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Alaska Days with John Muir
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TO W-A-AT T

 

You are a child, old Friend a child!
As light of heart, as free, as wild;
As credulous of fairy tale;
As simple in your faith, as frail
In reason; jealous, petulant;
As crude in manner; ignorant,
Yet wise in love; as rough, as mild
You are a child!
 
You are a man, old Friend a man!
Ah, sure in richer tide ne'er ran
The blood of earth's nobility,
Than through your veins; intrepid, free;
In counsel, prudent; proud and tall;
Of passions full, yet ruling all;
No stauncher friend since time began;
You are a MAN!

III
THE VOYAGE

 THE summer and fall of 1879 Muir always referred to as the most interesting period of his adventurous life. From about the tenth of July to the twentieth of November he was in southeastern Alaska. Very little of this time did he spend indoors. Until steamboat navigation of the Stickeen River was closed by the forming ice, he made frequent trips to the Great Glacier thirty miles up the river, to the Hot Springs, the Mud Glacier and the interior lakes, ranges, forests and flower pastures. Always upon his return (for my house was his home the most of that time) he would be full to intoxication of what he had seen, and dinners would grow cold and lamps burn out while he held us entranced with his impassioned stories. Although his books are all masterpieces of lucid and glowing English, Muir was one of those rare souls who talk better than they write; and he made the trees, the animals, and especially the glaciers, live before us. Somehow a glacier never seemed cold when John Muir was talking about it.

On September nineteenth a little stranger whose expected advent was keeping me at home arrived in the person of our first-born daughter. For two or three weeks preceding and following this event Muir was busy writing his summer notes and finishing his pencil sketches, and also studying the flora of the islands. It was a season of constant rains when the saanah, the southeast rain-wind, blew a gale. But these stormy days and nights, which kept ordinary people indoors, always lured him out into the woods or up the mountains.

One wild night, dark as Erebus, the rain dashing in sheets and the wind blowing a hurricane, Muir came from his room into ours about ten o'clock with his long, gray overcoat and his Scotch cap on.

"Where now?" I asked.

"Oh, to the top of the mountain," he replied. "It is a rare chance to study this fine storm."

My expostulations were in vain. He rejected with scorn the proffered lantern: "It would spoil the effect." I retired at my usual time, for I had long since learned not to worry about Muir. At two o'clock in the morning there came a hammering at the front door. I opened it and there stood a group of our Indians, rain-soaked and trembling Chief Tow-a-att, Moses, Aaron, Matthew, Thomas.

"Why, men," I cried, "what's wrong? What brings you here?"

"We want you play (pray)," answered Matthew.

I brought them into the house, and, putting on my clothes and lighting the lamp, I set about to find out the trouble. It was not easy. They were greatly excited and frightened.

"We scare. All Stickeen scare; plenty cly. We want you play God; plenty play."

By dint of much questioning I gathered at last that the whole tribe were frightened by a mysterious light waving and flickering from the top of the little mountain that overlooked Wrangell; and they wished me to pray to the white man's God and avert dire calamity.

"Some miner has camped there," I ventured.

An eager chorus protested; it was not like the light of a camp-fire in the least; it waved in the air like the wings of a spirit. Besides, there was no gold on the top of a hill like that; and no human being would be so foolish as to camp up there on such a night, when there were plenty of comfortable houses at the foot of the hill. It was a spirit, a malignant spirit.

Suddenly the true explanation flashed into my brain, and I shocked my Indians by bursting into a roar of laughter. In imagination I could see him so plainly John Muir, wet but happy, feeding his fire with spruce sticks, studying and enjoying the storm! But I explained to my natives, who ever afterwards eyed Muir askance, as a mysterious being whose ways and motives were beyond all conjecture.

"Why does this strange man go into the wet woods and up the mountains on stormy nights?" they asked. "Why does he wander alone on barren peaks or on dangerous ice-mountains? There is no gold up there and he never takes a gun with him or a pick. Icta mamook what make? Why why?"

