Retracing Adventurer John Muir’s Trek Across Alaska

Reid Glacier n Glacier Bay National Park.
Kayaking of the Reid Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park. Wolfgang Kaehler


In 1879, John Muir and a team of the world’s top explorers set out to map Alaska’s most mysterious, little-seen glaciers. Retracing that journey shows how much has changed—and how much remains the same.

OUR TWO-PERSON KAYAK skimmed the glassy surface of Glacier Bay, the bow pointed like a compass needle at the rocky lump of Russell Island. The sun was out, always a pleasant surprise in southeastern Alaska, and a light mist lingered around the island’s upper half. We’d been paddling for about an hour, but I had no idea how far we’ve come or how far we had left to go. My sense of scale hadn’t yet acclimated to the vastness we’d entered—water, sky, and mountains were all I had to work with. Aside from the splash of our paddles and the occasional tap-tapping of sea otters cracking open mussels, all was quiet.

“Will there be anyone else there?” I asked David Cannamore, who was seated behind me. David is a former college athlete who guided kayakers around Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve all day, every day, during the summer. He paddled with the metronomic grace of a professional tennis player volleying against a ball machine and accounted for perhaps 80 percent of our forward progress.

“I seriously doubt it,” David said. “I’ve camped a lot of places in this park but never on Russell Island. There probably aren’t even any bears there.”

Bears were just one subject I’d never given much thought to back in New York City that seemed to come up again and again in Alaska, such as the quality of rubber boots and recipes for moose meat. Glaciers were another popular topic. As David and I paddled across the silent immensity of Glacier Bay, we were surrounded on all sides by the park’s namesake rivers of ice flowing down from the mountains. Their frozen innards glowed a phosphorescent blue that eclipsed the cloudless sky above. A few times every hour, the giants discharged ice from their wrinkled faces—crack, rumble, splash—one of nature’s most spellbinding performances.

Small white bergs drifted past as we paddled, reminders that the tranquil water beneath us could chill the life out of you in a few minutes. I’d already heard plenty of stories about outdoor adventures in Alaska that had quickly turned into outdoor tragedies. A group of six fishermen casting these same frigid waters not far from shore a few weeks earlier had leaned over to admire a catch and overturned their boat. The four who survived the cold shock were hypothermic when rescued. You didn’t turn your back on Alaska.

I WAS ROUGHLY TRACKING a path first established by John Muir, who literally put Glacier Bay on the map. This was in 1879, and Muir was a little-known conservationist on his first trip to Alaska, years away from founding the Sierra Club. Guided by four Tlingit Indians in a dugout cedar canoe, he pursued reports he’d heard about a bay with a massive “ice-mountain” at its head. Muir was working with nautical charts assembled by British explorers in the late 1700s, which proved to be wildly inaccurate. They showed a massive, impenetrable wall of glacial ice where the entrance to Glacier Bay is today.

John-Muir
Naturalist, outdoorsman, and Sierra Club founder John Muir. B. Greene/Library of Congress/Getty Images

By the time Muir arrived, that wall—actually an enormous glacier—had pulled back more than 40 miles, leaving behind a thousand-foot-deep bay. Russell Island marked the farthest reach of his journey, for it was embedded in 200 feet of solid ice, a pebble crushed beneath the leading edge of a glacier that flowed back up beyond the horizon into Canada.

For the next 20 years, Muir returned repeatedly to Glacier Bay and its ever-changing landscape. He constructed a stone cabin at the foot of the majestic Muir Glacier, named in his honor, which due to Muir’s popular newspaper travelogues quickly became Alaska’s top tourist attraction. On his seventh and final visit, in 1899, Muir estimated that the ice wall had retreated four miles. Russell Island was surrounded by open water. Today that ice is 65 miles back from where it was shortly before those first British explorers arrived.

My interest in Muir and his glaciers had been aroused when I stumbled upon The Harriman Alaska Series, 12 beautifully printed volumes of writings and photographs by the members of the Harriman Expedition of 1899. This unusual expedition, sponsored by railroad tycoon Edward Harriman, collected two dozen of America’s leading naturalists, including Muir, and swept them off for a summer of scientific excursions along the coast of Alaska. The series serves as a sepia snapshot of Alaska’s natural riches a century ago: bears and whales and fjords and snowcapped peaks. Most striking of all, due largely to Muir’s influence, are the hundreds of glaciers, many newly discovered and each as distinct in words and pictures as a snowflake under a microscope.

