A period of nearly three years elapses between the beginning of the journey that has already been described and the short sketch of a journey that follows. Many things had happened in those three years. It had been the happy duty of the writer to return to the Koyukuk late in the winter of 1906-7, empowered to build the promised mission for the hitherto neglected natives of that region. Pitching tent at a spot opposite the mouth of the Alatna, with the aid of a skilled carpenter and a couple of axemen brought from the mining district above, and the labour of the Indians, the little log church and the mission house were put up and prepared for the two ladies—a trained nurse and a teacher—who should arrive on the first steamboat. The steamboat that brought them in carried him out on its return trip, and the next year was spent in the States making known the needs of the work in Alaska and securing funds for its advancement.
[Sidenote: DOCTOR GRAFTON BURKE]
On my return I brought with me a young physician, Doctor Grafton Burke, as a medical missionary, and a half-breed Alaskan youth, Arthur, who had been at school in California, as attendant and interpreter. A thirty-two-foot gasoline launch designed for the Yukon and its tributaries was also brought and was launched at the head of Yukon navigation at Whitehouse. The voyages of the Pelican on almost all the navigable waters of interior Alaska do not belong to a narrative concerned solely with winter travel, but her maiden voyage ended in an unexpected and rather extraordinary journey over the ice which is perhaps worth describing. After the voyage down the Yukon, and up and down the Tanana, it was purposed to take the boat up the Koyukuk to the new mission at the Allakaket, where dogs and gear had been left, and put her in winter quarters there. The delays that associate themselves not unnaturally with three novices and a four-cylinder gasoline engine, had brought the date for ascending the Koyukuk a little too late for safety, though still well within the ordinary season of open water. The possibility of an early winter closing the navigation of that stream before the Pelican reached her destination had been entertained and provided against, though it seemed remote. Three dogs, needed anyway to replace superannuated members of the team, had been bargained for at Tanana and accommodations for them arranged, and a supply of dog fish stowed on the after deck of the launch. But when we went to pay the arranged price and receive the dogs, the vender's wife and children set up such a remonstrance and plaintive to-do that he went back on his bargain and we did not get the dogs. There was no time to hunt others, to linger was to invite the very mishap we sought to guard against, so we pulled out dogless, reached the mouth of the Koyukuk on the 17th of September and, having taken on board the supply of gasoline cached there, turned our bow up the river the next morning. For five days we pushed up the waters of that great, lonely river, and by that time we were some twenty-five miles above Hogatzakaket, three hundred and twenty-five miles from the mouth and one hundred and twenty-five miles from the mission, at the camp of a prospector who had recently poled up from the Yukon. We woke on board the launch the next morning to find ice formed all around us and ice running in the river. The thermometer had gone to zero in the night.
[Sidenote: THE RUNNING ICE]
A very brief attempt to make our way against the running ice showed the danger of doing so, for the thin cakes had knife-edges and cut the planking of the boat so that she began to leak. Then there came to me with some bitterness that I had earnestly desired a thin steel armour-plating at the water-line, but had allowed myself to be persuaded out of it by her builders. So again my forethought had been of no avail—though, of course, lightness of draught was the first consideration. We put back to the camp and proceeded to flatten out and cut up all the empty cans and tinware we could find and nail it along the water-line of the boat, but the prospector persuaded us to wait a day or two. He had never seen a river close with the first little run of ice. He looked for a soft spell and open water yet. It was foolish to risk the boat against the ice. So we waited; and night after night the thermometer fell a little lower and a little lower, until presently a sheet of ice stretched across the whole river in the bend where we lay. We were frozen in. The remote possibility we had feared and sought to guard against had happened. Navigation had ceased on the Koyukuk at the earliest date anybody remembered, the 23d of September. Three days more had surely taken us to the mission where they had long expected us; now we should have to make our way on foot, without dogs, on the dangerous "first ice," as it is called, taking all sorts of chances, pulling a Yukon sled, with tent and stove, grub and bedding, "by the back of the face."
But first there was the launch to pull out and make snug for the winter and safe against the spring break-up. A convenient little creek mouth with easy grade offered, which was one of the reasons I had not pushed on the few more miles we could have made. Here were eligible winter quarters; farther on we might have trouble in putting the boat in safety; here also was a kindly and capable man willing to assist us.
It was our great good fortune to find this man at this spot. A steamboat he had signalled as she entered the mouth of the Koyukuk had passed him by unheeded, and he had been left to make his way six hundred miles up to the diggings, with his winter's outfit in a poling boat. He had accomplished more than half the task, and, warned by the approach of winter, had stopped at this place a few days before we reached it, and had begun the building of a little cabin; meaning to prospect the creek, which had taken his eye as having a promising look. The cabin we helped him finish was the twenty-first cabin he had built in Alaska, he informed us.
There is something very impressive about the quiet, self-reliant, unrecorded hardihood of the class of which this man was an excellent type. We asked him why he had no partner, and he said he had had several partners, but they all snored, and he would not live with a man that snored. He had prospected and mined in many districts of Alaska during nearly twenty years. Once he had sold a claim for a few hundred dollars that had yielded many thousands to the purchaser, and that was as near wealth as he had ever come. But he had always made a living, always had enough money at the close of the summer to buy his winter's "outfit" and try his luck somewhere else.
[Sidenote: THE PROSPECTOR]
Singly, or in pairs, men of this type have wandered all over this vast country: preceding the government surveys, preceding the professional explorer, settling down for a winter on some creek that caught their fancy, building a cabin, thawing down a few holes to bed-rock, sometimes taking out a little gold, more often finding nothing, going in the summer to some old-established camp to work for wages, or finding employment as deck-hand on a steamboat.
With an axe and an auger they have dotted their rough habitations all over the country; with a pick and a shovel and a gold pan they have tested the gravels of innumerable creeks. They know the drainage slopes and the practicable mountain passes, the haunts of the moose and the time and direction of the caribou's wanderings. The boats they have built have pushed their noses to the heads of all navigable streams; the sleds they have made have furrowed the remotest snows. In the arts of the wilderness they are the equal of the native inhabitant; in endurance and enterprise far his superior. The more one learns by experience and observation what life of this sort means, and realises the demands it makes upon a man's resourcefulness, upon his physique, upon his good spirits, upon his fortitude, the more one's admiration grows for the silent, strong men who have gone out all over this land and pitted themselves successfully against its savage wildness. Often in stress for the necessaries of life, there are yet no men as a class more free-handed and generous; trained to do everything for themselves, there are none more willing to help others.
It is no small task to pull a four-ton boat out of the water with only such wilderness tackle as we could devise. We made ways of soft timbers, squaring and smoothing them; we cut down many trees for rollers; we dug and graded the beach. Then, having altogether unloaded her and built a high cache of poles and a platform for her stuff, and having chopped the ice from all around her, we rigged a Spanish windlass and wound that boat out of the water with the half-inch cable she carried, and up on the ways and well into the mouth of the little creek. Then we levelled her up and thoroughly braced her and put her canvas cover all over her, and she lay there until spring and took no harm at all.
Arthur had meantime been making a sled of birch, intending to pull it himself while the doctor and I pulled a Yukon sled borrowed from our friend the prospector. By the 6th of October all our dispositions were made for departure, and the ice seemed strong enough to warrant trusting ourselves to it; but we waited another two days, the thermometer still reaching a minimum each night somewhere around zero. When we said good-bye to our friend Martin Nelson (sometimes one wonders if anywhere else in the world can be found men as kind and helpful to strangers) and started on our journey, it soon appeared that Arthur's sled was more hindrance than help. There was no material to iron the runners save strips of tin can, and these could not be beaten so smooth that they did not drag and cut on the ice. So the load was transferred to our sled and the little sled abandoned, and we took turns at the harness. This was the order of the journey: one man went ahead with an axe to test the ice; one man put the rope trace about his shoulders; one man pushed at the handle-bars which had been affixed to the sled. It was fortunate that amidst the equipment on the launch were two pairs of ice-creepers. Without them any sort of pulling and pushing on the glare ice would have been impossible.
We soon found that the bend in which we had frozen was no sort of index of the general condition of the river. Much of it was still wide open, and every elbow between bends was piled high with rough ice from pressure jams. There was shore ice, however, even in the open bends, along which we were able to creep; and, though the ice-jams gave considerable trouble, yet we did very well the first day and camped at dark with eighteen or nineteen miles to our credit, in the presence of a great, red, smoky sunset and a glorious alpenglow on a distant snow mountain.
The next day was full of risks and difficulties. We were to learn more about the varieties and vagaries of ice on that journey than many winters' travel on older ice would teach.
