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The Writings of John Muir
Volume 7 - Chapter XX. Homeward Bound


Steamer Corwin,
Unalaska, October 4, 1881.

ON the home voyage, all the hard Arctic work done, the Corwin stopped a week at the head of Kotzebue Sound, near Chamisso Island, to seek a fresh supply of water and make some needful repairs and observations, during which time I had a capital opportunity to examine the curious and interesting ice formations of the shores of Eschscholtz Bay. I found ice in some form or other, exposed at intervals of from a mile to a few yards, on the tide-washed front of the shore bluffs on both sides of the bay, a distance of about fifty miles. But it is only the most conspicuous mass, forming a bluff, at Elephant Point, on the south side of the bay, that seems to have been observed hitherto, or attracted much attention.

This Elephant Point, so called from the fossil elephant tusks found here, is a bluff of solid ice, one hundred and forty feet high, covered on the top with a foot or two of ordinary tundra vegetation, and with tall grass on the terraces and shelving portions of the front, wherever the slope is sufficiently gentle for soil to find rest. It is a rigid fossil fragment of a glacier leaning back against the north side of a hill, mostly in shadow, and covered lightly with glacial detritus from the hill slope above it, over which the tundra vegetation has gradually been extended, and which eventually formed a thick feitlike protection against waste during the summer. Thus it has lasted until now, wasting only on the exposed face fronting the bay, which is being constantly undermined, the soil and vegetation on top being precipitated over the raw, melting ice front and washed away by the tide. Were it not that its base is swept by tide currents, the accumulation of tundra moss and peat would finally re-bury the front and check further waste. As it is, the formation will not last much longer - probably not more than a thousand or fifteen hundred years. Its present age is perhaps more than this.

When one walks along the base of the formation - which is about a mile or so in length - making one's way over piles of rotten humus and through sloppy bog mud of the consistence of watery porridge, mixed with bones of elephants, buffaloes, musk oxen, etc., the ice so closely resembles the wasting snout of a glacier, with its jagged projecting ridges, ledges, and small, dripping, tinkling rills, that it is not easy to realize that it is not one in ordinary action.

Mingled with the true glacier ice we notice masses of dirty stratified ice, made up of clean layers alternating with layers of mud and sand, and mingled with bits of humus and sphagnum, and of leaves and stems of the various plants that grow on the tundra above. This dirty ice of peculiar stratification never blends into the glacier ice, but is simply frozen upon it, filling cavities or spreading over slopes here and there. It is formed by the freezing of films of clear and dirty water from the broken edge of the tundra, a process going on every spring and autumn, when frosts and thaws succeed each other night and morning, cloudy days and sunny days. This, of course, is of comparatively recent age, even the oldest of it.

A striking result of the shaking up and airing and draining of the tundra soil is seen on the face of the ice slopes and terraces. When the undermined tundra material rolls down upon those portions of the ice front where it can come to rest, it is well buffeted and shaken, and frequently lies upside down as if turned with a plow. Here it is well drained through resting on melting ice, and though not more than a foot or two in thickness, it produces a remarkably close and tall growth of grass, four to six feet high, and as lush and broad-leaved as may be found in any farmer's field. Cut for hay it would make about four or five tons per acre.

Only a few other plants that would be called weeds are found growing among the grass, mostly senecio and artemisia, both tall and exuberant, showing the effects of this curious system of cultivation on this strange soil. The vegetation on top of the bluff is the most beautiful that I have yet seen, not rank and cultivated looking, like that on the face slopes, but showing the finest and most delicate beauty of wildness, informs, combinations, and colors of leaf, stalk, and fruit. There were red and yellow dwarf birch, arbutus, willow, and purple huckleberry, with lovely grays of sedges and lichens. The neutral tints of the lichens are intensely beautiful.

I found the shore-bluff towards the mouth of the Buckland River from forty to sixty feet high, with a regular slope of about thirty degrees. It was covered with willows and alders, some of them five or six feet high, and long grass; also patches of ice here and there, but no large masses. The soil is a fine blue clay at bottom, with water-worn quartz, pebbles and sand above it, like that of the opposite side of the estuary, and evidently brought down by the river floods when the ice of the glaciers that occupied this river basin and that of the Kuuk [A river tributary to Eschscholtz Bay from the east. It was called Kuuk on British Admiralty charts of the early eighties, but is now known as the Mungoark River.] was melting.