The first week in October saw the culmination of plans long and eagerly discussed. Almost the whole of the Alexandrian Archipelago, that great group of eleven hundred wooded islands that forms the southeastern cup-handle of Alaska, was at that time a terra incognita. The only seaman's chart of the region in existence was that made by the great English navigator, Vancouver, in 1807. It was a wonderful chart, considering what an absurd little sailing vessel he had in which to explore those intricate waters with their treacherous winds and tides.

But Vancouver's chart was hastily made, after all, in a land of fog and rain and snow. He had not the modern surveyor's instruments, boats or other helps. And, besides, this region was changing more rapidly than, perhaps, any other part of the globe. Volcanic islands were being born out of the depths of the ocean; landslides were filling up channels between the islands; tides and rivers were opening new passages and closing old ones; and, more than all, those mightiest tools of the great Engineer, the glaciers, were furrowing valleys, dumping millions of tons of silt into the sea, forming islands, promontories and isthmuses, and by their recession letting the sea into deep and long fiords, forming great bays, inlets and passages, many of which did not exist in Vancouver's time. In certain localities the living glacier stream was breaking off bergs so fast that the resultant bays were lengthening a mile or more each year. Where Vancouver saw only a great crystal wall across the sea, we were to paddle for days up a long and sinuous fiord; and where he saw one glacier, we were to find a dozen.

My mission in the proposed voyage of discovery was to locate and visit the tribes and villages of Thlingets to the north and west of Wrangell, to take their census, confer with their chiefs and report upon their condition, with a view to establishing schools and churches among them. The most of these tribes had never had a visit from a missionary, and I felt the eager zeal an Eliot or a Martin at the prospect of telling them for the first time the Good News. Muir's mission was to find and study the forests, mountains and glaciers. I also was eager to see these and learn about them, and Muir was glad to study the natives with me so our plans fitted into each other well.

"We are going to write some history, my boy," Muir would say to me. "Think of the honor! We have been chosen to put some interesting people and some of Nature's grandest scenes on the page of human record and on the map. Hurry! We are daily losing the most important news of all the world."

In many respects we were most congenial companions. We both loved the same poets and could repeat, verse about, many poems of Tennyson, Keats, Shelley and Burns. He took with him a volume of Thoreau, and I one of Emerson, and we enjoyed them together. I had my printed Bible with me, and he had his in his head the result of a Scotch father's discipline. Our studies supplemented each other and our tastes were similar. We had both lived clean lives and our conversation together was sweet and high, while we both had a sense of humor and a large fund of stories.

But Muir's knowledge of Nature and his insight into her plans and methods were so far beyond mine that, while I was organizer and commander of the expedition, he was my teacher and guide into the inner recesses and meanings of the islands, bays and mountains we explored together.

Our ship for this voyage of discovery, while not so large as Vancouver's, was much more shapely and manageable a kladushu etlan (six fathom) red-cedar canoe. It belonged to our captain, old Chief Tow-a-att, a chief who had lately embraced Christianity with his whole heart one of the simplest, most faithful, dignified and brave souls I ever knew. He fully expected to meet a martyr's death among his heathen enemies of the northern islands; yet he did not shrink from the voyage on that account.

His crew numbered three. First in importance was Kadishan, also a chief of the Stickeens, chosen because of his powers of oratory, his kinship with Chief Shathitch of the Chilcat tribe, and his friendly relations with other chiefs. He was a born courtier, learned in Indian lore, songs and customs, and able to instruct me in the proper Thlinget etiquette to suit all occasions. The other two were sturdy young men Stickeen John, our interpreter, and Sitka Charley. They were to act as cooks, camp-makers, oarsmen, hunters and general utility men.

