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the ocean bring warm water to the very base of these lofty mountains,
thus furnishing an evaporating surface in close proximity to cold peaks
where the vapors are condensed. About Mount St. Elias, as shown by
two seasons spent by the writer in exploring that region, the winds from
the south are warm and moist, and are almost invariably accompanied by
clouds and snowstorms on the mountains. The north winds are dry, and
are especially welcome, as they are frequently accompanied by clear skies
and brilliant sunshine. The conditions, taken all together, are remarkably
favorable for the growth of glaciers.


Narratives of Early Voyagers. The early voyagers to the southern
shore of Alaska saw many bodies of ice, some of which we now know are
extensive glaciers. Sir Edward Belcher, in his account of the voyage of
the Sulphur, makes brief mention of cliffs of ice on the borders of Icy
bay, near the the foot of Mount St. Elias.

In the account of Vancouver's voyages, bodies of ice, terminating in
cliffs at the water's edge, are mentioned as being numerous on the borders
of Prince William sound. In the same narrative brief descriptions are
given of an accumulation of ice in an arm of Stephen's passage, northwest
of Sitka, and also among the mountains along the coast opposite Admi-
ralty island. Two large bays opening north and west from Point
Couverdeen are described as terminating in solid mountains of ice rising
perpendicularly from the water's edge. Beyond the brief statement of
the presence of large masses of ice at sea level, the narratives of the bold
explorers who first sailed along the wild Alaskan coast are of little interest
to the special student of glacial phenomena.

Some of the glaciers along the northern bank of Stikine river were
visited by Professor William P. Blake 1 in 1863. These ice bodies are of
the alpine type, and descend nearly to the level of the river. A popular
account of the remarkable scenery of the Stikine river, in which glaciers
play a conspicuous part, was given by W. H. Bell, together with greatly
exaggerated illustrations, in Scribner's Monthly for April, 1879.

The positions of many glaciers to be seen from the decks of passing
vessels between the mouth of Stikine river and Cook's inlet, a distance
of about 1000 miles, have been indicated from time to time on the charts
published by the U. S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. Brief accounts of
the fine glaciers of Glacier bay were published by G. W. Lamplugh, in
Nature, 2 in 1886, but did not serve to make the wonders of that region
generally known. Among the earlier accounts of the glaciers of Alaska,
the most noteworthy are those from the pen of Dr. W. H. Dall, the
pioneer explorer of the Yukon river and the author of a justly celebrated
work on " Alaska and its Resources."

This brief account of the sources of information relating to the
glaciers of the Alaskan region available in 1883, when the author's sketch
of the " Glaciers of the United States " was written, brings us to the time

1 Blake's observations were the earliest made in southeastern Alaska that have much
scientific value, and were recorded in the American Journal of Science, vol. 44, 1867, pp.
99-101. Republished with a map, in a report to the Secretary of State, bearing the title,
" Geographical Notes upon Russian America and the Stickeen River. Washington, 1868."

2 Vol. 33, pp. 299-301.


when a wide interest was awakened in the natural features of the " Far

Recent Explorations. Of the more recent Alaskan explorers we
are indebted especially to John Muir, who discovered the magnificent
glacier since named in his honor, as well as many others that come down
to the sea, or may be seen from a canoe while threading the intricate
straits and bays of the southeastern portion of the territory. More
recently the glaciers of Glacier bay have been studied by Professor G.
Frederick Wright and Professor H. Fielding Reid, and the still vaster ice
streams in the regions about Mount St. Elias and Disenchantment bay
have been visited and described by a number of persons. Reference to
the principal contributions to the literature that has grown out of these
explorations are given in the following footnote. 1

Some of the glaciers flowing northward from the mountains of
southern Alaska were examined and their positions mapped by Dr. C.
Willard Hayes, of the IL S. Geological Survey, during a bold and highly
successful exploration from the Yukon to Copper river, in company with
Lieutenant Frederick Schwatka, in 1891. 2 Other northward-flowing
glaciers were observed by E. J. Glave in 1891 and 1892, to the north-
west of the head of Lynn canal.

