TEN THOUSAND MILES WITH A DOG SLED
BY THE SAME AUTHOR
THE ASCENT OF DENALI (MT. McKINLEY).
A narrative of the first complete ascent of THE HIGHEST MOUNTAIN IN NORTH AMERICA and the most northerly high mountain in the world.
Profusely illustrated. 8vo. $1.75 net
"Few climbers have had such good fortune on a supreme occasion, but few have better deserved it."
TEN THOUSAND MILES WITH A DOG SLED
A NARRATIVE OF WINTER TRAVEL IN INTERIOR ALASKA
HUDSON STUCK, D.D., F.R.G.S. ARCHDEACON OF THE YUKON AUTHOR OF "THE ASCENT OF DENALI (MOUNT McKINLEY)"
NEW YORK CHARLES SCRIBNER'S SONS 1916
COPYRIGHT, 1914, 1916, BY CHARLES SCRIBNER'S SONS
TO GRAFTON BURKE, M.D. AND EDGAR WEBB LOOMIS, M.D.
PUPILS, COMRADES, COLLEAGUES, COMPANIONS ON SOME OF THESE JOURNEYS, ALWAYS DEAR FRIENDS,
THE MOTHER OF THE THREE OF US
THE COLLEGE ON THE MOUNTAIN-TOP WHERE THE OLD IDEALS ARE STILL UNFLINCHINGLY MAINTAINED
THIS VOLUME IS AFFECTIONATELY INSCRIBED BY THE AUTHOR
THIS volume deals with a series of journeys taken with a dog team over the winter trails in the interior of Alaska. The title might have claimed fourteen or fifteen thousand miles instead of ten, for the book was projected and the title adopted some years ago, and the journeys have continued. But ten thousand is a good round titular number, and is none the worse for being well within the mark.
So far as mere distance is concerned, anyway, there is nothing noteworthy in this record. There are many men in Alaska who have done much more. A mail-carrier on one of the longer dog routes will cover four thousand miles in a winter, while the writer's average is less than two thousand. But his sled has gone far off the beaten track, across the arctic wilderness, into many remote corners; wherever, indeed, white men or natives were to be found in all the great interior.
These journeys were connected primarily with the administration of the extensive work of the Episcopal Church in the interior of Alaska, under the bishop of the diocese; but that feature of them has been fully set forth from time to time in the church publications, and finds only incidental reference here.
It is a great, wild country, little known save along accustomed routes of travel; a country with a beauty and a fascination all its own; mere arctic wilderness, indeed, and nine tenths of it probably destined always to remain such, yet full of interest and charm.
Common opinion "outside" about Alaska seems to be veering from the view that it is a land of perpetual snow and ice to the other extreme of holding it to be a "world's treasure-house" of mineral wealth and agricultural possibility. The world's treasure is deposited in many houses, and Alaska has its share; its mineral wealth is very great, and "hidden doors of opulence" may open at any time, but its agricultural possibilities, in the ordinary sense in which the phrase is used, are confined to very small areas in proportion to the enormous whole, and in very limited degree.
It is no new thing for those who would build railways to write in high-flown style about the regions they would penetrate, and, indeed, to speak of "millions of acres waiting for the plough" is not necessarily a misrepresentation; they are waiting. Nor is it altogether unnatural that professional agricultural experimenters at the stations established by the government should make the most of their experiments. When Dean Stanley spoke disdainfully of dogma, Lord Beaconsfield replied; "Ah! but you must always remember, no dogmas, no deans."
Besides the physical attractions of this country, it has a gentle aboriginal population that arouses in many ways the respect and the sympathy of all kindly people; and it has some of the hardiest and most adventurous white men in the world. The reader will come into contact with both in these pages.
So much for the book's scope; a word of its limitations. It is confined to the interior of Alaska; confined in the main to the great valley of the Yukon and its tributaries; being a record of sled journeys, it is confined to the winter.
There is no man living who knows the whole of Alaska or who has any right to speak about the whole of Alaska. Bishop Rowe knows more about Alaska, in all probability, than any other living man, and there are large areas of the country in which he has never set foot. There is probably no man living, save Bishop Rowe, who has visited even the localities of all the missions of the Episcopal Church in Alaska. If one were to travel continuously for a whole year, using the most expeditious means at his command, and not wasting a day anywhere, it is doubtful whether, summer and winter, by sea and land, squeezing the last mile out of the seasons, travelling on the "last ice" and the "first water," he could even touch at all the mission stations. So, when a man from Nome speaks of Alaska he means his part of Alaska, the Seward Peninsula. When a man from Valdez or Cordova speaks of Alaska he means the Prince William Sound country. When a man from Juneau speaks of Alaska he means the southeastern coast. Alaska is not one country but many, with different climates, different resources, different problems, different populations, different interests; and what is true of one part of it is often grotesquely untrue of other parts. This is the reason why so many contradictory things have been written about the country. Not only do these various parts of Alaska differ radically from one another, but they are separated from one another by almost insuperable natural obstacles, so that they are in reality different countries.
When Alaska is spoken of in this book the interior is meant, in which the writer has travelled almost continuously for the past eight years. The Seward Peninsula is the only other part of the country that the book touches. And as regards summer travel and the summer aspect of the country, there is material for another book should the reception of this one warrant its preparation.
* * * * *
The problems of the civil government of the country will be found touched upon somewhat freely as they rise from time to time in the course of these journeys, and some faint hope is entertained that drawing attention to evils may hasten a remedy.
Alaska is not now, and never has been, a lawless country in the old, Wild Western sense of unpunished homicides and crimes of violence. It has been, on the whole, singularly free from bloodshed—a record due in no small part to the fact that it is not the custom of the country to carry pistols, for which again there is climatic and geographic reason; due also in part to the very peaceable and even timid character of its native people.
But as regards the stringent laws enacted by Congress for the protection of these native people, and especially in the essential particular of protecting them from the fatal effects of intoxicating liquor, the country is not law-abiding, for these laws are virtually a dead letter.
Justices of the peace who must live wholly upon fees in regions where fees will not furnish a living, and United States deputy marshals appointed for political reasons, constitute a very feeble staff against law-breakers. When it is remembered that on the whole fifteen hundred miles of the American Yukon there are but six of these deputy marshals, and that these six men, with another five or six on the tributary rivers, form all the police of the country, it will be seen that Congress must do something more than pass stringent laws if those laws are to be of any effect.
A body of stipendiary magistrates, a police force wholly removed from politics and modelled somewhat upon the Canadian Northwest Mounted Police—these are two of the great needs of the country if the liquor laws are to be enforced and the native people are to survive.
That the danger of the extermination of the natives is a real one all vital statistics kept at Yukon River points in the last five years show, and that there are powerful influences in the country opposed to the execution of the liquor laws some recent trials at Fairbanks would leave no room for doubt if there had been any room before. Indeed, at this writing, when the pages of this book are closed and there remains no place save the preface where the matter can be referred to, an impudent attempt is on foot, with large commercial backing, to secure the removal of a zealous and fearless United States district attorney, who has been too active in prosecuting liquor-peddlers to suit the wholesale dealers in liquor.
There are, of course, those who view with perfect equanimity the destruction of the natives that is now going on, and look forward with complacency to the time when the Alaskan Indian shall have ceased to exist. But to men of thought and feeling such cynicism is abhorrent, and the duty of the government towards its simple and kindly wards is clear.
A measure of real protection must be given the native communities against the low-down whites who seek to intrude into them and build habitations for convenient resort upon occasions of drunkenness and debauchery, and some adequate machinery set up for suppressing the contemptible traffic in adulterated spirits they subsist largely upon. The licensed liquor-dealers do not themselves sell to Indians, but they notoriously sell to men who notoriously peddle to Indians, and the suppression of this illicit commerce would materially reduce the total sales of liquor.
Some measure of protection, one thinks, must also be afforded against a predatory class of Indian traders, the back rooms of whose stores are often barrooms, gambling-dens, and houses of assignation, and headquarters and harbourage for the white degenerates—even if the government go the length of setting up co-operative Indian stores in the interior, as has been done in some places on the coast. This last is a matter in which the missions are helpless, for there is no wise combination of religion and trade.
So this book goes forth with a plea in the front of it, which will find incidental support and expression throughout it, for the natives of interior Alaska, that they be not wantonly destroyed off the face of the earth.
NEW YORK, March, 1914.
