Stickeen: The Story of a Dog
by John Muir
by Dan E. Anderson and Harold Wood
In 1880, John Muir made his second trip to Alaska. On this trip
he explored Brady Glacier,
which empties into Taylor Bay
in what is now Glacier Bay National Park,
with a friend's dog, Stickeen.
Muir was a great story teller and he told this story many times before
writing it down in 1909 as a short story at the urging of several of
has been ranked as a classic dog story by many who have read it. More...
by John Muir
In the summer of 1880 I set out from
in a canoe
to continue the exploration of the icy region of southeastern
Alaska, begun in the fall of 1879. After the necessary provisions,
blankets, etc., had been collected and stowed away, and my Indian
crew were in their places ready to start, while a crowd of their
relatives and friends on the wharf were bidding them good-by and
good-luck, my companion, the
Rev. S. H. Young
, for whom we were
waiting, at last came aboard, followed by a little black dog,
that immediately made himself at home by curling up in a hollow
among the baggage. I like dogs, but this one seemed so small and
worthless that I objected to his going, and asked the missionary
why he was taking him.
"Such a little helpless creature will only be in the way,"
I said; "you had better pass him up to the Indian boys on
the wharf, to be taken home to play with the children. This trip
is not likely to be good for toy-dogs. The poor silly thing will
be in rain and snow for weeks or months, and will require care
like a baby." But his master assured me that he would be
no trouble at all; that he was a perfect wonder of a dog, could
endure cold and hunger like a bear, swim like a seal, and was
wondrous wise and cunning, etc., making out a list of virtues
to show he might be the most interesting member of the party.
Nobody could hope to unravel the lines of his ancestry. In all
the wonderfully mixed and varied dog-tribe I never saw any creature
very much like him, though in some of his sly, soft, gliding motions
and gestures he brought the fox to mind. He was short-legged and
bunch-bodied, and his hair, though smooth, was long and silky
and slightly waved, so that when the wind was at his back it ruffled,
making him look shaggy. At first sight his only noticeable feature
was his fine tail, which was about as airy and
shady as a squirrel's
and was carried curling forward almost to his nose. On closer
inspection you might notice his thin sensitive ears, and sharp
eyes with cunning tan-spots above them. Mr. Young told me that
when the little fellow was a pup about the size of a woodrat he
was presented to his wife by an Irish prospector at Sitka, and
that on his arrival at Fort Wrangell he was adopted with enthusiasm
by the Stickeen Indians as a sort of new good-luck totem, was
named "Stickeen" for the tribe, and became a universal
favorite; petted, protected, and admired wherever he went, and
regarded as a mysterious fountain of wisdom.
On our trip he soon proved himself a queer character--odd, concealed,
independent, keeping invincibly quiet, and doing many little puzzling
things that piqued my curiosity. As we sailed week after week
through the long intricate channels and inlets among the innumerable
islands and mountains of the coast, he spent most of the dull
days in sluggish ease, motionless, and apparently as unobserving
as if in deep sleep. But I discovered that somehow he always knew
what was going on. When the Indians were about to shoot at ducks
or seals, or when anything along the shore was exciting our attention,
he would rest his chin on the edge of the canoe and calmly look
out like a dreamy-eyed tourist. And when he heard us talking about
making a landing, he immediately roused himself to see what sort
of a place we were coming to, and made ready to jump overboard
and swim ashore as soon as the canoe neared the bench. Then, with
a vigorous shake to get rid of the brine in his hair, he ran into
the woods to hunt small game. But though always the first out
of the canoe, he was always the last to get into it. When we were
ready to start he could never be found, and refused to come to
our call. We soon found out, however, that though we could not
see him at such times, he saw us, and from the cover of the briers
and huckleberry bushes in the fringe of the woods was watching
the canoe with wary eye. For as soon as we were fairly off he
came trotting down the beach, plunged into the surf, and swam
after us, knowing well that we would cease rowing and take him
in. When the contrary little vagabond came alongside, he was lifted
by the neck, held at arm's length a moment to drip, and dropped
aboard. We tried to cure him of this trick by compelling him to
swim a long way, as if we had a mind to abandon him; but this
did no good; the longer the swim the better he seemed to like it.
Though capable of great idleness, he never failed to be ready
for all sorts of adventures and excursions. One pitch-dark rainy
night we landed about ten o'clock at the mouth of a salmon stream
water was phosphorescent
The salmon were running
the myriad fins of the onrushing multitude were churning all the
stream into a silvery glow, wonderfully beautiful and impressive
in the ebon darkness. To get a good view of the show I set out
with one of the Indians and sailed up through the midst of it
to the foot of a rapid about half a mile from camp, where the
swift current dashing over rocks made the luminous glow most glorious.
Happening to look back down the stream, while the Indian was catching
a few of the struggling fish, I saw a long spreading fan of light
like the tail of a comet, which we thought must be made by some
big strange animal that was pursuing us. On it came with its magnificent
train, until we imagined we could see the monster's head and eyes;
but it was only Stickeen, who, finding I had left the camp, came
swimming after me to see what was up.
