Down the hill we went into Fortymile water and into a rolling country crossed by the military mule trail. If the morning had been glorious the evening was full of penance. Long before night our feet were sore from slipping and sliding into those wretched mule tracks. One cannot take one's eyes from the trail for a moment, every footstep must be watched, and even then one is continually stumbling.
We were able, however, to rig our team with the double hitch that is so much more economical of power than the tandem hitch, whenever the width of the trail permits it. We now carry a convertible rig, so that on narrow trails or in deep snow we can string out the dogs one in front of the other, and when the trail is wide enough can hitch them side by side. "Seal," the Great Dane pup we got at the Salchaket, was a good and strong puller, but he had no coat and no sense. It is bad enough to have no coat in this country, but to have no coat and no sense is fatal—as he found. His feet were continually sore and he had to be specially provided for at night if it were at all cold—a dog utterly unsuited to Alaska.
Thirty miles of such going as has been described is tiring in the extreme, and when we reached the Lone Cabin, behold! fifteen Indians camped about it, for whom, when supper was done, followed two hours of teaching and the baptism of six children. I would have liked to have stayed a day with them, but if we were to spend Palm Sunday at Fortymile and Easter at Eagle as had been promised, the time remaining did no more than serve; and there was a large band of Indians to visit at Ketchumstock.
The next day took us into and across the Ketchumstock Flats, a wide basin surrounded by hills and drained by the Mosquito Fork of the Fortymile. The telegraph-line, supported on tripods against the summer yielding of the marshy soil, cuts straight across country. This basin and the hills around form one of the greatest caribou countries, perhaps, in the world. All day we had passed fragments of the long fences that were in use in times past by the Indians for driving the animals into convenient places for slaughter.
The annual migration of the vast herd that roams the section of Alaska between the Yukon and the Tanana Rivers swarms over this Flat and through these hills, and we were told at the Ketchumstock telegraph station by the signal-corps men that they estimated that upward of one hundred thousand animals crossed the Mosquito Fork the previous October.
The big game of Alaska is not yet seriously diminished, though there was need for the legal protection that has of late years been given. It is probable that more caribou and young moose are killed every year by wolves than by hunters. Only in the neighbourhood of a considerable settlement is there danger of reckless and wasteful slaughter, and some attention is paid by game wardens to the markets of such places. The mountain-sheep stands in greater danger of extermination than either caribou or moose. Its meat, the most delicious mutton in the world, as it has been pronounced by epicures, brings a higher price than other wild meat, and it is easy to destroy a band completely. The sheep on the mountains of the Alaskan range nearest to Fairbanks have, it is said, been very greatly diminished, and that need not be wondered at when one sees sled load after sled load, aggregating several tons of meat, brought in at one shipment. The law protecting the sheep probably needs tightening up.
The big game is a great resource to all the people of the country, white and native. It is no small advantage to be able to take one's gun in the fall and go out in the valleys and kill a moose that will suffice for one man's meat almost the whole winter, or go into the hills and kill four or five caribou that will stock his larder equally well. The fresh, clean meat of the wilds has to most palates far finer flavour than any cold-storage meat that can be brought into the country; and, save at one or two centres of population and distribution, cold-storage meat is not available at all. Without its big game Alaska would be virtually uninhabitable. Therefore most white men are content that the necessary measures be taken to prevent the wasteful slaughter of the game; for the rights of the prospector and trapper and traveller, and the rights of the natives to kill at any time what is necessary for food, are explicitly reserved.
[Sidenote: THE KETCHUMSTOCK]
We reached the village and telegraph post of Ketchumstock for the night only to find all the natives gone hunting; but since they had gone in the direction of Chicken Creek, towards which we were travelling, we were able to catch up with them the next morning without going far out of our way. While we were pitching our tent near their encampment came two or three natives with dog teams, and as the dogs hesitated to pass our dogs, loose on the trail, a voluble string of curses in English fell from the Indian lips. Such is usually the first indication of contact with white men, and in this case it spoke of the proximity of the mining on Chicken Creek. To discover the women chewing tobacco was to add but another evidence of the sophistication of this tribe; a different people from Chief Isaac's tribe, different through many years' familiarity with the whites at these diggings. If the mission to be built at the Crossing tends to keep these Indians on the Tanana River and thus away from the demoralisation of the diggings, it will do them solid service.
In some way foul and profane language falls even more offensively from Indians than from whites; for the same reason, perhaps, that it sounds more offensive and shocking from children than from adults. Sometimes the Indian does not in the least understand the meaning of the words he uses; they are the first English words he ever heard and he hears them over and over again.
So here another day and a half was spent in instruction. There are some forty souls in this tribe and they have had teaching from time to time, though not in the last few years, at the mouths of missionaries from Yukon posts. Most of the adults had been baptized; I baptized sixteen children. One curious feature of my stay was the megaphonic recapitulation of the heads of the instruction, after each session, by an elderly Indian who stood out in the midst of the tents. What on earth this man, with his town-crier voice, was proclaiming at such length, we were at a loss to conjecture, and upon inquiry were informed: "Them women, not much sense; one time tell 'em, quick forget; two time tell 'em, maybe little remember." So when we stopped for dinner and for supper and for bed, each time this brazen-lunged spieler stood forth and reiterated the main points of the discourse "for the hareem," as Doughty would say, whose account of the attitude of the Arabs to their women often reminds me of the Alaskan Indians. It was interesting, but I should have preferred to edit the recapitulation.
When all was done for the day and we thought to go to bed came an Indian named "Bum-Eyed-Bob" (these white man's nicknames, however dreadful, are always accepted and used) for a long confabulation about the affairs of the tribe, and I gathered incidentally that gambling at the telegraph station had been the main diversion of the winter. It seems ungracious to insist so much upon the evil influence of the white men—we had been cordially received and entertained at that very place, and our money refused—but there is little doubt that the abandonment of the telegraph-line will be a good thing for these natives. Put two or three young men of no special intellectual resource or ambition down in a lonely spot like this, with no society at all save that of the natives and practically nothing to do, and there is a natural and almost inevitable trend to evil. To the exceptional man with the desire of promotion, with books, and all this leisure, it would be an admirable opportunity, but he would be quite an exceptional man who should rise altogether superior to the temptations to idleness and debauchery. One may have true and deep sympathy with these young men and yet be conscious of the harm they often bring about.
Ten miles or so from the encampment brought us to Chicken Creek, and from that point we took the Fortymile River. The direct trail to Eagle with its exasperating mule tracks was now left, and our journey was on the ice. But so warm was the weather that 16th of March that we were wet-foot all day, and within the space of eight hours that we were travelling we had snow, sleet, rain, and sunshine. Leaving the main river, we turned up Walker Fork and, after a few miles, leaving that, we turned up Jack Wade Creek and pursued it far up towards its head ere we reached the road-house for the night.
[Sidenote: THE FORTYMILE]
We were now on historic ground, so far as gold mining in Alaska is concerned. The "Fortymilers" bear the same pioneer relation to gold mining in the North that the "Fortyniners" bear to gold mining in California. Ever since 1886 placers have been worked in this district, and it still yields gold, though the output and the number of men are alike much reduced. It is interesting to talk with some of the original locators of this camp, who may yet be found here and there in the country, and to learn of the conditions in those early days when a steamboat came up the Yukon once in a season bringing such supplies and mail as the men received for the year. It was here that the problem of working frozen ground was first confronted and solved; here that the first "miner's law" was promulgated, the first "miners' meeting" dealt out justice. Your "old-timer" anywhere is commonly laudator temporis acti, but there is good reason to believe that these early, and certainly most adventurous, gold-miners, some of whom forced a way into the country when there were no routes of travel, and subsisted on its resources while they explored and prospected it, were men of a higher stamp than many who have come in since. The extent to which that early prospecting was carried is not generally known, for these men, after the manner of their kind, left no record behind them. There are few creek beds that give any promise at all in the whole of this vast country that have not had some holes sunk in them. Even in districts so remote as the Koyukuk, signs of old prospecting are encountered. When a stampede took place to the Red Mountain or Indian River country of the middle Koyukuk in 1911-12, I was told that there was not a creek in the camp that did not show signs of having been prospected long before, although it had passed altogether out of knowledge that this particular region had ever been visited by prospectors.
[Sidenote: "SNIPING ON THE BARS"]
As the Fortymile is the oldest gold camp in the North, some of its trail making is of the best in Alaska. In particular the trail from the head of Jack Wade Creek down into Steel Creek reminded one of the Alpine roads in its bold, not to say daring, engineering. It drops from bench to bench in great sweeping curves always with a practicable grade, and must descend nigh a thousand feet in a couple of miles. At the mouth of Steel Creek we are on the Fortymile River again, having saved a day's journey by this traverse. And here, on the Fortymile, we passed several men "sniping on the bars," as the very first Alaskan gold-miners did on this same river, and probably on these same bars, twenty-five years ago. One hand moved the "rocker" to and fro and the other poured water into it with the "long Tom"; so was the gold washed out of the gravel taken from just below the ice. It was interesting to see this primitive method still in practice and to learn from the men that they were making "better than wages."
