From a distance, Russell Island had looked like a good place for a prison colony. When David and I landed, we found a perfect deserted isle with a panoramic view: two rows of dark mountains tapering toward a massive white block of ice. We set up camp in a patch of tall grass above the beach. David cooked a simple dinner, careful to keep even the tiniest scrap of food a hundred yards away from our tents in case any hungry bears came through. He'd grown up in Alaska
and had encountered plenty of bears, and he didn't seem too concerned about the mega-fauna threat level on Russell Island. He'd seen none of the usual signs of bear activity: claw marks, scat, the large divots they dig out to sleep in.
"If you get up before the morning's first cruise ship comes through, have a good look around," David told me before we crawled into our tents for the night. "At that hour there probably won't be anyone but us for twenty miles in any direction."
Sunlight spilled into the fjord just after 4:00 A.M.—daybreak in Southeast Alaska in June—and illuminated the glacier at the head of the bay. When my great-great-grandparents were holding hands as teenagers, that ice had engulfed the spot where I stood. I sat on a rock that had been deposited by the glacier's hasty retreat sometime between John Muir's first visit, in 1879, and his last, in 1899, pulled out my map, and tried once again to untangle the changes that had taken place in that span.
When I looked up, I saw immediately that David's observation about our morning solitude needed a clarification. We were definitely the only humans on Russell Island, and probably the only people for many miles in any direction. But we weren't exactly alone.
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 under-performing 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.