When we camped early, the best hunter of the crew usually went
to the woods for a deer, and Stickeen was sure to be at his heels,
provided I had not gone out. For, strange to say, though I never
carried a gun, he always followed me, forsaking the hunter and
even his master to share my wonderings. The days that were too
stormy for sailing I spent in the woods, or on the adjacent mountains,
wherever my studies called me; and Stickeen always insisted on
going with me, however wild the weather, gliding like a fox through
dripping huckleberry bushes and thorny tangles of
scarce stirring their rain-laden leaves; wading and wallowing
through snow, swimming icy streams, skipping over logs and rocks
and the crevasses of glaciers with the patience and endurance
of a determined mountaineer, never tiring or getting discouraged.
Once he followed me over a glacier the surface of which was so
crusty and rough that it cut his feet until every step was marked
with blood; but he trotted on with Indian fortitude until I noticed
his red track, and, taking pity on him, made him a set of moccasins
out of a handkerchief. However great his troubles he never asked
help or made any complaint, as if, like a philosopher, he had
learned that without hard work and suffering there could be no
pleasure worth having.
Yet none of us was able to make out what Stickeen was really good
for. He seemed to meet danger and hardships without anything like
reason, insisted on having his own way, never obeyed an order,
and the hunter could never set him on anything, or make him fetch
the birds he shot. His equanimity was so steady it seemed due
to want of feeling; ordinary storms were pleasures to him, and
as for mere rain, he flourished in it like a vegetable. No matter
what advances you might make, scarce a glance or a tail-wag would
you get for your pains. But though he was apparently as cold as
a glacier and about as impervious to fun, I tried hard to make
his acquaintance, guessing there must be something worth while
hidden beneath so much courage, endurance, and love of
adventure. No superannuated mastiff or bulldog grown old in office
surpassed this fluffy midget in stoic dignity. He sometimes reminded
me of a small, squat, unshakable desert cactus. For he never displayed
a single trace of the merry, tricksy, elfish fun of the terriers
and collies that we all know, nor of their touching affection
and devotion. Like children, most small dogs beg to be loved and
allowed to love; but Stickeen seemed a very
, asking only
to be let alone: a true child of the wilderness, holding the even
tenor of his hidden life with the silence and serenity of nature.
His strength of character lay in his eyes. They looked as old
as the hills, and as young, and as wild. I never tired of looking
into them: it was like looking into a landscape; but they were
small and rather deep-set, and had no explaining lines around
them to give out particulars. I was accustomed to look into the
faces of plants and animals, and I watched the little
and more keenly as an interesting study. But there is no estimating
the wit and wisdom concealed and latent in our lower fellow mortals
until made manifest by profound experiences; for it is through
suffering that dogs as well as saints are developed and made perfect.
After exploring the Sum Dum and
fiords and their glaciers,
we sailed through Stephen's Passage into Lynn Canal and thence
through Icy Strait into Cross Sound, searching for unexplored
inlets leading toward the great
of the Fairweather Range.
Here, while the tide was in our favor, we were accompanied
by a fleet of icebergs drifting out to the ocean from
. Slowly we paddled around Vancouver's Point, Wimbledon, our
frail canoe tossed like a feather on the massive heaving swells
coming in past Cape Spenser. For miles the sound is bounded by
precipitous mural cliffs, which, lashed with wave-spray and their
heads hidden in clouds, looked terribly threatening and stern.
Had our canoe been crushed or upset we could have made no landing
here, for the cliffs, as high as those of
, sink sheer into deep water.
Eagerly we scanned the wall on the north side
for the first sign of an opening fiord or harbor, all of us anxious
except Stickeen, who dozed in peace or gazed dreamily at the tremendous
precipices when he heard us talking about them. At length we made
the joyful discovery of the mouth of the inlet now called "Taylor
Bay," and about five o'clock reached the head of it and encamped
in a Spruce grove near the front of a large glacier.
While camp was being made, Joe the hunter climbed the mountain
wall on the east side of the fiord in pursuit of wild goats, while
Mr. Young and I went to the glacier. We found that it is separated
from the waters of the inlet by a tide-washed moraine, and extends,
an abrupt barrier, all the way across from wall to wall of the
inlet, a distance of about three miles. But our most interesting
discovery was that it had recently advanced, though again slightly
receding. A portion of the terminal moraine had been plowed up
and shoved forward, uprooting and overwhelming the woods on the
east side. Many of the trees were down and buried, or nearly so,
others were leaning away from the ice-cliffs, ready to fall, and
some stood erect, with the bottom of the ice plow still beneath
their roots and its lofty crystal spires towering huge above their
tops. The spectacle presented by these century-old trees standing
close beside a spiry wall of ice, with their branches almost touching
it, was most novel and striking. And when I climbed around the
front, and a little way up the west side of the glacier, I found
that it had swelled and increased in height and width in accordance
with its advance, and carried away the outer ranks of trees on
On our way back to camp after these first observations I planned
a far-and-wide excursion for the morrow. I awoke early, called
not only by the glacier, which had been on my mind all night,
but by a grand flood-storm. The wind was blowing a gale from the
north and the rain was flying with the clouds in a wide passionate
horizontal flood, as if it were all passing over the country instead
of falling on it. The main perennial streams were booming high
above their banks, and hundreds of new ones, roaring like the
sea, almost covered the lofty gray walls of the inlet with white
cascades and falls. I had intended making a cup of coffee and
getting something like a breakfast before starting, but when I
heard the storm and looked out I made haste to join it; for many
of Nature's finest lessons are to be found in her
if careful to keep in right relations with them, we may go safely
abroad with them, rejoicing in the grandeur and beauty of their
works and ways, and chanting with the old Norsemen, "The
blast of the tempest aids our oars, the hurricane is our servant
and drives us whither we wish to go." So, omitting breakfast,
I put a piece of bread in my pocket and hurried away.
