unwilling to do so. . . .
August 11th, at noon
I have just returned from a visit to the Jamestown. The Commander, Beardslee,
paid me a visit here last evening, and invited me aboard his ship. Had
a pleasant chat, and an invitation to make the Jamestown my home while
I also found my friend Koshoto, the Chief of the Hoonas, the man who,
I told you, had entertained Mr. Young and me so well last year on Cross
Sound, and who made so good a speech. He is here trading, and seemed greatly
pleased to learn that I was going to pay him another visit; said that meeting
me was like meeting his own brother who was dead, his heart felt good,
etc. . . .
I have been learning all about the death of the brave and good old Toyatte.
I think that Dr. Corliss, one of the Wrangell missionaries., made a mistake
in reference to the seizure of some whiskey, which caused the beginning
of the trouble.
This is a bright, soft, balmy day. How you would enjoy it! You must
come here some day when you are strong enough. . . . Everybody inquires
first on seeing me, "Have you brought your wife?" and then "Have you a
photograph?" and then pass condemnation for coming alone! . . .
The mail is about to close, and I must write to mother.
Affectionately your husband
How eagerly I shall look for news when I reach Fort Wrangell next month!
To Mrs. Muir
Residence of Mr. Young, Fort Wrangell
11.45 A.M., August 14th, 1880
I am back in my old quarters, and how familiar it all seems!--the lovely
water, the islands, the Indians with their baskets and blankets and berries,
the jet ravens prying and flying here and there, and the bland, dreamy,
hushed air drooping and brooding kindly over all. I miss Toyatte so much.
I have just been over the battleground with Mr. Young, and have seen the
spot where he fell.
Instead of coming here direct from Sitka we called at Klawak on Prince
of Wales Island for freight,--canned salmon, oil, furs, etc.,--which detained
us a day. We arrived here last evening at half-past ten, Klawak is a fishing
and trading station located in a most charmingly beautiful bay, and while
lying there, the evening before last, we witnessed a glorious auroral display
which lasted more than three hours. First we noticed long white lance shaped
streamers shooting up from a dark cloud-like mass near the horizon, then
a well-defined arch, the corona, almost black, with a luminous edge appeared,
and from it, radiating like spokes from a hub, the streamers kept shooting
with a quick glancing motion, and remaining drawn on the dark sky, distinct,
and white, as fine lines drawn on a blackboard. And when half the horizon
was adorned with these silky fibrous lances of light reaching to and converging
at the zenith, broad flapping folds and waves of the same white auroral
light came surging on from the corona with astonishing energy and quickness,
the folds and waves spending themselves near the zenith like waves on a
smooth sloping sand-beach. But throughout the greater portion of their
courses the motion was more like that of sheet lightning, or waves made
in broad folds of muslin when rapidly shaken; then in a few minutes those
delicate billows of light rolled up among the silken streamers, would vanish,
leaving the more lasting streamers with the stars shining through them;
then some of the seemingly permanent streamers would vanish also, and appear
again in vivid white, like rockets shooting with widening base, their glowing
shafts reflected in the calm water of the bay among the stars.
It was all so rare and so beautiful and exciting to us that we gazed
and shouted like children at a show, and in the middle of it all, after
I was left alone on deck at about half-past eleven, the whole sky was suddenly
illumined by the largest meteor I ever saw. I remained on deck until after
midnight, watching. The corona became crimson and slightly flushed the
bases of the streamers, then one by one the shining pillars of the glorious
structure were taken down, the foundation arch became irregular and broke
up, and all that was left was only a faint structureless glow along the
northern horizon, like the beginning of the dawn of a clear frosty day.
The only sounds were the occasional shouts of the Indians, and the impressive
roar of a waterfall.
Mr. Young and I have just concluded a bargain with the Indians, Lot
and his friend, to take us in his canoe for a month or six weeks, at the
rate of sixty dollars per month. Our company will be those two Indians,
and Mr. Young and myself, also an Indian boy that Mr. Young is to take
to his parents at Chilkat, and possibly Colonel Crittenden as far as Holkham
Bay. . . .
You will notice, dear, that I have changed the plan I formerly sent
you in this, that I go on to the Chilkat for Mr. Young's sake, and farther;
now that Mr. Magee is out of the trip,
I shall not feel the necessity I previously felt of getting back to
Sitka or Wrangell in time for the next
steamer, though it is barely possible that I shall. Do not look for me,
however, as it is likely I shall have my hands full for two months. To-morrow
is Sunday, so we shall not get away before Monday, the 16th. How hard it
is to wait so long for a letter from you! I shall not get a word until
I return. I am trying to trust that you will be patient and happy, and
have that work done that we talked of.
Every one of my old acquaintances seems cordially glad to see me. I
have not yet seen Shakes, the Chief, though I shall ere we leave. He is
now one of the principal church members, while Kadachan has been getting
drunk in the old style, and is likely, Mr. Young tells me, to be turned
out of the church altogether. John, our last year's interpreter, is up
in the Cassiar mines. Mrs. McFarlane, Miss Dunbar, and the Youngs are all
uncommonly anxious to know you, and are greatly disappointed in not seeing
you here, or at least getting a peep at your picture. "Why could she not
have come up and stayed with us while you were about your ice business?"
they ask in disappointed tone of voice.
