uncomfortably conscience-stricken in Alaska

 Next morning most of the company seemed uncomfortably

conscience-stricken, and ready to do anything in the way of

compensation for our broken excursion that would not cost too much. It

was not found difficult, therefore, to convince the captain and

disappointed passengers that instead of creeping back to Wrangell

direct we should make an expiatory branch-excursion to the largest of

the three low-descending glaciers we had passed. The Indian pilot, well

acquainted with this part of the coast, declared himself willing to

guide us. The water in these fiord channels is generally deep and safe,

and though at wide intervals rocks rise abruptly here and there,

lacking only a few feet in height to enable them to take rank as

islands, the flat-bottomed Cassiar drew but little more water than a

duck, so that even the most timid raised no objection on this score.

The cylinder-heads of our engines were the main source of anxiety;

provided they could be kept on all might yet be well. But in this

matter there was evidently some distrust, the engineer having

imprudently informed some of the passengers that in consequence of

using salt water in his frothing boilers the cylinder-heads might fly

off at any moment. To the glacier, however, it was at length decided we

should venture.

Arriving opposite the mouth of its fiord, we steered straight inland

between beautiful wooded shores, and the grand glacier came in sight in

its granite valley, glowing in the early sunshine and extending a noble

invitation to come and see. After we passed between the two mountain

rocks that guard the gate of the fiord, the view that was unfolded

fixed every eye in wondering admiration. No words can convey anything

like an adequate conception of its sublime grandeur—the noble

simplicity and fineness of the sculpture of the walls; their

magnificent proportions; their cascades, gardens, and forest

adornments; the placid fiord between them; the great white and blue ice

wall, and the snow-laden mountains beyond. Still more impotent are

words in telling the peculiar awe one experiences in entering these

mansions of the icy North, notwithstanding it is only the natural

effect of appreciable manifestations of the presence of God.

Standing in the gateway of this glorious temple, and regarding it only

as a picture, its outlines may be easily traced, the water foreground

of a pale-green color, a smooth mirror sheet sweeping back five or six

miles like one of the lower reaches of a great river, bounded at the

head by a beveled barrier wall of blueish-white ice four or five

hundred feet high. A few snowy mountain-tops appear beyond it, and on

either hand rise a series of majestic, pale-gray granite rocks from

three to four thousand feet high, some of them thinly forested and

striped with bushes and flowery grass on narrow shelves, especially

about half way up, others severely sheer and bare and built together

into walls like those of Yosemite, extending far beyond the ice

barrier, one immense brow appearing beyond another with their bases

buried in the glacier. This is a Yosemite Valley in process of

formation, the modeling and sculpture of the walls nearly completed and

well planted, but no groves as yet or gardens or meadows on the raw and

unfinished bottom. It is as if the explorer, in entering the Merced

Yosemite, should find the walls nearly in their present condition,

trees and flowers in the warm nooks and along the sunny portions of the

moraine-covered brows, but the bottom of the valley still covered with

water and beds of gravel and mud, and the grand glacier that formed it

slowly receding but still filling the upper half of the valley.

Sailing directly up to the edge of the low, outspread, water-washed

terminal moraine, scarce noticeable in a general view, we seemed to be

separated from the glacier only by a bed of gravel a hundred yards or

so in width; but on so grand a scale are all the main features of the

valley, we afterwards found the distance to be a mile or more.

The captain ordered the Indian deck hands to get out the canoe, take as

many of us ashore as wished to go, and accompany us to the glacier in

case we should need their help. Only three of the company, in the first

place, availed themselves of this rare opportunity of meeting a glacier

in the flesh,—Mr. Young, one of the doctors, and myself. Paddling to

the nearest and driest-looking part of the moraine flat, we stepped

ashore, but gladly wallowed back into the canoe; for the gray mineral

mud, a paste made of fine-ground mountain meal kept unstable by the

tides, at once began to take us in, swallowing us feet foremost with

becoming glacial deliberation. Our next attempt, made nearer the middle

of the valley, was successful, and we soon found ourselves on firm

gravelly ground, and made haste to the huge ice wall, which seemed to

recede as we advanced. The only difficulty we met was a network of icy

streams, at the largest of which we halted, not willing to get wet in

fording. The Indian attendant promptly carried us over on his back.