Mr. Young and the Indian were asleep, and so, I hoped, was Stickeen;
but I had not gone a dozen rods before he left his bed in the
tent and came boring through the blast after me. That a man should
welcome storms for their exhilarating music and motion, and go
forth to see God making landscapes, is reasonable enough; but
what fascination could there be in such tremendous weather for
a dog? Surely nothing akin to human enthusiasm for scenery or
geology. Anyhow, on he came, breakfastless, through the choking
blast. I stopped and did my best to turn him back. "Now don't,"
I said, shouting to make myself heard in the storm. "now
don't, Stickeen. What has got into your queer noddle now? You
must be daft. This wild day has nothing for you. There is no game
abroad, nothing but weather. Go back to camp and keep warm, get
a good breakfast with your master, and be sensible for once. I
can't carry you all day or feed you, and this storm will kill
But Nature, it seems, was at the bottom of the affair, and she
gains her ends with dogs as well as with men, making us do as
she likes, shoving and pulling us along her ways, however rough,
all but killing us at times in getting her lessons driven hard
home. After I had stopped again and again, shouting good warning
advice, I saw that he was not to be shaken off; as well might
the earth try to shake off the moon. I had once led his master
into trouble, when he fell on one of the topmost jags of a mountain and
dislocated his arm
; now the turn of his humble companion was coming.
The pitiful wanderer just stood there in the wind,
drenched and blinking, saying
"Where thou goest I will go."
So at last I told him to come on if he must, and gave him a piece
of the bread I had in my pocket; then we struggled on together,
and thus began the most memorable of all my wild days.
The level flood, driving hard in our faces, thrashed and washed
us wildly until we got into the shelter of a grove on the east
side of the glacier near the front, where we stopped awhile for
breath and to listen and look out. The exploration of the glacier
was my main object, but the wind was too high to allow excursions
over its open surface, where one might be dangerously shoved while
balancing for a jump on the brink of a crevasse. In the mean time
the storm was a fine study. There the end of the glacier, descending
an abrupt swell of resisting rock about five hundred feet high,
leans forward and falls in ice-cascades. And as the storm came
down the glacier from the north, Stickeen and I were beneath the
main current of the blast, while favorably located to see and
hear it. What a psalm the storm was singing, and how fresh the
smell of the washed earth and leaves, and how sweet the still
small voices of the storm! Detached wafts and swirls were coming
through the woods, with music from the leaves and branches and
furrowed boles, and even from the splintered rocks and ice-crags
overhead, many of the tones soft and low and flute-like, as if
each leaf and tree, crag and spire were a tuned reed. A broad
torrent, draining the side of the glacier, now swollen by scores
of new streams from the mountains, was rolling boulders along
its rocky channel, with thudding, bumping, muffled sounds, rushing
toward the bay with tremendous energy, as if in haste to get out
of the mountains; the winters above and beneath calling to each
other, and all to the ocean, their home.
Looking southward from our shelter, we had this great torrent
and the forested mountain wall above it on our left, the spiry
ice-crags on our right, and smooth gray gloom ahead. I tried to
draw the marvelous scene in my note-book, but the rain blurred
the page in spite of all my pains to shelter it, and the sketch
was almost worthless. When the wind began to abate, I traced the
east side of the glacier. All the trees standing on the edge of
the woods were barked and bruised, showing high-ice mark in a
very telling way, while tens of thousands of those that had stood
for centuries on the bank of the glacier farther out lay crushed
and being crushed. In many places I could see down fifty feet
or so beneath the margin of the glacier-mill, where trunks from
one to two feet in diameter here being ground to pulp against
outstanding rock-ribs and bosses of the bank.
About three miles above the front of the glacier I climbed to
the surface of it by means of axe-steps made easy for Stickeen.
As far as the eye could reach, the level, or nearly level, glacier
stretched away indefinitely beneath the gray sky, a seemingly
boundless prairie of ice. The rain continued, and grew colder,
which I did not mind, but a dim snowy look in the drooping clouds
made me hesitate about venturing far from land. No trace of the
west shore was visible, and in case the clouds would settle and
give snow, or the wind again become violent. I feared getting
caught in a tangle of crevasses. Snow-crystals, the flowers of
the mountain clouds, are frail, beautiful things, but terrible
then flying on storm-winds in darkening, benumbing swarms or when
welded together into glaciers full of deadly crevasses. Watching
the weather, I sauntered about on the crystal sea. For a mile
or so out I found the ice remarkably safe. The marginal crevasses
mere mostly narrow, while the few wider ones were easily avoided
by passing around them, and the clouds began to open here and there.