In addition to the writings of the travelers referred to above, much

1 John Muir, "Alaska," in Am. Geol., vol. 11, 1893, pp. 287-299.

G. F. Wright, ''The Ice Age in North America, 1 ' Appleton & Co., 1889.

H. Fielding Reid, " Studies of Muir Glacier," in National Geographic Magazine
(Washington, D.C.), vol. 4, 1892, pp. 19-84.

Frederick Schwatka, " The Expedition of the New York Times," in Century Magazine,
April, 1891.

William Libbey, Jr., "Some of the Geographic Features of Southeastern Alaska," in
Am. Geog. Soc., Bull., 1886, pp. 279-300.

H. W. Seton-Karr, " Shores and Alps of Alaska," London, 1887.

H.W. Seton-Karr, "Alpine Regions of Alaska," in Roy. Geog. Soc., Proc. (London),
vol. 9, pp. 269-285.

William Williams, "Climbing Mount St. Elias," in Scribner's Magazine, vol. 5, 1889,
pp. 387-403.

H. W. Topham, "An Expedition to Mount St. Elias," in the Alpine Journal (London),
vol. 14, 1889, pp. 345-371.

I. C. Russell, "An Expedition to Mount St. Elias" (1890), in National Geographic
Magazine (Washington, D.C.), vol. 3, 1891, pp. 53-203.

I. C. Russell, " Second Expedition to Mount St. Elias," 1891, in 13th Ann. Rep. U. S.
Geol. Surv., pp. 1-91.

John Muir, Century Magazine, vol. 50, 1895, pp. 234-247.

2 "An Expedition to the Yukon District," in National Geographic Magazine (Wash-
ington, D.C.), vol. 4, 1892, pp. 117-162.


popular interest in the subject here treated has been awakened by the
enthusiastic narratives of tourists who have made trips on the excursion
steamers sailing from Puget sound through the celebrated "inland
passage " to Taku inlet, Lynn canal, Glacier bay, etc.

From this brief summary it will be seen that the literature relating
to the glaciers of the Alaskan region is already voluminous. Instead of
attempting to give a detailed account of all the glaciers that have been
described, a few of the best-known examples will be selected as types.
These may be taken as representatives of the many hundred already
known, and as indicating the principal features of the probably still
greater number that have only been seen from a distance or remain to be


It is convenient to give a special name to glaciers which enter the
ocean and break off so as to form bergs. One should bear in mind, how-
ever, that the ice streams or ice sheets which terminate in this manner do
not differ from neighboring glaciers that fail to reach the sea, except
in the fact that they actually meet tide-water. But the striking appear-
ance of their broken extremities rising in sheer precipices above the surf
that beats against their bases, renders them especially noteworthy and
warrants their having a special designation.

The tide-water glaciers of Alaska are the ones that claim the greatest
share of admiration from tourists on account of the wonderful coloring
and marvelous beauty of their ice cliffs and the picturesqueness of the
floating islands of ice to which they give origin. The approach to a tide-
water glacier is usually first made known by the fleet of bergs that dot
the water and chill the atmosphere. These become more numerous as
one proceeds, and many times completely cover the water before the ice
cliffs from which they came can be seen. Indeed, at times, the floating
bergs form an impenetrable pack through which it is impossible for a
vessel to advance. The vicinity of a glacier which terminates in the sea
is frequently made manifest also by the roar of avalanches, as fresh masses
of ice fall from its face and join the fleet of gleaming bergs crowding the
adjacent waters. The noise of the falling fragments may be heard many
miles, and sounds like distant thunder or the discharge of heavy guns.

When a large tide-water glacier is seen for the first time, the beholder
is fascinated by its beauty, especially if it is illuminated by a brilliant
sun, and learns a new lesson, for the reason that the scene is so different


from the popular idea of the appearance of glaciers, derived principally
from the well-known ice streams of Switzerland.

In going to Alaska by the customary " inland passage," through the
picturesque archipelago fringing the coast from Puget sound northward,
the first floating ice is usually seen soon after passing through Wrangell
narrows and emerging into an arm of Frederick sound. These bergs come
from a small glacier long known to the Indians as Hutli, or the thunderer,
on account of the noise produced by ice falling from its face. 1 The glacier
is hidden by the bold, forest-covered shores of Hutli inlet, and is not seen
by travelers along the course ordinarily followed by vessels.

