The Glacier Priest By Fr. Gerald McKevitt, SJ

Among the famous persons in the United States in the 1930s was Fr. Bernard Hubbard, SJ (SI 1906), popularly known as the “Glacier Priest.” Though listed in Santa Clara University’s bulletin as a member of the geology department, the peripatetic Hubbard spent most of his time exploring Alaska and lecturing about his travels to audiences across the country.

Hubbard’s career as an explorer began when he was a youth climbing the Santa Cruz mountains with camera, gun and dog.8 Later he was called “Fossil” by his SI classmates and at Santa Clara because of his interest in geology. Hubbard entered the Jesuit order in 1908 when he was 20. Even as a religious, he showed great resourcefulness in finding opportunities for mountain climbing and exploration. Sent to Innsbruck in the 1920s to complete his theological studies, Hubbard devoted more than his spare time to probing and photographing the alpine peaks and glaciers of the Austrian Tyrol. It is here that he earned the nicknameGletscher Pfarrer — “Glacier Priest” — which he carried all his life.9

In 1926, Hubbard returned to Santa Clara to teach Greek, German and geology, but it was not long before he again pulled on his hiking boots. During summer vacation in 1927, he made his first major expedition to Alaska to explore the Mendenhall and Taku glaciers. That trip, over country never before traversed by man, brought the 39-year-old priest extended publicity. So great was the interest generated by nationwide newspaper coverage of the expedition — beautifully illustrated by Hubbard’s own photographs of the glacial wonderland — that another trip was organized the following year.

When Hubbard returned from the Alaskan wilderness in 1928, he announced that he was “the first human being ever to reach the rugged and almost inaccessible interior of Kodiak Island,” where he found mountains 6,000 feet high of which “no one had previously known the existence.”10 His knowledge of the Taku River region led the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey to seek his services the following summer as a guide for a party erecting triangulation stations there. The summer of 1929 also found Hubbard trekking through the rarely visited and spectacular Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes toward the summit of the towering volcano Mount Katmai.

Frequently accompanied by strapping athletes from the Santa Clara football team (“chosen to stand hardship,” a New York paper explained) and occasionally traveling alone (as in 1931, when he mushed a 13-dog-team 1,600 miles from the interior of Alaska to the Bering Sea), Hubbard pursued his interests in both geology and the great outdoors. They had long since overshadowed his devotion to the classroom. In 1930, he was released from teaching at the university for full-time lecturing, writing and further exploration of the Alaskan wilderness.11

Financing his trips with proceeds from his public lectures (any surplus was destined for the Jesuit missions in Alaska), Hubbard turned his attention in the early 1930s to the volcano-torn Alaskan Peninsula. He had visited Aniakchak, “the largest active volcano in the world,” for the first time in 1930. The next year Aniakchak erupted in a spectacular display of fire and molten rock. Hubbard returned to explore and photograph the volcano’s still smoking crater. For two weeks he and his party of university athletes trekked around and through its smoldering dangers. The results of that expedition were described in National Geographic.12 Hubbard returned frequently to the giant craters of Aniakchak, Veniaminof and Katmai in succeeding years, as in 1934, when the National Geographic Society participated in his expedition to explore and map both the Alaskan Peninsula and the adjacent Aleutian Islands, whose topography had been greatly altered by the recent volcanic upheavals.13

When the adventures of this unusual Jesuit were serialized in The Sunday Evening Post in 1932, the name “Glacier Priest” became a household word. Sponsorship of his lecture tour and radio broadcasts by the National Broadcasting Company that same year enhanced Hubbard’s finances as well as his fame. Accompanied by a couple of his Alaskan sled dogs, Hubbard thrilled audiences across the country with stories of how he had traveled with Eskimos on a 2,000-mile trip to the Arctic Circle, celebrated Mass on ice floes, narrowly escaped death while flying an airplane into the crater of a still active volcano and hiked for weeks through the vast center of the mighty Aniakchak. “Half the year the highest paid lecturer in the world, the other half a wanderer among treacherous craters and glaciers”: thus The Literary Digest described him in 1937. When he stepped down from the lecture platform at New York’s Town Hall in May of that year, after eight months on the road, he had delivered more than 275 talks, “probably a world record,” theDigest surmised.14 Hubbard also wrote popular accounts of his travels. Mush You Malemutes, his first book, appeared in 1932; three years later he wrote Cradle of the Storms.

Although scientists occasionally accompanied him (Hubbard himself was largely self-trained), the overall scientific value of his 30-odd expeditions to Alaska was not great. Indeed, his pretensions to expertise on a variety of highly technical subjects, as well as his proclivity for the spectacular and for what appeared to be self-serving publicity, earned him criticism from his fellow Jesuits trained in geology and other scientific fields. Hubbard was effective in other ways, however, for his adventures reaped a harvest of publicity not only for himself but also for Santa Clara and especially Alaska. While SCU’s football teams were capturing headlines in newspapers across America, the “Glacier Priest” was making the name of the university known in lecture halls from Los Angeles to New York.

Alaska loved him as its volunteer ambassador because of the worldwide attention he drew to the territory’s natural wonders.15 His lecture tours and radio broadcasts, as well as the coverage he received in magazines and newspapers, led a Juneau daily to conclude in 1932 that Bernard Hubbard had generated the most extensive effective advertising that Alaska had yet received.16

But the most important result of his explorations was the thousands of feet of motion-picture and still film with which he illustrated his lectures. Those materials, which are kept in Santa Clara University’s archives, constitute one of the largest collections of images of Alaska in the 1930s. Hubbard’s photographs provide a valuable visual record of many aspects of Alaskan geography and the life of its native peoples that have long since disappeared.

Reprinted from Fr. McKevitt’s book, The University of Santa Clara: A History 1851–1977, published by Stanford University Press, 1979.