PREFACE TO SECOND EDITION
IT is gratifying to know that a second edition of this book has been called for and it is interesting to write another preface; it even proved interesting to do what was set about most reluctantly—the reading of the book over again after entire avoidance of it for two years. It was necessary to do it, though one shrank from it, and it is interesting to know that after this comparatively long and complete detachment I find little to add and less to correct. Upon a complete rereading I am content to let the book stand, with two or three footnotes thrown in, and the correction of the one printer's error it contained from cover to cover—an error that a score of kind correspondents pointed out, for it was conspicuous in the title of a picture.
The tendency to which attention is drawn in the original preface, the pendulum swing from the old notion that Alaska is a land of polar bears and icebergs to the new notion that it is a "world's treasure-house of mineral wealth and unbounded agricultural possibilities" is yet more marked than it was two years ago. The beginning of the building of the government railway has given new impetus to the "boosting" writers for magazines and newspapers. Quite recently it was stated in one such publication that we need not worry about the destruction of our forests, for had we not the inexhaustible timber resources of the interior of Alaska to draw upon?
And in the North itself—though no one there would write about the timber resources of the interior—in certain shrill journals the man who does not confidently expect to see the Yukon Flats waving with golden grain and "the lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea" of the Koyukuk and the Chandalar is regarded as a traitor to his country and his God. But it must be remembered that there are a number of journalists in Alaska who know nothing of the country outside their respective towns, and that "boosting" grows shriller, as Eugene Field found red paint grow redder, "the further out West one goes." When they get a newspaper at Cape Prince of Wales what a clarion it will be!
Truth, however, is not more wont than of old to be found in extremes, and the author of this book believes that those who desire a sober view of the country it deals with will find it herein. He claims no more than that he has had adequate opportunity of forming his opinions and that he has a right to their expression. It is now twelve years since he began almost constant travelling, winter and summer, in the interior of Alaska. He has described nothing that he has not seen; ventured no judgment that he has not well digested, and has nothing to retract or even modify; but he would repeat and emphasise a caution of the original preface. Alaska is not one country but many countries, and so widely do they differ from one another in almost every respect that no general statements about Alaska can be true. The present author's knowledge of the territory is confined in the main to the interior—to the valley of the Yukon and its tributary rivers, which make up one of the world's great waterways—and nothing of his writing applies, with his authority, to other parts.
The matter of the preservation of the native peoples still presses, and is nearer to the author's heart than any other matter whatever. The United States Congress, which voted thirty-five millions of dollars for the government railroad, strikes out year by year the modest additional score or two of thousands that year by year the Bureau of Education asks for the establishment of hospital work amongst the Indians of the interior, and the preventable mortality continues to be very great.
In the last two years, largely as the result of the untiring efforts of Bishop Rowe on behalf of the natives, two modern, well-equipped hospitals have been built, with money that he and his clergy have gathered, on the Yukon River, one at Fort Yukon and one at Tanana; and these are the only places of any kind, on nearly a thousand miles of the river, where sick or injured Indians may be received and cared for.
Amongst men of thought and feeling there is noticeable revulsion from the supercilious attitude that used not to be uncommon toward the little peoples of the world. It begins to be recognised that it is quite possible that even the smallest of the little peoples may have some contribution to make to the welfare and progress of the human race. What is the Boy Scout movement that is sweeping the country, to the enormous benefit of the rising generation, but the incorporating into the nurture of our youth of the things that were the nurture of the Indian youth; that are a large part of the nurture of the Alaskan Indian youth to-day? And the camp-fire clubs and woodcraft associations and the whole trend to the life of the open recognise that the Indian had developed a technique of wilderness life deserving of preservation for its value to the white man. While as for the Esquimaux, the author never sees the extraordinary prevalence amongst them of the art of graphic delineation displayed in bold etchings of incidents of the chase upon their implements and weapons (though not upon the articles made by the dozen for the curio-venders at Nome and Saint Michael) without dreaming that some day an artist will come from out that singular and most interesting people who shall teach the world something new about art.
Whatever the future may hold for the interior of Alaska, the author is convinced that its population will derive very largely from the present native stocks, and this alone would justify any efforts to prevent further inroads upon their health and vitality.
I. FAIRBANKS TO THE CHANDALAR THROUGH CIRCLE CITY AND FORT YUKON 3
II. CHANDALAR VILLAGE TO BETTLES, COLDFOOT, AND THE KOYUKUK 34
III. BETTLES TO THE PACIFIC—THE ALATNA, KOBUK PORTAGE, KOBUK VILLAGE, KOTZEBUE SOUND 63
IV. THE SEWARD PENINSULA—CANDLE CREEK, COUNCIL, AND NOME 102
V. NOME TO FAIRBANKS—NORTON SOUND—THE KALTAG PORTAGE—NULATO—UP THE YUKON TO TANANA 125
VI. THE "FIRST ICE"—AN AUTUMN ADVENTURE ON THE KOYUKUK 157
VII. THE KOYUKUK TO THE YUKON AND TO TANANA—CHRISTMAS HOLIDAYS AT SAINT JOHN'S-IN-THE-WILDERNESS 188
VIII. UP THE YUKON TO RAMPART AND ACROSS COUNTRY TO THE TANANA—ALASKAN AGRICULTURE—THE GOOD DOG NANOOK—MISS FARTHING'S BOYS AT NENANA—CHENA AND FAIRBANKS 219
IX. TANANA CROSSING TO FORTYMILE AND DOWN THE YUKON—A PATRIARCHAL CHIEF—SWARMING CARIBOU—EAGLE AND FORT EGBERT—CIRCLE CITY AND FORT YUKON 251
X. FROM THE TANANA RIVER TO THE KUSKOKWIM—THENCE TO THE IDITAROD MINING CAMP—THENCE TO THE YUKON, AND UP THAT RIVER TO FORT YUKON 294
XI. THE NATIVES OF ALASKA 348
XII. PHOTOGRAPHY IN THE ARCTIC 371
XIII. THE NORTHERN LIGHTS 380
XIV. THE ALASKAN DOGS 392
Hudson Stuck (photogravure) Frontispiece
Sunrise on the Chandalar-Koyukuk portage 36
Coldfoot on the Koyukuk 37
The upper Koyukuk 50
The barren shores of Kotzebue Sound 51
Gold-mining at Nome 122
Pulling the Pelican out with a "Spanish windlass" 123
The start over the "first ice" 164
"Rough going" 165
Arthur and Doctor Burke 178
Saint John's-in-the-Wilderness, Allakaket, Koyukuk River 179
The double interpretation at the Allakaket 186
The wind-swept Yukon within the ramparts 187
A pleasant woodland trail 256
An Alaskan chief and his henchman 257
The Tanana crossing 270
Good going on the Yukon 271
"A portage that comes so finely down to the Yukon that there is pleasure in anticipating the view it affords" 290
Fort Yukon 291
The rough breaking in of Doctor Loomis, camped on the mail trail at 50 deg. below zero, unable to reach a road-house for the deep snow 296
Esquimaux of the upper Kuskokwim 297
"The 'summit' is high above timber-line and the trail pursues a hogback ridge for a mile and a half at the summit level" 324
A street in Iditarod City 325
The end of the portage trail 334
Rough ice on the Yukon 335
A docile folk, eager for instruction 350
The mission type 351
Wild and shy 351
The native communicant 360
Raw material 360
An Esquimau youth 361
A half-breed Indian 361
An aged couple 366
Football at the Allakaket, exposure 1-1000 second, April, after a new light snowfall 367
The sun dogs 388
"Tan," of mixed breed 389
"Muk," a pure malamute 389
Map of the interior of Alaska showing journeys described in this book At end of volume
TEN THOUSAND MILES WITH A DOG SLED
Three fundamental facts are to be borne constantly in mind by those who would form any intelligent conception of the Territory of Alaska.
(1) Its area of approximately 590,000 square miles makes it two and a half times as large as the State of Texas.
(2) But it is not, like Texas, one homogeneous body of land; it is not, in any geographical sense, one country at all. "Sweeping in a great arc over sixteen degrees of latitude and fifty-eight degrees of longitude," it is no less than four, and some might say five, different countries, differing from one another in almost every way that one country can differ from another: in climate, in population, in resources, in requirements; and—
(3) These different countries are not merely different from one another, they are separated from one another by formidable natural barriers.
TEN THOUSAND MILES WITH A DOG SLED
FAIRBANKS TO THE CHANDALAR THROUGH CIRCLE CITY AND FORT YUKON
THE plan for the winter journey of 1905-6 (my second winter on the trail) was an ambitious one, for it contemplated a visit to Point Hope, on the shore of the Arctic Ocean between Kotzebue Sound and Point Barrow, and a return to Fairbanks. In the summer such a journey would be practicable only by water: down the Tanana to the Yukon, down the Yukon to its mouth, and then through the straits of Bering and along the Arctic coast; in the winter it is possible to make the journey across country. A desire to visit our most northerly and most inaccessible mission in Alaska and a desire to become acquainted with general conditions in the wide country north of the Yukon were equal factors in the planning of a journey which would carry me through three and a half degrees of latitude and no less than eighteen degrees of longitude.
