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THE CRUISEOF THE CORWIN
Journal of the Arctic Expedition of 1881 in search of De Long and the Jeannette
Copyright © John Muir
The Cruise of the Corwin
Arcadia Press 2017
ONE of the poignant tragedies of north polar exploration, that of the Jeannette, still lingers in the memory of persons now living, though a generation has since passed away. John Muir, who joined the first search expedition dispatched from San Francisco, had already achieved distinction by his glacial studies in the Sierra Nevada and in Alaska. The Corwin expedition afforded him a coveted opportunity to cruise among the islands of Bering Sea and the Arctic Ocean, and to visit the frost-bitten shores of northeastern Siberia and northwestern Alaska. So enticing was the lure of this new adventure, so eager was he to study the evidence of glaciation in the Far North, that he said a reluctant good-bye to his young wife and fared forth upon the deep. “You remember, he wrote to her from the Siberian coast, “that I told you long ago how eager I was to get upon those islands in the middle of the Bering Sea and Strait to read the ice record there.”
The events which led up to this memorable cruise of the Corwin in 1881 had their origin in the widespread interest which north polar exploration was exciting at this time all over the world. In 1877 Lieutenant George W. De Long, an American naval officer, was searching among the northern ports of England for a whaling vessel adapted to the requirements of Arctic exploration. De Long had commanded the Juniata which was sent out for the relief of the Polaris, and through this experience had grown enthusiastic over his own plans for reaching the North Pole.
The whaling industry was at that time a very profitable one, and few owners of whalers and sealers were willing to part with their vessels. Though Sir Allen Young’s steam yacht Pandora, which De Long finally selected, had already made two Arctic voyages, she appears to have been chosen more because she was available than because of her superior fitness for ice navigation. In any case she was purchased by James Gordon Bennett, patron of the proposed expedition, was fitted out at Deptford, England, and re-named the Jeannette. Though the new name evaded the suggestion of a box of evils, she proved to be one for those who sailed in her. Commander De Long himself brought her around Cape Horn to San Francisco. In the month of July, 1879, she sailed from that port for Bering Strait and the Arctic Ocean — never to return. Crushed in the ice, she sank, June 12, 1881, in the Arctic Ocean, one hundred and fifty miles north of the New Siberian Islands.
The retreat southward across the ice-floes was one of great peril. Only thirteen out of thirty-four men ultimately reached civilization and safety. De Long himself, and ten of the men with him, died of starvation and exposure on the delta of the Lena River, where two of the Jeannette’s storm-beaten cutters landed in the middle of September, 1881. One of them, commanded by Chief Engineer Melville, reached a Russian village on one of the eastern mouths of the Lena River. He promptly organized a search party, recovering the ship’s records in November, 1881, and the bodies of his unfortunate shipmates the following spring.
When the North Pacific whaling fleet returned from Arctic waters in the autumn of 1879, two ships, the Mount Wollaston and the Vigilant, were reported missing. They had been last seen in October in the same general region, near Herald Island, where the Jeannette had entered the polar ice. The Mount Wollaston was commanded by Captain Nye, of New Bedford, Massachusetts, one of the keenest and bravest men that ever sailed the frigid seas. He it was who at a conference of whaling captains, called by De Long in San Francisco before the departure of his expedition, hesitated to give an opinion on the practicability of De Long’s plans. But when urged for an expression of his views, he said, “Put her [the Jeannette] into the ice and let her drift, and you may get through, or you may go to the devil, and the chances are about equal.”
In the service of the United States Treasury Department there was at this time a stanch little steamer called the Corwin. Built at Abina, Oregon, she was constructed throughout of the finest Oregon fir, fastened with copper, galvanized iron, and locust-tree nails. She had a draught of nearly eleven feet, twenty-four feet beam, and was one hundred and thirty-seven feet long between perpendiculars. The ordinary duties of the captain of such a revenue steamer involved primarily the enforcement of federal laws for the protection of governmental interests on the Fur Seal Islands and the sea-otter hunting grounds of Alaska. But the supposed plight of the Jeannette and the unknown fate of two whalers caught in the ice were soon to increase the Corwin’s duties, and call her into regions where her sturdy sailing qualities were to prove of the utmost importance.
