Friday, August 31, 2018

Travels in Alaska by John Muir

Exploring the Alexander Archipelago and its glaciers
Travels in Alaska, a memoir by naturalist, explorer, and environmental conservationist John Muir, was published in 1915, shortly after his death. The book chronicles three trips Muir made to the Alexander Archipelago in southeastern Alaska during the summers of 1879, 1880, and 1890. (Muir briefly mentions a fourth trip he made to Alaska in 1881, in which he traveled as far as the Aleutian Islands and Barrow. That trip is not covered here but in another book, The Cruise of the Corwin.) Muir didn’t write this account of his trips until much later, using the notes he took during his expeditions to compose the narrative. Muir was writing Travels in Alaska at the time of his death in 1914, so the book is unfinished and stops abruptly midway through the third journey.

Muir had already distinguished himself as a first-class naturalist by exploring and writing on the Sierra Nevada of California. In Yosemite Valley Muir formulated a theory of how glaciation sculpts the geologic landscape. His primary reason for venturing to Alaska was to explore more glaciers in order to investigate this theory. Muir took steamers from California up to Fort Wrangell in Alaska, then explored the islands and inlets in smaller boats and canoes, camping in the wild and engaging in extensive hiking and mountaineering excursions. Muir enjoyed solitude in the wilderness, but he was no recluse. He often made excursions in the company of Native American traveling companions, as well as missionaries from Fort Wrangell including one adventurous Mr. Young. Muir’s account of these trips is an enjoyable mix of a naturalist’s scientific observations, an adventurer’s travel narrative, and a poet’s love letter to mother nature.

The book is at its best when Muir is describing life among the Native inhabitants of Alaska. Muir’s relationship with the Tlingits and Chilcats he met was one of mutual respect, and it’s unlikely you’ll find a more honest and reverential first-hand depiction of the Natives’ way of life coming from a white man’s pen. His descriptions of the natural environment are both beautiful and informative, particularly in his discussions of the region’s plants and animals. Personally, I’m never too enthusiastic about reading descriptions of geological phenomena, topography, and the like, but Muir’s writings on the subject are better than most. Beyond rocks and minerals, Alaskan earth science has the added dimension of glaciology, which is a fascinating subject in its own right and Muir’s true passion. The reader couldn’t ask for a better guide to the wilderness of the region.

Having recently returned from a trip to Southeast Alaska myself, I greatly enjoyed Muir’s vivid and eloquent descriptions of the scenery there, as well as his insightful scientific explanations of the glacial activity taking place. Due to climate change, the number and size of glaciers has greatly decreased since Muir visited, and this book serves as a valuable time capsule of the state of the Alaskan environment at that time. I visited Glacier Bay by cruise ship, a common practice these days, but even Muir encountered significant tourist activity in his 1890 trip. A couple hundred tourists from a sightseeing cruise stopped to visit his campsite, and he greeted them with goodwill, happy to share the wonders of the landscape he loved so much. That same friendly warmth and love of nature shines through in every line of Muir’s writing, and his enthusiasm is infectious. Travels in Alaska is a beautiful document of the land and its people. Those who have been to Alaska will appreciate it all the more. If you haven’t been, Muir’s book will make you want to go.

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