“Stickeen” by John Muir
The naturalist and author John Muir once wrote, “I have known many dogs, and many a story I could tell of their wisdom and devotion; but to none do I owe so much as to Stickeen. At first the least promising and least known of my dog-friends, he suddenly became the best known of them all. Our storm-battle for life brought him to light, and through him as through a window I have ever since been looking with deeper sympathy into all my fellow mortals.”
Here is “Stickeen” a well-known essay about an intrepid little dog, from the writer John Muir!
Illustration from a Stickeen picture book
John Muir’s true story of what happened on an Alaskan glacier with a dog named Stickeen, in 1880, is one of Muir’s best-known writings, and is now considered a classic dog story. Although it can be read as a straight adventure story, it is much more than that. Muir’s story is most compelling because it revealed to Muir that man and dog were not so unlike each other. Stickeen was at first an unfriendly little dog, but after surviving a perilous journey across a glacier by crossing an ice bridge, Stickeen’s aloofness is replaced by rapturous emotion, revealing to Muir the fact that our “horizontal brothers” are not that much unlike us.
Muir with Stickeen
Some notes on “Stickeen” (From The Sierra Club):
Now generally spelled Wrangell. Any good map of Alaska will show its location.
Tail . . . shady as a squirrel’s:
The Greek word for squirrel, skiouros , from which our English word is derived, is formed from two words meaning “shadow” and “tail.” It is quite likely that Mr. Muir had this in mind.
The water was phosphorescent:
Some of the small and microscopic animal life of the sea becomes luminous at night when disturbed by the breaking of the waves, the churning of a boat’s propeller, the splashing of oars, the strokes of a swimmer, or any similar cause, as, in this case, the movements of the salmon. The surrounding water at such times glows and sparkles beautifully.
The salmon were running:
Salmon, though for most of the year living in the sea, spawn only in fresh running water, and every spring and summer they swarm up the streams to the breeding-grounds. This is the time when they are caught for sport and for the market,–in the East by rod and line, in Alaska, where they are found in vast numbers, with nets and spears. This migration up the streams is called “running.”
Panax horridus , or Fatsia horrida , a dangerously prickly araliaceous shrub commonly called devil’s-club. It is abundant in Alaska.
The genus of plants to which the blackberry, raspberry, cloudberry, and salmonberry belong.
One looks in the dictionaries in vain for this word, but the meaning is obvious. Mr. Muir was rather fond of coining playful words of this kind, such as are so common in his native Scotch.
A celebrated Greek Cynic philosopher who despised riches and is said to have lived in a tub. Plutarch relates that when Alexander the Great asked Diogenes whether he could do anything for him he replied, “Yes, I would have you stand from between me and the sun.”
“A spinxlike person; one of enigmatical or inscrutable character and purposes” (Webster’s New International Dictionary ). The Sphinx of Greek mythology propounded a riddle to all comers and, upon the failure of each one to guess it, speedily devoured him.
An Indian name, also spelled Taku.
The ice-fields that formed the sources of the glaciers.
The famous Muir Glacier , discovered by Mr. Muir in 1879, is at the head of this bay.
The word “tacks” is used in the nautical sense, as when a sailing vessel “tacks” to windward, taking a zigzag course because it is impossible to sail directly against the wind. By “narrow tacks” the author evidently means tacks in which little real progress was made, the crevasses coming very close together.
In the sense of sources; in this case the sources of glaciers.
Power beyond our call or knowledge:
This has been the experience of many who have extricated themselves from imminent dangers by their own unaided efforts. The emergency calls forth hitherto unsuspected supplies of reserve energy.
Wee, hairy, sleekit beastie:
This reminds one of Burns’s poem “To a Mouse,” which begins “Wee, sleekit, cow’rin’, tim’rous beastie.” “Sleekit” is doubtless used in its original sense of sleek, smooth. It is the past participle of the verb “to sleek.” Muir was fond of dropping occasionally into his native Scotch, especially when an affectionate diminutive was called for.
We will get across safe:
Here and at the top of the next page Mr. Muir follows the Scotch custom of using the word “will” where the best English usage demands “shall.”
See note on Panax.
