XVIII. GLACIER REGIONS (Historic Information)
Of all the attractions of Alaska the névé fields, with the various forms and awe-inspiring action of living glaciers, most impress and interest the tourist. This, despite the fact that the most extensive and striking glaciers are not seen by the summer visitors, who very rarely extend their excursions to the surpassingly wonderful regions of Yakutat Bay and Prince William Sound. From year to year, however, the number of visiting students and sightseers must steadily increase along the shores of the Gulf of Alaska, where glaciers far surpassing those of Europe are accessible with the utmost comfort, at moderate expense, and by sea voyages of three or four days.
The high and sharply uprising mountains of British Columbia and southeastern Alaska are the recipients of heavy snowfalls from the moisture-laden ocean winds, and, in consequence, the loftier peaks and valleys are ice-laden with small glaciers. These are of various types, the Alpine, the valley, or the overhanging Piedmont ice sheets covering and projecting from shelves on the mountain sides.
As one passes Wrangell the glacier formations increase in extent, and pushing down the mountains many approach the level of the sea. The numerous and deeply penetrating fiords usually terminate in gorges, which are filled with rivers of moving ice. They are mostly dead glaciers, retreating and vanishing from year to year, under changing conditions which cut them off from their functions as live glaciers, of discharging ice masses into the open sea.
In Le Conte Bay, near the mouth of the Stikine River, is the most southerly of the live glaciers, debouching from a narrow fiord whose rocky walls rise from 4,000 to o,000 feet within a few miles.
Some distance farther to the north, in Stephens Passage, are two beautiful ice fiords, Holkham or Sumdum and Taku.
Of the Sumdum Bay, which he considers one of the most interesting of all the Alaskan fiords, Muir says:
A hundred or more glaciers of the second and third class may be seen along the walls, and about as many snowy cataracts, which, with the plunging bergs, keep all the fiord in a roar. The scenery in both the long arms of the bay and their side branches is of the wildest description, especially in their upper reaches, where the granite walls, streaked with waterfalls, rise in sheer massive precipices, like those of Yosemite Valley, to a height of 3,000 and even over 4,000 feet.
Of her early visit to Taku, Miss Scidmore writes:
That day on the Taku Glacier will live forever as one of the rarest and most perfect enjoyment. The grandest objects in nature were before us, the primeval forces that mould the face of the earth were at work, and it was all so out of the everyday world that we might have been walking a new planet, fresh fallen from the Creator's hand.
Of Taku Inlet, with its forty-five ice streams, great and small, John Muir writes of the discharging glacier:
It comes sweeping forward in majestic curves and pours its countless roaring, plunging masses into a western branch of the inlet, next the Taku River. Thus we have here in one view, flowing into the sea, side by side, a river of ice and a river of water, both abounding in cascades and rapids, yet infinitely different in their rate of motion and in the songs they sing a rare object lesson, worth coming far to learn.
The true glacier region begins to the west of Lynn Canal, along the shores of which, however, are most beautiful dead glaciers, such as Davidson and Mendenhall, and from Cross Bay north. The extreme southern limit has been known to many tourists through the excursions in former years, before the convulsions of nature largely disintegrated many of the glaciers, especially the Muir Glacier.
Kate Field thus described this great ice-stream:
Imagine a glacier three miles wide and three hundred feet high, and you have a slight idea of Muir Glacier. Picture a background of mountains fifteen thousand feet high, all snow-clad, and then imagine a gorgeous sun lighting up the ice crystals with rainbow coloring. The face of the glacier takes on the hue of aquamarine the hue of every bit of floating ice that surround the steamer. This dazzling serpent moves sixty-four feet a day, tumbling headlong into the sea, startling the ear with submarine thunder.
Doubtless the most remarkable for its extent, equal in area to the State of Rhode Island, and of unsurpassed beauty in itself and its surroundings, this great glacier and its companions are now rarely visited, owing to the dangers of navigation within Glacier Bay. Of the Muir Glacier Miss Scidmore writes of her last view:
The whole brow was transfigured with the fires of sunset; the blue and silvery pinnacles, the white and shining front floating dreamlike on a roseate and amber sea, and the range and circle of dull violet mountains lifting their glowing summits into a sky flecked with crimson and gold.
From Glacier Bay north to the Wrangell Range, and westward to Kenai Peninsula, about 500 by 100 miles in extent, is the area of greatest glacial abundance, fully nine-tenths of the ice of this continent being found therein. Here are twenty-five of the thirty-one known live glaciers, eleven in the Fairweather Range (two in Lituya and nine in Glacier Bay), three in the St. Elias region, and eleven in Prince "William Sound. There are 170 glaciers of such importance or interest as to be named.
In the St. Elias region is the Malaspina Glacier, of enormous extent, being about twenty by sixty miles in area, and separated from the sea by a strip of forested moraines five to six miles wide, except where its magnificent ice cliffs enter the sea at Icy Cape.
