Therein lies the cruelty of depriving them of their tails, which used to be the general custom in this country. The old tandem harness almost required it, as the breath of the dog behind condensed upon the tail of the dog in front until he was carrying around permanently a mass of ice that was a burden to him and rendered his tail useless for warmth. But the rig with a long mid rope, to which the dogs are attached by single-trees in such manner that they may at will be hitched abreast or one ahead of the other as the trail is wide or narrow, is superseding the tandem rig, and one sees more bushy tails amongst the dogs. The thick, long-haired tail of the dog in this country is indeed his blanket, and in cold weather the tailless dog is at a great disadvantage.
It was said that all the dogs retired to the nests of spruce bough; it should have been all but one. It is Lingo's special charge to guard the sled and his special privilege to sleep on it. Turning around and curling up on the softest spot he can find of the unlashed and partly unloaded toboggan, he will not touch anything it contains nor permit any other dog to touch it.
The northern skies are clouded the next morning, the first day of the new year, and there is a ruddy dawn that is glorious to behold. The white earth gives back a soft rose tint, as an organ pipe gives back a faint tone to the strong vibration of another pipe in pitch with it. We shall not see the sun himself any more for many weeks, but we see his light upon the flanks of the mountains for an hour or so around noon. The bold, shapely peaks of the South Fork of the Koyukuk turn their snows to pink fire as his rays slowly descend their sides, and the whole scene is exquisitely beautiful. What a wonderful thing colour is! When the skies are overcast this is a dead black-and-white country in winter, for spruce, the prevailing wood, is black in the mass at a little distance. Gaze where one will, there is naught but black and white. The eye becomes tired of the monotony and longs for some warmer tone. That is surely the reason why all those who live in the country cherish some gay article of attire, why the natives love brilliant handkerchiefs, why the white man also will choose a crimson scarf. Trudging at the handle-bars, I have found pleasure in the red pompons of the dogs' harness, in the gay beading of mitten and hind-sack. And that is why a lavish feast of colour such as this dawn stirs one's spirit with such keen delight. It gives life to a dead world.
But the wind is still bitter and interferes sadly with one's enjoyment. All through the valley, up the creek by which we leave it, past the twin lakes on the low summit, the wind grows in force, and when we leave Slate Creek for the present and make a "portage" over a mountain shoulder to strike the creek again much lower down, the wind has risen to a gale that overturns the toboggans and makes the men fight for their footing. The actual physical labour of it is enormous, and there can be no rest; it is too bitterly cold in that blast to stop. For a mile or two we struggle and slave to beat our way around that mountain shoulder and then drop down to the creek again. The blessed relief it is to get out of the fury of that wind into the comparative shelter of the creek, to be done with the ceaseless toil of holding the heavy toboggans from hurtling down the hillside, to be able to keep one's feet without continually slipping and falling on the wind-hardened snow, no words can adequately convey. We are all frozen again a little; this man's nose is touched, that man's cheeks, and the other man's finger.
[Sidenote: THE KOYUKUK GOLD CAMP]
On the middle fork of the Koyukuk, at the mouth of Slate Creek, Coldfoot sits within a cirque of rugged mountain peaks, the most northerly postal town in the interior of Alaska, the most northerly gold-mining town in the world, as it claims. It sprang into existence in 1900 and flourished for a season or two with the usual accompaniments of such florification. In 1906 it was already much decayed, and is now dead. Ever since its start the Koyukuk camp has steadily produced gold and given occupation to miners numbering from one hundred and fifty to three hundred, but the scene of operations, and therefore the depot for supplies, has continually changed. In 1900 the chief producing creek was Myrtle, which is a tributary of Slate Creek, and the town at the mouth was in eligible situation, though much over-built from the first. Then the centre of interest shifted to Nolan Creek, fifteen miles farther up the river, which is a tributary of Wiseman Creek, and the town of Wiseman sprang up at the mouth of that creek. The post-office, the commissioner's office, and the saloon, the stores and road-houses, migrated to the new spot, and Coldfoot was abandoned. Now the chief producing creek is the Hammond River, still farther up the Koyukuk, and if its placer deposits prove as rich as they promise it is likely that a town will spring up at the mouth of the Hammond which will supersede Wiseman.
There has never been found a continuous pay-streak in the Koyukuk camp. It is what is known as a "pocket" camp. Now and again a "spot" is found which enriches its discoverers, while on the claims above and below that spot the ground may be too poor to work at a profit; for ground must be rich to be worked at all in the Koyukuk. It is the most expensive camp in Alaska, perhaps in the world. This is due to its remoteness and difficulty of access. Far north of the Arctic Circle, the diggings are about seventy-five miles above the head of light-draught steamboat navigation, and more than six hundred miles above the confluence of the Koyukuk with the Yukon. Transshipped at Nulato to the shoal-water steamboats that make three or four trips a season up the Koyukuk, transshipped again at Bettles, the head of any steamboat navigation, freight must be hauled on horse scows the remaining seventy-five miles of the journey; and all that handling and hauling means high rates. The cost of living, the cost of machinery, the general cost of all mining operations is much higher than on the Yukon or on the other tributaries of that river. The very smallness of the camp is a factor in the high prices, for there is not trade enough to induce brisk competition with the reduction of rates that competition brings.
[Sidenote: MINERS' GENEROSITY]
Yet the smallness and the isolation of the camp have their compensations. There is more community life, more esprit de corps amongst the Koyukuk miners than will be found in any other camp in Alaska. Thrown upon their own resources for amusement, social gatherings are more common and are made more of, and hospitality is universal. Like all sparsely settled and frontier lands, Alaska is a very hospitable place in general, but the Koyukuk has earned the name of the most hospitable camp in Alaska. Since the numbers are small, and each man is well known to all the others, any sickness or suffering makes an immediate appeal and brings a generous response. Again and again the unfortunate victim of accident or disease has been sent outside for treatment, the considerable money required being quickly raised by public subscription. There is probably no other gold camp in the world where it is a common thing for the owner of a good claim to tell a neighbour who is "broke" to take a pan and go down to the drift and help himself.
Until my visit of the previous year no minister of religion of any sort had penetrated to the Koyukuk, and, save for one journey thither by Bishop Rowe, my annual visits have been the only opportunities for public worship since. It will suffice for the visit now describing as well as for all the others to say that the reception was most cordial and the opportunity much appreciated. We went from creek to creek and gathered the men and the few women in whatever cabin was most convenient, and no clergyman could wish for more attentive or interested congregations.
Upon our return to Coldfoot from the creek visits the thermometer stood at 52 deg. below zero, although it had been no lower than 38 deg. below when we left the last creek, some fifteen miles away. As a general rule, the temperature on these mountain creeks, which are at some considerable elevation above the river into which they flow, will read from 10 deg. to 15 deg. higher than on the river, and if one climbed to the top of the peaks around Coldfoot, the difference then would probably be 20 deg. or 25 deg.. At the summit road-house between Fairbanks and Cleary City in the Tanana country in cold weather the thermometer commonly reads 20 deg. above the one place and 10 deg. or 15 deg. above the other.
This interesting fact, which surprises a good many people, for we are used to think of elevated places as cold places, is due to the greater heaviness of cold air, which sinks to the lowest level it can reach; and the river bed is the lowest part of the country. It would be interesting to find out to what extent this rule holds good. The ridges and the hilltops are always the warmest places in cold weather; would this hold as regards mountain tops?—as regards high mountain tops? Probably it would hold in the sunshine, but the rapid radiation of heat in the rarefied atmosphere of mountain tops would swing the balance the other way after dark. There is no doubt, however, that the coldest place in cold weather in Alaska is the river surface, and it is on the river surface that most of our travelling is done. The night we returned to Coldfoot we put our toboggan up high on the roof of an outhouse to keep its skin sides from the teeth of some hungry native dogs, leaving some of the load that was not required within it, covered by the sled cloth. Later on I saw by the light of the moon Lingo's silhouetted figure sitting bolt upright on top of the sled, and he gave his short double bark as I drew near to make me notice that he was still doing his duty although under difficulties. The dog had climbed up a wood-pile and had jumped to the top of the outhouse and so to the sled. I thought of Kipling's Men That Fought at Minden:
"For fatigue it was their pride And they would not be denied To clean the cook-house floor."