Quote at Denali National Park
As you make your way through the account of this unforgettable dog, consider this quote from the American Masters biography on Muir:
“Muir felt a spiritual connection to nature; he believed that mankind is just one part of an interconnected natural world, not its master, and that God is revealed through nature.”
Movie Trailer for John Muir in The New World (PBS, American Masters)
. . .A bit about John Muir from the Sierra Club Website . . .
In 1867, while working at a carriage parts shop in Indianapolis, Muir suffered a blinding eye injury that would change his life. When he regained his sight one month later, Muir resolved to turn his eyes to the fields and woods. There began his years of wanderlust. He walked a thousand miles from Indianapolis to the Gulf of Mexico. He sailed to Cuba , and later to Panama, where he crossed the Isthmus and sailed up the West Coast, landing in San Francisco in March, 1868. From that moment on, though he would travel around the world, California became his home.
It was California’s Sierra Nevada and Yosemite that truly claimed him. In 1868, he walked across the San Joaquin Valley through waist-high wildflowers and into the high country for the first time. Later he would write: “Then it seemed to me the Sierra should be called no the Nevada, or Snowy Range, but the Range of Light…the most divinely beautiful of all the mountain chains I have ever seen.” He herded sheep through that first summer and made his home in Yosemite.
By 1871 he had found living glaciers in the Sierra and had conceived his then-controversial theory of the glaciation of Yosemite Valley. He began to be known throughout the country. Famous men of the time – Joseph LeConte, Asa Gray and Ralph Waldo Emerson – made their way to the door of his pine cabin.
Beginning in 1874, a series of articles by Muir entitled “Studies in the Sierra” launched his successful career as a writer. He left the mountains and lived for awhile in Oakland, California. From there he took many trips, including his first to Alaska in 1879, where he discovered Glacier Bay. In 1880, he married Louie Wanda Strentzel and moved to Martinez, California , where they raised their two daughters, Wanda and Helen. Settling down to some measure of domestic life, Muir went into partnership with his father-in-law and managed the family fruit ranch with great success.
But ten years of active ranching did not quell Muir’s wanderlust. His travels took him to Alaska many more times, to Australia, South America, Africa, Europe, China, Japan, and of course, again and again to his beloved Sierra Nevada. .
In later years he turned more seriously to writing, publishing 300 articles and 10 major books that recounted his travels, expounded his naturalist philosophy, and beckoned everyone to “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.” Muir’s love of the high country gave his writings a spiritual quality. His readers, whether they be presidents, congressmen, or plain folks, were inspired and often moved to action by the enthusiasm of Muir’s own unbounded love of nature.
Through a series of articles appearing in Century magazine, Muir drew attention to the devastation of mountain meadows and forests by sheep and cattle. With the help of Century‘s associate editor, Robert Underwood Johnson, Muir worked to remedy this destruction. In 1890, due in large part to the efforts of Muir and Johnson, an act of Congress created Yosemite National Park. Muir was also personally involved in the creation of Sequoia , Mount Rainier , Petrified Forest and Grand Canyon national parks. Muir deservedly is often called the “Father of Our National Park System “.
Johnson and others suggested to Muir that an association be formed to protect the newly created Yosemite National Park from the assaults of stockmen and others who would diminish its boundaries. In 1892, Muir and a number of his supporters founded the Sierra Club to, in Muir’s words, “do something for wildness and make the mountains glad.” Muir served as the Club’s president until his death in 1914.
In 1901, Muir published Our National Parks , the book that brought him to the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt. In 1903, Roosevelt visited Muir in Yosemite. There, together, beneath the trees, they laid the foundation of Roosevelt’s innovative and notable conservation programs.
Muir and the Sierra Club fought many battles to protect Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada, the most dramatic being the campaign to prevent the damming of the Hetch Hetchy Valley within Yosemite National Park. In 1913, after years of effort, the battle was lost and the valley that Muir likened to Yosemite itself was doomed to become a reservoir to supply the water needs of a growing San Francisco. The following year, after a short illness, Muir died in a Los Angeles hospital after visiting his daughter Wanda.
John Muir was perhaps this country’s most famous and influential naturalist and conservationist. He taught the people of his time and ours the importance of experiencing and protecting our natural heritage. His words have heightened our perception of nature. His personal and determined involvement in the great conservation questions of the day was and remains an inspiration for environmental activists everywhere. (Sierra Club)