A cruise in the cassiar


Chapter V

A Cruise in the Cassiar

Shortly after our return to Wrangell the missionaries planned a grand

mission excursion up the coast of the mainland to the Chilcat country,

which I gladly joined, together with Mr. Vanderbilt, his wife, and a

friend from Oregon. The river steamer Cassiar was chartered, and we had

her all to ourselves, ship and officers at our command to sail and stop

where and when we would, and of course everybody felt important and

hopeful. The main object of the missionaries was to ascertain the

spiritual wants of the warlike Chilcat tribe, with a view to the

establishment of a church and school in their principal village; the

merchant and his party were bent on business and scenery; while my mind

was on the mountains, glaciers, and forests.

This was toward the end of July, in the very brightest and best of

Alaska summer weather, when the icy mountains towering in the pearly

sky were displayed in all their glory, and the islands at their feet

seemed to float and drowse on the shining mirror waters.

After we had passed through the Wrangell Narrows, the mountains of the

mainland came in full view, gloriously arrayed in snow and ice, some of

the largest and most river-like of the glaciers flowing through wide,

high-walled valleys like Yosemite, their sources far back and

concealed, others in plain sight, from their highest fountains to the

level of the sea.

Cares of every kind were quickly forgotten, and though the Cassiar

engines soon began to wheeze and sigh with doleful solemnity,

suggesting coming trouble, we were too happy to mind them. Every face

glowed with natural love of wild beauty. The islands were seen in long

perspective, their forests dark green in the foreground, with varying

tones of blue growing more and more tender in the distance; bays full

of hazy shadows, graduating into open, silvery fields of light, and

lofty headlands with fine arching insteps dipping their feet in the

shining water. But every eye was turned to the mountains. Forgotten now

were the Chilcats and missions while the word of God was being read in

these majestic hieroglyphics blazoned along the sky. The earnest,

childish wonderment with which this glorious page of Nature’s Bible was

contemplated was delightful to see. All evinced eager desire to learn.

“Is that a glacier,” they asked, “down in that cañon? And is it all

solid ice?”


“How deep is it?”

“Perhaps five hundred or a thousand feet.”

“You say it flows. How can hard ice flow?”

“It flows like water, though invisibly slow.”

“And where does it come from?”

“From snow that is heaped up every winter on the mountains.”

“And how, then, is the snow changed into ice?”

“It is welded by the pressure of its own weight.”

“Are these white masses we see in the hollows glaciers also?”


“Are those bluish draggled masses hanging down from beneath the

snow-fields what you call the snouts of the glaciers?”


“What made the hollows they are in?”

“The glaciers themselves, just as traveling animals make their own


“How long have they been there?”

“Numberless centuries,” etc. I answered as best I could, keeping up a

running commentary on the subject in general, while busily engaged in

sketching and noting my own observations, preaching glacial gospel in a

rambling way, while the Cassiar, slowly wheezing and creeping along the

shore, shifted our position so that the icy cañons were opened to view

and closed again in regular succession, like the leaves of a book.

About the middle of the afternoon we were directly opposite a noble

group of glaciers some ten in number, flowing from a chain of

crater-like snow fountains, guarded around their summits and well down

their sides by jagged peaks and cols and curving mural ridges. From

each of the larger clusters of fountains, a wide, sheer-walled cañon

opens down to the sea. Three of the trunk glaciers descend to within a

few feet of the sea-level. The largest of the three, probably about

fifteen miles long, terminates in a magnificent valley like Yosemite,

in an imposing wall of ice about two miles long, and from three to five

hundred feet high, forming a barrier across the valley from wall to

wall. It was to this glacier that the ships of the Alaska Ice Company

resorted for the ice they carried to San Francisco and the Sandwich

Islands, and, I believe, also to China and Japan. To load, they had

only to sail up the fiord within a short distance of the front and drop

anchor in the terminal moraine.

Another glacier, a few miles to the south of this one, receives two

large tributaries about equal in size, and then flows down a forested

valley to within a hundred feet or so of sea-level. The third of this

low-descending group is four or five miles farther south, and, though

less imposing than either of the two sketched above, is still a truly

noble object, even as imperfectly seen from the channel, and would of

itself be well worth a visit to Alaska to any lowlander so unfortunate

as never to have seen a glacier.

