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"In Pursuit of Alaska" offers early adventurers' views of the state

Posted: July 4, 2013 - 12:01am

Author Jean Morgan Meaux was in Juneau this week to give a presentation at the Alaska State Library Historical Collections about her new book, “In Pursuit of Alaska: An Anthology of Travelers’ Tales, 1879-1909.”

Meaux, an Alaska resident from 1971 to 1985, compiled travelers’ original writings about their Alaskan adventures, dividing the material into three sections based on their primary purpose: tourists, adventurers and gold seekers. Narrators include John Muir, Charles Hallock (founder of Forest and Stream), Mary Hitchcock (a wealthy New Yorker who came quite stocked with luxuries), and Henry Allen (an explorer who mapped three major rivers in the interior).

Accounts of the travelers’ adventures are presented in their original form, interspersed with introductions and transitional material written by Meaux. The forward is written by Stephen Haycox.

Meaux’s presentation at the State Library included background on many of the narrators from her book, as well as historical photographs and maps that illustrated their journeys. One of the themes of her book is that these early accounts of a place most Americans knew very little about set the stage for outsiders’ impressions of the state, capturing the public imagination and spurring a wave of tourism that continues to this day.

Meaux began work on the book while freelancing for the Anchorage Daily News, after finding source material in the rare book room at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Now a lawyer, she lives in Louisiana.

Here is an excerpt from Meaux’s book, taken from John Muir’s “Fort Wrangel, Alaska, August 8, 1879” and originally published in “Notes of a Naturalist,” in the San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin, Sept. 6, 1879.

“Wrangel Island is one of the thousands of picturesque bits of this cool end of the continent carved out of the solid by the ice of the glacial period -- not by separate glaciers such as now load the mountain tops and flow, river-like, down the valleys, but by a broad, continuous ice-sheet that crawled slowly southward, covering all the land and much that is now sea, grinding on unhalting through unnumbered seasons, and modeling the comparatively simple and featureless pre-glacial landscapes to the marvelous beauty and variety of the present day.

The island is about fourteen miles long, separated from the mainland by a narrow channel or fiord, and trending north and south in the direction of the flow of the ancient ice sheet. From the tops of its highest hill down to the water’s edge all around it is densely planted with coniferous trees that never suffer thirst in all their long century lives, that never have been wasted by fire, and have never yet been touched by the ax of the lumberman. Abundance of snow keeps them fresh and lusty through the winter, abundance of rain and soft, shady clouds makes them grow luxuriantly through the summer, while the many warm days, half cloudy, half clear, and the little groups of pure sun-days enable them to ripen their cones and perpetuate the species in surpassing strength and beauty.

Wrangel is a rough place, the roughest I ever saw. No wildcat mining hamlet in the grizzly gulches of California, or in the remote recesses of the Sagebrush State, approaches it in picturesque, devil-may-care abandon. It is a moist dragglement of unpretentious wooden huts and houses that go wrangling and angling along the boggy, curving shore of the bay for a mile or so, in the general form of the letter S, but without manifesting the slightest subordination to the points of the compass, or to building laws of any kind whatever. Stumps and logs block its two crowded streets, each stump and log, on account of the moist climate, moss-grown and grass-tufted on their tops, but muddy and decaying at the bottom and down their sides below the limit of the bog line. The ground in general is a degraded bog, oozy and slimy, too thin to walk in, too thick to swim in. These picturesque obstructions, however are not much in the way, for no wheels of wagon or carriage ever turns here. There is not a horse on the island, and but one cow.”

-- Excerpted from “In Pursuit of Alaska” by Jean Morgan Meaux, printed with permission from the publisher

For more information visit www.inpursuitofalaska.com

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