Thus encouraged, I at last pushed out for the other side; for
Nature can make us do anything she likes. At first we made rapid
progress, and the sky was not very threatening, while I took bearings
occasionally with a pocket compass to enable me to find my way
back more surely in case the storm should become blinding; but
the structure lines of the glacier were my main guide. Toward
the west side we came to a closely crevassed section in which
we had to make long,
and doublings, tracing the edges
of tremendous traverse and longitudinal crevasses, many of which
were from twenty to thirty feet wide, and perhaps a thousand feet
deep--beautiful and awful. In working a way through them I was
severely cautious, but Stickeen came on as unhesitating as the
flying clouds. The widest crevasse that I could jump he would
leap without so much as halting to take a look at it. The weather
was now making quick changes, scattering bits of dazzling brightness
through the wintry gloom at rare intervals, when the sun broke
forth wholly free, the glacier was seen from shore to shore with
a bright array of encompassing mountains partly revealed, wearing
the clouds as garments, while the prairie bloomed and sparkled
with irised light from myriads of washed crystals. Then suddenly
all the glorious show would be darkened and blotted out.
Stickeen seemed to care for none of these things, bright or dark,
nor for the crevasses, wells, moulins, or swift flashing streams
into which he might fall. The little adventurer was only about
two years old, yet nothing seemed novel to him. Nothing daunted
him. He showed neither caution nor curiosity, wonder nor fear,
but bravely trotted on as if glaciers were playgrounds. His stout,
muffled body seemed all one skipping muscle, and it was truly
wonderful to see how swiftly and to all appearance heedlessly
he flashed across nerve-trying chasms six or eight feet wide.
His courage was so unwavering that it seemed to be due to dullness
of perception, as if he were only blindly bold; and I kept warning
him to be careful. For we had been close companions on so many
wilderness trips that I had formed the habit of talking to him
as if he were a boy and understood every word.
We gained the west shore in about three hours; the width of the
glacier here being about seven miles. Then I pushed northward
in order to see as far back as possible into the
of the Fairweather Mountains, in case the clouds should rise.
The walking was easy along the margin of the forest, which, of course,
like that on the other side, had been invaded and crushed by the
swollen, overflowing glacier. In an hour or so, after passing
a massive headland, we came suddenly on a branch of the glacier,
which, in the form of a magnificent ice-cascade two miles wide,
was pouring over the rim of the main basin in a westerly direction,
its surface broken into wave-shaped blades and shattered blocks,
suggesting the wildest updashing, heaving, plunging motion of
a great river cataract. Tracing it down three or four miles, I
found that it discharged into a lake, filling it with
I would gladly have followed the lake outlet to tide-water, but
the day was already far spent, and the threatening sky called
for haste on the return trip to get off the ice before dark. I
decided therefore to go no farther and, after taking a general
view of the wonderful region, turned back, hoping to see it again
under more favorable auspices. We made good speed up the cañon
of the great ice-torrent, and out on the main glacier until we
had left the west shore about two miles behind us. Here we got
into a difficult network of crevasses, the gathering clouds began
to drop misty fringes, and soon the dreaded snow came flying thick
and fast. I now began to feel anxious about finding a way in the
blurring storm. Stickeen showed no trace of fear. He was still
the same silent, able little hero. I noticed, however, that after
the storm-darkness came on he kept close up behind me. The snow
urged us to make still greater haste, but at the same time hid
our way. I pushed on as best I could, jumping innumerable crevasses,
and for every hundred rods or so of direct advance traveling a
mile in doubling up and down in the turmoil of chasms and dislocated
ice-blocks. After an hour or two of this work we came to a series
of longitudinal crevasses of appalling width, and almost straight
and regular in trend, like immense furrows. These I traced with
firm nerve, excited and strengthened by the danger, making wide
jumps, poising cautiously on their dizzy edges after cutting hollows
for my feet before making the spring, to avoid possible slipping
or any uncertainty on the farther sides, where only one trial
is granted--exercise at once frightful and inspiring. Stickeen
followed seemingly without effort.
Many a mile we thus traveled,
mostly up and down, making but little real headway in crossing,
running instead of walking most of the time as the danger of being
compelled to spend the night on the glacier became threatening.
Stickeen seemed able for anything. Doubtless we could have weathered
the storm for one night, dancing on a flat spot to keep from freezing,
and I faced the threat without feeling anything like despair;
but we were hungry and wet, and the wind from the mountains was
still thick with snow and bitterly cold, so of course that night
would have seemed a very long one. I could not see far enough
through the blurring snow to judge in which general direction
the least dangerous route lay, while the few dim, momentary glimpses
I caught of mountains through rifts in the flying clouds were
far from encouraging either as weather signs or as guides. I had
simply to grope my way from crevasse to crevasse, holding a general
direction by the ice-structure, which was not to be seen everywhere,
and partly by the wind. Again and again I was put to my mettle,
but Stickeen followed easily, his nerve apparently growing more
unflinching as the danger increased. So it always is with mountaineers
when hard beset. Running hard and jumping, holding every minute
of the remaining daylight, poor as it was, precious, we doggedly
persevered and tried to hope that every difficult crevasse we
overcame would prove to be the last of its kind. But on the contrary,
as we advanced they became more deadly trying.
