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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.


Alaska Then and Now

A commemorative voyage—of 21st-century scientists—sets out to reconnoiter the 49th state

ECOLOGY IS DEDICATED to the proposition that everything is connected to everything else, as Thomas Litwin, an ecologist and science administrator at SmithCollege in Northampton, Massachusetts, can attest. Studying ornithology at CornellUniversity in 1979, he fell in love with a collection of bird illustrations there by Louis Agassiz Fuertes, a member of the Harriman Alaska Expedition. That led to a lifelong obsession with the expedition itself. Nearly two decades later, Litwin began having “crazy daydreams” about organizing a reprise of the trip to commemorate its 100th anniversary. Those dreams became a reality on July 22, 2001, when Litwin, then 51, escorted 24 scientists, scholars and artists he had gathered together from across the country onto the cruise ship Clipper Odyssey bound from Prince Rupert, British Columbia, to a rendezvous with history.

Called the Harriman Alaska Expedition Retraced, the second voyage set out “to assess a century of environmental and social change,” as Litwin put it. “We’re seeing this landscape at two moments in time,” said William Cronon, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin and one of Litwin’s “Harriman scholars.” “We’re seeing it through the eyes of that earlier expedition and we’re seeing it now at the beginning of the 21st century, and we’re asking: What’s the shift?”

The 2001 party took pains to follow the original Harriman route and, like its predecessor, bristled with all the latest gadgetry—GPS mapping, satellite photography and cell phones. But there were differences. For one thing, half of Litwin’s expedition was made up of women and Alaska Natives. For another, Harriman Retraced made no bones about doing handson science. “A lot of researchers are engaged in important work all up and down the coast,” said Lawrence Hott, a documentary filmmaker who accompanied the group. “The idea here is to take a broader look at issues that continue to play out today, just as they did in Harriman’s time—boom-and-bust cycles, pollution, wilderness preservation, respect for native cultures.”

The 30-day excursion turned out to be a study in contrasts. In 1899, for example, the eminent forester Bernhard Fernow gazed at a great rain forest and announced that it would be “left untouched” because it wasn’t commercially viable. When the voyagers of Harriman Retraced visited that same forest, now known as the Tongass, they saw a patchwork of clearcuts that have enraged conservationists across the country. To C. Hart Merriam and his awed recruits, Prince William Sound looked as pristine as Eden. Litwin’s group found it still recovering from the disastrous effect of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. Alaska had changed, and not necessarily for the better.

During the first half of the 20th century, the rugged settlers of the Far North struggled through one bust after another—gold, salmon, copper. Alaska finally struck it rich after major oil deposits were discovered on the Kenai Peninsula in 1957, but by 2001 a new boom was under way: tourism.

When Harriman’s men visited Skagway, it was a squalid wilderness outpost overrun with miners. Harriman Retraced witnessed a quite different scene—a “gold rush” theme park overrun with sightseers. “It felt like Disneyland,” said a dismayed Kathryn Frost, a marine-mammal researcher with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

By 1899, a few steamers had begun transporting tourists to Glacier Bay, much to John Muir’s consternation. In 2001, the Clipper Odyssey was but one of several dozen cruise ships anchoring there; the total number of passengers that summer exceeded 600,000. “A lot of us who came up here seeking something different are watching Alaska relentlessly becoming just like every other place in the United States,” former Alaska governor Jay Hammond told documentarian Hott.

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