We stowed our baggage, which was not burdensome, in one end of the canoe, taking a simple store of provisions flour, beans, bacon, sugar, salt and a little dried fruit. We were to depend upon our guns, fishhooks, spears and clamsticks for other diet. As a preliminary to our palaver with the natives we followed the old Hudson Bay custom, then firmly established in the North. We took materials for a potlatch, leaf-tobacco, rice and sugar. Our Indian crew laid in their own stock of provisions, chiefly dried salmon and seal-grease, while our table was to be separate, set out with the white man's viands.

We did not get off without trouble. Kadishan's mother, who looked but little older than himself, strongly objected to my taking her son on so perilous a voyage and so late in the fall, and when her scoldings and entreaties did not avail she said: "If anything happens to my son, I will take your baby as mine in payment."

 

VOYAGES OF MUIR AND YOUNG 1879 and 1880
IN SOUTHEASTERN ALASKA
 

One sunny October day we set our prow to the unknown northwest. Our hearts beat high with anticipation. Every passage between the islands was a corridor leading into a new and more enchanting room of Nature's great gallery. The lapping waves whispered enticing secrets, while the seabirds screaming overhead and the eagles shrilling from the sky promised wonderful adventures.

The voyage naturally divides itself into the human interest and the study of nature; yet the two constantly blended throughout the whole voyage. I can only select a few instances from that trip of six weeks whose every hour was new and strange.

Our captain, taciturn and self-reliant, commanded Muir's admiration from the first. His paddle was sure in the stern, his knowledge of the wind and tide unfailing. Whenever we landed the crew would begin to dispute concerning the best place to make camp. But old Tow-a-att, with the mast in his hand, would march straight as an arrow to the likeliest spot of all, stick down his mast as a tent-pole and begin to set up the tent, the others invariably acquiescing in his decision as the best possible choice.

At our first meal Muir's sense of humor cost us one-third of a roll of butter. We invited our captain to take dinner with us. I got out the bread and other viands, and set the two-pound roll of butter beside the bread and placed both by Tow-a-att. He glanced at the roll of butter and at the three who were to eat, measured with his eye one-third of the roll, cut it off with his hunting knife and began to cut it into squares and eat it with great gusto. I was about to interfere and show him the use we made of butter, but Muir stopped me with a wink. The old chief calmly devoured his third of the roll, and rubbing his stomach with great satisfaction pronounced it "hyas klosh (very good) glease."

Of necessity we had chosen the rainiest season of the year in that dampest climate of North America, where there are two hundred and twenty-five rainy days out of the three hundred and sixty-five. During our voyage it did not rain every day, but the periods of sunshine were so rare as to make us hail them with joyous acclamation.

We steered our course due westward for forty miles, then through a sinuous, island-studded passage called Rocky Strait, stopping one day to lay in a supply of venison before sailing on to the village of the Kake Indians. My habit throughout the voyage, when coming to a native town, was to find where the head chief lived, feed him with rice and regale him with tobacco, and then induce him to call all his chiefs and head men together for a council. When they were all assembled I would give small presents of tobacco to each, and then open the floodgate of talk, proclaiming my mission and telling them in simplest terms the Great New Story. Muir would generally follow me, unfolding in turn some of the wonders of God's handiwork and the beauty of clean, pure living; and then in turn, beginning with the head chief, each Indian would make his speech. We were received with joy everywhere, and if there was suspicion at first old Tow-a-att's tearful pleadings and Kadishan's oratory speedily brought about peace and unity.

These palavers often lasted a whole day and far into the night, and usually ended with our being feasted in turn by the chief in whose house we had held the council. I took the census of each village, getting the heads of the families to count their relatives with the aid of beans, the large brown beans representing men, the large white ones, women, and the small Boston beans, children. In this manner the first census of southeastern Alaska was taken.