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Rafters load a helicopter for a flight over the Tweedsmuir Glacier and Turnback Canyon. Josh Miller Photography/Aurora Photos

I asked my friend Melanie Heacox, a former Glacier Bay National Park ranger who still lives near the park, what the best way to visit Muir Glacier was. She suggested a time machine. “The Muir Glacier has retreated 30 miles since the first time John Muir saw it,” she said. This slow death was due in large part to natural causes, since a long cold spell known as the Little Ice Age had allowed the glacier to flourish just before the British arrived. But climate change was now having a serious impact as well. If I was going to see the ice that had so enchanted Muir, I figured I’d better hurry.

BY THE TIME I made my way to Gustavus, the town closest to Glacier Bay, Melanie’s husband, Kim, had convinced me that in order to understand the excitement Muir had experienced on his trips to Glacier Bay, I really needed to do so from the vantage point of a kayak. “You might want to get out on the water alone; it could really be a life-changing experience,” he said. Kim is one of Alaska’s best-known writers, an expert on both John Muir and the national parks, and a serious outdoorsman. I’d never paddled a kayak, or even a canoe, so his suggestion seemed more likely to be a life-ending experience. Kim said he knew someone who’d keep me from drowning—his neighbor, David Cannamore. At 6:15 one morning, he picked me up in a borrowed Econoline van we drove down to the dock at Bartlett Cove. We loaded our kayak and packs and bear canisters stuffed with food onto the daily tour boat that makes the 130-mile run up and down Glacier Bay.

By mid-morning, we almost did feel like we were traveling back in time. With each mile we sailed north into the bay, the younger the landscape became. Trees shrank in size until they vanished altogether. Mountain goats loitered on scarred rocky faces decorated with patches of green. We eventually reached a chilly, lifeless fjord where for half an hour we idled in front of two adjacent glaciers. The one on the left was the Margerie Glacier, which had replaced the Muir Glacier as the bay’s berg-discharging crowd-pleaser. Every 10 minutes or so, a sound like a shotgun blast rang out and a chunk of ice would calve off its blue face, making a roar and a splash.

The glacier to the Margerie’s right, the Grand Pacific Glacier, looked sad by comparison. This was the primary remnant of the ice mountain that had so fired Muir’s imagination, the “one grand fountain” from which all surrounding frozen rivers flowed. This mighty glacier had once filled and carved Glacier Bay. From the observation deck of the day boat it looked pathetic, like a pile of dirty snow left to melt in the corner of a mall parking lot.

Grand-Pacific-Glacier
The Grand Pacific Glacier seen from Tarr Inlet. Brown W. Cannon III

After turning south, the day boat pulled into a cove and the captain slowly idled toward the rocky shore, taking us so close that with a running start we could’ve leaped to dry land. (Well, one of us could have.) A deckhand dropped an aluminum ladder from the bow, David and I climbed down, and with help from the boat’s crew we unloaded our gear, bucket brigade style: packs, tents, bear cans, and finally the kayak. The whole process took less than five minutes. Fellow passengers with whom we’d been chatting all day crowded to the edge of the top deck and watched us. The boat backed away. A little girl waved. And then we were alone in the wilderness.

HALF A MILLION visitors come through Glacier Bay on cruise ships each year, and many more would if they could: The National Park Service limits entry to only two large ships each day, in addition to its own tour boats and some smaller vessels. Only a tiny fraction of that number spend the night—568 back-country campers in 2015, in an area the size of Connecticut. Yosemite, less than a quarter of Glacier Bay’s size, hosted more than 200,000 backcountry campers in the same period.

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A steamship in Glacier Bay circa 1891. Ilbusca/Getty Images
Child's-Glacier
Tourists gaze at Child’s Glacier. Library of Congress

David gave me some basic paddling instructions, pantomimed how to step into our two-person kayak without tipping it over, and demonstrated how to put on a waterproof apron called a spray skirt. “When I’m leading groups, I can pretty much tell it’s going to be a long day when I use the term spray skirt and the guys moan,” he said. “Sometimes I say ‘spray kilt’ instead, to skip the aggravation.”