[Sidenote: THE START]
At times, for a few hundred yards, the sled would glide with little effort over smooth, polished ice; then would come a long sand-bar, the side of which we had to hug close, and the ice upon it was what is called "shell-ice," through several layers of which we broke at every step. As the river fell, each night had left a thin sheet of ice underneath the preceding night's ice, and the foot crashed through the layers and the sled runners cut through them down to the gravel and sand at the bottom. Then would come another smooth stretch on which we made good time. But as we advanced up the river the current was swifter and swifter and the ice conditions grew steadily worse. Here was a steep-cut bank with just about eighteen or twenty inches of ice adhering to it and the black, rushing water beyond. We must either get our load along that shelf or unload the sled and pack everything over the face of a rocky bluff. Arthur passed over it first, testing gently with the axe, and found it none too strong. But the alternative was so toilsome that we resolved to take the chance. The doctor put the trace over his shoulders, Arthur took the handle-bars, while I climbed to a ledge of the rocks and, with a rope made of a pair of camel's-hair puttees unwound for the purpose and fastened to the sled, took all the weight I could and eased the sled over the worst place where the ice sloped to the water. If the ice had broken I might have held the sled from sinking until one of the others came to me, or I might not; the boys would probably have gone in too. It was a most risky spot and the sort of chance no one would think of taking under ordinary circumstances. As it was, the ice broke under Arthur's feet, and only by throwing his weight on the sled did he save himself a ducking. But we got the load safely across.
A good run of perhaps a mile, and then we had to go back at least half a mile, for the ice played out altogether on our side of the river as we reached the Batzakaket, and there was open water in the middle. To reach the shore ice that was continuous on the other side, we had to "double" the open water. With such varying fortune the day passed, and we camped on the level ice of a little creek tributary to the right bank, having made perhaps another nineteen miles.
When I awoke in the morning my heart sank at the tiny, creeping patter of fine snow on the silk tent. Snow was one thing I greatly dreaded, for there was not a pair of snow-shoes amongst us! A little snow would not do much harm, but if once snow began to fall we might have a foot or two before it ceased, and then we should be in bad case. It stopped before noon, but the half-inch that fell made the sled drag much heavier. The actual force to be exerted was not the most laborious feature of pulling that sled; it was the jerk, jerk, jerk on the shoulders. A dog's four legs give him much smoother traction than a man's two legs give, just as a four-cylinder engine will turn a propeller with much less vibration than a two-cylinder engine. Every step forward gave an impulse that spent itself before the next impulse was given, and the result was that the shoulders grew sore.
We came that morning to the longest and roughest ice-jam we had so far encountered. It was as though a thousand bulls had been turned loose in a mammoth plate-glass warehouse. Jagged slabs of ice upended everywhere in the most riotous confusion, and it was impossible to pick any way amongst them, so a man had to go ahead and hew a path. It was while thus engaged that the doctor fell and injured his knee so severely on a sharp ice point that he hobbled in pain the rest of the trip. This was a very serious matter to us, for, though he insisted on still taking his trick at the traces, his effectiveness as a motive power was much diminished; and we had no sooner thus hewed and smashed our way through that jam than we had to hew and smash it across to the other side again in our search for passage.
[Sidenote: "BY THE BACK OF THE FACE"]
Then we came to a place where, in order to cut off a long sweeping curve of the river with open water and bad shore ice, we went through a dry slough and had to drag those iron runners over gravel and stones, where sometimes it was all the three of us could do to move the sled a few feet at a time. Yet all along the banks were willows, and if we had only known then what we know now we would have cut down and split some saplings and bound them over the iron, and so have saved three fourths of that labour.
[Sidenote: BEAR MEAT AND BEANS]
So the day's run was short, though the most exhausting yet, and we were all thoroughly tired out when we pitched the tent. I have note of a great supper of bear meat and beans, the meat the spoil of our friend the prospector's gun. It is one of the compensations of human nature that the satisfaction of appetite increases in pleasure in proportion to the bodily labour that is done. With food abundant and at choice, I do not like bear meat and will not eat beans. Yet my diary bears special note of the delicious meal they furnished on this occasion. Put any philosopher in the traces, or set him ahead of the dog team on show-shoes, breaking trail all day, and towards evening it is odds that his mind is not occupied with deep speculations about the infinite and the absolute, but rather with the question of what he will have for supper. Particularly should the grub be a little short, should fresh meat give out, or, above all, should sugar be "shy," it is astonishing how one's mind runs on eating and what elaborate imaginary repasts one partakes of. Yet of all food that a man ever eats there is none that is so relished and gives such clear gustatory pleasure as the plain, rough fare of the camp—provided it be well cooked. Greatly as we were in need of sleep, we got little, for the doctor's knee pained him all night and poor Arthur developed a raging toothache that did not yield until carbolic acid had been thrice applied.
Soon after we started the next day, the river narrowed and swept round a series of mountain bluffs and we began to have the gloomiest expectations of trouble. It seemed certain that ice would fail us for passage, and we would have to pack our sled and its load by slow relays over the mountain. But to our delight we passed between the bluffs on good, firm, smooth ice, and it was not until we emerged on the flat beyond that our difficulty began. So it is again and again on the trail. Almost always it is the unexpected that happens; almost always it is something quite different from what our apprehensions have dwelt upon that arises to hinder and distress us. A tongue of level land that struck far out into the water, a cut mud bank with a current so swift that no ice at all had formed along it, interposed an obstacle that it took hours to circumvent. We had to leave the sled and cut a trail through the brush for half a mile along this peninsula in order to reach a stretch of the river where the ice was resumed, and the little snow that had fallen being quite insufficient to give the sled good passage, we had an exceedingly arduous job in getting it across.
A mile or two of good going brought us in view of the smoke of a human habitation. What a blessed sight often and often this waving column of blue smoke in the distance is! Sometimes it means life itself to the Alaskan musher, and it always means warmth, shelter, food, companionship, assistance; all that one human being can bring to another. "The bright and the balmy effulgence of morn" never "breaks on the traveller faint and astray" with half the rejoicing that comes with the first sight of mere smoke. "I believe I see smoke," cried Arthur, with the quick vision of the native. "Where? Where?" we eagerly inquired, and the doctor left the handle-bars and limped forward to the boy ahead with the axe. "Away yonder on that bank," pointed Arthur. "I see it! I see it!" the doctor shouted; "we're coming to a house, we're coming to people!" The trip was a severe apprenticeship to Alaskan life for a man straight from the New York hospitals, although before the accident to his knee I had declared that if only they could be trained to live on dry fish I thought a team of young doctors would haul a sled very well. He was delighted at coming upon the first inhabited house we had seen since we helped Nelson to build his little cabin—and that was only the second inhabited house in three hundred miles.
[Sidenote: BREAKING THROUGH]
But, perhaps because we grew less cautious in our excitement, almost immediately after we had spied the smoke of the cabin we got into one of the worst messes of the whole trip. Arthur had pushed ahead and we had followed with a spurt, and almost at the same time all three of us became aware that we were on dangerous ice. Arthur cried, "The ice is breaking; go back!" just as we began to feel it swaying under our feet. I shouted to the doctor, "Go on to the bank quick!" and pushed with all my might, and we managed to make a few yards more towards shallow water, over ice that bent and cracked at every step, before it gave way and let down the sled and the men into two feet of water. Arthur had run safely over the breaking ice and had gained the bank, and as I write, in my mind's eye I can see the doctor, who had been duly instructed in the elementary lessons of the trail, standing in the water and calling to Arthur: "Make a fire quick; make a fire. I'm all wet!"
But it was not necessary to make a fire, for the thermometer was no lower than 10 deg. or 15 deg. above zero, and the chief trouble was not the wetting of our legs but the wetting of the contents of the sled. Along the bank was stronger ice, and we managed, though not without much difficulty, to get the sled upon it and to make our way to the Indian cabin.
As soon as old "Atler" (I have never been quite sure of what white man's name that is a corruption) knew who we were, his hospitality, which had been ready enough at first sight, became most cordial and expansive. While we pulled off our wet clothing his wife hung it up to dry and had the kettle on and some tea making, and he and Arthur got out our wet bedding and festooned it about the cabin. Most fortunately the things that would have suffered most from water did not get wet. So there we lay all the afternoon, having made no more than six miles, and there we lay all the next day, which was Sunday.
There was a sort of awful interest that centred upon one member of this family, a boy of seven or eight years. The previous spring he had killed his uncle by the accidental discharge of a .22 rifle, shooting him through the heart. The gun had been brought in loaded and cocked and had been set in a corner of the cabin, and the child, playing with it, had pulled the trigger. The carelessness of Indians with firearms is the frequent cause of terrible accidents like this. The child was still too young to realise what he had done, but one fancies that later it will throw a gloom on his life.
To my great relief and satisfaction I was able to arrange here for a young Indian man to accompany us with his one dog. He was a native of those parts and knew every bend and turn of the river. We were, indeed, in great need of help. The doctor's knee grew worse rather than better, and Arthur was suffering the return of an old rheumatism in his leg. I was the only sound member of the party, and my shoulders were galled by the rope and my feet tender and sore from continual wearing of the crampons. We were now not quite half-way—some sixty miles lay behind us and sixty-five before—and we had been travelling four days.
[Sidenote: "ONE-EYED WILLIAM"]
Divine service being done on Sunday morning, the whole of it well interpreted by Arthur to the great satisfaction of the Indians, he and "One-Eyed William," our recruit, started out to survey to-morrow's route. In this reconnaissance William broke through some slush ice at the greatest depth of the river in seeking a safe place to cross, and, had Arthur not been with him, would almost certainly have drowned, for the current was very swift and the man, like most Indians, unable to swim a stroke;—though, indeed, swimming is of little avail for escape out of such predicament and is a poor dependence in these icy waters winter or summer. More beans boiled and a batch of biscuits baked against our departure, and evening prayer said and interpreted, we were ready for bed again.
