Travels in Alaska
by John Muir
The Return to Fort Wrangell
The day of our start for Wrangell was bright and the Hoon, the
north wind, strong. We passed around the east side of the larger
island which lies near the south extremity of the point of land
between the Chilcat and the Chilcoot channels and thence held
a direct course down the east shore of the canal. At sunset we
encamped in a small bay at the head of a beautiful harbor three
or four miles south of Berner's Bay, and the next day, being Sunday,
we remained in camp as usual, though the wind was fair and it
is not a sin to go home. The Indians spent most of the day in
washing, mending, eating, and singing hymns with Mr. Young, who
also gave them a Bible lesson, while I wrote notes and sketched.
Charley made a sweathouse and all the crew got good baths. This
is one of the most delightful little bays we have thus far enjoyed,
girdled with tall trees whose branches almost meet, and with views
of pure-white mountains across the broad, river-like canal.
Seeing smoke back in the dense woods, we went ashore to seek it
and discovered a Hootsenoo whiskey-factory in full blast. The
Indians said that an old man, a friend of theirs, was about to
die and they were making whiskey for his funeral.
Our Indians were already out of oily flesh, which they regard
as a necessity and consume in enormous
quantities. The bacon
was nearly gone and they eagerly inquired for flesh at every camp
Here we found skinned carcasses of porcupines and a heap of wild
mutton lying on the confused hut floor. Our cook boiled the porcupines
in a big pot with a lot of potatoes we obtained at the same hut,
and although the potatoes were protected by their skins, the awfully
wild penetrating porcupine flavor found a way through the skins
and flavored them to the very heart. Bread and beans and dried
fruit we had in abundance, and none of these rank aboriginal dainties
ever came nigh any meal of mine. The Indians eat the hips of wild
roses entire like berries, and I was laughed at for eating only
the outside of this fruit and rejecting the seeds.
When we were approaching the village of the Auk tribe, venerable
Toyatte seemed to be unusually pensive, as if weighed down by
some melancholy thought. This was so unusual that I waited attentively
to find out the cause of his trouble.
When at last he broke silence it was to say, "Mr. Young,
Mr. Young,"--he usually repeated the name,--"I hope
you will not stop at the Auk village."
"Why, Toyatte?" asked Mr. Young.
"Because they are a bad lot, and preaching to them can do
"Toyatte," said Mr. Young, "have you forgotten
what Christ said to his disciples when he charged them to go forth
and preach the gospel to everybody; and that we should love our
enemies and do good to those who use us badly?"
"Well," replied Toyatte, "if you preach to them,
you must not call on me to pray, because I cannot pray for Auks."
"But the Bible says we should pray for all men, however bad
they may be."
"Oh, yes, I know that, Mr. Young; I know it very well. But
Auks are not men, good or bad,--they are dogs."
It was now nearly dark and quite so ere we found a harbor, not
far from the fine Auk Glacier which descends into the narrow channel
that separates Douglas Island from the mainland. Two of the Auks
followed us to our camp after eight o'clock and inquired into
our object in visiting them, that they might carry the news to
their chief. One of the chief's houses is opposite our camp a
mile or two distant, and we concluded to call on him next morning.
I wanted to examine the Auk Glacier in the morning, but tried
to be satisfied with a general view and sketch as we sailed around
its wide fan-shaped front. It is one of the most beautiful
of all the coast glaciers that are in the first stage of decadence.
We called on the Auk chief at daylight, when he was yet in bed,
but he arose goodnaturedly, put on a calico shirt, drew a blanket
around his legs, and comfortably seated himself beside a small
fire that gave light enough to show his features and those of
his children and the three women that one by one came out of the
shadows. All listened attentively to Mr. Young's message of goodwill.
The chief was a serious, sharp-featured, dark-complexioned
man, sensible-looking and with good
manners. He was
very sorry, he said, that his people had been drinking in his
absence and had used us so ill; he would like to hear us talk
and would call his people together if we would return to the village.
This offer we had to decline. We gave him good words and tobacco
and bade him good-bye.
The scenery all through the channel is magnificent, something
like Yosemite Valley in its lofty avalanche-swept wall cliffs,
especially on the mainland side, which are so steep few trees
can find footing. The lower island side walls are mostly forested.