When my turn came I told him I would ford, but he bowed his shoulders

in so ludicrously persuasive a manner I thought I would try the queer

mount, the only one of the kind I had enjoyed since boyhood days in

playing leapfrog. Away staggered my perpendicular mule over the

boulders into the brawling torrent, and in spite of top-heavy

predictions to the contrary, crossed without a fall. After being

ferried in this way over several more of these glacial streams, we at

length reached the foot of the glacier wall. The doctor simply played

tag on it, touched it gently as if it were a dangerous wild beast, and

hurried back to the boat, taking the portage Indian with him for

safety, little knowing what he was missing. Mr. Young and I traced the

glorious crystal wall, admiring its wonderful architecture, the play of

light in the rifts and caverns, and the structure of the ice as

displayed in the less fractured sections, finding fresh beauty

everywhere and facts for study. We then tried to climb it, and by dint

of patient zigzagging and doubling among the crevasses, and cutting

steps here and there, we made our way up over the brow and back a mile

or two to a height of about seven hundred feet. The whole front of the

glacier is gashed and sculptured into a maze of shallow caves and

crevasses, and a bewildering variety of novel architectural forms,

clusters of glittering lance-tipped spires, gables, and obelisks, bold

outstanding bastions and plain mural cliffs, adorned along the top with

fretted cornice and battlement, while every gorge and crevasse, groove

and hollow, was filled with light, shimmering and throbbing in

pale-blue tones of ineffable tenderness and beauty. The day was warm,

and back on the broad melting bosom of the glacier beyond the crevassed

front, many streams were rejoicing, gurgling, ringing, singing, in

frictionless channels worn down through the white disintegrated ice of

the surface into the quick and living blue, in which they flowed with a

grace of motion and flashing of light to be found only on the crystal

hillocks and ravines of a glacier.

Along the sides of the glacier we saw the mighty flood grinding against

the granite walls with tremendous pressure, rounding outswelling

bosses, and deepening the retreating hollows into the forms they are

destined to have when, in the fullness of appointed time, the huge ice

tool shall be withdrawn by the sun. Every feature glowed with

intention, reflecting the plans of God. Back a few miles from the

front, the glacier is now probably but little more than a thousand feet

deep; but when we examine the records on the walls, the rounded,

grooved, striated, and polished features so surely glacial, we learn

that in the earlier days of the ice age they were all over-swept, and

that this glacier has flowed at a height of from three to four thousand

feet above its present level, when it was at least a mile deep.

Standing here, with facts so fresh and telling and held up so vividly

before us, every seeing observer, not to say geologist, must readily

apprehend the earth-sculpturing, landscape-making action of flowing

ice. And here, too, one learns that the world, though made, is yet

being made; that this is still the morning of creation; that mountains

long conceived are now being born, channels traced for coming rivers,

basins hollowed for lakes; that moraine soil is being ground and

outspread for coming plants,—coarse boulders and gravel for forests,

finer soil for grasses and flowers,—while the finest part of the grist,

seen hastening out to sea in the draining streams, is being stored away

in darkness and builded particle on particle, cementing and

crystallizing, to make the mountains and valleys and plains of other

predestined landscapes, to be followed by still others in endless

rhythm and beauty.

Gladly would we have camped out on this grand old landscape mill to

study its ways and works; but we had no bread and the captain was

keeping the Cassiar whistle screaming for our return. Therefore, in

mean haste, we threaded our way back through the crevasses and down the

blue cliffs, snatched a few flowers from a warm spot on the edge of the

ice, plashed across the moraine streams, and were paddled aboard,

rejoicing in the possession of so blessed a day, and feeling that in

very foundational truth we had been in one of God’s own temples and had

seen Him and heard Him working and preaching like a man.

Steaming solemnly out of the fiord and down the coast, the islands and

mountains were again passed in review; the clouds that so often hide

the mountain-tops even in good weather were now floating high above

them, and the transparent shadows they cast were scarce perceptible on

the white glacier fountains. So abundant and novel are the objects of

interest in a pure wilderness that unless you are pursuing special

studies it matters little where you go, or how often to the same place.

