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Retracing An Expedition Through The Great Wild North Of Alaska

Skating in a small ice cave below Byron Glacier, in the Chugach National Forest of Alaska. (Paxson Woebler/Unsplash)
Skating in a small ice cave below Byron Glacier, in the Chugach National Forest of Alaska. (Paxson Woebler/Unsplash)

With Ray Suarez

An 1899 expedition to Alaska found wild beauty and coming environmental calamity. What about now? Best-selling author Mark Adams retraced the trek to find out.


Mark Adams, author and journalist. Author of: “Tip of The Iceberg: My 3,000-Mile Journey Around Wild Alaska, the Last Great American Frontier” (@markcadams)

Richard Beneville, mayor of Nome, Alaska since 2015 and former Broadway chorus member.

From The Reading List:

The New York Times: A D.I.Y. Trip Through Alaska’s Inside Passage” — “Long before his extravagantly bearded profile appeared on postage stamps and commemorative coins, John Muir was a struggling travel writer. Muir, revered today as the founder of the Sierra Club and an early advocate for national parks, was largely unknown to America’s reading public in 1879 when he first departed San Francisco bound for Alaska’s mysterious Inside Passage, a seafaring route through the densely islanded panhandle of America’s northernmost territory.

His primary goal was to study Alaska’s glaciers; newspaper travelogues paid the bills. His adventures, guided hundreds of miles by Tlingit natives paddling a dugout cedar canoe, became rhapsodic dispatches that found an enthusiastic audience. Within a few years, West Coast steamships were hawking Alaska sightseeing trips to the ‘frozen Niagara’ of the Muir Glacier, a spectacular river of ice — today located in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve — discharging massive bergs from its 300-foot-high face.

Newspaper editors might have hired Muir solely on the basis of his expense reports; he endorsed sleeping on the ground, and often carried little more than bread, a notebook and a change of underwear on his long rambles. Today’s prototypical Alaska visitor, a passenger on a weeklong Inside Passage cruise, expects a significantly higher level of comfort. These cruises, which generally run $1,000 to $4,000 a passenger, usually follow the aquatic path Muir popularized, departing from Seattle or Vancouver with stops in Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway. Two lucky cruise ships per day are permitted to enter Glacier Bay National Park and witness the icy CinemaScope glories immortalized in Muir’s classic ‘Travels in Alaska.’ This route has become insanely popular: Alaska hosted more than one million cruise ship visitors last year, a number that continues to grow.”

At the end of the 19th century, an eclectic group of American outdoorsmen headed up into Alaska’s glaciers and forests, mountains and bays. They brought back stories of a wild place that challenged their powers of description. More than a century later, author Mark Adams strapped on his backpack and retraced their steps, and found a wild, challenging, warming, and conflicted place.

This hour, On Point: Still America’s last frontier.

– Ray Suarez

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