Our visit was a great delight to old Atler. An inflamed eye was much relieved by the doctor's ministrations, and the natural piety which he shares with most Indians was gratified at the opportunity of worship and instruction. A good old man, according to his lights, I take Atler to be, well known for benevolence of disposition and particularly priding himself on being a friend of the white man. He told us of one unworthy representative of that race he had helped a year ago. The man had come out of the Hogatzitna (Hog River) country, entirely out of food, himself and a couple of dogs nigh to starvation, and Atler had taken care of him for several days while he recuperated and had given him grub and dog fish enough to get him to Bettles, one hundred and thirty miles away, where he could purchase supplies. The old Indian had robbed his own family's little winter stock of "white-man's grub" that this stranger might be provided, and had never heard a word from him since, though he had promised to make return when he reached Bettles.
Unfortunately Alaska's white population is sprinkled with men like this, men without heart and without conscience, and it is precisely such rascals who are loudest in their contemptuous talk of the Indians. It is such men who chop down the woodwork of cabins rather than be troubled to take the axe into the forest a few rods away, who depart in the morning without making kindling and shavings, careless how other travellers may fare so themselves be warm without labour; who make "easy money" in the summer-time by dropping down the Yukon with a boat-load of "rot-gut" whisky, leaving drunkenness and riot at every village they pass; who beget children of the native women and regard them no more than a dog does his pups, indifferent that their own flesh and blood go cold and hungry. They are the curse and disgrace of Alaska, and they often go long time insolent and unwhipped because our poor lame law is not nimble enough to overtake them; "to whom is reserved the blackness of darkness for ever," one's indignation is sometimes disposed to thunder savagely with Saint Jude; and indeed there needs a future punishment to redress the balance in this country.
At break of day our reinforced company was off, Arthur and "One-Eyed William" going ahead to sound the ice and pick the way, the dog "Fido" (such a name for a Siwash dog!) and myself in the traces, the doctor at the handle-bars. The rest had benefited the doctor's knee, but walking was still painful and he needed the support of the handle-bars all day. What a great difference that one strong, willing little dog made! His steady pulling kept the sled in motion and relieved one's shoulders of the galling jerk of the rope at every step. The going was "not too bad," as they say here, all day, though it carried one rather severe disappointment. William had told us of a portage he thought we could take that would cut off eight or nine miles of the river; but when we reached it the snow upon it proved insufficient to afford a passage, for it was a rough niggerhead flat, and we had to swing around the outer edges of the great curves the river makes, where alone was ice, with trouble and danger at every crossing.
The decision as to whether we should halt or go forward, as to whether ice was safe or unsafe, as to whether we should cross the river or stay where we were—every decision that concerned the secure advance of the party—I put wholly upon William, and would not permit myself or any other to question his judgment or to argue it with him. There was no sense in half-measures; this young man knew the river as none of us did, knew ice as none of us did, and we must put ourselves entirely in his hands. The debate that had become usual at every doubtful course arose at the portage just referred to, but it was at once suppressed by the announcement that hereafter no one could have the floor but William, and that when he had spoken the matter was settled. Day by day I think we all came to a keener realisation of how very dangerous a journey we were making; it lay heavily on my mind that I had brought these two young men—whether by mishap or mismanagement—into real peril of their lives. Again and again I blamed myself for the delays that had deferred our start up the Koyukuk, again and again I wished that we had waited longer before leaving the Pelican's winter quarters. I had even contemplated a week's stay at Atler's, to give the river a chance to get into better shape, but unless there came a very much sharper spell than we had had so far a week would not make much difference, and our grub began to run short and Atler was none too well supplied. So it seemed best to push on.
The next day was full of toil and difficulty. There was no good ice to make fine time over that day. Starting in the grey dawn, for mile after mile we had to haul the sled over crumbly shell-ice that broke through to gravel; and when the shell-ice was done we came to a new bend where a rapid current washed a steep mud bank. There was just a little shelf of ice, but the brush overhung it so that the passage of the sled was not possible. William and Arthur started with the axes to clear away the brush, but it seemed to me foolish to do that unless the ledge held out and led somewhere, for the turn of the bank threw it out of sight. So they went forward cautiously along that ledge to the end—and an end they found, sure enough, so that had we followed the axemen with the sled we should have had to creep all the way back again. There was nothing for it but to cut another land trail on a bench that we could reach where the sled was stopped but that could not be reached at all farther on. A long and slow and laborious job it was, that took most of the morning, to cut that trail and then get the load over it to ice again.
By noon we were opposite the Red Mountain, one of the well-known Koyukuk landmarks, and on the site of an old Indian fishing camp. William and Arthur had made a great fire when we came up, and we heated some beans and made some tea and ate lunch. A mile farther on was the cabin of a white man, and we paid him a brief visit and got a little tea from him, for ours was nearly gone. It did me good to hear him sing the praises of Deaconess Carter, the trained nurse at the mission. She had taken him in, crippled with rheumatism, and had cured him. Already the new mission was proving a boon to whites as well as natives. We made no more than four or five miles farther when, coming to spruce with no more in sight for a long distance, we pitched the tent, all very tired.
That night the thermometer went to 5 deg. below zero, the coldest weather of the season so far. As a consequence the next day we had a new and very disagreeable trouble. The cold weather, by increasing the amount of running ice in the still open stretches, had brought about a jam that had raised the level of the water and caused an overflow of the ice—a very common phenomenon of a closing river. We picked our way wet-foot much of the day, and towards evening came to a complete impasse in the middle of the river, with open water in front and on one hand, and new thin ice on the other. So we had to turn round and go back again a long way, the mid-river being the only traversable place, until, when it seemed that we should have to go round another bend to reach a crossing, Arthur proposed that he and William, who wore mukluks, should carry the doctor and me, who wore moccasins across the overflow, and then rush the sled across; and this we did, wetting its contents somewhat, however. We camped immediately, for we had landed on impassable gravel.
[Sidenote: THE RED MOUNTAIN]
That night the thermometer went to 20 deg. below zero, and we took good hope that the cold, which began to approach the real cold of winter, would put an end to overflow; but, on the contrary, it only aggravated the trouble. For the first mile or two there was nothing for it but to go through it, and at 20 deg. below it is a miserable business to be wading in moccasins even for an hour. We had rearranged our load so that it stood up somewhat higher, but we could not avoid wetting the things on the bottom of the sled, and the ice formed about it very inconveniently. Moreover, the little dog, who had a great dislike to wetting his feet, began to give us a good deal of trouble, and at one time nothing but the admirable presence of mind and prompt action of William saved us from losing our whole load. We had reached a strip of new, dry ice formed the night before, with black, rushing water on the left, towards which the slippery surface sloped. Presently as we advanced we began to encounter a little overflow water, coming from the bank on the right, seeping up between the ice and the bank; and that dog, to avoid wetting his feet in the overflow, deliberately turned towards the open water and set the sled sliding in the same direction. Without the crampons, which we had not used for the past few days, it was impossible to hold the sled against the dog's traction, and in another moment we should have lost everything, for the dog paid no heed to our voices, when William with a blow of his axe cut the rope by which the dog pulled, and, grasping the sled and throwing himself full length on the ice, managed to stop it on the very brink of the water. It was a close shave, but once more we were safe; and the doctor, in the exuberance of his gratitude, said that night: "If William wants a glass eye I'll send to New York to get him one." But when William learned that the glass eye was a mere matter of looks and would in no wise improve his vision, he lost interest in it. Looks do not count for much amongst the Koyukuk Indians.
That night was a long way off yet, however; we had other risks to run, other labours. Here were two islands in the river, and the current, running like a mill-race and burdened with ice cakes, swept around the shore of one of them leaving the passage between them quite dry. There was no shore ice at all where the channel was, and it was so ugly-looking a reach that had there been any there I am sure we should not have ventured it. There was nothing for it but to drag the sled half a mile over the gravel, and we did it, the most heart-breaking labour of the whole trip. It took us exactly an hour to make that half mile. William did not know the trick of the split willows either, so we all four of us sweated for our ignorance. Shortly after, our guide pointed out the spot where poor Ericson's frozen body was found, two years and eight months before.
[Sidenote: A NARROW ESCAPE]
[Sidenote: RUBBER ICE]
Near the Kornuchaket (or the mouth of Old Man Creek), where the Koyukuk receives a considerable tributary, we approached the most dangerous travelling we had had yet. The river here is swift and deep, and there are several islands set in it. Most of its surface was frozen, but the ice was very thin. William stopped the procession before we reached the bad stretch and went hastily over a part of it. Under his single weight we could see the ice-sheet undulating. It had been our rule that ice was not safe unless it took three blows of the axe to bring water, but this ice gave water at a blow. When William returned he made quite an harangue, which Arthur interpreted. He thought we could make it past the mouth of the creek, and if we could we should find good going to Moses' Village. But we must go just as fast as we could travel; we must not let the sled stop an instant. The ice would bend and crack; but he thought if we went quickly we could get across. So for nearly a quarter of a mile we rushed that sled over "rubber" ice that swayed and cracked and yielded under our feet and under the sled, until we reached the bank of one of the islands, and then again we launched her and ran with her to the shore. Once one of my feet broke through, and immediately the water welled up all around—with the steamboat channel underneath—but without pause we increased our speed and made the strong shore ice safely at last. No man will ever doubt the plasticity, the "viscosity" of ice, as it used to be styled in the old glacier controversies, who has passed over the "rubber" ice that forms under certain circumstances and at certain seasons on these rivers.