At length our way was barred by a very wide and straight crevasse,
which I traced rapidly northward a mile or so without finding
a crossing or hope of one; then down the glacier about as far,
to where it united with another uncrossable crevasse. In all this
distance of perhaps two miles there was only one place where I
could possibly jump it, but the width of this jump was the utmost
I dared attempt, while the danger of slipping on the farther side
was so great that I was loath to try it. Furthermore, the side
I was on was about a foot higher than the other, and even with
this advantage the crevasse seemed dangerously wide. One is liable
to underestimate the width of crevasses where the magnitudes in
general are great. I therefore stared at this one mighty keenly,
estimating its width and the shape of the edge on the farther
side, until I thought that I could jump it if necessary, but that
in case I should be compelled to jump back from the lower side
I might fail. Now, a cautious mountaineer seldom takes a step
on unknown ground which seems at all dangerous that he cannot
retrace in case he should be stopped by unseen obstacles ahead.
This is the rule of mountaineers who live long, and, though in
haste, I compelled myself to sit down and calmly deliberate before
I broke it.
Retracing my devious path in imagination as if it were drawn on
a chart, I saw that I was recrossing the glacier a mile or two
farther up stream than the course pursued in the morning, and
that I was now entangled in a section I had not before seen. Should
I risk this dangerous jump, or try to regain the woods on the
west shore, make a fire, and have only hunger to endure while
waiting for a new day! I had already crossed so broad a stretch
of dangerous ice that I saw it would be difficult to get back
to the woods through the storm, before dark, and the attempt would
most likely result in a dismal night-dance on the glacier; while
just beyond the present barrier the surface seemed more promising,
and the east shore was now perhaps about as near as the west.
I was therefore eager to go on. But this wide jump was a dreadful
At length, because of the dangers already behind me, I determined
to venture against those that might he ahead, jumped and landed
well, but with so little to spare that I more than ever dreaded
being compelled to take that jump back from the lower side. Stickeen
followed, making nothing of it, and we ran eagerly forward, hoping
we were leaving all our troubles behind. But within the distance
of a few hundred yards we were stopped by the widest crevasse
yet encountered. Of course I made haste to explore it, hoping
all might yet be remedied by finding a bridge or a way around
either end. About three fourths of a mile up stream I found that
it united with the one we had just crossed, as I feared it would.
Then, tracing it down, I found it joined the same crevasse at
the lower end also, maintaining throughout its whole course a
width of forty to fifty feet. Thus to my dismay I discovered that
we were on a narrow island about two miles long, with two barely
possible ways to escape: one back by the way we came, the other
ahead by an almost inaccessible sliver-bridge that crossed the
great crevasse from near the middle of it!
After this nerve-trying discovery I ran back to the sliver-bridge
and cautiously examined it. Crevasses, caused by strains from
variations in the rate of motion of different parts of the glacier
and convexities in the channel, are mere cracks when they first
open, so narrow as hardly to admit the blade of a pocket-knife,
and gradually widen according to the extent of the strain and
the depth of the glacier. Now some of these cracks are interrupted,
like the cracks in wood, and in the opening the strip of ice between
overlapping ends is dragged out, and may maintain a continuous
connection between the side, just as the two sides of a slivered
crack in wood that is being split are connected. Some crevasses
remain open for months or even years, and by the melting of their
sides continue to increase in width long after the opening strain
has ceased; while the sliver-bridges, level on top at first and
perfectly safe, are at length melted to thin, vertical, knife-edged
blades, the upper portion being most exposed to the weather; and
since the exposure is greatest in the middle. they at length curve
downward like the cables of suspension bridges. This one was evidently
very old, for it had been weathered and wasted until it was the
most dangerous and inaccessible that ever lay in my way. The width
of the crevasse was here about fifty feet, and the sliver crossing
diagonally was about seventy feet long; its thin knife-edge near
the middle was depressed twenty-five or thirty feet below the
level of the glacier, and the up-curving ends were attached to
the sides eight or ten feet below the brink. Getting down the
nearly vertical wall to the end of the sliver and up the other
side were the main difficulties, and they seemed all but insurmountable.
Of the many perils encountered in my years of wandering on mountains
and glaciers none seemed so plain and stern and merciless as this.
And it was presented when we were wet to the skin and hungry,
the sky dark with quick driving snow, and the night near. But
we were forced to face it. It was a tremendous necessity.
Beginning, not immediately above the sunken end of the bridge,
but a little to one side, I cut a deep hollow on the brink for
my knees to rest in. Then, leaning over, with my short-handled
axe I cut a step sixteen or eighteen inches below, which on account
of the sheerness of the wall was necessarily shallow. That step,
however, was well made; its floor sloped slightly inward and formed
a good hold for my heels. Then, slipping cautiously upon it, and
crouching as low as possible, with my left side toward the wall,
I steadied myself against the wind with my left hand in a slight
notch, while with the right I cut other similar steps and notches
in succession, guarding against losing balance by glinting of
the axe, or by wind-gusts, for life and death were in every stroke
and in the niceness of finish of every foothold.