The course of winter travel in Alaska follows the frozen waterways so far as they lead in the general direction desired, leaves them to cross mountain ranges and divides at the most favourable points, and drops down into the streams again so soon as streams are available. The country is notably well watered and the waterways are the natural highways. The more frequented routes gradually cut out the serpentine bends of the rivers by land trails, but in the wilder parts of the country travel sticks to the ice.
Our course, therefore, lay up the Chatanika River and one of its tributaries until the Tanana-Yukon watershed was reached; then through the mountains, crossing two steep summits to the Yukon slope, and down that slope by convenient streams to the Yukon River at Circle City.
[Sidenote: THE GOLD TRAIN]
We set out on the 27th of November with six dogs and a "basket" sled and about five hundred pounds' weight of load, including tent and stove, bedding, clothes for the winter, grub box and its equipment, and dog feed. The dogs were those that I had used the previous winter, with one exception. The leader had come home lame from the fish camp where he had been boarded during the summer, and, despite all attentions, the lameness had persisted; so he must be left behind, and there was much difficulty in securing another leader. A recent stampede to a new mining district had advanced the price of dogs and gathered up all the good ones, so it was necessary to hunt all over Fairbanks and pay a hundred dollars for a dog that proved very indifferent, after all. "Jimmy" was a handsome beast, the handsomest I ever owned and the costliest, but, as I learned later from one who knew his history, had "travelled on his looks all his life." He earned the name of "Jimmy the Fake."
Midway to Cleary "City," on the chief gold-producing creek of the district, our first day's run, we encountered the gold train. For some time previous a lone highwayman had robbed solitary miners on their way to Fairbanks with gold-dust, and now a posse was organised that went the rounds of the creeks and gathered up the dust and bore it on mule-back to the bank, escorted by half a dozen armed and mounted men. Sawed-off shotguns were the favourite weapons, and one judged them deadly enough at short range. The heavy "pokes" galled the animals' backs, however they might be slung, and the little procession wound slowly along, a man ahead, a man behind, and four clustered round the treasure.
These raw, temporary mining towns are much alike the world over, one supposes, though perhaps a little worse up here in the far north. It was late at night when we reached the place, but saloon and dance-hall were ablaze with light and loud with the raucity of phonographs and the stamping of feet. Everything was "wide open," and there was not even the thinnest veneer of respectability. Drinking and gambling and dancing go on all night long. Drunken men reel out upon the snow; painted faces leer over muslin curtains as one passes by. Without any government, without any pretence of municipal organisation, there is no co-operation for public enterprise. There are no streets, there are no sidewalks save such as a man may choose to lay in front of his own premises, and the simplest sanitary precautions are entirely neglected. Nothing but the cold climate of the north prevents epidemic disease from sweeping through these places. They rise in a few days wherever gold is found in quantities, they flourish as the production increases, decline with its decline, and are left gaunt, dark, and abandoned so soon as the diggings are exhausted.
The next day we were on the Chatanika River, to which Cleary Creek is tributary, and were immediately confronted with one of the main troubles and difficulties of winter travel in this and, as may be supposed, in any arctic or subarctic country—overflow water.
[Sidenote: OVERFLOW WATER AND ICE]
In the lesser rivers, where deep pools alternate with swift shallows, the stream freezes solid to the bottom upon the shoals and riffles. Since the subterranean fountains that supply the river do not cease to discharge their waters in the winter, however cold it may be, there comes presently an increasing pressure under the ice above such a barrier. The pent-up water is strong enough to heave the ice into mounds and at last to break forth, spreading itself far along the frozen surface of the river. At times it may be seen gushing out like an artesian well, rising three or four feet above the surface of the ice, until the pressure is relieved. Sometimes for many miles at a stretch the whole river will be covered with a succession of such overflows, from two or three inches deep to eight or ten, or even twelve; some just bursting forth, some partially frozen, some resolved into solid "glare" ice. Thus the surface of the river is continually renewed the whole winter through, and a section of the ice crust in the spring would show a series of laminations; here ice upon ice, there ice upon half-incorporated snow, that mark the successive inundations.
This explanation has been given at length because of the large part that the phenomenon plays in the difficulty and danger of winter travel, and because it seems hard to make those who are not familiar with it understand it. At first sight it would seem that after a week or ten days of fifty-below-zero weather, for instance, all water everywhere would be frozen into quiescence for the rest of the winter. Throw a bucket of water into the air, and it is frozen solid as soon as it reaches the ground. There would be no more trouble, one would think, with water. Yet some of the worst trouble the traveller has with overflow water is during very cold weather, and it is then, of course, that there is the greatest danger of frost-bite in getting one's feet wet. Water-proof footwear, therefore, becomes one of the "musher's" great concerns and difficulties. The best water-proof footwear is the Esquimau mukluk, not easily obtainable in the interior of Alaska, but the mukluk is an inconvenient footwear to put snow-shoes on. Rubber boots or shoes of any kind are most uncomfortable things to travel in. Nothing equals the moccasin on the trail, nothing is so good to snow-shoe in. The well-equipped traveller has moccasins for dry trails and mukluks for wet trails—and even then may sometimes get his feet wet. Nor are his own feet his only consideration; his dogs' feet are, collectively, as important as his own. When the dog comes out of water into snow again the snow collects and freezes between the toes, and if not removed will soon cause a sore and lameness. Then a dog moccasin must be put on and the foot continually nursed and doctored. When several dogs of a team are thus affected, it may be with several feet each, the labour and trouble of travel are greatly increased.
So, whenever his dogs have been through water, the careful musher will stop and go all down the line, cleaning out the ice and snow from their feet with his fingers. Four interdigital spaces per foot make sixteen per dog, and with a team of six dogs that means ninety-six several operations with the bare hand (if it be done effectually) every time the team gets into an overflow. The dogs will do it for themselves if they are given time, tearing out the lumps of ice with their teeth; but, inasmuch as they usually feel conscientiously obliged to eat each lump as they pull it out, it takes much longer, and in a short daylight there is little time to spare if the day's march is to be made.
[Sidenote: "OVERFLOW" ICE]
We found overflow almost as soon as we reached the Chatanika River, and in one form or another we encountered it during all the two days and a half that we were pursuing the river's windings. At times it was covered with a sheet of new ice that would support the dogs but would not support the sled, so that the dogs were travelling on one level and the sled on another, and a man had to walk along in the water between the dogs and the sled for several hundred yards at a time, breaking down the overflow ice with his feet.
At other times the thin sheets of overflow ice would sway and bend as the sled passed quickly over them in a way that gives to ice in such condition its Alaskan name of "rubber-ice," while for the fifteen or twenty miles of McManus Creek, the headwaters of the Chatanika, we had continuous stretches of fine glare ice with enough frost crystals upon it from condensing moisture to give a "tooth" to the dogs' feet, just as varnish on a photographic negative gives tooth to the retouching pencil. Perfectly smooth ice is a very difficult surface for dogs to pass over; glare ice slightly roughened by frost deposit makes splendid, fast going.
Eighty-five miles or so from Fairbanks, and just about half-way to Circle, the watercourse is left and the first summit is the "Twelve-Mile," as it is called. We tried hard to take our load up at one trip, but found it impossible to do so, and had to unlash the sled and take half the load at a time, caching it on the top while we returned for the other half.
It took us half a day to get our load to the top of the Twelve-Mile summit, a rise of about one thousand three hundred feet from the creek bed as the aneroid gave it. In the steeper pitches we had to take the axe and cut steps, so hard and smooth does the incessant wind at these heights beat the snow, and on our second trip to the top we were just in time to rescue a roll of bedding that had been blown from the cache and was about to descend a gully from which we could hardly have recovered it.
This summit descended, we were in Birch Creek water, and had we followed the watercourse would have reached the Yukon; but we would have travelled hundreds of miles and would have come out below Fort Yukon, while we were bound for Circle City. So there was another and a yet more difficult summit to cross before we could descend the Yukon slope. We were able to hire a man and two dogs to help us over the Eagle summit, so that the necessity of relaying was avoided. One man ahead continually calling to the dogs, eight dogs steadily pulling, and two men behind steadily pushing, foot by foot, with many stoppages as one bench after another was surmounted, we got the load to the top at last, a rise of one thousand four hundred feet in less than three miles. A driving snow-storm cut off all view and would have left us at a loss which way to proceed but for the stakes that indicated it.
