A 3,000-Mile Trip Reveals Alaska Natural Wonders in Trouble

Retracing a famous environmentalist's journey almost 120 years ago, an author discovers a very different Alaska.

On Memorial Day 1899, a lavishly equipped steamship belonging to railroad tycoon William H. Harriman set sail from Seattle for Alaska on a voyage that would change America’s destiny. Among those on board were naturalist John Muir, who had recently founded the Sierra Club, and George Bird Grinnell, founder of the Audubon Society. Together, they marveled at the pristine forests and majestic glaciers along the Inner Passage, and on their return vowed to persuade President Theodore Roosevelt to protect them.

In his new book, Tip of the Iceberg, best-selling travel writer Mark Adams retraces their historic journey, meeting and talking to Alaskans along the way. What he discovers is a very different place, where glaciers are melting and drilling for oil is allowed in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, as President Donald Trump seems intent on reversing a Republican predecessor’s historic achievements.

Speaking from his home in Pelham, New York, the author explains how the Tlingit people of Alaska helped shape Muir’s views on nature; how Alaskans get more hand-outs from the government than residents of any other state, though they love to depict themselves as rugged individualists, and why Alaska remains a magnet for people who want to reinvent themselves.

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Your journey follows in the wake of a historic voyage up the Alaskan coast by John Muir at the end of the 19th century. Set the scene for us and describe the voyage’s organizer, Edward H Harriman. He was a bit of a Gilded Age Trump, wasn’t he?

I don’t know if I’d go so far as to use strong language like “Trump.” [laughs] John Muir took several trips to Alaska. Probably the two most important were the first and the last. He went up in 1879 and was one of the first white people to visit the northern region of what we now call the Inside Passage, and to get in and map what is now Glacier Bay National Park. He saw the phenomenal glaciers up there, returned the next year, and wrote a series of travel dispatches for San Francisco newspapers that were so evocative that within 10 years an entire industry of steam ships going up the west coast of Alaska had begun to thrive. Today, more than a million people will take that cruise; it’s one of the most popular tour destinations in the world. So, you could say John Muir is the father of Alaskan cruise tourism.

Fast forward 20 years to Edward Harriman, a recent multi-millionaire from the railroad business. He had spent the previous summer going over every inch of his Union Pacific track, much of it sitting on the front of a cow catcher, looking for flaws. [laughs] So, by the end of 1898, he’s completely exhausted. His doctor says to him, “Look, you’re taking the summer of 1899 off.” Harriman, being a man of means, said, “Okay, I’m going to take one of these fashionable Alaska vacations up the coast! But what I’m going to do is refit one of my steam ships as a gigantic luxury yacht holding more than 100 people and invite along two dozen of America’s top natural scientists, artists and writers.”

Obviously, one of the first people to invite is John Muir. Muir is a little skeptical at first. He doesn’t like industrialists that much, and by this time he’s founded the Sierra Club out in California. So he originally turns Harriman down. His friend, Hart Merriam, who was the head of what was then the U.S. Biological Survey, convinces him. “John, you’re going to get to see glaciers you’ve never seen before because we’re going to go in places along the Alaska coast that almost no one has ever visited outside of native Alaskans,” he says. So, come Memorial Day 1899, this shipload of scientists and Edward Harriman’s family, including his children, takes off from Seattle.

Climate 101: Glaciers Glaciers appear on almost every continent. However, they are rapidly melting due to the warming climate. Find out how glaciers form and other interesting facts about glaciers.

You describe Alaska’s ice sheets in the century since Muir traveled there as “dissolving like a popsicle in the sun.” What evidence did you find of climate change? And why are so many Alaskans in denial?

So many Alaskans are in denial for the same reason so many Americans are in denial, which is, they’re fed a steady diet of misinformation. People look outside and see it’s snowing, so therefore the climate can’t be warming. [laughs] But 99 percent of the tidewater glaciers, the ones everybody wants to see on an Alaska cruise, are retreating. A few of them are not and people such as former Governor Sarah Palin have used this as evidence: “Look, some glaciers in Alaska are growing; therefore climate change must be fake.” But the reason those glaciers are growing is that they’re building from ice and snow that began falling before Columbus first crossed the Atlantic Ocean, and are only now finally just getting down to water!

A U.S. Geographical Society scientist named Bruce Molnia does what he calls repeat photography, comparing photos from the late 19th century with ones from the present day from the same exact vantage point. The classic example is Muir Glacier in Glacier Bay, named for John Muir. Up until the turn of the 20th century it was the most famous tourist attraction in Alaska: this big, gorgeous, blue glacier with a 300-foot ice face. But Muir Glacier has now retreated 30 miles! It’s all the way up out of the water and you have to make a special trip to see it now. But nobody does because it’s not impressive anymore.

Muir and the rest of his explorers had extensive contact with the Tlingit people. Tell us about this tribe, and how their views on nature and the environment may have influenced Muir.