Here at Coldfoot we came first into contact with that interesting tribe of wandering inland Esquimaux known as the Kobuks, from their occupation of the river of that name. The Koyukuk has its own Indian people, but these enterprising Kobuks have pushed their way farther and farther from salt water into what used to be exclusive Indian territory. Representatives of both races were at Coldfoot, and as we lay weather-bound for a couple of days, I was enabled to renew last year's acquaintance with them, though without a good interpreter not much progress was made. The delight of these people at the road-house phonograph, the first they had ever heard, was some compensation for the incessant snarl and scream of the instrument itself. It was very funny to see them sitting on the floor, roaring with laughter at one particularly silly spoken record of the "Uncle Josh at the World's Fair" order. Over and over again they would ask for that record, and it never ceased to convulse them with laughter. "He's been enjoyin' poor health lately, but this mornin' I heard him complain that he felt a little better"—how sick and tired we got of this and similar jokes drawled out a dozen times running! The natives did not understand a word of it; it was the human voice with its pronounced, unusual inflections that aroused their merriment. The phonograph is becoming a powerful agency for disseminating a knowledge of English amongst the natives throughout Alaska, and one wishes that it were put to better use than the reproduction of silly and often vulgar monologue and dialogue and trashy ragtime music. As an index of the taste of those who purchase records, the selection brought to this country points low.
The third day the thermometer stood at -49 deg. and we were free to leave without actually breaking the rule we had made after the escapade on the Yukon. Two other teams were going down the river, so we started with them on the sixty-five mile journey to Bettles. Twenty miles or so below Coldfoot the Koyukuk passes for several miles in a narrow channel between steep rock bluffs, with here and there great detached masses standing in the middle of the river. One has a grotesque resemblance to an aged bishop in his vestments and is known as the Bishop Rock; another a more remote likeness to an Indian woman, and this is known as the Squaw Rock. This part of the river, which is called the canon of the Koyukuk, though it is not a true canon, is very picturesque, and because of frequent overflow, offers glare ice and swift passage to the traveller when it does not embarrass him with running water. We were fortunate enough to pass it without getting our dogs' feet wet, and made the half-way road-house in a brilliant moon that rendered travelling at night pleasanter than during the day.
[Sidenote: TRAVELLING AT "50 BELOW"]
The next day we started again at near 50 deg. below, but because there was a good trail and a road-house for noon, the travelling was rather pleasant than otherwise. If there be a warm house to break the day's march and eat in, where ice-incrusted scarfs and parkees and caps and mittens may be dried out, with a warm outhouse where the dogs may rest in comfort, travelling in such weather is not too risky or too severely trying. The continual condensation of the moisture from the breath upon everything about the head and face is a decided inconvenience, and when it condenses upon the eye-lashes, and the upper and the lower lashes freeze together, the ice must be removed or it is impossible to open the eyes. This requires the momentary application of the bare hand, and every time it goes back into the mitten it carries some moisture with it, so that after a while mittens are wet as well as head-gear; moreover, there is always a certain perspiration that condenses. One gets into the habit of turning the duffel lining of the moose-hide mitts inside out and hanging them up the moment one gets inside a cabin. Round every road-house stove there is a rack constructed for just that purpose.
There is no more striking phenomenon of the arctic trail than the behaviour of smoke in cold weather. As one approaches a road-house, and to greater degree a village or a town, it is seen enveloped in mist, although there be no open water to account for it, and the prospect in every other direction be brilliantly clear. It is not mist at all; it is merely the smoke from the stovepipes. And the explanation is simple, although not all at once arrived at. Smoke rises because it is warmer than the air into which it is discharged; for that and no other reason. Now, when smoke is discharged into air at a temperature of 50 deg. below zero, it is deprived of its heat immediately and falls to the ground by its greater specific gravity. The smoke may be observed just issuing from the pipe, or rising but a few feet, and then curling downward to be diffused amidst the air near the ground.
It was to such a smoke-enveloped inn that we pulled up to warm and refresh ourselves and our team for the twenty miles that remained of the day's march. We had almost reached the limit of Koyukuk road-houses. Bettles being the head of navigation, and merchandise late in the season finding water too shallow for transport to the diggings, there is more or less freighting with dog teams and horses all the winter. This travel keeps open the road-houses on the route. From an "outside" point of view they may appear rough and the fare coarse. The night accommodation is a double row of bunks on each side of a long room with a great stove in the middle. Sometimes there is straw in the bunks, sometimes spruce boughs; in the better class even sometimes hay-stuffed mattresses. But to the weary traveller, who has battled with the storm or endured the intense cold for hours at a stretch, they are glad havens of refuge; they are often even life-saving stations.
While we lay at the road-house the clear sky clouded and the thermometer rose. This is an unfailing sequence. Clear, bright weather is cold weather; cloudy weather is warm weather. The usual explanation, that the cloud acts as a blanket that checks the radiation of heat from the earth, is one of those explanations that do not explain. There is no heat to radiate. The cloud is a mass of moist air, which is warm air, introducing itself from some milder region. So the cloud brings the heat; and the lower layers of atmosphere extract it and thereby discharge the moisture. For an hour or two around noon the thermometer stood at -35 deg. and there was a light fall of snow; then the skies cleared because they were discharged of all their moisture, and the thermometer went down to -50 deg. again. It is a beautifully simple process and sometimes takes place two or three times a day. Every time the sky clouds, the thermometer rises; every time the sky clears, the thermometer falls. And because the barometer gives notice of changes in the density of the atmosphere, it is valuable in forecasting temperature in our winters. A steady rise in the barometer means a steady fall in the thermometer; a fall in the barometer in a time of great cold infallibly prophesies warmer weather; even such rapid changes as the one given above are anticipated. So well is this established, that during "50 deg.-below spells" at Fairbanks, impatient, weather-bound travellers and freighters would busy the hospital telephone with inquiries about the barometer, the hospital having the only barometer in the country.
After another long, cold run, on the night of Friday, the 12th of January, we reached Bettles, the place we had planned to spend Christmas at. We were unable to stir from Bettles for two solid weeks, for during the whole of that time the thermometer never rose above 50 deg. below zero.
The long wait at Bettles would have been excessively tedious had it not been for the kind hospitality of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Grimm, the Commercial Company's agent and his wife, and this is but one of many times that I have been under obligation to them for cordial welcome and entertainment, for needs anticipated, and every sort of assistance gladly rendered. We had been expected many days; the Christmas festivities with a gathering of natives of both races had come and gone; still they looked for us, for in this country one does not give a man up merely because he is a few weeks behind time, nor hold him to account for unpunctuality. The natives remained for the most part, and there was abundant opportunity of intercourse with them and some beginnings of instruction. As the days passed and all arrangements for our advance were made, we chafed more and more at the delay, for it was very plain that the prospect of visiting Point Hope grew less and less; but this is a great country for teaching patience and resignation.
Some of the weather during that two weeks' wait was of quite exceptional severity. One night is fixed for ever in my memory. It is a very rare thing for the wind to blow in the "strong cold," but that night there was a wind at 58 deg. below zero. And high up in the heavens was a sight I had never seen before. The moon, little past her full, had a great ring around her, faintly prismatic; and equidistant from her, where a line through her centre parallel with the horizon would cut the ring, were two other moons, distinct and clear. It was a strangely beautiful thing, this sight of three moons sailing aloft through the starry sky, as though the beholder had been suddenly translated to some planet that enjoys a plurality of satellites, but no living being could stand long at gaze in that wind and that cold. A perfect paraselene is, I am convinced, an extremely rare thing, much rarer than a perfect parhelion ("moon-cats" my companion thought the phenomenon should be called, saving the canine simile for the sun), for in seven years' travel I have never seen another, and the references to it in literature are few.