Now, my dear wife, the California will soon be sailing southward, and
I must again bid you good-bye. I must go, but you, pay dear, will go with
me all the way, How gladly when my work is done will I go back to thee!
With love to mother and father, and hoping that God will bless and keep
you all, I am ever in heart and soul the same,
6 P.M. I have just dashed off a short "Bulletin" letter.
The events that followed are graphically narrated in Part II of
"Travels in Alaska." Eight days after his arrival at Fort Wrangell, Muir
and Mr. Young got started with their party, which consisted of the two
Stickeen Indians--Lot Tyeen and Hunter Joe--a half-breed named Smart Billy.
There was also Mr. Young's dog Stickeen, whom. Mr. Muir at first accepted
rather grudgingly as a super-charge of the already crowded canoe, but who
later won his admiration and became the subject of one of the noblest dog
stories in English literature.
The course of the expedition led through Wrangell Narrows between Mitkoff
and Kupreanof Islands, up Frederick Sound past Cape Fanshaw and across
Port Houghton, and then up Stephens Passage to the entrance of Holkham
Bay, also called Sumdum. Fourteen and a half hours up the Endicott Ann
of this bay, which Muir was the first white man to explore, he found the
glacier he had suspected there--a stream of ice three quarters of a mile
wide and eight or nine hundred feet deep, discharging bergs with sounds
of thunder. He had scarcely finished a sketch of it when he observed another
glacial cañon on the west side of the fiord and, directing his crew
to pull around a glaciated promontory, they came into full view of a second
glacier, still pouring its ice into a branch of the fiord. Muir gave the
first of these glaciers the name Young in honor of his companion, who complains
that some later chart-maker substituted the name Dawes, thus committing
the larceny of stealing his glacier.
In retracing their course, after some days spent in exploring the head
of the fiord, they struck a side-arm through which the water was rushing
with great force. Threading the narrow entrance, they found themselves
in what Muir described as a new Yosemite in the making. He called it Yosemite
Bay, and has fur. nished a charming description of its flora, fauna, and
physical characteristics in his "Travels in Alaska."
On August 21st, Young being detained by missionary duties, Muir set
out alone with the Indians to explore what is now known as the Tracy Arm
of Holkham Bay. The second day he found another kingly glacier hidden within
the benmost bore of the fiord. "There is your lost friend," said the Indians,
laughing, and as the thunder of its detaching bergs reached their ears,
they added, "He says, Sagh-a-ya?" (How do you do?)
After leaving Taku Inlet, Muir laid his course north through Stephens
Passage and around the end of Admiralty Island, where a camp was made only
with difficulty. The next morning he crossed the Lynn Canal with his boat
and crew and pitched camp, after a voyage of twenty miles, on the west
end of Farewell Island, now Pyramid Island. Early the following day they
turned Point Wimbledon, crept along the lofty north wall of Cross Sound,
and entered Taylor Bay. During a part of this trip, the canoe was exposed
to a storm and swells rolling in past Cape Spencer from the open ocean.
It was an undertaking that called for courage, skill, and hardihood of
no mean order.
At the head of Taylor Bay, Muir found a great glacier consisting of
three branches whose combined fronts had an extent of about eight miles.
Camp was made near one of these fronts in the evening of August 29th. Early
the following morning, Muir became aware that "a wild storm was blowing
and calling," and before any one was astir he was off--too eager to stop
for breakfast--into the rain-laden gale, and out upon the glacier. It was
one of the great, inspired days of his life, immortalized in the story
of "Stickeen," the brave little dog
[Mr. Muir received so
many letters inquiring about the dog's antecedents that he asked Mr. Young
in 1897 to tell him what he knew of Stickeen's earlier history. Some readers
may be interested in his reply, which was as follows: "Mrs. Young got him
as a present from Mr. H----, that Irish sinner who lived in a cottage up
the beach towards the Presbyterian Mission in Sitka."]
become his inseparable companion.
Muir's time was growing short, so he hastened on with his party the
next day into Glacier Bay, where among other great glaciers he had discovered
the previous autumn the one that now bears his name. Several days were
spent there most happily, exploring and observing glacial action, and then
the canoe was turned Sitka-ward by way of Icy, Chatham, and Peril Straits,
arriving in time to enable him to catch there the monthly mail steamer
to Portland. Thus ended the Alaska trip of 1880.
"After all, have you not found there is some happiness in this world outside
of glaciers, and other glories of nature?" The friend who put this question
to John Muir, in a letter full of pleasantries and congratulations, had
just received from him a jubilant note announcing the arrival of a baby
daughter on March 27th. His fondness of children now had scope for indulgence
at home, and he became a most devoted husband and father.
But for the time being he was to be deprived of this new domestic joy.
For when he received an invitation to accompany the United States Revenue
steamer Corwin on an Arctic relief expedition in search of DeLong and the
Jeannette, it was decided in family council that so unusual an opportunity
to explore the northern parts of Alaska and Siberia must not be neglected.
His preparations had to be made in great haste while the citizens of Oakland
were giving a banquet in honor of Captain C. L. Hooper and the officers
of the Corwin at the Galinda Hotel in Oakland on April 29th. Fortunately,
the Captain was an old friend whom he had known in Alaska and to whom 161
he could entrust the purchase of the necessary polar garments from the
natives in Bering Straits.
