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Accumulated fragments: The patron saint of American wilderness

Posted: October 14, 2012 - 12:00am
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This undated photo shows John Muir smiling.  Courtesy of National Park Service
Courtesy of National Park Service
This undated photo shows John Muir smiling.

There are some individuals whose lives are so full and who have given so much of themselves that a short article might do them no justice at all. Such was John Muir, probably one of the greatest American naturalists and authors, and an early advocate of preservation of wilderness in the United States.

Muir was born on April 21, 1838 in Dunbar, East Lothian, Scotland. In 1849, his family immigrated to the United States, starting a farm near Portage, Wisc., called Fountain Lake Farm. Recently, it has been designated a National Historic Landmark.

When Muir was 22, he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin - Madison, paying his own way for several years. He was never listed higher than a first-year student due to his unusual selection of courses. Records show that his class status was “irregular gent” and, even though he never graduated, he learned enough geology and botany to inform his later wanderings.

In 1864 Muir left school to go to Canada. He spent most of a year (until his money ran out) wandering the woods and swamps around Lake Huron collecting plants. With winter coming on and his money running low, Muir met up with his brother Dan in Ontario where the two got jobs at a sawmill on the shore of Lake Huron.

In March 1866 John returned to the United States, traveling to Indianapolis to work as a sawyer in a factory that made wagon wheels. In 1867 an accident occurred that changed the course of his life. A tool he was using slipped and struck him in the eye. There was concern that he might lose his eye but after remaining in a darkened room for six weeks his eye returned to normal. He decided, however, to quit the factory and go back to exploration and the study of plants.

It was in September of that year that Muir decided to walk about 1000 miles from Indiana to Florida. He had no specific route chosen except to go by the “wildest, leafiest, and least trodden way I could find.”1 He later wrote a book called A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf in which he recounted his exploits. After a short bout with Malaria he sailed to New York and then booked passage to California.

Muir arrived in San Francisco in 1868 and immediately left to visit Yosemite, a place he had only read about. He was completely overwhelmed by what he found. He wrote, “We are now in the mountains and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us.”2

Muir later wrote, “No temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite…The grandest of all special temples of Nature.”2

He later returned to Yosemite and climbed several mountains and hiked the old Indian trail down Bloody Canyon to Mono Lake. He built a cabin along the side of Yosemite Creek and lived there for many years, the first two years was spent writing a book about this period called, First Summer in the Sierra.2

By 1871 Muir had become a prolific writer and was known by many scientists, artists, and celebrities. Many of these made it a point to visit him in Yosemite. One particular individual was a naturalist and author who Muir had read for years, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson arrived with a number of academic friends from Boston and was delighted to find at the end of his career the prophet-naturalist he had called for so long ago. For Muir, Emerson’s visit was almost a religious experience. Emerson offered Muir a teaching position at Harvard which Muir declined. “I never for a moment thought of giving up God’s big show for a mere (professorship)!” Muir wrote of the offer.

Muir loved science, especially geology, and he spent much of his free time studying. Muir became convinced that glaciers had sculpted many of the features of the valley and surrounding area, though this idea contradicted the accepted contemporary theory suggested by Josiah Whitney, the head of the California Geological Society. Whitney believed that the formations were created by a catastrophic earthquake and tried to discredit Muir by calling him an amateur but, Louis Agassiz, the premier geologist of the day lauded Muir as “the first man I have ever found who has any adequate conception of glacial action.” Soon after, Muir discovered an active alpine glacier below Merced Peak which helped his theory gain acceptance .

In 1879 John Muir made his first of eight trips to Alaska. Traveling up to Puget Sound, he caught a boat that took him to Wrangell and Sitka, then back to Wrangell on July 20.

Muir was not initially impressed with Wrangell.

“It was the most inhospitable place at first sight I had ever seen. There was nothing like a tavern or lodging-house in the village, nor could I find any place in the stumpy, rocky, boggy ground about it that looked dry enough to camp on until I could find a way into the wilderness to begin my studies,” wrote Muir.5

While wandering around the village he came across a Presbyterian missionary who, when asked for information concerning a place to stay, explained that every room in the mission house was full but he could sleep on the floor of the carpenter-shop. That missionary was Dr. Sheldon Jackson, Superintendent of Presbyterian Missions in Alaska and later to become United States General Agent of Education.

Muir did not stay at the shop long as a merchant, Mr. Vanderbilt, heard about his sleeping arrangements and offered him a place to stay in the Vanderbilt home. This allowed Muir to make short excursions to the nearby forests and streams, studying the rate of growth of different species of trees.

His behaviors caused a great deal of concern among the villagers; they couldn’t figure out what he was up to as they could only see him looking at stumps, moss, and small plants.

While canoeing around Wrangell Island with several people of the Stikine Tlingit, plus the Collector of Customs, they visited great huckleberry fields. Never before in all his travels had had he found so lavish an abundance of berries. The woods and meadows were full of several species of huckleberries, salmon berries, blackberries, raspberries and cranberries in the bogs. On the margin of the meadows were Linnaean, purple panicle grasses, carices and ferns — all extremely tall. On the edge of the meadow were wild apple trees that had tiny apples that the Alaska Natives had gathered to flavor their fat salmon. Finally, he found the principal forest trees were hemlock, spruce, and Nootka cypress (Yellow Cedar), with a few pines. As a botanist, he was in heaven.