In the spring of 1880 the Corwin, in command of Captain Calvin L. Hooper, was ordered into North Alaskan waters in pursuance of her regular duties. But Captain Hooper had also been directed to make all possible inquiries for the missing whalers and the Jeannette. He returned with no tidings of the lost, but with reports of starvation and death among the Eskimos of St. Lawrence Island on account of an uncommonly severe and stormy winter in the Arctic regions. He entertained no hope for the lost whalers, but thought De Long and his party might be safe.
A general demand for relief expeditions now arose. Petitions poured into Congress, and the American Geographical Society addressed a forcible appeal to President Garfield. When the Corwin was sent to Alaskan waters again in 1881 it was with the following specific instructions to Captain Hooper:
“No information having been received concerning the whalers Mount Wollaston and Vigilant, you will bear in mind the instructions for your cruise of last year, and it is hoped you may bring back some tidings of the missing vessels. You will also make careful inquiries in the Arctic regarding the progress and whereabouts of the steamer Jeannette, engaged in making explorations under command of Lieutenant-Commander De Long, U.S.N., and will, if practicable, communicate with and extend any needed assistance to that vessel… You will in your season’s cruise touch at such places as may be practicable on the mainland or islands where there are settlements of natives, and examine into and report upon their condition.”
A letter written to his mother from Dutch Harbor, Unalaska, gives Muir’s own account of his purpose in joining the expedition.
“I wrote you from San Francisco [he says] that I had suddenly made up my mind to avail myself of the opportunity offered to visit the Arctic region on the steamer Thomas Corwin sent to seek the Jeanette and the missing whalers that were lost in the ice two years ago off Point Barrow…
“I have been interested for a lone time in the glaciation of the Pacific Coast, and I felt that I must make a trip of this sort to the Far North some time, and no better chance could in any probability offer. I am acquainted with our captain, and have every comfort the ship can afford, and every facility to pursue my studies.
“We mean to proceed from here past the seal islands St. Paul and St. George, then northward alone the Siberian coast to about Cape Serdze, where a sledge party with dogs will be sent out to search the North Siberian coast, while the steamer the meanwhile will cross to the American shore and call at St. Michael, Kotzebue Sound, and other places, [where we shall have the opportunity of] making short journeys inland. Then, as the ice melts and breaks up, we will probably push eastward around Point Barrow, then return to the Siberian side to pick up our land party, then endeavor to push through the ice to the mysterious unexplored Wrangell Land. We hope to return to San Francisco by October or November, but may possibly be compelled to winter in the Arctic somewhere.”
De Long, in a letter to his wife, had written that his plan was to proceed north by the eastern coast of Wrangell Land, touching first at Herald Island to build a cairn and leave news of the Jeannette’s progress. Believing that Wrangell Land extended northward toward the Pole, he proposed to leave similar records along its eastern coast, under cairns, at intervals of twenty-five miles. These known intentions of De Long show why it was one of the foremost objects of the Corwin expedition to reach what Muir called “the mysterious unexplored Wrangell Land.”
How keenly Muir appreciated the possibilities of science and adventure in the exploration of this unknown Arctic land may be seen in the fourteenth chapter of this volume. Up to this time nothing was actually known about Wrangell Land except its existence. The first European who reported its discovery was Captain Kellett of H.M.S. Herald. He saw it in 1849 when he discovered Herald Island, which was named after his vessel. By right of discovery Kellett’s name should have been given to Wrangell Land, and upon British Admiralty charts it was very properly indicated as “Kellett Land.”
The name Wrangell Land, it seems, became associated with the island through a report of Captain Thomas Long, of the whaling bark Nile. In 1867 he reported that he had “sailed to the eastward along the land during the fifteenth and part of the sixteenth [of August], and in some places approached It as near as fifteen miles. I have named this northern land Wrangell Land [he says] as an appropriate tribute to the memory of a man who spent three consecutive years north of latitude 68 degrees, and demonstrated the problem of this open polar sea forty-five years ago, although others of much later date have endeavored to claim the merit of this discovery. The west cape of this land I have named Cape Thomas, after the man who first reported the land from the masthead of my ship, and the southeastern cape I have named after the largest island in this group [Hawaii].”
