A Summer Trip To Alaska

The whole fourteen hundred—one might say two thousand—miles of coast extending from Puget’s Sound to Behring’s Strait is a succession of beautiful and picturesque archipelagoes, consisting of hundreds, if not thousands, of islands, through which there are countless water-caves, lakes, bays, inlets, as smooth as Lake George and the Hudson, and far more lovely.

The smoothness of the water is such that life on the steamer is a luxurious rest, and the stimulating coolness of the air in summer contributes to pleasant days and delightful nights. Our summer trip covered about two thousand five hundred miles from Portland and back, and we had ample opportunities to stop at the various settlements, talk with the Indians, and collect curiosities.

On leaving Port Townsend early in August, our ship made for the Straits of Georgia, and for a long time followed the aqueous boundary-line between the British and American possessions. The fog dissolved, and we caught views of Smith’s Island, Bellingham Bay, and other points. The scenery became river-like, the strait now opening into waveless lakes, now contracting, like the neck of a bottle, into channels where there were counter-currents and chopped seas.

At Active Bay we could not tell which way we were going, the passage seemed closed by lofty mountains, and the sea appeared to flow against their bases; but presently the wall of rock split into a wooded gorge, through which we shot with a graceful curve.

The long meandering line of Vancouver Island followed for three hundred miles on the left, and we crossed the Gulf of Georgia in water of enchanting tranquillity.

Our first days were spent in threading the wilderness of islands off Vancouver, and we were close enough to the coast on the right to see it distinctly. There was the continental coast range of the Cascade Mountains, vanishing streaks of snow and silver on our eastern horizon, rising from five hundred to two thousand five hundred feet above the sea-level. Its peaks lay in every imaginable shape, twisted, coiled, convoluted against the horizon-bar, now running up into a perfect cone, like the Silberhorn of Switzerland, now elongating in rippling lines along the east, now staining the sky with deep-blue masses of ultramarine flecked with pearly lines.

The smoke of the burning forests of Washington Territory and British Columbia had filled the air for days, and worried us not a little; but one morning we awoke in perfect sunshine, and found an atmosphere impregnated with frosty sparkles from the distant snow-peaks. Just before night-fall, when we were about to cross Queen Charlotte’s Sound, a fog came up, and the pilot thought it advisable to lie by for the night, more particularly as the coast is a dangerous one and is strewn with reefs and rocks; so, while we were at dinner, the ship wheeled around, and we reversed our course, going south until we reached Port Alexandria, one of the most perfect little harbors conceivable. It is a cove just like the foot of a stocking; a tiny, circle-shaped island lies in its mouth, and richly-wooded heights throw their green shimmer on the placid water.

Here we lay till morning, as “snug as a bug in a rug.” Just before entering the cove, which is only about two hundred yards wide, we saw in the distance an Indian sea-canoe, with its wet paddles flashing in the sun, and the agreeable thought was suggested, Suppose we should be surrounded and scalped in the night! Nothing could have been easier in this lonely neighborhood.

The perpetual wheeling of the vessel in her nautical evolutions as she steamed through each successive archipelago gave rise to ever-new comment on the new vistas and island-combinations before us. The coast of Maine is not to be mentioned in comparison with this, nor the island-dusted Caribbean Sea. These inland-sweeping seas open in long river reaches, beyond which, in sharp sunshine, rise the everlasting peaks, burnished with ice. The shores of British Columbia are densely clothed with diminutive needle-wood, much of which is dead, so that the pale yellow-green is toned with brown-gray. The water is intensely salt, and is skimmed by wild duck and by low-flying, tufted water-fowl.

As we were passing along one morning, an Indian crew came dashing out in a canoe, with a deer for sale. There were stunted-looking squaws in the boat, and all quacked and gesticulated and grunted after the peculiar linguistic fashion of the neighborhood. These Indians are wonderfully deft with their fingers, and weave bottle-cases, satchels, baskets, and table-mats out of split and dyed grasses with curious delicacy and skill. Their face-type is the homeliest I have seen: enormous skulls, high-angled cheek-bones, blinking black eyes, flattish noses, and shocks of horsehair. Evidently they are expert huntsmen and sportsmen: often we saw their camp-fires, or a canoe stealing along the silent water, filled with crouching forms.

Day after day there was a never-ending succession of lake-scenery,—long, winding lanes of green water between steep snow-streaked domes and precipices. The evenings softened into singularly lovely nights, with close-hugging shores, volumes of dark, iodine-hued water, lingering stars, and phosphorescence. The light hung over the hyperborean landscape as if loath to leave. At ten o’clock one evening we went out and found the ship steaming up a lane of purple glass,—the water magically still, the air full of soft, plaintive cries from the breeding gulls, the tinkle of the parted sea around our bows, and the dim, spectral water lighted up at the end of the long avenue by a haunting aurora.

