A Visit to Mr. Merriam
On March 25, 1899, a gentleman from New York City arrived unannounced at the Washington, DC, office of natural historian C. Hart Merriam. At age forty-three, Merriam had already been practicing science seriously for three decades, dating back to some unauthorized taxidermy performed on his sister's dead cat. In 1872, on summer break from high school, he had served as naturalist on an expedition to America's newly christened Yellowstone National Park and published his findings in a fifty-page government report. He had since earned and abandoned an MD degree, cofounded the National Geographic Society, and identified dozens of bird and mammal species.
Merriam did not, however, recognize the name of the mysterious stranger who'd interrupted his typically hectic workday. Edward H. Harriman, as any close observer of Wall Street would have known, was on the verge of becoming one of the most famous-and, in the trust-busting years to come, infamous-entrepreneurs of the late Gilded Age. In the years prior to setting foot in Merriam's office at the U.S. Division of Biological Survey, at 14th and Independence, Harriman had taken control of the underperforming Union Pacific Railroad. The previous summer, the new chief executive had personally inspected more than six thousand miles of track, examining "every poor tie, blistered rail, and loose bolt," according to one superintendent. The complete modernization Harriman ordered for the Union Pacific had left his railroad in rapidly improving shape and its chief executive physically exhausted. For the summer of 1899, Harriman's physician-who joined him in Merriam's office-was ordering him to take a sabbatical.
Harriman, whose quicksilver mind terrified his underlings and allowed him to see opportunities invisible to others, had conceived something much more ambitious than a couple of months of tennis and lemonade at his country estate. His plan was to outfit a large steamship as his private yacht and survey the coast of Alaska. In the previous fifteen years, it had become possible to book package tours up the Inside Passage, as the waterways of the British Columbia coast and Alaska panhandle had come to be known. A steady flow of well-to-do excursioners had been lured by newspaper and magazine stories raving about Alaska's glaciers. One particularly adventurous writer had done more than all others combined to promote the territory's frozen wonders: John Muir.
Harriman was bringing along his wife and children, as well as a few guests and an ample crew, but his ship had the capacity to carry many more. He sought Merriam's help in rounding up a team of America's top experts in the natural sciences to accompany them. "He thought that there should be two men of recognized ability in each department," Merriam later recalled. "Two zoologists, two botanists, two geologists and so on." Harriman expected to depart from Seattle in just two months.
Harriman's rough itinerary combined familiar elements of the newly fashionable northern Grand Tour with exploration into points unknown. His steamship would sail up the Inside Passage and visit its best-known spots: lawless Wrangell; Skagway, epicenter of the Klondike Gold Rush; the old Russian capital, Sitka; and Glacier Bay, perhaps the biggest draw of all, thanks to the ecstatic nature rhapsodies that Muir published in America's most popular magazines. But one of the secrets to Harriman's success was ignoring limits set by others. His Alaska course would extend thousands of miles further, continuing west toward the Bering Sea, scouting Prince William Sound, Kodiak Island, the Aleutians, and beyond, obscure places where large swaths of territory were labeled unknown on maps and scientific discoveries were waiting for anyone who stepped on shore. Thanks to railroad men like Harriman, the wild American West had been all but subdued in less than a hundred years. In 1805, Lewis and Clark had witnessed herds of buffalo so large their movements shook the ground. By 1899, that same species faced extinction. The true American frontier now lay in the wilderness to the north. As the historian Maury Klein puts it, "Harriman's idea of rest was to organize, underwrite, and direct what became the last major scientific expedition of the nineteenth century."
Seated in his office, Merriam was polite but dubious about Harriman's offer. Whoever had steered Harriman to Merriam had chosen wisely, though. The scientist, son of a congressman, was exceedingly well connected. He made quick inquiries, which confirmed that the railroad man was not only serious but probably incapable of joking. Cartoonists delighted in depicting Merriam, who wore round spectacles and combed his hair into a tall pouf, as an administrative owl. He was wise enough to see that he might have stumbled across the most elusive of creatures: a scientific expedition with no fixed budget. When Harriman visited Merriam's home that night and insisted that in addition to covering all costs he would allow the team Merriam selected free rein to conduct their own research, Merriam was convinced that Harriman's northbound Noah's Ark was no rich man's boondoggle.