The descent was as anxious and hazardous as the ascent had been laborious. The dogs were loosed and sent racing down the slope. With a rope rough-lock around the sled runners, one man took the gee pole and another the handle-bars and each spread-eagled himself through the loose deep snow to check the momentum of the sled, until sled and men turned aside and came to a stop in a drift to avoid a steep, smooth pitch. The sled extricated, it was poised on the edge of the pitch and turned loose on the hardened snow, hurtling down three or four hundred feet until it buried itself in another drift. The dogs were necessary to drag it from this drift, and one had to go down and bring them up. Then again they were loosed, and from bench to bench the process was repeated until the slope grew gentle enough to permit the regulation of the downward progress by the foot-brake.
The Eagle summit is one of the most difficult summits in Alaska. The wind blows so fiercely that sometimes for days together its passage is almost impossible. No amount of trail making could be of much help, for the snow smothers up everything on the lee of the hill, and the end of every storm presents a new surface and an altered route. A "summit" in this Alaskan sense is, of course, a saddle between peaks, and in this case there is no easier pass and no way around. The only way to avoid the Eagle summit, without going out of the district altogether, would be to tunnel it.
The summit passed, we found better trails and a more frequented country, for in this district are a number of creeks that draw supplies from Circle City, and that had been worked ten years or more.
At the time of the Klondike stampede of 1896-97, Circle City was already established as a flourishing mining camp and boasted itself the largest log-cabin town in the world. Before the Klondike drew away its people as a stronger magnet draws iron filings from a lesser one, Circle had a population of about three thousand. Take a town of three thousand and reduce it to thirty or forty, and it is hard to resist the melancholy impression which entrance upon it in the dusk of the evening brings. There lay the great white Yukon in the middle distance; beyond it the Yukon Flats, snow-covered, desolate, stretched away enormously, hedged here at their beginning by grey, dim hills. Spread out in the foreground were the little, squat, huddling cabins that belonged to no one, with never a light in a window or smoke from a chimney, the untrodden snow drifted against door and porch. It would be hard to imagine a drearier prospect, and one had the feeling that it was a city of the dead rather than merely a dead city.
The weather had grown steadily colder since we reached the Yukon slope, and for two days before reaching Circle the thermometer had stood between 40 deg. and 50 deg. below zero. It was all right for us to push on, the trail was good and nearly all down-hill, and there were road-houses every ten or twelve miles. Freighters, weather-bound, came to the doors as we passed by with our jangle of bells and would raise a somewhat chechaco pride in our breasts by remarking: "You don't seem to care what weather you travel in!" The evil of it was that the perfectly safe travelling between Eagle Creek and Circle emboldened us to push on from Circle under totally different conditions, when travelling at such low temperatures became highly dangerous and brought us into grave misadventure that might easily have been fatal catastrophe.
Our original start was a week later than had been planned and we had made no time, but rather lost it, on this first division of the journey. If we were to reach Bettles on the Koyukuk River for Christmas, there was no more time to lose, and I was anxious to spend the next Sunday at Fort Yukon, three days' journey away. So we started for Fort Yukon on Thursday, the 7th of December, the day after we reached Circle.
[Sidenote: THE YUKON FLATS]
A certain arctic traveller has said that "adventures" always imply either incompetence or ignorance of local conditions, and there is some truth in the saying. Our misadventure was the result of a series of mistakes, no one of which would have been other than discreditable to men of more experience. Our course lay for seventy-five miles through the Yukon Flats, which begin at Circle and extend for two hundred and fifty miles of the river's course below that point. The Flats constitute the most difficult and dangerous part of the whole length of the Yukon River, summer or winter, and the section between Circle City and Fort Yukon is the most difficult and dangerous part of the Flats. Save for a "portage" or land trail of eighteen or twenty miles out of Circle, the trail is on the river itself, which is split up into many channels without salient landmarks. The current is so swift that many stretches run open water far into the winter, and blow-holes are numerous. There is little travel on the Flats in winter, and a snow-storm accompanied by wind may obliterate what trail there is in an hour. The vehicle used in the Flats is not a sled but a toboggan, and our first mistake was in not conforming to local usage in this respect. There is always a very good reason for local usage about snow vehicles. But a toboggan which had been ordered from a native at Fort Yukon would be waiting for us, and it seemed not worth while to go to the expense of buying another merely for three days' journey.
The second mistake was in engaging a boy as guide instead of a man. He was an attractive youth of about fourteen who had done good service at the Circle City mission the previous winter, when our nurse-in-charge was contending single-handed against an epidemic of diphtheria. He was a pleasant boy, with some English, who wanted to go and professed knowledge of the route. The greatest mistake of all was starting out through that lonely waste with the thermometer at 52 deg. below zero. The old-timers in Alaska have a saying that "travelling at 50 deg. below is all right as long as it's all right." If there be a good trail, if there be convenient stopping-places, if nothing go wrong, one may travel without special risk and with no extraordinary discomfort at 50 deg. below zero and a good deal lower. I have since that time made a short day's run at 62 deg. below, and once travelled for two or three hours on a stretch at 65 deg. below. But there is always more or less chance in travelling at low temperatures, because a very small thing may necessitate a stop, and a stop may turn into a serious thing. At such temperatures one must keep going. No amount of clothing that it is possible to wear on the trail will keep one warm while standing still. For dogs and men alike, constant brisk motion is necessary; for dogs as well as men—even though dogs will sleep outdoors in such cold without harm—for they cannot take as good care of themselves in the harness as they can when loose. A trace that needs mending, a broken buckle, a snow-shoe string that must be replaced, may chill one so that it is impossible to recover one's warmth again. The bare hand cannot be exposed for many seconds without beginning to freeze; it is dangerous to breathe the air into the lungs for any length of time without a muffler over the mouth.
Our troubles began as soon as we started. The trail was a narrow, winding toboggan track of sixteen or seventeen inches, while our sled was twenty inches wide, so that one runner was always dragging in the loose snow, and that meant slow, heavy going.
[Sidenote: SUNRISE AND SUNSET]
The days were nearing the shortest of the year, when, in these latitudes, the sun does but show himself and withdraw again. But, especially in very cold weather, which is nearly always very clear weather, that brief appearance is preceded by a feast of rich, delicate colour. First a greenish glow on the southern horizon, brightening into lemon and then into clear primrose, invades the deep purple of the starry heavens. Then a beautiful circle of blush pink above a circle of pure amethyst gradually stretches all around the edge of the sky, slowly brightening while the stars fade out and the heavens change to blue. The dead white mirror of the snow takes every tint that the skies display with a faint but exquisite radiance. Then the sun's disk appears with a flood of yellow light but with no appreciable warmth, and for a little space his level rays shoot out and gild the tree tops and the distant hills. The snow springs to life. Dead white no longer, its dry, crystalline particles glitter in myriads of diamond facets with every colour of the prism. Then the sun is gone, and the lovely circle of rose pink over amethyst again stretches round the horizon, slowly fading until once more the pale primrose glows in the south against the purple sky with its silver stars. Thus sunrise and sunset form a continuous spectacle, with a purity of delicate yet splendid colour that only perfectly dry atmosphere permits. The primrose glow, the heralding circle, the ball of orange light, the valedictory circle, the primrose glow again, and a day has come and gone. Air can hold no moisture at all at these low temperatures, and the skies are cloudless.
[Sidenote: AN ESCAPADE ON THE YUKON]
Moreover, in the wilds at 50 deg. below zero there is the most complete silence. All animal life is hidden away. Not a rabbit flits across the trail; in the absolutely still air not a twig moves. A rare raven passes overhead, and his cry, changed from a hoarse croak to a sweet liquid note, reverberates like the musical glasses. There is no more delightful sound in the wilderness than this occasional lapse into music of the raven. We wound through the scrub spruce and willow and over the niggerhead swamps, a faint tinkle of bells, a little cloud of steam; for in the great cold the moisture of the animals' breath hangs over their heads in the still air, and on looking back it stands awhile along the course at dogs' height until it is presently deposited on twigs and tussocks. We wound along, a faint tinkle of bells, a little cloud of steam, and in the midst of the cloud a tousle of shaggy black-and-white hair and red-and-white pompons—going out of the dead silence behind into the dead silence before. The dusk came, and still we plodded and pushed our weary way, swinging that heavy sled incessantly, by the gee pole in front and the handle-bars behind, in the vain effort to keep it on the trail. Two miles an hour was all that we were making. We had come but thirteen or fourteen miles out of twenty-four, and it was dark; and it grew colder.
