The Muir Glacier

True, I had seen photographs of it; yes, and I had seen photographs of the Cañon of the Yellowstone, and of the Nevada Falls, and of Niagara, just as I have seen paste diamonds; I knew their shapes, and that is all I ever gathered from their portraits.

Neither the expression, nor the complexion, nor the sound of the voice of nature are to be found upon the dull surface of the photograph; you simply get the general lines, some of the shadows, very erroneous perspective, and that is all. We had come to a stand-still while we were at lunch. I had observed the slackening of speed; next the stoppage of the machinery; then the absolute stillness of the ship; and finally a darkening of the saloon. We were evidently at a halt under the shadow of some immense elevation. A passenger on tiptoe looked through the port-hole, and uttered an exclamation of amazement; then we all rushed to similar apertures; climbed on the chairs; looked over the men’s shoulders; in fact, did all kinds of unreasonable things, and at last stampeded up the companion-way to the deck.

I pray heaven that neither age nor infirmity may ever efface from my memory the sight and the sensation of that moment. To say that I was transfixed, speechless, fascinated to intoxication by the spell of this marvellous development is no exaggeration. Those who reached the deck first seemed paralyzed, halted, and thus blockaded the way for those who were to follow; others kept within the saloon from choice, as though they dreaded some phenomenal convulsion. I wedged my way as best I could, after the first shock of amazement had subsided, up to the very bow of the ship.

Upon each side of me, half a mile away, rose the same old mountains which I had seen everywhere from Tacoma north; at my feet the same Pacific Ocean, but in front of me, apparently so close that I could almost reach it with my fingers, the perpendicular wall of a cañon, not of rock, nor clay, nor grass, nor forest, but of ice,—a wall of ice a mile in length; and when I say a mile, I mean over eighteen hundred yards of it; and when I speak of ice, I do not mean the sooty, porous stuff that lodges in the valleys of the Alps; I mean the veritable, pure, clear, crystal ice of the ice-pitcher. A wall a hundred yards high, and in some places towering up an additional fifty; a wall extending down deeper in the ocean than it reaches from the ocean to the sky; hard as adamant, sharp and edged like flint, aqua-marine in color, deepening towards the water into indigo, tipped on the summits and projections with a froth of snow. If I did not know that it was ice, I should believe that it was glass. If I did not know that it was the work of the Creator, I should believe that here had assembled a convocation of architects, who in their collective ingenuity had reproduced a combination of the chefs-d’œuvre of their art; for here were the buttresses of the English abbeys, and flying buttresses of Notre Dame, turrets of the Normans, towers of the early English, spires of the cathedral in Cologne, wonderful unoccupied niches, pilasters of the purest white marble and green malachite, and decorative carving and high polish worthy of Cellini.

It was a cloudy day, yet the front glistened with prismatic splendor. What will it be, I asked myself, if in the afternoon the setting sun shall light it up? But we are too close to it for our own safety, we learn, and are slowly moved back half a mile, where our anchor is dropped and preparations are made to row us on shore to climb to the top of the glacier. While we are moving a sharp detonation rings out like the firing of a rifle, and one of the beautiful spires on the crest of the very centre of the wall is shivered into atoms, and its fragments fall with a splash four hundred feet. Later there is a report as of a cannon, but without result; this, we are told, is the parting of the sea of ice somewhere far back in its mountain home. Presently two similar explosions, evidently right close to us, followed by rumbling echoes, and over topples a huge mass weighing tons, which sinks so far that several seconds elapse before it rises to the surface, swaying to and fro until it finds its equilibrium, and then floats down the current, one more turquoise gem added to the chain which precedes it.

And this continued all day, sometimes at intervals of seconds only, sometimes of half an hour, and when we retired at night the explosion and the splash became as monotonous and periodical as the tinkling of the street-car bell or the footstep of the passer-by does at home. There was one tremendous breaking-off towards evening; the sun, as we had hoped, was out in full glory, and at the distance from which we now viewed the glacier it was a mountain of snow-covered ice chopped off in front. For many miles we could see over and beyond the façade, as though looking at a great river of snow; yet the façade itself was a face of corrugated emerald, reflecting the sun’s rays at every imaginable angle, and changing and scintillating with every movement of the ship.

Suddenly, near the centre, the top began to incline forward, and the whole face of probably twenty yards in width, from the top of the glacier to the bottom of the bay, fell outward as a ladder would fall, without a break anywhere. There was a tremendous upheaving of the water, of course; then the report of the invariable explosion reached us, but no trace remained of the fallen ice, save the swell in the water, which had almost reached and rocked the steamer. I do not know how much time elapsed before the lovely thing rose to the surface, but it seemed an age, and then it came in a dozen pieces, each of the same exquisite diaphanous blue, which, as they approached us gradually, changed to a clear transparent sapphire.

