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The Writings of John Muir
Volume 3 - Chapter XII. The Return to Fort Wrangell


THE day of our start for Wrangell was bright and the loon, the north wind, strong. We passed around the east side of the larger island which lies near the south extremity of the point of land between the Chilcat and the Chilcoot channels and thence held a direct course down the east shore of the canal. At sunset we encamped in a small bay at the head of a beautiful harbor three or four miles south of Berner's Bay, and the next day, being Sunday, we remained in camp as usual, though the wind was fair and it is not a sin to go home. The Indians spent most of the day in washing, mending, eating, and singing hymns with Mr. Young, who also gave them a Bible lesson, while I wrote notes and sketched. Charley made a sweat-house and all the crew got good baths. This is one of the most delightful little bays we have thus far enjoyed, girdled with tall trees whose branches almost meet, and with views of pure-white mountains across the broad, river-like canal.

Seeing smoke back in the dense woods, we went ashore to seek it and discovered a Hootsenoo whiskey-factory in full blast. The Indians said that an old man, a friend of theirs, was about to die and they were making whiskey for his funeral.

Our Indians were already out of oily flesh, which they regard as a necessity and consume in enormous quantities. The bacon was nearly gone and they eagerly inquired for flesh at every camp we passed. Here we found skinned carcasses of porcupines and a heap of wild mutton lying on the confused hut floor. Our cook boiled the porcupines in a big pot with a lot of potatoes we obtained at the same hut, and although the potatoes were protected by their skins, the awfully wild penetrating porcupine flavor found a way through the skins and flavored them to the very heart. Bread and beans and dried fruit we had in abundance, and none of these rank aboriginal dainties ever came nigh any meal of mine. The Indians eat the hips of wild roses entire like berries, and I was laughed at for eating only the outside of this fruit and rejecting the seeds.

When we were approaching the village of the Auk tribe, venerable Toyatte seemed to be unusually pensive, as if weighed down by some melancholy thought. This was so unusual that I waited attentively to find out the cause of his trouble.

When at last he broke silence it was to say, "Mr. Young, Mr. Young," — he usually repeated the name, — "I hope you will not stop at the Auk village."

"Why, Toyatte?" asked Mr. Young. "Because they are a bad lot, and preaching to them can do no good."

"Toyatte," said Mr. Young, "have you forgotten what Christ said to his disciples when he charged them to go forth and preach the gospel to everybody; and that we should love our enemies and do good to those who use us badly?"

"Well," replied Toyatte, "if you preach to them, you must not call on me to pray, because I cannot pray for Auks."

"But the Bible says we should pray for all men, however bad they may be."

"Oh, yes, I know that, Mr, Young; I know it very well. But Auks are not men, good or bad, — they are dogs."

It was now nearly dark and quite so ere we found a harbor, not far from the fine Auk Glacier which descends into the narrow channel that separates Douglas Island from the mainland. Two of the Auks followed us to our camp after eight o'clock and inquired into our object in visiting them, that they might carry the news to their chief. One of the chief's houses is opposite our camp a mile or two distant, and we concluded to call on him next morning.

I wanted to examine the Auk Glacier in the morning, but tried to be satisfied with a general view and sketch as we sailed around its wide, fan-shaped front. It is one of the most beautiful of all the coast glaciers that are in the first stage of decadence. We called on the Auk chief at daylight, when he was yet in bed, but he arose good naturedly, put on a calico shirt, drew a blanket around his legs, and comfortably seated himself beside a small fire that gave light enough to show his features and .those of his children and the three women that one by one came out of the shadows. All listened attentively to Mr. Young's message of goodaill. The chief was a serious, sharp-featured, dark-complexioned man, sensible-looking and with good manners. He was very sorry, he said, that his people had been drinking in his absence and had used us so ill; he would like to hear us talk and would call his people together if we would return to the village. This offer we had to decline. We gave him good words and tobacco and bade him good-bye.