The Fortymile is a very picturesque but most tortuous river. In one place, called appropriately "The Kink," I was able to clamber over a ridge of rocks and reach another bend of the river in six or seven minutes, and then had to wait twenty-five minutes for the dog team, going at a good clip, to come around to me. At length we reached the spot where a vista cut through the timber that clothes both banks, marked the 141st meridian, the international boundary, and passed out of Alaska into British territory. A few miles more brought us to Moose Creek, where a little Canadian custom-house is situated, and there we spent the night.
The next day we reached the Yukon; passing gold dredges laid up for the winter and other signs of still-persisting mining activity, going through the narrow wild canon of the Fortymile, and so to the little town at its mouth of the same name, where there is a mission of the Church of England and a post of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police. I never come into contact with this admirable body of men without wishing that we had a similar body charged with the enforcement of the law in Alaska.
Sunday was spent there officiating for the layman in charge of the mission and in interesting talk with the sergeant of police about the annual winter journey from Dawson to Fort McPherson on the McKenzie, from which he had just returned with a detail of men. The next winter he and his detail lost their way and starved and froze to death on the same journey.
Here at one time was a flourishing Indian mission and school, and here Bishop Bompas, the true "Apostle of the North," lived for some time. The story of this man's forty-five years' single-eyed devotion to the Indians of the Yukon and McKenzie Rivers is one of the brave chapters of missionary history. But the Church of England "does not advertise." Writers about Alaska, even writers about Alaskan missions, carefully collect all the data of the early Russian missions on the coast, but ignore altogether the equally influential and lasting work done along five hundred miles of what is now the American Yukon by the missionary clergy of the English Church before and after the Purchase. Bishop Bompas identified himself so closely with the natives as to become almost one of them in the eyes of the white men, and many curious stories linger amongst the old-timers as to his habits and appearance. It is interesting to know that the bishop was a son of that Sergeant Bompas of the English bar from whom Dickens drew the character of Sergeant Buzfuz, counsel for the plaintiff in the famous suit of "Bardell v. Pickwick."
But the natives have all left Fortymile, some to the large village of Moosehide just below Dawson, some to Eagle. The town, too, like all the upper Yukon towns, is much decayed; the custom-house, the police barracks, the company's store, the road-house, and the little mission embracing nearly all its activities and housing nearly all its population.
There is always some feeling of satisfaction in reaching the broad highway of the Yukon again, even though rough ice make bad going and one of the most notorious, dirty road-houses in the North hold its menace over one all day and amply fulfil it at night. There is indeed so little travel on the river now that it does not pay any one to keep a road-house save as incidental to a steamboat wood camp and summer fishing station. Two short days' travel brought us across the international boundary again to Eagle in Alaska, where at that time Fort Egbert was garrisoned with two companies of soldiers.
Eagle and Fort Egbert together, for the one begins where the other ends, have perhaps the finest and most commanding situation of any settlement on the Yukon River. The mountains rise with dignity just across the water and break pleasingly into the valley of Eagle Creek, a few miles up-stream. To the rear of the town an inconsiderable flat does but give space and setting before the mountains rise again; while just below the military post stands the bold and lofty bluff called the Eagle Rock, with Mission Creek winding into the Yukon at its foot. Robert Louis Stevenson said that Edinburgh has the finest situation of any capital in Europe and pays for it by having the worst climate of any city in the world. It would not be just to paraphrase this description with regard to Eagle, for while it is unsurpassed on the Yukon for site, there are spots on that river where still more disagreeable weather prevails; yet it cannot be denied that the position of the place subjects it to exceedingly bitter winds, or that the valley of Eagle Creek, which gives pleasing variety to the prospect, acts also as a channel to convey the full force of the blast. Climate everywhere is a very local thing; topographical considerations often altogether outweigh geographical; and nowhere is this truer than in Alaska. Commanding sites are necessarily exposed sites, and he who would dwell in comfort must build in seclusion.
A native village of eighty or ninety souls, with its church and school, lies three miles up-stream from the town, so that the relative positions of village, town, and military post exactly duplicate those at Tanana. It must at once be stated, however, that this situation has not led to anything like the demoralisation amongst the natives at Eagle that thrusts itself into notice at the other place. Whether it were the longer training in Christian morals that lay behind these people, or better hap in the matter of post commanders (certainly there was never such scandalous irregularity and indifference at Egbert as marked one administration at Gibbon), or the vigilance during a number of consecutive years of an especially active deputy marshal and the wisdom and concern through an even longer period of a commissioner much above the common stamp,[F] or all these causes combined, the natives at Eagle have not suffered from the proximity of soldiers and civilians in the same measure as the natives at Tanana. Drunkenness and debauchery there have been again and again, but they have been severely checked and restrained by both the civil and military authorities.
It was pleasant during Holy Week and Easter to see so many of the enlisted men of the garrison taking part in the services in town; pleasant, especially, to see officers and men singing together in the choir, a tribute to the tact and zeal of the earnest layman in charge of this mission; and it was pleasant at the village to hear the native liturgy again and to see old men and women following the lessons in the native Bible.
[Sidenote: FORT EGBERT ABANDONED]
Fort Egbert is abandoned now, another addition to the melancholy of the Yukon; its extensive buildings, barracks, and officers' quarters, post-exchange and commissariat, hospital, sawmill, and artisans' shops, a spacious, complete gymnasium only recently built, are all vacant and deserted. In the yards lie three thousand cords of dry wood, a year's supply; cut on the hills, awaiting the expected annual contracts, lie as many more—six thousand cords of wood left to rot! Some of us perverse "conservationists," upon whom the unanimous Alaskan press delights to pour scorn, lament the trees more than the troops.
One may write thus and yet have many pleasant personal associations with the post and those who have lived there. A large and varied military acquaintanceship is acquired by regular visits to these Alaskan forts, for the whole command changes every two years. If one stayed in the country long enough one would get to know the whole United States army, as regiment after regiment spent its brief term of "foreign service" in the North. Gazing upon the empty quarters, the occasion of my first visit came back vividly, when there was diphtheria amongst the natives at Circle and none to cope with it save the missionary nurse. The civil codes containing no provision for quarantine, the United States commissioner at Circle could not help, and the Indians grew restive and rebellious, and when Christmas came broke through the restrictions completely. Even some of the whites of the place defied her prohibition and attended native dances and encouraged the Indians in their self-willed folly.
[Sidenote: SOME ARMY OFFICERS]
So I went up the week's journey to Eagle and sought assistance from Major Plummer, the officer commanding the post, who, after telegraphing to Washington, promptly despatched a hospital steward and a couple of soldiers, and placed them entirely at the nurse's disposal. "I don't think we have any law for it," he said, "but we'll bluff it out." And bluff it out they did very effectively until the disease was stamped out, and then they thoroughly disinfected and whitewashed every cabin that had been occupied by the sick. I used to tell that nurse that, so far as I knew, she was the only woman who had ever had command of United States soldiers.
Then there was Captain Langdon of the same regiment, the scholarly soldier, with the account of every great campaign in history at his fingers' ends. I recollect one evening, when we had been talking of the Peninsular War, I ventured to spring on him the ancient schoolboy conundrum: "What lines are those, the most famous ever made by an Englishman, yet that are never quoted?" "Lines?" said he, "lines?" though I don't think he had ever heard the jest. "They must be the Lines of Torres Vedras." How well I remember the musical box that used to arouse me at seven in the morning, however late we had sat talking the night before!
And that young lieutenant, of wealthy New York people, just arrived from West Point, who was sent by another commandant to report upon the condition of the natives at the village and who came back and reported the whole population in utter destitution and recommended the issue of free rations to them all! As a matter of fact, during the administration of this commanding officer, some sixteen or eighteen persons were put upon the list for gratuitous grub, and it took a written protest to get them off. For no one who has the welfare of the natives at heart can tolerate the notion of making them paupers; these who have always fended abundantly for themselves, and can entirely do so yet. With free rations there would be no more hunting, no more trapping, no more fishing; and a hardy, self-supporting race would sink at once to sloth and beggary and forget all that made men of them. If it were designed to destroy the Indian at a blow, here is an easy way to do it. Yet there are some, obsessed with the craze about what is called education, regarding it as an end in itself and not as a means to any end, who recommend this pauperising because it would permit the execution of a compulsory school-attendance law. Or is it a personal delusion of mine that esteems an honest, industrious, self-supporting Indian who cannot read and write English above one who can read and write English—and can do nothing else—and so separates me from many who are working amongst the natives?
