Travels to Alaska part 1


Part I

_The Trip of 1879_

Chapter I

Puget Sound and British Columbia

After eleven years of study and exploration in the Sierra Nevada of

California and the mountain-ranges of the Great Basin, studying in

particular their glaciers, forests, and wild life, above all their

ancient glaciers and the influence they exerted in sculpturing the

rocks over which they passed with tremendous pressure, making new

landscapes, scenery, and beauty which so mysteriously influence every

human being, and to some extent all life, I was anxious to gain some

knowledge of the regions to the northward, about Puget Sound and

Alaska. With this grand object in view I left San Francisco in May,

1879, on the steamer Dakota, without any definite plan, as with the

exception of a few of the Oregon peaks and their forests all the wild

north was new to me.

To the mountaineer a sea voyage is a grand, inspiring, restful change.

For forests and plains with their flowers and fruits we have new

scenery, new life of every sort; water hills and dales in eternal

visible motion for rock waves, types of permanence.

It was curious to note how suddenly the eager countenances of the

passengers were darkened as soon as the good ship passed through the

Golden Gate and began to heave on the waves of the open ocean. The

crowded deck was speedily deserted on account of seasickness. It seemed

strange that nearly every one afflicted should be more or less ashamed.

Next morning a strong wind was blowing, and the sea was gray and white,

with long breaking waves, across which the Dakota was racing

half-buried in spray. Very few of the passengers were on deck to enjoy

the wild scenery. Every wave seemed to be making enthusiastic, eager

haste to the shore, with long, irised tresses streaming from its tops,

some of its outer fringes borne away in scud to refresh the wind, all

the rolling, pitching, flying water exulting in the beauty of rainbow

light. Gulls and albatrosses, strong, glad life in the midst of the

stormy beauty, skimmed the waves against the wind, seemingly without

effort, oftentimes flying nearly a mile without a single wing-beat,

gracefully swaying from side to side and tracing the curves of the

briny water hills with the finest precision, now and then just grazing

the highest.

And yonder, glistening amid the irised spray, is still more striking

revelation of warm life in the so-called howling waste,—a half-dozen

whales, their broad backs like glaciated bosses of granite heaving

aloft in near view, spouting lustily, drawing a long breath, and

plunging down home in colossal health and comfort. A merry school of

porpoises, a square mile of them, suddenly appear, tossing themselves

into the air in abounding strength and hilarity, adding foam to the

waves and making all the wilderness wilder. One cannot but feel

sympathy with and be proud of these brave neighbors, fellow citizens in

the commonwealth of the world, making a living like the rest of us. Our

good ship also seemed like a thing of life, its great iron heart

beating on through calm and storm, a truly noble spectacle. But think

of the hearts of these whales, beating warm against the sea, day and

night, through dark and light, on and on for centuries; how the red

blood must rush and gurgle in and out, bucketfuls, barrelfuls at a


The cloud colors of one of the four sunsets enjoyed on the voyage were

remarkably pure and rich in tone. There was a well-defined range of

cumuli a few degrees above the horizon, and a massive, dark-gray

rain-cloud above it, from which depended long, bent fringes overlapping

the lower cumuli and partially veiling them; and from time to time

sunbeams poured through narrow openings and painted the exposed bosses

and fringes in ripe yellow tones, which, with the reflections on the

water, made magnificent pictures. The scenery of the ocean, however

sublime in vast expanse, seems far less beautiful to us dry-shod

animals than that of the land seen only in comparatively small patches;

but when we contemplate the whole globe as one great dewdrop, striped

and dotted with continents and islands, flying through space with other

stars all singing and shining together as one, the whole universe

appears as an infinite storm of beauty.

The California coast-hills and cliffs look bare and uninviting as seen

from the ship, the magnificent forests keeping well back out of sight

beyond the reach of the sea winds; those of Oregon and Washington are

in some places clad with conifers nearly down to the shore; even the

little detached islets, so marked a feature to the northward, are

mostly tree-crowned. Up through the Straits of Juan de Fuca the

forests, sheltered from the ocean gales and favored with abundant

rains, flourish in marvelous luxuriance on the glacier-sculptured

mountains of the Olympic Range.