And then, before the strangeness of being abandoned in a giant stone tureen of chilled soup could sink in, we were in the water and paddling. The vastness of the space made us feel as if we’d entered another dimension, like Gulliver in Brobdingnag. Row after row of towering dark rock with white caps extended in all directions. The lower hillsides beneath the peaks were a velvety green. The water was blue and clear, except where glacial grinding was doing its work, the rock dust creating pools of what looked like chocolate milk. Since I had no idea what the scale of anything was, I had no idea how fast we were moving. (The answer, I later learned, was “not very fast.”) The motion was rhythmic and satisfying. When I got tired, I floated while David continued paddling. The kayak would slow down a little. When David took one of his occasional breaks, we slowed almost to a stop. Sometimes we talked, sometimes we put our paddles down to eat a mouthful of trail mix, but mostly we were quiet. As we approached our final turn, the reflection of the sun shimmered on the water’s glassy surface like millions of fireflies.

We had paddled for four hours into a relatively strong wind, finally entering into the mouth of Reid Inlet, a two-mile-long cove with a neon-blue glacier anchoring one end. The air chilled and a breeze rose up as we reached the spit of land on which we would be camping. “Every glacier makes its own weather,” David said. The spot was cartoonishly idyllic: a curved, secluded beach with a waterfall that hummed in the background, a rhythm track supporting the massive glacier creaking through its growing pains.

David pulled out the tide chart that he kept in his pocket and checked every so often. The tides in Glacier Bay can rise or fall 25 feet, and do so twice each day. We emptied the kayak and carried it up past the fringe of dried seaweed that demarcated the high-water mark. Just beyond that, the bare sand stopped and tall vegetation sprang up suddenly. “Bears like to walk along the tree line,” David said, pacing the strip. “If you look just inside and outside the line, it often looks just like a manicured path from all the traffic.” He found a few old tracks and some ancient-looking scat, which meant we were probably safe. We pitched our tents on a bed of tiny yellow flowers that crunched under our boots. Geologically speaking, this spot was brand-new. When Muir and the Harriman team sailed past here in 1899, Reid Inlet had been filled with ice.

Bears are kind of like cats. They’re curious. They either take one look at you and decide they want to hang out with you, or they just skulk off.”

David prepared a pot of lentils on the camp stove and talked about the clever eating habits of some of the animals we’d seen. Sea otters will find a sharp rock they like and keep it tucked under one forefoot as they dive for shellfish. “Starfish—people think they’re cute, but they’re brutal killers,” he said, holding up a mollusk shell with a hole punched in it. The starfish forces its way into a bivalve’s shell, pushing its stomach into the prey’s space and digesting the creature in its own home. I’d never given much thought to ravens until coming to Alaska, where they are prominent in native culture. David said the respect for ravens was well-deserved. “I’ve seen ravens in Gustavus drop clams and mussels on the road, wait for someone to drive over them to crack the shell, then swoop down and eat them,” he said. “A raven will not only remember if someone has been kind or unkind to them; they’ll tell their friends, too.”

Glacier-Bay-brown-bear
A Glacier Bay brown bear Cavan Social/Alamy Stock Photo

As for the most famously omnivorous member of Alaska’s animal community, David disagreed with the popular idea that guns were the best insurance policy. “Statistically, you’re better off with bear spray than a firearm, which tends to turn people into Dirty Harry,” he said. “Bears are kind of like cats.

They’re curious. They either take one look at you and decide they want to hang out with you, or they just skulk off. I’ve never had a bad experience with bears. I’ve only pulled my bear spray once and never fired it.”

David rinsed out the dishes and confiscated my toothpaste for the bear canister, and we went off to sleep. As I was lying in my tent, the Reid Glacier calved a good-night salvo of thunderclaps. All night it discharged chunks into the water. In one of nature’s finest lodgings, I’d managed to book a room next to the ice machine.

