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The Writings of John Muir
Volume 7 - Chapter I. Unalaska and the Aleuts


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 safely 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° F., falling gradually to 35° 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 [Dutch Harbor, on the eastern side of Amaknak Island in Unalaska Bay.] without further difficulty.

The harbor of Unalaska is excellent, landlocked, 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 [The chief town of Unalaska Island, the most important of the eastern Aleutians, is Iliuliuk. It was founded by Solovief during the decade between 1760 and 1770, and its Aleut name, according to one interpretation, means "harmony," according to another, "the curved beach." The name Unalaska is often applied loosely to the town as well as the island.] 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 sun 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 clear, telling characters - the trends of the numerous inlets and canons pointing back into the ancient ice- fountains among the peaks, the sculpture of the peaks themselves and their general outlines, and the shorn faces of the cliffs fronting the sea. No clearer and more unmistakable glacial inscriptions are to be found upon any portion of the mountain ranges of the Pacific Coast.

It seems to be guessed in a general way by most observers who have made brief visits to this region that all the islands of the Aleutian chain are clearly volcanic upheavals, scarce at all changed since the period of their emergence from the sea. This is an impression made, no doubt, by the volcanic character of the rocks of which they are composed, and by the numerous extinct and active volcanoes occurring here and there along the summits of the highest masses. But it is plain that the amount of glacial denudation which these ancient lavas have undergone is very great; so great that now every feature presented, with the exception of the few recent craters, is glacial.

The glaciers, that a short time ago covered all the islands, have sculptured the comparatively featureless rock masses into separate mountain peaks, and perhaps into separate islands. Certainly they have done this in some cases. All the inlets or fords, also, that I have seen are simply the channels of the larger of those old ice rivers that flowed into the sea and eroded their beds beneath its level. The size and the trend of every one of these fords correspond invariably with the size and the trend of the glacier basin at its head, while not a single fiord or cañon 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 fur-bearing 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.

In two short excursions that I made to the top of a mountain, about two thousand feet high, back of the settlement here, and to a grassy island in the harbor, I found the snow in some places well tracked by foxes and grouse, and saw six species of birds, mostly solitary or in twos and threes. The vegetation near the level of the sea and on bare windswept ridges, up to a height of a thousand feet or more, is remarkably close and luxuriant, covering every foot of the ground.

First there is a dense plush of mosses and lichens from six inches to a foot in depth. Out of the moss mantle and over it there grow five or six species of good nutritious grasses, the tal1esi shoulder-high; also three species of vaccinium, cranberry, empetrum, the delightful linmea in extensive patches, the beautiful purple-flowered bryanthus, a pyrola, two species of dwarf willow, three of lycopodium, two saxifrages, a lupine, wild pea, archangelica, geranium, anemone, drabae. bearberry, and the little gold-thread coptis, besides two ferns and a few withered specimens that I could not make out.

The anemone, draba, and bearberry are already in bloom; the willows are beginning to show the ends of their silky catkins, and a good many green leaves are springing up in sheltered places near the level of the sea. At a height of four or five hundred feet, however, winter still holds sway, with scarce a memory of the rich and beautiful bloom of the summer time. How beautiful these mountains must be when all are in bloom, with the bland summer sunshine on them, the butterflies and bees among them, and the deep glacial fords calm and full of reflections! The tall grasses, with their showy purple panicles in flower, waving in the wind over all the lower mountain slopes, with a growth heavy enough for the scythe, must then he a beautiful sight, and so must the broad patches of heathworts with their multitude of pink bells, and the tall lupines and ferns along the banks of the streams.

There is not a tree of any kind on the islands excepting a few spruces brought from Sitka and planted by the Russians some fifty years ago. They are still alive, but have made very little growth - a circumstance no doubt due to the climate. But in what respect it differs from the climate of southeastern Alaska, lying both north and south of this latitude, where forests flourish exuberantly in all kinds of exposures, on rich alluvium or on bare rocks, I am unable to say. The only wood I noticed, and all that is said to exist on any of the islands, is small patches of willow, with stems an inch thick, and of several species of woody-stemmed heathworts; this the native Aleuts gather for fuel, together with small quantities of driftwood cast on the shores by the winds and currents.

Grass of good quality for stock is abundant on all the larger islands, and cattle thrive and grow fat during the summer wherever they have been tried. But the wetness of the summer months will always prevent hay from being made in any considerable quantity and make stock-raising on anything like a large scale impossible.

The agricultural possibilities of the islands are also very limited. Oats and barley head out but never fully mature, and if they did, it would be very difficult to get them dry enough for the granary. Potatoes, lettuce, cabbage, turnips, beets, etc., do well in spots that are well drained and have a southern exposure.

According to the census taken last year, the inhabitants of these islands number 2451. Of this population 82 are whites, 479 creoles, and 1890 Aleuts. The Aleuts are far more civilized and Christianized than any other tribe of Alaska Indians. From a third to one half of the men and women read and write. Their occupation is the hunting of the sea-otter for the Alaska Commercial Company.

