Heacox's compelling narrative tells how Alaska's glaciers moved John Muir

Nancy Lord
An iceberg at Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve near where John Muir explored. NPS

John Muir and the Ice That Started a Fire: How a Visionary and the Glaciers of Alaska Changed America

By Kim Heacox, Lyons Press, 2014, $25.95

John Muir, naturalist and writer-activist, is a well-known figure in America today, most often associated with the mountains and forests of California, the protection of Yosemite Valley and the founding of the Sierra Club. Fewer people know of his deep connection to Alaska’s wilds, particularly its glaciers, and the influence the Alaska landscape had on his life and the resulting conservation movement. With as much as has been penned about Muir over the years, it’s surprising that until now no biographer has focused on Muir’s seven trips to Alaska and their meaning in his life and times.

The subject certainly found its match in Kim Heacox of Gustavus. There’s no writer living today better suited to telling the story of -- as the book’s subtitle promises -- “how a visionary and the glaciers of Alaska changed America.”

Heacox, a literary and philosophical heir to Muir, is well-rooted in the conservation field and Muir’s beloved Glacier Bay. The author of several other books, including the acclaimed memoir “The Only Kayak,” he’s a careful researcher, a well-informed and clear thinker and a sensitive writer. He brings to life in this well-crafted narrative a complex and compelling character in the context of his times -- and now, in ours.

'The great ice-chief'

Muir was already 41 years old (and engaged to be married) when he made his first trip to Alaska in 1879. In a Tlingit canoe with Tlingit guides, he and his friend, the Presbyterian missionary S. Hall Young, left Wrangell in October of that year and traveled nearly 900 miles in the next 40 days, into Glacier Bay and to the top of Lynn Canal, exploring fjords and glaciers all the way up and back. The guides thought he was a madman for insisting on going into that country at that time of year, to scramble up mountains without apparent purpose and to gaze on ice. They had to admire his toughness and passion, though; they called him “the great ice-chief.”  

“There was nobody quite like him,” Heacox tells us. “John Muir popularized geology, especially its young subset science, glaciology. He gave America a new vision of Alaska and a new and brighter vision of itself. He suggested a reordering of our priorities, and contributed to a new scientific revolution. . . . He was a gentle rebel, a talkative hermit, an enthusiastic wanderer, a distant son of the Scottish Enlightenment, inspired by ice.”

Raised with a strict interpretation of the Bible, Muir sought a broader understanding and spiritual health in Nature (with a capital "N"). As a naturalist without academic credentials, he’d recognized through observation that California’s Sierra Nevada mountains had been shaped by glaciers -- a theory that conflicted with both religion and the still-new science of geology at the time -- and his first trip to Alaska was to see for himself the work of existing glaciers. As Heacox puts it, “Alaska provided the natural laboratory and wild church of John Muir’s dreams, the place that held the answers to questions he’d not yet considered.”  

Beyond placing us with Muir in Alaska, Heacox continually circles back to the politics and social fabric of the day. He explores the influences on Muir of Emerson, Darwin, Wordsworth and others, scientific developments and the beginning of a cultural shift from unquestioned resource exploitation toward conservation. In Alaska, we find Muir learning not just from glaciers but from the Tlingit, whom he came to deeply respect for their bonds with the natural world and their humility, wisdom and wit.

By the time Muir made his seventh and final trip to Alaska, he was 61 and a member of the 1899 Harriman Alaska Expedition. He had transformed from madcap adventurer to best-selling author and outspoken preservationist. The power and beauty of Alaska’s glaciers and scale of wildness had set a standard that drove him to book writing (something he never enjoyed) and to public speaking and political action. Through his involvement with the Sierra Club and connections to President Theodore Roosevelt and others, he helped establish our national parks system and inspired a long line of writers, policy makers and ordinary citizens. When President Jimmy Carter signed the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), the protection of extensive parks and refuges built on the work of Muir and the many who responded to his “glacial gospel.”

'Travels in Alaska' manuscript

The epilogue of “John Muir and the Ice That Started a Fire” features a present-day narrative in Glacier Bay National Park, one of the parks established by ANILCA. (The area had been a national monument since 1925, created by President Calvin Coolidge after a campaign conducted by Muir disciples.) In this closing section, Heacox follows Kevin Richards, a longtime seasonal ranger, as Richards talks to cruise ship passengers about the history and natural history of the area. Richards “calmly and quietly” explains what’s known from ice cores about atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and about global warming and the bay’s thinning and retreating glaciers.

In this way, Heacox calmly completes his compelling case for John Muir’s relevance today. As glaciers served as a transcending metaphor for Muir, representing the flow of all things, they serve us now with fitting symbols for our present ecological crisis. “When we try to pick out anything by itself,” Muir wrote, “we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

When Muir died in 1914, the manuscript for “Travels in Alaska,” detailing his 1879 and 1880 trips among glaciers, lay on his bedside table.

As we close this marvelous new account by Kim Heacox, we might imagine John Muir in 1890, hauling a sled on a solo 10-day journey up the glacier named for him, taking his “mountain nourishment.” Muir Glacier no longer fills Muir Inlet but sits up on land more than 30 miles farther north. The cabin that Muir built near its face is today only a pile of chimney rocks hidden in the forest.  

Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska writer laureate. Her books include “Fishcamp,” “Beluga Days” and “Early Warning.”