The Tlingit, like many of the people of the Pacific Northwest, were a sort of animist society; they believed that nature was infused in all living things. This very much jibed with John Muir’s capital “N” nature worship. So, when John Muir got into the upper reaches of the Inside Passage in 1879 and 1880, and started preaching, because he was there with a Presbyterian missionary and they were both expected to speak, it struck a chord with the Tlingit. For the first time, these clans thought, “Finally there’s a white man who understands us.”

And vice versa. There’s a famous story Muir told about a dog named Stickeen, who followed Muir on one of his most dangerous day trips out on a glacier. Muir wrote a small book about it and there’s no question he felt Stickeen had a soul. That might be traceable to a moment on his first trip when one of the Tlingit guides said to Muir, “Do you believe that animals have souls, that wolves have souls?” There was a lot of interchange between Muir and his guides, and they probably fed off each other a lot.

You say, “Alaskans see themselves as an extremely self-reliant people.” Yet they also receive the highest government subsidies of any state. Doesn’t the one contradict the other?

[Laughs] Oh, it absolutely does! I spoke to a former state economist and he said that the thinking from the Alaskan point of view is, this is a very young state, the country gets a lot of natural resources out of Alaska, it’s very large, and the topography makes it very difficult to get around, so of course we’re going to need some sort of subsidy until at some point Alaska develops a large enough population to be self-sufficient.

What a lot of Alaskans don’t talk about is that every single man, woman, and child in Alaska receives a royalty check from oil revenues every single year. You’ve got a state that is essentially melting. And yet for 50 years the Republican contingent in Washington from Alaska has been pushing to begin drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, an absolutely gorgeous, pristine chunk of land. Last year, they finally succeeded.

People who come to Alaska looking to escape from civilization are called “end-of-the-roaders.” Introduce us to some of these characters and explain why Alaska attracts them.

A friend who grew up there said, “There are three kinds of people in Alaska: the natives who have been there forever, people who go to Alaska to find something, usually a way to get rich quickly, working the salmon canneries or panning for gold. But probably the most interesting people are those who come to Alaska running away from something.

Richard Beneville, the mayor of Nome, is one of those people. He was a Broadway chorus performer up until the early 80s, and had a horrible drinking problem. He said he drank himself out of a career and through connections with his brother ended up in Nome, one of the hardest-drinking towns in America, and that’s where he got sober. [laughs]

If Americans are the people who love to reinvent themselves, Alaska is the crucible in which you can become whoever you want to be. If you want to be a loner who pans for gold and never speaks to another human being again, you can do that. Or, if you want to go off to Nome to cure yourself of alcoholism in one of the hardest drinking towns, you can do that. It’s a place where you can be whoever you want to be.

How important to the future of American conservation was the Harriman Expedition? And describe how its legacy is being chipped away. Will Alaska end up being destroyed?

In 1899 you had East Coast conservation in the form of George Bird Grinnell, founder of the Audubon Society, and West Coast conservation in the form of John Muir, who had just founded the Sierra Club, coming together for the first time for two months to travel around Alaska. They think they’re going up there on a scientific boondoggle, but what they realize is that Alaska is not this bottomless larder of resources that can be exploited forever. There’s a brewing environmental crisis. They’re pouring chemicals into the water from gold mining; the salmon are being fished out; the seals that originally attracted the Russians to Alaska are on the verge of extinction, because there is absolutely no governmental oversight up there.

So, they come back to Washington and all these men are very well connected. George Bird Grinnell, in particular, is a mentor to Theodore Roosevelt, who, because of William McKinley’s assassination, suddenly finds himself the President of the United States. He’s reading these accounts of the Harriman expedition and these glaciers and the bears, and he says, “You know what? I’m going to use this new law called the Antiquities Act to set aside everything they saw in Alaska—tens of millions of acres to be preserved for future generations.” That’s why anyone who goes on an Inside Passage cruise today looks around and says, “Wow, there’s no development here! It’s so beautiful and natural and pristine.”

Fast forward to now and you have another Republican president, but he’s rolling back the very things Roosevelt put into place to protect American lands for future generations. There’s a horribly ironic statement John Muir made a few years after he got back from the Harriman expedition. He wrote, paraphrased, “Even though humanity is destroying much of the world, there are three things that are too great for humanity to ever destroy. He will never be able to destroy the frozen poles, the ocean, or the Grand Canyon.”

Well, the poles are melting, as they know all too well up in Alaska, the oceans are filled with plastic and warming on an annual basis, and the Trump Administration is talking about opening up uranium mining on the edges of the Grand Canyon! So, these things we take for granted as permanent—like national parks—maybe they’re not permanent. I think a lot of these things are at risk right now. As the drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge shows, if there’s enough money at stake, people are willing to do just about anything.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at simonworrallauthor.com.