The next day at noon, the sun not visible above the distant mountains, there appeared in the sky a great shining cross of orange light, just over the sun's position, that held and shone for nigh an hour and only faded with the twilight. It is not surprising that these appearances should deeply impress the untutored mind and should be deemed significant and portentous; they must deeply impress any normal mind, they are so grand and so strange. The man who has trained his intellect until it is so stale, and starved his imagination until it is so shrivelled that he can gaze unmoved at such spectacles, that they are insignificant to him, has but reduced himself to the level of the dog upon whom also they make no impression—though even a dog will howl at a great aurora. Of course we know all about them; any schoolboy can pick up a primer of physical geography and explain the laws of refraction, and the ugly and most libellous diagram of circles and angles that shows just how these lustrous splendours happen; but the mystery beyond is not by one hair's breadth impaired nor their influence upon the spectator diminished. In Alaska perhaps more than any other country it is the heavens that declare the glory of God and the firmament that shows His handiwork, and the awestruck Indian who comes with timid inquiry of the import of such phenomena is rightfully and scientifically answered that the Great Father is setting a sign in the sky that He still rules, that His laws and commandments shall never lose their force, whether in the heavens above or on the earth beneath.
[Sidenote: THE STRONG COLD]
The "strong cold" itself is an awe-inspiring thing even to those who have been familiar with it all their lives; and a dweller in other climes, endowed with any imagination, may without much difficulty enter into the feelings of one who experiences it for the first time. It descends upon the earth in the brief twilight and long darkness of the dead of winter with an irresistible power and an inflexible menace. Fifty below, sixty below, even seventy below, the thermometer reads. Mercury is long since frozen solid and the alcohol grows sluggish. Land and water are alike iron; utter stillness and silence usually reign. Bare the hand, and in a few minutes the fingers will turn white and be frozen to the bone. Stand still, and despite all clothing, all woollens, all furs, the body will gradually become numb and death stalk upon the scene. The strong cold brings fear with it. All devices to exclude it, to conserve the vital heat seem feeble and futile to contend with its terrible power. It seems to hold all living things in a crushing relentless grasp, and to tighten and tighten the grip as the temperature falls.
Yet the very power of it, and the dread that accompanies it, give a certain fearful and romantic joy to the conquest of it. A man who has endured it all day, who has endured it day after day, face to face with it in the open, feels himself somewhat the more man for the experience, feels himself entered the more fully into human possibilities and powers, feels an exultation that manhood is stronger even than the strong cold. But he is a fool if ever he grow to disdain the enemy. It waits, inexorable, for just such disdain, and has slain many at last who had long and often withstood it.
On those rare occasions when there is any wind, any movement of the air at all, there enters another and a different feeling. Into the menace of a power, irresistible, inflexible, but yet insentient, there seems to enter a purposeful, vengeful evil. It pursues. The cold itself becomes merely a condition; the wind a deadly weapon which uses that condition to deprive its victim of all defence. The warmth which active exercise stores up, the buckler of the traveller, is borne away. His reserves are invaded, depleted, destroyed. And then the wind falls upon him with its sword. Of all of which we were to have instance here on the Koyukuk.
[Sidenote: "FOUND FROZEN"]
In the second week of our stay at Bettles, while Divine service was in progress in the store building, crowded with whites and natives, the door opened and, with an inrush of cold air that condensed the moisture at that end of the room into a cloud and shot along the floor like steam from an engine exhaust, there entered an Indian covered with rime, his whole head-gear one mass of white frost, his snow-shoes, just removed, under his arm, and a beaded moose-skin wallet over his shoulder. Every eye was at once turned to him as he beat the frost from his parkee hood and thrust it back, unwrapped fold after fold of the ice-crusted scarf from his face, and pulled off his mittens. Seeking out the agent, he moved over to him and whispered something in his ear. It was plain that the errand was of moment and the message disturbing, and as I had lost the attention of the congregation and the continuity of my own discourse, I drew things to a close as quickly as I decently could. That Indian had come seventy-five miles on snow-shoes in one run, without stopping at all save to eat two or three times, at a continuous temperature of 50 deg. below zero or lower, to bring word that he had found a white man frozen to death on the trail; and on the Koyukuk that feat will always be counted to Albert the Pilot for righteousness. From the location and description of the dead man, there was no difficulty in identifying him. He was a wood-chopper under contract with the company to cut one hundred cords of steamboat wood against next summer's navigation at a spot about one hundred miles below Bettles. He had taken down with him on the "last water" enough grub for about three months, and was to return to Bettles for Christmas and for fresh supplies. After a day or two's rest the Indian was sent back with instructions to bring the body to a native village we should visit, to whipsaw lumber for a coffin and dig a grave, and we engaged to give the body Christian burial.
Uneasy at the softening muscles and sinews of this long inaction, I took snow-shoes and a couple of Kobuks one day and made an ascent of the hill behind Bettles known as Lookout Mountain, because from its top the smoke of the eagerly expected first steamboat of the summer may be seen many miles down the river; being moved to that particular excursion by dispute among the weather-bound freighters as to the hill's height.
The change of temperature as we climbed the hill was striking. On the first shoulder we were already out of the dense atmosphere of the valley and above the smoke gloom of the houses, and as we rose the air grew milder and milder, until at the top we emerged into the first sunshine of many weeks and were in an altogether different climate—balmy and grateful it was to us just come up from the strong cold. The aneroid showed the altitude about seven hundred feet above Bettles, and I regretted very much I had not brought the thermometer as well, for its reading would have been most interesting.
The view from the top was brilliantly clear and far-reaching. The broad plain across the river was checkered black and white with alternating spruce thickets and lakes; beyond it and the mountains that bounded it lay the valley of the south fork which we had crossed fifty or sixty miles farther up on our journey hither. Right in front of us the middle fork made its big bend from southwest to south, and to the left, that is, to the north, the valley of the John River opened up its course through the sharp white peaks of the Endicott Mountains. It was in this direction that my eyes lingered longest. I knew that sixty or seventy miles up this river we could cross the low Anaktuvak Pass into the Anaktuvak River, which flows into the Colville, and that descending the Colville we could reach the shores of the Northern Ocean. It was a journey I had wished to make—and have wished ever since. There are many bands of Esquimaux on that coast, never visited save by those who make merchandise of them in one way or another. Please God, some day I should get there; meanwhile our present hopes lay west, though, indeed, these grew daily fainter.
BETTLES TO THE PACIFIC—THE ALATNA, KOBUK PORTAGE, KOBUK VILLAGE, KOTZEBUE SOUND
ALL our preparations were long since made. Our Indian guide had been sent back to Fort Yukon from Coldfoot, and here we engaged a young Esquimau with his dog team and sled, to go across to Kotzebue Sound with us. There was also a young Dane who wished to go from the Koyukuk diggings to the diggings at Candle Creek on the Seward Peninsula, and him we were willing to feed in return for his assistance on the trail. The supplies had been carefully calculated for the journey, the toboggans were already loaded, and we waited but a break in the cold weather to start.
Our course from Bettles would lead us sixty-five miles farther down the Koyukuk to the mouth of the Alatna. The visit to the native village and the burial of the poor fellow frozen to death would take us ten miles farther down than that, and we would return to the Alatna mouth. Then the way would lie for fifty miles or so up that stream, and then over a portage, across to the Kobuk River, which we should descend to its mouth in Kotzebue Sound; the whole distance being about five hundred miles through a very little travelled country. We learned indeed, that it had been travelled but once this winter, and that on the first snow. It was thought at Bettles that we might possibly procure some supplies at a newly established mission of the Society of Friends about half-way down the Kobuk River, but there was no certainty about it, and we must carry with us enough man-food to take us to salt water. Our supply of dog fish we might safely count upon replenishing from the natives on the Kobuk. Another thing that caused some thought was the supply of small money. There was no silver and no currency except large bills on the Koyukuk, and we should need money in small sums to buy fish with. So the agent weighed out a number of little packets of gold-dust carefully sealed up in stout writing-paper like medicine powders, some worth a dollar, some worth two dollars, the value written on the face, and we found them readily accepted by the natives and very convenient. Two years later I heard of some of those packets, unbroken, still current on the Kobuk.
At last, on the 26th of January, we got away. The thermometer stood only a few degrees above -50 deg. when we left, but the barometer had been falling slowly for a couple of days, and I was convinced the cold spell was over. With our three teams and four men we made quite a little expedition, but dogs and men were alike soft, and for the first two days the travel was laborious and slow; then came milder weather and better going.