These days at the end of March, when the sun shines more than twelve hours in the twenty-four, are too long for the ordinary winter day's twenty-five miles or so, and yet not quite long enough, even if man and dogs could stand it, to double the stage; so that there is much daylight leisure at road-houses. One grows anxious, after four months on the trail, to be done with it; to draw as quickly as may be to one's "thawing-out" place. One even becomes a little impatient of the continual dog talk and mining talk of the road-houses, to which one has listened all the winter. On the other hand, the travelling is very pleasant and the going usually very good, so that one may often ride on the sled for long stretches.
By river and portage—one portage that comes so finely down to the Yukon from a bench that there is pleasure in anticipating the view it affords—in two days we reached the Nation road-house, just below the mouth of the Nation River, a name that has always puzzled me. Here all night long the wolves howling around the carcass of a horse kept our dogs awake, and the whimpering of the dogs kept us awake. The country beyond the Yukon to the northeast, the large area included between the Yukon and the Porcupine, into which the Nation River offers passage, is one of the wildest and least known portions of Alaska, abounding in game and beasts of prey.
[Sidenote: THE GLARE OF THE SUN]
At the Charley River we visited the native village and held service and instruction as well as inadequate interpretation permitted. Round Coal Creek and Woodchopper Creek the scenery becomes bold and attractive, but we found, as usual, that as we pushed farther and farther down the river the snow was deeper and the going not so good. The sun grows very bright upon the snow these days of late March and early April. Even through heavily tinted glasses it inflames the eyes more or less, and a couple of hours without protection would bring snow-blindness. Bright days at this season are the only days in all the year when the camera shutter may be used at its full speed. When the sun comes out after a flurry of new snow in April, the light is many times greater than in midsummer.
We reached Circle in a day and a half from Woodchopper Creek, in time to spend Sunday there. Circle had not changed much in the five years that had elapsed since the first visit to it mentioned in these pages. The slender trellis of the wireless telegraph had added a prominent feature to its river bank; a few more empty cabins had been torn down for fire-wood. Here it was necessary to shoot the Great Dane pup we got at the Salchaket. His feet were still very sore and he quite useless for the next winter, while Doc was returned to me from Fairbanks, not much the worse for his severe frost-bite. Indian after Indian begged for the dog, but I had more regard for him than to turn him over to the tender mercies of an Indian. There are exceptional Indians, but for my part I would rather be a dead dog than an ordinary Indian's dog—so he died.
There remained the seventy-five or eighty miles through the Yukon Flats to Fort Yukon—always the most dangerous stretch of the river, and at this season, when the winter's trail was beginning to break up, particularly so. It would be entirely practicable to cut a land trail that should not touch the river at all, or not at more than one point, between Circle and Fort Yukon, and such a portage besides removing all the danger would save perhaps twenty miles. In many places it was necessary for one of us to go ahead with an axe, constantly sounding and testing the ice. Here and there we made a circuit around open water into which the ice that bore the trail had collapsed bodily—one of them a particularly ugly place, with black water twenty feet deep running at six or seven miles an hour. I never pass this stretch of river without a feeling of gratitude that I am safely over it once more.
[Sidenote: CAPTAIN AMUNDSEN]
As we left the Halfway Island we passed an Indian from Fort Yukon going up the river with dogs and toboggan, and I chuckled, as I returned his very polite salutation and shook hands with him, at the success of the way he had been dealt with the previous fall, for he had been a particularly churlish fellow with an insolent manner. Six or seven years before he had been taken by Captain Amundsen, of the Gjoa, as guide along this stretch of the river. It will be remembered that when that skilful and fortunate navigator had reached Herschell Island from the east, he left his ship in winter quarters and made a rapid journey with Esquimaux across country to Fort Yukon expecting to find a telegraph station there from which he could send word of his success. But to his disappointment he found it necessary to go two hundred and thirty miles farther up the river to Eagle, before he could despatch his message. So he left his Esquimaux at Fort Yukon and took this Indian as guide. And in his modest and most interesting book he mentions the man's surliness and says he was glad to get rid of him at Circle.
Some new outbreak of insolence for which he had been flung out of a store decided that he must be dealt with, and I sent for him, for the chief, the native minister, and the interpreter. With these assessors beside me, and Captain Amundsen's book open on the table, I spoke to the man of his general conduct and reputation. I read the derogatory remark about him in the book "printed for all the world to read," and told him that of all the people, white and native, the captain had met on his journeys, only one was spoken of harshly and he was the one. It made a great impression on the man. The chief and the native minister followed it up with their harangues, and the net result was a thorough change in his whole attitude and demeanour. He told us he felt the shame of being held up to the world as rude and impudent and would try to amend. He has tried so successfully that he is now one of the politest and most courteous Indians in the village, for which, if this should ever chance to reach Captain Amundsen's eye, I trust he will accept our thanks.
Fort Yukon, where the headquarters of the archdeaconry of the Yukon are now fixed, grows in native population and importance. A new and sightly church, a new schoolhouse, a new two-story mission house, a medical missionary and a nurse in residence, as well as a native clergyman, mark the Indian metropolis of this region and perhaps of all interior Alaska. Self-government is fostered amongst the people by a village council elected annually, that settles native troubles and disputes and takes charge of movements for the general good, and of the relief of native poverty. The resident physician has been appointed justice of the peace and there is effort to enforce the law of the land at a place where every man has been a law unto himself. But it is a very slow and difficult matter to enforce law in this country at all, and more particularly at these remote points; and the class of white men who are to be found around native villages, many of whom "fear not God neither regard man," pursue their debauchery and deviltry long time unwhipped.
[F] I take pleasure in naming Mr. U. G. Myers as the United States commissioner in question and Mr. Jack Robinson as the deputy United States marshal, and I mention their names the more readily because Mr. Myers, after his long and excellent service, has just been removed for political reasons. (May, 1916.)
FROM THE TANANA RIVER TO THE KUSKOKWIM—THENCE TO THE IDITAROD MINING CAMP—THENCE TO THE YUKON, AND UP THAT RIVER TO FORT YUKON
THE discovery of gold on the Innoko in the winter of 1906-7, and the "strike" on the Iditarod, a tributary of the Innoko, some three years later, opened up a new region of Alaska. It is characteristic of a gold discovery in a new district that it sets men feverishly to work prospecting all the adjacent country, and sends them as far afield from it as the new base of supplies will allow them to stretch their tether. A glance at the map will show that the Innoko and Iditarod country lies between the two great rivers of Alaska, the Yukon and the Kuskokwim, much lower down the Yukon than any of the earlier gold discoveries; that is to say that while the Tanana gold fields lie off the Middle Yukon, the Circle fields off the upper Yukon, the Iditarod camp belongs to the lower river. The Innoko workings were not extensive nor very rich, but they furnished a base for prospecting from which the Iditarod was reached, and Flat Creek, in the latter district, promised to be wonderfully rich. Immediately upon the news of this strike reaching the other camps of the interior, preparations were made far and wide for migrating thither upon the opening of Yukon navigation, and the early summer of 1910 saw a wild stampede to the Iditarod. Saloon-keepers, store-keepers, traders of all kinds, and the rag-tag and bobtail that always flock to a new camp were on the move so soon as the ice went out. From Dawson, from the Fortymile, from Circle, from Fairbanks, from the Koyukuk, and as soon as Bering Sea permitted, from Nome, all sorts of craft bore all sorts of people to the new Eldorado, while the first through steamboats from the outside were crowded with people from the Pacific coast eager to share in the opportunity of wealth. The sensational magazines had been printing article after article about "The incalculable riches of Alaska," and here were people hoping to pick some of it up. Iditarod City sprang into life as the largest "city" of the interior; the centre of gravity of the population of the interior of Alaska was shifted a thousand miles in a month.
Iditarod City furnished a new and large base of supplies. Amidst the heterogeneous mass of humanity that swarmed into the place, though by no means the largest element in it, were experienced prospectors from every other district in Alaska. Under the iniquitous law that then prevailed and has only recently been modified, by which there was no limit at all to the number of claims in a district which one man could stake for himself and others, every creek adjacent to Flat Creek, every creek for many miles in every direction, had long since been tied up by the men with lead-pencils and hatchets. So the newly arrived prospectors must spread out yet wider, and they were soon scattered over all the rugged hundred miles between Iditarod City and the Kuskokwim River. Here and there they found prospects; and here and there what promised to be "pay." They started a new town, Georgetown, on the Kuskokwim itself; another town sprang up on the Takotna, a tributary of the Kuskokwim; and the great Commercial Company of Alaska, ever alert for new developments, put a steamboat on the Kuskokwim and built trading-posts at both these points. Thus the Kuskokwim country, which for long had been one of the least-known portions of Alaska, was opened up almost at a stroke.
