Over the Rocky Mountains to Alaska
by Charles Warren Stoddard
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Oh, the memory of the voyage, which is perhaps the most precious of all!—this we bring home with us forever. The memory of all that is half civilized and wholly unique and uncommon: of sleepy and smoky wigwams, where the ten tribes hold powwow in a confusion of gutturals, with a plentiful mixture of saliva; for it is a moist language, a gurgle that approaches a gargle, and in three weeks the unaccustomed ear scarcely recovers from the first shock of it; a memory of totem poles in stark array, and of the high feast in the Indian villages, where the beauty and chivalry of the forest gathered and squatted in wide circles listening to some old-man-eloquent in the very ecstasy of expectoration; the memory of a non-committing, uncommunicative race, whose religion is a feeble polytheism—a kind of demonolatry; for, as good spirits do not injure one, one's whole time is given to the propitiation of the evil. This is called Shamanism, and is said to have been the religion of the Tartar race before the introduction of Buddhism, and is still the creed of the Siberians; a memory of solitary canoes on moonlit seas and of spicy pine odors mingled with the tonic of moist kelp and salt-sea air.

A memory of friends who were altogether charming, of a festival without a flaw. O my kind readers! when the Alaska Summer Hotel Company has stocked the nooks and corners of the archipelago with caravansaries, and good boats are filling them with guests who go to spend the season in the far Northwest, fail not to see that you are numbered among the elect; for Alaska outrivers all rivers and out-lakes all lakes—being itself a lake of ten thousand islands; it out-mountains the Alps of America, and certainly outdoes everything else everywhere else, in the shape of a watering place. And when you have returned from there, after two or three months' absence from the world and its weariness, you will begin to find that your "tum-tum is white" for the first time since your baptismal day, and that you have gained enough in strength and energy to topple the totem pole of your enemy without shedding a feather. There is hope for Alaska in the line of a summer resort.

As ghosts scent the morning air and are dispersed, so we scented the air, which actually seemed more familiar as we approached Washington in the great Northwest; and the spirit of peace, of ease and of lazy contentment that had possessed our souls for three weeks took flight. It was now but a day's sail to Victoria, and yet we began to think we would never get there.

We were hungry for news of the world which we had well-nigh forgotten. Three weeks! It seemed to us that in this little while cities might have been destroyed, governments overthrown, new islands upheaved and old ones swallowed out of sight. Then we were all expecting to find heaps of letters from everybody awaiting us at Victoria or Port Townsend, and our mouths fairly watered for news.

We took a little run into the sea and got lost in a fog; but the pilot whistled for the landmarks, and Echo answered; so that by the time the fog was ready to roll away, like a snowy drop-curtain, we knew just where we were, and ran quietly into a nook that looked as if it would fit us like a bootjack. The atmosphere grew smoky; forest fires painted the sky with burnt umber, and through this veil the sun shone like a copper shield. Then a gorgeous moonlight followed. There was blood upon that moon, and all the shores were like veins in moss-agate and the sea like oil. We wound in and out, in and out, among dreamy islands; touched for a little while at Nanaimo, where we should have taken in a cargo of coal for Portland, whither the Ancon was bound; but Captain Carroll kindly put us all ashore first and then returned for his freight.

We hated to sleep that night, and did not sleep very much. But when we awakened it was uncommonly quiet; and upon going on deck—lo! we were at Victoria. What a quiet, pretty spot! What a restful and temperate climate! What jutting shores, soft hills, fine drives, old-countrified houses and porters' lodges and cottages, with homely flowers in the door-yards and homely people in the doors!—homely I mean in the handsomest sense, for I can not imagine the artificial long survives in that community.

How dear to us seemed civilization after our wanderings in the wilderness! We bought newspapers and devoured them; ran in and out of shops just for the fun of it and because our liberty was so dear to us then. News? We were fairly staggered with the abundance of it, and exchanged it with one another in the most fraternal fashion, sharing our joys and sorrows with the whole ship's company. And deaths? What a lot of these, and how startling when they come so unexpectedly and in such numbers! Why is it, I wonder, that so many people die when we are away somewhere beyond reach of communication?

But enough of this. A few jolly hours on shore, a few drives in the suburbs and strolls in the town, and we headed for Port Townsend and the United States, where we parted company with the good old ship that carried us safely to and fro. And there we ended the Alaskan voyage gladly enough, but not without regret; for, though uneventful, I can truly say it was one of the pleasantest voyages of my life; and one that—thanks to every one who shared it with me—I shall ever remember with unalloyed delight.


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