We arrived in Esquimault Harbor, three miles from Victoria, on the

evening of the fourth day, and drove to the town through a magnificent

forest of Douglas spruce,—with an undergrowth in open spots of oak,

madrone, hazel, dogwood, alder, spiræa, willow, and wild rose,—and

around many an upswelling _moutonné_ rock, freshly glaciated and furred

with yellow mosses and lichens.

Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, was in 1879 a small

old-fashioned English town on the south end of Vancouver Island. It was

said to contain about six thousand inhabitants. The government

buildings and some of the business blocks were noticeable, but the

attention of the traveler was more worthily attracted to the neat

cottage homes found here, embowered in the freshest and floweriest

climbing roses and honeysuckles conceivable. Californians may well be

proud of their home roses loading sunny verandas, climbing to the tops

of the roofs and falling over the gables in white and red cascades. But

here, with so much bland fog and dew and gentle laving rain, a still

finer development of some of the commonest garden plants is reached.

English honeysuckle seems to have found here a most congenial home.

Still more beautiful were the wild roses, blooming in wonderful

luxuriance along the woodland paths, with corollas two and three inches

wide. This rose and three species of spiræa fairly filled the air with

fragrance after showers; and how brightly then did the red dogwood

berries shine amid the green leaves beneath trees two hundred and fifty

feet high.

Strange to say, all of this exuberant forest and flower vegetation was

growing upon fresh moraine material scarcely at all moved or in any way

modified by post-glacial agents. In the town gardens and orchards,

peaches and apples fell upon glacier-polished rocks, and the streets

were graded in moraine gravel; and I observed scratched and grooved

rock bosses as unweathered and telling as those of the High Sierra of

California eight thousand feet or more above sea-level. The Victoria

Harbor is plainly glacial in origin, eroded from the solid; and the

rock islets that rise here and there in it are unchanged to any

appreciable extent by all the waves that have broken over them since

first they came to light toward the close of the glacial period. The

shores also of the harbor are strikingly grooved and scratched and in

every way as glacial in all their characteristics as those of new-born

glacial lakes. That the domain of the sea is being slowly extended over

the land by incessant wave-action is well known; but in this freshly

glaciated region the shores have been so short a time exposed to

wave-action that they are scarcely at all wasted. The extension of the

sea affected by its own action in post-glacial times is probably less

than the millionth part of that affected by glacial action during the

last glacier period. The direction of the flow of the ice-sheet to

which all the main features of this wonderful region are due was in

general southward.

From this quiet little English town I made many short excursions—up the

coast to Nanaimo, to Burrard Inlet, now the terminus of the Canadian

Pacific Railroad, to Puget Sound, up Fraser River to New Westminster

and Yale at the head of navigation, charmed everywhere with the wild,

new-born scenery. The most interesting of these and the most difficult

to leave was the Puget Sound region, famous the world over for the

wonderful forests of gigantic trees about its shores. It is an arm and

many-fingered hand of the sea, reaching southward from the Straits of

Juan de Fuca about a hundred miles into the heart of one of the noblest

coniferous forests on the face of the globe. All its scenery is

wonderful—broad river-like reaches sweeping in beautiful curves around

bays and capes and jutting promontories, opening here and there into

smooth, blue, lake-like expanses dotted with islands and feathered with

tall, spiry evergreens, their beauty doubled on the bright


Sailing from Victoria, the Olympic Mountains are seen right ahead,

rising in bold relief against the sky, with jagged crests and peaks

from six to eight thousand feet high,—small residual glaciers and

ragged snow-fields beneath them in wide amphitheatres opening down

through the forest-filled valleys. These valleys mark the courses of

the Olympic glaciers at the period of their greatest extension, when

they poured their tribute into that portion of the great northern

ice-sheet that overswept Vancouver Island and filled the strait between

it and the mainland.