The trees are heavily draped with lichens, giving the woods a
remarkably gray, ancient look. I noticed a good many two-leafed
pines in boggy spots. The water was smooth, and the reflections
of the lofty walls striped with cascades were charmingly distinct.
It was not easy to keep my crew full of wild flesh. We called
at an Indian summer camp on the mainland about noon, where there
were three very squalid huts crowded and jammed full of flesh
of many colors and smells, among which we discovered a lot of
bright fresh trout, lovely creatures about fifteen inches long,
their sides adorned with vivid red spots. We purchased five of
them and a couple of salmon for a box of gun-caps and a little
tobacco. About the middle of the afternoon we passed through a
fleet of icebergs, their number increasing as we neared the mouth
of the Taku Fiord, where we camped, hoping to explore the fiord
and see the glaciers where the bergs, the first we had seen since
leaving Icy Bay, are derived.
We left camp at six o'clock, nearly an hour before
My Indians were glad to find the fiord barred by a violent wind,
against which we failed to make any headway; and as it was too
late in the season to wait for better weather, I reluctantly gave
up this promising work for another year, and directed the crew
to go straight ahead down the coast. We sailed across the mouth
of the happy inlet at fine speed, keeping a man at the bow to
look out for the smallest of the bergs, not easily seen in the
dim light, and another bailing the canoe as the tops of some of
the white caps broke over us. About two o'clock we passed a large
bay or fiord, out of which a violent wind was blowing, though
the main Stephens Passage was calm. About dusk, when we were all
tired and anxious to get into camp, we reached the mouth of Sum
Dum Bay, but nothing like a safe landing could we find. Our experienced
captain was indignant, as well he might be, because we did not
see fit to stop early in the afternoon at a good camp-ground
he had chosen. He seemed determined to give us enough of night
sailing as a punishment to last us for the rest of the voyage.
Accordingly, though the night was dark and rainy and the bay full
of icebergs, he pushed grimly on, saying that we must try to reach
an Indian village on the other side of the bay or an old Indian
fort on an island in the middle of it. We made slow, weary, anxious
progress while Toyatte, who was well acquainted with every feature
of this part of the coast and could find his way in the dark,
only laughed at our misery. After a mile or two of this dismal
night work we struck across toward the island, now invisible,
and came near being wrecked on a rock which showed a smooth
round back over which the waves were breaking. In the hurried
Indian shouts that followed and while we were close against the
rock, Mr. Young shouted, as he leaned over against me, "It's
a whale, a whale!" evidently fearing its tail, several specimens
of these animals, which were probably still on his mind, having
been seen in the forenoon. While we were passing along the east
shore of the island we saw a light on the opposite shore, a joyful
sight, which Toyatte took for a fire in the Indian village, and
steered for it. John stood in the bow, as guide through the bergs.
Suddenly, we ran aground on a sand bar. Clearing this, and running
back half a mile or so, we again stood for the light, which now
shone brightly. I thought it strange that Indians should have
so large a fire. A broad white mass dimly visible back of the
fire Mr. Young took for the glow of the fire on the clouds. This
proved to be the front of a glacier. After we had effected a landing
and stumbled up toward the fire over a ledge of slippery, algae-covered
rocks, and through the ordinary tangle of shore grass, we were
astonished to find white men instead of Indians, the first we
had seen for a month. They proved to be a party of seven gold-seekers
from Fort Wrangell. It was now about eight o'clock and they were
in bed, but a jolly Irishman got up to make coffee for us and
find out who we were, where we had come from, where going, and
the objects of our travels. We unrolled our chart and asked for
information as to the extent and features of the bay. But our
took great pains to pull wool over our
eyes, and made haste to say that if "ice and sceneries"
were what we were looking for, this was a very poor, dull place.
There were "big rocks, gulches, and sceneries" of a
far better quality down the coast on the way to Wrangell. He and
his party were prospecting, he said, but thus far they had found
only a few colors and they proposed going over to Admiralty Island
in the morning to try their luck.
