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John Muir's Legacy Still Strong in Glacier Country

August 14, 1988|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

GLACIER BAY NATIONAL PARK, Alaska — "We have not inherited the land from our parents, we are borrowing it from our children."

This Amish saying is quoted by a Glacier Bay National Park ranger in an open letter of tribute to John Muir in this 150th anniversary year of the pioneer naturalist's birth.

Glacier Bay National Park is reminding the world that Muir, who founded the Sierra Club in California and provided leadership to establish Yosemite National Park, was also an inspiration in helping to preserve the natural wonders of Alaska's glacier country.

Around Glacier Bay, Muir's legacy is remembered and the adventure of his 1879 exploration of the bay by canoe is relived.

Ranger Greg Dudgeon, who comes from Crestline, Calif., to work in the park during summer, thanks Muir in his open letter for teaching today's world "to treasure the wilderness."

A Cruise Commentary

He is one of the rangers who board cruise ships entering Glacier Bay and provide commentary while the ships spend most of the day in a bay rimmed with cliffs of ice and forest. The bay is also a sanctuary for whales, seals, bald eagles and tufted puffins.

The cruise ships are boarded in Bartlett Cove offshore from the park ranger station, Glacier Bay Lodge and the port of Gustavus, which also has an airport. Lodge guests can take a catamaran or kayak near the trail of John Muir, take aerial tours or guided hikes, and attend audio-visual presentations given by the National Park Service.

Rangers who spend the day aboard a cruise ship take exhibits and historical reading material with them, including free copies of the Fairweather, the park's annual and informative eight-page paper whose main story this year is devoted to Muir.

My wife Elfriede and I cruised north from Vancouver through Glacier Bay aboard Holland America Line's Noordam. The next week we were in the bay again aboard Sitmar's Fairsky. Both luxury liners took advantage of the sunshine to drift through icebergs and as close to the glaciers as safety would permit.

Glaciers "calved" while we were there, splitting off tons of ice with thunderous crashes. Humpbacked whales tossed their enormous tail fins in spectacular dives. Eagles, cormorants and gulls perched on the highest bergs. We watched for bears in the vegetative wilderness of moss, tufted brush and trees that had grown into forests since Muir canoed these waters more than a century ago. Behind the forests and glaciers the Fairweather Mountains tower in pinnacles and crests to as high as 15,000 feet against the blue sky.

Etched in the Memory

Aboard the Noordam, ranger Greg Dudgeon read passages from his letter to John Muir. One of them began with a question:

"Do you remember your first camp here, Mr. Muir? That first night on the beach, the gloom, the snow and the cold? The inlet you camped in is now called Berg Bay. The spruce and the forests are there now, too. The land is changed from white to emerald green. . . ."

When Capt. George Vancouver saw this ice front in 1758 it had only begun its retreat to form Glacier Bay. The ranger's open letter recalls that by 1879 Muir "canoed the bay for 50 miles before reaching the face of the ice, while today one must travel nearly 70 miles before reaching the greatest of the glaciers.

"But not all are still receding," the letter says. "Some, like the Grand Pacific Glacier, have developed protective shoals at their feet and have begun to advance again. The last Ice Age, Mr. Muir, is hardly finished. . . ."

Writer Rick Ruffin recounts that when Muir was traveling alone by sled around Glacier Bay he was nearly blinded by the reflection of sunlight on the glacier that was to be named Muir Glacier. He survived by a sense of touch that guided him to whittle some wood shavings off the bottom of the sled and start a fire in a small can.

An Inventive Genius

Muir was an inventive genius who could have become a Wisconsin millionaire, but he came west to California in 1868 at age 30, and eight years later was exploring Alaskan wilderness for the first time as a member of the U.S. Geodetic Survey team. Within three years he was off on his own voyage of exploration by canoe.

His vision and writings, his prestige in the White House and Congress, all helped to found our national park system and, likewise, start the momentum that made Glacier Bay a national monument in 1925, a national park in 1980.

The Muir Glacier, rising 200 feet, is among the fastest-moving glaciers, with a retreat movement of from 20 to 30 feet a day that has created Muir Inlet and could bring major changes in the upper bay during the next 50 years.

The Muir is one of 16 tidewater glaciers in the protected national park. All are remnants of the Little Ice Age that began about 4,000 years ago. Twelve of the glaciers calve actively, sometimes sending blocks of ice up to 200 feet high crashing into the water.

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