We would never, I am sure, have attempted that ice had not William been with us. We would have struck a blow with the axe and declared it unsafe. Of course, it was unsafe; the whole journey was unsafe, but I am convinced that this thin, continuous sheet of ice, cushioned actually upon the surface of the water out of which it was growing, was really safer than much of the thicker but brittle, unsupported ice we had unhesitatingly come over. Chemists tell us that certain substances in the act of formation, which they call nascent substances, are extraordinarily active and potent, and it may be that ice in the same state has a special tenacity of texture which belongs to that state alone. I wish that I could have measured the thickness of that ice. Where my foot went through I know it was very thin, but its thickness I will not venture to guess. There was the distinct feeling that the water was bearing the ice up and when it was punctured the water welled up with pressure behind it.
Beyond the Kornuchaket much more snow had fallen, and a few miles brought us to Moses' Village, called grandiosely "Arctic City," since a trader had established a store and a road-house there. At this spot a new overland mail trail from Tanana strikes the Koyukuk, and, although ten or twelve miles remained, we felt that our journey was done. My sled dogs were there, and, as I had not seen them for more than a year, that was a joyful reunion. Nanook's bark of welcome, which no one but I ever got with quite the same inflection, was as grateful to me as all the licking and slobbering of the others, for Nanook is a very independent beast, reserved in his demonstrations and not wearing his heart on his sleeve, so to speak. They were all glad to see me—Old Lingo and Nig, and even "Jimmy the Fake." Billy was dead. For fifteen or sixteen months they had been boarded here, and, since fish had been very scarce the preceding summer, their food had been chiefly bacon and rice and tallow, and there was a bill of close to four hundred dollars against us! Dogs are very expensive things in this expensive country. When used the winter through on the trail, and boarded the summer through at a fish camp, we estimate that it costs one hundred dollars per head per annum to feed a dog; so that the maintenance of a team of five dogs, which is the minimum practicable team, will cost five hundred dollars per annum for food alone.
[Sidenote: SATURATED SNOW]
When we had eaten a good supper and were reclining on spring cots in the bunk house, there was not one of us but confidently expected to be at the mission in the next forenoon. For a week past the natives had been going to and fro in three or four hours. The river was completely closed above here, and there was much more snow than we found below. So we hitched our own dogs to our own sled the next morning, when the doctor had visited a sick person or two, and started out on the last stretch of the journey. All went well until we had turned the long bend at the head of which the old, abandoned post of Bergman is situated, just on the Arctic Circle, but a mile or two beyond we were wallowing in saturated snow that stretched all across the river right up to the banks on either side. An overflow was in progress, the water running along the surface of the ice and soaking up the snow so that there was six inches of slush all over it. We struggled along awhile, though from the first it seemed hopeless, and then we gave it up and went back to the road-house. There would be no passing that stretch of river with the sled until the cold had dealt with the overflow. It is almost always the unexpected that happens. The next morning I put on a pair of snow-shoes—Doctor Burke's knee forbade him their use—and taking William with me, mushed up through the slush and the snow to the mission, leaving the others to come on with the team so soon as they found it practicable.
A mile before we reached the mission was the new village built by the Esquimaux—"Kobuk town" they call it—and right in front of the village the Malamute Riffle, a noted difficulty of navigation, was still running wide open, though all the rest of the river was long closed. Near the riffle the Kobuks had a fish-trap, and some who were busy getting out fish saw and recognised me, and the whole population came swarming out for greetings. It was good to see these kindly, simple people again, to shake their hands and hear their "I glad I see you," which is the general native greeting where there is any English at all. Every one must shake hands; even the babies on their mothers' backs stretch out their little fingers eagerly, and if they be too small for that, the mother will take the little hand and hold it out. At the bend we take a portage and a quarter of a mile brings us to the Allakaket, to the familiar modest buildings of the mission, with its new Koyukuk village gradually clustering round it. The whole scene was growing into almost the exact realisation of my dream when first I camped on this spot two years and nine months before. There was a distinct thrill of pleasure at the sight of the church. Built entirely of logs with the bark on, there was nothing visible anywhere about it but spruce bark, save for the gleam of the gilded cross that surmounted the little belfry. The roof, its regular construction finished, was covered with small spruce poles with the bark on, nailed together at the apex, and where it projected well beyond the gables its under-side was covered with bark, as well as the cornice all round that finished it off. Even the window-frames and the door-panels were covered with bark. It was of the same tone because of the selfsame substance as the forest still growing around it, and it gave at the first glance the satisfied impression of fitness. It gave the feeling that it belonged where it was placed. It is ill praising one's own work, but I had been keen to see how it would strike me, fresh from the outside, after a year's absence, and I was very glad indeed that it pleased me again.
[Sidenote: A STARVING WHITE MAN]
I had no more than entered upon the warm welcome that waited at Saint John's-in-the-Wilderness, and was still wondering at the homelike cosiness which the mission house had assumed under the deft hands of the two ladies who occupied it, when there came an Indian with word of a white man he had found starving in the wilderness fifteen miles away. Another native with a dog team and a supply of immediate food was hastily despatched to bring the man in, and that night the poor emaciated fellow, looking like a man of sixty-five or seventy though he was really no more than forty, crawled out of the sled and tottered into the house. He had started out from Tanana two months before with two pack-horses to make his way across to the Koyukuk diggings, had lost his way and wandered aimlessly in that vast wilderness; one horse had been drowned, the other he had killed for meat. He had made a raft to come down the Kornutna (Old Man Creek) to the Koyukuk, knowing that there was a trading-post near its mouth, and had been frozen in and forced to abandon it. Since that time he had been living on a few spoonfuls of meal a day, with frozen berries, and once or twice a ptarmigan, and when Ned found him was at the last extremity and had given up, intending to die where he was.
That man's hunger was tremendous, but Miss Carter, having knowledge and experience of such cases, was apprehensive that if any large quantity of food were taken at a time there would be serious danger to him. So for a day or two he ate frequently but sparingly. A little later, as he grew stronger, to such extremes did his hunger pinch him that he would watch till there was no one looking and would go into the kitchen and steal food that was preparing, even taking it out of the frying-pan on the stove. He would be hungry immediately after having a full meal. In ten days he was sufficiently recovered to resume his journey to the diggings, and when I saw him at Coldfoot two months later I did not recognise him, so greatly had he changed from the poor shrunken creature that crept into the mission. We all think we have been hungry time and again; if ever we have gone a few days on short rations we are quite sure of it; this man had sounded the height and depth and stretched the length and breadth of it, and none of the rest of us really know what hunger means. I tried to get him to talk about it, but he said he wanted to forget it. He said he was ashamed to think of some of the things he had done and of some of the terrible thoughts that had come to him, and I pressed him no more. I have always felt that, even in its last hideousness of cannibalism, only God Himself can judge starvation.
[Sidenote: TWO INTERPRETERS]
Here began my first experience of the difficulties of conducting a mission at the same place for two different races of natives speaking totally different languages. Although the Indian language spoken here is the same as at Tanana, and much of the liturgy, etc., had been put into that tongue by Mr. Prevost and was therefore available, yet it was found impracticable to have two sets of services whenever the church was used, for both races would always attend anyway. Since the mastery of the two tongues was out of the question, and there were no translations at all into the Esquimau, it became a question of teaching the Esquimaux to take part in an Indian service or dropping both vernaculars altogether and conducting the service in English. After much doubt and experiment the latter was resolved upon, and the whole service of prayer and praise is in English. When the lessons are read and the address delivered it is necessary to use two interpreters; the minister delivers his sentence in English, then the Koyukuk interpreter puts it in Indian, and when he is done the Esquimau interpreter puts it into that tongue.
It is a very tedious business, this double interpretation and a twenty-minute sermon takes fully an hour to deliver, but there is no help for it. The singing is hearty and enthusiastic though the repertory is wisely very limited; and here, north of the Arctic Circle, is a vested choir of eight or ten Kobuk and Koyukuk boys who lead the singing and lead it very well.
Already the influence of the mission and the school was very marked. Given the native off by himself like this, in the hands of those in whom he has learned to place entire confidence, remote from debasing agencies, and his improvement is evident and his survival assured.
In two days the doctor and Arthur and the team came up, and so was brought to a happy conclusion a perilous journey over the first ice. One is often glad to have had experiences that one would by no means repeat, and this is a case in point. We had learned a good deal about ice; we had taken liberties with ice that none of us had ever thought before could be taken with impunity; we had learned to trust ice and at the same time to distrust it and in some measure to discriminate about it. The "last ice" is bad, but the "first ice" is much worse, and all three of us were agreed that we wanted no more travelling over it and no more pulling of a sled "by the back of the face."
