Joe Burns mug

Joe Burns

On Saturday, America celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing and Neil Armstrong as the first person to walk on the moon.  If you are a Baby Boomer, I can’t imagine that you would not remember where you were and what you were doing on that historic night.

I remember attending a beach party at a sandpit near Ashland that day. I remember a big portable radio sitting on the roof of a car and everyone crowded around listening as the lunar module Eagle descended to the surface of the moon with Neil Armstrong guiding the landing craft to a safe location.

I remember the beeping sound in the background and the voice of Buzz Aldrin calling out navigation distance and direction. But most of all I remember Armstrong’s words, “Houston, Tranquility base here, the Eagle has landed.”

That moment, the JFK assassination and Sept. 11 are the most powerful historical memories of my life.

But my column isn’t about space, the final frontier. It is about the exploration of the last great American frontier — wild Alaska.

Last week, I finished reading “Tip of the Iceberg: My 3,000-Mile Journey around Wild Alaska, the last Great American Frontier” by Mark Adams. Since I love to travel, my daughter, Emily, thought the book would be a perfect Father’s Day gift. She was right.

In 1899, Union Pacific Railroad magnate Edward H. Harriman outfitted a luxury sailing ship for an expedition to survey the coast of Alaska and invited a group of America’s top scientists, artists and writers to accompany him.

In “Tip of the Iceberg,” history and travel author Mark Adams writes about his journey to retrace the Harriman expedition and compare the wild Alaska frontier of 1899 with Alaska today.

Throughout the book, Adams not only contrasts Alaska then and now, but also contrasts the personalities and interests of Harriman and his fellow traveling companions.

The list of notables included Sierra Club founder and naturalist John Muir. Until reading this book I was not aware that Muir was also generally acknowledged to be the top American expert on glaciers.

The philosophies of the pioneer conservationist and his industrial magnate host could not have been more different. Muir believed that, “nature was not humankind’s servant,” and despised hunting. By contrast, Harriman’s chief motive in mounting the expedition was to bring back a bear a trophy. Along the way he also wanted to further scientific investigation, survey the natural resources and share the discoveries of the expedition with the general public.

What I found interesting was an exchange between the two men after Harriman succeeded in killing his bear. Muir was cranky about all of the talk about hunting and is reputed to have said,

“I don’t think Mr. Harriman is very rich. He has not as much money as I have. I have all I want and Mr. Harriman has not.”

After hearing about Muir’s remarks, Harriman took a seat next to him at dinner.

“I never cared for money except as power for work,” Harriman told Muir. “What I most enjoy is the power of creation, getting into partnership with nature in doing good, helping to free man and beast, and make everybody and everything a little better and happier.”

After the encounter, Adams said that an unusual and friendship developed between the two men.

In 1903, Muir convinced President Theodore Roosevelt that Yosemite Valley needed to be saved, but Muir could not get the California Legislature to give up jurisdiction without the approval of the Southern Pacific Railroad. Soon after the trip to Alaska, Harriman had acquired the railroad. Muir reluctantly asked Harriman for his help and overnight the Southern Pacific switched its position from opposition to support.

Throughout the book, the author contrasts the magnificence of the Alaskan frontier documented in the accounts of the Harriman expedition with the reality of today. The glaciers are diminishing and sea ice is melting at an alarming rate. Rising temperature is resulting in profound changes in human habitation as well as changing ecosystems.

In the final paragraph of his epilogue Adams writes, “If you are old and want to see the finest scenery in the world there’s no time like the present … if you are young, what are you waiting for? Check the ferry timetable, grab a sleeping bag and go.”

I just may have to take his advice.

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