The ice that I found here and on the opposite side of the bay, especially where the tundra is low and flat, let us say forty or fifty feet above the sea, and covered with pools and strips of water, is not glacier ice, but ice derived from water freezing in pools and veins and hollows, overgrown with mosses, lichens, etc., and afterwards exposed as fossil ice on the shore face of the tundra where it is being wasted by the action of the sea. The tundra has been cracked in every direction, and in looking over its surface, slight depressions, or some difference in the vegetation, indicate the location and extent of the fissures. When these are traced forward to the edge of the shore-bluff, a cross-section of ice is seen from two to four or five feet wide. The larger sections are simply the exposed sides of those ice veins that chance to trend in a direction parallel to the face of the bluff. Besides these I found several other kinds of ice, differing in origin from the foregoing, but which can hardly be described in a mere letter, however interesting to the geologist.

At St. Michael we found a party of wrecked prospectors from Golofnin Bay, who were anxiously awaiting the arrival of the Corwin, as she would be the last vessel leaving for California this year. This proved to be the Oakland party mentioned in a previous letter. With genuine Yankee enterprise [these men] had pushed their way into the far wilderness beyond the Yukon to seek for silver. Specimens of bright, exciting ore, assaying a hundred and fifty dollars to the ton, had been exhibited in Oakland, brought from a mine said to be located near tide water at Golofnin Bay, Alaska, and so easily worked that large ships could be loaded with the precious ore about as readily as with common ballast. Thereupon a company, called the Alaska Mining Company, was organized, the schooner W. F. March chartered, and with the necessary supplies a party of ten sailed from San Francisco May 5, 1881, for Golofnin Bay, to explore this mine in particular, and the region in general, and then to return, this fall, with a cargo of ore.

They arrived in Golofnin Bay June 18, lost their vessel in a gale on the north side of the bay August 15, and arrived in twenty-one days at St. Michael in canoes and a boat that was saved from the wreck. They found the mine as rich as represented, but far less accessible. It is said to be about thirty miles from tide water. All feel confident that they have a valuable mine. Two or three of the party were away at the time of the disaster, prospecting for cinnabar on the Kuskoquim, and are left behind to pass the winter as best they may at some of the trading stations.

Our two weeks' stay at Unalaska has been pleasant and restful after the long cruise - about fourteen thousand miles altogether up to this point. The hill slopes and mountains look richly green and foodful, and the views about the harbor, at the close and beginning of storms, when clouds are wreathing the alpine summits, are very beautiful.

The huts of the Aleuts here are very picturesque at this time of the year. The grass grows tall over the sides and the roof, waving in the wind, and making a fine fringe about the windows and the door. When the church bell rings on Sunday and the good calico-covered people plod sedately forth to worship, and the cows on the hillside moo blandly, and the sun shines over the green slopes, then the scene is like a bit of New England or old Scotland. But, later in the day, when the fiery kvass is drunk, and the accordions and concertinas and cheap music boxes are in full blast, then the noise and unseemly clang attending drunkenness is not at all like a Scotch sabbath.

Most of the Aleuts have an admixture of Russian blood. Many of them dance well. Three balls were given during our stay here, that is to say, American balls with native women. The Aleuts have their own dances in their small huts.

A few days ago I made an excursion to the top of a well-formed volcanic cone at the mouth of a picturesque glacial fiord, about eight miles from here. This mountain, about two thousand feet high, commands a magnificent view of the mountains of Unalaska, Akutan, and adjacent islands. Akutan [The highest mountain of Akutan Island. The United States Coast and Geodetic Survey Chart No. 8860 gives its altitude as forty-one hundred feet.] still emits black smoke and cinders at times, and thunders loud enough to be heard at Unalaska.

The noblest of them all was Makushin, about nine thousand feet high and laden with glaciers, a grand sight, far surpassing what I had been led to expect. There is a spot on its summit which is said to smoke, probably mostly steam and vapor from the infiltration of water into the heated cavities of the old volcano. The extreme summit of Makushin was wrapped in white clouds, and from beneath these the glaciers were seen descending impressively into the sunshine to within a thousand or fifteen hundred feet of sea-level. This fine mountain, glittering in its showy mail of snow and ice, together with a hundred other peaks dipping into the blue sky, and every one of them telling the work of ice or fire in their forms and sculpture - these, and the sparkling sea, and long in- reaching fords, are a noble picture to add to the thousand others which have enriched our lives this summer in the great Northland.


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