Then followed a very happy, busy time of several weeks while the river ice was consolidating and the land trails establishing; happy with its manifold evidences of the rapid advance the natives were making under Miss Carter's able and beneficent sway, busy with the instruction of people eager to learn. It was busy and happy for Doctor Burke also; busy with the many ailments he relieved, happy with the beginnings of an attachment which two years later culminated in his marriage to Miss Carter's colleague at this mission.
THE KOYUKUK TO THE YUKON AND TO TANANA—CHRISTMAS HOLIDAYS AT SAINT JOHN'S-IN-THE-WILDERNESS
LEAVING Fort Yukon on the 26th of November, 1909, and going again over almost the same route we followed during the first journey described in this volume, we reached the new mission at the Allakaket on the Koyukuk River on the 14th of December, after a period of almost continual cold. The climate of the interior of Alaska varies as much as any climate. The previous year, continuing the journey described in "The First Ice," I had passed over this same route in the opposite direction, between the same dates, with the thermometer well above zero the whole time. This trip the mean of the minimum reading at night, the noon reading, and the reading at start and finish of each day's journey was -38 1/4 deg.. Many days in that three weeks we travelled all day at 45 deg. and 50 deg. below zero, and we spent one night in camp at 49 deg. below.
It was the beginning of a severe winter, with much snow north of the Yukon and long periods of great cold.
[Sidenote: BIRTH, BURIAL, AND DANCING]
The two weeks or so spent at the mission of Saint John's-in-the-Wilderness was enjoyed as only a rest is enjoyed after making such a journey; as only Christmas is enjoyed at such a native mission. It is the time of the whole year for the people; they come in from near and far intent upon the festival in both of its aspects, religious and social, and they enter so heartily into all that is provided for them that one does not know which to admire most, their simple, earnest piety or the whole-hearted enthusiasm of their sports and pastimes. Right out of church they go to the frozen river, old men and maidens, young men and matrons, mothers with babies on their backs and their skirts tucked up, and they quickly line up and are kicking the football stuffed with moose hair and covered with moose hide in the native game that their forefathers played ages before "Rugby" was invented.[B] When the church-bell rings, back they all troop again, to take their places and listen patiently and reverently to the long, double-interpreted service, the babies still on their mothers' backs, sometimes asleep, sometimes waking up and crying, comforted by slinging them round and applying their lips to the fountain of nourishment and solace.
On the nights when there is no church service there is feasting and dancing. The native dance is a very simple affair, entirely without any objectionable feature, and one cannot see any reason in the world for attempting to suppress it. A man and a woman get out in the middle of the floor and dance opposite one another without touching at all. The moccasined toes of an expert man in this dance move with surprising rapidity, the woman, with eyes downcast, the picture of demureness, sways slightly from side to side and moves on her toes in rhythm to the man's movement. Presently another man jumps up and the first man yields his place; then another woman comes forward and the first woman yields her place, and so the dance goes on.
For a variety, of late years there is an occasional "white-man's dance," of the quadrille or the waltz kind, but the natives much prefer their own dancing. Here at the Allakaket the presence of the Esquimaux adds picturesqueness and strangeness, and the Esquimau dance, which consists of a series of jerky attitudinisings, with every muscle tense, to a curious monotonous chant and the beating of a drum, is a never-failing source of amusement to the Indians.
An old man's funeral in the morning away up on the high bluff overlooking the mission, a birth in the evening, a dance the same night—so goes the drama of life in this little, isolated native world. So soon as these people make up their minds that one of their number is sick unto death they make the coffin, for when trees must be felled and lumber whipsawed from them, it is well to be forehanded.
[Sidenote: "BEFORE" AND "AFTER"]
There is one old woman living up there yet whose coffin had been made three times. When it becomes evident that the unfavourable prognosis was mistaken the coffin is torn apart and made into shelves or some other article of household utility. It seems very cold-blooded, but it is easy to misjudge these people. The emotion of grief is real with them, I believe, but transient. They are matter-of-fact and entirely devoid of pretence, and when once a funeral has taken place and the service is all over they dismiss the gloomy event from their minds as soon as possible. The night of old Mesuk's death, however, there were fires lighted on all the trails and before most of the Esquimau cabins, the object of which was probably to frighten the spirit away from the dwellings of the living. We shall get the better of these superstitions by and by, but superstitions die hard, not only amongst Esquimaux. Moreover, practices like this linger as traditional practices long after their superstitious content is dissipated, and men of feeling do not wantonly lay hands on ancient traditional custom. I think that if I were an Esquimau and knew that from immemorial antiquity fires had been lighted on the trails and outside the doors upon the death of my ancestors, I should be tempted to kindle them myself upon an occasion, however firmly I held the Communion of Saints and the Safe Repose of the Blessed. And I am quite sure that if I were a Thlinket I should set up a totem-pole despite all the missionaries in the world. When one comes to think about it dispassionately, there is really nothing in Christianity averse to the kindling of corpse fires or the blazoning of native heraldry. When all the little superstitions and peculiar picturesque customs are abolished out of the world it will be a much less interesting world than it is to-day. If there were any evidence or reason to believe that morality and religion will be furthered by the brow-beating or cajoling of the little peoples into a close similitude of the white race in dress and manners and customs, all other considerations would, of course, be swallowed up in a glad welcome of such advance. But almost the exact opposite is true. The young Indian or Esquimau, who by much mixing with white men has been "wised up," as the expressive phrase goes here, is commonly one of the least useful, the least attractive, the least moral of his kind. We have many such on the Yukon—young men who work on the steamboats in the summer and do odd jobs and hang around the stores in winter, and will not condescend to fish any more or to hunt or trap unless driven by the pinch of hunger. Show me an Indian who affects the white man in garb, in speech, in general habits, and external characteristics, and it will be easy to show an Indian whose death would be little loss to his community or his race; while the native woman who aspires to dress herself like a white woman has very commonly the purpose of attracting the attention of the white men. I think the young Indian man I recall as the best dressed, most debonair, and most completely "civilised," was living in idleness upon the bounty of the white trader whom every one knew to be his wife's paramour, and was impudently careless of the general knowledge.
Of all the photographs that illustrate missionary publications—and I have contributed enough villainous half-tones to warrant me in a criticism—the ones I dislike most are of the "Before and After" type. Here is a group of savages clad in skins, or furs, or feathers, or palm fibre, or some patient, skilful weave of native wool or grass; in each case clad congruously with their environment and out of the products it affords. Set against it is the same or a similar group clad out of the slop-shop, clad in hickory shirts and blue-jean trousers, clad so that, if faces could be changed as easily as clothing, they would pass for any commonplace group of whites anywhere. And, as if such change were in itself the symbol and guarantee of a change from all that is brutal and idolatrous to all that is gentle and Christian, there follows the triumphant "Before and After" inscription. All the fitness has gone, all the individuality, all the clever adaptation of indigenous material, all the artistic and human interest; and a self-conscious smirk of superiority radiates over made-by-the-million factory garments instead. Whenever I see such contrasting photographs there comes over me a shamed, perverse recollection of a pair of engravings by Hogarth, usually suppressed, which a London bookseller once pulled out of a portfolio in the back room of his shop and showed me. They bore the same title.
I profess myself a friend of the native tongue because it is the native tongue—the easy, familiar, natural vehicle of expression; of the native dress because it is almost always comfortable and comely; of the native customs, whenever they are not unhealthy or demoralising, because they are the distinctive heritage of a people; and again, of tongue, dress, and customs alike, if you will, simply because they are dissimilar.
[Sidenote: A BARREN UNIFORMITY]
For it has always seemed a trumpery notion that uniformity in these things has any connection with the upbuilding of a people, has any ethical relation at all, and I have always wondered that so trumpery a notion should have so wide an influence. Moreover, is it not a little curious that, whereas the trend of biological evolution on its upward course, as Spencer assures us, is towards differentiation and dissimilarity, the trend of sociological evolution should be so marked towards this bald and barren uniformity? But these be deep matters.
I have never been able to join in the reproach of superciliousness so often applied to the lines of that noblest of missionary hymns in which Bishop Heber asks, "Can we, whose souls are lighted with wisdom from on high, Can we, to men benighted, the lamp of life deny?" If that be superciliousness, it is an essential superciliousness of Christianity itself, for the question lies at the very core of our religion and will not cease to be asked so long as the world contains those who believe with all their hearts, and those who do not believe because they have not heard. I never listen to that hymn without emotion, it can still "shake me like a cry Of trumpets going by." But the question that seems to stir the souls of some missionaries and most school-teachers, "Can we deny to these unfortunate heathen our millinery, our 'Old Oaken Bucket,' our Mr. and our Mrs.," leaves me quite cold.