[Sidenote: CAMP AT 50 deg. BELOW]
It was my purpose to visit Iditarod City during the winter of 1910-11, although, by reason of the distance to be travelled, a journey thither would involve the omission of the customary winter visit to upper Yukon points. When the northern trip to the Koyukuk was returned from at Tanana, a sad journey had to be made to Nenana to bury the body of Miss Farthing, and Doctor Loomis, missionary physician at Tanana, who accompanied me on this errand, had almost as rough a breaking-in to the Alaska trail as we came back to Tanana again as Doctor Burke had in our journey over the "first ice" of the Koyukuk two years before. Two feet of new snow lay on the trail, and the thermometer went down to 60 deg. below zero. We were camped once on the mail trail, unable to reach a road-house, at 50 deg. below zero.
[Sidenote: THE ROUTE TO THE IDITAROD]
From Tanana the beaten track to the Iditarod lay one hundred and sixty miles down the Yukon to Lewis's Landing, and then across country by the Lewis Cut-Off one hundred miles to Dishkaket on the Innoko, and thence across country another hundred miles to Iditarod City. But I designed to penetrate to the Iditarod by another route. I had long desired to visit Lake Minchumina and its little band of Indians, and to pass through the upper Kuskokwim country. So I had engaged a Minchumina Indian as a guide, and laid my course up the Tanana River to the Coschaket, and then due south across country to Lake Minchumina and the upper Kuskokwim.
The Cosna is a small stream confluent with the Tanana, about thirty miles above the mouth of that river, and we had hoped to reach it by the river trail upon the same day we left the mission at Tanana, the 18th of February, 1911. But the trail was too heavy and the going too slow and the start too late. When we had reached Fish Creek, about half-way, it was already growing dark, and we were glad to stop in a native cabin, where was an old widow woman with a blind daughter. The daughter, unmarried, had a little baby, and I inquired through Walter who the father was and whether the girl had willingly received the man or if he had taken advantage of her blindness. She named an unmarried Indian, known to me, and declared that she had not been consenting. It seemed a paltry and contemptible trick to take advantage of a fatherless blind girl. I baptized the baby and resolved to make the man marry the girl.
The next night we reached the Coschaket, which, following the Indian rule, means "mouth of the Cosna," and found that our guide, Minchumina John, had already relayed a load of grub that Walter had previously brought here from Tanana, one day's march upon our journey. Our course from the Coschaket left the Tanana River and struck across country by an old Indian trail that had not been used that winter. Through scrubby spruce and over frozen lakes and swamps, crossing the Cosna several times—a narrow little river with high steep banks—the trail went, until it brought us to a hunting camp of the Indians, about eighteen miles from the Coschaket. Here our stuff was cached and here we spent the night, doctoring the sick amongst them as well as we could. My eyes had been sorely tried this day despite dark smoked glasses, for we were travelling almost due south, and the sun was now some hours in the sky and yet low enough to shine right in one's face. So Walter stopped at a birch-tree, stripped some of the bark, and made an eye-shade that was a great comfort and relief.
From this place began the slow work of double-tripping. The unbroken snow was too deep to permit the hauling of our increased load over it without a preliminary breaking out of a trail on snow-shoes. So camp was left standing and Walter and John went ahead all day and returned late at night with eight or nine miles of trail broken, while I stayed in camp and had dog feed cooked and supper ready. The next day we advanced the camp so far as the trail was broken. A moose had used the trail for some distance, however, since the boys left it, and his great plunging hoofs had torn up the snow worse than a horse would have done.
A driving wind and heavy snowfall had drifted the new trail in the night so badly, moreover, that we were not able to cover the full stretch that had been snow-shoed, but camped in the dusk after we had gone eight miles. Eight miles in two days was certainly very poor travel, and at this rate our supplies would never take us down to the forks of the Kuskokwim. Yet there was no other way in which we could proceed. The weather was exceedingly mild, too mild for comfort—the thermometer ranging from 20 deg. to 25 deg. above—and the dogs felt the unseasonable warmth. It took us all that week to make the watershed between the drainage of the Tanana and the drainage of the Kuskokwim, a point about half-way to Lake Minchumina. One day trail was broken, the next day the loads went forward. Tie the dogs as securely as one would, it was not safe to go off and leave our supplies exposed to the ravages that a broken chain or a slipped collar might bring, so two went forward and I sat down in camp. The boys on their return usually brought with them a few brace of ptarmigan or grouse or spruce hen or, at the least, a rabbit or so.
[Sidenote: THE CAMP-ROBBERS]
The camp-robbers, to my mind the most interesting of Alaskan birds, became very friendly and tame on these vigils. They stay in the country all the winter, when most birds have migrated, like prosperous mine owners, to less rigorous climates; they turn up everywhere, in the most mysterious way, so soon as one begins to make any preparation for camping, and they are bold and fearless and take all sorts of chances. On this journey more than once they alighted on a moving sled and pecked at the dried fish that happened to be exposed. Yet they are so alert and so quick in their movements that it would be difficult to catch them were they actually under one's hand. One of them, during a long day in camp, grew so tame that it pecked crumbs off the toe of my moccasin, and in another day or two would, one feels sure, have eaten out of the hand. There is a curious belief, strongly intrenched in the Alaskan mind, that the nest of this most common bird has never been found, and that the Smithsonian Institution has a standing offer of a large sum of money for the discovery. They build in the spruce-trees, ten or twelve feet above the ground, a nest of rough twigs, and lay five very small eggs, grey spotted with black. This, at any rate, is the description that Walter gives me of a nest he discovered with the bird sitting upon it, and I have found the boy's accounts of such matters entirely trustworthy. It is curious, however, that the nest of a bird so common all over Alaska as the camp-robber should be so rarely found. At times they are very mischievous and destructive, and the man who builds a careless cache will often be heard denouncing them, but to my mind a bird who gives us his enlivening company throughout the dead of an Alaskan winter deserves what pickings he can get.
[Sidenote: SOFT WEATHER]
On Saturday, the 25th of February, after climbing a rather stiff hill, we passed temporarily out of Yukon into Kuskokwim waters, for the tributaries of these two great drainage systems interlock in these hills. At the foot of the hill we stopped for lunch, a roaring fire was soon built, and a great cube of beaten snow impaled upon a stake was set up before the fire to drip into a pan for tea water, while the boys roasted rabbits. In a few hours more we were on the banks of one of the tributaries of the East Fork (properly the North Fork) of the Kuskokwim. Here, in an unoccupied native cabin, we made our camp and lay over Sunday, and here began the most remarkable spell of weather I have known in the interior at this season of the year. The thermometer rose to 37 deg. and then to 40 deg.; the snow everywhere was thawing, and presently it began to rain steadily. It was the first time I had seen a decided thaw in February, let alone rain.
Next day the rain turned to snow, but since the thermometer still stood around 40 deg., the snow melted as it fell, and we were wet through all day. The snow underfoot, however, was so much less and so much harder that we were able to proceed without preliminary trail breaking. But it was a most disagreeable day and the prelude to a more disagreeable night. Soft, wet snow clings to everything it touches. The dogs are soon carrying an additional burden; balls of snow form on all projecting tufts of hair; masses of snow must continually be beaten off the sled. Every time a snow-shoe is lifted from the ground it lifts a few pounds of snow with it. One's moccasins and socks are soon wet through, and the feet, encased in this sodden cold covering, grow numb and stay so. We crossed a considerable mountain pass in driving snow, and should never have found the way without John, for much of it was above timber, and when it took us through woods the blazes on the trees were so bleached with age as to be difficult of recognition. The Indians have used this trail for generations; but few white men have ever passed along it.
Wet snow, wet spruce boughs, wet tent, wet wood, wet clothing make poor camping. Water-proof equipment is so rarely needed on the winter trail that one does not bother with it. But the climate of the Kuskokwim valley is evidently different from that of the rest of the interior, if, as John said, such weather is not remarkable in these parts at this season. A third day was of much the same description; thawing and heavily snowing all day, the thermometer between 36 deg. and 40 deg.. The labour of going ahead of the teams and breaking trail, on the snow-shoes, through slush, grew so great that I relinquished it to John and took the handle-bars of his sled. We were approaching Lake Minchumina, but the hills that led us into Yukon waters once more and should have given us views of the lake and the great mountains beyond gave nothing. It is a keen disappointment to be utterly denied great views, the expectation of which has been a support through long distances and fatigues.
At noon we built a fire with considerable difficulty, but once it was started we plied it with fuel till we had a noble, roaring bonfire, and we hung our wet socks and moccasins and parkees and caps and mitts around it and stayed there until they were dry, though the resumption of our journey in the continuous melting snow soon wet everything through again.