The scenery all through the channel is magnificent, something like Yosemite Valley in its lofty avalanche-swept wall cliffs, especially on the mainland side, which are so steep few trees can find footing. The lower island side walls are mostly forested. The trees are heavily draped with lichens, giving the woods a remarkably gray, ancient look. I noticed a good many two-leafed pines in boggy spots. The water was smooth, and the reflections of the lofty walls striped with cascades were charmingly distinct.

It was not easy to keep my crew full of wild flesh. We called at an Indian summer camp on the mainland about noon, where there were three very squalid huts crowded and jammed full of flesh of many colors and smells, among which we discovered a lot of bright fresh trout, lovely creatures about fifteen inches long, their sides adorned with vivid red spots. We pur- chased five of them and a couple of salmon for a box of gun-caps and a little tobacco. About the middle of the afternoon we passed through a fleet of icebergs, their number increasing as we neared the mouth of the Taku Fiord, where we camped, hoping to explore the fiord and see the glaciers where the bergs, the first we had seen since leaving Icy Bay, are derived.

We left camp at six o'clock, nearly an hour before daybreak. My Indians were glad to find the fiord barred by a violent wind, against which we failed to make any headway; and as it was too late in the season to wait for better weather, I reluctantly gave up this promising work for another year, and directed the crew to go straight ahead down the coast. We sailed across the mouth of the happy inlet at fine speed, keeping a man at the bow to look out for the smallest of the bergs, not easily seen in the dim light, and another bailing the canoe as the tops of some of the white caps broke over us. About two o'clock we passed a large bay or fiord, out of which a violent wind was blowing, though the main Stephens Passage was calm. About dusk, when we were all tired and anxious to get into camp, we reached the mouth of Sum Dum Bay, but nothing like a safe landing could we find. Our experienced captain was indignant, as well he might be, because we did not see fit to stop early in the afternoon at a good camp-ground he had chosen. He seemed determined to give us enough of night sailing as a punishment to last us for the rest of the voyage. Accordingly, though the night was dark and rainy and the bay full of icebergs, he pushed grimly on, saying that we must try to reach an Indian village on the other side of the bay or an old Indian fort on an island in the middle of it. We made slow, weary, anxious progress while Toyatte, who was well acquainted with every feature of this part of the coast and could find his way in the dark, only laughed at our misery.

After a mile or two of this dismal night work we struck across toward the island, now invisible, and came near being wrecked on a rock which showed a smooth round back over which the waves were breaking. In the hurried Indian shouts that followed and while we were close against the rock, Mr. Young shouted, as he leaned over against me, "It's a whale, a whale!" evidently fearing its tail, several specimens of these animals, which were probably still on his mind, having been seen in the forenoon. While we were passing along the east shore of the island we saw a light on the opposite shore, a joyful sight, which Toyatte took for a fire in the Indian village, and steered for it. John stood in the bow, as guide through the bergs. Suddenly, we ran aground on a sand bar. Clearing this, and running back half a mile or so, we again stood for the light, which now shone brightly. I thought it strange that Indians should have so large a fire. A broad white mass dimly visible back of the fire Mr. Young took for the glow of the fire on the clouds. This proved to be the front of a glacier. After we had effected a landing and stumbled up toward the fire over a ledge of slippery, algae-covered rocks, and through the ordinary tangle of shore grass, we were astonished to find white men instead of Indians, the first we had seen for a month. They proved to be a party of seven gold-seekers from Fort Wrangell. It was now about eight o'clock and they were in bed, but a jolly Irishman got up to make coffee for us and find out who we were, where we had come from, where going, and the objects of our travels. We unrolled our chart and asked for information as to the extent and features of the bay. But our benevolent friend took great pains to pull wool over our eyes, and made haste to say that if "ice and sceneries" were what we were looking for, this was a very poor, dull place. There were "big rocks, gulches, and sceneries" of a far better quality down the coast on the way to Wrangell. He and his party were prospecting, he said, but !thus far they had found only a few colors and they proposed going over to Admiralty Island in the morning to try their luck.