Proceeding northward, glimpses are obtained here and there on the
mountains of the mainland, of gleaming snow fields and of the blue of
glacial ice, rising above the nearly universal green of the forest-covered
shores. The first unobstructed view of a large glacier is not had, however,
until one enters a wild fiord known as Taku inlet. On the northwest
shore of this indentation of the coast, and seen on the left as one enters
it from the sea, a stream of ice descends from the mountains and expands
into a broad, fan-like terminus at the margin of the water. This is the
Norris glacier shown on Plate 11. The mud and sand brought out by the
streams issuing from the ice have formed a fringe about its terminus, so
that it is now separated from the water of the inlet by a barren plain of
sand and mud crossed by many bifurcating streams.


The comparative mildness of the scenery at the Norris glacier does
not prepare one for the marvels that await him a few miles beyond. At
the head of Taku inlet, and filling the gorge from side to side so as to
hold the waters of the ocean in check, is a wall of ice formed by the
extremity of a typical tide-water glacier. This is the Taku glacier, as it
has long been called by both Indians and white people. Unfortunately
an attempt has recently been made by the U. S. Coast and Geodetic
Survey 2 to supplant this name by another less appropriate.

1 This glacier was first seen by John Muir, and the Indian name which he accepted
should be recognized. See American Geologist, vol. 2, p. 291.

2 The Hutli and Norris glaciers referred to above, as well as several others in south-
eastern Alaska, have also suffered a recent change of name on the charts of the U. S. Coast
and Geodetic Survey. I wish to protest against this useless duplication, especially when the
names of persons temporarily in political power, and for this reason simply, are put in place
of names long in use, and especially of pronounceable Indian names.


Taku glacier heads far back in the mountains, no one knows where,
and flows toward the coast as a well-defined ice stream. It is yet in its
full strength when it reaches an arm of the sea and enters on an unequal
struggle with the waves. The wall of ice rising above the water is by
estimate 200 feet high, and nearly a mile in length. Its face is not one
sheer precipice, but is broken into buttresses and columns and diversified
by alcoves and recesses. Its crest line is irregular and serrate, and
surmounted by spires and battlements of the most varied description.
The details of the craggy slope are constantly changing and are never
the same for two successive days. In fact, marked changes occur from
hour to hour as fresh masses fall into the sea. The rapid waste, manifest
especially on summer days, is counterbalanced by the resistless onward
flow of the ice, so that but slight changes in the position of the terminus
can be recognized from year to year. Like many glaciers in the same
region its extremity is- probably slowly retreating, however, but no meas-
urements have been made to show the rate of recession.

The color of the fractured and cleft ice cliffs is as varied and beautiful
as their ever-changing forms. The surfaces that have been longest
exposed to the atmosphere are white and glittering, on account of the
multitude of vesicles formed in the partially melted ice ; but the clefts
and caverns reveal the intense blue of the crystal mass within. In the
deeper recesses the light issuing from the interior is of the darkest ultra-
marine, so deep that it appears almost black in contrast with the brilliant
outer surface. In the full glory of an unclouded summer day the scene
becomes resplendent with the reflected glories of the sea and sky. The
ice cliffs blaze and flash in the sunlight until one can scarcely believe that
it is an everyday, earthly scene that meets his admiring gaze. The
observer to whom such wonders are novel may well fancy that the picture
before him is but the fantasy of a dream. One is awakened from such
reverie, however, by a crash like the roar of artillery, when an avalanche
falls from the cliffs of light and is engulfed in the turbid waters below.
The white foam shot upwards by the avalanche, rises high on ihe icy preci-
pice, and perhaps dislodges other tottering pinnacles, which reawaken
the echoes in the neighboring mountains. After each crash, crested
waves, starting away from the scene of commotion, set numerous bergs
rocking, and break in lines of foam on the adjacent shore. Floating ice
frequently whitens the entire surface of Taku inlet, and is occasionally
carried by the wayward currents far out into Stevens' passage and up
Gastineau channel to beyond the town of Juneau.


In former years Taku glacier extended far south of its present
terminus and received Norris glacier as a tributary. The former height
of the ice is clearly marked by the smoothed and rounded surfaces of the
cliffs, and by grooves and striations, for about 2000 feet above the water,
on the precipitous mountains enclosing the inlet. Above that height the
rough and angular sculpturing due to frost, rain, and rills is in marked
contrast to the ice-worn surfaces below. The glacier is still receding,
and in a decade or two will probably have shrunken so that it will no
longer reach the inlet, but will end as Norris glacier now does, with a low
frontal slope. The waters from the glacier will then build an alluvial
plain about its extremity, and it will acquire the subdued and unpic-
turesque features characteristic of dying alpine glaciers.