[Sidenote: THE KOYUKUK "TOWNS" OF '98]
We passed the two ruined huts of Peavey, the roofs crushed by the superincumbent snow. In the summer of 1898 a part of the stream of gold seekers, headed for the Klondike by way of Saint Michael, was deflected to the Koyukuk River by reports of recent discoveries there. A great many little steamboat outfits made their way up this river late in the season, until their excessive draught in the falling water brought them to a stand. Where they stopped they wintered, building cabins and starting "towns." In one or two cases the "towns" were electrically lit from the steamboat's dynamo. The next summer they all left, all save those who were wrecked by the ice, and the "towns" were abandoned. But they had got upon the map through some enterprising representative of the land office, and they figure on some recent maps still. Peavey, Seaforth, Jimtown, Arctic City, Beaver City, Bergman, are all just names and nothing else, though at Bergman the Commercial Company had a plant for a while.
We passed the mouth of the Alatna, where were two or three Indian cabins, and went on the remaining ten miles to Moses' Village, where the body of the man frozen to death had been brought. Moses' Village, named from the chief, was the largest native village on the Koyukuk River, and we were glad, despite our haste, that we had gone there. The repeated requests from all the Indians we met for a mission and school on the Koyukuk River and the neglected condition of the people had moved me the previous year to take up the matter. This was my first visit, however, so far down the river.
We found the coffin unmade and the grave undug, and set men vigorously to work at both. The frozen body had been found fallen forward on hands and feet, and since to straighten it would be impossible without several days' thawing in a cabin, the coffin had to be of the size and shape of a packing-case; of course the ground for the grave had to be thawed down, for so are all graves dug in Alaska, and that is a slow business. A fire is kindled on the ground, and when it has burned out, as much ground as it has thawed is dug, and then another fire is kindled. We had our own gruesome task. The body should be examined to make legally sure that death came from natural causes. With difficulty the clothes were stripped from the poor marble corpse, my companion made the examination, and as a notary public I swore him to a report for the nearest United States commissioner. This would furnish legal proof of death were it ever required; otherwise, since there is no provision for the travelling expenses of coroners, and the nearest was one hundred and forty or one hundred and fifty miles away, there would have been no inquest and no such proof.
[Sidenote: A WILDERNESS TRAGEDY]
The man had delayed his return to Bettles too long. When his food was exhausted and he had to go, there came on that terrible cold spell. A little memorandum-book in his pocket told the pitiful story. Day by day he lingered hoping for a change, and day by day there was entry of the awful cold. He had no thermometer, but he knew the temperature was -50 deg. or lower by the cracking noise that his breath made—the old-timer's test. At last the grub was all gone and he must go or starve. The final entry read: "All aboard to-morrow, hope to God I get there." The Indians estimated that he had been walking two days, and had "siwashed it" at night somewhere beside a fire in the open without bedding. Holes were burned in his breeches in two places, where, doubtless, he had got too near the fire. He had nothing whatever to eat with him save a piece of bacon gnawed to the rind. There were only two matches in his pocket, and they were mixed up with trash of birch-bark and tobacco, so it is likely he did not know he had them. He had lit all the fires he could light and eaten all the food he had to eat. Still he was plugging along towards the native village nine miles away. Then he lost the trail, probably in the dark, for it was faint and much drifted, and had taken off his snow-shoes to feel with his moccasined feet for the hardened snow that would indicate it. That was almost the end. He had gone across the river and back again, feeling for the trail, and then, with the deadly numbness already upon his brain, had wandered in a circle. The date of his starting in the memorandum-book and the distance travelled made it almost certain that, at some moment between the time when those three moons floated in the sky and the time when that cross glared on the horizon, he had fallen in the snow, never to rise again. Fifty-eight below zero and a wind blowing!
One supposes that the actual death by freezing is painless, as it is certainly slow and gradual. The only instance of sudden gelation I ever heard of is in Longfellow's "Wreck of the Hesperus," where the skipper, having answered one question, upon being asked another,
"Answered never a word, For a frozen corpse was he."
But if the actual death be painless, the long conscious fight against it must be an agony; for a man of any experience must realise the peril he is in. The tingling in fingers and toes and then in knees and elbows is a warning he recognises only too well. He knows that, unless he can restore warmth by restoring the circulation, he is as good as frozen already. He increases his pace and beats his arms against his breast. But if his vitality be too much reduced by hunger and fatigue and cold to make more than a slight response to the stimulation, if the distance to warmth and shelter be too great for a spurt to carry him there, he is soon in worse case than before. Then the appalling prospect of perishing by the cold must rise nakedly before him. The enemy is in the breach, swarming over the ramparts, advancing to the heart of the fortress, not to be again repelled. He becomes aware that his hands and feet are already frozen, and presently there may be a momentary terrible recognition that his wits begin to wander. Frantically he stumbles on, thrashing his body with his arms, forcing his gait to the uttermost, a prey to the terror that hangs over him, until his growing horror and despair are mercifully swallowed up in the somnolent torpidity that overwhelms him. All of us who have travelled in cold weather know how uneasy and apprehensive a man becomes when the fingers grow obstinately cold and he realises that he is not succeeding in getting them warm again. It is the beginning of death by freezing.
We buried the body on a bench of the bluff across the river from the native village, the natives all standing around reverently while the words of committal were said, and set up a cross marked with lead-pencil: "R. I. P.—Eric Ericson, found frozen, January, 1906." Two or three years later a friend sent me a small bronze tablet with the same legend, and that was affixed to the cross. There are many such lonely graves in Alaska, for scarce a winter passes that does not claim its victims in every section of the country. That same winter we heard of two men frozen on the Seward Peninsula, two on the Yukon, one on the Tanana, and one on the Valdez trail. This day I recorded a temperature of 10 deg., the first plus temperature in thirty-nine days, and that previous rise above zero was the first in twenty days.
[Sidenote: NEGLECTED NATIVES]
That night we gathered all the natives, and after long speech with poor interpretation I ventured to promise them a mission the next year. Some of them had been across to the Yukon years before and had visited the mission at Tanana. Some had been baptized there. Some had never seen a clergyman or missionary of any sort before, and had never heard the gospel preached. We were touched by one old blind woman who told of a visit to a mission on the Yukon, and how she learned to sing a hymn there. Her son interpreted: "She say every night she sing that hymn for speak to God." She was encouraged to sing it, and it turned out to be the alphabet set to a tune! After much pleading and with some hesitation, I baptized seventeen children, comforting myself with the assurance of the coming mission, which would undertake their Christian training and instruction.
Back next day at the mouth of the Alatna, I was again impressed with the eligibility of that spot as a mission site. It was but ten miles above the present native village, and, with church and school established, the whole population would sooner or later move to it. This gives opportunity for regulating the building of cabins, and the advantage of a new, clean start. Moreover, the Alatna River is the highway between the Kobuk and the Koyukuk, and the Esquimaux coming over in increasing numbers, would be served by a mission at this place as well as the Indians. I foresaw two villages, perhaps, on the opposite sides of the river—one clustered about the church and the school, the other a little lower down—where these ancient hereditary enemies might live side by side in peace and harmony under the firm yet gentle influence of the church. So I staked a mission site, and set up notices claiming ground for that purpose, almost opposite the mouth of the Alatna, which, in the native tongue, is Allakaket or Allachaket.