The dogs whined and stopped every few yards, worn out by wallowing in the snow and the labour of the collar. The long scarfs that wrapped our mouths and noses had been shifted and shifted, as one part after another became solid with ice from the breath, until over their whole length they were stiff as boards. After two more miles of it it was evident that we could not reach the mail cabin that night. Then I made my last and worst mistake. We should have stopped and camped then and there. We had tent and stove and everything requisite. But the native boy insisted that the cabin was "only little way," and any one who knows the misery of making camp in extremely cold weather, in the dark, will understand our reluctance to do so.
I decided to make a cache of the greater part of our load—tent and stove and supplies generally—and to push on to the cabin with but the bedding and the grub box, returning for the stuff in the morning. And, since in the deepest depths of blundering there is a deeper still, by some one's carelessness, but certainly by my fault, the axe was left behind in the cache.
With our reduced burden we made better progress, and in a short time reached the end of the portage and came out on the frozen river, just as the moon, a day or two past the full, rose above the opposite bank. One sees many strange distortions of sun and moon in this land, but never was a stranger seen than this. Her disk, shining through the dense air of the river bottom, was in shape an almost perfect octagon, regular as though it had been laid off with dividers and a ruler.
We were soon in doubt about the trail. The mail-carrier had gone down only two or three times this winter and each time had taken a different route, as more and more of the river closed and gave him more and more direct passage. A number of Indians had been hunting, and their tracks added to the tangle of trails. Presently we entered a thick mist that even to inexperienced eyes spoke of open water or new ice yet moist. So heavy was the vapour that to the man at the handle-bars the man at the gee pole loomed ghostly, and the man ahead of the dogs could not be distinguished at all. We had gone so much farther than our native boy had declared we had to go that we began to fear that in the confusion of trails we had taken the wrong one and had passed the cabin. That is the tenderfoot's, or, as we say, the chechaco's, fear; it is the one thing that it may almost be said never happens. But the boy fell down completely and was frankly at a loss. All we could get out of him was: "May-be-so we catch cabin bymeby, may-be-so no." If we had passed the cabin it was twenty odd miles to the next; and it grew colder and the dogs were utterly weary again, prone upon the trail at every small excuse for a stop, only to be stirred by the whip, heavily wielded. Surely never men thrust themselves foolhardily into worse predicament! Then I made my last mistake. Dimly the bank loomed through the mist, and I said: "We can't go any farther; I think we've missed the trail and I'm going across to yon bank to see if there's a place to camp." I had not gone six steps from the trail when the ice gave way under my feet and I found myself in water to my hips.
[Sidenote: AN ESCAPADE ON THE YUKON]
Under Providence I owe it to the mukluks I wore, tied tight round my knees, that I did not lose my life, or at least my feet. The thermometer at Circle City stood at 60 deg. below zero at dark that day, and down on the ice it is always about 5 deg. colder than on the bank, because cold air is heavy air and sinks to the lowest level, and 65 deg. below zero means 97 deg. below freezing.
My moose-hide breeches froze solid the moment I scrambled out, but not a drop of water got to my feet. If the water had reached my feet they would have frozen almost as quickly as the moose hide in that fearful cold. Thoroughly alarmed now, and realising our perilous situation, we did the only thing there was to do—we turned the dogs loose and abandoned the sled and went back along the trail we had followed as fast as we could. We knew that we could safely retrace our steps and that the trail would lead us to the bank after a while. We knew not where the trail would lead us in the other direction. As a matter of fact, it led to the mail cabin, two miles farther on, and the mail-carrier was at that time occupying it at the end of his day's run.
The dogs stayed with the sled; dogs will usually stay with their sled; they seem to recognise their first allegiance to the load they haul, probably because they know their food forms part of it.
Our cache reached, we made a fire, thawed out the iron-like armour of my leather breeches, and cutting a spare woollen scarf in two, wrapped the dry, warm pieces about my numbed thighs. Then we pushed on the eighteen miles or so to Circle, keeping a steady pace despite the drowsiness that oppressed us, and that oppressed me particularly owing to the chill of my ducking. About five in the morning we reached the town, and the clergyman, the Reverend C. E. Rice, turned out of his warm bed and I turned in, none the worse in body for the experience, but much humbled in spirit. My companion, Mr. E. J. Knapp, whose thoughtful care for me I always look back upon with gratitude, as well as upon Mr. Rice's kindness, froze his nose and a toe slightly, being somewhat neglectful of himself in his solicitude for me.
We had been out about twenty hours in a temperature ranging from 52 deg. to 60 deg. below zero, had walked about forty-four miles, labouring incessantly as well as walking, what time we were with the sled, with nothing to eat—it was too cold to stop for eating—and, in addition to this, one of us had been in water to the waist, yet none of us took any harm. It was a providential overruling of blundering foolhardiness for which we were deeply thankful.
The next day a native with a fast team and an empty toboggan was sent down to take our load on to the cabin and bring the dogs back. Meanwhile, the mail-carrier had passed the spot, had seen the abandoned sled standing by recently broken ice, and had come on into town while we slept and none knew of our return, with the news that some one had been drowned. The mail for Fairbanks did but await the mail from Fort Yukon, and the town rumour, instantly identifying the abandoned sled, was carried across to Fairbanks, to my great distress and annoyance. The echoes of the distorted account of this misadventure which appeared in a Fairbanks newspaper still reverberate in "patent insides" of the provincial press of the United States.
[Sidenote: FORT YUKON ]
The next Monday we started again, this time with a toboggan and with a man instead of a boy for guide, and in three days of only moderate difficulty we reached Fort Yukon.
Fort Yukon, though it holds no attraction for the ordinary visitor or the summer tourist on the river, is a place of much interest to those who know the history of Alaska. While it is purely a native village, with no white population save the traders and the usual sprinkling of men that hang around native villages, it is yet the oldest white man's post on the Yukon River, save the post established by the Russians at Nulato, five or six hundred miles lower down. The Hudson Bay Company established itself here in 1846, and that date serves as the year one in making calculations and determining ages to this day. It is a fixed point in time that every native knows of. Any old man can tell you whether he was born before or after that date, and, if before, can pick out some boy that is about the age he was when the event occurred. The massacre at Nulato in 1851 serves in a similar way for the lower river.
After the Purchase, and the determination of the longitude of Fort Yukon by Mr. Raymond in 1869—who made the first steamboat journey up the Yukon on that errand—the Hudson Bay Company moved three times before they succeeded in getting east of the 141st meridian, and at the point reached on the third move, the New Rampart House on the Porcupine River, only a few hundred yards beyond the boundary-line, they remained until the gold excitement on the Yukon and the journeying of the natives to new posts on that river rendered trading unprofitable; then they withdrew to the Mackenzie. The oldest white men's graves in Alaska, again with the exception of Nulato, are those in the little Hudson Bay cemetery near Fort Yukon.
[Sidenote: ARCHDEACON MACDONALD ]
Fort Yukon is also the site of the oldest missionary station on the river, unless there were earlier visits of Russian priests to the lower river, of which there seems no record, for in 1862 there was a clergyman of the Church of England at this place. Archdeacon MacDonald was a remarkable man. Married to a native wife, he translated the whole Bible and the Book of Common Prayer into the native tongue, and his translations are in general use on the upper river to this day. He reduced the language to writing, extracted its grammar, taught the Indians to read and write their own tongue, and dignified it by the gift of the great literature of the sacred books. The language is, of course, a dying one—English is slowly superseding it—but it seems safe to say that for a generation or two yet to come it will be the basis of the common speech of the people and the language of worship. It is chiefly in matters of trading and handicrafts that English is taking its place, though here as elsewhere it stands to the discredit of the civilised race that blackguard English is the first English that is learned.
There seems ground to question whether the substitution of a smattering of broken English for the flexibility and picturesque expressiveness of an indigenous tongue, thoroughly understood, carries with it any great intellectual gain, though to suggest such a doubt is treason to some minds. The time threatens when all the world will speak two or three great languages, when all little tongues will be extinct and all little peoples swallowed up, when all costume will be reduced to a dead level of blue jeans and shoddy and all strange customs abolished. The world will be a much less interesting world then; the spice and savour of the ends of the earth will be gone. Nor does it always appear unquestionable that the world will be the better or the happier. The advance of civilisation would be a great thing to work for if we were quite sure what we meant by it and what its goal is. To the ordinary government school-teacher in Alaska, with some notable exceptions, it seems to mean chiefly teaching the Indians to call themselves Mr. and Mrs. and teaching the women to wear millinery, with a contemptuous attitude toward the native language and all native customs. The less intelligent grade of missionary sometimes falls into the same easy rut. So letters pass through the post-offices addressed: "Mr. Pretty Henry," "Mrs. Monkey Bill," "Miss Sally Shortandirty"; so, occasionally, the grotesque spectacle may present itself, to the passengers on a steamer, of a native woman in a "Merry Widow" hat and a blood-stained parkee gutting salmon on the river bank.