IN THE MORNING, the winds had died down, and swarms of biting midges and brown flies had converged on camp. I pulled out my mesh bug net and secured my ball cap over it. This, I soon learned, was the exact wrong strategy, since it compressed the net against my forehead, giving the insects a handy place to rest their legs as they bit my face ad libitum. For the next three weeks I wore a line of red dots across my forehead like a doll’s hairline as a scarlet letter, broadcasting my ignorance to veteran Alaskans.

The Park Service promotes a “leave no trace” philosophy to Glacier Bay visitors today, but there was a time when even homesteading was possible here. After breakfast, David and I paddled across the cove to what remained of the summer cabin that Muz and Joe Ibach had built around 1939 to trap furs and prospect for gold. When Kim Heacox first paddled through here in 1979, the Ibach cabin had contained enough elements of a preserved 20th-century archaeological site to mount a production of Death of a Salesman: dishes, cutlery, books, playing cards, a table and chair, an old copy of Life magazine. Today all that remained were a pile of planks, three spruce trees planted by Muz, and some of the detritus of long and lonely Alaska days: a 55-gallon drum, a red can of heating oil (advertising “2 cents off” on the label), one leather shoe. A bear had gathered moss in a pile for a bed and left behind plenty of evidence that it had been subsisting on a diet of mollusks. “That’s got to hurt passing through,” David said, wincing as he toed the sharp-edged shells with his rubber boot.

We walked through a patch of tall rye grass that looked like wheat. David said that some early Alaska homesteaders had noticed the similarity and used it to make flour. Only later did they learn that the grain was infested with a fungus called ergot, which when consumed can have an unpleasant and powerful hallucinogenic effect. “Imagine what a long and strange winter that must’ve been,” he said. While studying the alkaloids produced by ergot in the late 1930s, the Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman first synthesized lysergic acid diethylamide, better known as LSD.

We kayaked leisurely across the bay toward Russell Island. A pair of bald eagles perched at the water’s edge on Russell’s south end eyeballed us, a two-on-two staring contest rigged in their favor. Muir had come to this very spot in 1879. Back then, the thousand-foot-high island had been half-embedded in ice, marking “the head of the bay” and the farthest reach of the glacier. “A short time ago,” Muir wrote of the rock, “it was at least two thousand feet beneath the surface of the over-sweeping ice; and under present climatic conditions it will soon take its place as a glacier-polished island in the middle of the fjord.” And so it had.

From the seat of our kayak, Russell Island didn’t look like a particularly easy climb even without ice, but Muir in his usual way had managed to scramble to the top for a better view of the Grand Pacific Glacier, the greatest he’d ever seen. Looking north from this spot must have been like sitting in a cathedral of ice.

We spent much of the day paddling a circle around the island, landing at the rocky beach on the north end. The stones ranged from tiny M&M-size scree to massive, sharp-edged hunks of granite the size of large appliances— multi-ton reminders of the pushing power of the ice river that had once plowed through here. Once again we unloaded the kayak, carried it up past the seaweed line, and set up camp. Nature had thoughtfully left behind one flat rock on which to set up the stove, next to another that made an ideal dining table. The weather was probably a little too perfect. With no wind, the midges had returned, so thick that we put on our mosquito nets. We lay down on the stone beach and took in the view. “Wow,” David said.

Our campsite was centered, like the bubble on a carpenter’s level, between two rows of snowcapped peaks. The mountains on each side of Glacier Bay converged toward the horizon to frame the Grand Pacific Glacier. What had looked dirty and stunted up close now shone blindingly white in the midafternoon sun. The glacier swirled up deep into Canada. I could finally understand how its ice might be capable of filling this entire bay.

“If you get up before the morning’s first cruise ship comes through, have a good look around,” David told me before we crawled into our tents for the night. “At that hour there probably won’t be anyone but us for 20 miles in any direction.”

I awoke around four to the pop-pop-pop of bloodthirsty bugs hurling themselves against the liner of my tent. This being mid-June in Alaska, sunrise was at 3:51 a.m., so even though some time would pass before the sun cleared the peaks to the east, the day had already broken when I pulled on my knee-high boots and my fine-mesh bug net and walked down to the beach, looking like a pig farmer turned bank robber on a lost episode of Kojak. I sat on a rock abandoned there by a retreating glacier and stared down the fjord. The ravenous midges had been joined by swarms of Alaska’s state bird, the mosquito, and both swirled around my head like commas and periods in the sort of bad punctuation nightmare a grammarian might have after eating hallucinogenic rye grass.