After the end of the bridge was reached I chipped it down until
I had made a level platform six or eight inches wide, and it was
a trying thing to poise on this little slippery platform while
bending over to get safely astride of the sliver. Crossing was
then comparatively easy by chipping off the sharp edge with short,
careful strokes, and hitching forward an inch or two at a time,
keeping my balance with my knees pressed against the sides. The
tremendous abyss on either hand I studiously ignored. To me the
edge of that blue sliver was then all the world. But the most
trying part of the adventure, after working my way across inch
by inch and chipping another small platform, was to rise from
the safe position astride and to cut a step-ladder in the nearly
vertical face of the wall,--chipping, climbing, holding on with
feet and fingers in mere notches. At such times one's whole body
is eye. and common skill and fortitude are replaced by
our call or knowledge
Never before had I been so long under deadly strain.
How I got up that cliff I never could tell.
The thing seemed to have been done by somebody else.
I never have held death in contempt,
though in the course of my explorations I have oftentimes
felt that to meet one's fate on a noble mountain, or in the heart
of a glacier, would be blessed as compared with death from disease,
or from some shabby lowland accident. But the best death, quick
and crystal-pure, set so glaringly open before us, is hard enough
to face, even though we feel gratefully sure that we have already
had happiness enough for a dozen lives.
But poor Stickeen, the
wee, hairy, sleekit beastie
, think of him!
When I had decided to dare the bridge, and while I was on my knees
chipping a hollow on the rounded brow above it, he came behind
me, pushed his head past my shoulder, looked down and across,
scanned the sliver and its approaches with his mysterious eyes,
then looked me in the face with a startled air of surprise and
concern, and began to mutter and whine; saying as plainly as if
speaking with words, "Surely, you are not going into that
awful place." This was the first time I had seen him gaze
deliberately into a crevasse, or into my face with an eager, speaking,
troubled look. That he should have recognized and appreciated
the danger at the first glance showed wonderful sagacity. Never
before had the daring midget seemed to know that ice was slippery
or that there was any such thing as danger anywhere. His looks
and tones of voice when he began to complain and speak his fears
were so human that I unconsciously talked to him in sympathy as
I would to a frightened boy, and in trying to calm his fears perhaps
in some measure moderated my own. "Hush your fears, my boy,"
I said, "
we will get across safe
, though it is not going
to be easy. No right way is easy in this rough world. We must
risk our lives to save them. At the worst we can only slip, and
then how grand a grave we will have, and by and by our nice bones
will do good in the terminal moraine."
But my sermon was far from reassuring him: he began to cry, and
after taking another piercing look at the tremendous gulf, ran
away in desperate excitement, seeking some other crossing. By
the time he got back, baffled of course, I had made a step or
two. I dared not look back, but he made himself heard; and when
he saw that I was certainly bent on crossing he cried aloud in
despair. The danger was enough to haunt anybody, but it seems
wonderful that he should have been able to weight and appreciate
it so justly. No mountaineer could have seen it more quickly or
judged it more wisely, discriminating between real and apparent
When I gained the other side, he screamed louder than ever,
and after running back and forth in vain search for a way of escape,
he would return to the brink of the crevasse above the bridge,
moaning and wailing as if in the bitterness of death. Could this
be the silent, philosophic Stickeen? I shouted encouragement,
telling him the bridge was not so bad as it looked, that I had
left it flat and safe for his feet, and he could walk it easily.
But he was afraid to try. Strange so small an animal should be
capable of such big, wise fears. I called again and again in a
reassuring tone to come on and fear nothing; that he could come
if he would only try. He would hush for a moment, look down again
at the bridge, and shout his unshakable conviction that he could
never, never come that way; then lie back in despair, as if howling,
"O-o-oh! what a place! No-o-o, I can never go-o-o down there!"
His natural composure and courage had vanished utterly in a tumultuous
storm of fear. Had the danger been less, his distress would have
seemed ridiculous. But in this dismal, merciless abyss lay the
shadow of death, and his heart-rending cries might well have called
Heaven to his help. Perhaps they did. So hidden before, he was
now transparent, and one could see the workings of his heart and
mind like the movements of a clock out of its case. His voice
and gestures, hopes and fears, were so perfectly human that none
could mistake them; while he seemed to understand every word of
mine. I was troubled at the thought of having to leave him out
all night, and of the danger of not finding him in the morning.
It seemed impossible to get him to venture. To compel him to try
through fear of being abandoned, I started off as if leaving him
to his fate, and disappeared back of a hummock; but this did no
good; he only lay down and moaned ill utter hopeless misery. So,
after hiding a few minutes, I went back to the brink of the crevasse
and in a severe tone of voice shouted across to him that now I
must certainly leave him, I could wait no longer, and that, if
he would not come, all I could promise was that I would return
to seek him next day. I warned him that if he went back to the
woods the wolves would kill him, and finished by urging him once
more by words and gestures to come on, come on.
