Call of the Alaskan wild

These words, written by John Muir toward the close of the 19th century, take on new significance. It was to be by small powerboat and kayaks that my wife, Eleanor, and I, along with four newfound friends, would find intimate adventure in the Southeastern part of Alaska, which meant so much of Muir. It is still a land of alluring wilderness, with massive glaciers, icebound peaks, and an amazing diversity of plant and animal life.

"Free the bowline," commands our skipper, Foster Wilkins, as we put to sea from Juneau in our 40-foot boat. We were now cruising in the Alexander Archipelago, which is part of the Inland Passage. For the next two weeks and 700 miles this boat would be our home. At night we would sleep on board anchored in gunkholes -- little coves where only small craft can go.

Our leader, representing Mountain Travel in Albany, Calif., is Hayden Kayden, a 36-year-old lawyer from Houston who got tired of it all and moved to Gustavus, a town in Alaska. "We are heading for the Tracy Arm," Mr. Kayden indicated as he pointed to the map, "where we shall get an idea of how ild this country really is."

Right in front of me was a drifting turquoise iceberg with a large bird perched on top. "Our national symbol!" I exclaimed as I unlimbered my camera. Suddenly this bird, a massive bald eagle crowned with a white head, soared off into space. Alaska is the last real refuge from this magnificent creature, which builds its nests high in trees near the water's edge.

Threading our way through the icebergs of the Tracy Arm was like exploring the world as man first encountered it. thousands of water birds that migrate south in the winter went to and fro, involved in their business of living. High on the cliffs above were the specks of white that moved now and then -- the agile mountain goats. Down in the water the curious seals would poke their heads up and carefully observe us with their big round eyes.

The Sawyer glacier rose up as a great wall before us, blocking the fjord. Bam! A huge block of ice peeled from its face and fell into the sea with a roar of thunder that reverberated along the mighty rock walls. This process of ice falling from a glacier into the sea is known as "calving."

As we cruised south through Stephens Passage, we were honored by merry schools of harbor porpoise that leaped and played a few feet from the bow of our boat. Dropping anchor in Pybus Bay on Admiralty Island, we set out in our two-person kayaks to explore the bay and go ashore.

Hiking in this part of the world is like trying to penetrate a jungle. With more than 100 inches of rain each year, the vegetation is lush. Sitka spruce and western hemlock dominate the forest, while flowers form a fragrant carpet. As we plunge through the brush, it always seemed that we would grasp a particular prickly plant to catch our balance, appropriate called devil's club.

Eleanor and I elected to sleep in a tent that we erected each night topside on the flying deck. There was a lot of rain, but we slept reasonably dry. Sometimes ice formed on our tent fly and on the deck. Wool is the clothing to wear. Alaska is a name associated with weather. The ship's radio occasionally crackled an optimistic "intermittent sunshine today."

Crossing the Chatham Strait, we cruised toward Baranof Island and entered the small bay of Baranof Warm Springs, a town with a population of three. At that moment one-third of the town, the husband, was out fishing at sea for five months. The wife operates a small store and the young daughter goes to school by correspondence. Here there are individual hot tubs one can rent for $2, soap and towel included, or $1.50 if you bring your own.

"Thar she blows," Mr. Kayden said when a humpback whale spouted off our port beam as we put to sea. What a thrill as we watched this huge mammal leap and twist and fall back into the water with a 40-ton splash! The humpback is an endangered species. Whereas there were once an estimated 100,000 of these beautiful creatures, there are perhaps only 7,000 now, hunted chiefly for pet food. The mysterious song of the humpback whale is part of the story of our planet.

Alaska is a massive land, about one-fifth the size of all the rest of the 49 states put together. It is spread over four time zones. From the capital of Juneau to the outer reaches of Alaska it is farther than from New York to San Francisco. You could put two states of Texas within its borders, or again, it is as large as West Germany, France, Spain, and three-quarters of Italy all put together. It is not only the largest American state but also the country's greatest wilderness. Yet its total population is only about 400,000.

It is through the Peril Strait that we would thread our way between Baranof and Chichagof Islands to the beautiful town of Sitka.

In the 1730s the Russian Czar, Peter the Great, commissioned one of his naval officers, Vitrus Bering, to search for the mythical water route across the polar region to Europe and to find out what he could about the mysterious coast of America.

In his first journey he discovered the Diomede Islands and the Bering Strait. It was not until 1741 that he launched the fateful voyage that was to end his career but was to change the course of history. It was on this expedition that a landfall was made at Sitka, in the Alaskan Panhandle.

Russia's first permanent base in southeastern Alaska was Old Sitka, then called New Archangel, about seven miles north of present-day Sitka. In 1799 Alexander Baranof built a fort as a base for fur trading operations. Three years later in a surprise attack, the Tlingit Indians destroyed the fort, killing most of its occupants.

With guns and cannon, Baranof returned in 1804, defeated the Indians, and built another fort on what is now Sitka.

Standing in the rain before the Russian governor's house on Oct. 18, 1867, two American generals, three Navy captains, and 250 enlisted men took possession of the new American territory, purchased for $7.2 million -- often referred to as "Seward's folly."

Today's 7,000 inhabitants of Sitka are engaged in tourism, fishing, education , and government work. The Sitka National Historical Park displays some of the finest Tlingit totem poles and other wood carvings that are unique to this part of the world.

Visible a few miles away is Mt. Edgecumbe, an extinct volcano often likened to Japan's Mt. Fuji. It was in 1976, the nation's bicentennial year, that Sitka's practical joker, named Porky, pulled off his best stunt yet.

For many months Porky had been gathering old automobile tries. No one paid much attention. April 1 dawned clear. This was the kind of day Porky had been waiting for. With a helicopter pilot in on the deal, together they transported the tires to the dormant crater of Mr. Edgecumbe. Using some crankcase oil as fuel, they set the huge pile of rubber tires ablaze.

The startled citizens of Sitka saw huge billows of black smoke pouring from Edgecumbe's summit. The volcano had come to life -- so they throught. The electrifying news went out over the international wire services that the crater was erupting. Seismologists were arriving in Sitka from all over the world in time all over the world in time to learn that they were taken in on an April Fool's Day hoax!

Someone pointed out Porky to me as he drove by in his car with a big smile on his face. He obviously wasn't run out of town.

The crown jewel of southeast Alaska is Glacier Bay. When the early explorers visited this region nearly 200 years ago, the land was covered with 4,000 feet of ice. Since that time much of it has been melting. At one point the ice is now back 65 miles from the glacier front, where the explorer Vancouver first observed it in the late 18th century, taking a big load off the earth's surface.

When John Muir made studies in Glacier Bay in 1879 he described the area as a "wild unfinished Yosemite." Where there was once ice, now great barren canyons yawn. In places it looks like a moonscape -- totally wild. Where the land has been exposed for longer periods, young forests and flowers are growing. After an ice age the earth is reborn.

Many of the glaciers that remain calve off huge icebergs with the booming of primeval thunder. This is harsh country, where errors in judgment are rarely forgiven. Not all people can share or would want to share in such fascinating wonder. This, the largest preserve of the National Park system, should remain intact for its own sake. We outht to save a few islands of primitive earth so that the children of new generations can see and experience the land as man first found it.

As we headed out of Glacier Bay to go back to Juneau and then home, Eleanor and I realized that a twoweek adventure is not a long time.

We felt renewed.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Call of the Alaskan wild
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today