[Sidenote: THE INLAND ESQUIMAUX]
There was some trail up the Alatna and we made fair headway on its surface, stopping two nights at Kobuk huts. We are out of the Indian country now, and shall see no more Indians until we are back on the Yukon. The mode of life, the habits, the character of the races are very different—the first Esquimau habitation we visited proclaiming it. These inland Esquimaux, though some of the younger ones have never seen salt water—our guide, Roxy, for one—are still essentially a salt-water people. Their huts, even in the midst of trees, are half-underground affairs, for they have not learned log-building; the windows are of seal gut, and seal oil is a staple article of their diet. Their clothing is also marine, their parkees of the hair-seal and their mukluks of the giant seal. Communications are always kept up with the coast, and the sea products required are brought across. The time for the movement of the Kobuks back and forth was not quite yet, though we hoped we should meet some parties and get the benefit of their trail. Just before we left the Alatna River we stopped at Roxy's fish cache and got some green fish, hewing them out of the frozen mass with the axe. The young man had fished here the previous summer, had cached the fish caught too late to dry in the sun, and they had remained where he left them for four or five months. Most of them had begun to decay before they froze, but that did not impair their value as dog food, though it rendered the cooking of them a disagreeable proceeding to white nostrils. This caching of food is a common thing amongst both natives and whites, and it is rarely that a cache is violated except under great stress of hunger, when violation is recognised as legitimate. Doughty, in his Arabia Deserta, mentions the same custom amongst the Arabs; Sven Hedin amongst the Tartars. Sparsely peopled waste countries have much the same customs all over the world. Even the outer garb in the Oriental deserts has much resemblance to our parkee; both burnoose and parkee are primarily windbreaks, and it makes little difference whether the wind be charged with snow or sand.
At midday on the 3d of February we left the Alatna River and took our way across country for the Kobuk. We had now no trail at all save what had been made a couple of months before by the only other party that had crossed the portage this winter, and it was buried under fifteen or sixteen inches of snow. There was quite a grade to be climbed to reach the plateau over which our course lay, and the men, with rope over the shoulder, had to help the dogs hauling at the sled. Indeed, over a good deal of this portage, from time to time, the men had to do dog work, for the country is rolling, one ridge succeeding another, and the loose, deep snow made heavy and slow going. One man must go ahead breaking trail, and that was generally my task, though when the route grew doubtful and the indications too faint for white man's eye, Roxy took my place and I took his gee pole, and slipped his rope around my chest.
Breaking trail would not be so laborious if one could wear the large snow-shoes that are used for hunting. But the hunting shoe, though it carries the man without fatigue, does not help the dogs. The small shoe known as the trail shoe, packs the snow beneath it, and by the time the trail breaker has gone forward, then back again, and then forward once more, the snow is usually packed hard enough to give the dogs some footing. Footing the dog must have or he cannot pull; a dog wallowing in snow to his belly cannot exert much traction on the vehicle behind him. The notion of snow-shoeing as a sport always seems strange to us on the trail, for to us it is a laborious necessity and no sport at all. The trail breaker thus goes over most of the ground thrice, and when he is anxious at the same time to get a fairly accurate estimate by the pedometer of the distance travelled, he must constantly remember to upend the instrument in his pocket when he retraces his steps, and restore it to its recording position when he attacks unbroken snow again. Also he must take himself unawares, so to speak, from time to time, and check the length of his stride with the tape measure and alter the step index as the varying surfaces passed over require. Conscientiously used, with due regard to its limitations, the pedometer will give a fair approximation of the length of a journey, but a man can no more tell how far he has gone by merely hanging a pedometer in his pocket than he can tell the height above sea-level of an inland mountain by merely carrying an aneroid barometer to the top.
[Sidenote: THE SUNRISE AND THE MOUNTAINS]
It was on this Alatna-Kobuk portage that we saw the most magnificent sunrise any of us could remember. It had been cloudy for some days with threat of snow which did not fall. We were camped in a little hollow between two ridges, and I had been busy packing up the stuff in the tent preparatory to the start, when I stepped out with a load of bedding in my arms, right into the midst of the spectacle. It was simple, as the greatest things are always simple, but so gorgeous and splendid that it was startling. The whole southeastern sky was filled with great luminous bands of alternate purple and crimson. At the horizon the bands were deeper in tone and as they rose they grew lighter, but they maintained an unmixed purity of contrasting colour throughout. I gazed at it until the tent was struck and the dogs hitched and it was time to start, and then I had to turn my back upon it, for our course lay due west, and I was breaking trail. But on the crest of the rising ground ahead there burst upon my delighted eyes a still more astonishing prospect. We were come to the first near view of the Kobuk mountains, and the reflected light of that gorgeous sunrise was caught by the flanks of a group of wild and lofty snow peaks, and they stood up incandescent, with a vivid colour that seemed to come through them as well as from them. To right and left, mountains out of the direct path of that light gave a soft dead mauve, but these favoured peaks, bathed from base to summit in clear crimson effulgence, glowed like molten metal. It was not the reflected light of the sun, but of the flaming sky, for even as I looked, a swift change came over them. They passed through the tones of red to lightest pink, not fading but brightening, and before my companions reached me the sun's rays sprang upon the mountains from the horizon, and they were golden.
It seems almost foolish to the writer and may well seem tedious to the reader, to attempt in words the description of such scenes; yet so deep is the impression they produce, and so large the place they take in the memory, that to omit them would be to strike out much of the charm and zest of these arctic journeys. Again and again in the years that have passed, the recollection of that pomp of colour on the way to the Kobuk has come suddenly upon me, and always with a bounding of the spirit. I can shut my eyes now and see that incomparable sunrise; I can see again that vision of mountains filling half the sky with their unimaginable ardency, and I think that this world never presented nobler sight. Surely for its pageantry of burning, living colour, for purity and depth and intensity of tint, the Far North with its setting of snow surpasses all other regions of the earth.
[Sidenote: TRAVELLING KOBUK LADS]
That same day we met a couple of Kobuk youths on their way to the Koyukuk, and they gave us the greatest gift it was in the power of man to give us—a trail! There is no finer illustration of the mutual service of man to man than the meeting of parties going opposite ways across the unbroken snows. Each is at once conferring and receiving the greatest of favours, without loss to himself is heaping benefit on the other; is, it may be—has often been—saving the other, and being himself saved. No more hunting and peering for blazes, no more casting about hither and thither when open stretches are crossed; no more three times back and forth to beat the snow down—twenty miles a day instead of ten or twelve—the boys' trail meant all that to us. And our trail meant almost as much to them. So we were rejoiced to see them, sturdy youths of sixteen or seventeen, making the journey all by themselves. My heart goes out to these adventurous Kobuks, amiable, light-hearted, industrious; keen hunters, following the mountain-sheep far up where the Indian will not go; adepts in all the wilderness arts; heirs of the uncharted arctic wastes, and occupying their heritage. If I were not a white man I would far rather be one of these nomadic inland Esquimaux than any other native I know of.
That same day we crossed two headwater forks of the Kokochatna, as the Kobuks call it, or the Hogatzitna as the Koyukuks call it, or the Hog River, as the white men call it, a tributary of the Koyukuk that comes in about one hundred and fifty miles below the Alatna. As we came down a steep descent to the little east fork, it showed so picturesque and attractive, with clumps of fine open timber on an island, that it remains in my mind one of the many places from the Grand Canon of the Colorado almost to the Grand Canon of the Noatak, where I should like to have a lodge in the vast wilderness.
We had but crossed the west fork when we knew that we were close to the watershed between the Kobuk and the Koyukuk, between the streams that fall into Kotzebue Sound and those that fall by the Koyukuk and the Yukon Rivers into Bering Sea; and because it seemed a capital geographic feature, it was disappointing that it was so inconspicuous. Indeed, we were not sure which of two ridges was the actual divide. Beyond those ridges there was no question, for the ground sloped down to Lake Noyutak, a body of water some three and a half miles in length and of varying breadth that drains into the Kobuk. Here in a cabin we found three more young Kobuks, and spent the night, getting our first view of the Kobuk River next day, not from an eminence, as I had hoped, but only as we came down a bank through thick timber and opened suddenly upon it. By the pedometer I made the portage forty-six miles.
[Sidenote: THE KOBUK RIVER]
The upper Kobuk is a picturesque river, the timber being especially large and handsome for interior Alaska. We reached it just above the mouth of the Reed River, tributary from the north. The weather was warm—too warm for good travelling—the thermometer standing at 15—- deg., 20 deg., and one day even 30 deg. above zero all day long, so that we were all bareheaded and in our shirt-sleeves. From time to time, as the course of the river varied, we had distant views of the rocky mountains of the Endicott Range, or, as it might be written, the Endicott Range of the Rocky Mountains, for such, in fact, it is—the western and final extension of the great American cordillera. On the other side of those mountains was the Noatak River, flowing roughly parallel with the Kobuk, and discharging into the same arm of the sea.