The air was chilly, part morning temperature and part glacial cross breezes. Chunks of ice glided slowly past in the water. A high ceiling of cloud obscured the tops of the highest peaks. The day’s first strong sunlight flashed like rosy lightning into the shadows of the fjord, and I thought of Muir’s reaction to the same phenomenon from a nearby vantage point: “We stood hushed and awe-stricken, gazing at the holy vision, and had we seen the heavens open and God made manifest, our attention could not have been more tremendously strained.”

John-Hopkins-Inlet
Kayaks wait for guests to head out across the city waters of John Hopkins Inlet in Glacier Bay National Park. Peter Carey/Alamy Stock Photos

I sat down, wrapped my arms around myself, and tried to absorb nature’s magnificence. The water was like spilled paint. A pair of harbor seals poked their bowling-ball faces above its surface before diving and leaving concentric rings behind. All down the beach, seaweed-covered rocks glowed brown and gold in the rising morning sun.

And then, in the corner of my eye, one of the rocks started moving.

I STOOD UP SUDDENLY and kicked a loose stone down the beach. The noise caught the attention of the moving object, which on further review was a brown bear, perhaps 150 yards away. I tried to gauge its size, but what the hell did I know—this was the first bear I’d ever seen outside of a zoo. The bear and I stared at each other for a moment before it jogged off toward the thick wall of saplings that grew just behind the beach, stopping a few feet short.

A second bear emerged from the brush. A pair of bears likely meant cubs. Cubs meant their mother would soon follow. The first rule of bear encounters finally popped into my head: Never, ever, ever get between a mother bear and her cubs. Ever. In the canon of grisly deaths from grizzly attacks, accident reports involving angry moms were those most likely to employ nouns like sinew in conjunction with verbs like tearing and chewing.

As quickly and casually as a man can while walking backward in borrowed boots on slippery rocks, I retreated toward our tents as the bears watched.

I knew that David was expecting to sleep for at least a couple more hours, so it was with perhaps a shade more than politeness than was merited under the circumstances that I leaned over his tent and spoke through the nylon. “Uh, David, I really hate to disturb you, but I think there may be two bears down here on the beach.”

“I’ll definitely get up  for that,” David said groggily.

David was someone who didn’t function at peak speed until he’d had his morning coffee. He stepped out of his tent with serious bedhead and wearing baggy pajamas bottoms with little wolves on them, looking like a giant second-grader who had awoken at a slumber party bewildered to find himself not in his own home. He had the can of bear spray in hand as we walked down to the beach.

“These two look about four years old,” he said as we approached the pair, who sniffed around the rocks near the waterline. “They were probably just recently separated from Mom. This island has no salmon, no blueberries, so there are no other big brown bears for them to worry about.” We watched them for a couple of minutes. “Those are some skinny, scraggly bears,” David said as he alternated tucking each of his sandaled feet behind the opposite calf to wipe off hungry mosquitoes. “Looks like the population of Russell Island today is two people, two bears, and 2 billion bugs.”

I wondered how—and when—they’d gotten here. “Are bears good swimmers?” I asked.

“Oh, sure. Bears swim. Moose swim. Deer swim. Wolves swim. If they think there’s something better to be found on another island, they’ll just go.”

David hopped up on a rock, clapped his hands, and shouted “Hey, bears!” a few times, in atone that sounded as though he was trying to be encouraging. The pair walked back into the woods. David scratched his head and turned to look down the fjord. “Wow, look at this view, how the green light on the mountains turns the water emerald green. My favorite moment of the day.” He lifted his bug net for a moment to take in the full spectrum of colors. “Actually, this might be my favorite spot in the park I’ve ever woken up in. And you got to see two bears! How about that?”

David set to work at the camp stove making breakfast, unscrewing the food canisters to take out the coffee and cereal. I’d assumed that if I ever saw a bear, I’d evacuate my bowels like an antelope that spots a lion on the savanna before fleeing, but in the event, I’d been more intrigued than terrified. David said that was pretty normal. “The park biologist here calls it bear-anoia. Beforehand, you’re all worried about gigantic teeth and claws, and then you actually see one and you go, ‘Oh!’ You clap your hands, and it stands up and looks at you and runs away.”