Wherever you chance to be always seems at the moment of all places the

best; and you feel that there can be no happiness in this world or in

any other for those who may not be happy here. The bright hours were

spent in making notes and sketches and getting more of the wonderful

region into memory. In particular a second view of the mountains made

me raise my first estimate of their height. Some of them must be seven

or eight thousand feet at the least. Also the glaciers seemed larger

and more numerous. I counted nearly a hundred, large and small, between

a point ten or fifteen miles to the north of Cape Fanshawe and the

mouth of the Stickeen River. We made no more landings, however, until

we had passed through the Wrangell Narrows and dropped anchor for the

night in a small sequestered bay. This was about sunset, and I eagerly

seized the opportunity to go ashore in the canoe and see what I could

learn. It is here only a step from the marine algæ to terrestrial

vegetation of almost tropical luxuriance. Parting the alders and

huckleberry bushes and the crooked stems of the prickly panax, I made

my way into the woods, and lingered in the twilight doing nothing in

particular, only measuring a few of the trees, listening to learn what

birds and animals might be about, and gazing along the dusky aisles.

In the mean time another excursion was being invented, one of small

size and price. We might have reached Fort Wrangell this evening

instead of anchoring here; but the owners of the Cassiar would then

receive only ten dollars fare from each person, while they had incurred

considerable expense in fitting up the boat for this special trip, and

had treated us well. No, under the circumstances, it would never do to

return to Wrangell so meanly soon.

It was decided, therefore, that the Cassiar Company should have the

benefit of another day’s hire, in visiting the old deserted Stickeen

village fourteen miles to the south of Wrangell.

“We shall have a good time,” one of the most influential of the party

said to me in a semi-apologetic tone, as if dimly recognizing my

disappointment in not going on to Chilcat. “We shall probably find

stone axes and other curiosities. Chief Kadachan is going to guide us,

and the other Indians aboard will dig for us, and there are interesting

old buildings and totem poles to be seen.”

It seemed strange, however, that so important a mission to the most

influential of the Alaskan tribes should end in a deserted village. But

divinity abounded nevertheless; the day was divine and there was plenty

of natural religion in the newborn landscapes that were being baptized

in sunshine, and sermons in the glacial boulders on the beach where we


The site of the old village is on an outswelling strip of ground about

two hundred yards long and fifty wide, sloping gently to the water with

a strip of gravel and tall grass in front, dark woods back of it, and

charming views over the water among the islands—a delightful place. The

tide was low when we arrived, and I noticed that the exposed boulders

on the beach—granite erratics that had been dropped by the melting ice

toward the close of the glacial period—were piled in parallel rows at

right angles to the shore-line, out of the way of the canoes that had

belonged to the village.

Most of the party sauntered along the shore; for the ruins were

overgrown with tall nettles, elder bushes, and prickly rubus vines

through which it was difficult to force a way. In company with the most

eager of the relic-seekers and two Indians, I pushed back among the

dilapidated dwellings. They were deserted some sixty or seventy years

before, and some of them were at least a hundred years old. So said our

guide, Kadachan, and his word was corroborated by the venerable aspect

of the ruins. Though the damp climate is destructive, many of the house

timbers were still in a good state of preservation, particularly those

hewn from the yellow cypress, or cedar as it is called here. The

magnitude of the ruins and the excellence of the workmanship manifest

in them was astonishing as belonging to Indians. For example, the first

dwelling we visited was about forty feet square, with walls built of

planks two feet wide and six inches thick. The ridgepole of yellow

cypress was two feet in diameter, forty feet long, and as round and

true as if it had been turned in a lathe; and, though lying in the damp

weeds, it was still perfectly sound. The nibble marks of the stone adze

were still visible, though crusted over with scale lichens in most

places. The pillars that had supported the ridgepole were still

standing in some of the ruins. They were all, as far as I observed,

carved into life-size figures of men, women, and children, fishes,

birds, and various other animals, such as the beaver, wolf, or bear.

Each of the wall planks had evidently been hewn out of a whole log, and

must have required sturdy deliberation as well as skill. Their

geometrical truthfulness was admirable. With the same tools not one in

a thousand of our skilled mechanics could do as good work. Compared

with it the bravest work of civilized backwoodsmen is feeble and

bungling. The completeness of form, finish, and proportion of these

timbers suggested skill of a wild and positive kind, like that which

guides the woodpecker in drilling round holes, and the bee in making

its cells.

