The short fiord of Glacier Alaska


We now turned southward down the eastern shore of the bay, and in an

hour or two discovered a glacier of the second class, at the head of a

comparatively short fiord that winter had not yet closed. Here we

landed, and climbed across a mile or so of rough boulder-beds, and back

upon the wildly broken, receding front of the glacier, which, though it

descends to the level of the sea, no longer sends off bergs. Many large

masses, detached from the wasting front by irregular melting, were

partly buried beneath mud, sand, gravel, and boulders of the terminal

moraine. Thus protected, these fossil icebergs remain unmelted for many

years, some of them for a century or more, as shown by the age of trees

growing above them, though there are no trees here as yet. At length

melting, a pit with sloping sides is formed by the falling in of the

overlying moraine material into the space at first occupied by the

buried ice. In this way are formed the curious depressions in

drift-covered regions called kettles or sinks. On these decaying

glaciers we may also find many interesting lessons on the formation of

boulders and boulder-beds, which in all glaciated countries exert a

marked influence on scenery, health, and fruitfulness.

Three or four miles farther down the bay, we came to another fiord, up

which we sailed in quest of more glaciers, discovering one in each of

the two branches into which the fiord divides. Neither of these

glaciers quite reaches tide-water. Notwithstanding the apparent

fruitfulness of their fountains, they are in the first stage of

decadence, the waste from melting and evaporation being greater now

than the supply of new ice from their snowy fountains. We reached the

one in the north branch, climbed over its wrinkled brow, and gained a

good view of the trunk and some of the tributaries, and also of the

sublime gray cliffs of its channel.

Then we sailed up the south branch of the inlet, but failed to reach

the glacier there, on account of a thin sheet of new ice. With the

tent-poles we broke a lane for the canoe for a little distance; but it

was slow work, and we soon saw that we could not reach the glacier

before dark. Nevertheless, we gained a fair view of it as it came

sweeping down through its gigantic gateway of massive Yosemite rocks

three or four thousand feet high. Here we lingered until sundown,

gazing and sketching; then turned back, and encamped on a bed of

cobblestones between the forks of the fiord.

We gathered a lot of fossil wood and after supper made a big fire, and

as we sat around it the brightness of the sky brought on a long talk

with the Indians about the stars; and their eager, childlike attention

was refreshing to see as compared with the deathlike apathy of weary

town-dwellers, in whom natural curiosity has been quenched in toil and

care and poor shallow comfort.

After sleeping a few hours, I stole quietly out of the camp, and

climbed the mountain that stands between the two glaciers. The ground

was frozen, making the climbing difficult in the steepest places; but

the views over the icy bay, sparkling beneath the stars, were

enchanting. It seemed then a sad thing that any part of so precious a

night had been lost in sleep. The starlight was so full that I

distinctly saw not only the berg-filled bay, but most of the lower

portions of the glaciers, lying pale and spirit-like amid the

mountains. The nearest glacier in particular was so distinct that it

seemed to be glowing with light that came from within itself. Not even

in dark nights have I ever found any difficulty in seeing large

glaciers; but on this mountain-top, amid so much ice, in the heart of

so clear and frosty a night, everything was more or less luminous, and

I seemed to be poised in a vast hollow between two skies of almost

equal brightness. This exhilarating scramble made me glad and strong

and I rejoiced that my studies called me before the glorious night

succeeding so glorious a morning had been spent!

I got back to camp in time for an early breakfast, and by daylight we

had everything packed and were again under way. The fiord was frozen

nearly to its mouth, and though the ice was so thin it gave us but

little trouble in breaking a way for the canoe, yet it showed us that

the season for exploration in these waters was well-nigh over. We were

in danger of being imprisoned in a jam of icebergs, for the

water-spaces between them freeze rapidly, binding the floes into one

mass. Across such floes it would be almost impossible to drag a canoe,

however industriously we might ply the axe, as our Hoona guide took

great pains to warn us. I would have kept straight down the bay from

here, but the guide had to be taken home, and the provisions we left at

the bark hut had to be got on board. We therefore crossed over to our

Sunday storm-camp, cautiously boring a way through the bergs. We found

the shore lavishly adorned with a fresh arrival of assorted bergs that

had been left stranded at high tide. They were arranged in a curving

row, looking intensely clear and pure on the gray sand, and, with the

sunbeams pouring through them, suggested the jewel-paved streets of the

New Jerusalem.

On our way down the coast, after examining the front of the beautiful

Geikie Glacier, we obtained our first broad view of the great glacier

afterwards named the Muir, the last of all the grand company to be

seen, the stormy weather having hidden it when we first entered the

bay. It was now perfectly clear, and the spacious, prairie-like

glacier, with its many tributaries extending far back into the snowy

recesses of its fountains, made a magnificent display of its wealth,

and I was strongly tempted to go and explore it at all hazards. But

winter had come, and the freezing of its fiords was an insurmountable

obstacle. I had, therefore, to be content for the present with

sketching and studying its main features at a distance.

[Illustration: The Muir Glacier in the Seventies, showing Ice Cliffs

and Stranded Icebergs.]

When we arrived at the Hoona hunting-camp, men, women, and children

came swarming out to welcome us. In the neighborhood of this camp I

carefully noted the lines of demarkation between the forested and

deforested regions. Several mountains here are only in part deforested,

and the lines separating the bare and the forested portions are well

defined. The soil, as well as the trees, had slid off the steep slopes,

leaving the edge of the woods raw-looking and rugged.

At the mouth of the bay a series of moraine islands show that the trunk

glacier that occupied the bay halted here for some time and deposited

this island material as a terminal moraine; that more of the bay was

not filled in shows that, after lingering here, it receded

comparatively fast. All the level portions of trunks of glaciers

occupying ocean fiords, instead of melting back gradually in times of

general shrinking and recession, as inland glaciers with sloping

channels do, melt almost uniformly over all the surface until they

become thin enough to float. Then, of course, with each rise and fall

of the tide, the sea water, with a temperature usually considerably

above the freezing-point, rushes in and out beneath them, causing rapid

waste of the nether surface, while the upper is being wasted by the

weather, until at length the fiord portions of these great glaciers

become comparatively thin and weak and are broken up and vanish almost


Glacier Bay is undoubtedly young as yet. Vancouver’s chart, made only a

century ago, shows no trace of it, though found admirably faithful in

general. It seems probable, therefore, that even then the entire bay

was occupied by a glacier of which all those described above, great

though they are, were only tributaries. Nearly as great a change has

taken place in Sum Dum Bay since Vancouver’s visit, the main trunk

glacier there having receded from eighteen to twenty five miles from

the line marked on his chart. Charley, who was here when a boy, said

that the place had so changed that he hardly recognized it, so many new

islands had been born in the mean time and so much ice had vanished. As

we have seen, this Icy Bay is being still farther extended by the

recession of the glaciers. That this whole system of fiords and

channels was added to the domain of the sea by glacial action is to my

mind certain.

We reached the island from which we had obtained our store of fuel

about half-past six and camped here for the night, having spent only

five days in Sitadaka, sailing round it, visiting and sketching all the

six glaciers excepting the largest, though I landed only on three of

them,—the Geikie, Hugh Miller, and Grand Pacific,—the freezing of the

fiords in front of the others rendering them inaccessible at this late


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