Captain Long apparently was unaware of the fact that the island already bore the name of Kellett by right of discovery eighteen years earlier. But since Baron Wrangell had made such a brave and determined search for this “problematical land of the North,” as he referred to it in his final report, there is a certain poetic justice in applying his name to what he only sought, but never found.
While Captain Hooper, in his report of 1880, had expressed the conviction that Wrangell Land was an island, the first demonstration of its insularity was made by Commander De Long, who had practically staked the success of his expedition on the belief that it was a country of large extent northward, and suitable for winter quarters. But before his vessel was crushed in the ice it drifted, within sight of Wrangell Land, directly across the meridians between which it lies. This fatal drift of the Jeannette not only furnished conclusive disproof of the theory that Wrangell Land might be part of a continent stretching across the north polar regions, but proved it to be an island of limited extent. It is an inaccuracy, therefore, when the United States Hydrographer’s report for 1882 sets the establishment of this fact down to the credit of the Rodgers expedition.
So far as known, the first human beings that ever stood upon the shores of this island were in Captain Hooper’s landing party, August 12, 1881, and John Muir was of the number. The earliest news of the event, and of the fact that De Long had not succeeded in touching either Herald Island or Wrangell Land, reached the world at large in a letter from Muir published in the San Francisco Evening Bulletin, September 29, 1881. But the complete record of Muir’s observations, together with some of the sketches contained in his journals, is now given to the public for the first time.
A second Jeannette relief expedition, already mentioned as that of the Rodgers, was sent out under the direction of the Secretary of the Navy. It succeeded in reaching Wrangell Land two weeks after the Corwin. In order to make our geographical and scientific knowledge of this remote island as complete in this volume as possible, we deem it desirable to include a brief [account of what was achieved during the cruise of the Rodgers.
This vessel, a stout and comparatively new whaler, known before its re-baptism as the Mary and Helen, was placed in command of Lieutenant, now Rear Admiral, Robert M. Berry. He discovered on the southern shore of Wrangell Land a snug little harbor where he kept the Rodgers at anchor for nineteen days while two search parties, in whaleboats, going in opposite directions, explored the coast for possible survivors of the missing whalers and for cairns left by the crew of the Jeannette. These search parties nearly circumnavigated the island without finding anything except Captain Hooper’s cairn, and Commander Berry, in his report to the Secretary of the Navy, said, “I believe it impossible that any of the missing parties ever landed here.”
The principal gain of this exploration was a running survey of the coast and a general determination of the size of the island. In other respects the harvest of scientific facts gathered on Wrangell Land by the Rodgers was meager, if one may judge by W. H. Gilder’s Ice Pack and Tundra. Unfortunately, the act which carried the appropriation for the expedition provided that the vessel selected “be wholly manned by volunteers from the Navy.” This fact seems to have prevented the taking of men trained in the natural sciences, like John Muir or E. W. Nelson. Nineteen days on Wrangell Land would have enabled them to obtain a large amount of interesting information about its flora, fauna, avifauna, and geology.
Commander Berry, taking charge of an exploring party, penetrated twenty miles into the interior of the island and ascended a conspicuous mountain whose height, by barometric measurement, was found to be twenty-five hundred feet. He reported that he “could see from its summit the sea in all directions, except between S.S.W. by W. per compass. The day was very clear, and no land except Herald Island was visible from this height. There was no ice in sight to the southward.” A letter of inquiry addressed to Rear Admiral Berry by the editor brought a courteous reply, stating that he did not know of any photographs or sketches, made by members of the Rodgers expedition, which would show the coast or interior topography of the island; that “the vegetation was scant, consisting of a few Arctic plants, a little moss, etc.”; that “polar bears, walrus, and seal were quite common upon or near the island,” and that the provisional map which accompanied his report to the Secretary of the Navy in 1881 is the only one available.
