John Muir and his dog on an Alaskan adventure
A fierce storm couldn't stop the famous naturalist and his four-legged companion Stickeen.
In 1880, naturalist/explorer John Muir set out in a canoe with a crew of Indians from Fort Wrangell in southeastern Alaska to explore the coastline. (Read more about Mr. Muir above.) Muir loved the wilderness. He had a special fascination with the big bodies of "flowing" ice called glaciers, and would see many on this trip.
A friend of Muir's from the fort, the Rev. S.H. Young, joined him for the exploratory journey, bringing along his small black dog, Stickeen (named after the Indian tribe living near the fort).
Muir was not happy about that – he thought the dog would be cold and miserable. He dismissed it at first sight as a "poor silly thing," a mere "toy dog." He thought it would have to be cared for like a baby on the difficult journey.
Little did Muir know that he and little Stickeen would share one of his most memorable wilderness experiences.
To Muir's surprise the short-legged, silken-haired dog proved to have enormous endurance for the cold and wet – he even seemed to enjoy the icy waters. Each time the canoe approached a landing place, Stickeen leapt out to swim ashore and explore on his own.
According to Muir, Stickeen never obeyed an order, but the naturalist quickly came to respect the animal's intelligence, independence, and ability to fend for himself. No hardship seemed to faze Stickeen.
Muir realized that the dog loved the wilderness as much as he did, never failing to join "all sorts of adventures and excursions." Muir and Stickeen quickly developed a close bond.
So it did not surprise the explorer to find the little dog following him when he set out from one of the expedition's campsites for a day-long hike across a large glacier they had discovered.
Eager to explore it from one side to the other (a distance of several miles), he left early in the morning, not even waiting to make breakfast. A fierce wind- and rainstorm raged, but Muir loved storms as much as he loved glaciers – and so, apparently, did Stickeen.
Muir ordered him to return to the camp, but Stickeen wanted to go along. This worried Muir. A glacier – with its sloping, jagged ice and crevices – was no place for a dog, not even a daredevil like Stickeen.
Man and dog had a wonderful day exploring. With his pickax, Muir cut footholds in the ice for Stickeen. They leapt across six- and eight-foot crevasses without hesitating. Muir described his companion as "all one skipping muscle." They walked across the entire glacier and some distance up it. When they turned back toward the camp, daylight was fading and another storm was brewing. Muir and Stickeen were hungry and wet. The crevasses they had to cross now were wider than they had been earlier in the day. But Stickeen still followed Muir's leaps "seemingly without effort."
Then they came upon a crevice neither could leap. It yawned some 50 feet wide, and there was no end to it in sight, up or down the glacier. Muir described it as "merciless," the most dangerous crevice that had ever lain in his way. Only a thin bridge of ice starting some 10 feet below the brink and sloping to a depth of 30 feet in the middle connected the two sides. There was no way of knowing if it would support the weight of a man or dog.
They were faced with a dilemma: They could either spend the night without shelter on the glacier and try to find a new route in the morning – or attempt to cross that crevice.
Muir decided to cross. He used his pickax to notch some steps in the ice wall down to the "bridge." He straddled the ice and inched across the crevice, determined not to look down into the tremendous abyss.
Muir reached the other side, cut some notches in the ice wall, and climbed to safety. Stickeen barked loudly. Muir realized the dog was terrified of venturing out on the ice bridge. "No-o-o," he imagined the little dog saying, "I can never go-o-o down there!"
Muir tried walking out of sight, hoping Stickeen would follow. But the dog was still lying on the other side of the crevice when he walked back again.
Finally he ordered Stickeen to come to him. And for once the dog obeyed. Stickeen inched down the icy steps, barely lifting his feet. He crept across the sliver of ice, somehow holding himself steady in the gusting wind.
Muir reached down for the dog when Stickeen was just below him, but the dog didn't wait for a lift. He eyed the notches cut in the wall and came up them in a rush. Stickeen flew past Muir and obviously forgot how tired and hungry he was. For the next few minutes he could not be stopped as he leapt, ran, rolled, and somersaulted in joy.
There were more crevices to come, but none as difficult as that one.
For the rest of the way home, Stickeen sailed across everything in his way. They finally reached camp at 10 p.m., too tired to eat more than a small supper. That night Muir dreamed of the crevice – and so, apparently, did Stickeen, who kept "muttering" and springing up from his bed.
After that, the bond between man and dog was deeper than ever. On many nights by the campfire, Muir wrote, Stickeen would catch his eye. The naturalist thought that the dog seemed to be trying to say, "Wasn't that an awful time we had together on the glacier?"
Who was John Muir?
Quick, reach into your pocket and pull out all your change. Do you have any commemorative state quarters that feature California?
The man on the Golden State's 25-cent piece is John Muir.
Many people consider him to be one of the first modern preservationists. That’s someone who is in favor of taking positive measures to preserve something, such as historic buildings or – in Mr. Muir’s case – the environment.
Muir, who lived from 1838 to 1914, was also was an engineer, an explorer, a writer, a naturalist, and a conservationist.
He is perhaps best known for his adventures in California's Sierra Nevada mountain range and in Alaska, where he spent time studying trees and landforms.
He wrote about his many adventures in books, and his essays regularly appeared in newspapers and magazines.
In 1892, Muir and other people who wanted to protect the environment formed the Sierra Club. Today, it's one of the largest environmental-protection organizations in America.
A 1903 meeting by Muir with then-President Teddy Roosevelt in California led to legislation establishing Yosemite National Park two years later.
The efforts of Muir and the Sierra Club to preserve nature also helped establish other national parks, including the Petrified Forest and Grand Canyon national parks in Arizona.
In 1964, a wilderness area that includes the most spectacular peaks in the Sierra Nevada range was named for him. On Saturday, April 21, the day before Earth Day, Californians will celebrate John Muir Day, to honor his "significant contributions" to the conservation of nature.
"When one tugs at a single thing in nature, they find it attached to the rest of the world," Muir once said. And while this advice doesn't accompany the image of Muir on the California quarter – it's right on the money.
– Steven Ellis
[Editor's note: The original subhead mischaracterized Muir.]