Many a time the cabin door formed a delightful frame for a forest-picture,—gliding water, pale-blue sky, a broken shore, and, behind, long lines of brilliant snow-peaks, with their chased and frozen silver. We would lie asleep for a few moments in the cool dark of the cabin-interior, and then wake up with one of these perfect, swiftly-moving views in the foreground. Before we caught it, often it had gone,—the pale, plenteous beauty of the fir-crowned shore, the dancing islets, the sedgy strand-line, the many-colored rocks, with their pools and fountain-basins of transparent water caught from the deep and held in by their rocky framework in a lightness and purity of crystal dew.

Then the ship ran dangerously near to the coast, or again out into the open sound, with its mediterranean sprinkle of islets, serrated walls of rocks, coves and island-mounds, wherein nested shadows of amethyst or indigo.

The flow of life in some of these coves and estuary-like indentations is marvellous, the fish coming in egg-laden, and looking for streams of fresh water in which to deposit their ova. We anchored in one of these inlets, and found on the land luxuriant ferns and splendid clumps of yellow cedar and hemlock, with snow-banks behind. Half a dozen little bucks and half-breeds were tumbling about in the water through the long afternoon light, which seemed to have an amaranthine quality and to be unfading. The sun did not set till after eight o’clock, and there was cold, ghostly, green light up in the north till nearly midnight. When darkness did come, it was of the genuine cuttle-fish kind,—inky,—splashed with stars. There was now and then a delicate shell of a moon incising the sky against a mountain-side and lending the most fragile transfiguration to its top.

As we approached Fort Wrangel, the ship’s company turned out in the sweet evening sunshine and found a glorious panorama awaiting them. The sheen of a mighty mass of embattled peaks and pinnacles and feathery floating snow-points shone high up in the evening air, just mellowing under a magnificent sunset. These mountains guard the entrance to the Stickeen River and mount up the horizon after the Duke of Clarence Strait has been traversed.

Wrangel itself is most memorably situated just on one side of these sheeny peaks and glaciers, almost in the shadow of the Devil’s Thumb, which rises about four hundred feet above its own mountain-cluster and forms one of a throng of confused and radiant aiguilles overlooking the Stickeen. The sunset had not entirely faded at nine o’clock, when we touched shore and rejoiced our eyes with a series of wonderful semi-arctic color-pictures,—coal-black islands, purple islands, lilac islands, islands in india-ink and amber, lying in glacier-water of pale green, and above and beyond all the glorious flush of the sun stealing in between the white snow-needles and throwing them out and up into luminous relief.

Opposite the town is an island shaped like the cocked hat of a gendarme, where it was said that the curious polygonal garnets embedded in schist and peculiar to this region are found. There were plenty of them as large as walnuts for sale at twenty-five cents a dozen. Odd carved boxes, too, made of an unknown wood and inlaid with shells, were here in plenty; cases of buckskin, containing the conjuring-sticks or gambling-kits of the Thlinkit medicine-men; loin-cloths, ornamented with multitudes of rattling puffin-beaks; head-dresses of defunct warriors; fantastic and horrible masks; huge spoons carved out of the horns of the mountain-ibex; bead-work on leather; robes of many-colored skins quilted together; images carved to resemble otters; fleecy robes of wild sheep and goat; pipes cut with nude figures; antlers; stuffed animals; white-breasted loons, and the like.

After a short stop for landing the mails, the vessel was soon traversing Wrangel Strait, just under some splendid glaciers and snowy mountains, the water perfectly smooth, though full of small icebergs, which glittered in the sunshine and had broken off from the descending ice-mass. Enormous rivers of ice flow down between these mountains and debouch in the sea, their current mysteriously stayed by the low temperature. We were particularly fortunate in having fine, clear weather early in the morning, especially at this point, where we could see the great Pattison Glacier. The ship entered the enchanted region through a narrow passage, which one of us christened the “Silver Gates,” the Beulah Mountains edging our Pilgrim’s Progress in passionless white as we zigzagged along the course.

A little later, the scenery on Frederic Sound became truly transcendent: grand mountains, forms that would be awful but for the sunshine resting on their heads, the lake-like sound, with its blue spits of land and cameo-like promontories profiled against the sky, motionless glace-de-Venise water reflecting a thousand shades of azure and gray and white, gulls resting on the water, with white bodies and black tips, almost a complete circle of brilliant snow-banks peeping above the clouds that hung to them amorously, and far-away vistas of blue-white glaciers coming down to meet the water-margin.

Schools of spouting whales played in the distance, and the passengers sent balls out of their pistols hissing on the water, but happily hitting nothing. During the last trip two lovely antlered creatures came swimming along in the water, trying to cross one of the channels to another grazing-ground. They were taken on board, but one of them died.

The next landing-place was Killimoo, a little Indian village on an island surrounded by dim-green heights and flickering, ever-changing mountain-views. It is a great station for drying cod-fish, long lines of which lay spread out on the wharf in the sun to dry. As night fell the squaws and Indian maidens gathered the rattling fish-carcasses under little ark-like receptacles, where they lay till morning out of the dew.

