Alexander Archipelago and the Home I found in Alaska


Chapter II

Alexander Archipelago and the Home I found in Alaska

To the lover of pure wildness Alaska is one of the most wonderful

countries in the world. No excursion that I know of may be made into

any other American wilderness where so marvelous an abundance of noble,

newborn scenery is so charmingly brought to view as on the trip through

the Alexander Archipelago to Fort Wrangell and Sitka. Gazing from the

deck of the steamer, one is borne smoothly over calm blue waters,

through the midst of countless forest-clad islands. The ordinary

discomforts of a sea voyage are not felt, for nearly all the whole long

way is on inland waters that are about as waveless as rivers and lakes.

So numerous are the islands that they seem to have been sown broadcast;

long tapering vistas between the largest of them open in every


Day after day in the fine weather we enjoyed, we seemed to float in

true fairyland, each succeeding view seeming more and more beautiful,

the one we chanced to have before us the most surprisingly beautiful of

all. Never before this had I been embosomed in scenery so hopelessly

beyond description. To sketch picturesque bits, definitely bounded, is

comparatively easy—a lake in the woods, a glacier meadow, or a cascade

in its dell; or even a grand master view of mountains beheld from some

commanding outlook after climbing from height to height above the

forests. These may be attempted, and more or less telling pictures made

of them; but in these coast landscapes there is such indefinite,

on-leading expansiveness, such a multitude of features without apparent

redundance, their lines graduating delicately into one another in

endless succession, while the whole is so fine, so tender, so ethereal,

that all pen-work seems hopelessly unavailing. Tracing shining ways

through fiord and sound, past forests and waterfalls, islands and

mountains and far azure headlands, it seems as if surely we must at

length reach the very paradise of the poets, the abode of the blessed.

[Illustration: Hanging Valley and Waterfall, Fraser Ranch.]

Some idea of the wealth of this scenery may be gained from the fact

that the coast-line of Alaska is about twenty-six thousand miles long,

more than twice as long as all the rest of the United States. The

islands of the Alexander Archipelago, with the straits, channels,

canals, sounds, passages, and fiords, form an intricate web of land and

water embroidery sixty or seventy miles wide, fringing the lofty icy

chain of coast mountains from Puget Sound to Cook Inlet; and, with

infinite variety, the general pattern is harmonious throughout its

whole extent of nearly a thousand miles. Here you glide into a narrow

channel hemmed in by mountain walls, forested down to the water’s edge,

where there is no distant view, and your attention is concentrated on

the objects close about you—the crowded spires of the spruces and

hemlocks rising higher and higher on the steep green slopes; stripes of

paler green where winter avalanches have cleared away the trees,

allowing grasses and willows to spring up; zigzags of cascades

appearing and disappearing among the bushes and trees; short, steep

glens with brawling streams hidden beneath alder and dogwood, seen only

where they emerge on the brown algæ of the shore; and retreating

hollows, with lingering snow-banks marking the fountains of ancient

glaciers. The steamer is often so near the shore that you may

distinctly see the cones clustered on the tops of the trees, and the

ferns and bushes at their feet.

But new scenes are brought to view with magical rapidity. Rounding some

bossy cape, the eye is called away into far-reaching vistas, bounded on

either hand by headlands in charming array, one dipping gracefully

beyond another and growing fainter and more ethereal in the distance.

The tranquil channel stretching river-like between, may be stirred here

and there by the silvery plashing of upspringing salmon, or by flocks

of white gulls floating like water-lilies among the sun spangles; while

mellow, tempered sunshine is streaming over all, blending sky, land,

and water in pale, misty blue. Then, while you are dreamily gazing into

the depths of this leafy ocean lane, the little steamer, seeming hardly

larger than a duck, turning into some passage not visible until the

moment of entering it, glides into a wide expanse—a sound filled with

islands, sprinkled and clustered in forms and compositions such as

nature alone can invent; some of them so small the trees growing on

them seem like single handfuls culled from the neighboring woods and

set in the water to keep them fresh, while here and there at wide

intervals you may notice bare rocks just above the water, mere dots

punctuating grand, outswelling sentences of islands.

The variety we find, both as to the contours and the collocation of the

islands, is due chiefly to differences in the structure and composition

of their rocks, and the unequal glacial denudation different portions

of the coast were subjected to. This influence must have been

especially heavy toward the end of the glacial period, when the main

ice-sheet began to break up into separate glaciers. Moreover, the

mountains of the larger islands nourished local glaciers, some of them

of considerable size, which sculptured their summits and sides, forming

in some cases wide cirques with cañons or valleys leading down from

them into the channels and sounds. These causes have produced much of

the bewildering variety of which nature is so fond, but none the less

will the studious observer see the underlying harmony—the general trend

of the islands in the direction of the flow of the main ice-mantle from

the mountains of the Coast Range, more or less varied by subordinate

foothill ridges and mountains. Furthermore, all the islands, great and

small, as well as the headlands and promontories of the mainland, are

seen to have a rounded, over-rubbed appearance produced by the

over-sweeping ice-flood during the period of greatest glacial


The canals, channels, straits, passages, sounds, etc., are subordinate

to the same glacial conditions in their forms, trends, and extent as

those which determined the forms, trends, and distribution of the

land-masses, their basins being the parts of the pre-glacial margin of

the continent, eroded to varying depths below sea-level, and into

which, of course, the ocean waters flowed as the ice was melted out of

them. Had the general glacial denudation been much less, these ocean

ways over which we are sailing would have been valleys and cañons and

lakes; and the islands rounded hills and ridges, landscapes with

undulating features like those found above sea-level wherever the rocks

and glacial conditions are similar. In general, the island-bound

channels are like rivers, not only in separate reaches as seen from the

deck of a vessel, but continuously so for hundreds of miles in the case

of the longest of them. The tide-currents, the fresh driftwood, the

inflowing streams, and the luxuriant foliage of the out-leaning trees

on the shores make this resemblance all the more complete. The largest

islands look like part of the mainland in any view to be had of them

from the ship, but far the greater number are small, and appreciable as

islands, scores of them being less than a mile long. These the eye

easily takes in and revels in their beauty with ever fresh delight. In

their relations to each other the individual members of a group have

evidently been derived from the same general rock-mass, yet they never

seem broken or abridged in any way as to their contour lines, however

abruptly they may dip their sides. Viewed one by one, they seem

detached beauties, like extracts from a poem, while, from the

completeness of their lines and the way that their trees are arranged,

each seems a finished stanza in itself. Contemplating the arrangement

of the trees on these small islands, a distinct impression is produced

of their having been sorted and harmonized as to size like a

well-balanced bouquet. On some of the smaller tufted islets a group of

tapering spruces is planted in the middle, and two smaller groups that

evidently correspond with each other are planted on the ends at about

equal distances from the central group; or the whole appears as one

group with marked fringing trees that match each other spreading around

the sides, like flowers leaning outward against the rim of a vase.

These harmonious tree relations are so constant that they evidently are

the result of design, as much so as the arrangement of the feathers of

birds or the scales of fishes.

Thus perfectly beautiful are these blessed evergreen islands, and their

beauty is the beauty of youth, for though the freshness of their

verdure must be ascribed to the bland moisture with which they are

bathed from warm ocean-currents, the very existence of the islands,

their features, finish, and peculiar distribution, are all immediately

referable to ice-action during the great glacial winter just now

drawing to a close.

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