A Preservationist in the Gilded Age: John Muir's Love for Glaciers in Alaska

John Muir explored Alaska during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. During those years he discovered many secrets of the glaciers in Alaska.


| October 2014



John Muir Postage

John Muir, who took seven trips to Alaska during the second half of his life, became one of nineteenth-century America’s main symbols in the fight against irresponsible industry.

Photo by Fotolia/Lefteris Papaulakis

In 1879, as the rest of America was becoming more and more concerned with capital gain and economic expansion, John Muir, a glacial geologist, preservationist and explorer of Alaska challenged the direction that America was headed. In John Muir and the Ice That Started a Fire (Lyons Press, 2014), author Kim Heacox recounts how Muir influenced others’ views of America and the world during the nineteenth century. This excerpt, which discusses Muir’s ideologies and travelling experiences with S. Hall Young and the Tlingit Indians through Glacier Bay, is from the Prologue, “The Gospel of Glaciers.”

Travelling With John Muir

Was it madness?

A death wish of some kind?

The five Tlingit Indians said little as they glanced at the quiet missionary sitting among them and stabbed the sea with each stroke, paddling their cedar canoe northwest into iceberg-filled waters where no man dared to go this time of year. No man, unless he was a seal hunter. No man, until this other man came along, their second passenger, the one up front who scribbled notes and nibbled on dry crusts of bread. No hunter at all. More of an observer, charismatic in his own way, a good listener, a real talker, this scrappy, bearded Muir, his blue-gray eyes drinking up the country. Half wise elder, half wondrous child, he seemed interested in everything.

Shouldn’t somebody say something? Insist on turning around? They could all die, be overturned and drowned by Kushtaka, the trickster land otter man of Tlingit legend. Or, if they continued on, they might receive mercy from Gunakadeit, a benevolent sea monster.

Onward, Muir compelled them. Onward to the glaciers, he would say. Never mind the wind or rain or ice or cold.