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North to Alaska

In 1899, railroad magnate Edward Harriman invited some of the most preeminent scientists in America to join him on a working cruise to Alaska, then largely unexplored. More than a century later, the nation still has reasons to be grateful.

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From YakutatBay the expedition headed north to Prince William Sound, the ravishing area that would eventually come to exemplify Alaska for millions of cruise ship tourists. The tiny village of Orca, the Elder’s first stop there, was dominated by an enormous fish cannery. Seeing miles of coastline clogged with rotting salmon heads, Grinnell was irate. “The canners . . . [grasp] eagerly for everything that is within their reach,” he fumed. “Their motto seems to be, ‘If I do not take all I can get, somebody else will.’. . . The salmon of Alaska . . . are being destroyed.”

Beyond Orca, the Elder churned deeper into Prince William Sound until it came up against a towering glacier, which, according to the map, was as far as the ship could go. After Muir spotted a narrow gap between the ice and the rocky coast, Harriman ordered the captain to steer into the dangerously tight passage. Poet Charles Keeler described the moment: “Slowly and cautiously we advanced. . . . The great blocks of ice thundered off from the glacier into the sea close beside us.” Then the ship rounded a point, and a narrow inlet suddenly became visible. The captain warned that there might be rocks in those uncharted waters. According to Muir, “The passage gradually opened into a magnificent icy fiord about twelve miles long.” Harriman ordered the captain to proceed full speed ahead up the middle of the new fjord. As the ship barreled along, Harriman shouted, “We will discover a new Northwest Passage!”

Instead they discovered a dazzling series of glaciers—five or six in all—never before seen by whites. The largest glacier was named after Harriman. Muir’s feelings for the man were changing from scorn to admiration. “I soon saw that Mr. Harriman was uncommon,” he explained. “Nothing in his way could daunt him.”

But Harriman, tired of “ice time,” was itching for big game. When he heard of abundant bear on Kodiak Island, he ordered the ship there. After the glacial “ice chests” they’d just seen, verdant Kodiak, warmed by the Japan Current, was paradise for Burroughs. But Muir was grumpy. “Everybody going shooting, sauntering as if it were the best day for the ruthless business,” he complained.Harriman finally found a big bear “eating grass like a cow.” He killed it with a single shot, then photographed the animal with her enormous teeth bared.

Even without news of felled bears, life aboard the Elder was anything but dull. There were lectures on everything from whaling to Africa and evening musicals with jigs and Virginia reels. One night, Muir, as botanist Frederick Coville put it, “did a neat double-shuffle, immediately followed by [the 63-year-old] Mr. Burroughs, who stepped forward . . . and gave an admirable clog-dance . . . an astonishing exhibition of agility in an old man with a white hair and beard.” Forester Bernhard Fernow played Beethoven on the piano. The worthy gentlemen of the Harriman Alaska Expedition even came up with a cheer: “Who are we? Who are we? We are, we are, the H.A.E.!”

But when the Elder stopped at DutchHarbor, a peaceful little town on the island of Unalaska, a seasick and cold John Burroughs tried to jump ship. “Mr. Muir and I were just returning to the steamer when we saw John Burroughs walking down the gangplank with a grip in his hand,” Charles Keeler recalled. “ ‘ Where are you going, Johnny?’ demanded Muir suspiciously. . . . [Burroughs] confessed. He had found a nice old lady ashore who had fresh eggs for breakfast.” Burroughs said he would wait there while the Elder took on the Bering Sea. “ ‘Why Johnny,’ explained Muir derisively, ‘Bering Sea in summer is like a mill pond.’ ” Burroughs, said Keeler, “could not withstand Muir’s scorn. I carried his satchel back to his room, and . . . he returned to the steamer.”

Muir was wrong. With its barren islands and notoriously rough weather, the Bering Sea was not remotely like a millpond, but C. Hart Merriam loved it all the same. He had been there in 1891 to inspect the commercial harvesting of fur seals. Now he waded eagerly onto the desolate rocks of volcanic BogoslofIsland, only to find himself standing in the middle of a “runway” where sea lions weighing as much as a ton thundered down toward the water. “A number of huge yellow bulls, as big as oxen . . . came toward us bellowing fearfully.” For a moment Merriam thought “the end had come.” Impulsively, he ran toward the sea lions with his camera, and “most took fright and made off.”

After the Elder anchored at the Pribilofs the next day, the expeditioners tramped across flower-covered fields on St. PaulIsland to visit a huge fur-seal rookery Merriam had seen there during his previous visit. But when he caught his first glimpse, he gasped in horror, “astonished,” said Burroughs, “at the diminished number of the animals—hardly one tenth of the earlier myriads.”

It proved to be a crucial moment. When Grinnell got back to New York, he wrote a passionate editorial in Forest and Stream predicting that the beleaguered seals would soon become extinct. Merriam lent the weight of his own considerable influence to a campaign to force the federal government to take action. In 1912, the United States, Russia, Japan and Canada finally agreed to impose limits on seal hunting. The treaty they signed, the first international agreement for protecting wildlife, grew out of the Harriman party’s visit to the Pribilofs.

After nearly two months at sea, Edward Harriman said he didn’t “give a damn if I never see any more scenery” and declared himself ready to go back to work. The Elder swung around and headed south. But on its return, the ship made an unscheduled stop opposite St. Mary’s Island at a Tlingit village near CapeFox. There the expedition members saw a dozen or so magnificent totem poles towering over a collection of seemingly abandoned houses on the sandy shoreline. “It was evident the village had not been occupied in . . . years,” said Burroughs. “Why not, therefore, secure some of these totem poles for the museums of the various colleges represented by members of the expedition?”

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