The bears walked out of the woods once more, this time a little bit closer. David stood, clapped, and shouted a few times, a little louder than before. “Mark, come stand next to me so we appear bigger,” he said. “We want to look like a super-creature. See, there they go.” Once again, the pair stopped and turned toward the woods.

“I think we’ll just make coffee and skip the oatmeal today,” David said, pouring hot water into a water bottle with coffee grounds as the bears slunk off into the alders. One of them paused to look back at us, seemingly less than enthused about returning to the brush, before galloping away.

“Facing down a bear is like facing down a drunk: You just have to bluff that you’re tougher than he is,” David said.

I sat on the beach waiting for the coffee to steep while David went to fetch his rubber boots. The bears appeared again, but this time they were behind us, only about 30 feet from our tents. “Mark, I think we’ll take that coffee to go,” David shouted from up the beach. “Would you bring the bear spray, please?”

I stood next to David, waving, clapping, and screaming, this time with some edge to it. “Hey, bears!” The bears had the high ground. The bolder of the two had taken a sudden interest in my tent. A memory from yesterday passed through my mind: I had left a Clif Bar wrapper in the bottom of my backpack, hadn’t I? I was relieved when the bear left my tent and ambled in the direction of the kayak.

David did not like this development at all. He started screaming so angrily that the vein stood out in his neck. “Get the fuck away from my kayak, you fucking bear!” The bear stood down as if taking offense and went back to sniffing outside the tents. “We have two days’ extra food and redundant water sources,” David explained. “But only one kayak.” If a curious bear stepped onto the thing fiberglass shell, it would punch a hole. The possibility of being trapped on this sliver of beach with tho bears and one can of spray did not appeal to me, either. I remember this vividly, because I underlined it in my notebook, which, when I pulled it out later had dozens of midges smushed between the pages.

We stood hushed and awe-stricken,” Muir wrote, “and had we seen the heavens open and God made manifest, our attention could not have been more strained.”

“Are you taking notes?” David asked, his arms waving like semaphore flags high over his head.

“This is my job, dude,” I said, alternating scribbles with hand waves. “Gotta get this stuff down while it’s still hot.”

We shouted and waved, shoulder to shoulder, hoping the intruders would get the message. David unlocked the safety catch on the spray. The bolder bear was maybe 30 feet away, while the other hung back. The pair disappeared momentarily into the alders, but then returned right away.

“Guess they’re calling our bluff,” David said. “Mark, just throw all your stuff into your tent and drag it down to the beach. We’ll load up quickly and get the heck out of here.”

We collected the food canisters and stove, tossed packs and boots into our tents, and retreated like the British at Dunkirk, dive-bombed by no-see-ums and mosquitoes. My tent snagged on a rock. David snapped a pole. Just as we reached the water’s edge with the last pieces of gear, a gigantic white cruise ship with a sunburst painted on its side glided into view. I imagined the passengers looking through binoculars, wondering why two guys were frantically throwing things into a kayak as they swatted the air in front of their faces. I coincidentally met the pilot of that ship a few days later, and he recalled seeing us from the bridge. “I thought, Man, look at that setup!” he said. “Those guys must be having the time of their lives.”

We shoved off, paddled away from shore, and paused to look back. The bears had come down to the water’s edge to hunt for mollusks. David poured very strong coffee into mugs and we watched the brown brothers go about their business. Muir, who always stressed the natural affinities between species over their differences, once observed, “Bears are made of the same dust as we, and they breathe the same winds and drink of the same waters.”

“They’re actually pretty cute from this far away,” David said, passing me my lukewarm coffee. “I guess they just wanted to get down to the beach the whole time. But it’s a good reminder about Alaska. You can be in awe of the beauty, but you have to remember that things can go from ‘Ooh, aah!’ to ‘Oh, shit!’ in an instant.”

MARKD ADAMS is a writer in New York City. Tip of the Iceberg: My 3,000-Mile Journey Around Wild Alaska, the Last Great American Frontier, from which this story is adapted, is published by Dutton.