The New Eldorado. A Summer Journey to Alaska
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Soon after leaving Juneau, when near the head of Lynn Channel, the grand Davidson glacier comes into view, filling the space between two lofty mountains. It measures twelve hundred feet high by some three miles in breadth, being as wide as a frozen sea and as deep as the ocean. While looking upon it one is overawed by a sense of its immensity and grandeur, as it seems hanging, poised, ready to drop into the fathomless sea. Where we pass it there intervenes a terminal moraine overgrown with trees and green foliage, which contrasts vividly with the icy background formed by the glacier. The glaciers of Europe are mere pygmies in comparison with this marvel, which is named after Professor Davidson, who has carefully explored and described it. Both the Muir and Davidson glaciers are spars of the same great ice-field, which has an unbroken expanse large enough to lie over the whole republic of Switzerland. The Muir glacier will be reached presently in Glacier Bay.
Soon after leaving the Davidson glacier we are in Pyramid Harbor. This is the region of the Chilcats, who were formerly one of the most warlike tribes in the Territory, but who seem to have outlived their belligerent propensities. Their rude, but picturesque cabins dot the neighboring shore. The little settlement here consists mostly of bark huts and a substantial trader’s store, together with an extensive and successful fish-cannery. The product of the latter is over a million pounds of fish per annum, the whole being engaged for 1889 to a Liverpool firm. This amount is shipped in seventy thousand cases of about fifty pounds each; the fish are packed in tins holding a pound each. This is an average amount as regards various factories on the coast, though some very much exceed it. The Indians now cheerfully accept employment from the whites, and gladly receive the regular wages which may be agreed upon. They appear to be the best carvers on the coast, and have an abundance of their handiwork to sell to the interested white visitors. These articles consist of carvings in ivory (walrus’ teeth), decorated sheep-horns, copper and silver bracelets, bows, arrows, and spearheads. As engravers on copper and silver the Chilcats excel all other people of the Northwest. Some of their women wear a dozen narrow bracelets on each arm, all of home manufacture. They are also skillful in making ear-rings, and ornamental combs out of ivory and sheep’s horn. As successful imitators they are remarkable, and will almost exactly reproduce any design which is given to them as a pattern. It seems strange that so aggressive and warlike a tribe should be skilled in carving and many mechanical productions.
Certain people have bestowed much honest but needless sympathy upon these “poor abused Indians.” Such persons may be assured that they are amply able to look out for themselves and their own interests, as regards all material matters. No white man can get any advantage over an Alaskan native in the way of trade; they are sharpness itself in such things.For instance, these Chilcats a few years since observed that the white traders were particularly desirous of obtaining black fox skins, and that for such pelts they would willingly pay a handsome advance over skins of other colors; a fine skin of this sort bringing as high as thirty dollars, while the common red ones were not worth quarter of that sum. The innocent natives soon began to produce the black skins in large quantities and received their pay accordingly. Surprise being at last excited by the remarkable abundance of the black pelts, an explanation of the cause was sought, when it was finally discovered that by a secret process of dyeing the natives had made the red fox skins temporarily into black. This was done so cunningly that nothing but a careful examination would detect the outrageous cheat, and not anticipating anything of the kind the traders were not on their guard. Of course no dyeing process which they possessed was of a permanent nature as applied to pelts, and these black furs when they came to be prepared for market rapidly resumed their natural color. When charged with this gross deception, the Chilcats assumed the most innocent expression and denied any knowledge whatever in the premises, only saying: “Fox, him get black before him caught,” thus lying concerning their trickery as volubly as any white rogue might have done.
We are told of several of these tricks played off by the “poor abused Indians,” one instance of which we remember as having occurred at Fort Wrangel, illustrating the “aptitude” of the aborigines, not to give it any harder name. It seems that a kindly disposed missionary, by exercising great patience, had taught some Indians to read and write, and in the consciousness of his own intentions felt amply paid by the goodly progress of his pupils. One of these young men, not over twenty years of age, was especially curious about arithmetic, and made considerable progress in figures in a very short time. He was soon after hired by the superintendent of a fish-canning establishment as a special assistant, with good wages. Being given a note or due-bill of twenty-five dollars by his employer, he quickly saw his chance, and adroitly raised the figures to two hundred and fifty dollars, got the bill cashed at one of the neighboring trading establishments, and suddenly disappeared with the proceeds thereof. He has not since been seen.