In the morning, however, when the prospectors were to have gone over to the island, we noticed a smoke half a mile back on a large stream, the outlet of the glacier we had seen the night before, and an Indian told us that the white men were building a big log house up there. It appeared that they had found a promising placer mine in the moraine and feared we might find it and spread the news. Daylight revealed a magnificent fiord that brought Glacier Bay to mind. Miles of bergs lay stranded on the shores, and the waters of the branch fiords, not on Vancouver's chart, were crowded with them as far as the eye could reach. After breakfast we set out to explore an arm of the bay that trends southeastward, and managed to force a way through the bergs about ten miles. Farther we could not go. The pack was so close no open water was in sight, and, convinced at last that this part of my work would have to be left for another year, we struggled across to the west side of the fiord and camped.

I climbed a mountain next morning, hoping to gain a view of the great fruitful glaciers at the head of the fiord or, at least, of their snowy fountains. But in this also I failed; for at a distance of about sixteen miles from the mouth of the fiord a change to the northward in its general trend cut off all its upper course from sight.

Returning to camp baffled and weary, I ordered all hands to pack up and get, out of the ice as soon as possible. And how gladly was that order obeyed! Toyatte's grand countenance glowed like a sun-filled glacier, as he joyfully and teasingly remarked that "the big Sum Dum ice-mountain had hidden his face from me and refused to let me pay him a visit."

All the crew worked hard boring a way down the west side of the fiord, and early in the afternoon we reached comparatively open water near the mouth of the bay. Resting a few minutes among the drifting bergs, taking last lingering looks at the wonderful place I might never see again, and feeling sad over my weary failure to explore it, I was cheered by a friend I little expected to meet here. Suddenly, I heard the familiar whir of an ousel's wings, and, looking up, saw my little comforter coming straight from the shore. In a second or two he was with me, and flew three times around my head with a happy salute, as if saying, "Cheer up, old friend, you see I am here and all's well." He then flew back to the shore, alighted on the topmost jag of a stranded iceberg, and began to nod and bow as though he were on one of his favorite rocks in the middle of a sunny California mountain cataract.

Mr. Young regretted not meeting the Indians here, but mission work also had to be left until next season. Our happy crew hoisted sail to a fair wind, shouted "Good-bye, Sum Dum!" and soon after dark reached a harbor a few miles north of Hobart Point.

We made an early start the next day, a fine, calm morning, glided smoothly down the coast, admiring the magnificent mountains arrayed in their winter robes, and early in the afternoon reached a lovely harbor on an island five or six miles north of Cape Fanshawe. Toyatte predicted a heavy winter storm, though only a mild rain was falling as yet. Everybody was tired and hungry, and as the voyage was nearing the end, I consented to stop here. `'While the shelter tents were being set up and our blankets stowed under cover, John went out to hunt and killed a deer within two hundred yards of the camp. When we were at the campfire in Sum Dum Bay, one of the prospectors, replying to Mr. Young's complaint that they were oftentimes out of meat, asked Toyatte why he and his men did not shoot plenty of ducks for the minister. "Because the duck's friend would not let us," said Toyatte; "when we want to shoot, Mr. Muir always shakes the canoe."

Just as we were passing the south headland of Port Houghton Bay, we heard a shout, and a few minutes later saw four Indians in a canoe paddling rapidly after us. In about an hour they overtook us. They were an Indian, his son, and two women with a load of fish-oil and dried salmon to sell and trade at Fort Wrangell. They camped within a dozen yards of us; with their sheets of cedar bark and poles they speedily made a hut, spread spruce boughs in it for a carpet, unloaded the canoe, and stored their goods under cover. Toward evening the old man came smiling with a gift for Toyatte, — a large fresh salmon, which was promptly boiled and eaten by our captain and crew as if it were only a light refreshment like a biscuit between meals. A few minutes after the big salmon had vanished, our generous neighbor came to Toyatte with a second gift of dried salmon, which after being toasted a few minutes tranquilly followed the fresh one as though it were a mere mouthful. Then, from the same generous hands, came a third gift, — a large milk-panful of huckleberries and grease boiled together, — and, strange to say, this wonderful mess went smoothly down to rest on the broad and deep salmon foundation. Thus refreshed, and appetite sharpened, my sturdy crew made haste to begin on the buck, beans, bread, etc., and, boiling and roasting, managed to get comfortably full on but little more than half of it by sundown, making a good deal of sport of my pity for the deer and refusing to eat any of it a.nd nicknaming me the ice ancou and the deer and duck's tillicum.