It will be seen that practically the whole interior of the island still awaits exploration. Estimates of its size vary between twenty-eight and forty miles as to width, and between sixty-five and seventy-five as to length. Striking an average, one might say that it contains about twenty-five hundred square miles of territory. The distance across Long Strait from the nearest point on the Siberian coast is about eighty-five or ninety miles, and Herald Island lies about thirty miles east of Wrangell Land.
In 1914 the Karluk, Steffansson’s flagship of the Canadian Arctic Expedition, was crushed in the ice, and sank not far from the place where the Jeannette was lost. Under the able leadership of Captain Robert A. Bartlett the members of the expedition made their way to Wrangell Land, where they remained encamped while Captain Bartlett, with an Eskimo, crossed Long’s Strait to Siberia over the ice. Thence he made his way to St. Michael, Alaska, and enlisted aid for the Karluk survivors. Their rescue was effected successfully, and, so far as we are able to discover, these members of the Canadian Arctic Expedition are the only human beings that have been on Wrangell Land since the visit of the Corwin and the Rodgers in 1881.
We venture to mention, in this connection, a few facts which call for consideration in the interest of a historical and consistent geographical nomenclature. The United States Geographic Board has done much to bring order out of the chaos of Alaskan names, and its decisions are available in Baker’s Geographic Dictionary of Alaska, which has been followed in the editing of this volume. There is a “Wrangell Island” in southeastern Alaska, well known to readers of Muir’s Travels in Alaska, hence it occasions needless confusion to call Wrangell Land by the same name, as even recent Hydrographic Office charts continue to do, besides misspelling the name. The retention of the term “land” for an island is supported by abundant precedent, especially in the Arctic regions.
The altitude of the mountain ascended by Commander Berry had already been determined with remarkable accuracy by Captain Long in 1867. He described it as having “the appearance of an extinct volcano,” and it is shown on his sketch of Wrangell Land, reproduced on the map accompanying Nourse’s American Explorations in the Ice Zones. Captain Hooper, in his report of the cruise of the Corwin, declares that the peak had been appropriately named for Long, and adds, “Singular as it may appear, this name to which Captain Long was justly entitled has, notwithstanding our pretended custom of adhering to original names, been set aside on a recent issue of American charts.” It is some compensation, however, that the wide stretch of water between the North Siberian coast and Wrangell Land is now known as Long Strait.
Captain Hooper and his party, being the first to set foot upon Wrangell Land, exercised the privilege of taking possession of it in the name of the United States. In order to avoid the confusion of the two names, Kellett and Wrangell, which it already bore, Captain Hooper named it New Columbia. This name, which was set aside by the Hydrographic Office, he says “was suggested by the name which had been given to the islands farther west, New Siberia. It is probable that the name Wrangell Land will continue in use upon American charts, but its justice, in view of all the facts, is not so apparent. In my opinion the adoption by us of the name Kellett Land given by the English would be appropriate, and avoid the confusion which is sure to follow in consequence of its having two names.
“Headlands and other geographical features of the island were named by us, but as the names which were applied to features actually discovered by the Corwin and heretofore unnamed have been ignored, it is possible that a desire to do honor to the memory of Wrangell is not the only consideration. To avoid the complications which would result from duplicating geographical names, I have dropped all bestowed by the Corwin and adopted the more recent ones applied by the Hydrographic Office. I have also adopted the plan of the island [from surveys of the Rodgers] as shown on the small chart accompanying Hydrographic Notice No. 84, although the trend of the coast and the geographical position of the mouth of the river where we first planted the flag do not agree with the result of the observations and triangulations made by the Corwin.”
Now that Captain Hooper and nearly all the men who had a share in these explorations of the early eighties have passed on, it is proper that the basic facts as well as conflicting judgments should be set down here for the just consideration of geographers. Both from Muir’s vivid narrative of the Corwin’s penetration to the shores of Wrangell Land, and from Captain Hooper’s admirable report published in 1884 as Senate Executive Document No. 204, the reader will conclude that the Captain of the Corwin had a better right to be remembered in connection with the geographical features of the island than most of the persons whose names have been attached to them by the Hydrographic Office.