The Chilcats have, until within a few years, forcibly kept the natives of the interior away from the coast and the white men, thus monopolizing the land fur-trade by acting as middle-men, so to speak, but this embargo is now entirely removed. By this and some other means, being naturally thrifty and saving, they have come to be the richest and most independent tribe of Indians in the Northwest. Their women manufacture the famous and really very fine Chilcat blankets, which are slowly woven by hand on a primitive loom. The base of these blankets is the long fleece of the mountain goats, which is tastefully manufactured and ornamented, reminding one of the domestic Oriental work offered for sale in the Turkish bazaars of Cairo. The Chilcat blankets readily bring forty dollars apiece, and the best of them are sold for double that sum. They are ordinarily about six feet long by four broad, having in addition a long, ornamental fringe at each end. The colors are black, white, yellow, and a dull blue, the coloring matter being also of native manufacture. These blankets used to be heirlooms in the aboriginal families before the cheap woolens of commerce were introduced among them, since when they have become annually more and more scarce, and are now purchased only by visitors to carry away as curiosities. Even at the highest price realized for them, if the maker’s time were to be reckoned of any account, the sum is a sorry pittance for one of these blankets, which to properly finish will employ six months of a woman’s time.
Pyramid Harbor, in latitude 59° 11? north, is the most northerly point reached by the excursion steamers on this part of the coast. The place takes its name from a prominent conical formation upon an island within its borders. The cluster of houses, cabins, and the canning factory which make up what is known as Pyramid Harbor are situated upon a broad plateau on a sandy beach, at the foot of a mountain which towers three thousand feet heavenward, covered with trees to its summit and beautified by a bright, dashing waterfall visible from near the apex to the bottom. This affords both a healthful water supply for domestic use and a motor for the factory. The broad plateau, three or four miles in length and one wide, grass-grown, and covered with low shrubbery, is beautified by a floral display of great variety, including wild roses, sweet peas, columbines, white clover, and other varieties, having also an unlimited amount of berries. The wide mouth of the Chilcat River, which makes into the bay a mile from this settlement, is a swarming place for the salmon. The river is very shallow and not navigable for anything but native canoes. Twenty miles inland on its bank is a large, independent settlement of the Chilcat tribe.
On the mountain side, nearly half way up, just back of the steamboat landing at Pyramid Harbor, there is a small plateau not more than ten or fifteen feet square, entirely bare of timber, but closely surrounded by dense woods. This spot is quite inaccessible to human feet. A large cinnamon bear shows himself here often during the daytime. A clear, sparkling stream of water comes from far above this place, rushing by one corner of it, and hither comes Bruin to slake his thirst. He knows very well that he is out of the hunter’s reach, and he is actually beyond rifle range. He looks at that distance skyward no bigger than a good-sized Newfoundland dog, but to appear of such proportions to us so far below he must be a very monster. Several attempts have been made by the whites to get near enough to shoot him, but without success. The bear sat upon his haunches when we saw him and peered down upon us as we stood on the deck of the Corona with a cool insolence which must have been born of a consciousness of entire safety. By using a good glass his mammoth size became more apparent, showing that even when upon his haunches with his body erect he must have measured about six feet in height.
A settlement opposite to Pyramid Harbor is known as Chilcat, where two large fish-canning establishments afford profitable occupation for quite a number of the residents, both natives and whites. New canning factories are being located in several places between Dixon Entrance and this point, the supply of salmon being absolutely unlimited; the demand only is to be considered. The quantity shipped from here annually to San Francisco for distribution is enormous, almost beyond belief, and is steadily increasing. In addition to this profitable and important industry twelve thousand barrels of salted salmon were exported last year from Alaska to southern Pacific ports. The scenery about Pyramid Harbor is arctic: the precipitous cliffs are covered with snow on their tops, and range upon range of snowy mountains frame in the bay.