The Corwin sailed from San Francisco on May 4, 1881, and the following
series of letters was written to his wife during the cruise. They supplement
at many points the more formal account of his experiences published in
"The Cruise of the Corwin." One of the objectives of the expedition was
Wrangell Land in the Arctic Ocean, north of the Siberian coast, because
it had been the expressed intention of Commander DeLong to reach the North
Pole by traveling along its eastern coast, leaving cairns at intervals
of twenty-five miles. It was not known at this time that Wrangell Land
did not extend toward the Pole, but was an island of comparatively small
extent. It was found later, by the log of the Jeannette, that the vessel
had drifted, within sight of the island, directly across the meridians
between which it lies. While the Corwin was still searching for her and
her crew, the Jeannette was crushed in the ice and sank on June 12, 1881,
in the Arctic Ocean, one hundred and fifty miles north of the New Siberian
Meanwhile Captain Hooper succeeded in penetrating, with the Corwin,
the ice barrier that surrounded Wrangell Land. So far as known, the
first human beings that ever stood upon the shores of this mysterious island
were in Captain Hooper's landing party, August 12, 1881, and John Muir
was of the number. The earliest news of the event, and of the fact that
DeLong had not succeeded in touching either Herald Island or Wrangell Land,
reached the world at large in a letter from Muir published in the "San
Francisco Evening Bulletin," September 29, 1881.
Since the greater part of the first two letters, written to his wife
at sea and while approaching Unalaska, was quoted in the writer's introduction
to "The Cruise of the Corwin," they are omitted here for the sake of brevity.
To Mrs. Muir
Monday, 4 P.M., May 16, 
Since writing this forenoon, we reached the mouth of the strait that
separates Unalaska Island from the next to the eastward, against a strong
headwind and through rough snow squalls, when the Captain told me that
he thought he would not venture through the Strait to-day, because the
swift floodtide setting through the Strait against the wind was surely
raising a dangerously rough sea, but rather seek an anchorage somewhere
in the lee of the bluffs, and wait the fall of the wind. As he approached
the mouth of the Strait, however, he changed his mind and determined to
When the vessel began to pitch heavily and the hatches and skylights
were closed, I knew that we were in the Strait, and made haste to get on
my overcoat and get up into the pilot-house to enjoy the view of the waves.
The view proved to be far wilder and more exciting than I expected. Indeed,
I never before saw water in so hearty a storm of hissing, blinding foam.
It was all one leaping, clashing, roaring mass of white, mingling with
the air by means of the long hissing streamers dragged from the wavetops,
and the biting scud. Our little vessel, swept onward by the flood pouring
into Bering's Sea and by her machinery, was being buffeted by the head-gale
and the huge, white, overcombing waves that made her reel and tremble,
though she stood it bravely and obeyed the helm as if in calm water. After
proceeding about five or six miles into the heart of this grand uproar,
it seemed to grow yet wilder and began to bid defiance to any farther headway
against it. At length, when we had nearly lost our boats and [were] in
danger of having our decks swept, we turned and fled for refuge before
the gale. The giant waves, exulting in their 164 strength, seemed to be
chasing us and threatening to swallow us at a gulp, but we finally made
our escape, and were perhaps in no great danger farther than the risk of
losing our boats and having the decks swept.
After going back about ten miles, we discovered a good anchorage in
fifteen fathoms of water in the lee of a great bluff of lava about two
thousand feet high, and here we ride in comfort while the blast drives
past overhead. If we do not get off to-morrow, I will go ashore and see
what I can learn.
Have learned already since the snow ceased falling that all the region
hereabouts has been glaciated just like that thousand miles to the eastward.
All the sculpture shows this clearly.
How pleasant it seems to be able to walk once more without holding on
and to have your plate lie still on the table!
It is clearing up. The mountains are seen in groups rising back of one
another, all pure white. The sailors are catching codfish. There are two
waterfalls opposite our harbor.
Good-night to all. Oh, if I could touch my baby and thee!
This has been a very grand day--snow, waves, wind, mountains!
To Mrs. Muir
Tuesday, May 17,1881
The gale having abated early this morning, we left our anchorage on
the south side of the island and steamed round into the Strait to try it
again after our last evening's defeat, and this time we were successful,
after a hard contest with the tide, which flows here at a speed of ten
miles an hour.
The clouds lifted and the sun shone out early this morning, revealing
a host of mountains nobly sculptured and grouped and robed in spotless
white. Turn which way you would, the mountains were seen towering into
the dark sky, some of them with streamers of mealy snow wavering in the
wind, a truly glorious sight. The most interesting feature to me was the
fine, clear, telling, glacial advertisement displayed everywhere in the
trends of the numerous inlets and bays and valleys and ridges, in the peculiar
shell-shaped névé amphitheaters and in the rounded valley
bottoms and forms of the peaks and the cliff fronts facing the sea. No
clearer glacial inscriptions are to be found in any mountain range, though
I had been led to believe that these islands were all volcanic upheavals,
scarce at all changed since their emergence from the waves, but on the
contrary I have already discovered that the amount of glacial degradation
has been so great as to cut the peninsula into islands. I have already
been repaid for the pains of the journey.
