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The Writings of John Muir
Volume 7 - Chapter XIII. First Ascent of Herald Island

Steamer Corwin,
Off Herald Island, Arctic Ocean,
July 31, 1881.

WE left Herald Island this morning at three o'clock, after landing upon it and exploring it pretty thoroughly from end to end. On the morning of the twenty-fifth we were steaming along the coast a few miles to the south of Icy Cape, intending to make an effort to reach Point Barrow in order to give aid to the whale- ship Daniel Webster, which we learned was beset in the ice thereabouts and was in great danger of being lost.

We found, however, that the pack extended solidly from Icy Cape to the southward and pressed so hard against the shore that we saw it would be impossible to proceed even with the steam launch. We therefore turned back with great reluctance and came to anchor near Cape Lisburne, where we mined and took on about thirty tons of coal. About half-past four in the afternoon, July twenty-eighth, we hoisted anchor and sailed toward Herald Island, intending to make a general survey of the edge of the great polar ice-pack about Wrangell Land, hardly hoping to be able to effect a landing so early in the season.

On the evening of the thirtieth we reached Herald Island, having been favored with delightful weather all the way, the ocean being calm and glassy as a mountain lake, the surface stirred gently here and there with irregular breaths of air that could hardly be called winds, and the whole of this day from midnight to midnight was all sunshine, contrasting marvelously with the dark, icy storm-days we had experienced so short a time ago.

Herald Island came in sight at one o'clock in the afternoon, and when we reached the edge of the pack it was still about ten miles distant. We made our way through it, however, without great difficulty, as the ice was mostly light and had openings of clear water here and there, though in some close-packed fields the Corwin was pretty roughly bumped, and had to steam her best to force a passage. At ten o'clock in the evening we came to anchor in the midst of huge cakes and blocks about sixty-five feet thick within two or three hundred yards of the shore.

After so many futile efforts had been made last year to reach this little ice-bound island, everybody seemed wildly eager to run ashore and climb to the summit of its sheer granite cliffs. At first a party of eight jumped from the bowsprit chains and ran across the narrow belt of margin ice and madly began to climb up an excessively steep gully, which came to an end in an inaccessible slope a few hundred feet above the water. Those ahead loosened and sent down a train of granite boulders, which shot over the heads of those below in a far more dangerous manner than any of the party seemed to appreciate. Fortunately, nobody was hurt, and all made out to get down in safety. [Captain Hooper's report of the incident and of Muir's skillful ascent of the island adds some interesting details: -

"Muir, who is an experienced mountaineer, came over the ice with an axe in his hand, and, reaching the island a few hundred feet farther north, opposite a bank of frozen snow and ice a hundred feet high, standing at an angle of 500, he deliberately commenced cutting steps and ascending the ice cliff, the top of which he soon reached without apparent difficulty, and from there the top of the island was reached by a gradual ascent neither difficult nor dangerous.

"While approaching the island, by a careful examination with the glass, Muir's practiced eye had easily selected the most suitable place for making the ascent. The place selected by the others, or rather the place upon which they stumbled, - for the attempt to ascend was made on the first point reached, - was a small, steep ravine about two hundred feet deep. The jagged nature of its steep sides made climbing possible, and from the sea-level the top of this ravine appeared to these ambitious but inexperienced mountain- climbers to be the top of the island. After several narrow escapes from falling rocks they succeeded in gaining the top of the ravine, when they discovered that the ascent was hardly begun. Above them was a plain surface of nearly a thousand feet in height, and so steep that the loose, disintegrating rock with which it was covered gave way on the slightest touch and came thundering to the bottom. Some of the more ambitious were still anxious to keep on, notwithstanding the difficulty and danger, and I found it necessary to interpose my authority to prevent this useless risk of life and limb. A retreat was ordered, and with a good deal of difficulty accomplished. The descent had to be made one at a time, the upper ones remaining quiet until those below were out of danger. Fortunately, all succeeded in reaching the bottom in safety. In the mean time Muir and several others had reached the top of the island and were already searching for cairns or other signs of white men. Although the search was kept up until half-past two in the morning, nothing was found." (C. L. Hooper's Report of the Cruise of the U.S. Revenue Steamer Thomas Corwin in the Arctic Ocean, 1881, p. 52.)]

While this remarkable piece of mountaineering and Arctic exploration was in progress, a light skin-covered boat was dragged over the ice and launched on a strip of water that stretched in front of an accessible ravine, the bed of an ancient glacier, which I felt assured would conduct by an easy grade to the summit of the island. The slope of this ravine for the first hundred feet or so was very steep, but inasmuch as it was full of firm, icy snow, it was easily ascended by cutting steps in the face of it with an axe that I had brought from the ship for the purpose. Beyond this there was not the slightest difficulty in our way, the glacier having graded a fine, broad road.