Here was the weekly afternoon routine at this mission, only the mornings being devoted to books and classes: On Monday the children brought their soiled clothes of the week to the schoolroom and washed them; on Tuesday they were dried and ironed; on Wednesday they were mended; on Thursday a juvenile "society" did some sort of work for another mission; on Friday every child in the village had a hot bath. Now, let a routine of that sort be kept up, week after week, month after month, year after year, during the whole school life of a child, and it is bound to leave its mark; and there is no other way in which the same mark may be made.
At the Allakaket is fine example of what, I think, is the best rule in the world for the inferior races—the absolute rule of a devoted, intelligent, capable gentlewoman. We are but now writing the indentures of their apprenticeship to self-government in the elective village councils we have set up; it is good for them to serve it under this loving and unquestioned despotism.
[Sidenote: MATTERS METEOROLOGICAL]
During all that Christmas season the temperature was subject to such violent fluctuations that a chart of them would look like the picture showing the comparative heights of mountains, that used to be presented under "The World in Hemispheres" in the school geographies. A minimum of 52 deg. below zero and a maximum of 10 deg. below, was followed by a minimum of 53 deg. below and a maximum of 18 deg. below, and that by a minimum of 56 deg. below and a maximum of 14 deg. below, while on Christmas Day itself we registered a minimum of 58 deg. below zero and a maximum of 1 deg. above, a range of 59 deg. in less than twelve hours. At a time of the year when the sun has scarcely any effect upon the temperature such tremendous changes point to corresponding atmospheric disturbances, and each rise was caused by the irruption of clouds upon a clear sky and was followed by a fall of snow.
It is a beautifully simple process. Driven into these regions by some compelling current of the upper atmosphere comes a mass of warm air laden with moisture—a cloud. As it comes in contact with the cold air of the region it parts with its heat, and the temperature of the lower air rises. Having parted with its heat, it can no longer contain its moisture; and, having parted with its moisture, it ceases to exist. The cold of the earth and of its immediate air envelope has seized upon that cloud and devoured it, and the cold resumes its sway. So have I opened the door of a crowded cabin, when an Indian dance or other gathering was in progress, at 50 deg. or 60 deg. below zero, and the cold, dry air meeting the hot, moist air has caused an immediate fall of snow on the threshold.
After the abrupt rise in temperature on Christmas Day, the snow began to fall heavily, with a barometer continually falling until it reached 27.98 inches, the lowest point recorded here (at an elevation of about 500 feet above the sea) in two years and a half—and before the snow ceased three feet had fallen.
Our winter itinerary called us to leave the Allakaket immediately after New Year's Day, and our route lay overland through a totally uninhabited country for nearly one hundred and fifty miles, to Tanana on the Yukon. We knew that it would not greatly interfere with our plans to lie another week at the Allakaket, and that would bring our departure after the monthly journey of the mail-carrier and would thus compel him to break trail for us through all that snow. That is the way the mail-carriers in Alaska are usually treated, but Arthur and I took some pride in keeping as closely as possible to the announced dates of visitation and in doing such share of trail breaking as fell to us.
[Sidenote: TRAIL BREAKING]
So on Monday, the 3d of January, 1910, we bade farewell to Deaconess Carter and her colleague and to the native charges they rule and care for so admirably, and set out on our journey with an additional boy from the mission to help us through the heavy snow of the Koyukuk valley. For ten or twelve miles the way lay down the river, and the going was slow and toilsome from the first, although there had been some passage from Moses' Village to the mission, and there was, therefore, some trail. Our start had been late—it is next to impossible to get an early start from a mission; there is always some native who must have audience at the last moment—and after the long repose we were so soft that the heavy trail had wearied us, and we decided to "call it a day" when in five and a half hours we came to the road-house, the last occupied habitation between the Allakaket and Tanana. Soon after we reached the village there came trooping down from the mission a number of the inhabitants gone up for Christmas, who, after weeping upon our necks, so to speak, at our departure, had left us to break out that drifted trail for their convenient return. So will Indians treat a white man almost always, but I had thought myself an exception and was vexed to find that so they had treated me.
The next morning we entered the uninhabited wilderness with three feet of new snow on the trail and no passage over it since it had fallen. Our first trouble was finding the trail at all. The previous fall the Alaska Road Commission had appropriated a sum of money to stake this trail from Tanana to the Koyukuk River, for it passes over wind-swept, treeless wastes, where many men had lost their way. Starting out from Tanana, the men employed had done their work well until within ten miles of the Koyukuk River. There it was found that the labour and cost already expended had exhausted the appropriation, whereupon the proceedings were immediately stopped; not another stake was driven, and the whole party returned to Tanana and mushed two hundred and fifty miles up the Yukon to spend another little appropriation upon another trail. That is the unbusinesslike system in which the money available for such work in Alaska has been handled.
The first trail breaker goes ahead with a long stick, which he thrusts continually down through the snow. The slightly harder surface over which sleds and dogs have passed reveals itself by offering more resistance to the penetration of the stick, and that is the only way the trail can be found. Even with three feet of new snow upon it, it is well worth while finding, or otherwise there is no bottom at all and way must be made through all the snow of the winter. But all Alaskan trails are serpentine, and it is very difficult to put the new trail right on top of the old one. Back and forth the second trail breaker goes between his leader and the sled, and at intervals the first man comes back and forth also. And with it all is no path packed solid enough for the dogs to draw the heavy sled without great difficulty. We should have had a toboggan, but toboggans are little used on the Koyukuk, and we had only our sled. In five hours we made five miles and were worn out. We decided to pitch our tent and go ahead and break trail for the morrow's journey. On the lakes interspersed amongst the brush we had to break an entirely new trail, for we could find no trace of the old one.
If five miles in five hours be poor going, what is four miles in seven and a half hours? That is all we made the next day despite the snow-shoeing of the previous evening. The heavy sled was continually getting off the trail, however wide we show-shoed it. The two of us ahead went over every step of the distance four or five times, and sometimes all of us had to go back and forth again and again before the sled could be brought along at all. It was from 5 deg. to 10 deg. above zero all day, and at intervals snow fell heavily. We got at last to the middle of a little lake and were confronted by open water, the result of some warm spring, one supposes. Here we must stop until a laborious journey was made to the bank, trees were cut and carried, and the open place bridged so that the sled might be passed over it. Then again our painful progress was resumed until, as it grew dark, we reached the bank of the Kornutna, or Old Man Creek, and here we pitched tent again, and I went forward upon the bed of the stream to break out a part of to-morrow's path. That night two more inches of snow fell.
[Sidenote: DOG DRIVING]
For four miles the trail lies along the surface of this creek, and then takes up a steep gully and over a divide. That four miles was all we made the next day, back and forth, back and forth, wearily tramping it to and fro, dogs and men alike exhausted with the toil. The hatefulness of dog mushing usually appears under such circumstances; the whip is constantly plied, the senseless objurgations rise shriller and fuller. Once the sled is started, it must by any means be kept going, that as great a distance as possible may be covered before it stops again. The poor brutes, sinking almost to their bellies despite the snow-shoeing, have no purchase for the exercise of their strength and continually flounder and wallow. Our whip was lost and I was glad of it, for even as considerate a boy as Arthur is apt to lose patience and temper when, having started the sled with much labour by gee pole and rope about his chest, it goes but a few feet and comes to a halt again, or slips from the track and turns over in the deep snow. But it is at such times, too, that one appreciates at his full value such a noble puller as our wheel dog Nanook. He spares himself not at all; the one absorbing occupation of every nerve and muscle of his body is pulling. His trace is always taut, or, if he lose footing for a moment and the trace slacken, he is up and at it again that the sled lose not its momentum if he can help it. When the lead line is pulled back that the sled may be started by the jerk of the dogs' sudden traction, Nanook lunges forward at the command, "Mush!" and strains at the collar, mouth open and panting, tongue dropping moisture, as keen and eager to keep that sled moving as is the driver himself. All day he labours and struggles, snatching a mouthful of snow now and then to cool his overheated body, and he drops in his tracks when the final halt is made, utterly weary, yet always with the brave heart in him to give his bark, his five-note characteristic bark of gladness, that the day's work is done at last. It is senseless brutality to whip such a dog, and most of our dogs were of that mettle, though Nanook was the strongest and most faithful of the bunch. One's heart goes out to them with gratitude and love—old "Lingo," "Nig," "Snowball," "Wolf," and "Doc"—as one realises what loyal, cheerful service they give.
[Sidenote: VIOLENT FLUCTUATIONS]
Arthur was so unwell with a violent cold and cough, that had been growing worse for a couple of days, that I decided on two things: to leave him in the tent while I snow-shoed ahead the next day, and to send back the boy I had brought from the mission to secure a fresh supply of food; for the back trail was, of course, comparatively easy. Arthur's condition threatened pneumonia, to my notion, and I believe he was saved from an attack of that disease which is so often fatal in this country by long rubbing all over the neck and the chest with a remedy that was new then—a menthol balm. I have used it again and again since and I am now never without it. A second application made in the morning, I started out, show-shoeing up the long hill and then down into the flat, and so to the mail-carrier's little hut that is reached under good conditions of trail the first day from Moses' Village, and then back again to the tent. That day a tendon in my right leg behind the knee became increasingly troublesome, and in climbing the hill on the return was acutely painful. I recognised it as "mal-de-raquet," well known in the Northwest, where the snow is commonly much deeper than in Alaska, and I found relief in the application of the same analgesic menthol balm that I was rejoiced to find had wrought a great improvement in Arthur's condition.