Before starting on the voyage, we heard that there was a Harvard graduate, bearing an honored New England name, living among the Kake Indians on Kouyou Island. On arriving at the chief town of that tribe we inquired for the white man and were told that he was camping with the family of a sub-chief at the mouth of a salmon stream. We set off to find him. As we neared the shore we saw a circular group of natives around a fire on the beach, sitting on their heels in the stoical Indian way. We landed and came up to them. Not one of them deigned to rise or show any excitement at our coming. The eight or nine men who formed the group were all dressed in colored four-dollar blankets, with the exception of one, who had on a ragged fragment of a filthy, two-dollar, Hudson Bay blanket. The back of this man was towards us, and after speaking to the chief, Muir and I crossed to the other side of the fire, and saw his face. It was the white man, and the ragged blanket was all the clothing he had upon him! An effort to open conversation with him proved futile. He answered only with grunts and mumbled monosyllables. Thus the most filthy, degraded, hopelessly lost savage that we found in this whole voyage was a college graduate of great New England stock!

"Lift a stone to mountain height and let it fall," said Muir, "and it will sink the deeper into the mud."

At Angoon, one of the towns of the Hootz-noo tribe, occurred an incident of another type. We found this village hilariously drunk. There was a very stringent prohibition law over Alaska at that time, which absolutely forbade the importation of any spirituous liquors into the Territory. But the law was deficient in one vital respect it did not prohibit the importation of molasses; and a soldier during the military occupancy of the Territory had instructed the natives in the art of making rum. The method was simple. A five-gallon oil can was taken and partly filled with molasses as a base; into that alcohol was placed (if it were obtainable), dried apples, berries, potatoes, flour, anything that would rot and ferment; then, to give it the proper tang, ginger, cayenne pepper and mustard were added. This mixture was then set in a warm place to ferment. Another oil can was cut up into long strips, the solder melted out and used to make a pipe, with two or three turns through cool water, forming the worm, and the still. Talk about your forty-rod whiskey I have seen this "hooch," as it was called because these same Hootz-noo natives first made it, kill at more than forty rods, for it generally made the natives fighting drunk.

Through the large company of screaming, dancing and singing natives we made our way to the chief's house. By some miracle this majestic-looking savage was sober. Perhaps he felt it incumbent upon him as host not to partake himself of the luxuries with which he regaled his guests. He took us hospitably into his great community house of split cedar planks with carved totem poles for corner posts, and called his young men to take care of our canoe and to bring wood for a fire that he might feast us. The wife of this chief was one of the finest looking Indian women I have ever met, tall, straight, lithe and dignified. But, crawling about on the floor on all fours, was the most piteous travesty of the human form I have ever seen. It was an idiot boy, sixteen years of age. He had neither the comeliness of a beast nor the intellect of a man. His name was Hootz-too (Bear Heart), and indeed all his motions were those of a bear rather than of a human being. Crossing the floor with the swinging gait of a bear, he would crouch back on his haunches and resume his constant occupation of sucking his wrist, into which he had thus formed a livid hole. When disturbed at this horrid task he would strike with the claw-like fingers of the other hand, snarling and grunting. Yet the beautiful chieftainess was his mother, and she loved him. For sixteen years she had cared for this monster, feeding him with her choicest food, putting him to sleep always in her arms, taking him with her and guarding him day and night. When, a short time before our visit, the medicine men, accusing him of causing the illness of some of the head men of the village, proclaimed him a witch, and the whole tribe came to take and torture him to death, she fought them like a lioness, not counting her own life dear unto her, and saved her boy.

When I said to her thoughtlessly, "Oh, would you not be relieved at the death of this poor idiot boy?" she saw in my words a threat, and I shall never forget the pathetic, hunted look with which she said:

"Oh, no, it must not be; he shall not die. Is he not my son, uh-yeet-kutsku (my dear little son)?"

If our voyage had yielded me nothing but this wonderful instance of mother-love, I should have counted myself richly repaid.