[Sidenote: LAKE MINCHUMINA]
At length, late in the evening of the 28th of February, we descended a long ridge and came upon the northeastern shore of Lake Minchumina, one of the most considerable lakes of interior Alaska. It stretched its broad expanse away into the misty distance, the farther shore quite invisible, the snow driving slowly over it, and it looked as though we had stumbled by mistake upon the shores of the Arctic Ocean. There was no sort of trail upon it and the snow-shoes sank through the melting snow of its surface into the water that lay upon the ice and brought up a load of slush at every step; yet the going would have been still worse without them. The recollection of the six miles we trudged across that lake is a dismal recollection of utter fatigue, of mechanical lifting and falling of encumbered feet with the recurring feeling that it would be impossible to lift them any more. All across that lake I ate snow, and that and the back-ache legacy of an old strain are my signs of approaching exhaustion. Four hours passed ere we heard the noise of dogs and saw the glimmer of a light through the darkness, and the hearts of men and beasts alike leaped to the expectation of rest and shelter. We had feared the village might be deserted and were rejoiced that the Indians were still there.
Never was hospitality more grateful than that we had from the little remote band of natives at the Minchumina village. They made a pot of tea and fried some flap-jacks for us, and that was our supper, though I think the boys ate some boiled moose meat from a pot on the stove. We had plenty of grub, but were too weary to cook it; we spread our bedding down on the floor amongst a dozen others and fell almost at once into a deep sleep. Almost at once; for the arrival of our eight dogs had made a commotion amongst the canine population of the place, that after repeated outbreaks of noisy animosity and defiance seemed to turn by common consent into a friendly and most protracted howling contest in which my malamute "Muk" plainly outdid all competitors. How much longer the noise would have kept up it is hard to say—dogs never seem too tired to howl—but when the limit of Indian patience was reached, an aged crone rolled out of the bed into which she had rolled "all standing," seized a staff and went outdoors to lay it impartially upon the backs of all the disturbers of the peace, domestic and foreign, with a screech that was as formidable as the blows. The rest was silence.
The next morning a dozen alarm-clocks went off within a few minutes of each other. Every adult in that cabin owned a separate alarm-clock, and rose, one supposes, to the summons of no other timepiece. At any rate, the clocks went off at intervals, and the natives arose one by one and seemed hugely to enjoy the clatter. Let one purchase a new thing and every individual in the community must have one also.
But what struck me instantly upon arising was the miraculous transformation that had taken place outdoors. The sun was shining brilliantly through a clear sky! I hastened to dress and, not waiting for breakfast, seized my camera and started out. The chinook was over; the sharp, welcome tang of frost was in the air; the snow was hard underfoot. Out upon the gleaming surface of the lake I went for nigh a mile, resolutely refusing to look behind. I knew what vision awaited me when I turned around, had, indeed, caught a slight glimpse as I left the cabin, and I wanted the smooth, open foreground of the lake that I might see it to the best advantage.
[Sidenote: DENALI AND HIS WIFE]
There is probably no other view of North America's greatest mountain group comparable to that from Lake Minchumina. From almost every other coign of vantage in the interior I had seen it and found it more or less unsatisfying. Only from distant points like the Pedro Dome or the summit between Rampart and Glen Gulch does the whole mass and uplift of it come into view with dignity and impressiveness. At close range the peaks seem stunted and inconspicuous, their rounded, retreating slopes lacking strong lines and decided character. But from the lake the precipitous western face of Denali and Denali's Wife rise sheer, revealed by the level foreground of the snow from base to summit. It was, indeed, a glorious scene. There stood the master peak, seeming a stupendous vertical wall of rock rising twenty thousand feet to a splendid sharp crest perhaps some forty or fifty miles away; there, a little farther to the south, rose the companion mass, a smaller but still enormous elevation of equally savage inaccessibility; while between them, near the base, little sharp peaks stretched like a corridor of ruined arches from mass to mass. One was struck at once by the simple appropriateness of the native names for these mountains. The master peak is Denali—the great one; the lesser peak is Denali's Wife; and the little peaks between are the children. And my indignation kindled at the substitution of modern names for these ancient mountain names bestowed immemorially by the original inhabitants of the land! Is it too late to strike Mount McKinley and Mount Foraker from the map? The names were given fifteen or sixteen years ago only, by one who saw them no nearer than a hundred miles. Is it too late to restore the native names contemptuously displaced?
The majesty of the scene grew upon me as I gazed, and presently hand went to camera that some record of it might be attempted. But alas for the limitations of photography! I knew, even as I made the exposures, first at one one-hundredth of a second and then at one-fiftieth, that there was little hope of securing a picture; the air was yet faintly hazy with thin vapour; the early sun made too acute an angle with the peaks; and the yellow lens screen was left in the hind-sack of the sled. It was even as I feared. When developed some months later, the film held absolutely no trace of the mighty mountains that had risen so proudly before it. I promised myself that at noon, when the sun had removed to a greater distance from the mountains and made a more favourable angle with them, I would return and try again; but by noon had come another sudden, violent change of the weather, and snow was falling once more.
[Sidenote: THE MINCHUMINA FOLK]
So I got no picture, save the picture indelibly impressed upon my memory, of the noblest mountain scene I had ever gazed upon which made memorable this 1st of March; perhaps one of the noblest mountain scenes in the whole world, for one does not recall another so great uplift from so low a base. The marshy, flat country that stretches from Minchumina to the mountains cannot be much more than one thousand feet above the sea. Those awful precipices dropping thousands of feet at a leap, those peaks rising serene and everlasting into the highest heaven, the overwhelming size and strength and solidity of their rocky bulk, all this sank into my heart, and there sprang up once again the passionate desire of exploring the bowels of them, of creeping along their glaciers and up their icy ridges, of penetrating their hidden chambers, inviolate since the foundation of the world, and maybe scaling their ultimate summits and looking down upon all the earth even as they look down!
Men, however, and not mountains, made the immediate demand upon one's interest and attention, and I returned to breakfast and the duties of the day. The Minchumina people are a very feeble folk, some sixteen all told at the time of our visit, greatly reduced by the epidemics of the last decade, living remote from all others on the verge of their race's habitat. They trade chiefly at Tanana, a hundred and thirty miles or so away, walking an annual trip thither with their furs, and owning a nominal allegiance to our mission at that place. It was the first time that any clergyman had ever visited them, and the whole of the day was spent with them, discovering what they knew and trying to teach them a little more. The people sat around on the floor and hung upon the lips of the interpreter. But what a barrier a difference of language is! An interpreter is like a mountain pass, a means of access but at the cost of time and labour. He does not remove the obstruction. The Minchumina people occupy a fine country that could amply support ten times the Indian population that now inhabits it. We were, indeed, now entering a country that has been almost depopulated by successive epidemics of contagious diseases. The measles in 1900 slew most of them, and diphtheria in 1906 destroyed all the children and many of the adults that remained. The chief of this little band wore a hat proudly adorned with ribbons and plumes, and flew a flag before his dwelling with the initials of the North American Trading and Transportation Company on it—a defunct Alaskan corporation. We could not learn the origin thereof; the flag and the letters were plainly home-made. It was probably a mere imitation of a flag he had seen years ago at Tanana, copied without knowledge of the meaning of the letters, as the Esquimaux often copy into the decoration of their clothing and equipment the legends from canned foods.
Lake Minchumina drains by a fork of the Kantishna River into the Tanana and so into the Yukon. Just beyond the southwestern edge of the lake runs a deep gully for perhaps a mile that leads to another lake called Tsormina, which drains into Minchumina. And just beyond Tsormina is a little height of land, on the other side of which lies Lake Sishwoymina, which drains into the Kuskokwim. So that little height of land is another watershed between Alaska's two great rivers. Lakes Tsormina and Sishwoymina are not on any maps; indeed, this region has never been mapped save very crudely from the distant flanks of Denali upon one of Alfred Brook's early bold journeys into the interior of Alaska on behalf of the Geological Survey. Although the Russians had establishments on the lower Kuskokwim seventy-five years ago, and the river is the second largest in Alaska and easy of navigation, yet the white man had penetrated very little into this country until the Innoko and Iditarod "strikes" of 1908 and 1909 respectively.
It was our plan to follow the main valley of the Kuskokwim until the confluence of the Takotna with that stream, just below the junction of the main North and South Forks of the Kuskokwim, and then strike northwestward across country to the Iditarod.
The snow had passed and the sun was bright and the thermometer around zero all day when we left Minchumina to pursue our journey. The welcome change in the weather had brought a still more welcome change in travel. The decided and continued thaw followed by sharp cold had put a crust on the snow that would hold up the dogs and the sled and a man on small trail snow-shoes anywhere. Trail making was no longer necessary, and in two days we made upward of fifty miles. So much difference does surface make.