He knew very well what I meant, and at last, with the courage
of despair, hushed and breathless, he crouched down on the brink
in the hollow I had made for my knees, pressed his body against
the ice as if trying to get the advantage of the friction of every
hair, gazed into the first step, put his little feet together
and slid them slowly, slowly over the edge and down into it, bunching
all four in it and almost standing on his head. Then, without
lifting his feet, as well as I could see through the snow, he
slowly worked them over the edge of the step and down into the
next and the next in succession in the same way, and gained the
end of the bridge. Then, lifting his feet with the regularity
and slowness of the vibrations of a seconds pendulum, as if counting
, holding himself steady against
the gusty wind, and giving separate attention to each little step,
he gained the foot of the cliff, while I was on my knees leaning
over to give him a lift should he succeed in getting within reach
of my arm. Here he halted in dead silence, and it was here I feared
he might fail, for dogs are poor climbers. I had no cord. If I
had had one, I would have dropped a noose over his head and hauled
him up. But while I was thinking whether an available cord might
be made out of clothing, he was looking keenly into the series
of notched steps and finger-holds I had made, as if counting them,
and fixing the position of each one of them in his mind. Then
suddenly up he came in a springy rush, hooking his paws into the
steps and notches so quickly that I could not see how it was
done, and whizzed past my head, safe at last!
And now came a scene! "Well done, well done, little boy!
Brave boy!" I cried, trying to catch and caress him; but
he would not be caught. Never before or since have I seen anything
like so passionate a revulsion from the depths of despair to exultant,
triumphant, uncontrollable joy. He flashed and darted hither and
thither as if fairly demented, screaming and shouting, swirling
round and round in giddy loops and circles like a leaf in a whirlwind,
lying down, and rolling over and over, sidewise and heels over
head, and pouring forth a tumultuous flood of hysterical cries
and sobs and gasping mutterings. When I ran up to him to shake
him, fearing he might die of joy, he flashed off two or three
hundred yards, his feet in a mist of motion; then, turning suddenly,
came back in a wild rush and launched himself at my face, almost
knocking me down. all the while screeching and screaming and shouting
as if saying, "Saved! saved! saved!" Then away again,
dropping suddenly at times with his feet in the air, trembling
and fairly sobbing. Such passionate emotion was enough to kill
him. Moses' stately song of triumph after escaping the Egyptians
and the Red Sea was nothing to it. Who could have guessed the
capacity of the dull, enduring little fellow for all that most
stirs this mortal frame? Nobody could have helped crying with
But there is nothing like work for toning down excessive fear
or joy. So I ran ahead, calling him in as gruff a voice as I could
command to come on and stop his nonsense, for we had far to go
and it would soon he dark. Neither of us feared another trial
like this. Heaven would surely count one enough for a lifetime.
The ice ahead was gashed by thousands of crevasses, but they were
common ones. The joy of deliverance burned in us like fire, and
we ran without fatigue, every muscle with immense rebound glorying
in its strength. Stickeen flew across everything in his way, and
not till dark did he settle into his normal fox-like trot. At
last the cloudy mountains came in sight, and we soon felt the
solid rock beneath our feet, and were safe. Then came weakness.
Danger had vanished, and so had our strength. We tottered down
the lateral moraine in the dark, over boulders and tree trunks,
through the bushes and
thickets of the grove where
we had sheltered ourselves in the morning, and across the level
mudslope of the terminal moraine. We reached camp about ten o'clock,
and found a big fire and a big supper. A party of Hoona Indians
had visited Mr. Young, bringing a gift of porpoise meat and wild
strawberries, and Hunter Joe had brought in a wild goat. But we
lay down, too tired to eat much, and soon fell into a troubled
sleep. The man who said, "The harder the toil, the sweeter
the rest," never was profoundly tired. Stickeen kept springing
up and muttering in his sleep, no doubt dreaming that he was still
on the brink of the crevasse; and so did I, that night and many
others long afterward, when I was over-tired.
Thereafter Stickeen was a changed dog. During the rest of the
trip, instead of holding aloof, he always lay by my side, tried
to keep me constantly in sight, and would hardly accept a morsel
of food, however tempting, from any hand but mine. At night, when
all was quiet about the camp-fire, he would come to me and rest
his head on my knee with a look of devotion as if I were his god.
And often as he caught my eye he seemed to be trying to say, "Wasn't
that an awful time we had together on the glacier?"
Nothing in after years has dimmed that Alaska storm-day. As I
write it all comes rushing and roaring to mind as if I were again
in the heart of it. Again I see the gray flying clouds with their
rain-floods and snow, the ice-cliffs towering above the shrinking
forest, the majestic ice-cascade, the vast glacier outspread before
its white mountain-fountains, and in the heart of it the tremendous
crevasse,--emblem of the valley of the shadow of death,--low clouds
trailing over it, the snow falling into it; and on its brink I
see little Stickeen, and I hear his cries for help and his shouts
of joy. I have known many dogs, and many a story I could tell
of their wisdom and devotion; but to none do I owe so much as
to Stickeen. At first the least promising and least known of my
dog-friends, he suddenly became the best known of them all. Our
storm-battle for life brought him to light, and through him as
through a window I have ever since been looking with deeper sympathy
into all my fellow mortals.
