A Dog, a Glacier, a Mountaineer and a Missionary

It was John Muir, the world-famous pioneer explorer who once said, “The mountains are calling and I must go.” In the summers of 1879 and 1880, “the most interesting period of [Muir’s] adventurous life,” the experienced mountaineer teamed up with the pioneer Presbyterian missionary, Samuel Hall Young, to explore Alaska’s Glacier Bay.

On that first summer trip together, Muir had agreed with some reluctance to take Young on a hiking expedition over a range of mountains that would include Glenora Peak. The hike was intended to cover 14 to 16 miles round-trip and to ascend to an elevation of 7,000 feet. Rev. Young was in good shape and promised to keep up with the expert hiker, although he kept to himself the fact that previous injuries had caused shoulders to be prone to dislocation.

Young did manage to keep up, but there was a terrifying moment when he slipped and landed on a ledge, in fact dislocating both shoulders. Muir had to work his way back to rescue Young, at one point, pulling Young’s collar by his teeth. It was a epic rescue, whereby Muir dragged, carried and guided his friend down Glenora Peak under the starlight while Young was in great agony. One would wish to see this event portrayed in a movie someday.

The following summer, as the two men again prepared to hike on a different mountainous route, Rev. Young brought his dog Stickeen along (so named for the Stikeen Indians in the area; Muir had an Indian crew with him to assist on this expedition), against Muir’s objections.

John Muir Stickeen cover.jpg

Muir later wrote:

I like dogs, but this one seemed so small and worthless that I objected to his going, and asked the missionary why he was taking him.

"Such a little helpless creature will only be in the way," I said; "you had better pass him up to the Indian boys on the wharf, to be taken home to play with the children. This trip is not likely to be good for toy-dogs. The poor silly thing will be in rain and snow for weeks or months, and will require care like a baby." But his master assured me that he would be no trouble at all; that he was a perfect wonder of a dog, could endure cold and hunger like a bear, swim like a seal, and was wondrous wise and cunning, etc., making out a list of virtues to show he might be the most interesting member of the party.

Just as Muir did not want the animal to hinder their hike, the dog himself seemed aloof to Muir. But the experiences they went through together on another perilous high-altitude glacier precipice in the midst of a storm changed all that. The dog indeed could endure hardship and it was during the intense trials experienced by the expedition that his loyalty and devotion to the leader of the group developed. Muir and Stickeen bonded in the most remarkable way, with their companionship during the difficult expedition becoming the stuff of legends.

Muir later wrote a book which immortalized his canine friend. First published in 1897 under the title An Adventure With a Dog and a Glacier, it was later republished in 1909 as Stickeen: The Story of a Dog, and in 1915 as Stickeen: An Adventure With a Dog and a Glacier (see this introduction to the classic work). After Young read it, he had this to say:

That little, long-haired, brisk, beautiful, but very independent dog, in co-ordination with Muir's genius, was to give to the world one of its greatest dog-classics. Muir's story of ''Stickeen" ranks with "Rab and His Friends" [1859; by Dr. John Brown (1810-1882) of the famous Scottish Presbyterian John Brown of Haddington and Edinburgh family], ''Bob, Son of Battle” [1898; by Alfred Ollivant], and far above "The Call of the Wild" [1903; by Jack London]. Indeed, in subtle analysis of dog character, as well as beauty of description, I think it outranks all of them. All over the world men, women and children are reading with laughter, thrills and tears this exquisite little story.

In time, Young actually became famous as the owner of that famous dog, Stickeen. Muir also wrote Travels in Alaska (1915), which recounts in much more detail both adventures briefly described above. Meanwhile, Young is the author of Alaska Days With John Muir (1915), which gives his account of both adventures (interspersed with his own poems) and shows his admiration of the man who followed the Book of Nature, while he himself — later superintendent of Presbyterian missions in Alaska — was man of the Book of Revelation who also loved nature. Other books by Young include Klondike Clan (1916); Adventures in Alaska (1919); Kenowan, the Hydah Boy (1919); and his autobiography, Hall Young of Alaska: The Mushing Parson (1927) — some of which are available to read at Log College Press. If you love reading about adventure, mountains, and man’s best friend — stories told by a Presbyterian pioneer missionary — these are tales that you will wish to explore for yourself from the comfort of your chair at home.