The division of the labour of camping amongst four gave us all some leisure at night, and I found time to read through again The Cloister and the Hearth and Westward Ho! with much pleasure, quite agreeing with Sir Walter Besant's judgment that the former is one of the best historical novels ever written. There are few more attractive roysterers in literature to me than Denys of Burgundy, with his "Courage, camarades, le diable est mort!" This matter of winter reading is a difficult one, because it is impossible to carry many books. My plan is to take two or three India-paper volumes of classics that have been read before, and renew my acquaintance with them. But reading by the light of one candle, though it sufficed our forefathers, is hard on our degenerate eyes.
The days were much lengthened now, and the worst of the winter was done. There would still be cold and storm, but hardly again of the same intensity and duration. When the traveller gets well into February he feels that the back of the winter is broken, for nothing can take from him the advantage of the ever-lengthening days, the ever-climbing sun.
On the afternoon of the third day on the Kobuk we reached a cabin occupied by two white men, the first we had seen since we left Bettles, and we were the first white men they had seen all the winter. They were waiting for the spring, having a prospecting trip in view; simply spending the winter eating up their grub. There was nothing whatever to read in the cabin, and they had been there since the freeze-up! They welcomed us, and we stayed overnight with them, and that night there was a total eclipse of the moon, of which we had a fine view. We had an almanac which gave the time of totality at Sitka, and we knew the approximate longitude of our position, so we were able to set our watches by it.
The next two days are noted in my diary as two of the pleasantest days of the whole journey—two of the pleasantest days I ever spent anywhere, I think. A clear, cloudless sky, brilliant sunshine, white mountain peaks all about us, gave picture after picture, and the warm, balmy air made travelling a delight. There are few greater pleasures than that of penetrating into a new country, with continually changing views of beauty, under kindly conditions of weather and trail. In the yellow rays of the early sun, the spruce on the river bank looked like a screen of carved bronze, while the slender stems of birches in front of the spruce looked like an inlaying of old ivory upon the bronze, the whole set upon its pedestal of marble-like snow. The second day we took a portage of nine or ten miles across a barren flat and struck the river again just below a remarkable stretch of bank a mile or so in length, with never a tree or a bush or so much as the smallest shrub growing on it. Thick timber above suddenly ceased, thick timber below suddenly began again, and this bare bank reached back through open, barren flat to a low pass in the mountains. It was a bank of solid ice, so we were told later, and I remembered to have heard of ice bluffs on the Kobuk, and wished that the portage had struck the river above this spot instead of below it, that there might have been opportunity to examine it.
[Sidenote: THE MISSION]
[Sidenote: ENGLISH AND ESQUIMAU]
A little farther down the river and we were at the new mission of the Society of Friends, where a cordial reception awaited us and, luxury of luxuries, a warm bath! Again and again the wash-tub was emptied and fresh water was heated until we all had wallowed to our heart's content. The rude log buildings of the mission had been begun the previous fall, and were not yet complete, but they were advanced enough for occupation, and the work of the mission went actively on. It was in charge of rather an extraordinary man. He gave us a sketch of his life, which was full of interest and matter for thought. For many years he was a police officer and jailer in the West. Then he sailed on a whaler and thus became acquainted with the Esquimaux. He was converted from a life of drunkenness and debauchery—though one fancied his character was not really ever so bad as he painted it—at a "Peniel" mission in a Californian town. He went in out of mere idle curiosity, just recovered from a spree, and was so wrought upon that when he came out he was a different creature, a new man, the old life with its appetite for vicious indulgence sloughed off and left behind him, and he now possessed with a burning desire to do some such active service for God as aforetime he had done for the devil. After three or four months of some sort of training in an institution maintained by the California Society of Friends—a body more like the Salvation Army, one judges, than the old Quakers—he volunteered for service at a branch which the old-established mission of the Society at the mouth of the Kobuk desired to plant two hundred miles or so up the river, and had come out and had plunged at once into his task. So here he was, some six or seven months installed, teacher, preacher, trader in a small way, and indefatigable worker in general. Pedagogical training or knowledge of "methods" he had none at all, but the root of the matter was in him, and surely never was such an insatiable school-teacher. Morning, noon, and night he was teaching. While he was cooking he was hearing lessons; while he was washing the dishes and cleaning the house he was correcting exercises in simple addition. In the schoolroom he was full of a genial enthusiasm that seemed to impart instruction by sheer dynamic force. "Boot," the lesson book said. There was no boot in the schoolroom, all were shod in mukluks. He dives into his dwelling-house attachment and comes back holding up a boot. "Boot," he says, and "boot" they all repeat. Presently the word "tooth" was introduced in the lesson. Withdrawing a loose artificial tooth of the "pivot" variety from his upper jaw, he holds it aloft and "tooth!" he cries out, and "toot!" they all cry, and he claps it back into his head again.
We were present on Sunday at the services. There was hearty singing of "Pentecostal" hymns with catchy refrains, but we were compelled to notice again what we had noticed amongst the little bands of these people on the Koyukuk when we set them to singing, that the English was unintelligible; and since it conveyed no meaning to us could have had little for them. This is the inevitable result of ignoring the native tongue and adopting the easy expedient of teaching the singing of hymns and the recitation of formulas like the commandments in English. For a generation or two, at least, the English learned, save by children at a boarding-school, where nothing but English is spoken, is fragmentary and of doubtful import in all except the commonest matters of speech. And at such boarding-schools there is danger of the real misfortune and drawback of natives growing up to live their lives amongst natives, ignorant of the native tongue. There is no quick and easy way of stamping out a language, thank God; there is no quick and easy way of imparting instruction in a foreign language. By and by all the Alaskan natives will be more or less bilingual, but the intimate speech and the most clearly understood speech will still be the mother tongue. The singing done, there was preaching through an interpreter, and then each individual present "gave testimony," which consisted for the most part in the recitation of a text of Scripture. Then there were individual prayers by one and another of the congregation, and then some more singing. The only hymn I could find in the book that I knew was the fine old hymn, "How Firm a Foundation," and that was sung heartily to the "Adeste Fideles." They are naturally a musical race, picking up airs with great facility, and they thoroughly enjoy singing.
[Sidenote: THE "DOUBLE STANDARD"]
After the service the missionary confided some of his troubles to me. He had lately learned through his interpreter that the burden of most of the individual prayers was that the supplicator might "catch plenty skins" and be more successful in hunting than his fellows; and though he had done his best to impress upon them the superior importance of making request for spiritual benefit, he was afraid they had made no change. "Our people 'outside,'" he said, "don't understand these folk, and I'm not sure that I thoroughly understand them myself." "They're all 'converted,'" he said; "they all claim to have experienced a change of heart, but some of them I know are not living like converted people, and sometimes I have my doubts about most of them." My sympathy went out to him in his loneliness and his earnestness and his disappointments. I pointed out that the emotional response to emotional preaching was comparatively easy to get from any primitive people, but that to change their whole lives, to uproot old customs of sensual indulgence, to engraft new ideas of virtue and chastity was a long, slow process anywhere in the world. It was chiefly in the matter of sexual morality that his doubts and difficulties lay, and I was able to assure him that his experience was but the common experience of all those who had laboured for the uplifting of savage people. Indeed, how should it be otherwise? Until quite lately there was almost promiscuous use of women. A man receiving a traveller in his dwelling overnight proffered his wife as a part of his hospitality; the temporary interchange of wives was common; young men and young women gratified themselves without rebuke; children were valuable however come by, and there was no special distinction between legitimate and illegitimate offspring. As one reflects on these conditions and then looks back upon conditions amongst white people, it would seem that all the civilised races have done is to set up a double standard of sexual morality as against the single standard of the savage. It can hardly be claimed that the average white man is continent, or even much more continent than the average Esquimau, but he has forced continence upon the greater part of his women, reserving a dishonoured remnant for his own irresponsible use. And there are signs that some of those who nowadays inveigh against the white man's double standard are in reality desirous of substituting, not the single standard of the Christian ideal, but the single standard of the savage. In the mining camps the prostitute has a sort of half-way-recognised social position, and in polite parlance is referred to as a "sporting lady"—surely the most horribly incongruous phrase ever coined; she often marries a miner who will tell you that she is as good as he is, and she is received afterwards by all but a few as a "respectable married woman."