The nobler ideal, as it seems to some of us, is to labour for God-fearing, self-respecting Indians rather than imitation white men and white women. An Indian who is honest, healthy and kindly, skilled in hunting and trapping, versed in his native Bible and liturgy, even though he be entirely ignorant of English and have acquired no taste for canned fruit and know not when Columbus discovered America, may be very much of a man in that station of life in which it has pleased God to call him.
Christmas and the Fourth of July are the Indian's great holidays, the one just after the best moose hunting and the other just before the salmon run. It may be supposed that there were always great feasts at the winter and summer solstices, though now he is sufficiently devout at the one and patriotic at the other. At these seasons, and for weeks before and after, Fort Yukon gathers a large number of Indians. It is the native metropolis of the country within a radius of a hundred miles, and what may be termed its permanent population of one hundred and fifty is doubled and sometimes trebled by contingents from the Chandalar, the Porcupine, and the Black Rivers, from that long river called Birch Creek, and all the intervening country. Many families of the "uncivilised," self-respecting kind, to which reference has been made, come in from outlying points, and the contrast between them and their more sophisticated kinfolk of the town is all in their favour.
Such a gathering had already taken place in preparation for the Christmas holidays when we reached Fort Yukon on the 15th of December. It would have been pleasant to spend Christmas with them, but we were due two hundred and fifty miles away, at Bettles, for that feast, if by any means we could get there. So we lingered but the two days necessary to equip ourselves. Jimmy had torn our bedding to pieces on the night of the mishap; it was lashed on the outside of the load, and he had scratched and clawed it to make a nest for himself until fur from the robe and feathers from the quilts were all over the trail. The other dogs, not so warmly coated as he, had been content to sleep in the snow. Jimmy's character was gradually revealing itself. A well-bred trail dog will not commit the canine sacrilege of invading the sled. That is a "Siwash" dog's trick. So there was fresh bedding to manufacture, as well as supplies for two hundred miles to get together.
A mail once a month went at that time from Fort Yukon to the Koyukuk, and there was little other travel. The course lay fifty or sixty miles across country to the Chandalar River, about one hundred miles up that stream, and then across a divide to the South Fork of the Koyukuk, and across another to the Middle Fork, on which Coldfoot is situated. It is not possible to procure any supplies, save sometimes a little fish for dog food and that not certainly, between Fort Yukon and Coldfoot, so that provision for the whole journey must be taken.
[Sidenote: THE CHANDALAR]
A new Indian guide had been engaged as far as Coldfoot, and we set out—three men, two toboggans, and seven dogs; four on the larger vehicle and three on the smaller, one of the dogs brought by our guide. Three miles from Fort Yukon we crossed the Porcupine River and then plunged into the wilderness of lake and swamp and forest that stretches north of the Yukon. A portage trail, as such a track across country is called to distinguish it from a river trail, has the advantage of such protection from storm as its timbered stretches afford. For miles and miles the route passes through scrub spruce that has been burned over, with no prospect but a maze of charred poles against the snow, some upright, others at every angle of inclination. Then comes a lake, with difficulty in finding the trail on its wind-swept surface and sometimes much casting about to discover where it leaves the lake again, and then more small burned timber. Wherever the route is through woods, living or dead, it is blazed; when it strikes the open, one is often at a loss. After three or four days of such travel, sometimes reaching an old cabin for the night, sometimes pitching the tent, one is rejoiced at the sight of distant mountains and at the intimation they bring that the inexpressible dreariness of the Yukon Flats is nearly past; and presently the trail opens suddenly upon the broad Chandalar.
The Hudson Bay voyageurs are responsible for many names in this part of Alaska, and Chandalar is a corruption of their "Gens de large." The various native tribes received appellations indicating habitats. A tribe that differed from most northern Indians, in having no permanent villages and in living altogether in encampments, was named "Gens de large," and the river which they frequented took their name.
It is one of the second-rate tributaries of the Yukon, and in general its waters are swift and shallow, not navigable for light-draught steamboats for more than one hundred and fifty miles, save at flood, and not easily navigable at all. It is these swift shallow streams that are so formidable in winter on account of overflow water, and the Chandalar is one of the most dreaded.
Ten miles along the river's surface brought us to the Chandalar native village, a settlement of half a dozen cabins and twenty-five or thirty souls. The people came out to meet us, and said they were just about to bury a baby, and asked me to conduct the funeral. Because we had not done a day's march and were under compulsion to push on at our best speed, I did not unlash the sled but went just as I was up the hill with the sorrowful procession to the little graveyard. On the way down I asked as best I could of what sickness the baby had died, and I felt some uneasiness when the throat was pointed to as the seat of disease. When, presently, I was informed that two others were sick, and of the same complaint, my uneasiness became alarm. I went at once to see them, and the angry swollen throats patched with white membrane which I discovered left no room for doubt that we were in the presence of another outbreak of diphtheria. That disease had scourged the Yukon in the two preceding years. Twenty-three children died at Fort Yukon in the summer of 1904, half a dozen at Circle in the following winter, though that outbreak was grappled with from the first; and all along the river the loss of life was terrible.
There was no question that we must give up all hope of reaching Bettles for Christmas and stay and do what we could for these people. So we made camp on the outskirts of the village, and I went to work swabbing out the throats with carbolic acid and preparing liquid food from our grub box. There was nothing to eat in the village but dried fish and a little dried moose, and these throats like red-hot iron could hardly swallow liquids. The two patients were a boy of sixteen and a grown woman. It was evident that unless we could isolate them the disease would probably pass through the whole village, and, indeed, others might have been infected already. It was likely that we were in for a siege of it, and our supply of condensed milk and extract of beef would soon be exhausted. Moreover, at Fort Yukon was the trained nurse who had coped with the epidemic there and at Circle, while we had virtually no experience with the disease at all. It was resolved to send back to Fort Yukon for supplies and for the nurse.
The next morning Mr. Knapp and the native boy took the dogs and the sled and started back. With no load save a little grub and bedding, they could make the journey in two days, a day must be allowed for preparations, and, with the aid of another dog team, two days more would bring them back. Five days was the least they could be gone. It was asking a great deal of this lady to abandon her Christmas festival, preparations for which had long been making, and to come sixty-five miles through the frozen wilderness in a toboggan; but I felt sure she would drop everything and come.
For those five days I was busied in close attention to the patients and in strenuous though not altogether availing efforts to maintain a quarantine of the cabin in which they lay. There was little more that I could do than swab out the throats and administer food every two hours. As the disease advanced it was increasingly painful to swallow and exceedingly difficult to induce the sufferers to make the attempt or to open their mouths for the swabbing. After two or three days the woman seemed to have passed the crisis of the disease and to be mending, but the boy, I thought, grew worse. One becomes attached to those to whom one ministers, and this poor, speechless boy, with his terrible throat and the agony in his big black eyes, appealed to me very strongly indeed. It was torture to move his head or to open his mouth, and I had to torture him continually.
Every night I gathered the people for Divine service. Here was a little community far off in the wilds that had carefully conserved and handed on to their children the teaching they had received no less than thirty years before. The native Bibles and prayer-books and hymnals were brought out, bearing dates of publication in the seventies; one of their number acted as leader, and what he read was painfully followed in the well-thumbed books. They lifted their voices in a weird transformation of familiar tunes, with quavers and glides that had crept in through long, uncorrected use, and amongst the prayers said was one for "Our Sovereign lady Queen Victoria, and Albert Edward, Prince of Wales." I tried to explain that Queen Victoria was dead, that they were not living under British rule, and I took a pencil and struck out the prayers for the royal family from the books. But there was doubt in their minds and a reluctance to alter in any particular the liturgy that had been taught them, and it is quite likely that intercessions for a defunct sovereign of another land still arise from the Chandalar village. One cannot but feel a deep admiration for the pioneer missionaries of this region—Bishop Bompas, Archdeacon MacDonald, and the others—whose teaching was so thorough and so lasting, and who lived and laboured here long before any gold seeker had thought of Alaska, when the country was an Indian country exclusively, with none of the comforts and conveniences that can now be enjoyed. It was to a remote cabin on the East Fork of this river that Archdeacon MacDonald retired for a year to make part of his translation of the Bible, according to the Indian account.