Whether Wrangell Land became United States territory when Hooper formally raised our flag over it is a question. The editor is unable to discover any treaty between Russia and the United States which would debar possession by the latter. But questions involving rights of territorial discovery have not, so far as we know, been raised between the two governments.
Muir’s opportunity to join the Corwin apparently arose out of his acquaintanceship with Captain Hooper, and when the invitation came he had little time to prepare for the cruise. A letter to his wife affords a glimpse of his surroundings and plans when the Corwin was approaching Unalaska.
“All goes well on our little ship [he writes] and not all the tossing of the waves, and the snow and hail on the deck, and being out of sight of land so long, can make me surely feel that I am not now with you all as ever, so sudden was my departure, and so long have I been accustomed in the old lonely life to feel the influence of loved ones as if present in the flesh, while yet far… There are but three of us in the cabin, the Captain, the Surgeon, and myself, and only the same three at table, so that there is no crowding…
“Should we be successful in reaching Wrangell Land we would very likely be compelled to winter on it, exploring while the weather permitted. In case we are unsuccessful in reaching Wrangell Land, we may get caught farther west and be able to reach it by dog-sledges in winter while the pack is frozen. Or we may have to winter on the Siberian coast, etc., etc., according to the many variable known and unknown circumstances of the case. Of course if De Long is found we will return at once. If not, a persistent effort will be made to force a way to that mysterious ice-girt Wrangell Land, since it was to it that De Long was directing his efforts when last heard from. We will be cautious, however, and we hope to be back to our homes this fall. Do not allow this outline of Captain Hooper’s plan to get into print at present.”
From another letter written the following day we quote this breezy bit of description: —
“How cold it is this morning! How it blows and snows! It is not ‘the wolfs long howl on Unalaska’s shore,’ as Campbell has it, but the wind’s long howl. A more sustained, prolonged, screeching, raving howl I never before heard. But the little Corwin rides on through it in calm strength, rising and falling amid the foam-streaked waves like a loon. The cabin boy, Henry, told me this morning [May 16] early that land was in sight. So I got up at six o’clock — nine of your time — and went up into the pilot-house to see it. Two jagged black masses were visible, with hints of snow mountains back of them, but mostly hidden beneath a snow-storm.
“After breakfast we were within two miles of the shore. Huge snow-peaks, grandly ice-sculptured, loomed far into the stormy sky for a few moments in tolerably clear relief; then the onrush of snowflakes, sweeping out into the dark levels of the sea, would hide it all and fill our eyes, while we puckered our brows and tried to gaze into the face of it all.
“We have to proceed in the dimness and confusion of the storm with great caution, stopping frequently to take soundings, so it will probably be one or two o’clock before we reach the harbor of Unalaska on the other side of the island. I tried an hour ago to make a sketch of the mountains along the shore for you, to be sent with this letter, but my fingers got too cold to hold the pencil, and the snow filled my eyes, and so dimmed the outlines of the rocks that I could not trace them.
“Down here in the cabin it is warm and summerish, and when the Captain and Doctor are on deck I have it all to myself… I am glad you thought to send my glasses and barometer and coat. We will procure furs as we proceed north, so as to be ready in case we should be compelled to winter in the Arctic regions. It is remarkably cold even here, and dark and blue and forbidding every way, though it is fine weather for health.
“I was just thinking this morning of our warm sunny home . . . and of the red cherries down the hill, and the hundreds of blunt-billed finches, every one of them with red bills soaked in cherry juice. Not much fruit juice beneath this sky!”
During the cruise Muir kept a daily record of his experiences and observations. He also wrote a series of letters to the San Francisco Evening Bulletin in which he turned to account the contents of his journal. Comparison of the letters with the journal shows that his note-books contain a large amount of interesting literary and scientific material which has not been utilized in the Bulletin letters. To publish both would involve too much duplication. It has seemed best, therefore, to make the letters the foundation of the volume and to insert the additional matter from the journal wherever it belongs chronologically in the epistolary record. Most of the letters have thus grown far beyond their original size.