One more human story before I come to Muir's part. It was during the latter half of the voyage, and after our discovery of Glacier Bay. The climax of the trip, so far as the missionary interests were concerned, was our visit to the Chilcat and Chilcoot natives on Lynn Canal, the most northern tribes of the Alexandrian Archipelago. Here reigned the proudest and worst old savage of Alaska, Chief Shathitch. His wealth was very great in Indian treasures, and he was reputed to have cached away in different places several houses full of blankets, guns, boxes of beads, ancient carved pipes, spears, knives and other valued heirlooms. He was said to have stored away over one hundred of the elegant Chilcat blankets woven by hand from the hair of the mountain goat. His tribe was rich and unscrupulous. Its members were the middle-men between the whites and the Indians of the Interior. They did not allow these Indians to come to the coast, but took over the mountains articles purchased from the whites guns, ammunition, blankets, knives and so forth and bartered them for furs. It was said that they claimed to be the manufacturers of these wares and so charged for them what prices they pleased. They had these Indians of the Interior in a bondage of fear, and would not allow them to trade directly with the white men. Thus they carried out literally the story told of Hudson Bay traffic, piling beaver skins to the height of a ten-dollar Hudson Bay musket as the price of the musket. They were the most quarrelsome and warlike of the tribes of Alaska, and their villages were full of slaves procured by forays upon the coasts of Vancouver Island, Puget Sound, and as far south as the mouth of the Columbia River. I was eager to visit these large and untaught tribes, and establish a mission among them.

About the first of November we came in sight of the long, low-built village of Yin-des-tuk-ki. As we paddled up the winding channel of the Chilcat River we saw great excitement in the town. We had hoisted the American flag, as was our custom, and had put on our best apparel for the occasion. When we got within long musket-shot of the village we saw the native men come rushing from their houses with their guns in their hands and mass in front of the largest house upon the beach. Then we were greeted by what seemed rather too warm a reception a shower of bullets falling unpleasantly around us. Instinctively Muir and I ceased to paddle, but Tow-a-att commanded, "Ut-ha, ut-ha! pull, pull!" and slowly, amid the dropping bullets, we zigzagged our way up the channel towards the village. As we drew near the shore a line of runners extended down the beach to us, keeping within shouting distance of each other. Then came the questions like bullets "Gusu-wa-eh? Who are you? Whence do you come? What is your business here?" And Stickeen John shouted back the reply:

 

CHILCAT WOMAN WEAVING A BLANKET
Chief Shathitch was said to have over one hundred of the elegant Chilcat blankets, woven by hand, from the hair of the mountain goat

 "A great preacher-chief and a great ice-chief have come to bring you a good message."

The answer was shouted back along the line, and then returned a message of greeting and welcome. We were to be the guests of the chief of Yin-des-tuk-ki, old Don-na-wuk (Silver Eye), so called because he was in the habit of wearing on all state occasions a huge pair of silver-bowed spectacles which a Russian officer had given him. He confessed he could not see through them, but thought they lent dignity to his countenance. We paddled slowly up to the village, and Muir and I, watching with interest, saw the warriors all disappear. As our prow touched the sand, however, here they came, forty or fifty of them, without their guns this time, but charging down upon us with war-cries, "Hoo-hooh, hoo-hooh," as if they were going to take us prisoners. Dashing into the water they ranged themselves along each side of the canoe; then lifting up our canoe with us in it they rushed with excited cries up the bank to the chief's house and set us down at his door. It was the Thlinget way of paying us honor as great guests.

Then we were solemnly ushered into the presence of Don-na-wuk. His house was large, covering about fifty by sixty feet of ground. The interior was built in the usual fashion of a chief's house carved corner posts, a square of gravel in the center of the room for the fire surrounded by great hewn cedar planks set on edge; a platform of some six feet in width running clear around the room; then other planks on edge and a high platform, where the chieftain's household goods were stowed and where the family took their repose. A brisk fire was burning in the middle of the room; and after a short palaver, with gifts of tobacco and rice to the chief, it was announced that he would pay us the distinguished honor of feasting us first.