None of Stickeen's friends knows what finally became of him.
After my work for the season was done I departed for California, and
I never saw the dear little fellow again. In reply to anxious
inquiries his master wrote me that in the summer of 1883 he was
stolen by a tourist at Fort Wrangell and taken away on a steamer.
His fate is wrapped in mystery. Doubtless he has left this world--crossed
the last crevasse--and gone to another. But he will not be forgotten.
To me Stickeen is immortal.
by Francis H. Allen
[from The Riverside Press edition]
Now generally spelled Wrangell.
Any good map of Alaska will show its location.
Rev. S. H.Young.
Samuel Hall Young, now superintendent of Alaska Presbyterian missions
with office in New York City, but at that time a missionary in the field
with headquarters at Fort Wrangel. Mr. Muir's
Travels in Alaska
contains an interesting account of a mountain-climbing adventure in which
Mr. Young nearly lost his life. Dr. Young (he received the degree of D.D.
in 1899) has written entertainingly of this and other experiences with
John Muir (
, May 26, June 23, and July 28, 1915).
In the last of his three articles he tells about Stickeen, the subject
of this story.
Tail . . . shady as a squirrel's.
The Green word for squirrel,
, from which our English
word is derived, is formed from two words meaning "shadow" and "tail."
It is quite likely that Mr. Muir had this in mind.
The water was phosphorescent.
Some of the small and microscopic animal life of the sea becomes
luminous at night when disturbed by the breaking of the waves, the
churning of a boat's propeller, the splashing of oars, the strokes
of a swimmer, or any similar cause, as, in this case, the movements of
the salmon. The surrounding water at such times glows and sparkles
The salmon were running.
Salmon, though for most of the year living in the sea, spawn only
in fresh running water, and every spring and summer they swarm up the
streams to the breeding-grounds. This is the time when they are
caught for sport and for the market,--in the East by rod and line,
in Alaska, where they are found in vast numbers, with nets and spears.
This migration up the streams is called "running."
dangerously prickly araliaceous shrub commonly called devil's-club.
It is abundant in Alaska.
The genus of plants to which the blackberry, raspberry, cloudberry,
and salmonberry belong.
One looks in the dictionaries in vain for this word,
but the meaning is obvious. Mr. Muir was rather fond of coining
playful words of this kind, such as are so common in his native Scotch.
A celebrated Greek Cynic philosopher who despised riches and is
said to have lived in a tub.
Plutarch relates that when Alexander the Great asked Diogenes whether
he could do anything for him he replied, "Yes, I would have you stand
from between me and the sun."
"A spinxlike person;
one of enigmatical or inscrutable character and purposes"
New International Dictionary
The Sphinx of Greek mythology propounded a riddle to all comers and,
upon the failure of each one to guess it, speedily devoured him.
An Indian name, also spelled Taku.
The ice-fields that formed the sources of the glaciers.
, discovered by Mr. Muir in 1879,
is at the head of this bay.
where Mr. Muir made his home for years.
John Muir was never afraid of bad weather.
One of his most interesting papers is
the account in
The Mountains of California
of how he climbed a tree in the forest during a wind-storm and remained
there rocked wildly in the treetop while he studied the habits of the
trees under such conditions.
Dislocated his arm.
See the account in
Travels in Alaska
Note the play on the word.
"Where thou goest I will go."
Doubtless suggested by Ruth's reply to her mother-in-law,
Naomi, "Whither thou goest, I will go" (Ruth 1:16).
The word "tacks" is used in the nautical sense,
as when a sailing vessel "tacks" to windward, taking a zigzag course
because it is impossible to sail directly against the wind.
By "narrow tacks" the author evidently means tacks in which little real
progress was made, the crevasses coming very close together.
In the sense of sources; in this case the sources of glaciers.
Icebergs are, of course, the natural discharge of a glacier
into a lake or the sea.
Power beyond our call or knowledge.
This has been the experience of many who have extricated themselves
from imminent dangers by their own unaided efforts. The emergency calls
forth hitherto unsuspected supplies of reserve energy.
Wee, hairy, sleekit beastie.
This reminds one of Burns's poem
"To a Mouse," which begins "Wee, sleekit, cow'rin', tim'rous beastie."
"Sleekit" is doubtless used in its original sense of
sleek, smooth. It is the past participle of the verb "to sleek."
Muir was fond of dropping occasionally into his native Scotch,
especially when an affectionate diminutive was called for.
We will get across safe.
Here and at the top of the next page Mr. Muir follows the
Scotch custom of using the word "will" where the best
English usage demands "shall."
See note on
(Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1909),
copyright © 1909 John Muir;
introduction copyright © 1995 Dan Anderson.
Transcribed by Dan Anderson from copy in the San Diego Chapter,
Sierra Club library
[Riverside Liberature Series Number 231,
The Riverside Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts (out of print)].
Last updated 18 November 1996.
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