What a Fateful Expedition to Alaska 100 Years Ago Can Teach Us Today

In his new book "Tip of the Iceberg," Mark Adams explores glaciers, climate change, and a defining moment for turn-of-the-century conservation.

In the summer of 1899, famous railroad tycoon Edward Harriman decided he wanted to take a luxurious summer vacation in Alaska. So, he did what any successful businessman of the day would do: He chartered an expensive steamship and recruited 23 natural scientists and seven renowned writers, artists, and photographers to join him and his family. Passengers included John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, and George Bird Grinnell, founder of the National Audubon Society, who met for the first time on the trip.

In his new book, Tip of the Iceberg: My 3,000-Mile Journey Around the Last Great American Frontier, Mark Adams says he had always wanted to write about Alaska. When he learned about the Harriman Expedition from a park ranger while visiting Seattle, he knew he had found his way in. Adams spent the summer of 2016 retracing the expedition by ferry, foot, kayak, and puddle-jumping plane while meditating on the environmental challenges facing Alaska then and now. Audubon caught up with Adams, author of Turn Right at Machu Picchu and Meet Me in Atlantis, to talk glaciers, Grinnell, and, of course, birds.  

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Audubon: In the book, you’re balancing the story of modern-day climate change and the story of the 1899 Harriman Expedition. How do those two relate to each another?

Mark Adams: I thought these scientists had just gone up to Alaska on kind of a boondoggle—a press trip for someone in the magazine business—and I think they may have thought that, too. If someone's specialty was mollusks, they thought, ‘I can step off the boat in Prince William Sound, and I'm going to find five new species of mollusk, and then I'm going to get back on this comfortable boat and have sautéed salmon for dinner along with fine brandy.’

What ended up happening was they realized that in 1899 Alaska was already faced with all kinds of environmental calamities. This is the height of the Yukon Gold Rush. They saw that these mining companies were blowing apart mountains and stripping forests and pouring chemicals like cyanide into the water supply. Fur seals . . . because the furs were so valuable, were on the verge of being hunted out completely. And they realized that even the salmon, for which Alaska is still famous now, were close to being fished out due to competition among canneries.

We think Alaska is this bottomless wealth of natural resources we can draw from without much damage because it's so big. That attitude is really carried forward to today with things like oil, but it's not the case at all. It’s only through wise management that Alaska is still as wild as it was 119 years ago.   

A: How does climate change factor into that?

MA: Climate change is the big capital ‘C’ calamity now. Alaska’s temperature has gone up—I don't have the numbers at my fingertips, but it's gone up quite a lot in the last 100 years. In Fairbanks, the growing season has increased by 40 percent. In the Mat-Su Valley, between Anchorage and Fairbanks, things are going to get warm enough that they're going to be growing serious crops. It's not going to happen tomorrow, but it's going to come because things are warming up so fast up there. Warming is really affecting native villages along the coast, places like Shishmeraf and Newtok and Kivalina. All their people are trying to figure out ways to move away from what have been their ancestral villages because they are on the verge of falling into the sea. Those are some of the most heart-rending manifestations of climate change right now.

It's amazing to the extent that climate change is just a part of everyday life in Alaska and it really hasn't become in the rest of the country yet. They're living in the climate future.

A: During your trip, you revisited many of the same glaciers as the Harriman Expedition, and in the book you talk a lot about John Muir's passion for glaciology. Did you know glaciers would end up being such a focus when you started?

MA: No, I didn't know that much about John Muir except that he'd done the Sierra Club and he'd showed up on California's quarter and he's known as the father of national parks. I didn't realize that he was one of these first Americans to really get deep into glaciology. I've read Travels in Alaska a long time ago, but I'd forgotten that glaciers were the thing that first brought him to Alaska. The first two trips that John Muir made to Alaska in 1879 and 1880 and the way he glorified the glaciers themselves—that started the whole Alaska cruise business as we know it now. Within a few years, steamships were coming up from San Francisco and Seattle, filled with tourists who wanted to see the glaciers.

It was only once I got up there and saw how big a part of Alaskan life that the glaciers were and that they were in such catastrophic retreat and they had such a huge role in launching this tourist industry, which I believe is now the second biggest industry in Alaska after oil, when I really started to think glaciers are going to be a big part of this book.