Stranded Icebergs, Taku Glacier
In the morning, however, when the prospectors were to have gone
over to the island, we noticed a smoke half a mile back on a large
stream, the outlet of the glacier we had seen the night before,
and an Indian told us that the white men were building a big log
house up there. It appeared that they had found a promising placer
mine in the moraine and feared we might find it and spread the
news. Daylight revealed a magnificent fiord that brought Glacier
Bay to mind. Miles of bergs lay stranded on the shores, and the
waters of the branch fiords, not on Vancouver's chart, were crowded
with them as far as the eye could reach. After breakfast we set
out to explore an arm of the bay that trends southeastward, and
managed to force a way through the bergs about ten miles. Farther
we could not go. The pack was so close no open water was in sight,
and, convinced at last that this part of my work would have to
be left for another year, we struggled across to the west side
of the fiord and camped.
I climbed a mountain next morning, hoping to gain a view of the
great fruitful glaciers at the head of
the fiord or, at
least, of their snowy fountains. But in this also I failed; for
at a distance of about sixteen miles from the mouth of the fiord
a change to the northward in its general trend cut off all its
upper course from sight.
Returning to camp baffled and weary, I ordered all hands to pack
up and get out of the ice as soon as possible. And how gladly
was that order obeyed! Toyatte's grand countenance glowed like
a sun-filled glacier, as he joyfully and teasingly remarked
that "the big Sum Dum ice-mountain had hidden his face
from me and refused to let me pay him a visit." All the crew
worked hard boring a way down the west side of the fiord, and
early in the afternoon we reached comparatively open water near
the mouth of the bay. Resting a few minutes among the drifting
bergs, taking last lingering looks at the wonderful place I might
never see again, and feeling sad over my weary failure to explore
it, I was cheered by a friend I little expected to meet here.
Suddenly, I heard the familiar whir of an ousel's wings, and,
looking up, saw my little comforter coming straight from the shore.
In a second or two he was with me, and flew three times around
my head with a happy salute, as if saying, "Cheer up, old
friend, you see I am here and all's well." He then flew back
to the shore, alighted on the topmost jag of a stranded iceberg,
and began to nod and bow as though he were on one of his favorite
rocks in the middle of a sunny California mountain cataract.
Mr. Young regretted not meeting the Indians here, but mission
work also had to be left until next season.
Our happy crew
hoisted sail to a fair wind, shouted "Good-bye, Sum
Dum!" and soon after dark reached a harbor a few miles north
of Hobart Point.
We made an early start the next day, a fine, calm morning, glided
smoothly down the coast, admiring the magnificent mountains arrayed
in their winter robes, and early in the afternoon reached a lovely
harbor on an island five or six miles north of Cape Fanshawe.
Toyatte predicted a heavy winter storm, though only a mild rain
was falling as yet. Everybody was tired and hungry, and as the
voyage was nearing the end, I consented to stop here. While the
shelter tents were being set up and our blankets stowed under
cover, John went out to hunt and killed a deer within two hundred
yards of the camp. When we were at the camp-fire in Sum Dum
Bay, one of the prospectors, replying to Mr. Young's complaint
that they were oftentimes out of meat, asked Toyatte why he and
his men did not shoot plenty of ducks for the minister. "Because
the duck's friend would not let us," said Toyatte; "when
we want to shoot, Mr. Muir always shakes the canoe."
Just as we were passing the south headland of Port Houghton Bay,
we heard a shout, and a few minutes later saw four Indians in
a canoe paddling rapidly after us. In about an hour they overtook
us. They were an Indian, his son, and two women with a load of
fish-oil and dried salmon to sell and trade at Fort Wrangell.
They camped within a dozen yards of us; with their sheets of cedar
bark and poles they speedily made a hut, spread spruce boughs
in it for a carpet,
unloaded the canoe, and stored their
goods under cover. Toward evening the old man came smiling with
a gift for Toyatte,--a large fresh salmon, which was promptly
boiled and eaten by our captain and crew as if it were only a
light refreshment like a biscuit between meals. A few minutes
after the big salmon had vanished, our generous neighbor came
to Toyatte with a second gift of dried salmon, which after being
toasted a few minutes tranquilly followed the fresh one as though
it were a mere mouthful. Then, from the same generous hands, came
a third gift,--a large milk-panful of huckleberries and grease
boiled together,--and, strange to say, this wonderful mess went
smoothly down to rest on the broad and deep salmon foundation.