"To be a member of it would be the event of a lifetime," he realized.
All Points North
New York City
Next to the cluttered desk in my office, I keep a small collection of manila folders labeled with the names of destinations I would like to write about one day. Inside each folder are scraps of paper-bar napkins covered in semi-legible hieroglyphics and yellowed newspaper clippings pertaining to a particular place. In the folder marked alaska, there's a piece of hotel stationery on which I scribbled something an Alaskan friend once told me. Three basic types of people live in Alaska, he said. There are the Native Alaskans, who've been there since time immemorial. There are people who have come north running toward something, usually a chance to do something unpleasant to make a lot of money quickly, such as gutting fish twelve hours a day or operating a welding torch in minus-forty-degree temperatures. And there are those who are running away from something, like a bad marriage or fluoridated water.
Travel writing is an odd and pleasant way to make a living, one that has enabled me to fast-forward to the sort of life people profiled in Forbes often anticipate once they've made a Harriman-worthy fortune. I wander the world meeting interesting people; I write books; and when not on the road, I spend so much time around the house that my children sometimes feel obligated to tell friends that I really do have a job. Over the years, I have learned that the most interesting questions to answer about a place are rarely the most obvious ones: where to go, when to do so, what to eat, who to go with, or even how to get there. The essential question about travel is: Why? Perhaps you've dreamed of Kenya ever since seeing Out of Africa as a child, or want to meet your distant relatives in Ireland, or long to see a lemur in the wild. A journey away from something-work, stress, societal norms that frown on drinking before 10:00 a.m.-is a vacation. A journey toward something, a trip with an objective, is an expedition. There are a handful of spectacular places I've put off visiting (and writing about) for years because I never found a good enough reason to go. Until recently, Alaska was one of them.
Outside of my professional travel obligations, I like a plain old relaxing vacation as much as anyone, and was in the midst of one not long ago when I found myself in the slightly seedy Seattle neighborhood of Pioneer Square, staring up at a totem pole. The presence of a totem pole at a busy intersection in Seattle wasn't especially noteworthy-they're only marginally less common than stoplights-though I was surprised to encounter standing beneath this one a friendly young U.S. national park ranger in his Smokey Bear hat. The pole, he enthusiastically informed me, was actually a duplicate. The original had been obtained in 1899 by a group of prominent local business leaders who'd sailed north to Alaska's Inside Passage to steal one from a Native village. The Pioneer Square pole thieves seem to have stolen their idea, too, the ranger went on. They'd been inspired by the ballyhooed return to Seattle of the Harriman Expedition.
As it happens, one of the qualifications of my unusual job is knowing a thing or two about the history of exploration. An entire bookcase in my office is crammed with accounts of journeys to the far corners of the earth. The existence of the Harriman Expedition was news to me, though, a gap in my knowledge that grew into embarrassment once I got a look at the league of extraordinary gentlemen Hart Merriam assembled in 1899. His selections had participated in almost every important American expedition since the Civil War. The obvious first choice was William Healey Dall, the dean of Alaskan explorers, who'd begun visiting the northern wilderness when it was still Russian and had written Alaska and Its Resources, perhaps the most influential book ever published on the territory. Grove Karl Gilbert, veteran of multiple Rocky Mountain campaigns, was thought by many to be the greatest American geologist who ever lived. Henry Gannett's brilliant innovations in geography led him to be known as "the Father of American Map Making." George Bird Grinnell, editor of the influential Forest and Stream magazine, had founded the Audubon Society and was arguably the most respected outdoorsman in the country. Some expeditioners were already good friends. Others knew one another only by reputation. Everyone knew Merriam.
Not all prospective members were academic specialists. Aside from taking the rest his doctor had prescribed, Harriman seemed to have two primary goals for his summer in Alaska. He wished to return from his adventures with a trophy bear, so two taxidermists and a scout were hired to accompany the group. Harriman also, in the Carnegie-esque spirit of the age, hoped to render a philanthropic service by enabling scientists in various fields to survey the wonders of Alaska, enlarge their collections of specimens, and share their findings with an American public that had developed a passion for the natural history museums that were proliferating around the country. Merriam expanded the team to include three artists and a young photographer, Edward S. Curtis, who had guided Merriam and Grinnell to safety after they'd gotten lost while hiking on Mount Rainier in 1898. Rounding out the roster was a pair of America's best-known authors in a genre-nature writing-that was growing in popularity as America's wilderness vanished. One was John Burroughs, famous for his bestselling essays on birds and flowers, signed on to write the expedition's official history.