A: Glaciers are affected by climate change, but they’re also constantly changing on their own. How much of the change in the glaciers over the last 119 years can be attributed to a warming climate and what is normal glacier fluctuation?

MA: The answer, unfortunately, is not as specific as I was hoping to find. It's a mixture. It's a retreat from an extreme advance of glaciers and a dip in temperatures for several hundred years [during the Little Ice Age]. But right now, the accelerating temperatures of climate change seems to be a major factor as well.

A: Climate change is a polarizing topic. Were you worried about turning readers off or your book being seeing as political?  

When you write these books, you're looking for some way to connect to the readers and they want to have enough a-ha moments like ‘Ok, that sounds like something I know a little bit about, I'll read more about this.’ If they can't relate to it, then they're not going to read the whole story unless they're really into it. So, for me, tourism was a way to capture more people and get them interested in the subject. I’ve seen a couple reviews online already that are like, ‘I like Adams's other books, and I really liked the first 90 percent of this book, and then he got all political at the end.’ And it's like look, if you're reporting and you see that things are happening, it's a political act to put that in and it's a political act to leave that out. So you just go out, dig up as much information as you can, and write the truth as you see it.

A: I love this quote from Kim Heacox, one of the Alaskans you meet in the book, when he says, “this is land being born.” What did it feel like to be on land that was being born under your feet?

MA: I mean, kind of mind-blowing. As you go up Glacier Bay, you start at the ranger station at the bottom and go north about 65 miles [by boat]. As you get further north, you're going from really thick green spruce and hemlock forests to sparse alders and smaller plants to just ground cover and then bare rock and then ice. And what you realize is you're watching this sort of natural alchemy with these glaciers turning rock into forests and it's happening pretty quickly. It's happening within about 100 years or so. That's the thing about Alaska: You start to feel yourself connected to the geology of the whole world.

A: Can you talk a bit about the relationship between John Muir and George Bird Grinnell?  

MA: I couldn't find anything that's ever been written about this. This trip is the meeting of the nascent environmental movement of the West, in the form of John Muir and the Sierra Club which was incorporated in 1892 in San Francisco, and then George Bird Grinnell and the Audubon Society representing the East. The two men had not met before, but here suddenly they are, sitting in the smoking salon of the George W Elder for two months with 28 other very nature-oriented individuals, the all-stars of American nature studies, and they are confronting these burgeoning problems in Alaska. That to me is just absolutely fascinating.

Especially since I think George Bird Grinnell, in his way, is at least as important a figure in American conservation history as Muir was. He really was sort of the big brother figure of Theodore Roosevelt because of their work in the Boone and Crockett Club. And when he died in 1938, Grinnell was lauded by the New York Times as the father of American conservation and I think his name has fallen out of the history books unfairly. The idea that he and Muir could put their heads together for the first time on this boat and cook up what was going to become the full-blown American conservation movement that really took off in the decade that followed—that to me is just fascinating. You could write a three-act play just imagining the things they talked about. And I don't want to spoil the end of the book, but it was obvious that they had a great impact on each other. That comes up I think in the last chapter.

A: I have to ask: Did you see any notable birds on your Alaskan expedition?

M: When I got to Ketchikan, which was the first town in Alaska that I went to, as we arrived a Bald Eagle landed on a post with a salmon in its mouth, and I was like 'I'm in Alaska now baby!' But then I didn't see one for a couple days. Then, the further we got we saw more and more, Bald Eagles, groups of Bald Eagles. By the time I got to Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians, the bald eagles were almost like pigeons; they were all over the place. People were like, 'Ugh, these eagles.' They're everywhere.

The cute species that everybody wants to see in Glacier Bay and places like that are the puffins. They're adorable. I have been told that Alaska is just absolutely phenomenal for birding for the obvious reasons, especially species that are more marine oriented.

A: What do you hope people ultimately take away from this book?

MA: The one thing I tried to stress is that, looking back at the Harriman Expedition, they went up to Alaska, they saw there was a problem, they came back, and they did something about it. They went to Washington, and they said we can do something about this. What scares me now is that we have a whole crew in Washington right now that is trying to make the case that we can't do anything. But that's not true, that's not true at all. We're facing an even bigger crisis right now with climate change. If we would just look back 100 or so years, we would see that there's a track record of being able to make a difference, and perhaps it's time to do that again.

Tip of the Iceberg, by Mark Adams, Dutton, 336 pages, $28.00. Buy it online at Amazon.