Thus refreshed, and appetite sharpened, my sturdy crew made haste
to begin on the buck, beans, bread, etc., and, boiling and roasting,
managed to get comfortably full on but little more than half of
it by sundown, making a good deal of sport of my pity for the
deer and refusing to eat any of it and nicknaming me the ice ancou
and the deer and duck's tillicum.
Sunday was a wild, driving, windy day with but little rain but
big promise of more. I took a walk back in the woods. The timber
here is very fine, about as large as any I have seen in Alaska,
much better than farther north. The Sitka spruce and the common
hemlock, one hundred and fifty and two hundred feet high, are
slender and handsome. The Sitka spruce makes good firewood even
when green, the hemlock very poor. Back a little way from the
sea, there was
a good deal of yellow cedar, the best I had
yet seen. The largest specimen that I saw and measured on the
trip was five feet three inches in diameter and about one hundred
and forty feet high. In the evening Mr. Young gave the Indians
a lesson, calling in our Indian neighbors. He told them the story
of Christ coming to save the world. The Indians wanted to know
why the Jews had killed him. The lesson was listened to with very
marked attention. Toyatte's generous friend caught a devil-fish
about three feet in diameter to add to his stores of food. It
would be very good, he said, when boiled in berry and colicon-oil
soup. Each arm of this savage animal with its double row of button-like
suction discs closed upon any object brought within reach with
a grip nothing could escape. The Indians tell me that devil-fish
live mostly on crabs, mussels, and clams, the shells of which
they easily crunch with their strong, parrot-like beaks.
That was a wild, stormy, rainy night. How the rain soaked us in
"Just feel that," said the minister in the night, as
he took my hand and plunged it into a pool about three inches
deep in which he was lying.
"Never mind," I said, "it is only water. Everything
is wet now. It will soon be morning and we will dry at the fire."
Our Indian neighbors were, if possible, still wetter. Their hut
had been blown down several times during the night. Our tent leaked
badly, and we were lying in a mossy bog, but around the big camp-fire
we were soon warm and half dry. We had expected to reach
Wrangell by this time. Toyatte said the storm might last several
days longer. We were out of tea and coffee, much to Mr. Young's
distress. On my return from a walk I brought in a good big bunch
of glandular ledum and boiled it in the teapot. The result of
this experiment was a bright, clear amber-colored, rank-smelling
liquor which I did not taste, but my suffering companion drank
the whole potful and praised it. The rain was so heavy we decided
not to attempt to leave camp until the storm somewhat abated,
as we were assured by Toyatte that we would not be able to round
Cape Fanshawe, a sheer, outjutting headland, the nose as he called
it, past which the wind sweeps with great violence in these southeastern
storms. With what grateful enthusiasm the trees welcomed the life-giving
rain! Strong, towering spruces, hemlocks, and cedars tossed their
arms, bowing, waving, in every leap, quivering and rejoicing together
in the gray, roaring storm. John and Charley put on their gun-coats
and went hunting for another deer, but returned later in the afternoon
with clean hands, having fortunately failed to shed any more blood.
The wind still held in the south, and Toyatte, grimly trying to
comfort us, told us that we might be held here a week or more,
which we should not have minded much, for we had abundance of
provisions. Mr. Young and I shifted our tent and tried to dry
blankets. The wind moderate, considerably,
and at 7 A.M.
but met a rough sea and so stiff a wind we barely succeeded in
rounding the cape by all hands pulling their best. Thence we struggled
down the coast,
creeping close to the shore and taking advantage
of the shelter of protecting rocks, making slow, hard-won
progress until about the middle of the afternoon, when the sky
opened and the blessed sun shone out over the beautiful waters
and forests with rich amber light; and the high, glacier-laden
mountains, adorned with fresh snow, slowly came to view in all
their grandeur, the bluish-gray clouds crawling and lingering
and dissolving until every vestige of them vanished. The sunlight
made the upper snow-fields pale creamy yellow, like that
seen on the Chilcat mountains the first day of our return trip.
