Another snippet picked up from the cutting room floor:
To the lover of pure wildness, Alaska is one of the most wonderful countries in the world.
John Muir’s Journal, 1879
On a fog shrouded morning in June of 1879 John Muir, the legendary naturalist and explorer, packed his camera, a few blank notebooks, and some camping gear and boarded the steamship Dakota sailing out of San Francisco Bay. On that day, the man whose rapturous writings about the glories of California’s Yosemite Valley and Sierra Nevada Mountains would ultimately inspire the national park movement in America, was northbound. North to the vast, mythic, unmapped expanse of Alaska.
Muir, a “lover of pure wildness” if ever one walked God’s green earth, was drawn by the tales he was hearing from traders, explorers and missionaries returning from the new northern frontier of the expanding American empire. Alaska, the recently purchased territory widely derided as Seward’s Folly was twice the size of Texas. Those who had been there came back with fantastic stories of vast virgin forests swarming with exotic animals, towering mountain ranges, fields of wild flowers stretching horizon to horizon, crystalline streams alive with red-orange salmon, and mammoth rivers of ice which flowed to the sea and crumbled into floating mountains of sapphire blue.
In the remarkable Muir dwelt the survival skills of a mountain man, the expressive soul of a poet, and the crusading mystic fervor of a holy man. And for most of the previous two decades he had focused these gifts on the singular cause of getting government officials and newspaper editors back in the urbanized east to care about America’s beautiful wild places. To that end—a righteous, holy cause in his view—Muir had written powerfully and beautifully. He had marshaled the words of the English language and deployed battalions of them in the fight to capture the imaginations of the city dwelling masses. And with great success.
But now, as Muir’s vessel chugged it’s way through “the inside passage” of Canada’s western coast, climbing to ever higher latitudes to the inlets and bays near what would one day bear place-names like Sitka, Juneau, and Skagway—he found that words, his seasoned soldiers, deserted him. “Never before this had I been embosomed in scenery so hopelessly beyond description,” Muir recorded in his journal.[i]
The vista’s which now greeted Muir’s eyes around every bend beggared the imagination of a man who had previously made the most beautiful places on earth his wild home. Yet as the journey progressed, he would eventually find the words to write:
“Chasing shining ways through fiord and sound, past forests and waterfalls, islands and mountains and far azure headlands, it seems as if surely we must at length reach the very paradise of the poets, the abode of the blessed.”[ii]
Today, hundreds of thousands from around the world annually seek to be “embosomed” by the same views that temporarily robbed Muir of his formidable powers of expression. More than 130 years after the Dakota steamed past Wrangall Island and up the Taiya inslet toward a natural harbor that would one day carry the unlovely name Skagway, enormous cruise ships by the dozens do the same each week —mesmerizing their throngs of passengers with the same astonishing sights that tempted even Muir to believe that Valhalla, Shangri La or heaven itself must surely be right over the next range.
As Muir passed by, Skagway was little more than a permanent campsite for white traders, trappers and prospectors accessing friendly Tingit Indian lands. The Indians called the spot skagua, meaning “windy place.” Indeed, in fewer than 20 years from Muir’s visit, a cyclone of humanity would blow into the quiet cove as reports of a gold strike in the Yukon reached Seattle and San Francisco and traveled like lightning across the country. One of the only practical routes to the Yukon gold fields took the riches-seeking prospector to Skagway by steamship, and then through mountain passes along an old Chilkoot Indian trading trail.
Almost overnight, Skagway was transformed from a quiet collection of ramshackle wooden buildings into a boisterous, crowded, muddy, lawless city with a constantly churning population of eight to ten thousand souls. As gold-fever swept the nation, the desperate, the foolish and the merely optimistic—doctors, teachers, bookkeepers and bellhops—all washed up onto Skagway’s shores in feverish waves.
The place served as a gateway to either riches or disappointment for tens of thousands of hopeful prospectors during the gold rush. In 1964, for Chuck Heath, with a wife, a two-year-old, and one-year-old, and a 12-week-old infant named Sarah Louise, the village became a gateway to a grand adventure.