My health is improving every day in this bracing cold, and you will
hardly recognize me when I return. The summer will soon pass, and we hope
to be back to our homes by October or November. . . . This is a beautiful
harbor, white mountains shutting it in all around--white nearly to the water's
edge. . . .
I will write again ere we leave, and then you will not hear again, probably,
until near the middle of June, when we expect to meet the St. Paul belonging
to the Alaska Commercial Company at St. Michael. Then I will write and
you may receive my letter a month or two later.
Good-bye until to-morrow.
To Mrs. Muir
Wednesday, May 18th, 1881
The Storm-King of the North is again up and doing, rolling white, combing
waves through the jagged straits between this marvelous chain of islands,
circling them about with beaten, updashing foam, and piling yet more and
more snow on the clustering cloud-wrapped peaks. But we are safe and snug
in this land-locked haven enjoying the distant storm-roar of wave and wind.
I have just been on deck; it is snowing still and the deep bass of the
gale is sounding on through the mountains. How weird and wild and fascinating
all this hearty work of the storm is to me. I feel a strange love of it
all, as I gaze shivering up the dim white slopes as through a veil darkly,
becoming fainter and fainter as the flakes thicken and at length hide all
Last evening I went ashore with the Captain, and saw the chief men of
the place and the one white woman, and a good many of the Aleuts. We were
kindly and cordially entertained by the agent of the Alaska Commercial
Company, Mr. Greenbaum, and while seated in his elegant parlor could hardly
realize that we were in so remote and cold and silent a wilderness.
As we were seated at our ease discussing Alaskan and Polar affairs,
a knock came to the door, and a tall, hoary, majestic old man slowly entered,
whom I at once took for the Russian priest, but to whom I was introduced
as Dr. Holman. He shook hands with me very heartily and said, "Mr. Muir,
I am glad to see you. I had the pleasure of knowing you in San Francisco."
Then I recognized him as the dignified old gentleman that I first met
three or four years ago at the home of the Smiths at San Rafael, and we
had a pleasant evening together. He has been in the employ of the Alaska
Commercial Company here for a year, caring for the health of the Company's
Aleuts. His own health has been suffering the meanwhile, and to-day I sent
him half a dozen bottles of the Doctor's wine to revive him. This notable
liberality under the circumstances was caused, first, by his having advised
me years ago to take good care of my steps on the mountains; second, to
get married; third, for his pictures, drawn for me, of the bliss of having
children; fourth, for the sake of our mutual friends; fifth, for his good
looks and bad health; and half-dozen, because fifteen or twenty years ago
on a dark night, while seeking one of his patients in the Contra Costa
hills, he called at the house of Doctor Strentzel for directions and was
invited in and got a glass of good wine. A half-dozen bottles for a half-dozen
reasons! "That's consistent, isn't it?" I mean to give a bottle to a friend
of the Captain who is stationed at St. Michael, and save one bottle for
our first contact with the polar ice-pack, and one with which to celebrate
the hour of our return to home, friends, wives, bairns.
We had fresh-baked stuffed codfish for breakfast, of which I ate heartily,
stuffing and all, though the latter was gray and soft and much burdened
with minced onions, and then I held out my plate for a spoonful of opaque,
oleaginous gravy! This last paragraph is for grandmother as a manifestation
of heroic, all-enduring, all-engulfing health.
We have not yet commenced to coal, so that we will not get off for the
North before Sunday. There is a schooner here that will sail for Shoalwater
Bay, Oregon, in a few days, and by it I will send four or five letters.
The three or four more that I intend writing ere we leave this port I will
give to the agent of the Company here to be forwarded by the next opportunity
in case the first batch should be lost. Then others will be sent from St.
Michael by the Company's steamer, and still others from the Seal Islands
and from points where we fall in with any vessel homeward bound.
Good-night to all. I am multiplying letters in case some be lost, A
thousand kisses to in child. This is the fifth letter from Unalaska. Will
write two more to be sent by other vessels.
To Mrs. Muir
Sunday afternoon, May 22, 1881
We left Unalaska this morning at four o'clock and are now in Bering
Sea on our way to St. George and St. Paul Islands. . . . Next Tuesday or
Wednesday we expect to come in sight of the ice, but hope to find open
water, along the west shore, that will enable us to get through the Strait
to Cape Serdze or there-abouts. In a month or so we expect to be at St.
Michael, where we will have a chance to send more letters and still later
You will, therefore, have no very long period of darkness, though on
my side I fear I shall have to wait a long time for a single word, and
it is only by trusting in you to be cheerful and busy for the sake of your
health and for the sake of our little love and all of us that I can have
any peace and rest throughout this trip, however long or short. Now you
must be sure to sleep early to make up for waking during the night, and
occupy all the day with light work and cheerful thoughts, and never brood
and dream of trouble, and I will come back with the knowledge that I
need and a fresh supply of the wilderness in my health. I am already quite
well and eat with savage appetite whatsoever is brought within reach.
This morning I devoured half of a salmon trout eighteen inches long,
a slice of ham, half a plateful of potatoes, two biscuits, and four or
five slices of bread, with coffee and something else that I have forgotten,
but which was certainly buried in me and lost. For lunch, two platefuls
of soup, a heap of fat compound onion hash, two pieces of toast, and three
or four slices of bread, with potatoes, and a big sweet cake, and now at
three o'clock I am very hungry--a hunger that no amount of wave-tossing
will abate. Furthermore, I look forward to fat seals fried and boiled,
and to walrus steaks and stews, and doughnuts fried in train oil, and to
all kinds of bears and fishy fowls with eager longing. There! Is that enough,
grandmother? All my table whims are rapidly passing into the sere and yellow
leaf and falling off.