If it will help to serve the purpose of giving a just idea of the colossal proportions of the scene I endeavor to describe, let me say that the Capitol at Washington, the City Hall in Philadelphia, the Cathedral, the Equitable, and the Mills Buildings in New York, and all the mammoth newspaper offices in the same city might be floated in front of the Muir Glacier, and yet its emerald walls would overtop and engulf them all. As a contrast to all that is pure and chaste in the scene before us, there rushes out from the eastern end of the glacier a subglacial stream of thick, dirty water, much resembling, as it boils up from its cavernous outlet, the mud geyser of the Yellowstone. This is a perpetually flowing river, charged with sediment and débris from the scouring process produced by the friction of the moving ice along its bed of rock; it gives the water in the inlet a thick, gray color, utterly destroying the charm of its otherwise transparent character.

If you are amiable enough to say that what I have written gives a sufficiently correct idea of what you expect to see, I beg to differ from you. No camera, no pencil, no vocabulary, can do more than produce a desire to see for one’s self. I can only say that it has been my fortune to behold much that is grand in nature and in art at home and abroad, but the hours spent at Muir Glacier made the great event of my life. If God spares me, I hope to see it often. And fearing I might be accused of exaggeration, which is far from my desire, for I am searching in vain for superlatives which would do the subject justice, let me quote from others who preceded me, and all of whom have established their reputation as authorities.

Miss Kate Field says, “In Switzerland a glacier is a vast bed of dirty, air-holed ice that has fastened itself, like a cold porous plaster, to the side of an Alp. Distance alone lends enchantment to the view. In Alaska a glacier is a wonderful torrent that seems to have been suddenly frozen when about to plunge into the sea…. Think of Niagara Falls frozen stiff, add thirty-six feet to its height, and you have a slight idea of the terminus of Muir Glacier, in front of which your steamer anchors; picture a background of mountains fifteen thousand feet high, all snow-clad, and then imagine a gorgeous sun lighting up the ice-crystals with rainbow coloring. The face of the glacier takes on the hue of aqua-marine, the hue of every bit of floating ice, big and little, that surround the steamer and make navigation serious. These dazzling serpents move at the rate of sixty-four feet a day, tumbling headlong into the sea, and, as they fall, the ear is startled by submarine thunder, the echoes of which resound far and near. Down, down, down goes the berg, and woe to the boat in its way when it rises again to the surface.”

Charles Hallock in “Our New Alaska,” pp. 172-733: “The glacier wall overhung us with its mighty majesty, three times the height of the steamer’s mast or more, and we seemed none too far away to escape the constantly cleaving masses which dropped from its face with deafening detonations. The foam which gathered from the impetus of the plunges surged upward fully two-thirds of the height of the cliff, and the resulting swell tossed the large steamer like a toy, and rolled up in breakers of surf upon the beach…. The glacier is by no means smooth, but is seamed and riven in every part by clefts and fissures. It is hollowed into caverns and grottos, hung with massive stalactites, and fashioned into pinnacles and domes. Every section and configuration has its heart of translucent blue or green, interlaced or bordered by fretted frostwork of intensest white, so that the appearance is at all times gnome-like and supernatural….

“I cannot conceive how any one can sit by and contemplate without emotion the stupendous throes which give birth to the icebergs, attended with detonations like explosions of artillery, and reverberations of thunder across the sky, and the mighty wreckage which follows each convulsion. Nevertheless, I have seen a lady loll with complaisance in her steamer chair comfortably wrapped for the chilly air, and observe the astounding scene with the same languid contemplation that she would discuss her social fixtures and appointments. Zounds! I believe that such a human negation would calmly view the wrecks of worlds and hear the crack of doom at the final rendering, if it did not affect her set. She could watch, at a suitable distance, the agony of Christian martyrs, the carnage of great battles, the sweep of cyclones, the diluvial submergence. Dynamite would not appall her, but to me it would be the acme of satisfaction, ineffably supreme, to startle such clods of inanition by a cry of mouse, and electrify them into momentary emotion. No vinaigrette would ever mitigate the shock.”…

Mrs. E. R. Scidmore, in “Journeys in Alaska,” says, “Avalanches of crumbling snow and great pieces of the front were continually falling with the roar and crash of artillery, revealing new caverns and rifts of deeper blue light, while the spray dashed high and the great waves rolled along the icy wall, and, widening in their sweep, washed the blocks of floating ice up on the beaches on either side…. The nearer one approached the higher the ice-walls seemed, and all along the front there were pinnacles and spires weighing several tons, that seemed on the point of toppling every moment. The great buttresses of ice that rose first from the water and touched the moraine were as solidly white as marble, veined and streaked with rocks and mud, but farther on, as the pressure was greater, the color slowly deepened to turquoise and sapphire blues.”