From Pyramid Harbor we turn southward for a short distance, and then again towards the north, soon reaching the ice-strewn waters of Glacier Bay, an open expanse of ocean fully thirty miles long by from ten to twelve in width. This locality is thus named because of the number of glaciers which descend into it from the southern verge of the frozen region. The still surface of the water reflects the Alpine scenery like burnished silver, only ruffled now and again by the icebergs launched from the majestic front of the Muir glacier, which fall with an explosion like the blasting of rocks in a stone quarry. It is curious to watch these enormous masses of ice rise to the surface after their first deep plunge, see them settle and rise again until their equilibrium becomes fixed, and then slowly float away with their imperial colors displayed, to join the fleet gone before. They seem to exhibit in their vivid colors a radiant joy at release from long imprisonment. It was a gloriously bright day on which we approached the Muir glacier, the sun pouring down its wealth of light and warmth to temper the crisp morning air. A side-wheel steamer could not have made headway among the hundreds of floating icebergs; but the Corona wound in and out among them in safety, piloted by Captain Carroll’s skillful direction, occasionally leaving the color of her painted hull along their sides by chafing them.
The ship was brought within fifty rods of the glacier’s threatening front, which was about three hundred feet in height above the water, standing like a frozen Niagara, and the lead showed it to extend four hundred feet below the surface, making an aggregate of seven hundred feet from top to bottom. What a mighty power was hidden behind the dazzling drapery of its iridescent fa?ade!
Standing upon its surface a short way inland, one could hear from its depths what seemed like shrieks and groans of maddened spirits torturing each other, as the huge mass was crowded more and more compactly between the two abutting mountains of rock through which it found its outlet. The roar of artillery upon a battlefield could hardly be more deafening or incessant than were the thrilling reports caused by the falling of vast masses of ice from the glacier’s front. Nothing could be grander or more impressive than this steady bombardment from the ice mountain in its resistless progress towards the sea. Neither Norway nor Switzerland have any glacial or arctic scenery that can approach this bay in its frigid splendor. No natives are to be seen; not a sound falls upon the ear save the hoarse cannonading of the glacier. The white, ghostly hue of the surroundings are startling; even the daylight assumes a certain weird, bluish tint, heightened by shimmering reflections from the ice-chasms and crevices.
The author, in a varied experience of many parts of the world, recalls but two other occasions which affected him so powerfully as this first visit to Glacier Bay in Alaska, namely: witnessing the sun rise over the vast Himalayan range, the roof-tree of the globe, at Darjeeling, in northern India, and the view of the midnight sun from the North Cape in Norway, as it hung over the Polar Sea. Our power of appreciation is limitless, though that of description is circumscribed. Here both are challenged to their utmost capacity. Words are insufficient; pen and pencil inadequate to convey the grandeur and fascination of the scene.
Lieutenant Frederick Schwatka tells us that a veteran traveler said to him as they stood together on the ship’s deck regarding the scenery in this remarkable bay: “You can take just what you see here and put it down on Switzerland, and it will hide all there is of mountain scenery in Europe. I have been all over the world, but you are now looking at a scene that has not its parallel elsewhere on the globe.” The estimate has been made by experienced persons that five thousand living glaciers, of greater or less dimensions, are now steadily traveling down towards the sea in this vast Territory of Alaska.
Glacier Bay is always full of vagrant icebergs which are of blinding whiteness when under the glare of the midday sun. The variety of colors emitted by the bergs is charming to the eye, the prevailing hues being crystal-white mingled with azure blue, a faint touch of pink appearing here and there, together with dainty gleams of orange-yellow. Where a large smooth surface is presented, the prismatic shimmering is like that of starlight upon the water. The variety in the shape of the bergs is infinite. Some of them exhibit singularly correct architectural lines, some resemble ruins of ancient castles on the Rhine, others, with a little help of the imagination, represent wild animals in various attitudes, or hideous Chinese idols with open mouths and lolling tongues. Sea birds hover over and light in large numbers upon the opalescent masses. Ranging alongside of a tall berg, a fall and tackle was rigged out from the yard-arm of our steamer, while men were sent to cut large blocks of ice from the hill of frozen water. Two weighing nearly a ton each were hoisted on board to keep our larder cool and fill the ship’s ice-chest. The ice was pure as crystal, and fresh as a mountain stream.
“Why don’t you go nearer to the glacier?” asked one of the passengers of the captain.
“Because I think we are quite near enough,” was the quiet reply.
“Those avalanches don’t reach more than thirty or forty feet from the face of the ice cliff,” continued the passenger.
“True,” was the reply, “but they do not constitute the only discharges from the glacier.”
“Why, where else can they occur but from the face,” asked the inquirer.
“Shall I tell you a certain experience which I had near this very spot?” asked the captain.