The performance of this task has often been trying and time-consuming, especially when it became the editor’s duty to avoid repetition, or overlapping, by selecting what seemed to be the more comprehensive, the more finished, or the more vivid form of statement. But this method of solving the difficulty has the advantage, for the reader, of unifying in the present volume practically the whole of Muir’s literary and scientific work during the cruise of the Corwin. Sometimes, as in chapters eleven and twelve, all the material is new and has been derived exclusively from the journal. The style of the latter may generally be recognized by its telegraphic conciseness.
Since Muir’s primary object in joining the Corwin expedition was to look for evidence of glaciation in the Arctic and subarctic regions, we have deemed it desirable to include in this volume the article in which he gathered up the results of his glacial studies and discoveries. It was published in 1884, with Captain C. L. Hooper’s report, as Senate Executive Document No. 204 of the Forty-eighth Congress.
Both the Hooper report and the article on glaciation were elaborately illustrated from Muir’s pencil sketches, though the fact that they were Muir’s is nowhere stated. “The ‘Glacier Article’ arrived on the sixth,” wrote Captain Hooper to Muir under date of February 7, 1884, “and was sent on its way rejoicing the same day. The Honorable Secretary [of the Treasury] assures me that he will see that the whole is printed without delay. Please accept my thanks for the article, which is very interesting. The sketches are very fine and will prove a valuable addition to the report. That of the large glacier from Mount Fairweather is particularly fine.”
The article on glaciation should have been published a year earlier, in the same volume with the “Botanical Notes.” But for some reason Muir was misinformed, and an apologetic letter to him from Major E. W. Clark, then Chief of the United States Revenue Marine, hints at a petty intrigue as the cause. “I regret very much,” he writes, “that I had not myself corresponded with you regarding your contribution to the Arctic report. Your article on glaciation would have been exactly the thing and would have admitted of very effective illustration. I feel well assured that you were purposely misinformed regarding the report, and could readily explain the reason to you in a personal interview. There has been much anxious inquiry for your notes on glaciation.” It was the writer of this letter after whom Captain Hooper named the river at whose mouth the Corwin anchored on Wrangell Land. This fact has been recorded by Professor Joseph Everett Nourse, U.S.N., in his work American Explorations in the Ice Zones. He states that through the courtesy of Major Clark he had access to the unpublished official report of the cruise of the Corwin. Since the river in question appears without a name upon the chart of Wrangell Land, we must suppose it to be (me of the names which Captain Hooper complains the Hydrographic Office ignored.
Besides the illustrative drawings which accompany Muir’s article on glaciation in the Far North, his note-books contain numerous interesting sketches of geological and topographical features of Arctic landscapes. They show with what tireless industry and pains he worked at his task. This is the first publication of the general conclusions of his Arctic studies, supported in detail by the records of his journal. In its present form the article follows a revised copy found among Muir’s papers.
Muir’s report on the flora of Herald Island and Wrangell Land still remains, after thirty-six years, the only one ever made on the vegetation of these remote Arctic regions. It has seemed best, therefore, to include also his article entitled “Botanical Notes” as an appendix to this volume. It was first published in 1883 as a part of Treasury Department Document No. 429. Strangely enough, the letter of transmittal from the Secretary of the Treasury refers to it as “the observations on glaciation in the Arctic Ocean and the Alaska region made by John Muir.”
The author never saw printer’s proof after he sent the manuscript, and the number of typographical errors made in the technical parts of his article must have established a new record, for they mount into hundreds. Knowing that Muir had sent a duplicate set of his Arctic plant collection to Dr. Asa Gray for final scientific determination, the editor went to the Gray Herbarium of Harvard University, in order to make the necessary corrections and verifications. Fortunately the writer found there not only the original plants, but also Muir’s letters to Asa Gray. “I returned a week ago,” wrote Muir under date of October 31, 1881, “from the polar region around Wrangell Land and Herald Island, and brought a few plants from there which I wish you would name as soon as convenient, as I have to write a report on the flora for the expedition. I had a fine icy time, and gathered a lot of exceedingly interesting facts concerning the formation of Bering Sea and the Arctic Ocean, and the configuration of the shores of Siberia and Alaska. Also concerning the forests that used to grow there, etc., which I hope some day to discuss with you.”