Alexander Badlam, in his “Wonders of Alaska,” p. 42, quotes Professor Muir himself as saying that the front and brow of the glacier were “dashed and sculptured into a maze of yawning chasm, ravines, cañons, crevasses, and, a bewildering chaos of architectural forms, beautiful beyond the measure of description, and so bewildering in their beauty as to almost make the spectator believe he was revelling in a dream.” “There were,” he said, “great clusters of glistening spires, gables, obelisks, monoliths, and castles, standing out boldly against the sky, with bastion and mural, surmounted by fretted cornice, and every interstice and chasm reflecting a sheen of scintillating light and deep-blue shadow, making a combination of color, dazzling, startling, and enchanting.”

The next sensation in store for the tourist is the climb to the top of the glacier. All the row-boats were lowered, and about a dozen passengers in each, armed with alpenstocks, were ferried in successive groups from the ship to the eastern beach, a distance of perhaps half a mile, instructions being given to each steersman to keep a sharp lookout for falling icebergs. And here your trouble commences unless you are well advised. The ascent is exceedingly difficult; what looks like a mountain of rock over which you must wend your way to the ice-fields, is really a mountain of ice covered by a layer of slimy mud, crusted with pieces of flinty granite, standing up on end like broken bottle glass on top of a wall. I wore India-rubber high boots when I started, and I needed crutches before I finished. It may be chilly as you leave the ship, according as the sun may be out or in; if chilly, get your escort to carry an extra shawl for you to wrap yourself in when you row back to the ship; if the weather is bright and warm, clothe yourself lightly, for it grows warmer with the glare from the ice and the physical exertion. Be very careful where you step, and if you are wise follow in the footsteps of others; do not undertake to lead, else one foot may be trying to ascertain the depth of a quagmire and the other exploring a fissure.

After an ascent of perhaps two and a half miles, which seem more like ten, you will find yourself on the edge of a frozen sea, frozen, as it were, while in the throes of a tempest, a bay of storm-tossed waves solidified as by a signal; and this extends as far as the eye can reach up into the mountains towards the north, and several miles across to the hills upon the opposite shore. The ice is by no means clear or brilliant, on the contrary, its color is milky and its formation honey-combed, plastic, porous, and yielding to the tread; besides which it is besmeared with sediment from mountain thaws which have traversed its rifts, and disfigured by fallen logs and drift-wood.

I confess if I visited Muir Glacier a hundred times I should always remain on deck and watch the pyrotechnics of the façade rather than undergo the thankless fatigue of climbing to the top, which is infinitely more laborious than the ascent of Vesuvius on foot through the lava, or any work to be done on the trails of the Yosemite. To those who are willing to undertake it, however, I suggest that when they have ascended the first mile, which will bring them on a line with the top of the wall of the glacier, they should look back at their little tiny ship, floating like the “Maid of the Mist” beneath Niagara, to fully realize the immense proportions of the glacier.

It is said that persons have been missed and never again found who made this ascent, and I know that at least one case is authentic, that of a young clergyman, who, straying away from his companions, was never again seen, though the most diligent search was made for him by his friends and the ship’s crew. A slip into one of those crevasses which is covered by a thin coat of ice, means to be precipitated in an instant to a depth where no human aid can reach you. In fact, I would advise all who wish to preserve the impression of Muir Glacier in its pure, idealized, unsullied grandeur, to stay aboard and gaze on its beautiful face.

It is a Persian custom, after plucking the fruit, to tear it asunder in the middle, hand the sunny side to the friend and throw the other half away, the best portion being the only part good enough for those they love. It is my duty to present to you the better half of the glacier and to cast away the other. Tired, footsore, and muddy, we were all early in bed, and while dozing to sleep I was much impressed with the awful stillness of the hour; everybody had retired, not even the tread of the man on watch was heard, the very machinery was sleeping, but every now and then there was a splash and a report and an echo that brought with them the proof that the forces of nature were ever awake, and that what was, “is, and ever shall be, world without end.”


Support this fine website.

Your donations are greatly appreciated.

Thanks, champ.

Share via
Send this to a friend