[Sidenote: THE SHORTEST DAY]
At noon on the 21st of December, the shortest day, there is a note in my diary that I saw the sun's disk shining through the trees. Although fully half a degree of latitude north of the Arctic Circle, the refraction is sufficient to lift his whole sphere above the horizon. One speculates how much farther north it would be possible to see any part of the sun at noon on the shortest day; but north of here, throughout Alaska, is broken and mountainous country. We were on the northern edge of the great flat of the interior.
The fifth day at the village was Christmas Eve. My boy was in a critical condition, very low and weak, with a temperature that stayed around 101 deg. and 102 deg.. As night approached I watched with the greatest anxiety for the party from Fort Yukon, and, just as the last lingering glow of the long twilight was fading from the south, there was a distant tinkle of bells on the trail, and faintly once and again a man's voice was raised in command and I knew that relief was at hand.
The nurse had dropped everything and had come, as I felt sure she would. Gathering medicines and supplies and hiring a native dog team and driver, she had left immediately, and the round trip had been made in the shortest time it was possible to make it. It was a tremendous relief to see her step out of the rugs and robes of the toboggan and take charge of the situation in her quiet, competent way. A small, outlying cabin was selected for a hospital, the family that occupied it bundled out into a tent, and the two sick persons carefully moved into it, with whom and the mother of the sick boy the nurse took up her abode. Then there was the Christmas-tree in the chief's cabin, with little gifts for the children sent out from the mission at Fort Yukon some time before, and a dance afterward, for Christmas festivities must go on, whatever happens, at a native village. I took James's pocket-knife to him after the celebration was over, and I think he really tried to smile as he thanked me with his eyes.
The next day after the services, although it was Christmas Day, we set to work on the disinfecting of the large cabin in which the sick had lain. Stringing bedclothes and wearing apparel on lines from wall to wall, and stuffing up every crack and cranny with cotton, we burned quantities of sulphur, that the nurse had brought with her, all day long.
A recent article in a stray number of a professional journal picked up in the office of a medical missionary, devoted column after column to the uselessness of all known methods of disinfection. Sulphur, formaldehyde, carbolic acid, permanganate of potash, chloride of lime, bichloride of mercury—the author knew not which of these "fetiches" to be most sarcastic about. It may be that the net result of our copious fumigation was but the bleaching of the coloured garments hung up, but at least it did no harm. One sometimes wishes that these scientists who sit up so high in the seat of the scornful would condescend to a little plain instruction.
The anti-diphtheritic serum is now kept in readiness at all our missions in Alaska, and the disease seems to have ceased its depredations; but it has taken terrible toll of the native people.
[Sidenote: THE MISSIONARY NURSE]
We wished to stay with the nurse until the sickness should be done, but she would not hear of it, and insisted upon the resumption of our journey. It did not seem right to go off and leave this lonely woman, sixty-five miles from the nearest white person, to cope with an outbreak of disease that might not yet have spent itself, although there had been no new case for a week. "You've done your work here, now leave me to do mine. You'll not get to Point Hope this winter if you stay much longer."
"Aren't you afraid to stay all by yourself?" I asked, somewhat fatuously.
"Afraid? Afraid of what? You surely don't mean afraid of the natives?"
I did not know what I meant; it seemed not unnatural that a woman with such prospect before her should be a little timid, but she was resolute that we go, and we went.
Not until the next summer did I learn the upshot—both patients recovered and there was no other case. Six years later, when these words are written, I have just baptized a son of the boy who lay so ill, who would have perished, I think, had we not reached the Chandalar village just in time.
CHANDALAR VILLAGE TO BETTLES, COLDFOOT, AND THE KOYUKUK
AT five o'clock in the morning of the 27th of December, hours before any kind of daylight, while the faint "pit-pat" of all-night dancing still sounded from the chief's cabin, we dropped down the steep bank to the river surface and resumed our journey. Ahead was a man with a candle in a tin can, peering for the faint indications of the trail on the ice; the other two were at the handle-bars of the toboggans. It is strange that in this day of invention and improvement in artificial illumination, a candle in a tin can is still the most dependable light for the trail. A coal-oil lamp requires a glass which is easily broken, and the ordinary coal-oil that comes to Alaska freezes at about 40 deg. below. In very cold weather a coal-oil lantern full of oil will go out completely from the freezing of its supply. All the various acetylene lamps are useless because water is required to generate the gas, and water may not be had without stopping and building a fire and melting ice or snow. The electric flash-lamp, useful enough round camp, goes out of operation altogether on the trail, because the "dry" cell that supplies its current is not a dry cell at all, but a moist cell, and when its moisture freezes is dead until it thaws out again. No extremity of cold will stop a candle from burning, and if it be properly sheltered by the tin can it will stand a great deal of wind. The "folding pocket lantern," which is nothing but a convenient tin can with mica sides, is the best equipment for travel, but an empty butter can or lard can is sometimes easier to come by.
The Chandalar is wide-spread in these parts, with several channels, and the trail was hard to follow. One track we pursued led us up a bank and along a portage and presently stopped at a marten trap; and we had to cut across to the river and cast about hither and thither on its broad surface to find the mail trail.
[Sidenote: THE CHANDALAR GAP]
All the rivers that are confluent with the Yukon in the Flats enter that dreary region through gaps in the mountains that bound the broad plain. These gaps are noted for wind, and the Chandalar Gap, which had loomed before us since daybreak, is deservedly in especial bad repute. The most hateful thing in the Arctic regions is the wind. Cold one may protect one's self against, but there is no adequate protection against wind. The parkee without opening front or back, that pulls on over the head, is primarily a windbreak, and when a scarf is wrapped around mouth and nose, and the fur-edged hood of the parkee is pulled forward over cap and scarf, the traveller who must face the wind has done all he can to protect himself from it.
Unfortunately, in the confusion of striking the tent and packing in the dark, my scarf had been rolled up in the bedding, and, since the wind was not bad until we approached the Gap in the evening, I had not troubled about it. Now, as we drew nearer and nearer, the wind rose constantly. The thermometer was at 38 deg. below zero, and wind at that temperature cuts like a knife. But to get my scarf meant stopping the whole procession and unlashing and unloading the sled, and the man who unlashed in that wind would almost certainly freeze his fingers. So I gave up the thought of it, turned my back to the wind while I tied my pocket handkerchief round mouth and nose, drew the strings of my parkee hood close, and then faced it again to worry through as best I could. The ice is always swept clear of snow in the Gap. The river narrows within its jaws, the ragged rocks rise up to the bluffs on either hand, and the blue-streaked ice stretches between. We all suffered a good deal. Against that cruel wind it was impossible to keep warm. The hands, though enclosed in woollen gloves, and they in blanket-lined moose-hide mitts, grew numb; the toes, within their protection of caribou sock with the hair on, strips of blanket wrapping, and mukluks stuffed with hay, tingled with warning of frost-bite; the whole body was chilled. We all froze our faces, I think, for the part of the face around and between the eyes cannot be covered. I froze my cheeks, my nose, and my Adam's apple, the last a most inconvenient thing to freeze.
[Sidenote: A COLD LODGING]
The cabin was just the other side of the Gap, and it was well that it was no farther, for we were weary with our thirty-mile run and dangerously cold with the exposure of the last hour. It was rather a large cabin as trail cabins go, with a rickety sheet-iron stove in the middle, burned full of holes, and it was hours before the fire began to make any impression on the obstinate, sullen cold of that hut. When we went to bed the frost still stood thick and heavy on the walls all over the room. A log building, properly constructed, is a warm building, but slowness in parting with heat means slowness in receiving heat, and a log cabin that has been unoccupied for a long time in very cold weather is hard to heat in one evening.
When we started next morning the thermometer stood at 45 deg. below zero, but we were out of the wind region and did not mind the cold. It is curious that a few miles on either side of that Gap the air will be still, while in the Gap itself a gale is blowing. Seven times I have passed through that Gap and only once without wind. The great Flats were now behind us, we had passed into the mountains, and for the remainder of our long journey we should scarce ever be out of sight of mountains again. Up the river, with its constant trouble of overflow, going around the open water whenever we could, plunging through it in our mukluks when it could not be avoided—with the care of the dogs' feet that the cold weather rendered more than ever necessary when they got wet, and the added nuisance of throwing the toboggans on their sides and beating the ice from them with the flat of the axe wherever water had been passed through—for two days we followed its windings, the thermometer between -45 deg. and -50 deg., the mountains rising higher and the scenery growing more picturesque as we advanced. At the end of the second day from the Gap we were at the mouth of the West Fork of the Chandalar, and after passing up it for fifteen or sixteen miles we left that watercourse to cross the mountains to the South Fork of the Koyukuk River.