Meanwhile the warm weather of the past three or four days was over and another period of violent fluctuations of temperature similar to that around Christmastide was upon us. We went to bed with the thermometer at 10 deg. below zero and were wakened by the cold at two in the morning to find it at 40 deg. below, so we had to keep a fire going the rest of the night; for as soon as the fire in the stove goes out a tent becomes just as cold as outdoors.
We moved forward the next morning, but the trail we had broken was too narrow and had to be widened, which meant one snow-shoe in the deep snow all the time, a very fatiguing process that brought into painful play again the tendon strained with five days' heavy snow-shoeing.
The temperature was around 40 deg. below all day, and our progress was so slow that it was not easy to keep warm, and the dogs whined at the innumerable stops. Yesterday it had been 10 deg. below, the day before 10 deg. above, and now, to-day, 40 deg. below. It is hard to dress for such changeable weather, especially hard to dress the feet. My own wear, all the winter through, is a pair of smoke-tanned, moose-hide breeches, tanned on the Yukon but tailored outside. They are a perfect windbreak, yet allow ventilation, and they are very warm; but those who perspire much on exertion cannot wear them. The amount of covering upon the feet must be varied, in some measure at least, as the temperature changes. The Esquimau fur boot, with fur on the inside of the sole and on the outside of the upper, is my favourite footwear, with more or less of sock inside it as the weather requires; but such sudden changes as we were experiencing always find one or leave one with too much or too little footwear. By one-thirty we had struggled to the top of the hill, and it was very evident that the cabin was out of the question that day; so, since to pass down into the flat was to pass out of eligible camping timber, we pitched tent on the brow of the hill.
The cold business of making camp was done, all dispositions for the night complete, supper for men and dogs was cooked and ours eating, when we heard a noise in the distance that set our dogs barking and presently came the boy I had sent back, accompanied by an Indian and a fresh team loaded with such a bountiful supply of food, much of it cooked, that one felt it was worth while to get into distress to receive such generous and prompt succour. The ladies at the mission had sat up and cooked all night and had despatched the fastest team in the village the next morning to bring their provisions to us and to help us along. They had thought us at Tanana when we were not yet at the end of the first day's stage from Moses' Village. It would have been impossible for us to reach Tanana on the dog food and man food we started with.
[Sidenote: SIXTY-FIVE BELOW ZERO]
It was so cold and we were so crowded that I arose at three and made a fire and sat over it the rest of the night, and after breakfast, although it was Sunday, morning prayer being said, I started ahead again to break out the trail deeper and wider, leaving the teams with the distributed loads to follow. The thermometer stood at 38 deg. below zero when I left camp, but as I began the descent it was evident that it grew colder, and at the bottom of the hill I was sure it was 20 deg. colder at least. Reaching the cabin, I kindled a fire and started back to meet the teams. About a mile from the cabin I saw them, for, since the load was distributed in the two sleds progress was much better; but by this time it had grown so cold that the dogs were almost entirely obscured from view by the clouds of steam that encompassed them. We hurried as best we might and reached the cabin about eleven, and as soon as we were arrived I took out the thermometer and let it lie long enough to get the temperature of the air, and it read 65 deg. below zero. There had been no atmospheric change at all; it was simply the most marked instance I ever knew of the influence of altitude upon temperature. We had descended perhaps three hundred feet, and in that distance had found a difference of 27 deg. in temperature.
The cabin was a wretched shack without door or window and full of holes, and in no part of it could one stand upright. We set ourselves to make things as comfortable as possible, however, rigging up the canvas sled cover for an outer door and a blanket for an inner door, and stopping up the worst of the holes with sacking. Then we went out and cut fresh spruce boughs to lie upon, and prospected around quite a while before we found dry wood nearly a quarter of a mile away. It was quite a business cutting that wood and packing the heavy sticks on one's shoulders, through the brush and up and down the banks of the little creek where it grew, on snow-shoes, at 65 deg. below zero.
Our Sabbath day's journey done, the hut safely reached and furnished with fuel, we did not linger long after supper, but, evening prayer said, went to bed as the most comfortable place in the still cold cabin, thankful not to be in a tent in such severe weather.
The next day gave us fresh temperature fluctuations. At nine A. M. it clouded and rose to 35 deg. below, by noon it had cleared again and the thermometer fell to 55 deg. below, and at nine P. M. it stood once more at 65 deg. below. The milder weather of the morning sent all hands out breaking trail, save myself, for with all our stuff in a cabin without a door it was not wise to leave it altogether—a dog might break a chain and work havoc—so I stayed behind in the little dark hovel, a candle burning all day, and read some fifty pages of Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson over again. Some such little India-paper classic it is my habit to carry each winter. Last year I reread Pepys's Diary and the year before much of the Decline and Fall. Certain places are for ever associated in my mind with the rereading of certain old books. The Chandalar River is to me as much the scene of Lorna Doone, which I read for the sixth or seventh time on my first journey along it, as Exmoor itself; and The Cloister and the Hearth, that noble historical romance, belongs in my literary geography to the Alatna-Kobuk portage. So will Boswell always bring back to me this trip across country from the Koyukuk to the Yukon through the deep snow.
The boys came back after dark, having broken some nine miles of trail and having suffered a good deal from the cold. I had supper cooked, and when that was done and the dogs fed we fell to reading the Gospels and Epistles for the Epiphany season, the boys reading aloud by turns. The all-day fire had warmed the little hut thoroughly, and despite the cold outside we were snug and comfortable within.
[Sidenote: SEVENTY BELOW ZERO]
That night the thermometer touched 70 deg. below zero, within 2 deg. of the greatest cold I have recorded in seven years' winter travel; a greater cold, I believe, than any arctic expedition has ever recorded, for it is in a continental climate like Siberia or interior Alaska, and not in the marine climate around the North Pole, that the thermometer falls lowest.
Save for an hour or two getting wood, we all lay close next day, for the temperature at noon was no higher than 64 deg. below. It is impossible to break trail at such temperature, or to travel as slowly as we were travelling. In the strong cold one must travel fast if one travel at all. Indeed, it is distinctly dangerous to be outdoors. As soon as one leaves the hut the cold smites one in the face like a mailed fist. The expiration of the breath makes a crackling sound, due, one judges, to the sudden congealing of the moisture that is expelled. From every cranny of the cabin a stream of smoke-like vapour pours into the air, giving the appearance that the house is on fire within. However warmly hands and feet may be clad, one cannot stand still for a minute without feeling the heat steadily oozing out and the cold creeping in.
Notwithstanding the weather, that evening the mail came along, the white man who is the carrier, two tall, strong natives, and nine dogs. Only since descending to the flat had they suffered from the cold, for they found as great a difference as we did in the temperature; and they were grateful to us for the trail we had broken. The hut was uncomfortably crowded that night with seven people in it, but the thermometer stood at -56 deg. and was rising, and gave us hope that we might move along to-morrow. Augmented as our party was into seven men, three sleds, and nineteen or twenty dogs, trail breaking would not be so arduous and progress would be much accelerated. There was good hope, moreover, that the heavy snow was confined to the Koyukuk valley and that when we passed out of it we should find better going.
The morning found a temperature of 45 deg. below, and we sallied forth, quite an expedition. Four, including myself, went ahead beating down the trail; one was at each gee pole, our team last, getting advantage of everything preceding. So far as the trail had been broken we made good time, covering the nine miles in about four hours. Another hour of somewhat slower progress took us to the top of a hill, and here the mail-carrier's two Indians had run ahead and built a great, roaring fire and arranged a wide, commodious couch of spruce boughs, and we cooked our lunch and took our ease for half an hour. The sky had clouded again and the temperature had risen to 28 deg. below.
[Sidenote: CLOSE QUARTERS]
It is strange how some scenes of the trail linger in the memory, while others are completely forgotten. This noon halt I always remember as one of the pleasantest of all my journeyings. There was not a breath of wind, and the smoke rose straight into the air instead of volleying and eddying into one's face as camp-fires so often do on whichever side of them one sits. We were all weary with our five hours' trudge, and the rest was grateful; hungry, and the boiled ham they had sent from the mission was delicious. The warmth of the great fire and the cosiness of the thick, deep spruce boughs gave solid comfort, and the pipe after the meal was a luxurious enjoyment.
From that on the going was heavier and our progress slower, but we kept at it till dark, and still far into the night, fortunate in having two Indians who knew every step of the way, until at last we reached the hut that marks the end of the second stage from the Koyukuk River, on the top of a birch hill. We had made nineteen and a half miles that day and had taken eleven hours to do it.