There had been some trouble of this sort at this mission. The great northern gold seekers' wave of '97 and '98 threw a numerous band of prospectors up the Kobuk as well as up the Koyukuk. The wave had receded and left on the Kobuk but one little pool behind it, a handful of men who found something better than "pay" on the Shungnak, a few miles away. And there was much criticism of the missionary's methods amongst them. Word of the arrival of strangers had brought some of them to Long Beach, and on Sunday night I had opportunity of addressing them, with a view to enlisting their sympathy, if possible. What if mistakes were made, what if some of the methods employed were open to question? Here was a man who beyond doubt was earnestly labouring in the best way he knew for the improvement of these natives. Such an effort demanded the co-operation of every right-feeling man.
[Sidenote: PERSONAL CLEANLINESS]
After all, however grand the physical scenery, the meteorological phenomena, may be, the people of any country are the most interesting thing in it, and we found these Esquimaux extraordinarily interesting. Dirty they certainly are; it is almost impossible for dwellers in the arctic regions to be clean in the winter, and the winter lasts so long that the habit of winter becomes the habit of the year. White and native alike accept a lower standard of personal cleanliness than is tolerated outside. I remember asking Bishop Rowe, before I came to Alaska: "What do you do about bathing when you travel in the winter?" To which he replied laconically: "Do without." It is even so; travellers on the Alaskan trails as well as natives belong to the "great unwashed." In the very cold weather the procuring of water in any quantity is a very difficult thing even for house dwellers. Every drop of it has to be carried from a water-hole cut far out on the ice, up a steep grade, and then quite a little distance back to the dwelling—for we do not build directly upon these eroding banks. The water-hole is continually freezing up and has to be continually hewed free of ice, and as the streams dwindle with the progress of winter, new holes must be cut farther and farther out. On the trail, where snow must usually be melted for water, it is obvious that bathing is out of the question; even the water for hands and face is sparingly doled by the cook, and two people will sometimes use the same water rather than resort to the painful though efficient expedient of washing with snow. If this be so despite aluminum pots and a full kit of camp vessels, it is much more so with the native, whose supply of pots and pans is very limited. I have seen a white man melt snow in a frying-pan, wash hands and face in it, throw it out, fry bacon and beans in it, then melt more snow and wash his cup and plate in it. There is, however, this to be said anent the disuse of the bath in this country, that in cold weather most men perspire very little indeed, and the perspiration that is exuded passes through to the outer garments and is immediately deposited upon them as frost; and there is this further to be said about dirt in general, that one blessed property of the cold is to kill all odours.
One grows tolerant of dirt in this country; there is no denying it, and it is well that it is so; otherwise one would be in a chronic state of disgust with oneself and every one else. So the dirt of the native, unless specially prominent and offensive, is accepted as a matter of course and ignored. This obstacle overcome, the Esquimaux are an attractive and most interesting race, and compare to advantage with the Indians in almost every particular. They are a very industrious people. Go into an Esquimau's hut at almost any time when they are not sleeping, and you will find every individual occupied at some task. Here is a man working in wood or bone with the ingenious tools they have evolved; here are women working in skin or fur, and some of them are admirable needlewomen; here, perhaps, is another woman chewing mukluks—and many a white man who has kept his feet dry in overflow water is grateful to the teeth that do not disdain this most effective way of securing an intimate union between sole and upper. Even the children are busy: here is a boy whittling out bow and arrow—and they do great execution amongst rabbits and ptarmigan with these weapons that entail no cost of powder and shot; here is a girl beating out threads from sinew with a couple of flat stones. Some of us, troubled with unconscientious tailors, wish that a law could be passed requiring all buttons to be sewn on with sinew—they never come off.
[Sidenote: A LIGHT-HEARTED FOLK]
They are a very light-hearted people, easily amused, bubbling over with laughter and merriment, romping and skylarking with one another at every intermission of labour. One of my white travelling companions on this journey was in the habit of using a little piece of rabbit skin to protect his nose in cold or windy weather. The care of the nose is sometimes very troublesome indeed, it freezes more readily than any other portion of the body; and a little piece of rabbit skin, moistened and applied to the nose, will stay there and keep it warm and comfortable all day. But it does not exactly enhance one's personal attractions.
We had stopped for camp and were all together for the first time in four or five hours, when Roxy noticed this rabbit-skin nose protector, upon which the breath had condensed all the afternoon until two long icicles depended from it, one on each side, reaching down below the mouth; and he fell straightway into a fit of laughter that grew uncontrollable; he rolled on the snow and roared. A little annoyed at this exhibition, I spoke sharply: "What's the matter with you, Roxy; what on earth are you cutting up like that for?" Checking himself for a moment, he pointed to my companion and said, "Alleesame walrus," and went off into another paroxysm of laughter, rolling about and roaring. At intervals all the evening he would break out again, and when we sat down to eat it overcame him once more and he rushed outside where he could give vent to his mirth with less offence.
The boy was straightforward and conscientious. We were camped over Sunday once, and Roxy had noticed many marten tracks in the neighbourhood. He had brought a few traps along with him to set out as we went and pick up on his return, and he wanted to know if I thought he might set some that day, although it was the day of rest. Careful not to interfere in any way with the religious instruction any native has received from any source, I told him that was a matter for him to decide himself; that each man was responsible for his own conduct. The boy thought awhile—and he did not set his traps. Now that young man had never received any instruction at a mission; all his teaching had been from other Esquimaux. This same question of working on Sunday was the cause of some of the difficulty between the missionary at Long Beach and the miners at Shungnak. The sluicing or "cleaning-up" season is short, and mining operators generally consider that they cannot afford to lose an hour of it. The Kobuks employed by these miners quit their work on Sunday, and that brought the operations to a standstill. There was something to be said on the miners' side, but I rejoiced that the Esquimau boys showed such steadfastness to their teaching. "If you cannot use them six days in the week, if it has to be seven or none, then do as the miners on the Yukon side do, consider the country uninhabited, and make your arrangements as though there were no Kobuks." That was my advice, and this may be read in connection with Mr. Stefanson's caustic comments on the same rigidity of observance.
We left Long Beach with a grateful feeling for the hospitality with which we had been received and with a substantial respect for the earnest missionary effort that was being put forth there. We were able to replenish our grub supply and also to exchange our two toboggans for one large sled, for we were out of the toboggan country again and they had already become a nuisance, slipping and sliding about on the trail. Our host was up early with a good breakfast for us, and speeded the parting guest, which on the trail is certainly an essential part of true hospitality, with all the honours; the natives lined up on the bank and the younger ones running along with us for a few hundred yards.
[Sidenote: THE JADE MOUNTAINS]
Soon after we left the mission we went up a series of terraces to a desolate, barren, wind-swept flat, the portage across which cut off a great bend of the river and saved us many miles of travel. To our right rose the Jade Mountains, whence the supply of this stone which used to be of importance for arrow-heads and other implements was obtained and carried far and wide. A light crust on the snow broke through at every step, though the snow was not deep enough and the ground too uneven to make snow-shoes useful; so we all had more or less sore feet that night when we regained the river and made our camp near the mouth of the Ambler, another tributary from the north.
The next day was an exceedingly long, tedious day. The Kobuk River, which in its upper reaches is a very picturesque stream, began now to be as monotonous as the lower Yukon. It had grown to considerable size, and the bends to be great curves of many miles at a stretch, one of which, a decided bend to the north of the general westerly direction of the river, we were three full hours in passing down. It was while traversing this bend that we witnessed a singular mirage that lent to the day all the enlivenment it had. Before us for ten or twelve miles stretched the broad white expanse of the river bed, shimmering in the mellow sunlight, and far beyond, remote but clear, rose the sharp white peaks of the mountains that divide the almost parallel valleys of the Kobuk and the Noatak. As we travelled, these distant peaks began to take the most fantastic shapes. They flattened into a level table-land, and then they shot up into pinnacles and spires. Then they shrank together in the middle and spread out on top till they looked like great domed mushrooms. Then the broad convex tops separated themselves entirely from their stalk-like bases and hung detached in the sky with daylight underneath. And then these mushroom tops stretched out laterally and threw up peaks of their own until there were distinct duplicate ranges, one on the earth and one in the sky. It was fascinating to watch these whimsical vagaries of nature that went on for hours. A change in one's own position, from erect to stooping, caused the most convulsive contortions, and when once I lay down on the trail that I might view the scene through the lowest stratum of the agitated air, every peak shot up suddenly far into the sky like the outspreading of one's fingers, to subside as suddenly as I rose to my feet again. The psalmist's query came naturally to the mind, "Why hop ye so ye hills?" and our Kobuk boy Roxy, whose enjoyment of fine landscapes and strange sights was always a pleasure to witness, answered the unspoken question. "God make mountains dance because spring come," he said prettily enough.