The editor has made no attempt to reduce the genus and species names to modem synonymy. As in the case of Muir’s A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf it has seemed best to offer the original determinations, making the necessary corrections by reference to the Index Kewensis and, in the case of the ferns, to Christensen’s Index Filicum. Since Muir’s lists did not follow any particular order of classification we have adopted the order of families laid down in the last edition of Gray’s Manual of Botany.
Special interest attaches to the fact that Muir found on the Arctic shore of Alaska, near Cape Thompson, a species of Erigeron new to science. It is an asteraccous plant with showy, daisy-like flowers. In reporting this find to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Asa Gray described it as “the most interesting and apparently the only new species of an extensive and truly valuable collection made by Mr. Muir in a recent searching cruise which he accompanied, and which extended to Wrangel Island [Wrangell Land]. The plant seems to have been abundant, for it occurs in the collection under three numbers.”
Gray promptly named it Erigeron Muirii in honor of its finder, thus redeeming for the second time a promise made ten years earlier when he wrote to Muir, “Pray, find a new genus, or at least a new species, that I may have the satisfaction of embalming your name, not in glacier ice, but in spicy wild perfume.”
William Frederic Bade.
Unalaska, May 18, 1881.
THE Storm King of the North is abroad today, working with a fine, hearty enthusiasm, rolling a multitude of white combing waves through the rocky, jagged straits between this marvelous chain of islands, circling them about with beaten foam, and heaping a lavish abundance of snow on their lofty, cloud-wrapped mountains. The deep bass of the gale, sounding on through the rugged, ice-sculptured peaks and gorges, is delightful music to our ears, now that we are safely sheltered in a land-locked harbor.
The steamer Thomas Corwin arrived here about noon to-day, after a prosperous run of thirteen days from San Francisco, intending to take on coal and additional supplies of every kind for her long cruise in the Arctic in search of the Jeannette and the missing whalers. Nothing especially noteworthy occurred on the voyage. The weather was remarkably cold for this season of the year, the average temperature for the first day or two being about 55 degrees F., falling gradually to 35 degrees as we approached Unalaska, accompanied by blustering squalls of snow and hail, suggestive of much higher latitudes than this.
On the morning of the fifteenth we met a gale from the northeast, against which the Corwin forced her way with easy strength, rising and falling on the foam-streaked waves as lightly as a duck. We first sighted land on the morning of the seventeenth, near the southeast extremity of Unalaska Island. Two black outstanding masses of jagged lava were visible, with the bases of snowy peaks back of them, while all the highlands were buried beneath storm-clouds. After we had approached within three or four miles of the shore, a ragged opening in the clouds disclosed a closely packed cluster of peaks, laden with snow, looming far into the stormy sky for a few moments in tolerably clear relief, then fading again in the gloom of the clouds and fresh squalls of blinding snow and hail. The fall of the snowflakes among the dark, heaving waves and curling breakers was a most impressive sight.
Groping cautiously along the coast, we at length entered the Akutan Pass. A heavy flood tide was setting through it against the northeast gale, which raised a heavy sea. The waves reared as if about to fall backward, while the wind tore off their white curling tops and carried them away in the form of gray scud. Never before have I seen the sea in so hearty and exhilarating a motion. It was all one white, howling, rampant, runaway mass of foam from side to side. We feared getting our decks swept. Caught, therefore, as we were between the tide and the gale, we turned to seek shelter and wait better times.
We found good anchorage in the lee of a red lava bluff near Cook’s Harbor, a few miles to the westward of the mouth of the Pass. The sailors got out their cod-lines, and in a few minutes a dozen fine cod were flapping on the deck. They proved to be excellent fish, eaten fresh. But whether they are as good as the renowned Newfoundland article I cannot judge, as I never have tasted fresh cod. The storm sounding on over the mountains made fine music while we lay safely at anchor, and we enjoyed it all the more because we were in a wild, nameless place that we had ourselves discovered.