I promise to comfort and sustain you beyond your highest aspirations
when I return and fall three times a day on your table like a wolf on the
fold. You know those slippery yellow custards--well, I eat those also!
You must not forget Sam Williams
[Editor of the San
Francisco Evening Bulletin.].
And now, my love, good-night.
I hope you are feeling strong-hearted. I wish I could write anything, sense
or nonsense, to cheer you up and brighten the outlook into the North. I
will try to say one more line or two when we reach the Islands to-morrow.
Love to all. Kiss Annie for me.
To Mrs. Muir
Plover Bay, Siberia
My Beloved Wife:
June 16th, 1881
We leave this harbor to-morrow morning at six o'clock, for St. Michael,
and the northward. The Corwin is in perfect condition, and since the season
promises to be a favorable one, we hope to find the Jeannette and get home
this fall. I have not yet seen the American shore, but hope to see it very
thoroughly, as everything seems to work towards my objects. That the Asiatic
and American continents were one a very short geological time ago is already
clear to me, though I shall probably obtain much more available proof than
I now have. This is a grand fact. While the crystal glaciers were creating
Yosemite Valley, a thousand were uniting here to make Bering Strait and
Bering Sea. The south side of the Aleutian chain of islands was the boundary
of the continent and the ocean.
Since the Tom Pope came into the harbor, I have written five "Bulletin"
letters, which are for you mostly, and therefore I need the less to write
any detailed narrative of the cruise. She will sail at the same hour as
we do, and her Captain, Mr. Millard, who has been many times in the Arctic
both here and on the Greenland side, has promised to make you a visit,
and will be able to give you much information.
If I could only get a line, one word, from you to know that you were
all well, I would be content to await the end of the voyage with patience
and fortitude. But, my dear, it's terrible at times to have to endure for
so long a dark silence. We will not be likely to get a word before September.
No doubt you have already received the six or seven letters that I sent
from Unalaska and St. Paul, also the two or three "Bulletin" letters from
Unalaska. Write [W.C.] Bartlett or the office for a dozen copies of each,
and save them for me.
We are drifting in the harbor among cakes of ice about the size of the
orchard, but they can do us no harm. The great mountains forming the walls
are covered yet with snow, except on a few bare spots near their bases,
and there is not a single tree. Scarce a hint of any spring or summer have
I seen since leaving San Francisco and the orchard. I hope you will see
Mr. Millard. You must keep Annie Wanda downstairs or she may fall; and
now, my wife and child, daughter and mother, I must bid good-bye. Heaven
bless you all! Send copies of my "Bulletin" letters to my mother, and put
this letter with my papers and notebooks. You will get many other letters
now that the whalers are returning.
My heart aches, not to go home ere I have done my work, but just to
know that you are well.
Your affectionate husband
To Mrs. Muir
St. Michael, Alaska
Sunshine, dear Louie, sunshine all the day, ripe and mellow sunshine, like
that which feeds the fruits and vines! It came to us just [three] days
ago when we were approaching this little old-fashioned trading post at
the mouth of the Yukon River. . . .
June 21, 1881
On the day of our arrival from Plover Bay, a little steamer came into
the harbor from the Upper Yukon, towing three large boats loaded with traders,
Indians, and furs--all the furs they had gathered during the winter. We
went across to the storeroom of the Company to see them. A queer lot they
were, whites and Indians, as they unloaded their furs. It was worth while
to look at the furs too--big bundles of bear skins brown and black, wolf,
fox, beaver, marten, ermine, moose, wolverine, wildcat--many of them with
claws spread and hair on end as if still alive and fighting for their lives.
Some of the Indian chiefs, the wildest animals of all, and the more notable
of the traders, not at all wild save in dress, but rather gentle and refined
in manners, like village parsons. They held us in long interesting talks
and gave us some valuable information concerning the broad wilds of the
Yesterday I took a long walk of twelve or fourteen miles over the tundra
to a volcanic cone and back, leaving the ship about twelve in the forenoon
and getting back at half-past eight. I found a great number of flowers
in full bloom, and birds of many species building their nests, and a capital
view of the surrounding country from the rim of an old crater, altogether
making a delightful day, though a very wearisome one on account of the
The ground back of St. Michael stretches away in broad brown levels
of boggy tundra promising fine walking, but proving about as tedious and
exhausting as possible. The spongy covering [is] roughened with tussocks
of grass and sedge and creeping heathworts and willows, among which the
foot staggers about and sinks and squints, seeking rest and finding none,
until far down between the rocking tussocks. This covering is composed
of a plush of mosses, chiefly sphagnum, about eight inches or a foot deep,
resting on ice that never melts, while about half of the surface of the
moss is covered with white, yellow, red, and gray lichens, and the other
half is planted more or less with grasses, sedges, heathworts, and creeping
willows, and a flowering plant here and there such as primula and purple-spiked
Out in this grand solitude--solitary as far as man is concerned--we met
a great many of the Arctic grouse, ptarmigan, cackling and screaming at
our approach like old laying hens; also plovers, snipes, curlews, sandpipers,
loons in ponds, and ducks and geese, and finches and wrens about the crater
and rocks at its base. . . .