Later he was invited by the Wrangell chiefs and head men of the Stikine tribe for a dinner and entertainment. That evening he was adopted by the tribe and given the name Ancoutahan, said to mean adopted chief.

Muir was extremely impressed with the weather.

“The highest temperature observed here during the summer was seventy-six degrees. The most remarkable characteristic of this summer weather, even the brightest of it, is the velvet softness of the atmosphere. The clearest of Alaskan air is always appreciably substantial, so much so that it would seem as if one might test its quality by rubbing it between the thumb and finger. I never before saw summer days so white and so full of subdued luster. Winter is mostly rain at a temperature of thirty-five or forty degrees, with strong winds. The long nights are then gloomy enough and the value of snug homes with crackling yellow cedar fires may be finely appreciated. Snow falls frequently, but never to any great depth or to lie long and the mercury seldom falls more than five or six degrees below the freezing-point. Back from the coast, however, beyond the mountains, the winter months are very cold.” he wrote.

While at Fort Wrangell, John Muir made several excursions; one of his most satisfying was a trip up the Stikine River. He was able to explore several of the more than 100 glaciers, climb multiple mountains and study the numerous trees and shrubs along the river and up on the sides of the coastal range.

John wrote page upon page of beautiful and breathtaking descriptions of all that he saw. An example of this is found in his writings “A cruise in the Cassiar” concerning a glacier.

“Along the sides of the glacier we saw the mighty flood grinding against the granite walls with tremendous pressure, rounding out-swelling bosses, and deepening the retreating hollows into the forms they are destined to have when, in the fullness of appointed time, the huge ice tool shall be withdrawn by sun. Every feature glowed with intention, reflecting the plans of God…… Standing here, with facts so fresh and telling and held up so vividly before us, every seeing observer, not to say geologist, must readily apprehend the earth sculpturing, landscape-making action of flowing ice. And here, too, one learns that the world, though made, is yet being made; that this is still the morning of creation; that mountains long conceived are now being born, channels traced for coming rivers, basins hollowed for lakes; that moraine soil is being ground and outspread for coming plants,-- coarse boulders and gravel for forests, finer soil for grasses and flowers, -- while the finest part of the grist, seen hastening out to sea in the draining streams, is being stored away in darkness and built particle on particle, cementing and crystallizing, to make mountains and valleys and plains of other predestined landscapes, to be followed by still others in endless rhythm and beauty.”5

On Oct. 14, 1879 John Muir, along with Toyatte, a grand old Stikine nobleman, Kadachan, the son of a Chilkat chief, John, a Stikine who acted as interpreter and Sitka Charlie, finally, a Mr. Young, who was an adventurous evangelist, who took this opportunity to meet the Native Alaskans of different tribes on the route north, with reference to future missionary work. They began heading west from Wrangell through Sumner Strait between Kupreanof and Prince of Wales Islands, then, turning northward, they paddled up the Kiku Strait, across Prince Frederick’s Sound, up Chatham Straight, then northwest through Icy Strait and around the then uncharted Glacier Bay.

It was a wonderful trip; stopping off at innumerable villages along the way; meeting, speaking and eating with the leaders and families.

“The most striking characteristic of these people is their serene dignity……Even the little children behave with natural dignity, come when called, and restrain their wonder at the strange prayers, hymn-singing, etc…….I have never yet seen a child ill-used, even to the extent of an angry word. Scolding, so common a curse in civilization, is not known here at all. On the contrary the young are fondly indulged without being spoiled, Crying is very rarely heard.” Muir wrote of the people he encountered.

For some time Muir had heard stories from the Native Alaskans concerning an Ice Bay with many ice mountains within. Sitka Charlie told of going there as a child. However, because of the lateness of the season (Oct. 24) he said that it would not be wise to go there on this trip.

While Vancouver’s chart had been a faithful guide, nothing was shown of an Ice Mountain Bay. Within a day or two of Chilkat, information came to them about serious trouble between Native Alaskans, that the Chilkats were drinking and fighting among themselves. John felt that it would not be safe to venture among them until blood-money had been paid and the quarrels settled. Thus, it was decided to turn westward and go in search of the wonderful “ice-mountains” that Sitka Charlie had told about. Accordingly, they pushed on across Chatham Strait to the north end of Icy Strait, toward the new and promising ice-field.

Two days later, they came across a group of Hoona seal hunters laying in their winter stores of meat and skins. John explained that they were seeking ice-mountains. The Hoona Natives told them that the big bay was called by them Sit-a-da-kay — or Ice Bay, that there were many large ice-mountains in it, but no gold mines, and that the ice-mountain they knew best was at the head of the bay, where most of the seals were found.

In spite of a driving rain, Muir wanted to push on, but Sitka Charlie was ill at ease and wanted one of the seal-hunters to go with them because he believed the place had changed since the last time he had been their. Muir promised to pay well for a guide and, in order to lighten the canoe, proposed to leave most of their heavy stores with the seal hunters until their return.