Sunday was a wild, driving, windy day with but little rain but big promise of more. I took a walk back in the woods. The timber here is very fine, about as large as any I have seen in Alaska, much better than farther north. The Sitka spruce and the common hemlock, one hundred and fifty and two hundred feet high, are slender and handsome. The Sitka spruce makes good firewood even when green, the hemlock very poor. Back a little way from the sea, there was a good deal of yellow cedar, the best I had yet seen. The largest specimen that I saw and measured on the trip was five feet three inches in diameter and about one hundred and forty feet high. In the evening Mr. Young gave the Indians a lesson, calling in our Indian neighbors. He told them the story of Christ coming to save the world. The Indians wanted to know why the Jews had killed him. The lesson was listened to with very marked attention. Toyatte's generous friend caught a devil-fish about three feet in diameter to add to his stores of food. It would be very good, he said, when boiled in berry and colicon-oil soup. Each arm of this savage animal with its double row of button-like suction discs closed upon any object brought within reach with a grip nothing could escape. The Indians tell me that devil-fish live mostly on crabs, mussels, and clams, the shells of which they easily crunch with their strong, parrot-like beaks. That was a wild, stormy, rainy night. How the rain soaked us in our tents!

"Just feel that," said the minister in the night, as he took my hand and plunged it into a pool about three inches deep in which he was lying.

"Never mind," I said it is only water. Everything is wet now. It will soon be morning and we will dry at the fire."

Our Indian neighbors were, if possible, still wetter. Their hut had been blown down several times during the night. Our tent leaked badly, and we were lying in a mossy bog, but around the big camp-fire we were soon warm and half dry. We had expected to reach Wrangell by this time. Toyatte said the storm might last several days longer. We were out of tea and coffee, much to Mr. Young's distress. On my return from a walk I brought in a good big bunch of glandular ledum and boiled it in the teapot. The result of this experiment was a bright, clear amber-colored, rank-smelling liquor which I did not taste, but my suffering companion drank the whole potful and praised it. The rain was so heavy we decided not to attempt to leave camp until the storm somewhat abated, as we were assured by Toyatte that we would not be able to round Cape Fanshawe, a sheer, outjutting headland, the nose as he called it, past which the wind sweeps with great violence in these south-eastern storms. With what grateful enthusiasm the trees welcomed the life-giving rain! Strong, towering spruces, hemlocks, and cedars tossed their arms, bowing, waving, in every leap, quivering and rejoicing together in the gray, roaring storm. John and Charley put on their gun-coats and went hunting for another deer, but returned later in the afternoon with clean hands, having fortunately failed to shed any more blood. The wind still held in the south, and Toyatte, grimly trying to comfort us, told us that we might be held here a week or more, which we should not have minded much, for we had abundance of provisions. Mr. Young and I shifted our tent and tried to dry blankets. The wind moderated considerably, and at 7 A.M. we started but met a rough sea and so stiff a wind we barely succeeded in rounding the cape by all hands pulling their best. Thence we struggled down the coast, creeping close to the shore and taking advantage of the shelter of protecting rocks, making slow, hard-won progress until about the middle of the afternoon, when the sky opened and the blessed sun shone out over the beautiful waters and forests with rich amber light; and the high, glacier-laden mountains, adorned with fresh snow, slowly came to view in all their grandeur, the bluish-gray clouds crawling and lingering and dissolving until every vestige of them vanished. The sunlight made the upper snow-fields pale creamy yellow, like that seen on the Chilcat mountains the first day of our return trip. Shortly after the sky cleared, the wind abated and changed around to the north, so that we ventured to hoist our sail, and then the weary Indians had rest. It was interesting to note how speedily the heavy swell that had been rolling for the last two or three days was subdued by the comparatively light breeze from the opposite direction. In a few minutes the sound was smooth and no trace of the storm was left, save the fresh snow and the discoloration of the water. All the water of the sound as far as I noticed was pale coffee-color like that of the streams in boggy woods. How much of this color was due to the inflow of the flooded streams many times increased in size and number by the rain, and how much to the beating of the waves along the shore stirring up vegetable matter in shallow bays, I cannot determine. The effect, however, was very marked.

