Dappled sunlight on rugged mountains in Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska.

Glacier Bay and Beyond

The Harriman Expedition of 1899 covered thousands of miles of Alaska’s spectacular coastline. Writer Mark Adams, who recently retraced the epic journey, shares his favorite photos from that magical coast.

In the summer of 1899, the railroad tycoon Edward Harriman decided to take his family on a vacation to a spot that had recently become popular with tourists — the Inside Passage through the panhandle of southeastern Alaska. Because Harriman never did anything in a small way, he remade a steamship into a luxury yacht, and invited two dozen of America’s leading natural scientists, artists, and writers. The Harriman Alaska Expedition was hugely influential in the preservation of Alaska’s wilderness and in the expansion of the national parks system. More than 100 years later, hoping to see how much Alaska had changed, I retraced their journey for my book "Tip of the Iceberg: My 3000-Mile Journey Around Wild Alaska, the Last Great American Frontier." What I saw left me feeling very small, and completely awestruck.

MEN OF THE LAND, MEN OF WHISKERS George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images MEN OF THE LAND, MEN OF WHISKERS Among those on Harriman’s guest list were John Muir, glacier expert and founder of the Sierra Club, and John Burroughs, whose pastoral essays had made him the bard of America’s outdoors. Several photos of the pair from 1899 resemble Father Time looking into a mirror. That’s Muir, with the slightly less impressive whiskers, on the left. GLACIER MYSTERIES Jonathan Kingston GLACIER MYSTERIES The immensity of massive, slowly flowing ice rivers such as the Margerie Glacier (above) can only be hinted at in a photo. Watching the violent splash of a calving berg for the first time was like witnessing a car crash — both thrilling and terrifying. No one knew this sensation better than John Muir. Alaska’s popularity as a tourist destination can be traced directly to two trips he made to explore the territory’s mysterious glaciers in 1879 and 1880, guided by Tlingit natives in a red cedar dugout canoe. At the time, the spectacular icy wilderness of Glacier Bay was unknown to the world outside of Alaska. SUNRISE, A HOLY VISION Jonathan Kingston SUNRISE, A HOLY VISION The sunrise over Glacier Bay is among the most breathtaking in the world. Until seeing it in person, I had thought John Muir — whose fundamentalist preacher father made him memorize the Bible by the age of 12 — was exaggerating when he described witnessing it for the first time: “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.” CHOOSE A WINDOW SEAT Jeff Greenberg/UIG via Getty Images CHOOSE A WINDOW SEAT The Harriman Expedition arrived at the height of the Yukon Gold Rush, just as a new train line from Skagway was preparing to drastically reduce the time prospectors needed to reach their destination in Canada. Today, Inside Passage tours follow the same route Harriman did. The White Pass and Yukon Railway, which once catered to prospectors, now carries visitors along its scenic route. Unlike the Harriman team, I did not spot any abandoned pack horses, frozen solid with their feet pointing up. Great views, though. THE MOST COAST suraark THE MOST COAST Because of its enormous size — larger than Texas, California, and Montana combined — Alaska accounts for more than half of the U.S. coastline. Much of that is fjords, canyons whose rock walls have been scoured by the advance and retreat of glaciers. The striations seen here, which up close often look like the skin of an elephant, are scars from old battles between rock and ice.
Close-up of seracs on the Margerie Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska.
Icebergs At Glacier Bay National Park
Jonathan Kingston; Jess Nichols/EyeEm HERE COME THE CRUISERS Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images HERE COME THE CRUISERS Half a million people now visit Glacier Bay every year, virtually all of them aboard the two large cruise ships that are permitted to enter the bay each day. Even these huge ships, which look like fallen skyscrapers when in port, are dwarfed in these surroundings. INTO THE WATER Douglas Peebles/Corbis via Getty Images INTO THE WATER Smaller viewing craft like the one pictured here also make day trips. In a typical summer, fewer than a thousand backcountry campers apply for overnight permits in a park the size of Connecticut. Yosemite National Park, less than one-quarter Glacier Bay’s size, will see more than 200,000 backcountry campers in the same period. One night, when the sun went down, my guide estimated we were the only humans for 20 miles in any direction. PAIR OF BEARS Erika Skogg PAIR OF BEARS While kayaking in Glacier Bay, I had a run-in with two hungry young male brown bears, who, like those pictured here, were hunting for mollusks along the shoreline. When they became a little too curious about the contents of our tents, my guide and I skipped our own breakfast