(A map of Muir glacier is given on Plate 12.)

Proceeding westward from Taku inlet, the next tide-water glacier is
met with in Glacier bay. Several glaciers there pour their icy floods into
a land-locked arm of the sea. The wonders of this splendid bay, now
familiar to thousands of tourists, were unknown to civilized people
fifteen years ago. The bay and the magnificent glacier on its shores were
discovered by John Muir, the intrepid mountain climber and poetic writer
of California, in 1878. His account of the pioneer trip to Sita-da-ka, as
the bay was called by his Indian companions, has recently been pub-
lished, and is a most graphic and interesting account of a canoe trip
among the islands of southeastern Alaska. 1

One of the largest and at present the best-known glacier entering
Glacier bay has been named Muir glacier, in honor of its discoverer. In
1886, Prof. G. Frederick Wright, with three companions, encamped for
about a month near the eastern end of the ice cliffs in which it termi-
nates, and began the study of its general features, its motions, the forma-
tion of icebergs, etc. 2

The observations begun by Wright were continued and greatly

!This brief account of explorations in southeastern Alaska was first published as a
" folder " by the Northern Pacific Railroad Co. and afterward printed in the American Geol-
ogist, vol. 11, 1893, pp. 287-299. A revision of this charming paper, accompanied by fine
illustrations, appeared in Century Magazine, vol. 50, 1895, pp. 234-247.

2 The principal account of these observations may be found in Wright's book, " The Ice
Age in North America," Appleton & Co., 1889.




Surveyed tvifh Plant Table

1890. by


extended by Prof. H. Fielding Reid, and a number of assistants, in 1890, l
and again in 1892.

The present writer visited Muir glacier in 1890, as a passenger on the
excursion steamer Queen, and spent a few hours in viewing the general
features of the region. Nearly all of the facts presented below in reference
to the more detailed characteristics of the glacier, however, are taken
from the reports of Professors Wright and Reid.

On entering Glacier bay from Icy strait, one sees before him a mag-
nificent inlet, the head of which is beyond the reach of vision. The bay
is 35 miles long and from six to ten miles broad. To the west rises a
group of snow-clad and glacier-scored mountains, culminating in Mt.
Fairweather, over 15,000 feet high. The ice flowing from the northeast
slope of this rugged elevation reaches the western shore of Glacier bay
and forms a series of splendid tide-water glaciers. These were explored
and mapped by Reid in 1892, but an account of them has not yet been
published, although their names and positions are sometimes roughly
indicated on charts of the bay.

As one proceeds up the Glacier bay large fields of floating ice are
usually encountered and numerous bergs are always in sight. These
floating fragments of glacial ice are driven here and there by the winds
and currents, so that the details of the arctic picture are constantly chang-
ing. At times, the ice is packed in such a way that it is difficult if not
impossible for vessels to force a passage through it so as to gain the im-
mediate vicinity of the glacier beyond.

The truly wonderful scenery of Glacier bay appeals most forcibly to
the imagination during the lengthened twilights of summer. The
latitude corresponds with that of the extreme north of Scotland. In
summer the sun declines but a few degrees below the northern horizon
and the nights are sufficiently light to reveal the white-robed mountains
in half-tones of the most delicate beauty. At such times the thousands
of bergs and the broad ice-floes are transformed by the tricks of the
mirage into shapes of the most remarkable description. Vast cities, with
colonades and ruined temples, towers and battlements, appear with mar-
velous realism where only a few moments before there was but a glassy
plain of water studded with fragments of floating ice. Sheaf-like foun-
tains and monumental shafts appear with such faithful imagery that one
is more than half inclined to yield to the delusion and believe that the

1 A report on this survey was published by Reid in the National Geographic Magazine,
vol. 4, 1892, pp. 19-48.


apparitions are real. The weird beauty of the expanse of ice-freighted
waters and the cold, stern, snow-covered mountains, as well as the lively
anticipation of what is to come, make a sail on those northern waters, in
brilliant weather, an event that thrills the fancy and leaves an indelible
picture on the memory.