Kellett, who discovered this island in 1849, and landed on it under unfavorable circumstances, described it as "an inaccessible rock." In general the sides are, indeed, extremely sheer and precipitous all around, though skilled mountaineers would find many gullies and slopes by which they might reach the summit. I first pushed on to the head of the glacier valley, and thence along the blackbone of the island to the highest point, which I found to be about twelve hundred feet above the level of the sea. This point is about a mile and a half from the northwest end, and four and a half from the northeast end, thus making the island about six miles in length. It has been cut nearly in two by the glacial action it has undergone, the width at the lowest portion being about half a mile, and the average width about two miles.

The entire island is a mass of granite, with the exception of a patch of metamorphic slate near the center, and no doubt owes its existence, with so considerable a height, to the superior resistance this granite offered to the degrading action of the northern ice-sheet, traces of which are here plainly shown, as well as on the shores of Siberia and Alaska and down through Bering Strait southward beyond Vancouver Island. Traces of the subsequent partial glaciation to which it has been subjected are also manifested in glacial valleys of considerable depth as compared with the size o the island. I noticed four of these, besides many marginal glacial grooves around the sides. One small remnant [of a glacier] with feeble action still exists near the middle of the island. I also noted several scored and polished patches on the hardest and most enduring of the outswelling rock-bosses. This little island, standing as it does alone out in the Polar &a, is a fine glacial monument.

The midnight hour I spent alone on the highest summit - one of the most impressive hours of my life. The deepest silence seemed to press down on all the vast, immeasurable, virgin landscape. The sun near the horizon reddened the edges of belted cloud-bars near the base of the sky, and the jagged ice-boulders crowded together over The frozen ocean stretching indefinitely northward, while perhaps a hundred miles of that mysterious Wrangell Land was seen blue in the northwest - a wavering line of hill and dale over the white and blue ice-prairie! Pale gray mountains loomed beyond, well calculated to fix the eye of a mountaineer. But it was to the far north that I ever found myself turning, to where the ice met the sky. I would fain have watched here all the strange night, but was compelled to remember the charge given me by the Captain, to make haste and return to the ship as soon as I should find it possible, as there was ten miles of shifting, drifting ice between us and the open sea.

I therefore began the return journey about one o'clock this morning, after taking the compass bearings of the principal points within sight on Wrangell Land, and making a hasty collection of the flowering plants on my way. I found one species of poppy quite showy, and making considerable masses of color on the sloping uplands, three or four species of saxifrage, one silene, a draba, dwarf willow, stellana, two golden composit, two sedges, one grass, and a veronica, together with a considerable number of mosses and lichens, some of them quite showy and so abundant as to furnish most of the color over the gray granite.

Innumerable gulls and murres breed on the steep cliffs, the latter most abundant.. They kept up a constant din of domestic notes. Some of them are sitting on their eggs, others have young, and it seems astonishing that either eggs or the young can find a resting-place on cliffs so severely precipitous. The nurseries formed a lively picture - the parents coming and going with food or to seek it, thousands in rows standing on narrow ledges like bottles on a grocer's shelves, the feeding of the little ones, the multitude of wings, etc.

Foxes were seen by Mr. Nelson [In a recent article on "The Larger North American Mammals" Mr. E. W. Nelson has given the following account of this incident: -

"The summer of 1881, when we landed from the Corwin on Herald Island, northwest of Bering Straits, we found many white foxes living in burrows under large scattered rocks on the plateau summit. They had never seen men before and our presence excited their most intense interest and curiosity. One and sometimes two of them followed closely at my heels wherever I went, and when I stopped to make notes or look about., sat down and watched me with absurd gravity. Now and then one at a distance would mount a rock to get a better view of the stranger.

"On returning to the ship, I remembered that my notebook had been left on a large rock over a fox den, on the island, and at once went back for it. I had been gone only a short time, but no trace of the book could be found on or about the rock, and it was evident that the owner of the den had confiscated it. Several other foxes sat about viewing my search with interest and when I left followed me to the edge of the island. A nearly grown young one kept on the Corwin was extraordinarily intelligent, inquisitive, and mischievous, and afforded all of us much amusement and occasional exasperation." (National Geographic Magazine, November, 1916, p. 425.)]

near the top of the northeast end of the island, and after we had all returned to the ship and were getting under way, the Captain discovered a polar bear swimming deliberately toward the ship between some floating blocks within a few yards of us. After he had approached within about a dozen yards the Captain shot at him, when he turned and made haste to get away, not diving, however, but swimming fast, and keeping his head turned to watch the ship, until at length he received a ball in the neck and stained the blue water with his blood. He was a noble-looking animal and of enormous strength, living bravely and warm amid eternal ice.

We looked carefully everywhere for traces of the crew of the Jeannette along the shore, as well as on the prominent headlands and cliffs about the summit, without discovering the faintest sign of their ever having touched the island.

We have been steaming along the edge of the pack all day after reaching open water, with Wrangell Land constantly in sight; but we find that the ice has been sheering us off farther and farther from it toward the west and south. The margin of the main pack has a jagged saw-tooth outline, the teeth being from two to ten miles or more in length, and their points reaching about forty miles from the shore of Wrangell Land. Our chances, however, of reaching this mysterious country some time this year seem good at present, as the ice is melting fast and is much lighter than usual, and its wind and current movements, after it breaks up, will be closely watched for an available opening.

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