Alaska – Cruising North

In 2013, I helped a friend (Scott) deliver his 30′ Fisher ketch sailboat to Alaska.  The boat was docked on the Columbia and he wanted it delivered to Juneau, AK.  Twenty-two days later we arrived in Prince Rupert, Canada where I jumped ship, caught a plane from Prince Rupert to Vancouver, then Vancouver to LA and I was back home.  This story is interesting but to be developed at a further time.

stormy fisher

In preparation for such a trip i did allot of reading.  One of those books I came across was an expedition known as the Harriman Expedition – to date, the only time that a US citizen undertook an expedition of this nature without the assistance of the US government.  Some of the well reknown scientists and minds of its day were on board.  The following is from the book:

The scientists produced thirteen volumes of data that took twelve years to compile.

The Place, The People, The Route

The expedition arrived when Alaska’s patina of pure coastal wilderness was beginning to tarnish from heavy use of its natural resources. The Gold Rush was in full swing, salmon canneries were working round the clock, and fur seal rookeries exported thousands of skins every year. The Alaska Native populations in some areas had already been reduced to a tourist attraction; in other places, Alaskan Natives competed with Chinese laborers for low-wage jobs in fish factories.

In many instances, the expeditioners observed and catalogued the flora and fauna of a pristine, idealized wonderland. Yet the signs of civilization and progress were difficult to ignore. The Harriman Expedition chronicled an Alaska on the cusp of inevitable — and, in some instances, devastating — change to the environment.

The passengers on the expedition ship were some of the most famous and influential people in America at the time.


The Elder steams past Wellesley Glacier, photographed by C. Hart Merriam, 1899.
Click image for a larger view

Edward Harriman was the nation’s most powerful railroad magnate, and C. Hart Merriam was one of its most prominent scientists. John Burroughs was the best selling nature writer of the day, and John Muir was the much-admired father of the American conservation movement. With these men traveled an eminent assembly of nature artists, geologists, botanists, foresters and zoologists.

The boat left Seattle on May 31, 1899. For the next two months, the Elder steamed almost 9,000 miles along the coasts of British Columbia and Alaska. They made some fifty stops, sometimes brief visits that lasted an afternoon, sometimes longer excursions. At several places, several of the travelers went ashore with camping equipment and stayed overnight, so they could collect more specimens or hike into a forest or across a glacier. The Elder would steam off to some other spot, and then return and pick the campers up at an agreed upon time.

The Harriman Style

Life on the boat was luxurious by any standard. The cabins and salons had been recently redone. A chef prepared consistently excellent meals. Harriman had even provided space for work on specimen preservation and simple laboratory spaces for research. There was a library with over 500 books about Alaska, and on many days, one or another of the scientists would lecture about his area of expertise.

This luxury was certainly a contrast to life in Alaska in 1899. The territory had been under Russian control until 1867, when the United States bought “Seward’s Icebox” for $7,200,000. The population numbered 63,000, and included many Native Alaskans struggling to maintain their traditional cultures in the face of Russian, and then American occupation. Neither the Russians nor the Americans had been particularly wise in their dealings with the Native Alaskans; in some cases, they had been ruthless. Life was also difficult for the hundreds of prospectors who had come to Alaska during the Gold Rush. For every man who made a fortune there were hundreds who were left penniless.

The Harriman Expedition differed from other surveys and expeditions to Alaska in that the scientists and artists on board did not stay very long at any one spot, and there was little chance for in-depth scientific exploration.

Members of the Harriman Expedition on the wharf at Dutch Harbor, 1899, photographed by Edward Curtis.
Click image for a larger view

But these scientists and naturalists were careful observers and eager specimen gatherers. Their records and collections have given us a benchmark by which we can assess 100-years of change along the Alaskan Coast. The fact that there were so many scientists of the first rank on board the Elder makes their observations all the more valuable.

Another difference stood out; this was one individual’s project. Edward H. Harriman conceived, planned and paid for the trip himself. Newspapers of the time praised him highly for this, and several editorial writers called for other American millionaires to sponsor such trips. And Harriman certainly put his own mark on the entire voyage. It was he who insisted the boat sail through the narrow, shallow inlet in Prince William Sound that opened up into a previously undiscovered fiord. It was he who chose to include stops at Kodiak and Siberia, and, when the trip was over, it was he who paid for the publication of the participants’ scientific writing.

A Monumental Record

It took 50 specialists the better part of a decade to study, catalogue, edit and publish the thirteen volumes that cover the scientific observations and findings from the trip. Some of the volumes are simply listings of field notes and specimens collected. These still have value — they present a baseline picture of the plant and animal species common to coastal Alaska in 1899. Other volumes, particularly the glacier study written by Grove Karl Gilbert, have been judged to be important reports that broke new ground in scientific study. All told, these volumes, along with diaries, letters, newspaper accounts and scientific reviews form a monumental record of this two- month trip to Alaska.

Of equal interest is the vast collection of animal and plant specimens from the trip. There were 8000 insects, 344 of which had been previously unknown to scientists. The collections included thousands of shellfish, birds and small mammals, and even a small number of large mammal specimens. This natural history treasure trove, much of it now at the Smithsonian Institution, retains great research value. New testing techniques can, even today, be used on some of these specimens, promising fresh information about Alaska’s ecosystems of a century ago.

One interesting aspect of these collections is the way in which our ideas about this kind of collecting have changed. Consider the case of large mammals. It would be unthinkable nowadays that the leader of a scientific expedition would shoot a female grizzly and cub out of season on Kodiak Island, but that is what happened in early July on the Harriman expedition. Another kind of collecting — taking Native artifacts from the uninhabited village at Cape Fox — violated the civil as well as scientific standards we would find acceptable today. Native American artifacts are now protected by law, and, in fact, some items taken in the late 19th and early 20th century have been returned to the tribes that once owned and produced these objects.

Looking Back

Revisiting these events reminds us that the Harriman Expedition of 1899 was of its era, an expedition launched at the end of the 19th century to investigate a little-known region of North America. Now, at the very beginning of the 21st century, we can relive this expedition and find those things that connect us to, and separate us from, the past.



About trawlercat

Retired and now moving on from the cruising life jeeps, adventure bike, gardening, and travel. Always in search of the next great adventure!
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