A good hunter makes from four hundred to eight hundred dollars per annum. In this pursuit they go hundreds of miles in their frail skin-covered canoes, which are so light that the may easily be carried under one's arm. Earning so much money, they are able to support themselves with many comforts beyond the reach of most of the laboring classes of Europe. Nevertheless, with all their advantages, they are fading away like other Indians. The deaths exceed the births in nearly every one of their villages, and it is only a question of time when they will vanish from the face of the earth.

On the way back to the ship I sauntered through the town. It contains about one hundred buildings, half of them frame, built by the Alaska Commercial and Western Fur and Trading Companies. Aleutian huts are called "barábaras." They are built of turf on a frame of wood; some of them have floors, and are divided into many rooms, very small ones. The smells are horrible to clean nostrils, and the air is foul and dead beyond endurance. Some of the bedrooms are not much larger than coffins. The floors are below the surface of the ground two or three feet, and the doors are at the end away from the direction of the prevailing wind. There are one or two small windows of glass or bladder, and a small pipe surmounts a very small Russian stove in which the stems of empetrum are burned.

In most of the huts that I entered I found a Yankee clock, a few pictures, and ordinary cheap crockery and furniture; accordions, also, as they are very fond of music. All such bits of furniture and finery of foreign manufacture contrast meanly with their own old-fashioned kind. Altogether, in dress and home gear, they are so meanly mixed, savage and civilized, that they make a most pathetic impression. The moisture rained down upon them every other day keeps the walls and the roof green, even flowery, and as perfectly fresh as the sod before it was built into a hut. Goats, once introduced by the Russians, make these hut tops their favorite play and pasture grounds, much to the annoyance of their occupants. In one of these huts I saw for the first time arrowheads manufactured out of bottle glass. The edges are chipped by hard pressure with a bit of deer horn.

As the Tlingit Indians of the Alexander Archipelago make their own whiskey, so these Aleuts make their own beer, an intoxicating drink, which, if possible, is more abominable and destructive than hootchenoo. It is called "kyass," and was introduced by the Russians, though the Aleutian kvass is only a coarse imitation of the Russian article, as the Indian hootehenoo is of whiskey. In its manufacture they put a quantity of sugar and flour, or molasses and flour, with a few dried apples, in a cask, fill it up with water, and leave it to ferment. Then they make haste to drink it while it is yet thick and acrid, and capable of making them howling drunk. It also creates a fiery thirst for alcohol, which is supplied by traders whenever they get a chance. This renders the misery of the Aleuts complete.

There are about two thousand of them scattered along the chain of islands, living in small villages. Nearly all the men are hunters of the fur seal, the most expert making five hundred dollars or more per season. After paying old debts contracted with the Companies, they invest the remainder in trinkets, in clothing not so good as their own furs, and in beer, and go at once into hoggish dissipation, hair- pulling, wife-beating, etc. In a few years their health becomes impaired, they become less successful in hunting, their children are neglected and die, and they go to ruin generally. When they toss in their kayaks among surf- beaten rocks where their prey dwells, their business requires steady nerve. But all the proceeds are spent for what is worse than useless. The best hunters have been furnished with frame cottages by the Companies. These cottages have a neat appearance outside, but are very foul inside. Rare exceptions are those in which one finds scrubbed floors or flowers in pots on window-sills and mantels.

We called at the house of the priest of the Greek Church, and were received with fine civility, ushered into a room which for fineness of taste in furniture and fixtures might well challenge the very best in San Francisco or New York. The wall-paper, the ceiling, the floor, the pictures of Yosemite and the Czar on the walls, the flowers in the window, the books on the tables, the window-curtains white and gauzy, tied with pink ribbon, the rugs, and odds and ends, all proclaimed exquisite taste of a kind that could not possibly originate anywhere except in the man himself or his wife. This room would have made a keen impression upon me wherever found, and is, I am sure, not dependent upon the squalor of most other homes here, nor upon the wildness and remoteness of Unalaska, for the interest it excites. He spoke only Russian, so that I had but little conversation with him, as I had to speak through our interpreter. We smoked and smiled and gestured and looked at his beautiful home.

Bishop Nestor, who has charge of the Alaskan diocese, is said to be a charming and most venerable man. He now resides in San Francisco, but is having a house built in Unalaska. He is empowered to build and support, at the expense of the home church, a certain number of parish churches. Two out of seven of these are located among the Aleuts - at Unalaska and Belkofski. The other Aleutian villages which have churches, and nearly all have, build and support them at their own expense. The Russian Church claims about eleven thousand members in all Alaska. About one half of these are Aleuts, one thousand creoles, and the rest Indians of Nushagak, Yukon, and Kenai missions, over which the Church exercises but a feeble control. Shamanism with slight variations extends over all Siberia and Alaska and, indeed, all America.


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