The carved totem-pole monuments are the most striking of the objects

displayed here. The simplest of them consisted of a smooth, round post

fifteen or twenty feet high and about eighteen inches in diameter, with

the figure of some animal on top—a bear, porpoise, eagle, or raven,

about life-size or larger. These were the totems of the families that

occupied the houses in front of which they stood. Others supported the

figure of a man or woman, life-size or larger, usually in a sitting

posture, said to resemble the dead whose ashes were contained in a

closed cavity in the pole. The largest were thirty or forty feet high,

carved from top to bottom into human and animal totem figures, one

above another, with their limbs grotesquely doubled and folded. Some of

the most imposing were said to commemorate some event of an historical

character. But a telling display of family pride seemed to have been

the prevailing motive. All the figures were more or less rude, and some

were broadly grotesque, but there was never any feebleness or obscurity

in the expression. On the contrary, every feature showed grave force

and decision; while the childish audacity displayed in the designs,

combined with manly strength in their execution, was truly wonderful.

The colored lichens and mosses gave them a venerable air, while the

larger vegetation often found on such as were most decayed produced a

picturesque effect. Here, for example, is a bear five or six feet long,

reposing on top of his lichen-clad pillar, with paws comfortably

folded, a tuft of grass growing in each ear and rubus bushes along his

back. And yonder is an old chief poised on a taller pillar, apparently

gazing out over the landscape in contemplative mood, a tuft of bushes

leaning back with a jaunty air from the top of his weatherbeaten hat,

and downy mosses about his massive lips. But no rudeness or

grotesqueness that may appear, however combined with the decorations

that nature has added, may possibly provoke mirth. The whole work is

serious in aspect and brave and true in execution.

Similar monuments are made by other Thlinkit tribes. The erection of a

totem pole is made a grand affair, and is often talked of for a year or

two beforehand. A feast, to which many are invited, is held, and the

joyous occasion is spent in eating, dancing, and the distribution of

gifts. Some of the larger specimens cost a thousand dollars or more.

From one to two hundred blankets, worth three dollars apiece, are paid

to the genius who carves them, while the presents and feast usually

cost twice as much, so that only the wealthy families can afford them.

I talked with an old Indian who pointed out one of the carvings he had

made in the Wrangell village, for which he told me he had received

forty blankets, a gun, a canoe, and other articles, all together worth

about $170. Mr. Swan, who has contributed much information concerning

the British Columbian and Alaskan tribes, describes a totem pole that

cost $2500. They are always planted firmly in the ground and stand

fast, showing the sturdy erectness of their builders.

While I was busy with my pencil, I heard chopping going on at the north

end of the village, followed by a heavy thud, as if a tree had fallen.

It appeared that after digging about the old hearth in the first

dwelling visited without finding anything of consequence, the

archæological doctor called the steamer deck hands to one of the most

interesting of the totems and directed them to cut it down, saw off the

principal figure,—a woman measuring three feet three inches across the

shoulders,—and convey it aboard the steamer, with a view to taking it

on East to enrich some museum or other. This sacrilege came near

causing trouble and would have cost us dear had the totem not chanced

to belong to the Kadachan family, the representative of which is a

member of the newly organized Wrangell Presbyterian Church. Kadachan

looked very seriously into the face of the reverend doctor and pushed

home the pertinent question: “How would you like to have an Indian go

to a graveyard and break down and carry away a monument belonging to

your family?”

However, the religious relations of the parties and a few trifling

presents embedded in apologies served to hush and mend the matter.

Some time in the afternoon the steam whistle called us together to

finish our memorable trip. There was no trace of decay in the sky; a

glorious sunset gilded the water and cleared away the shadows of our

meditations among the ruins. We landed at the Wrangell wharf at dusk,

pushed our way through a group of inquisitive Indians, across the two

crooked streets, and up to our homes in the fort. We had been away only

three days, but they were so full of novel scenes and impressions the

time seemed indefinitely long, and our broken Chilcat excursion, far

from being a failure as it seemed to some, was one of the most

memorable of my life.

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