And now good-bye again, and love to all, wife, darling baby Anna, grandmother,
To Mrs. Muir
Between Plover Bay and
My Beloved Wife:
St. Lawrence Island,
July 2d, 1881
After leaving St. Michael, on the twenty-second of June . . . we went
again into the Arctic Ocean to Tapkan, twelve miles northwest of Cape Serdze,
to seek the search party that we left on the edge of the ice-pack opposite
Koliuchin Island, and were so fortunate as to find them there, having gone
as far as the condition of the ice seemed to them safe, and after they
had reached the fountain-head of all the stories we had heard concerning
the lost whaler Vigilance and determined them to be in the main true. At
Cape Wankarem they found three Chukchis who said that last year when the
ice was just beginning to grow, and when the sun did not rise, they were
out seal-hunting three or four miles from shore when they saw a broken
ship in the drift ice, which they boarded and found some dead men in the
cabin and a good many articles of one sort and another which they took
home and which they showed to our party. This evidence reveals the fate
of at least one of the ships we are seeking.
Our party, when they saw us, came out to the edge of the ice. which
extended about three miles from shore, and after a good deal of difficulty
reached the steamer. The north wind was blowing hard, sending huge black
swells and combing waves against the jagged, grinding edge of the pack
with terrible uproar, making it impossible for us to reach them with
a boat. We succeeded, however, in throwing a line to them, which they made
fast to a skin boat that they had pushed over the lee from the shore, and,
getting into it, they were dragged over the stormy edge of ice waves and
water waves and soon got safely aboard, leaving the tent, provisions, dogs,
and sleds at the Indian village, to be picked up some other time.
Then we sailed southward again to take our interpreter Chukchi Joe to
his home, which we reached two hours ago. Now we are steering for St. Michael
again, intending to land for a few hours on the north side of St. Lawrence
Island on the way. At St. Michael we shall write our letters, which will
be carried to San Francisco by the Alaska Commercial Company's steamer
St. Paul, take on more provisions, and then sail north again along the
American shore, spending some time in Kotzebue Sound, perhaps exploring
some of the rivers that flow into it, and then push on around Point Barrow
and out into the ocean northward as we can, our movements being always
determined by the position and movements of the icepack.
Before making a final effort in August or September to reach Wrangell
Land in search of traces of the Jeannette, we will return yet once more
to St. Michael for coal and provisions which we have stored there in case
we should be compelled to pass a winter north of Bering Strait. The season,
however, is so favorable that we have sanguine hopes of finding an open
way to Wrangell Land and returning to our homes in October. The Jeannette
has not been seen, nor any of her crew, on the Asiatic coast as far west
as Cape Yaken, and I have no hopes of the vessel ever escaping from the
ice; but her crew, in case they saved their provisions, may yet be alive,
though it is strange that they did not come over the ice in the spring.
Possibly they may have reached the American coast, If so, they will be
found this summer. Our vessel is in perfect condition, and our Captain
is very cautious and will not take any considerable chances of being caught
in the North pack.
How long it seems since I left home, and yet according to the almanac
it will not be two months until the day after to-morrow! I have seen so
much and gone so far, and the nightless days are so strangely joined, it
seems more than a year. And yet how short a time is the busy month at home
among the fruit and the work! My wee lass will be big and bright now, and
by the time I can get her again in my arms she will be afraid of my beard.
I have a great quantity of ivory dolls and toys--ducks, bears, seals, walruses,
etc.--for her to play with, and some soft white furs to make a little robe
for her carriage. But it is a sore, hard thing to be out of sight of her
so long, and of thee, Lassie, but still sore and harder not to hear. Perhaps
not one word until I reach San Francisco! You, however, will hear often.
. . .
This is a lovely, cool, clear, bright day, and the mountains along the
coast of Asia stand in glorious array, telling the grand old story of their
birth beneath the sculpturing ice of the glacial period. But the snow still
lingers here and there down to the water's edge, and a little beyond the
mouth of Bering Strait the vast, mysterious ice-field of the North stretches
of miles. I landed on East Cape yesterday and found unmistakable evidence
of the passage over it of a rigid ice-sheet from the North, a fact which
is exceedingly telling here. . . .
My health is so good now that I never notice it. I climbed a mountain
at East Cape yesterday, about three thousand feet high, a mile through
snow knee-deep, and never felt fatigue, my cheeks tingling in the north
wind. . . . I have a great quantity of material in my notebooks already,
lots of sketches [of] glaciers, mountains, Indians, Indian towns, etc.
So you may be sure I have been busy, and if I could only hear a word now
and then from that home in the California hills I would be the happiest
and patientest man in all Hyperborea.
I am alone in the cabin; the engine is grinding away, making the lamp
that is never lighted now rattle, and the joints creak everywhere, and
the good Corwin is gliding swiftly over smooth blue water about half way
to St. Lawrence Island. And now I must to bed! But before I go I reach
my arms towards you, and pray God to keep you all. Good-night.