Of the remarkable surroundings of the noble Gardiner Greene Hubbard Glacier, a most active ice river three miles wide, Muir writes:
The scenery about the head of Disenchantment Bay is gloriously wild and sublime, majestic mountains and glaciers, barren moraines, bloom-covered islands amid icy, swirling waters, enlivened by screaming gulls, hair seals, and rearing bergs. On the other hand, the beauty of the southern extension of the bay is tranquil and restful and perfectly enchanting. Its shores, especially on the east side, are flowery and finely sculptured, and the mountains, of moderate height, are charmingly combined and reflected in the quiet waters.
Prince William Sound is, however, the most remarkable region for glacial phenomena and living glaciers. With Valdez as a base, it offers opportunities for glacial study and observation unsurpassed elsewhere. Since the discoveries of the Harriman Expedition in College and Harriman Fiords, it offers eleven known living glaciers in Prince William Sound, of which the most remarkable for size and beauty are: Columbia, about four miles wide, 300 feet high; Harvard, Yale, Serpentine, Harriman, and Surprise.
Of Prince William Sound Muir writes.
All the fiords into which glaciers of the first class flow are encumbered, some of them jammed and crowded, with bergs of every conceivable form, which, by the most active of the glaciers, are given off at intervals of a few minutes with loud thundering roaring that may be heard five or six miles, proclaiming the restless work and motion of these mighty crystal rivers, so widely contrasting with the deathlike stillness and silence of the second-class decadent glaciers.
Of Harriman Fiord, Muir adds:
It is full of glaciers of every description, waterfalls, gardens, and grand old forests nature's best and choicest Alpine treasures purely wild. Here we camped in the only pure forest of mountain hemlock I ever saw, the most beautiful of evergreens, growing at sea-level, some of the trees over three feet in diameter and nearly a hundred feet high.
Columbia Glacier, Prince William Sound: Front about 300 feet. (South end, showing contact of glacier with forest.)
Muir considers Columbia equally as imposing though less active than Muir Glacier. In the writer's opinion, it would be difficult to find a glacier more beautiful to the ordinary visitor than the Columbia, with its enormous mass and its wealth of color and form. Its striking background is offset by the frontal environment of flowery meads and noble trees. Few of the glaciers seen by the writer in the north surpass it in majesty, and none equal it in attractiveness of surroundings.
Mrs. Higginson, in her interesting Alaska, says:
When seen under favorable conditions, the [Free-mantle, renamed the] Columbia Glacier is the most beautiful thing in Alaska. One may have seen glaciers upon glaciers, yet not be prepared for the splendor and magnificence of the one that palisades the northern end of this (Columbia) bay.
The glacier has a frontage of about four miles, and its glittering palisades tower upward to a height of from three to four hundred feet.
In ordinary light, the front of the glacier is beautifully blue. It is a blue that is never seen in anything save a glacier or a floating iceberg a pale, pale blue, that seems to flash out fire with every movement. At sunset its beauty holds one spellbound. It sweeps down magnificently from the snow-peaks which form its fit setting and pushes out into the sea in a solid wall of spired and pinnacled opal which, ever and anon breaking off, flings over it clouds of color which dazzle the eyes. At times there is a display of prismatic colors.
Across the front grow, fade, and grow again, the most beautiful rainbow shadings.
Of the glaciers of the interior two may be briefly mentioned, the Harvey, two by eight miles in size, and the Fidele, both in the Mt. McKinley region. Of the latter, Cook writes:
The lower edge is seven and a half miles in width, its length forty miles. The lower ten miles are so thoroughly weighted down by broken stone that no ice is visible. It is thus the largest interior glacier of Alaska, and it probably carries more moraine material than any other glacier in the world.
Of the life of the glaciers, Prof. George Davidson, in his Glaciers of Alaska, says:
There has been a general recession of the glaciers through the Aleutian Islands, the Peninsula of Alaska, and from Cook's Inlet to Portland Canal; except where they come directly or almost directly upon the broad ocean.
The evidence of advance seems clear at Taylor Bay, just inside Cape Spencer, at Icy Strait, since the survey of Whidbey, but the recent topographical survey by the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey shows a retreat behind the terminal moraine which it has left as a record.
The Malaspina Glacier has filled and obliterated the Icy Bay of Vancouver and Tebenkof the recent Canadian survey indicates that the glaciers of Lituya Bay have shortened the deep arms described by La Pérouse; and the La Pérouse Glacier upon the ocean shore shows positive signs of advance according to the reports of the Harriman Expedition of 1899.
Nevertheless, in this region of advance the immense ice blockade at the head of Yakutat Bay, so well depicted by Malaspina and confirmed by Tebenkof, has been carried away, and the Turner and Hubbard Glaciers now discharge into the sharp bend of the fiord at the head of the bay.