and beat a hasty retreat. RAINFOREST IN ALASKA? DEA / G. CAPPELLI/De Agostini/Getty Images RAINFOREST IN ALASKA? People who watch too much reality television are often shocked to find that not only isn’t Alaska a completely frozen wasteland, its Inside Passage is a temperate rainforest thick with towering giant spruce and hemlock. These forests were one of the great revelations of my journey. For scientists, Glacier Bay is a natural laboratory where they can observe a process called “primary succession.” Ice breaks down rock, which is colonized and converted into soil by organisms that enrich the new ground. As larger plants move in, a thick layer of biomass is laid down over decades, eventually allowing Alaska’s huge trees to thrive. In less than a century, rock is transformed into forest. JAGGED, ICY SPIRES Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images JAGGED, ICY SPIRES Muir described the faces of Alaska’s glaciers as “an imposing array of jagged spires and pyramids, and flat-topped towers and battlements, and many shades of blue, from pale, shimmering, limpid tones in the crevasses and hollows, to the most startling, chilling almost shrieking vitriol blue.” I spent a night sleeping near the Lamplugh Glacier, seen here, and was awakened repeatedly by bergs calving noisily off its wrinkled face. HERE COMES CLIMATE CHANGE. . . Education Images/UIG via Getty Images HERE COMES CLIMATE CHANGE. . . Ninety-nine percent of Alaska’s tidewater glaciers — those that reach the water — are currently retreating, in part due to climate change. One glaciologist I spoke to said that while it’s not necessary to book one’s Inside Passage trip tomorrow to see some of what the Harriman team saw, if current warming trends continue, putting your dream Alaska glacier cruise off for retirement might not be the best strategy. A few glaciers, such as the Johns Hopkins in Glacier Bay (shown here), are currently advancing, because precipitation that falls at the extremely high altitudes of the Fairweather Range progresses slowly seaward over hundreds of years. MAN AND BERG Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images MAN AND BERG In 1899, 300-foot high Muir Glacier was the bay’s top attraction. (The fellow paddling the canoe in this picture, legendary photographer Edward Curtis, was nearly swamped by the splash when a berg fell from the Muir’s face.) The ice seen here has since retreated more than 30 miles and no longer comes anywhere near the water. All that remained when I passed through was a lonely pile of rocks on the site of a cabin John Muir built to stay in during visits to study his namesake glacier. THE SMELL OF SEA LIONS Jonathan Kingston THE SMELL OF SEA LIONS Among the wildlife to be found in Glacier Bay are brown and black bears, wolverines, mountain goats, humpback whales, orcas, and sea lions — which on dry land waddle awkwardly but swim with spectacular speed and grace in the bay’s crystalline waters. They are also notoriously odiferous, and when we approached a group like this one in Glacier Bay, we smelled them long before we could see them. WELCOME TO UNALASKA ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images WELCOME TO UNALASKA The Harriman Expedition lasted two months, covering thousands of miles of Alaska’s coast as far as the town of Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands, established by Russian fur traders. The Russian Orthodox church the expeditioners saw there still stands. Michelle Shocked once sang that you know you’re in the largest state in the union when you’re anchored down in Anchorage, but Anchorage is practically Las Vegas compared to the isolation of places like Dutch Harbor (Pop. 4,437 and now commonly known as Unalaska). TEDDY ROOSEVELT TAKES IN THE VIEW Bettmann/Bettmann Archive TEDDY ROOSEVELT TAKES IN THE VIEW The 1899 trip began as a boondoggle for Harriman’s scientific all-stars but finished with a sense of urgency. John Muir and other conservationists realized that Alaska’s seemingly limitless natural wonders were in jeopardy. Salmon were being fished out by canneries, fur seals had been hunted almost to extinction, and gold mining companies were dumping chemicals such as cyanide into the water. Influenced by members of the Harriman Expedition, president Theodore Roosevelt began setting aside millions of acres in Alaska and elsewhere so that future generations of Americans might enjoy them. CAMPING WITH THE PRESIDENT Russell Burden CAMPING WITH THE PRESIDENT In 1903, while on a national tour, Roosevelt requested to camp out alone at Yosemite with Muir, whose book "Our National Parks" had helped persuade the president to expand a tiny cluster of parks into the vast system we know today. (Mount Edgecumbe, pictured above, is part of the 17-million acre Tongass National Forest, established by Roosevelt.) It was only while writing my book that I came to fully appreciate the key role that the Harriman Expedition played in this preserving not only Alaska’s natural wonders, but those of the entire nation.