If the noon rest be remembered as one of the pleasantest episodes of the trail, that night in the cabin on the hill I recall as one of the most miserable in my life. The hut was still smaller than the previous one, like it without door and window, and so low that one was bent double all the time. Walls and roof alike were covered with a thick coating of frost. The only wood discoverable in the dark was half-dry birch which would not burn in the stove but sent out volumes of smoke that blinded us. When the hut did begin to get a little warm, moisture from the roof dropped on everything. There we seven men huddled together, chilly and damp, choked and weary—a wretched band. There was no room for the necessary cooking operations; we had to cook and eat in relays; and how we slept, in what way seven men managed to pack themselves and stretch themselves in those narrow quarters, I cannot tell. However, we said our prayers and went to bed, snow falling heavily. The Indians were soon snoring, but sleep would not come to me, tired as I was, and I had not slept at all the previous night. So presently I took trional, X grs., and dozed off till morning.
Then we resolved to divide forces rather than subject ourselves to the miserable inconvenience of overcrowding these tiny huts, and at this stage of the journey it was possible to do so without losing a whole day, for there was a cabin for the noon rest. It was arranged that the mail-man should start first and make the full day's run if possible, while we should "call it a day" at the half-way hut.
So Bob and his Indians sallied forth while yet my boys were reading their lessons to me, and when they were done we hitched up and followed. And as soon as we were down the hill and started along the bald flat, it was evident that we were out of the deep snowfall, for the present at any rate, and we plucked up spirit, for we were now to cross the wide, open, wind-swept uplands of the headwaters of the Melozitna and Tozitna, tributaries of the Yukon—the "Tozi" and "Melozi," as the white men call them—where snow never lies deep or long. We were out of the Koyukuk watershed now and in country drained by direct tributaries of the Yukon. The going was now incomparably the best we had had since we left the mission, the snow was light and we had the mail-carrier's trail; but, although the temperature had risen to 21 deg. below, a keen wind put our parkee hoods up and our scarfs around our faces and made our 60 deg. below clothing none too warm. In three hours we had reached the Melozi cabin, although that had included the climbing of a long, steep hill, and here we stayed for the rest of the day and night and shot some ptarmigan for supper, though we could easily have gone on and made the rest of the run.
The next day I sent the auxiliary sled and team and driver back to the Allakaket, keeping the mission boy with me, however, to return with the mail-carrier, who was already late and must go back as soon as he reached Tanana. I parted with the Indian regretfully, for he had been most helpful and always good-natured and cheerful, and had really begun to learn a little at our travelling night-school.
[Sidenote: THE STAKED TRAIL]
[Sidenote: THE ARCTIC SKIES]
A high wind was blowing, with the thermometer at 12 deg. below, and the mail-man's trail was already drifted over and quite indistinguishable in the dark, and we began to appreciate the recent staking of this trail by the Road Commission. But for these stakes, set double, a hundred yards apart, so that they formed a lane, it would have been difficult if not impossible for us to travel on a day like this, for here was a stretch of sixteen or seventeen miles with never a tree and hardly the smallest bush. The wind blew stronger and stronger directly in our faces as we rose out of the Melozitna basin on the hill that is its watershed, and when the summit was reached and we turned and looked back there was nothing visible but a white, wind-swept waste. But ahead all the snow was most beautifully and delicately tinted from the reflection of the dawn on ragged shredded clouds that streamed across the southeastern sky. Where the sky was free of cloud it gave a wonderful clear green that was almost but not quite the colour of malachite. It was exactly the colour of the water the propeller of a steamship churns up where the Atlantic Ocean shallows to the rocky shore of the north coast of Ireland. The clouds themselves caught a deep dull red from the sunrise, which the snow gave back in blush pink. Such an exquisite colour harmony did the scene compose that the wind, lulling for a moment on the crest of the hill, seemed charmed into peace by it.
The feast of colour brought a train of colour memories, one hard upon the heels of another, as we went down the hill; the Catbells, this golden with bracken, that purple with heather, and each doubled in the depths of Derwentwater; an October morning in the hardwood forests of the mountains of Tennessee, when for half an hour every gorgeous tint of red and yellow was lavishly flaunted—and then the whole pride and splendour of it wiped out at once by a wind that sprang up; the encircling and towering reds and pinks of a gigantic amphitheatre of rock in the Dolomites; a patch of flowers right against the snow in the high Rockies, so intensely blue that it seemed the whole vault of heaven could be tinctured with the pigment that one petal would distil. And, more inspiring than them all, there came the recollection of that wonderful sunrise and those blazing mountains of the Alatna-Kobuk portage. Every land has its glories, and the sky is everywhere a blank canvas for the display of splendid colour, but the tints of the arctic sky are of an infinite purity of individual tone that no other sky can show.
As we descended the hill into the Tozitna basin the wind rose again, now charged with heavy, driving snow, while in the valley the underfoot snow grew deep, so that it was drawing to dusk when we reached the cabin on a fork of the Tozitna where Bob the mail-man had spent the previous night, and there we stayed.
The next day is worthy of record for the sharp contrast it affords. All the night it had snowed heavily, and it snowed all the morning and into the afternoon. Some sixteen or seventeen inches of snow had fallen since Bob and his party passed, and again we had no trail at all. Moreover—strange plaint in January in Alaska!—the weather grew so warm that the snow continually balled up under the snow-shoes and clung to the sled and the dogs. At noon the thermometer stood at 17 deg. above zero—and it was but four days ago that we recorded 70 deg. below! It will be readily understood how such wide and sudden ranges of temperature add to the inconvenience and discomfort of mushing. Parkees, sweaters, shirts are shed one after the other, the fur cap becomes a nuisance, the mittens a burden, and still ploughing through the snow he is bathed in sweat who had forgotten what sweating felt like. The poor dogs suffer the most, for they have nothing they can shed and they can perspire only through the mouth. Their tongues drop water almost in a stream, they labour for their breath, and their eyes have a look that comes only with soft weather and a heavy trail. So constantly do they grab mouthfuls of snow that the operation becomes quite a check on our progress.
By two o'clock it was growing dusk, and we had but reached the bank of the other fork of the Tozitna, not more than eight or nine miles from the cabin where we spent the night and yet thirteen or fourteen miles from the cabin we had hoped to reach. Beyond the banks of the stream was no more timber for a long distance; was such another stretch of open country as we had passed the previous day. So here was another disappointment, for camp must be made now lest there be no chance to make camp at all. But it was a good and comfortable camp, amidst the large spruce of the watercourse. Such disappointments are part of life on the trail; and supper done there was the more time for the boys.
The open country was again wind-swept, and being wind-swept the snow was somewhat hardened, and we fought our way against a gale, covering the twelve and three quarter miles in ten hours, Sunday though it was. At that last stage on the road to Tanana came out a young man from the mission with a dog team and an Indian, anxious at our long delay, and Harry Strangman's name is written here with grateful recognition of this kindness and many others. We went joyfully into town on the morrow, the 17th of January, having taken fifteen days to make a journey that is normally made in five.
[Sidenote: THE MAIL-CARRIER]
Half-way on that last day's mush we met the mail-man returning to the Koyukuk. So much had he been delayed that there was danger of a fine and all sorts of trouble, and the mail had been sent out to meet him at the noon cabin, together with a supply of grub for the return trip. But the caterer, whoever he was, forgot candles, and the mail-man would have had to make his way back to the Koyukuk without any means of artificial light, in the shortest days of the year, had we not been able to supply him with half a dozen candles that remained to us. It was a disappointment to George, the boy I had brought from the mission, that he must turn round and go back also. He had never "seen Tanana," which is quite a metropolis to him, and had looked forward to it keenly all the journey, but the boy braced up and took his disappointment manfully. A pitiful procession it was that passed us by and took our boy away; the poor, wearied dogs that had certainly earned the few days' rest they were so badly in need of left a trail of blood behind them that was sickening to see. Almost every one of them had sore, frozen feet; many of them were lame; and when we came to descend the long hill they had just climbed, right at its brow, where the stiffest pull had been, was a claw from a dog's foot frozen into bloody snow.
So far as there is anything heroic about the Alaskan trail, the mail-carriers are the real heroes. They must start out in all weathers, at all temperatures; they have a certain specified time in which to make their trips and they must keep within that time or there is trouble. The bordering country of the Canadian Yukon has a more humane government than ours. There neither mail-carrier nor any one else, save in some life-or-death emergency, with licence from the Northwest Mounted Police, may take out horse or dogs to start a journey when the temperature is lower than 45 deg. below zero; but I have seen a reluctant mail-carrier chased out at 60 deg. below zero, on pain of losing his job, on the American side. Moreover, between the seasons, when travel on the rivers is positively dangerous to life, the mail must still be despatched and received, although so great is the known risk to the mail, as well as to the carrier, that no one will send any letter that he cares at all about reaching its destination until the trails are established or the steamboats run. But the virtually empty pouches must be transported from office to office through the running, or over the rotting ice, just the same, on pain of the high displeasure and penalty of a department without brains and without bowels. I have often wished since I came to Alaska that I could be postmaster-general for one week, and so I suppose has almost every other resident of the country.
The week following my arrival at Tanana was a solid week of cold weather, the thermometer ranging around 50 deg. and 60 deg. below zero, and that means keeping pretty close to the house. Even the sentries at the army post are withdrawn and the protection of the garrison is confided to a man who watches the grounds from a glass-walled cupola above the headquarters building. Yet a week of confinement and inaction grows tiresome after life in the open.