Across the end of Lake Minchumina, across Tsormina and Sishwoymina and a number of lesser lakes we went, following a faint show-shoe trail towards a distant mountain group to the southwest, the Talida Mountains, at the foot of which lay the Talida village. On the other hand, to the east and southeast, we had tantalising glimpses through haze and cloud of the two great mountains, and presently of the lesser peaks of the whole Alaskan range, sweeping its proud curve to the coast. For a long way on the second day we travelled on the flat top of a narrow ridge that must surely have been a lateral moraine of a glacier, what time the ice poured down from the heights and stretched far over this valley—then through scattered timber, increasing in size and thickness and already displaying character that differed somewhat from the familiar forests of the Yukon. The show-shoe trail we were following was made by a messenger despatched by the Minchumina people to invite the Talida people to a potlatch; for the caches were filled with moose meat beyond local consumption. Early on the second day we met him returning and learned that he had gone on to yet another village a day's journey farther, still on our route.
The people were all gone hunting from the tiny native hamlet of Talida, but we entered a cabin and made ourselves at home. We had passed into the region where the Greek Church holds nominal sway, of which the icons with little candles before them on the walls gave token. No priest ever visits them, but a native at a village on the south fork where is a church holds some position analogous to that of a lay reader. The nearest priest is a half-breed, ill spoken of for irregularity of life, some two hundred miles farther down the river. The Greek Church is relaxing its hold in Alaska, perhaps inevitably, and suffers sadly since the removal of the bishop from Sitka from lack of supervision. Also we had passed out of Indian country into the land of the Esquimaux, for these people, far up towards the head of the river as they were, had yet come at some period from the mouth. We were out of Walter's language range now, and were glad that the bilingual John of the march country was with us to serve as interpreter.
Standing proudly up against the wall in one corner of the cabin was a rather pathetic object to my eyes—an elaborate gilt-handled silk umbrella. There needed no one to tell its story; it spoke of a visit to the Yukon with furs to sell and the usual foolish purchase of gay and glittering trash—novel and quite useless. What easy prey these poor people are to the wiles of the trader! Said one of them to me recently, when I asked the purpose of an "annex" to his store with a huge billiard-table in it—at an exclusive native village—"It's to get their money; there's no use trying to fool you; if we can't get it one way we've got to get it another." This gorgeous silk umbrella was concrete expression of the same sentiment. It was bought outside, it was brought into the country, it was set on exhibition in the store, because some trader judged it likely to attract a native eye. No one, white or native, uses an umbrella in interior Alaska.
We made twenty-five miles the next day through a wide, open country, well wooded in places with a park-like distribution of trees, unwonted in our travels and attractive. A new species of spruce threw thick branches right down to the ground and tapered up to a perfect cone; each tree apart from the others and surrounded by sward instead of underbrush. There was a dignity about these trees that the common Yukon spruce never attains. Rolling hills of small elevation stretched on either hand and game signs abounded. After eight hours of such travel we spoke of camping, but presently saw footprints in the snow and pushed on to the bank of a little river, the Chedolothna, where stood a cabin, a tent, and several high caches. Here, with two families that occupied the cabin, we stayed the night.
[Sidenote: MEASLES AND DIPHTHERIA]
Six people at this place, six at Talida, sixteen at Minchumina, make up all the population of a region perhaps a hundred and fifty miles square. Yet it is a noble Indian country, one of the most favourable in all the interior, capable of supporting hundreds of people. Signs, indeed, of a much larger occupation of it were not wanting, and all accounts speak of the wholesale destruction of the natives by disease. We were told of a village a little farther up this stream where every living being, save one old man, died of diphtheria five years previously, while those who have heard the stories of the horrors of the epidemic of measles in 1900, usually connected in some way with the stampede to Nome of that year when the disease seems to have entered the country, will understand how a region once thickly peopled, for Alaska, has become the most thinly peopled in all the territory.
A half-breed trader, long resident at a point perhaps two hundred miles lower down the Kuskokwim, told me of coming back to a populous village after an absence of a few weeks, to find every person dead and the starving dogs tearing at the rotting corpses. It is terrible to think what the irruption of a new disease may mean to these primitive natives. Even a disease like measles, rarely fatal and not commonly regarded as serious amongst whites, takes to itself a strange and awful virulence when it invades this virgin blood. The people know no proper treatment; maddened by the itching rash that covers the body, they fling off all cover, rush outdoors naked, whatever the weather, and either roll in the snow or plunge into the stream; with the result that the disease "strikes in" and kills them. Such is the description that is given of its course along the lower Yukon and Kuskokwim. At many a Yukon village half the people died, despite the aid the few missionaries then on the river could afford; upon the Kuskokwim the havoc seems to have been still greater. Six years later, death again stalked through this region after having visited the Yukon, and this time seized his victims by the throat. In another chapter has been given some account of an outbreak of diphtheria on the Chandalar, following a more serious epidemic at Circle City and Fort Yukon. It was during that same winter the disease raged in this region, remote from any sort of medical or even intelligent lay aid, and swept off all the children that had been spared by the measles or had been born since that time. At our next stopping-place we saw the graves of nineteen children who died in one day!
[Sidenote: THE INDIAN GUIDE]
We learned that we were now within one day's travel of a road-house, at or near the junction of the forks of the Kuskokwim, and that a government trail had been surveyed and staked from the Iditarod to the Sushitna, passing close to the same point, and that during the present winter road-houses had sprung up along the western portion of it, so that we should not have to make camp again on the way to Iditarod City. All of which Minchumina John had collected from the people in the cabin, and now presented to me as reason why he should be released from further service. I was loath to let him go until we were actually at the road-house described, but he wanted to go back to the lake for the potlatch then preparing, and said that two days' delay would bar him from the best of the festivities.
So I settled with him, giving him fifty dollars of the sixty dollars covenanted to the Iditarod, and grub enough to take him back to the lake, and a rifle, for he was unprovided with firearms, and he went his way back, richly content, to the gorging of unlimited moose meat that awaited him, and the boy and I went ours. So far as merely his company was concerned I was not sorry to lose him. The old saying holds good upon the trail that "two is company and three is none." He interfered with my boy's lessons. Since he had scarce any English, and could not be ignored, the conversation was mainly in Indian. In a word he pulled the company down to a native level. And I was anxious that Walter's education should proceed.
This boy had been with me for two years, winter and summer, and it was a great pleasure to witness his gracious development of body, mind, and character. Clean-limbed, smooth-skinned, slender, and supple, his Indian blood showing chiefly in a slight swarth of complexion and aquilinity of feature, he now approached his twentieth year and began to gain the strength of his manhood and to give promise of more than the average stature and physical power. With only one full year's schooling behind him, the year before he came to me, his active intelligence had made such quick use of it that there was good foundation to build upon; and our desultory lessons in camp—reading aloud, writing from dictation, geography and history in such snippets as circumstances permitted—were eagerly made the most of, and his mental horizon broadened continually. Until his sixteenth year he had lived amongst the Indians almost exclusively and had little English and could not read nor write. He was adept in all wilderness arts. An axe, a rifle, a flaying knife, a skin needle with its sinew thread—with all these he was at home; he could construct a sled or a pair of snow-shoes, going to the woods for his birch, drying it and steaming it and bending it; and could pitch camp with all the native comforts and amenities as quickly as anybody I ever saw. He spoke the naked truth, and was so gentle and unobtrusive in manner that he was a welcome guest at the table of any mission we visited. Miss Farthing at Nenana had laid her mark deep upon him in the one year he was with her.
[Sidenote: THE HALF-BREED]
Before he came to me I had another half-breed for two years, and before that there had been a series of full-blooded native boys. I found the half-breed greatly preferable. With full command of the native language, with such insight into the native mind as few white men ever attain, he combines the white man's quickness of apprehension and desire for knowledge; and the companionship had been pleasant and profitable. Both these boys had picked up quickly and efficiently, without the slightest previous experience, the running and the care of the four-cylinder gasoline engine of the mission launch, and took a great and intelligent interest in all machinery. As an interpreter the half-breed is far superior to most full-bloods; he takes one's purport immediately; his mind seems to leap with the speaker's mind, not only to follow faithfully but to anticipate. And the further his English progresses, so much the more excellent interpreter does he become.