The second author was both an obvious invitee and a reluctant one. John Muir was perhaps America's leading writer on the relatively new subject of wilderness protection, a movement that within a few years would come to be known as conservation. He had visited Alaska six times and was generally acknowledged as the top expert on its glaciers. His 1879 canoe trip through the Inside Passage is one of the most famous voyages in American exploration. (Muir's first encounter with Glacier Bay is the heart of his classic Travels in Alaska, a copy of which I did have in my office bookcase.) He had also founded the Sierra Club, to defend California's dwindling wild places against men like Harriman, practitioners of what Muir called "gobble gobble economics." Unfamiliar with Harriman, and perplexed by his unusual offer, Muir dragged his feet until his friend Merriam convinced him that the ship would be making stops in Alaskan locations that even Muir had yet to explore.
With his legacy in mind, Harriman paid Hart Merriam to edit what became twelve beautifully printed volumes of writings and photographs by the expedition members. Taken as a whole, the Harriman Alaska Series serves as a sepia snapshot of Alaska's natural riches in 1899: bears and whales and fjords and snowcapped peaks. Most striking of all, due largely to Muir's influence, are the hundreds of glaciers, many newly discovered and each as distinct in words and pictures as a snowflake under a microscope.
Since 1867, when the United States purchased the half million square miles of what had been called "Russian America," the territory has had a split personality. Alaska is the Last Frontier, land of sublime wild beauty. It is also, in the words of author and eco-activist Edward Abbey, "the last pork chop," a natural larder waiting to be raided. Alaska has been shaped by three gold rushes, each of which left behind a fundamentally different place. The first was the soft gold rush of fur, starting in the mid-eighteenth century, which opened the Great Land to the ships of Europe's most powerful nations. The second was the hard gold rush of the 1890s, which drew thousands of new non-Native residents north for the first time. The scientists assembled by Hart Merriam witnessed the unintended consequences of unregulated exploitation in Alaska-species driven to extinction, pristine lands and waters contaminated, Native cultures destroyed-and recorded these effects in the Harriman Alaska Series as well.
Alaska's third and biggest boom was the liquid gold rush that began with the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in the 1970s. Around the time I learned of the Harriman Expedition's existence, news stories began to report that, after nearly forty fat years, Alaska's third rush was reaching a crisis point just as its others had. The state's oil reserves were dwindling, and the price per barrel had collapsed, crippling the regional economy. Alaska faced a difficult choice: double down and open protected wilderness areas for drilling, which climate scientists argued was the opposite of what should be done in light of alarming warming trends; or move on to the Next Big Thing, whatever that might be, as the state always had.
It seemed I finally had my reason to visit Alaska-my answer to the question "Why?" I could follow in the Harriman Expedition's wake and compare what Hart Merriam's all-star team of experts had recorded with what was happening now. How to do so was another matter. Alaska is essentially a small continent: big enough to hold Texas, California, and Montana (the second-, third-, and fourth-largest states) and still have room left over for New England, Hawaii, and a couple of metropolises. It contains seven mountain ranges and ten peaks taller than any in the Lower 48. Its waterfront accounts for half of all coast in the United States. Louisiana has four times as many miles of paved roads. Except for a few of the larger cities and towns, most places in Alaska-and almost every place visited by the Harriman Expedition-can be reached only by boat or airplane. You can't even drive to Juneau, the state capital.
Because of these obstacles, Alaska has always been as much a seafaring culture as Polynesia. The great majority of its recreational visitors today make the journey the same way they would have in 1899: on ships. Each summer a million cruise ship passengers make the same scenery hajj as the Harriman Expedition. The most recent data I could find showed the Inside Passage had catapulted over Las Vegas and Orlando to become America's number-one tourist destination.
Copyright © 2018 by Mark Adams. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.