Shortly after the sky cleared, the wind abated and changed around
to the north, so that we ventured to hoist our sail, and then
the weary Indians had rest. It was interesting to note how speedily
the heavy swell that had been rolling for the last two or three
days was subdued by the comparatively light breeze from the opposite
direction. In a few minutes the sound was smooth and no trace
of the storm was left, save the fresh snow and the discoloration
of the water. All the water of the sound as far as I noticed was
pale coffee-color like that of the streams in boggy woods.
How much of this color was due to the inflow of the flooded streams
many times increased in size and number by the rain, and how much
to the beating of the waves along the shore stirring up vegetable
matter in shallow bays, I cannot determine. The effect, however,
was very marked.
About four o'clock we saw smoke on the shore and ran in for news.
We found a company of Taku Indians,
who were on their way
to Fort Wrangell, some six men and about the same number of women.
The men were sitting in a bark hut, handsomely reinforced and
embowered with fresh spruce boughs. The women were out at the
side of a stream, washing their many bits of calico. A little
girl, six or seven years old, was sitting on the gravelly beach,
building a playhouse of white quartz pebbles, scarcely caring
to stop her work to gaze at us. Toyatte found a friend among the
men, and wished to encamp beside them for the night, assuring
us that this was the only safe harbor to be found within a good
many miles. But we resolved to push on a little farther and make
use of the smooth weather after being stormbound so long, much
to Toyatte and his companion's disgust. We rowed about a couple
of miles and ran into a cozy cove where wood and water were close
at hand. How beautiful and homelike it was! plushy moss for mattresses
decked with red corner berries, noble spruce standing guard about
us and spreading kindly protecting arms. A few ferns, aspidiums,
polypodiums, with dewberry vines, coptis, pyrola, leafless huckleberry
bushes, and ledum grow beneath the trees. We retired at eight
o'clock, and just then Toyatte, who had been attentively studying
the sky, presaged rain and another southeaster for the morrow.
The sky was a little cloudy next morning, but the air was still
and the water smooth. We all hoped that Toyatte, the old weather
prophet, had misread the sky signs. But before reaching Point
Vanderpeut the rain began to fall and the dreaded southeast wind
blow, which soon increased to a stiff breeze, next thing
to a gale, that lashed the sound into ragged white caps. Cape
Vanderpeut is part of the terminal of an ancient glacier that
once extended six or eight miles out from the base of the mountains.
Three large glaciers that once were tributaries still descend
nearly to the sea-level, though their fronts are back in
narrow fiords, eight or ten miles from the sound. A similar point
juts out into the sound five or six miles to the south, while
the missing portion is submerged and forms a shoal.
All the cape is forested save a narrow strip about a mile long,
composed of large boulders against which the waves beat with loud
roaring. A bar of foam a mile or so farther out showed where the
waves were breaking on a submerged part of the moraine, and I
supposed that we would be compelled to pass around it in deep
water, but Toyatte, usually so cautious, determined to cross it,
and after giving particular directions, with an encouraging shout
every oar and paddle was strained to shoot through a narrow gap.
Just at the most critical point a big wave heaved us aloft and
dropped us between two huge rounded boulders, where, had the canoe
been a foot or two closer to either of them, it must have been
smashed. Though I had offered no objection to our experienced
pilot's plan, it looked dangerous, and I took the precaution to
untie my shoes so they could be quickly shaken off for swimming.
But after crossing the bar we were not yet out of danger, for
we had to struggle hard to keep from being driven ashore while
the waves were beating
us broadside on. At length we discovered
a little inlet, into which we gladly escaped. A pure-white
iceberg, weathered to the form of a cross, stood amid drifts of
kelp and the black rocks of the wave-beaten shore in sign
of safety and welcome. A good fire soon warmed and dried us into
common comfort. Our narrow escape was the burden of conversation
as we sat around the fire. Captain Toyatte told us of two similar
adventures while he was a strong young man. In both of them his
canoe was smashed and he swam ashore out of the surge with a gun
in his teeth. He says that if we had struck the rocks he and Mr.
