Book Review: Travels in Alaska: Three immersions into Alaskan wilderness and culture

The name John Muir exemplifies conservation and recreation ideas of today, especially in his birth country of Scotland and his naturalized country of the U.S. to which he moved with his family at age 11. Sometimes known as the father of the national parks,’ Muir was a prolific communicator and influencer for the preservation of forests and wild spaces; and he never forgot his Scottish roots, a country where he is also recognized. The 214 mile (344 km) John Muir Trail in California’s Sierra Nevada Range, the 130 mile (245 km) John Muir Way in Scotland, and the Muir Glacier in Alaska’s Glacier Bay are among present-day features named for him.

His writings invoke images as vivid as the best photographs, especially of the flora, geology and the glacial history of western North America. His immutable narratives and the era in which they were written give us a rare glimpse of the world of 140 years ago. He co-founded of one of the world’s most influential conservation organizations, the Sierra Club, and was a key instigator in the establishment of the first national parks.

Muir died from the effects of influenza on Christmas Eve, 1914 at the age of 76, with pages of his nearly completed final work, Travels in Alaska spread around him. The book was published the following year, and has been republished many times since, often as part of a single compendium, John Muir: The Eight Wilderness Discovery Books. The latest reproduction of the eight-volume series comes from the UK’s acclaimed publisher of mountain literature, Vertebrate Publishing, with a new introduction and foreword by Muir expert, Terry Gifford.

The compact and rich narrative in Travels in Alaska demands that the reader pay attention: there is little room for skimming. The book covers three journeys that Muir made to southeast Alaska in 1879, 1880 and 1890. Muir couldn’t get enough of the wildness that he found there, especially newly forming landscapes that were still emerging form the last Ice Age and that he compared to California’s Sierra Nevada. His proposition that glaciation had been a major factor in forming the Yosemite Valley ran counter to accepted ideas and expert opinion of the day, but Muir’s ideas ultimately held sway. Throughout the book, he draws many comparisons between the glaciated valleys that he explored in the Pacific Northwest and the Yosemite Valley.

All of these journeys were undertaken before the age of air travel, and of necessity (and opportunity) they included travel through, and side trips into nineteenth century British Columbia. While in Wrangell, he made several trips up the Stikine River into BC. On the first of these, he arrived in Glenora in the afternoon, with an overnight stop planned before the steamer was to depart for Wrangell early the following morning. Despite the lateness of the day, Muir grabbed the opportunity to explore. Setting out after 3 p.m., and mindful that the summer days were getting shorter, he aimed for a peak several miles to the north that entailed a bushwhack elevation gain that he estimated to be 7,000 feet. He reluctantly agreed to take along a keen, but unseasoned companion who insisted that he was a strong walker, could do a mountaineer’s day’s work in half a day, and would not hinder me in any way.”

They planned to summit by dusk and descend through the night. Mr. Young, a missionary, mostly lived up to his promise, except for a fall just below the summit. Young’s slip caused him to badly dislocate both arms, one of which Muir was able to re-set after helping him down to more level ground. The other arm had to wait until they got back to the ship the next morning after an epic descent through the night. The most likely peak matching Muir’s description is 1,999 m (6,558 ft) Mount Glenora, with an elevation gain of 1,848 m (6,063 ft) from the river.

The irrepressible Young was undeterred by his misadventure and, ignoring rebukes from his fellow missionaries who thought he should be devoting his time to pursuits relevant to his calling, he accompanied Muir on other adventures into the wilds of Alaska and northwest BC. Their relationship was mutually beneficial to Young’s missionary work and sense of adventure, and to Muir’s exploration work; and Muir later commented that he was fortunate to have found such a compatible traveling companion.

The book is devoted to the Pacific Northwest; that is to say to that part of Alaska that is almost entirely surrounded by British Columbia. So even the chapters that aren’t set in BC are relevant to us here, as evidenced for me by a circle trip that my wife and I made in 2008 via the Alaska Marine Highway in which we saw some of the country that Muir had explored:

With an overriding interest in glaciology, Muir many times described seeing tens, and sometimes hundreds of glaciers from single vantage points. That brought to mind an 11-day fly-in backpacking trip that I and two companions made to the headwaters of the Kusawa, Takhini and Chilkat Rivers in the extreme northwest corner of BC in August 1997. We weren’t too far from where the Canadian Iceman (Kwäday Dän Ts’ìnchi, or Long Ago Person Found) was discovered two years later. It was the wildest, most remote country that I have ever experienced, and as with Muir, we observed many glaciers from numerous vantage points:

On his second trip to Alaska in 1880, Muir relates another epic adventure when once again he set out at 3 p.m. to explore the miles-wide Taylor Bay Glacier. His account of his return across the ice, with Young’s dog as his sole companion, trying to find a way back through the maze of crevasses in failing daylight, is as gripping an account of ice travel that I have ever read.

Although Glacier Bay had been visited by earlier expeditions from Bering and Vancouver onwards, Muir, Young and their native companions and crewmen, traveling by native canoe, were the first to more fully explore Glacier Bay. Muir was later able to focus the world’s attention on the phenomena of glacial change that was taking place there. Indeed, the Muir Glacier today is a shadow of its former extent that Muir had experienced, and even when he returned there after just ten years in 1890, it had already retreated by a mile and shipborne tourists were arriving by the hundreds. The fitting closing chapters to his last book describe his solo sled journey on that glacier, and the remarkable auroras that kept him awake through the nights.

In Travels in Alaska, Muir describes a landscape already in rapid climatic transition more than a century ago, as well as providing revealing ethnographic narratives of the Native Americans who he traveled with and met. The book is as readable today as when it was written, and is even more relevant to a world in increasing climatic and environmental upset; added to which it is simply a good, local, mountaineering adventure yarn.




Travels in Alaska: Three immersions into Alaskan wilderness and culture by John Muir; Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1915; Vertebrate Publishing edition, 2018, with a new introduction and foreword by Terry Gifford; ISBN 978-1-911342-16-8; softcover, 188 pages, £9.99



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