To Mrs. Muir
St. Michael, July 4th, 1881
We arrived here this afternoon at three o'clock and intend to stay
about three days, taking in coal and provisions, and then to push off to
the North. We intend to spend nearly a month along the American shore,
perhaps as far north as Point Barrow, before we attempt to go out into
the Arctic Ocean among the ice, for it is in August and September that
the ice is most open. Then, if, as we hope from the favorableness of the
season, we succeed in reaching Wrangell Land to search for traces of the
Jeannette, or should find any sure tidings of her, we will be back in sunny,
iceless California about the end of October, in grape-time. Otherwise we
will probably return to St. Michael and take on a fresh supply of coal
and nine months' provisions, and go north again prepared to winter in case
we should get caught in the north of Bering Strait.
A few miles to the north of Plover Bay some thirteen or fourteen canoe-loads
of natives came out to trade; more than a hundred of them were aboard at
once, making a very lively picture. When we proceeded on our way, they
allowed us to tow them for a mile or two in order to take advantage of
the northerly current in going back to their village. They were dragged
along, five or six canoes on each side, making the Corwin look like a mother
field-mouse with a big family hanging to her teats, one of the first country
sights that filled me with astonishment when a boy.
In coming here I had very fine views of St. Lawrence Island from the
north side, showing the trend of the ice-sheet very plainly, much to my
delight. The middle of the island is crowded with volcanic cones, mostly
post-glacial, and therefore regular in form and but little wasted, and
I counted upwards of fifty from one point of view. Just in front of this
volcanic portion on the coast there is a dead Esquimo village where we
landed and found that every soul of the population had died two years ago
of starvation. More than two hundred skeletons were seen lying about like
rubbish, in one hut thirty, most of them in bed. Mr. E. W. Nelson, a zealous
collector for the Smithsonian Institution, gathered about one hundred skulls
as specimens, throwing them together in heaps to take on board, just as
when a boy in Wisconsin I used to gather pumpkins in the fall after the
corn was shocked. The boxfuls on deck looked just about as unlike a cargo
of cherries as possible, but I will not oppress you with grim details.
Some of the men brought off guns, axes, spears, etc., from the abandoned
huts, and I found a little box of child's playthings which might please
Anna Wanda, but which, I suppose, you will not let into the house. Well,
I have lots of others that I bought, and when last here I engaged an Indian
to make her a little fur suit, which I hope is ready so that I can send
it down by the St. Paul. I hope it may fit her. I wish she were old enough
to read the stories that I should like to write her.
Love to all. Good-night.
To Mrs. Muir
St. Michael, July 9th, 1881
My Dear Wife:
We did not get away last evening, as we expected, on account of the
change in plans--as to taking all our winter stores on board, instead of
leaving them until another visit in September. It is barely possible we
might get caught off Point Barrow or on Wrangell [Land] by movements in
the ice-pack that never can be anticipated. Therefore we will be more comfortable
with abundance of bread about us. In the matter of coal, there is a mine
on the north coast where some can be obtained in case of need, and also
plenty of driftwood.
Our cruise, notwithstanding we have already made two trips into a portion
of the Arctic usually blocked most of the summer, we consider is just really
beginning. For we have not yet made any attempt to get to the packed region
about Herald Island and Wrangell Land. Perhaps not once in twenty years
would it be possible to get a ship alongside the shores of Wrangell Land,
although its southern point is about nine degrees south of points attained
on the eastern side of the continent. To find the ocean ice thirty or forty
feet thick away from its mysterious shores seems to be about as hopeless
as to find a mountain glacier out of its cañon. Still, this has
been so remarkably open and mild a winter, and so many north gales have
been blowing this spring, [gales] calculated to break up the huge packs
and grind the cakes and blocks against one another, that we have sanguine
hopes of accomplishing all that we are expected to do and get home by the
end of October. If I can see as much of the American coast as I have of
the Asiatic, I will be satisfied, and should the weather be as favorable
I certainly shall. . . .
We may, possibly, be home ere you receive any more [letters]. If not,
think of me, dear, as happily at work with no other pain than the pain
of separation from you and my wee lass. I have many times been weighing
chances as to whether you have sent letters by the Mary-and-Helen, now
called the "Rodgers," which was to sail about the middle of June. She is
a slow sailer, and has to go far out of her course by Petropavlovskii,
the capital of Kamchatka, for dogs, and will not be through the Strait
before the end of the season nearly. Yet a letter by her is my only hope
for hearing from you this season.
How warm and bland the weather is here, 60° in the shade, and how fine
a crop of grass and flowers is growing up along the shores and back on
the spongy tundra! The Captain says I can have a few hours on shore this
afternoon. I mean to go across the bay three miles to a part of the tundra
I have not yet seen. I shall at least find a lot of new flowers and see
some of the birds. Once more, good-bye. I send Anna's parka by the St. Paul.
Give my love to Sam Williams. You must not forget him.
A month and three days after the date of the preceding letter the
Corwin succeeded in making a landing on Wrangell Land. From some unpublished
notes of Muir under the heading "Our New Arctic Territory" we excerpt the
following account of the event:
Next morning [August 12th] the fog lifted, and we were delighted
to see that though there was now about eight miles of ice separating us
from the shore, it was less closely packed, and the Corwin made her way
through it without great difficulty until within two miles of the shore,
where the craggy berg-blocks were found to be extremely hard and wedged
closely together. But a patch of open water near the beach, now plainly
in sight, encouraged a continuance of the struggle, and with a full head
of steam on, the barrier was forced. By 10 o'clock A.M. our little ship
was riding at anchor less than a cable's length from the beach, opposite
the mouth of a river.