On nearing the head of Glacier bay and approaching Muir inlet, one
beholds a palisade of ice nearly two miles long and from 130 to 210 feet
high, rising from the water and uniting mountain with mountain and
forming a wall across the head of the inlet so as to hold back the waters
of the ocean. This wall of ice, shown on Plate 1 3, is the extremity of the
justly famed Muir glacier. As one draws near, the surface of the glacier
can be seen above and beyond the line of precipices in which it termi-
nates. The eye follows the gradually ascending plain of white to the
distant mountains, where it divides into many branches, separated by
wild, rugged peaks that stand as islands in the vast snow field.

Soundings made in the central portion of the inlet as near to the ice
front as vessels can safely venture, by estimate a thousand yards from
the base of the cliffs, gave a depth of 720 feet. The glacier extended
south of its present limit a few years since and occupied the site where
this sounding was taken, and was then certainly fully one thousand feet
thick. There are reasons for believing that recent changes have not
sensibly altered the depth of the ice.

Surveys made by Reid have shown that the onward flow of the ice
near the end of the glacier, in its central portion, is seven feet per day,
and decreases to zero at the sides. 1 Knowing the width and thickness of
the ice and its rate of flow, it has been computed that about thirty million
cubic feet of ice break away each summer day and join the fleet of bergs
that whiten the adjacent waters. The flow of the ice in winter is less
than in summer, but no winter measurements have been made. Judging
from the behavior of other glaciers, it seems safe to assume that the
annual onward flow where the- current is strongest is not less than 2000

The color of the ice wall in which the Muir glacier terminates is of
the same marvelous character as already noted at Taku glacier. It is
especially remarkable for the deep ultramarine of the recesses. The
multitude of pinnacles and spires forming the serrate crest, as well as
each outstanding buttress of the mighty wall, are brilliant white. The

1 S. Prentiss Baldwin, " Recent Changes in Muir Glacier," in American Geologist, vol.
11, pp. 367-375.



contrast in color and in form are greatest and most beautiful when the
side lights of morning and evening bring out the details in strong relief.
The crumbling cliffs are a ruin that is constantly renewed. The resist-
ance offered by individual features to the sun and air is brief, but new
forms take the place of those that succumb, and the general effect remains
the same. One never wearies of watching the ever-changing picture pre-
sented by the long line of cliffs in varying lights, or of studying the
formation of bergs as buttress after buttress gives way to the attacks of
the waves and topples over into the sea.

Iceberg-s. The avalanches from the faces of tide-water glaciers take
place without warning and are frequently startling. The roar of the
falling masses on hot summer days is sometimes almost continuous.


Muir states that in the case of the glacier named in his honor, for twelve
consecutive hours the number of discharges loud enough to be heard a
mile or two were, by actual count, one in five or six minutes. The dis-
lodged masses falling into the sea cause great disturbances, and send the
white foam surging high up on the cliffs. On one occasion, while
traversing the surface of Muir glacier near its extremity, my attention
was attracted to a pinnacle higher than its neighbors, on the brink of the
precipice overlooking the water. While I was still gazing, it suddenly
disappeared from sight, and after a few seconds a cloud of spray rose in
its place. This is the only instance I recall in which the spray dashed
upward by falling ice rose higher than the general level of the crest of
the precipice from which it was detached.


The icebergs of Glacier bay and other portions of the Alaskan coast
are small in comparison with those of the Greenland waters. Actual
measurements are not at hand ; but after several canoe trips among the
floating ice, I should judge that the larger bergs are frequently 150 to
200 feet long by 50 to 100 feet broad, and rise 20 to 30 feet above the
water. As they float with about one-seventh of their mass exposed, their
total depth can be readily estimated.

In sailing up Muir inlet or any other arm of the sea on the wild
Alaskan shore where tide-water glaciers discharge, one notices that the
bergs vary in character, but may be grouped in three quite well-defined
classes. Some are of dazzling whiteness ; others are of the color of tur-
quoise or beryl ; others, again, are dark with dirt and stones. On watch-

Online LibraryIsrael C. (Israel Cook) RussellGlaciers of North America; a reading lesson for students of geography and geology → online text (page 9 of 24)