My heart goes out to the large and rapidly increasing number of these youths of mixed blood in Alaska. It is common to hear them spoken of slightingly and contemptuously. There is what my mind always regards as a damnable epigram current in the country to the effect that the half-breed inherits the vices of both races and the virtues of neither. The white man who utters this saying with a chuckle at his second-hand wit has generally not much virtue to transmit, were virtue heritable. But to thoughtful men nowadays this talk of the inheritance of virtues and vices is mere folly. The half-breed in Alaska, as elsewhere, is the product of his environment. Often without legitimate father—although in an Indian community, where nothing is secret, his parentage is usually well known—he is left for some native woman to support with the aid of her native husband. He is reared with the full-blooded offspring of the couple in the frankness that knows no reserve and the intimacy that knows no restraint, of Indian life. The full extent of that frankness and intimacy shocks even the loosest-living white man when he first becomes aware of it. Where religion and decency have not been faithfully inculcated there is no bound to it at all—it is complete. Presently, as his superior intellectual inheritance begins to manifest itself, as he grows up into consciousness that he is different from, and in many ways superior to, the Indians around him, he is naturally drawn to such white society as comes his way.
[Sidenote: THE LOW-DOWN WHITE]
In this book a good deal has been said, and, it may be thought by the reader, said with a good deal of asperity, about the whites who frequent Indian communities and come most into contact with the native people; yet the more the author sees of this class, the less is he disposed to modify any of the strictures he has put upon it. "The Low-Down White" is the subject of one of the most powerful and scathing of Robert Service's ballads, those most unequal productions with their mixture of strength and feebleness, of true and forced notes, the best of which should certainly live amongst the scant literature of the North. And, indeed, the spectacle of the man of the higher race, with all the age-long traditions and habits of civilisation behind him, descending below the level of the savage, corrupting and debauching the savage and making this corrupting and debauching the sole exercise of his more intelligent and cultivated mind, is one that has aroused the disgust and indignation of whites in all quarters of the world. Kipling and Conrad have drawn him in the East; Robert Louis Stevenson in the South Sea Islands; any army officer will draw him for you in the Philippines, which lack as yet their great delineator; Service has not overdrawn him on the Yukon.
Now, it is to this man's society, for lack of other white society open to him, that the young half-breed who feels his father's blood stirring within him is drawn and is made welcome. He finds standards even lower, because more sophisticated, than the standards of the Indians themselves. He finds that honesty and morality are a sham, religion a laughing-stock. He finds the chastity of women and the honour of men sneeringly regarded as non-existent. He is taught to curse and swear, to talk lewdly, to drink and gamble. He is taught that drunkenness and sensuality are the only enjoyments worth looking forward to, and he soon becomes as vile as his preceptors. The back room of the Indian trader's store is often the scene of this tuition—barroom, assignation house, gambling hell in one. But let that same youth be taken early in hand by one who has a care for him and will be at some personal pains to train him cleanly and uprightly, and he is as amenable to the good influences as he would be to the bad if they were his sole environment. Conscious all the time of his equivocal position, shy and timid about asserting himself amongst whites, he is easy prey to the viciously as he is apt pupil to the virtuously disposed.
What is said here of the male half-breeds applies a fortiori to the female. Unless early taken in hand by the missionary, or put under the protection of some church boarding-school—and sometimes despite all such care and teaching—the lot of the half-breed girl is a sad one; and some of the lowest and vilest women of the land are of mixed blood.
The half-breed is assuredly to be reckoned with in the future of Alaska. He is here to stay. He is here in increasing numbers. He is the natural leader of the Indian population. There seems little doubt that when he cares to assert his rights he is already an American citizen, although judicial decisions are uncertain and conflicting in this matter.
The missions in the interior have recognised, though perhaps somewhat tardily, the importance of the half-breeds, and have picked them up here and there along the rivers and become responsible for their decent rearing. Some, assuredly, of the future leaders of the native people are now in training at the mission schools. Some, unfortunately, are in quite as assiduous training by the unscrupulous Indian trader and his coterie of low-down whites.
The skies had threatened snow since we arose, and when our diminished expedition was well upon its way the snow began to fall. For thirty-six hours it fell without cessation. Three days of good travel had put us forward seventy-five or eighty miles; now once more we were "up against" deep snow and trail breaking. An old native whom we met on his way to the potlatch later in the day spread out his hands with a look of despair and cried: "Good trail all lose'm!" All day we pushed on against the driving storm, the flakes stinging our faces and striking painfully against our eyeballs, now following a narrow steep woodland trail, now awhile along a creek bed, now across open country with increasing difficulty in finding our way, until it grew dark while yet we were some miles from our destination, and we made camp; and all night long the heavy snow continued.
So soon as we had struck our tent, crusted with ice, and had broken up our wet camp next morning there was trouble about finding the trail. Wide open spaces with never an indication of direction stretched before us. Again and again we cast about, the boy to the left, I to the right, to find some blaze or mark, but much of the course lay across open country that bore none. And then I sorely regretted having let John go back. Some miles before we came to a stop the previous evening, we passed a native encampment with naught but women and children in it—the men gone hunting. But we could not speak with them or get any information from them, for our Kuskokwim interpreter was gone. And now it seemed likely that we should lose our way in this wilderness. At last we were entirely at a loss, the boy returning on the one side and I on the other from wide detours, in which we had found no sign at all. The snow still fell heavily; there lay more than a foot of it upon the late crust; trail or sign of a trail, on the snow or above it, was not at all.
[Sidenote: THE DOG GUIDES]
Then occurred one of the most remarkable things I have known in all my journeyings. Straight ahead in the middle distance I spied two stray dogs making a direct course towards us; not wandering about, but evidently going somewhere. Now there are no such things as unattached dogs in Alaska; any dog entirely detached from human ownership and some sort of human maintenance would soon be a dead dog. The explanation, full of hope, sprang at once to the boy's mind. The dogs must belong to the native encampment some six miles back, and they had been to the road-house for what scraps they could pick up, and were returning. It was probably a daily excursion and they had doubtless followed their accustomed trail. So it turned out. All the way to that road-house, eight miles farther, we followed the trail left by those dogs, growing fainter and fainter indeed as the new snow fell upon it, but still discernible until we had almost reached the road-house. It led across open swampy wastes, and presently across two considerable lakes, over which we should never have been able to find our way, for the trail swung to one hand or the other and did not leave the lake in the same general direction by which it had reached it. Walter cut a bundle of boughs and staked the trail out as we pursued it, lest we should return this way, but from the moment we saw the dogs there was never any question about the trail; they kept it perfectly. We were four and a half hours making the eight miles or so to Nicoli's Village and the road-house, but we might have been days making it but for those dogs. And at the road-house we learned that the boy's theory of their movements was the right one. They came across the twelve or fourteen miles every day for such scraps as they could pick up.
[Sidenote: THE WILDERNESS POET]
So here was our first white man in sixteen days, an intelligent man of meagre education, with a great bent for versifying. A courteous approval of one set of verse brought upon us the accumulated output of years in the wilderness without much opportunity of audience, as one supposes, and most of the afternoon and evening was thus spent. Amidst the overwrought sentimentality and faulty scansion which marked most of the pieces was one simple little poem that struck a true note, said its little say, and quit—without a superfluous word. Its author set no store by it at all compared with his more pretentious and meretricious work; yet it was the one poem in the whole mass. It described the writing of a letter to his father; he had spent all he had in prospecting and working a small claim, and had just realised that a year's labour was gone for naught. His father would worry if he got no word at all, but there was no use telling the old man he was broke, so he just wrote that he was well, and that was all. The old man would come pretty near understanding anyway. In simple lines that scanned and rhymed naturally, that was what the three or four stanzas said. And it was so typical of many a man's situation in this country, gave so simply and well the reason why many men cease writing to their relatives at all, that it pleased me and seemed of value. That note came from the heart and from the life's experience.
Nicoli's Village is a very small place with a mere handful of people, situated on the South Fork of the Kuskokwim some forty miles by river above the junction of the forks. Before the epidemics devastated it it had been a considerable native community. A Greek church, which the natives built entirely themselves, and which boasted a large painted icon of sorts, was the most important building in the place, and was served by the lay minister referred to before. Thus far the Kuskokwim is navigable for vessels of light draught, and a small stern-wheel steamboat lay wintering upon the bank.
Our way now left the Kuskokwim and struck across country to a point just below the junction of the forks, and then across country again to a tributary of the right bank, the Takotna; with a general northerly direction. Road-houses there indeed were, in the crudity and discomfort of their first season, and other evidences of the proximity of the white man. Here were two men camped, hunting moose for the Iditarod market, more than a hundred and twenty-five miles away, and here, at the end of the second day, near the mouth of the Takotna, was the new post of the Commercial Company in the charge of an old acquaintance who welcomed us warmly and entertained us most hospitably. After camping and road-house experience of nearly three weeks, a comfortable bed and well-spread table, and the general unmistakable menage of a home-making woman are very highly enjoyed. That night the whole population of the settlement, fourteen persons, gathered in the store for Divine service.