About four o'clock we saw smoke on the shore and ran in for news. We found a company of Taku Indians, who were on their way to Fort Wrangell, some six men and about the same number of women. The men were sitting in a bark hut, handsomely reinforced and embowered with fresh spruce boughs. The women were out at the side of a stream, washing their many bits of calico. A little girl, six or seven years old, was sitting on the gravelly beach, building a playhouse of white quartz pebbles, scarcely caring to stop her work to gaze at us. Toyatte found a friend among the men, and wished to encamp beside them for the night, assuring us that this was the only safe harbor to be found within a good many miles. But we resolved to push on a little farther and make use of the smooth weather after being stormbound so long, much to Toyatte and his companion's disgust. We rowed about a couple of miles and ran into a cozy cove where wood and water were close at hand. How beautiful and homelike it was! plushy moss for mattresses decked with red cornel berries, noble spruce standing guard about us and spreading kindly protecting arms. A few ferns, aspidiums, poly-podiums, with dewberry vines, coptis, pyrola, leafless huckleberry bushes, and ledum grow beneath the trees. We retired at eight o'clock, and just then Toyatte, who had been attentively studying the sky, presaged rain and another southeaster for the morrow.

The sky was a little cloudy next morning, but the air was still and the water smooth. We all hoped that Toyatte, the old weather prophet, had misread the sky signs. But before reaching Point Vanderpeut the rain began to fall and the dreaded southeast wind to blow, which soon increased to a stiff breeze, next thing to a gale, that lashed the sound into ragged white caps. Cape Vanderpeut is part of the terminal of an ancient glacier that once extended six or eight miles out from the base of the mountains. Three large glaciers that once were tributaries still descend nearly to the sea-level, though their fronts are back in narrow fiords, eight or ten miles from the sound. A similar point juts out into the sound five or six miles to the south, while the missing portion is submerged and forms a shoal.

All the cape is forested save a narrow strip about a mile long, composed of large boulders against which the waves beat with loud roaring. A bar of foam a mile or so farther out showed where the waves were breaking on a submerged part of the moraine, and I supposed that we would be compelled to pass around it in deep water, but Toyatte, usually so cautious, determined to cross it, and after giving particular directions, with an encouraging shout every oar and paddle was strained to shoot through a narrow gap. Just at the most critical point a big wave heaved us aloft and dropped us between two huge rounded boulders, where, had the canoe been a foot or two closer to either of them, it must have been smashed. Though I had offered no objection to our experienced pilot's plan, it looked dangerous, and I took the precaution to untie my shoes so they could be quickly shaken off for swimming. But after crossing the bar we were not yet out of danger, for we had to struggle hard to keep from being driven ashore while the waves were beating us broadside on. At length we discovered a little inlet, into which we gladly escaped. A pure-white iceberg, weathered to the form of a cross, stood amid drifts of kelp and the black rocks of the wave-beaten shore in sign of safety and welcome. A good fire soon warmed and dried us into common comfort. Our narrow escape was the burden of conversation as we sat around the fire. Captain Toyatte told us of two similar adventures while he was a strong young man. In both of them his canoe was smashed and he swam ashore out of the surge with a gun in his teeth. He says that if we had struck the rocks he and Mr. Young would have been drowned, all the rest of us probably would have been saved. Then, turning to me, he asked me if I could have made a fire in such a case without matches, and found a way to Wrangell without canoe or food.