Then began hard labour again. A toboggan is not a good vehicle for crossing summits. Its bottom is perfectly flat and smooth, polished like glass by the friction of the snow. If the trail be at all "sidling" (and mountain trails are almost always "sidling"), the toboggan swings off on the side of the inclination and must be kept on the trail by main force. The runners of a sled will grip the surface, if there be any inequalities at all, but a toboggan swings now this way and now that, like a great pendulum, dragging the near dogs with it. Again and again we had to hitch both teams to one toboggan to get up a sidling pitch while all hands kept the vehicle on the trail, and our progress was painful and slow. In soft snow on a level surface like the river bed or through the Flat country, generally, the toboggan is much the more convenient vehicle, for it rides over the snow instead of ploughing through it, but on hard snow anywhere or on grades the toboggan is a nuisance. Thus wallowing through the deep snow at the side of the toboggans to hold them in place we sweated and slaved our way mile after mile up the gradual ascent until we reached the spot, just under a shoulder of the summit, where there was dry spruce and green spruce for camping, the dry for fire and the green for couch, and there we halted for the night.
[Sidenote: JOHN MUIR]
Next morning we crossed the low pass and dropped down easily into the wide valley of the Koyukuk South Fork, with a fine prospect of mountains everywhere as far as the eye could see. I had stood and gazed upon those same mountains on my journey of the previous winter, my first winter in Alaska, and had seen a most remarkable sight. As we began the descent and a turn of the trail gave a new panorama of peaks I did not at first realise the nature of the peculiar phenomenon I was gazing at. Each peak had a fine, filmy, fan-shaped cloud stretching straight out from it into the sky, waving and shimmering as it stretched. The sun was not above the horizon, but his rays caught these sheer, lawn-like streamers and played upon them with a most delicate opalescent radiance. Then all at once came to my mind the recollection of a description in John Muir's Mountains of California (surely the finest mountain book ever written) of the snow banners of the Sierra Nevada, and I knew that I was looking at a similar spectacle. It meant that a storm was raging on high, although so far we were sheltered from it. It meant that the dry, sand-like snow of the mountain flanks was driven up those flanks so fiercely before the wind that it was carried clean over them and beyond them out into the sky, and still had such pressure behind it that it continued its course and spread out horizontally, thinning and spreading for maybe a mile before it lost all coherence and visibility. As far as I could see mountain peaks I could see the snow banners, all pointing one way, all waving, all luminous and shimmering in the sun-rays. It was a very noble sight, and I gazed a long while entranced, not knowing how ominous it was. When we reached the valley and left the shelter of the gulch we struck the full force of that fearful gale, and for two days and nights of incessant blizzard we lay in a hole dug out of a sand-bank (for we had no tent that year), the trail lost, the grub box nearly empty, and no fire possible to cook anything with had the grub box been full.
The valley before us—to resume the narrative—is a high, wind-swept region of niggerhead and swamp, the catch-basin of the South Fork of the Koyukuk River. The trail descends one of its southern draws, follows up the main valley awhile, crosses it, and leaves by one of its northern draws to pass over the mountains that separate its drainage from the main fork of the Koyukuk. The cold had given place to wind, and though the gale did not approach the fierceness of last year's storm, it gave great trouble in following the track. These high headwater basins are always windy; the timber is scrubby spruce with many open places, and in such open places the trail is soon obliterated altogether.
When the light fails this casting about for blazes whenever a clump of spruce is reached becomes increasingly slow and difficult and at last becomes hopeless. The general direction determined, it might be thought that the traveller could ignore the tracks of previous passage and strike out for himself, but he knows that the trail, however rough, is at least practicable, whereas an independent course may soon lead to steep gullies or cut banks, or may entangle him in some thicket that he must resort to the axe to pass through. Moreover, even two or three passages through the snow in the winter will give some bottom to a trail; a bottom that, when the wind-swept areas are passed and the snow-shoes are resumed, both he and his dogs will be thankful for.
[Sidenote: CAMP MAKING]
So we made a camp as it darkened to night, not far from the spot where I had "siwashed" with an Indian companion the previous winter, the wind blowing half a gale at 20 deg. below zero.
Making camp under such circumstances is always a very disagreeable proceeding. It takes time and care to make a comfortable camp, and time and care in the wind and the cold involve suffering. Two suitable trees must be selected between which the tent is to be suspended by the ridge-rope, and the snow must all be scraped away by the snow-shoes, or, if it be too deep, beaten down. Then while one man unlashes and unpacks the sleds, another cuts green spruce and lays it all over the tent space, thicker and finer where the bed is to be. Then up goes the tent, its corner ropes and its side strings made fast to boughs, if there be such, or to stakes, or to logs laid parallel to the sides. Then the stovepipe is jointed and the stove set up on the edge of green billets properly shaped. Meanwhile the axe-man, the green boughs cut, has been felling and splitting a dry tree for stove wood, and the whole proceedings are rushed and hastened towards getting a fire in that stove. Sometimes it is a question whether we shall get a fire before we freeze our fingers or freeze our fingers before we get a fire. The fire once going, we are safe, for however much more work there is in the open, and there is always a good deal more, one can go to the tent to get warm. Enough stove wood must be cut, not only for night and morning, but for cooking the dog feed. The dog pot, filled with snow, into which the fish are cut up, is put upon the outdoor fire as soon as man-supper begins cooking in the tent. When it boils, the rice and tallow must be added, and when the rice has boiled twenty minutes the whole is set aside to cool. Meanwhile the two aluminum pots full of snow, replenished from time to time as it melts, are put upon the stove in the tent as the necessary preliminary to cooking. Sometimes ice, and more rarely water, may be had, and then supper is hastened. If we are camped on the river bank sometimes a steel-pointed rifle-bullet fired straight down into the ice will penetrate to the water below and allow a little jet to bubble up. Melting snow is a tedious business at best; but, since three times out of four when camping it must be done, the aluminum pots are a treasure. There is still work for every one as well as the cook. Snow must be banked all round the tent to keep out the wind. Little heaps of spruce boughs must be cut for the dogs' beds; it is all we can do for them whatever the weather, and they appreciate it highly. It may be that dog moccasins must be taken off and strung around the stove to dry, and before supper is ready the inside ridge-rope of the tent is heavy with all sorts of drying man-wear: socks, moccasins, scarfs, toques, mittens. One of the earliest habits a man learns on the trail is to hang up everything to dry as soon as he takes it off. Why should it be hung up to dry unless it has got wet? the writer was once asked, in detailing these operations. Because there is no other way to remove the ice with which everything becomes incrusted in very cold weather.
[Sidenote: CAMP COOKING]
As his snow melts the cook throws into the pot a few handfuls of evaporated potatoes, a handful of evaporated onions, and smaller quantities of evaporated "soup vegetables," and leaves them to soak and simmer and resume their original size and flavour. By and by he will cut up the moose meat or the rabbits or birds, or whatever game he may have, and throw it in, and in an hour or an hour and a half there will be a savoury stew that, with a pan of biscuits cooked in an aluminum reflector beside the stove and a big pot of tea, constitutes the principal meal of the day. Or if the day has been long and sleep seems more attractive even than grub, he will turn some frozen beans, already boiled, into a frying-pan with a big lump of butter, and when his meat is done supper is ready. Beans thus prepared eaten red hot with grated cheese are delicious to a hungry man. With the stove for a sideboard, food may always be eaten hot, and that is one advantage of camp fare.
The men satisfied, the dogs remain, and while two of the party wash dishes and clean up, the third feeds the dogs. Their pot of food has been cooling for an hour or more. They will not eat it until it is cold and a mess of rice will hold heat a long time even in the coldest weather. When it is nearly cold it is dished out with a paddle into the individual pans and the dogs make short work of it. There are some who feed straight fish, and, if the fish be king salmon of the best quality, the dogs do well enough on it. But on any long run it is decidedly economical to cook for the dogs—not so much from the standpoint of direct cost as from that of weight and ease of hauling. An hundred pounds of fish plus an hundred pounds of rice plus fifty pounds of tallow will go a great deal farther than two hundred and fifty pounds of fish alone. There is little doubt, too, that in the long run the dogs do better on cooked food. It is easier of digestion and easier to apportion in uniform rations. Rice and fish make excellent food. The Japs took Port Arthur on rice and fish. The tallow answers a demand of the climate and is increased as the weather grows colder. Man and dog alike require quantities of fat food in this climate; it is astonishing how much bacon and butter one can eat. When the dogs have eaten, and each one has made the rounds of all the other pans to be sure nothing is left, they retire to their respective nests of spruce bough and curl themselves up with many turnings round and much rearranging of the litter. Feet and nose are neatly tucked in, the tail is adjusted carefully over all, the hair on the body stands straight up, and the dogs have gone to bed and do not like to be disturbed again.