On the way up to Olympia, then a hopeful little town situated at the

end of one of the longest fingers of the Sound, one is often reminded

of Lake Tahoe, the scenery of the widest expanses is so lake-like in

the clearness and stillness of the water and the luxuriance of the

surrounding forests. Doubling cape after cape, passing uncounted

islands, new combinations break on the view in endless variety,

sufficient to satisfy the lover of wild beauty through a whole life.

When the clouds come down, blotting out everything, one feels as if at

sea; again lifting a little, some islet may be seen standing alone with

the tops of its trees dipping out of sight in gray misty fringes; then

the ranks of spruce and cedar bounding the water’s edge come to view;

and when at length the whole sky is clear the colossal cone of Mt.

Rainier may be seen in spotless white, looking down over the dark woods

from a distance of fifty or sixty miles, but so high and massive and so

sharply outlined, it seems to be just back of a strip of woods only a

few miles wide.

Mt. Rainier, or Tahoma (the Indian name), is the noblest of the

volcanic cones extending from Lassen Butte and Mt. Shasta along the

Cascade Range to Mt. Baker. One of the most telling views of it

hereabouts is obtained near Tacoma. From a bluff back of the town it

was revealed in all its glory, laden with glaciers and snow down to the

forested foothills around its finely curved base. Up to this time

(1879) it had been ascended but once. From observations made on the

summit with a single aneroid barometer, it was estimated to be about

14,500 feet high. Mt. Baker, to the northward, is about 10,700 feet

high, a noble mountain. So also are Mt. Adams, Mt. St. Helens, and Mt.

Hood. The latter, overlooking the town of Portland, is perhaps the best

known. Rainier, about the same height as Shasta, surpasses them all in

massive icy grandeur,—the most majestic solitary mountain I had ever

yet beheld. How eagerly I gazed and longed to climb it and study its

history only the mountaineer may know, but I was compelled to turn away

and bide my time.

The species forming the bulk of the woods here is the Douglas spruce

(_Pseudotsuga douglasii_), one of the greatest of the western giants. A

specimen that I measured near Olympia was about three hundred feet in

height and twelve feet in diameter four feet above the ground. It is a

widely distributed tree, extending northward through British Columbia,

southward through Oregon and California, and eastward to the Rocky

Mountains. The timber is used for shipbuilding, spars, piles, and the

framework of houses, bridges, etc. In the California lumber markets it

is known as “Oregon pine.” In Utah, where it is common on the Wahsatch

Mountains, it is called “red pine.” In California, on the western slope

of the Sierra Nevada, it forms, in company with the yellow pine, sugar

pine, and incense cedar, a pretty well-defined belt at a height of from

three to six thousand feet above the sea; but it is only in Oregon and

Washington, especially in this Puget Sound region, that it reaches its

very grandest development,—tall, straight, and strong, growing down

close to tidewater.

All the towns of the Sound had a hopeful, thrifty aspect. Port

Townsend, picturesquely located on a grassy bluff, was the port of

clearance for vessels sailing to foreign parts. Seattle was famed for

its coal-mines, and claimed to be the coming town of the North Pacific

Coast. So also did its rival, Tacoma, which had been selected as the

terminus of the much-talked-of Northern Pacific Railway. Several

coal-veins of astonishing thickness were discovered the winter before

on the Carbon River, to the east of Tacoma, one of them said to be no

less than twenty-one feet, another twenty feet, another fourteen, with

many smaller ones, the aggregate thickness of all the veins being

upwards of a hundred feet. Large deposits of magnetic iron ore and

brown hematite, together with limestone, had been discovered in

advantageous proximity to the coal, making a bright outlook for the

Sound region in general in connection with its railroad hopes, its

unrivaled timber resources, and its far-reaching geographical


After spending a few weeks in the Puget Sound with a friend from San

Francisco, we engaged passage on the little mail steamer California, at

Portland, Oregon, for Alaska. The sail down the broad lower reaches of

the Columbia and across its foamy bar, around Cape Flattery, and up the

Juan de Fuca Strait, was delightful; and after calling again at

Victoria and Port Townsend we got fairly off for icy Alaska.

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