Young would have been drowned, all the rest of us probably would
have been saved. Then, turning to me, he asked me if I could have
made a fire in such a case without matches, and found a way to
Wrangell without canoe or food.
We started about daybreak from our blessed white cross harbor,
and, after rounding a bluff cape opposite the mouth of Wrangell
Narrows, a fleet of icebergs came in sight, and of course I was
eager to trace them to their source. Toyatte naturally enough
was greatly excited about the safety of his canoe and begged that
we should not venture to force a way through the bergs, risking
the loss of the canoe and our lives now that we were so near the
end of our long voyage.
"Oh, never fear, Toyatte," I replied. "You know
we are always lucky--the weather is good. I only want to see the
Thunder Glacier for a few minutes, and should the bergs be packed
I promise to turn back and wait until
Thus assured, he pushed rapidly on until we entered the fiord,
where we had to go cautiously slow. The bergs were close packed
almost throughout the whole extent of the fiord, but we managed
to reach a point about two miles from the head--commanding a good
view of the down-plunging lower end of the glacier and blue,
jagged ice-wall. This was one of the most imposing of the
first-class glaciers I had as yet seen, and with its magnificent
fiord formed a fine triumphant close for our season's ice work.
I made a few notes and sketches and turned back in time to escape
from the thickest packs of bergs before dark. Then Kadachan was
stationed in the bow to guide through the open portion of the
mouth of the fiord and across Soutchoi Strait. It was not until
several hours after dark that we were finally free from ice. We
occasionally encountered stranded packs on the delta, which in
the starlight seemed to extend indefinitely in every direction.
Our danger lay in breaking the canoe on small bergs hard to see
and in getting too near the larger ones that might split or roll
"Oh, when will we escape from this ice?" moaned much-enduring
We ran aground in several places in crossing the Stickeen delta,
but finally succeeded in groping our way over muddy shallows before
the tide fell, and encamped on the boggy shore of a small island,
where we discovered a spot dry enough to sleep on, after tumbling
about in a tangle of bushes and mossy logs.
We left our last camp November 21 at daybreak. The weather was
calm and bright. Wrangell Island came into view beneath a lovely
rosy sky, all the forest down to the water's edge silvery gray
with a dusting of snow. John and Charley seemed to be seriously
distressed to find themselves at the end of their journey while
a portion of the stock of provisions remained uneaten. "What
is to be done about it?" they asked, more than half in earnest.
The fine, strong, and specious deliberation of Indians was well
illustrated on this eventful trip. It was fresh every morning.
They all behaved well, however, exerted themselves under tedious
hardships without flinching for days or weeks at a time; never
seemed in the least nonplussed; were prompt to act in every exigency;
good as servants, fellow travelers, and even friends.
We landed on an island in sight of Wrangell and built a big smoky
signal fire for friends in town, then set sail, unfurled our flag,
and about noon completed our long journey of seven or eight hundred
miles. As we approached the town, a large canoeful of friendly
Indians came flying out to meet us, cheering and handshaking in
lusty Boston fashion. The friends of Mr. Young had intended to
come out in a body to welcome him back, but had not had time to
complete their arrangements before we landed. Mr. Young was eager
for news. I told him there could be no news of importance about
a town. We only had real news, drawn from the wilderness. The
mail steamer had left Wrangell eight days before, and Mr. Vanderbilt
and family had sailed on her to Portland. I had
a month for the next steamer, and though I would have liked to
go again to Nature, the mountains were locked for the winter and
canoe excursions no longer safe.
So I shut myself up in a good garret alone to wait and work. I
was invited to live with Mr. Young but concluded to prepare my
own food and enjoy quiet work. How grandly long the nights were
and short the days! At noon the sun seemed to be about an hour
high, the clouds colored like sunset. The weather was rather stormy.
North winds prevailed for a week at a time, sending down the temperature
to near zero and chilling the vapor of the bay into white reek,
presenting a curious appearance as it streamed forward on the
wind, like combed wool. At Sitka the minimum was eight degrees
plus; at Wrangell, near the storm-throat of the Stickeen,
zero. This is said to be the coldest weather ever experienced
in southeastern Alaska.
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