The boilers of our little steamer were not made for sea water, but it

was hoped that fresh water would be found at available points along our

course where streams leap down the cliffs. In this particular we

failed, however, and were compelled to use salt water an hour or two

before reaching Cape Fanshawe, the supply of fifty tons of fresh water

brought from Wrangell having then given out. To make matters worse, the

captain and engineer were not in accord concerning the working of the

engines. The captain repeatedly called for more steam, which the

engineer refused to furnish, cautiously keeping the pressure low

because the salt water foamed in the boilers and some of it passed over

into the cylinders, causing heavy thumping at the end of each piston

stroke, and threatening to knock out the cylinder-heads. At seven

o’clock in the evening we had made only about seventy miles, which

caused dissatisfaction, especially among the divines, who thereupon

called a meeting in the cabin to consider what had better be done. In

the discussions that followed much indignation and economy were brought

to light. We had chartered the boat for sixty dollars per day, and the

round trip was to have been made in four or five days. But at the

present rate of speed it was found that the cost of the trip for each

passenger would be five or ten dollars above the first estimate.

Therefore, the majority ruled that we must return next day to Wrangell,

the extra dollars outweighing the mountains and missions as if they had

suddenly become dust in the balance.

Soon after the close of this economical meeting, we came to anchor in a

beautiful bay, and as the long northern day had still hours of good

light to offer, I gladly embraced the opportunity to go ashore to see

the rocks and plants. One of the Indians, employed as a deck hand on

the steamer, landed me at the mouth of a stream. The tide was low,

exposing a luxuriant growth of algæ, which sent up a fine, fresh sea

smell. The shingle was composed of slate, quartz, and granite, named in

the order of abundance. The first land plant met was a tall grass, nine

feet high, forming a meadow-like margin in front of the forest. Pushing

my way well back into the forest, I found it composed almost entirely

of spruce and two hemlocks (_Picea sitchensis, Tsuga heterophylla_ and

_T. mertensiana_) with a few specimens of yellow cypress. The ferns

were developed in remarkable beauty and size—aspidiums, one of which is

about six feet high, a woodsia, lomaria, and several species of

polypodium. The underbrush is chiefly alder, rubus, ledum, three

species of vaccinium, and _Echinopanax horrida_, the whole about from

six to eight feet high, and in some places closely intertangled and

hard to penetrate. On the opener spots beneath the trees the ground is

covered to a depth of two or three feet with mosses of indescribable

freshness and beauty, a few dwarf conifers often planted on their rich

furred bosses, together with pyrola, coptis, and Solomon’s-seal. The

tallest of the trees are about a hundred and fifty feet high, with a

diameter of about four or five feet, their branches mingling together

and making a perfect shade. As the twilight began to fall, I sat down

on the mossy instep of a spruce. Not a bush or tree was moving; every

leaf seemed hushed in brooding repose. One bird, a thrush, embroidered

the silence with cheery notes, making the solitude familiar and sweet,

while the solemn monotone of the stream sifting through the woods

seemed like the very voice of God, humanized, terrestrialized, and

entering one’s heart as to a home prepared for it. Go where we will,

all the world over, we seem to have been there before.

The stream was bridged at short intervals with picturesque,

moss-embossed logs, and the trees on its banks, leaning over from side

to side, made high embowering arches. The log bridge I crossed was, I

think, the most beautiful of the kind I ever saw. The massive log is

plushed to a depth of six inches or more with mosses of three or four

species, their different tones of yellow shading finely into each

other, while their delicate fronded branches and foliage lie in

exquisite order, inclining outward and down the sides in rich, furred,

clasping sheets overlapping and felted together until the required

thickness is attained. The pedicels and spore-cases give a purplish

tinge, and the whole bridge is enriched with ferns and a row of small

seedling trees and currant bushes with colored leaves, every one of

which seems to have been culled from the woods for this special use, so

perfectly do they harmonize in size, shape, and color with the mossy

cover, the width of the span, and the luxuriant, brushy abutments.

Sauntering back to the beach, I found four or five Indian deck hands

getting water, with whom I returned aboard the steamer, thanking the

Lord for so noble an addition to my life as was this one big mountain,

forest, and glacial day.

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