At Juneau some of the passengers walked or rowed off to the gold-mines in the mountains, where they picked up specimens of gold-quartz and some teacupfuls of sifted gold-dust. One of these was said to be worth six hundred dollars, another over twelve hundred dollars. One was reminded of the gold-dust story of Alkmaion in Herodotus.

Shortly after this the ship cast anchor at Chilkat and Pyramid Harbor, our two highest points in Alaska waters, about latitude 59° 12′ north. We had but a poor glimpse of the glaciers on the Chilkat side,—one a magnificent down-flow of pale-blue ice, the other a frozen river caught and compressed in between strangling hills.

The location of Pyramid Harbor is very beautiful,—a wind-sheltered nook, a curving shore, covered with pebbles, alder-clad heights just behind, and dimly-flashing ice-peaks peeping out of the mist just over the shoulder of a huge green rock-slope. A salmon-cannery in the foreground, flanked by an Indian village, a semilune of pure green water, nearly fresh, and a curious pyramid-shaped knoll rising from it, constituted other features of the environment. The lifting mists drew aside for a while, and refreshed the sight with views of the great sculpture-lines of the surrounding mountains.


We were greatly favored when we left Sitka. Starting off in a rain, in which everything lay in muddy eclipse, we woke up next morning and found ourselves tracing the outside route to the Muir Glacier in sparkling sunshine. The transition was delightful, and, though most of the passengers were sick from the tossing of the ship on the long outside ocean-swell, I believe they all enjoyed the sunshine as it flashed into their cabin windows, played on the walls, and pricked and scattered the enormous vapor masses that hung over the mountains on our right. There were no longer the vaulted vapors of the preceding days, the dense counterpane of nebulous gray that covered the whole sky with its monotony. The heavy cloud-banks clung to the mountains, leaving an exquisite arc of sky, almost Italian in its sunny azure.

Nothing could be more superb than the deep, dark, velvety tints of the crinkled and crumpled mountains as they shelved to the sea and came in contact there with an edging of foam from the blue Pacific. Huge jelly-fish flapped about in the clear water, nebular patches of protoplasmic existence, capable, apparently, of no other functions than sensation, motion, and self-propagation. Some of them were richly streaked, long-tailed, delicately margined, with comet-like streamers, jelly-frills, and nuclei like a wide-open sunflower. Their motion was so indolently graceful that I could not help gazing at them.

Mount St. Elias! Yes, there it was, they affirmed, on the northeastern horizon, a vapory, unsubstantial cone, dancing up and down in the refracting light. I looked and looked, persuading myself that I saw the glorious vision nineteen thousand five hundred feet high. Others persuaded themselves of the same fact, being naturally ambitious of carrying away remembrances of the tallest mountain in all America. But, after all, I fancy that nobody had a very strong faith in his discovery, particularly as the reputed mountain seemed to change its place, flit hither and thither on the curve of the sky, and finally disappear.

But yonder! What is that? Clouds? Apparently. But look again. What, that small speck just on the edge of the water? No, higher up—up—up. What a sight! Certainly the grandest view we have had yet. A huge, white, snow-tipped back, like a camel’s hump, now loomed apparently right out of the water’s edge,—the mighty range of Mount Fairweather, Mount Crillon, and eight or ten other domes and peaks, the highest fifteen thousand five hundred feet high, according to the measurement of the United States Coast Survey. This is the finest mountain-landscape we have ever seen, not even excepting the Alps from Neufchâtel. The peaks looked enormously high as they shot up just behind the sea-edge, far above the first stratum of cloud which ran along midway of the mountain in deep slate-colored belts. Now and then the vapor thinned to the fineness of tulle and Brousa gauze, behind which the mountain-colors loomed in vague and yet radiant purity. Gradually the ardent sun melted away the misty striated belts of cloud, and the great peaks stood out calmly and gloriously effulgent in the crystal August air, a scene of exquisite loveliness and sublimity. At one end a mighty glacier ran down to the sea, and at the other the pygmy mountains (two or three thousand feet high) we had been coasting lay like ebon carvings against the white, a ripple of dark velvet against ermine.

For hours we steamed towards this splendid picture, which, while growing more and more distinct, did not appear to be any nearer than when we first saw it. In the afternoon we turned to the right of this range into icy straits, and soon we were in the midst of a scene more wonderful, perhaps, than that through which we had just passed. On the light-green water lay literally hundreds of icebergs, of all shapes and sizes, some a deep translucent blue, the blue of cobalt, others green, others a pure white,—serrated, castellated, crenellated, glittering,—from the size of a tureen to that of a small church. We seemed on the point of entering that ancient palæocrystic sea of which the geologists speak,—ice everywhere, our ship cutting its way through impinging ice.


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