Sixteen miles farther on was another settlement, the "Upper Takotna" Post, with a rival company established and some larger population. Here, also, we spent a night with old Fairbanks acquaintances. We were yet a hundred miles from Iditarod City, and the trail lay over a very rugged, hilly country, up one creek to its head, over a divide, and down another, in the way of the usual cross-country traverse.
There had not been so much snowfall in this section, but the weather began to be very severe. The thermometer fell to -45 deg. and -50 deg. and -55 deg. on three successive nights, and all day long rose not above -20 deg., with a keen wind. The cost of transporting supplies to the road-houses on this trail justified the high prices charged—one dollar and a half for a poor meal of rabbits and beans and bacon, or ptarmigan and beans and bacon, and one dollar for a lunch of coffee, bread and butter, and dried fruit. But no such exigency could be pleaded to excuse the dirt and discomfort and lack of the commonest provision of outhouse decency at most of these places—'twas mere shiftlessness. There is not often much middle ground in Alaskan road-houses; they are either very good in their way or very bad; either kept by professional victuallers who take pride in them or by idle incompetents who make an easy living out of the necessities of travellers. One wishes that some of the old-time travellers who used to wax so eloquently indignant over the inns in the Pyrenees could make a winter journey in the interior of Alaska.
One thing pleased me at these road-houses. The only reading-matter in any of them consisted of magazines bearing the rubber stamp of Saint Matthew's Reading-Room at Fairbanks, part of a five-hundred-pound cargo of magazines which the mission launch Pelican brought to the Iditarod the previous summer; virtually the only reading-matter in the whole camp. It was pleasant to know that we had been able to avert the real calamity of a total absence of anything to read for a whole winter throughout this wide district. But, although they were brought to the Iditarod and distributed absolutely free, each of these magazines had cost the road-house keeper twenty-five cents for carriage over the trail from Iditarod City, and they had been read to death. Some of them were so black and greasy from continued handling that the print at the edges of the pages was almost unreadable.
These creeks swarmed with ptarmigan, and it was well they did, for the new camp was ill supplied with food, and we found ourselves in a region of growing scarcity as we approached the Iditarod. The ptarmigan seem to have supplemented the meagre stocks in the Iditarod during this winter of 1910-11 as effectively as the rabbits did in the Fairbanks camp in the scarce winter of 1904-5. In place after place the whole creek valley, where it was open, was crisscrossed with ptarmigan tracks, and the birds rose in coveys, uttering their harsh, guttural cry at every turn of the trail.
The summit between the head of Moose Creek and the head of Bonanza Creek is again a watershed between the waters of the Kuskokwim and the waters of the Yukon; for Moose Creek is tributary to the Takotna and Bonanza Creek is tributary to Otter Creek, which is tributary to the Iditarod River. The "summit" is high above timber-line, and when the trail has reached it it does not descend immediately but pursues a hogback ridge for a mile and a half at about the summit level. We passed over it in clear, bright weather without difficulty, but it would be a bad passage in wind or snow or fog. The rugged, broken country, with small, rounded domes of hills, stretched away in all directions, a maze of little valleys threading in and out amongst them.
The Bonanza Creek road-house was by far the best of any between the Kuskokwim and the Iditarod, and showed what can be done for comfort, even under adverse circumstances, by a couple who care and try. But how the names of gold-bearing creeks, or creeks that are expected to be gold-bearing are repeated again and again in every new camp! I once counted up the following list of mining place-names in Alaska: Bonanza Creeks, 10; Eldorados and Little Eldorados, 10; Nugget Creeks or Gulches, 17; Gold Creeks, 12; Gold Runs, 7. Nor is it only in creeks with auriferous deposit or expectation of auriferous deposit that this reduplication occurs; there are Bear Creeks, 16; Boulder Creeks, 13; Moose Creeks, 13; Willow Creeks, 17; Canyon Creeks, 12; Glacier Creeks, 14.
The imagination of the average prospector is not his most active faculty, but even when his imagination is given play and he names a place "Twilight," as he did the original settlement at this base of supplies, the ineradicable prose of trade comes along the next summer and changes it to "Iditarod City." There must have been some remarkable personality strong enough to repress the "chamber of commerce" at Tombstone, Arizona, or the place would have lost its distinctive name so soon as it grew large enough to have mercantile establishments instead of stores.
[Sidenote: IDITAROD CITY]
We went through "Discovery Otter" and into "Flat City," on Flat Creek, the jealous rival of Iditarod City, and so over the hills to Iditarod City, on the wings of a storm. The wind whirled the snow behind us and drove the sled along almost on top of the dogs. In its bleak situation and its exposure to the full force of the wind, Iditarod City reminds one of Nome or Candle on the Seward Peninsula. The hills and flats that surround it are in the main treeless, and the snow drifts and drives over everything. Almost all the week that we spent in the town it was smothered up in a howling wind-storm, so that it was quite a serious undertaking to walk a block or two along the streets. Deep drifts were piled up on all the corners and on the lee side of all buildings. We reached Iditarod City on Monday, the 13th of March. Until the following Friday morning was no cessation or moderation of the wind-storm; and this, they told us, represented most of the weather since the 1st of January.
Overgrown and overdone in every way, the place presented all the features, sordid and otherwise, of a raw mining town. Prices had risen enormously on all manner of supplies, for everything that was not actually "short" was believed to be "cornered." Bacon was ninety cents a pound; butter one dollar and a half a pound; flour was twenty dollars a hundred pounds, and most things in like ratio. Some said the grub was not in the camp; others that the tradesmen had it cached away waiting for the still higher prices they believed would obtain before fresh supplies could arrive in July. There was a general feeling of disappointment and discouragement, enhanced by discomfort and actual suffering from the terrible stormy weather of the winter and the exorbitant and growing price of provisions. Many men without occupation were living on one meal a day. The saloons and the parasitical classes, male and female, seemed to flourish and to play their usual prominent part in the life of such places. The doings of notorious women whose sobriquets seemed household words, the lavish expenditures of certain men upon them, the presents of diamonds they received, with the amount paid for them, constituted a large part of the general talk.
One is compelled to admire the vigour and enthusiastic enterprise, daunted by no difficulty, that is displayed in the wonderfully rapid upraising of a new mining-camp town. The building goes far ahead of the known wealth of the camp and commonly far ahead of the reasonable expectation. But the element of chance is so important a factor in placer mining that the whole thing partakes more of the nature of gambling than of a commercial venture. Any new camp may suddenly present the world with a new Klondike; with riches abundant and to spare for every one who is fortunate enough to be on the spot. Here was Flat Creek with a surprisingly rich deposit; why should there not be a dozen such amidst the multitudinous creeks of the district? How could any one know that it would be almost the only creek on which pay would be found at all? For there is no law about the distribution of gold deposits; there is not even a general rule that has not its notable exceptions. It is very generally believed by the old prospectors and miners that somewhere in the Bible may be found these words, "Silver occurs in veins, but gold is where you find it," which of course, is a mere misreading or faulty remembering of a verse in the Book of Job: "Surely there is a vein for the silver and a place for the gold where they fine it" (refine it). But that "gold is where you find it" is about the only law touching auriferous deposits that holds universally good.
Three long parallel streets of one and two story wooden buildings, with cross streets connecting them, made up the town. Because the country is poorly timbered, the usual log construction had yielded in the main to framed buildings, and great quantities of lumber had been brought the previous summer from Fairbanks, and even from Nome and the outside, to supplement the low-grade output of two local mills. But the price of building materials had been very high, and the average dwelling was very small and incommodious. People accustomed to the comparative luxury of the older camps had suffered a good deal from the lack of all domestic conveniences in this new will-o'-the-wisp of an eldorado.
So there the town stretched away, lumber and paper,—the usual tinder-box Alaskan construction—stores slap up against one another, with no alleyways between; in the busiest part of it and along the water-front even an adequate provision of side streets grudged; furnace-heated and kiln-dried and gasoline-lit; waiting for the careless match and the fanning wind and the five minutes' start that should send it all up in smoke. A week after we left it came; as it came to Dawson, as it came to Nome, as it came to Fairbanks, without teaching any lesson or leaving any precautionary regulations on the statute book to save men from their own competitive greed. Two or three weeks after the fire, however, it was all rebuilt, and a plunging local bank held mortgages on most of the structures for the cost of the new material—and holds them yet.
[Sidenote: THOUSANDS WITHOUT CHURCH]
With at least a thousand people resident in the town, not to mention the thousands more out upon the creeks and at Flat City and "Discovery[G] Otter," there was no minister of religion of any sort in the whole region, nor had public Divine service been conducted since the occasion of the Pelican's visit the previous summer. Yet there were many in the place who sorely missed the opportunities of worship. Twice on Sunday the largest dancing hall in the town was crowded at service; at night it could have been filled a second time with those unable to get in.