The next morning, the gale having abated somewhat, we entered the strait. Wind and tide were flowing in company, but they were against us, and so strong was the latter that we could not stem it, and were compelled to fall back until it was near the turn. The Aleutian chain extends across from continent to continent like an imperfect dam between the Pacific and Bering Sea, and through the gaps between the islands the tide rushes with tremendous speed and uproar. When the tide was favorable, we weighed anchor and passed through the strait and around Kalekta Point into this magnificent harbor without further difficulty.
The harbor of Unalaska is excellent, land-locked, and has a good holding bottom. By virtue of its geographical position it is likely to remain for a long time the business center of western Alaska. The town is situated on a washed and outspread terminal moraine at the mouth of one of the main glaciers that united here to excavate the harbor. Just above the village there is a glacial lake only a few feet above tide, and a considerable area of level ground about it where the cattle belonging to the town find abundance of fine grass.
Early in the forenoon the clouds had lifted and the Sim had come out, revealing a host of noble mountains, grandly sculptured and composed, and robed in spotless white, some of the highest adorned with streamers of mealy snow wavering in the wind — a truly glorious spectacle. To me the features of greatest interest in this imposing show were the glacial advertisements everywhere displayed in the sea and eroded their beds beneath its level. The size and the trend of every one of these fiords correspond invariably with the size and the trend of the glacier basin at its head, while not a single fiord or canon may be found that does not conduct back to mountain fountains whence the eroding glacier drew its sources. The Alaska Peninsula, before the coming on of the glacial period, may have comprehended the whole of the Aleutian chain, its present condition being mostly due to the down-grinding action of ice. Frost and fire have worked hand in hand to produce the grand effects presented in this majestic crescent of islands.
Unalaska, May 21, 1881.
The Aleutian chain of islands is one of the most remarkable and interesting to be found on the globe. It sweeps in a regular curve a thousand miles long from the end of the Alaska Peninsula towards Kamchatka and nearly unites the American and Asiatic continents. A very short geological time ago, just before the coming on of the glacial period, this connection of the continents was probably complete, inasmuch as the entire chain is simply a degraded portion of the North American coast mountains, with its foothills and connecting ridges between the summit peaks a few feet under water. These submerged ridges form the passes between the islands as they exist to-day, while it is evident that this segregating degradation has been effected by the majestic down-grinding glaciers that lately loaded all the chain. Only a few wasting remnants of these glaciers are now in existence, lingering in the highest, snowiest fountains on the largest of the islands.
The mountains are from three thousand to nine thousand feet high, many of them capped with perpetual snow, and rendered yet more imposing by volcanoes emitting smoke and ashes — the feeble manifestations of upbuilding volcanic force that was active long before the beginning of the great ice winter. To the traveler from the south, approaching any portion of the chain during the winter or spring months, the view presented is exceedingly desolate and forbidding. The snow comes down to the water’s edge, the solid winter-white being interrupted only by black outstanding bluffs with faces too sheer for snow to lie upon, and by the backs of clustering rocks and long rugged reefs beaten and overswept by heavy breakers rolling in from the Pacific Ocean or Bering Sea, while for ten or eleven months in the year all the mountains are wrapped in gloomy, ragged storm-clouds.
Nevertheless, there is no lack of warm, eager life even here. The stormy shores swarm with fishes — cod, halibut, herring, salmon trout, etc.; also with whales, seals, and many species of water birds, while the sea-otter, the most valuable of the furbearing animals, finds its favorite home about the outlying wave-washed reefs. The only land animals occurring in considerable numbers are, as far as I have been able to learn, three or four species of foxes, which are distributed from one end of the chain to the other, with the Arctic grouse, the raven, snowbirds, wrens, and a few finches. There are no deer, wild sheep, goats, bears, or wolves, though all of these are abundant on the mainland in the same latitude.