“What was it?” inquired a dozen eager voices.
And then the captain told the group of listeners that when the Corona was here last season, laying just off the Muir glacier, those on board were startled by the sudden appearance of a huge mass of dark crystal, as large as the steamer itself, which shot up from the depths and tossed the ship as though it had been an egg-shell. Passengers were thrown hither and thither, and some were severely bruised. It was a berg broken off from the bottom of the ice mountain, four hundred feet below the surface of the water. Had it struck the ship in its upward passage, immediate destruction must have followed, and the steamer would have sunk as quickly as though she had been blown up with gunpowder.
Mount Crillon, Mount La Perouse, and Mount Fairweather are all visible from Glacier Bay, the latter rising in the northwest so high above the intervening hills that all its snowy pinnacles are clearly defined.
The great glacier which forms the prominent feature of this bay was named after Professor Muir, state geologist of California. It has a front three miles wide, and has been explored to a distance of forty miles inland. The top surface is tossed and broken by broad fissures so as to be impassable, unless one goes back at least a mile from its toppling and dangerous front. This glacier exceeds anything of the sort this side of the polar zone, and is fed by fifteen other glaciers, so far as it has been explored, towards its source among the lofty snow-fields. In walking upon its surface great care should be observed. A thin crust of snow and half-melted ice is often formed over fissures into which one may easily be precipitated. One of the party from the Corona, a lady, was thus engulfed for a moment, escaping, however, with a thorough wetting and some slight bruises, together with a very large measure of fright. This lady was temporarily in charge of the pilot of the steamer, hence it was very generally remarked that he was doubtless a good ship’s pilot, but a poor one for navigating glaciers.
From carefully conducted measurements it is known that this immense body – frost-bound, transparent, and resistless – is moving into the sea, during the summer months, at the rate of forty feet in every twenty-four hours, and discharging in that time one hundred and forty million cubic feet of ice into the bay. It is not necessary for us to discuss the cause of this regular, uniform movement of the enormous mass; it may be brought about by either dilation or gravitation, both of which are most likely active agents to this end, but certain it is that the glacier moves forward as described.
One could have passed days in studying the grandeur and beauty of the Muir glacier, in watching its slow but steady advance, its tremendous avalanches, its rolling, thunder-like discharges, its irregular, translucent front decked with amethyst and opal hues by the afternoon sunlight, but time was to be considered, the day was closing, and we finally steamed reluctantly away. Even after we had lost sight of the great frozen river, we heard its evening guns echoing among the mountains, faint and fitful from the growing distance.
We pause for a moment, thoughtfully, to recall the brief hours passed in that boreal atmosphere, crowded to repletion with wonderful experiences, where the ice deposited during the glacial period is slowly wasting and wearing away, exposing giant cedars which have been buried for ages upon ages, a revelation and a process which we may nowhere else behold. There is no touch of civilization here; the quiet and solitude is unbroken, save by the thunder of the bergs breaking their long imprisonment. Somehow one feels older, grayer, sadder, after witnessing these great and startling throes of Nature, phenomena which have been in operation thousands of years. It reminds the observer only too forcibly how infinitesimal is the space he occupies upon this planet, and how utterly insignificant is his personality in the vast scheme of the universe. Travel, while teaching us numberless grand and beautiful truths, solving many mysteries and vastly enlarging our mental grasp, does not fail also to impress upon the most conceited the important and priceless lesson of humility. But let us banish brooding thoughts, and be glad for a little space; to-morrow the night cometh!
Among the evidences of the slow but steady receding of the glacier we have Vancouver’s record that he was unable to enter this bay in 1793, which is now navigable for over twelve miles inland. Once the ice field was level with the mountain tops, now it has melted until the peaks are far above its surface. Professor Muir tells us that in the earlier days of the ice-age this glacier stood at a height of from three to four thousand feet above its present level! Centuries hence the place of the glacier will doubtless be occupied by a flowing river, and the land will have entirely thrown aside its mantle of ice and snow. What a revelation this bay would have been to Agassiz! After an arduous half day’s climb, from the summit of the Muir glacier nearly thirty others are to be seen in various directions, all steadily forcing their resistless way towards the sea, slowly consummating the purpose of their existence. How far glacial action has been concerned in determining the topographical conditions of the globe will long be, as it has long been, a subject for deep scientific study.
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