We started about daybreak from our blessed white cross harbor, and, after rounding a bluff cape opposite the mouth of Wrangell Narrows, a fleet of icebergs came in sight, and of course I was eager to trace them to their source. Toyatte naturally enough was greatly excited about the safety of his canoe and begged that we should not venture to force a way through the bergs, risking the loss of the canoe and our lives now that we were so near the end of our long voyage.

"Oh, never fear, Toyatte," I replied. "You know we are always lucky — the weather is good. I only want to see the Thunder Glacier for a few minutes, and should the bergs be packed dangerously close, I promise to turn back and wait until next summer."

Thus assured, he pushed rapidly on until we entered the fiord, where we had to go cautiously slow. The bergs were close packed almost throughout the whole extent of the fiord, but we managed to reach a point about two miles from the head — commanding a good view of the down-plunging lower end of the glacier and blue, jagged ice-wall. This was one of the most imposing of the first-class glaciers I had as yet seen, and with its magnificent fiord formed a fine triumphant close for our season's ice work. I made a few notes and sketches and turned back in time to escape from the thickest packs of bergs before dark. Then Kadachan was stationed in the bow to guide through the open portion of the mouth of the fiord and across Soutchoi Strait. It was not until several hours after dark that we were finally free from ice. We occasionally encountered stranded packs on the delta, which in the starlight seemed to extend indefinitely in every direction. Our danger lay in breaking the canoe on small bergs hard to see and in getting too near the larger ones that might split or roll over.

"Oh, when will we escape from this ice?" moaned much-enduring old Toyatte.

We ran aground in several places in crossing the Stickeen delta, but finally succeeded in groping our way over muddy shallows before the tide fell, and encamped on the boggy shore of a small island, where we discovered a spot dry enough to sleep on, after tumbling about in a tangle of bushes and mossy logs.

We left our last camp November 21 at daybreak. The weather was calm and bright. Wrangell Island came into view beneath a lovely rosy sky, all the forest down to the water's edge silvery gray with a dusting of snow. John and Charley seemed to be seriously distressed to find themselves at the end of their journey while a portion of the stock of provisions remained uneaten. "What is to be done about it?" they asked, more than half in earnest. The fine, strong, and specious deliberation of Indians was well illustrated on this eventful trip. It was fresh every morning. They all behaved well, however, exerted themselves under tedious hardships without flinching for days or weeks at a time; never seemed in the least nonplussed; were prompt to act in every exigency; good as servants, fellow travelers, and even friends.

We landed on an island in sight of Wrangell and built a big smoky signal fire for friends in town, then set sail, unfurled our flag, and about noon completed our long journey of seven or eight hundred miles. As we approached the town, a large canoeful of friendly Indians came flying out to meet us, cheering and handshaking in lusty Boston fashion. The friends of Mr. Young had intended to come out in a body to welcome him back, but had not had time to complete their arrangements before we landed. Mr. Young was eager for news. I told him there could be no news of importance about a town. 'We only had real news, drawn from the wilderness. The mail steamer had left Wrangell eight days before, and Mr. Vanderbilt and family had sailed on her to Portland. I had to wait a month for the next steamer, and though I would have liked to go again to Nature, the mountains were locked for the winter and canoe excursions no longer safe.

So I shut myself up in a good garret alone to wait and work. I was invited to live with Mr. Young but concluded to prepare my own food and enjoy quiet work. How grandly long the nights were and short the days! At noon the sun seemed to be about an hour high, the clouds colored like sunset. The weather was rather stormy. North winds prevailed for a week at a time, sending down the temperature to near zero and chilling the vapor of the bay into white reek, presenting a curious appearance as it streamed forward on the wind, like combed wool. At Sitka the minimum was eight degrees plus; at Wrangell, near the storm-throat of the Stickeen, zero. This is said to be the coldest weather ever experienced in southeastern Alaska.


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