This landing point proved to be in latitude 71° 4', longitude 177°
40' 30" W., near the East Cape. After taking formal possession of the country,
one party examined the level beach about the mouth of the river, and the
left bank for a mile or two, and a hillside that slopes gently down to
the river, while another party of officers, after building a cairn, depositing
records in it, and setting the flag on a conspicuous point of the bluff
facing the ocean, proceeded northwestward along the brow of the short bluff
to a marked headland, a distance of three or four miles, searching attentively
for traces of the Jeannette expedition and of any native inhabitants that
might chance to be in the country. Then all were hurriedly recalled and
a way was forced to open water through ten miles of drift ice which began
to close upon us.
To Mrs. Muir
Point Barrow, August 16th, 1881
My Beloved Wife:
Heaven only knows my joy this night in hearing that you were well.
Old as the letter is and great as the number of days and nights that have
passed since your love was written, it yet seems as if I had once more
been upstairs and held you and Wanda in my arms. Ah, you little know the
long icy days, so strangely nightless, that I have longed and longed for
one word from you. The dangers, great as they were, while groping and grinding
among the vast immeasurable ice-fields about that mysterious Wrangell Land
would have seemed as nothing before I knew you. But most of the special
dangers are past, and I have grand news for you, my love, for we have succeeded
in landing on that strange ice-girt country and our work is nearly all
done and I am coming home by the middle of October. No thought of wintering
now and attempting to cross the frozen ocean from Siberia. We will take
no more risks. All is well with our stanch little ship. She is scarce at
all injured by the pounding and grinding she has undergone, and sailing
home seems nothing more than crossing San Francisco Bay. We have added
a large territory [Wrangell Land] to the domain of the United States and
amassed a grand lot of knowledge of one sort and another.
Now we sail from here to-morrow for Cape Lisburne, or, if stormy, to
Plover Bay, to coal and repair our rudder, which is a little weak. Thence
we will go again around the margin of the main polar pack about Wrangell
Land, but not into it, and possibly discover a clear way to land upon it
again and obtain more of its geography; then leave the Arctic about the
loth of September, call at St. Michael, at Unalaska, and then straight
I shall not write at length now, as this is to go down by the Legal
Tender, which sails in a few days and expects to reach San Francisco by
the 20th of September, but we may reach home nearly as soon as she. I have
to dash off a letter for the "Bulletin" to-night, though I ought to go
to bed. Not a word of it is yet written.
We came poking and feeling our way along this icy shore a few hours
ago through the fog, little thinking that a letter from you was just ahead.
Then the fog lifted, and we saw four whalers at anchor and a strange vessel.
When the Captain of the Belvidere shouted, "Letters for you, Captain, by
the Legal Tender," which was the strange vessel, our hearts leaped, and
a boat was speedily sent alongside. I got the letter package and handed
them round, and yours, love, was the very last in the package, and I dreaded
there was none. The Rodgers had not yet been heard from. One of the whale
ships was caught here and crushed in the ice and sank in twenty minutes
a month ago.
Good-bye, love. I shall soon be home. Love to all. My wee lass-love--she
seems already in my arms. Not in dreams this time! From father and husband
Muir's collection of plants, gathered in the Arctic lands touched by the
Corwin, was naturally of uncommon interest to botanists. Asa Gray returned
from a European trip in November, and in response to an inquiry from Muir
at once wrote him to send on his Arctic plants for determination. Those
from Herald Island and Wrangell Land, represented by a duplicate set in
the Gray Herbarium at Harvard, are still the only collections known to
science from those regions. In determining the plants, Gray found among
them a new species of erigeron, and in reporting it to the American Academy
of Arts and Sciences named it Erigeron Muirii
in honor of its discoverer.
Muir found it in July at Cape Thompson on the Arctic shore of Alaska. [A
complete list of his various collections and of his glacial observations
will be found in the appendix to The Cruise of the Corwin (1917).]
This cruise in the Arctic Ocean, as it turned out, was to be the last
of his big expeditions for some time. Domestic cares and joys, and the
development of the fruit ranch, absorbed his attention more and more. The
old freedom was gone, but the following paragraph, from a letter written
to Mrs. John Bidwell, of Rancho Chico, on January 2nd, 1882, suggests that
he had found a satisfying substitute for the independence of earlier years:
I have been anxious to run up to Chico in the old free way
to tell you about the majestic icy facts that I found last summer in the
Lord's Arctic palaces, but as you can readily guess, it is not now so easy
a matter to wing hither and thither like a bird, for here is a wife and
a baby and a home, together with the old press of field studies and literary
work, which I by no means intend to lose sight of even in the bright bewitching
smiles of my wee bonnie lassie. Speaking of brightness, I have been busy,
for a week or two just past letting more light into the house by means
of dormer windows, and in making two more open brick fireplaces. Dormer-windows,
open wood-fires, and perfectly happy babies make any home glow with warm
sunny brightness and bring out the best that there is in us.
to Chapter 13 |
to Chapter 15 |
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