Then we crossed another portage and cut off ten miles of river by it, and when we reached the river again I wanted to stop, for it grew towards evening and here was good camping-ground. But we had lately met some travelling Kobuks and they had told Roxy of a cabin "just little way" farther on, and I yielded to the rest of the company, who would push on to it and thus avoid the necessity of making camp. That native "just little way" is worse than the Scotch "mile and a bittock"; indeed, the natives have poor notion of distance in general, and miles have as vague meaning to them as kilometres have to the average Anglo-Saxon.
[Sidenote: A BELATED CAMP]
On and on we pushed, mile after mile, and still no cabin. In the gathering dusk we would continually think we saw it; half-fallen trees or sloping branches simulating snow-covered gables. At last it grew quite dark, and when there was general agreement that we must seek the cabin no longer, but camp, there was no place to camp in. Either the bank was inaccessible or there was lack of dry timber. We went on thus, seeking rest and finding none, until seven-thirty, and then made camp by candle-light, in a poor place at that, having trudged thirty-five miles that day. A night-made camp is always an uncomfortable camp, and an uncomfortable camp means a miserable night, which to-morrow must pay for. We did not get to bed till nearly midnight, and it was nine-forty-five when we started out next morning, and we made only fifteen miles that day.
The Kobuk valley continued to open out wider and wider and the mountains right and left to recede. The Jade Mountains were now dim and distant behind us, and new ranges were coming into view. The people on this lower river are very few. It was just about one hundred miles from Long Beach when we reached the next native village, a miserable collection of pole dwellings, half underground, with perhaps a score of inhabitants. Certainly the conditions of life deteriorated as we descended this river. The country seems to afford nothing but fish; we were amongst the ichthyophagi pure and simple. Roxy, bred and born on the upper Kobuk and never so far down before, is very scornful about it. "Me no likee this country," he says; "no caribou, no ptarmigan, no rabbits, no timber, no nothin'." The weather had grown raw and cold again, with a constant disagreeable wind that took all the fun out of travelling. We passed a place where a white man was pessimistically picking away at a vein of coal in the river bluff. "Yes, we been here all winter," he said, "working on the blamed ledge. I always knowed it was goin' to pinch out, and now it's begun to pinch. My partner's gone to Candle for more grub, but I told him it weren't no use. It's pinchin' out right now. I knowed it afore we started work, but the blamed fool wouldn't listen to me. 'It'll pinch out,' I told him a dozen times; 'you mark my word it'll pinch out,' I told him, and now it's begun to pinch; and I hope he'll be satisfied." We were reminded of the many coal-mines from time to time located on the Yukon, in all or nearly all of which the vein has "pinched out." The deposits on the coast may be all the fancy of the magazine writer paints, and may hold the "incalculable wealth" that is attributed to them, but the coal on the interior rivers seems in scant measure and of inferior quality.
The same night we reached the native village at the mouth of the Squirrel River, another northern tributary—the Kobuk receives most of its waters from the north—and we spent the night and the next day, which was Sunday, in one of the half-underground huts of the place, in company with twelve other people. Here we found Roxy's brother, dubbed "Napoleon" by some white man. They had not seen one another for years, yet all the greeting was a mutual grunt. The Kobuks are not demonstrative in their affections, but it would not be right to conclude the affection lacking. I have seen an old Esquimau woman taking part in a dance the night after her husband was buried, yet it would have been unjust to have concluded that she was callous and indifferent. It is very easy to misunderstand a strange people, and very hard to understand them thoroughly.
[Sidenote: THE CANINE INTRUDER]
The roof of the tent was dome-shaped and it was lit by a seal-gut skylight. In the morning while I was conducting Divine service and attempting most lamely by the mouth of a poor interpreter to convey some instruction, a dog fight outside adjourned to the roof and presently both combatants came tumbling through the gut window into the midst of the congregation. They were unceremoniously picked up and flung out of the door, a few stitches with a needleful of sinew repaired the window, and the proceedings were resumed. These gut windows have their convenience as well as their inconvenience. When the hut gets too warm and close even for Esquimaux, the seal gut is folded back and the outer air rushes in to the great refreshment of the occupants; when the hut is cool enough the gut is replaced. A skylight is far and away the best method of illuminating any single-story structure, and this membrane is remarkably translucent, while the snow that falls or frost that forms upon such a skylight is quickly removed by beating the hand upon the drum-like surface. All glass windows must be double glazed, or else in the very cold weather they are quickly covered with a thick deposit of frost from the condensation of the moisture inside the room, and then they admit much less light than gut does. One of its unpleasant features is the way the membrane snaps back and forth with a report like a pistol whenever the door is opened and shut, but on the whole it is a very good substitute for glass indeed.
[Sidenote: SLEEPING CUSTOMS]
These river Esquimaux vary greatly in physical appearance. While many of them are somewhat undersized and all have small feet and hands, some are well-developed specimens of manhood. "Riley Jim," the chief of this tribe, would be counted a tall, stalwart man anywhere. And while many have coarse, squat features, here and there is one who is decidedly attractive in appearance. A sweet smile which is often upon the face, and small, regular white teeth, greatly help to redeem any countenance. A youth of about eighteen at the Squirrel River would properly be called handsome, one thinks—though amongst native people one grows a little afraid of forgetting standards of comparison; and his wife—for he was already a husband—was a decidedly pretty girl. A word ought to be said which applies to all the Esquimaux we met. Although many people live in one hut and there is no possible privacy, yet we saw no immodesty of any sort. They sleep entirely nude—probably our own great-grandparents did the same, at least the people of Defoe and Smollet did, for nightshirts and pyjamas are very modern things. There is much to be said from an hygienic point of view in favour of that custom as against turning in "all standing" as the Indian generally does, or sleeping in the day underwear as most white men do. But although every one of a dozen people in cabin after cabin that we stayed at on the Kobuk River above and below this place, of both sexes and all ages, would thus strip completely and go to bed, there was never any exposure of the body at all. It may be, of course, that our presence imposed a greater care in this respect, but it did not so impress us; it seemed the normal thing. Another noticeable feature of the lives of all these people was their devoutness in the matter of thanks before and after meat. Some of them would not so much as give and receive a drink of cold water without a long responsive grace.
As we went on down the river the country grew bleaker and drearier and the few scattered inhabitants were living more and more the life of the seacoast. The dwellings resembled igloos more than cabins, being completely covered with snow and approached by underground passages, with heavy flaps of untanned sealskin to close them. When we passed a fork of the river we knew that we were entering the delta of the Kobuk, and that another day would take us to the mission on Kotzebue Sound. It was a long, hard day, in which we made forty miles, but an interesting one. With a start at six, we were at the mouth by nine-thirty. The spruce which had for some time been dwarfing and dwindling gave place to willows, the willows shrank to shrubs, the shrubs changed to coarse grass thrusting yellow tassels through the snow. The river banks sank and flattened out and ceased, and we were on Hotham Inlet with the long coast-line of the peninsula that forms it stretching away north and south in the distance. Roxy's bewilderment was amusing. He stopped and gazed about him and said: "Kobuk River all pechuk!" ("Pechuk" means "played out.") "What's the matter, no more Kobuk River?" I think his mind had never really entertained the notion of the river ending, though of course he must often have heard of its mouth in the salt water. He was out of his country, his bearings all gone, a feeling of helpless insecurity taking the place of his usual confidence, and I think he said no more all that day.