The wind was at their backs so they made good time and at about noon they discovered the first of the great glaciers. John named this glacier after James Geikie, the noted Scottish geologist. They stopped there for the night. The next day was Sunday and Young wanted to stay in camp. The Alaska Natives also wanted to stay in camp because of the driving rain and wind but Muir decided to hike up the side of mountain-slopes above the camp alone. At about 1,500 feet, he saw the berg-filled expanse of the bay, the feet of the mountains that stood about it and the imposing fronts of five huge glaciers. With numb fingers he sketched what he could see of the landscape and made notes.

The next day it was raining and snowing and all but Muir wanted to turn back, but after a spirited discussion Muir won out and they again swept bravely forward. In about an hour they had found the second great glacier that Muir named for Hugh Miller. From here a run of two hours brought them to the head of the bay, and to the mouth of northwest fjord, at the head of which lie the Hoona sealing-grounds, and the great glacier he now called the Pacific and another he called the Hoona. A camp was made on a rocky bench near the front of the Pacific Glacier. While the camp was being developed John again took the time to climb a ridge well over a thousand feet to get a broader outlook, making notes and sketches of the glittering bergs, crystal bluffs of the vast glacier, the far spreading ice fields, and the spiritual heights of the Fairweather Range.

The next morning was frosty and clear and there was “a deep brooding stillness made all the more striking by the thunder of newborn bergs. The sunshine we did not see at all, for we were beneath the shadows of the fiord cliffs; but while the natives were getting ready to sail, we were startled by the sudden appearance of a red light burning with a strange unearthly splendor on the topmost peak of the Fairweather Mountains. In stead of vanishing as suddenly as it had appeared, it spread and spread until the whole range down to the level of the glaciers was filled with celestial fire. In color it was at first a vivid crimson, with a thick furred appearance, as fine as the alpenglow, yet indescribably rich and deep; every mountain apparently was glowing from the heart like molten metal fresh from a furnace. Then the supernal fire slowly descended, with a sharp line of demarcation separating it from the cold, shaded region beneath; peak after peak, with their spires and ridges and cascading glaciers, caught the glow, until all stood transfigured. How long I gazed I never knew. The glorious vision passed away in a gradual, fading change through a thousand tones of color to pale yellow and white, and then the ice-world went on again in everyday beauty.’

They sailed away, arriving soon at the mouth of the fjord and rounding the massive granite headland that stands guard at the entrance on the north side, found another large glacier, named now the Reid. Muir made the Alaska Natives cease rowing while he sketched its principal features. After steering northeastward a few miles, they discovered still another large glacier, now called the Carroll. Again this fjord was inaccessible because of ice and Muir had to be content with more sketches and notes.

They now turned southward down the eastern shore and in an hour or two discovered a small glacier.

They landed here and climbed over a mile or two of rough boulder-beds and back upon the wildly broken, receding front of the glacier, which, “though it descends to the level of the sea, no longer sends off bergs.”

“On these decaying glaciers we may also find many interesting lessons on the formation of boulders and boulder-beds, which in all glaciated countries exert a marked influence on scenery, health, and fruitfulness.”” Muir wrote.

Several miles down the bay they came to another fjord, which they sailed in quest of more glaciers, discovering one in each of the two branches into which the fjord divides. Neither of them reached tide water.

They had a tough time the next day moving out of the fjord because ice had set in but they bored their way through the bergs and ice. On their way down the coast, after examining the front of Geike Glacier, they obtained their first view of what is now called Muir Glacier, the stormy weather having hidden it when they first entered the bay. Winter had come and the freezing of the fjords was an insurmountable obstacle. Muir had to be content with sketches, notes and studying its main features at a distance.

They left the bay and, after dropping off their Hoona guide and picking up their supplies, they headed for the Chilkat and then the long trip back to Wrangell. Along the way they studied what John Muir said was the most beautiful glacier on the pacific coast. That glacier, then called Auk Glacier, is now better known as the Mendenhall Glacier. Of course, in 1879, the Mendenhall was much further down the valley than it is today. They traveled down past the mouth of the Taku and found the bay so full of ice and icebergs such that they were unable to investigate the glaciers further up. This was the end of one of eight separate trips John made to Alaska.

During Muir’s lifetime, he published more than 300 articles and 12 books. He co-founded the Sierra Club, which helped establish a number of national parks. Muir has been called the “patron saint of the American wilderness.” Gretel Ehrlich of the National Geographic Society said “his eloquent words changed the way Americans saw their mountains, forests, seashores and deserts.” On Dec. 24, 1914, John Muir Died in Los Angeles, Calif., of pneumonia; he was 76.

Acknowledgements:

1. John Muir: Magnificent Tramp, Rod Miller

2. A Mountain Calling, Amy Leinbach Marquis

3. Meeting the Tree of Life: A Teacher’s Path, John Tallmadge

4. John Muir: His Life and Letters and Other Writings, Edited and Introduced by Terry Gifford

5. Travels in Alaska, John Muir

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