It was a never-to-be-forgotten banquet. We were seated on the lower platform with our feet towards the fire, and before Muir and me were placed huge washbowls of blue Hudson Bay ware. Before each of our native attendants was placed a great carved wooden trough, holding about as much as the washbowls. We had learned enough Indian etiquette to know that at each course our respective vessels were to be filled full of food, and we were expected to carry off what we could not devour. It was indeed a "feast of fat things." The first course was what, for the Indian, takes the place of bread among the whites, dried salmon. It was served, a whole washbowlful for each of us, with a dressing of seal-grease. Muir and I adroitly manuvred so as to get our salmon and seal-grease served separately; for our stomachs had not been sufficiently trained to endure that rancid grease. This course finished, what was left was dumped into receptacles in our canoe and guarded from the dogs by young men especially appointed for that purpose. Our washbowls were cleansed and the second course brought on. This consisted of the back fat of the deer, great, long hunks of it, served with a gravy of seal-grease. The third course was little Russian potatoes about the size of walnuts, dished out to us, a washbowlful, with a dressing of seal-grease. The final course was the only berry then in season, the long fleshy apple of the wild rose mellowed with frost, served to us in the usual quantity with the invariable sauce of seal-grease.

"Mon, mon!" said Muir aside to me, "I'm fashed we'll be floppin' aboot i' the sea, whiles, wi' flippers an' forked tails."

When we had partaken of as much of this feast of fat things as our civilized stomachs would stand, it was suddenly announced that we were about to receive a visit from the great chief of the Chilcats and the Chilcoots, old Chief Shathitch (Hard-to-Kill). In order to properly receive His Majesty, Muir and I and our two chiefs were each given a whole bale of Hudson Bay blankets for a couch. Shathitch made us wait a long time, doubtless to impress us with his dignity as supreme chief.

The heat of the fire after the wind and cold of the day made us very drowsy. We fought off sleep, however, and at last in came stalking the biggest chief of all Alaska, clothed in his robe of state, which was an elegant chinchilla blanket; and upon its yellow surface, as the chief slowly turned about to show us what was written thereon, we were astonished to see printed in black letters these words, "To Chief Shathitch, from his friend, William H. Seward!" We learned afterwards that Seward, in his voyage of investigation, had penetrated to this far-off town, had been received in royal state by the old chief and on his return to the States had sent back this token of his appreciation of the chief's hospitality. Whether Seward was regaled with viands similar to those offered to us, history does not relate.

To me the inspiring part of that voyage came next day, when I preached from early morning until midnight, only occasionally relieved by Muir and by the responsive speeches of the natives.

"More, more; tell us more," they would cry. "It is a good talk; we never heard this story before." And when I would inquire, "Of what do you wish me now to talk?" they would always say, "Tell us more of the Man from Heaven who died for us."

Runners had been sent to the Chilcoot village on the eastern arm of Lynn Canal, and twenty-five miles up the Chilcat River to Shathitch's town of Klukwan; and as the day wore away the crowd of Indians had increased so greatly that there was no room for them in the large house. I heard a scrambling upon the roof, and looking up I saw a row of black heads around the great smoke-hole in the center of the roof. After a little a ripping, tearing sound came from the sides of the building. They were prying off the planks in order that those outside might hear. When my voice faltered with long talking Tow-a-att and Kadishan took up the story, telling what they had learned of the white man's religion; or Muir told the eager natives wonderful things about what the great one God, whose name is Love, was doing for them. The all-day meeting was only interrupted for an hour or two in the afternoon, when we walked with the chiefs across the narrow isthmus between Pyramid Harbor and the eastern arm of Lynn Canal, and I selected the harbor, farm and townsite now occupied by Haines mission and town and Fort William H. Seward. This was the beginning of the large missions of Haines and Klukwan.


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