Ten Thousand Miles with a Dog Sled - A Narrative of Winter Travel in Interior Alaska
by Hudson Stuck
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Places like this present very difficult problems to those desirous of providing for their religious need. To occupy them at all they should be occupied at once when yet eligible sites may be had for the staking; if they prosper, to come into them later means buying at a high price. Yet what seventh son of a seventh son shall have foresight enough to tell the fortunes of them? The North is strewn with "cities" of one winter. Nor is the selection of suitable men to minister to such communities a simple matter. Amidst the overthrow of all the usual criteria of conduct, the fading out of the usual dividing lines and the blending into one another of the usual divisions, it requires a tactful and prudent man "to keep the happy mean between too much stiffness in refusing and to much easiness in admitting" variations from conventional standards. His point of view, if he is to have any influence whatever, must not exclude the point of view of the great majority; he must accept the situation in order to have any chance of improving the situation. And yet in the fundamentals of character and conduct he must be unswerving. And if on any such fundamental the battle gauge is thrown down, he must take it up and fight the quarrel out at whatever cost.

We left Iditarod City on Monday, the 20th of March, the dogs the fatter and fresher for their week's rest, resolved not to return by the Kuskokwim but to take the beaten trail out to the Yukon, and so all the way up that stream to Fort Yukon. The monthly mail had arrived a few days previously—a monthly mail was all that the thousands of men in this camp could secure—and had gone out again the very next morning, before people had time to answer their letters, before the registered mail had even been delivered. So our departure for the Yukon was eagerly seized upon and advertised as a means of despatching probably the last mail that would go outside over the ice. I was sworn in as special carrier, and a heavy sack of first-class mail added to our load as far as Tanana. The first stage of thirty miles led to Dikeman, a town at the headwaters of ordinary steamboat navigation of the Iditarod River, at which the Commercial Company had built a depot and extensive warehouse, since in the main abandoned. Two streets of cabins lined the bank, but forty or fifty souls comprised the population, and almost all of them gathered for Divine service that night.


From Dikeman to Dishkaket, on the Innoko River, a distance of some seventy miles, our route lay over one of the dreariest and most dismal regions in all Alaska. It is one succession of lakes and swamps, with narrow, almost knife-edge, ridges between, fringed with stunted spruce. Far as the eye could reach to right and left the country was the same; it is safe to say broadly that all the land between the Iditarod and Innoko Rivers is of this character. We passed over it in mild weather, but it must be a terrible country to cross in storm or through deep snow. For ten miles at a stretch there was scarcely a place where a man might make a decent camp. At a midway road-house was gathered the greatest assemblage of dogs and loaded sleds I had ever seen together at one time, each team with an Indian driver; they must have covered a quarter or a third of a mile. It was a freight train engaged in transporting a whole boat-load of butcher's meat to Iditarod City, the cargo of a steamboat that had frozen in on the Yukon the previous October or early November. All the winter through efforts had been made to get this meat two hundred odd miles overland to its destination; but the weather had been so stormy and the snow so deep that near the end of March most of it was still on the way, and some yet far down the trail towards the Yukon waiting for another trip of the teams.

Dishkaket was merely a native village on the Innoko River two or three years before; but since three new trails from the Yukon come together here—from Kaltag Nulato, and Lewis's Landing—and in the other directions two trails branch off here, to the Innoko diggings at Ophir and to the Iditarod, a store or two and a couple of road-houses had sprung up.

From Dishkaket, after crossing the Innoko, we took the most northerly of the three trails to the Yukon, the Lewis Cut-Off, a trail of a hundred miles that strikes straight across country and reaches the Yukon eighty miles farther up that stream than the Nulato trail and a hundred and twenty miles farther up than the Kaltag trail. The Kaltag trail is the trail to Nome; the Nulato trail is the mail trail simply because it suits the contractors to throw business to Nulato. The Lewis Cut-Off is the direct route, the shortest by about a hundred miles, but it was cut by the private individual whose name it bears, and leads out to his store and road-house on the Yukon; so a rival road-house was built close by on the river and the prestige and advertisement of the "United States mail route" thrown to the trail that covers one hundred unnecessary miles—for no other reason than to deprive Lewis of the legitimate fruit of his enterprise.

The character of the country changed so soon as the Innoko was crossed; the wide swamps gave place to a broken, light-timbered country of ridges and hollows, and the rough, laborious, horse-ruined trail across it made bad travelling. "Buckskin Bill," with his cayuses, was also engaged in "moving the meat." The measured miles, moreover, gave place to estimated miles, and the nominal twenty-five we made the first day was probably not much more than twenty.

[Sidenote: MILLINERY]

The first fifty miles of the country between the Innoko and the Yukon is much the same, and we were climbing and descending ridges for a couple of days. Then we crossed a high ridge and dropped out of Innoko waters into the valley of the Yukatna, a tributary of the Yukon, and passed down this valley for thirty or forty miles, and then across some more broken country to the Yukon. At one of the road-houses a woman was stopping, going in with three or four large sled loads of millinery and "ladies' furnishings." We were told that the merchandise had cost her twelve thousand dollars in Fairbanks, and that she expected to realise thirty thousand dollars by selling it to the "sporting" women of the Iditarod, now a whole winter debarred from "the latest imported French fashions." This woman was dressed in overalls, like a man, and the drivers of her teams, two white men and a native, cursed and swore and used filthy language to the dogs in her presence. It always angers me to hear an Indian curse; to hear one curse in the presence of a white woman was particularly disgusting and exasperating; but what could one expect when the white men put no slightest restraint upon themselves and the woman seemed utterly indifferent? I called the Indian aside and spoke very plainly to him, and he ceased his ribaldry; but the white men still poured it out as they struggled to hitch their many dogs. At last I could stand it no longer. "Madam," I said to the woman, "I don't know who you are, save that you are a white woman, and as a white woman, if I were you, I would make those blackguards treat me with more respect than to use such language before me." She flushed and made no reply. The men, who heard what I said, scowled and made no reply. Presently dispositions were done and the train moved off, but I did not hear any more foul language. This is set down here chiefly because it was the first and only time in all his travels in Alaska that the writer heard such language in such presence.

Another road-house was kept by a man who had been cook upon a recent arctic expedition off the coast of Alaska, and he gave some interesting inside information about an enterprise the published narrative of which had always seemed unsatisfactory. It was just gossip from a drunken scamp, but it filled several gaps in the book.

As we approached the Yukon we passed several meat caches where great quarters of beef sewn up in burlap were piled on the side of the trail. At one of these caches the camp-robbers had been at work industriously. They had stripped the burlap from parts of several quarters, exposing the fat, and had dug out and carried it away little by little until it was all gone. The hard-frozen lean probably defied their best efforts; at any rate, the fat offered less resistance. But where else in the world could men dump quarters of beef beside the road and go off and leave them for weeks with no more danger of depredation than the bills of birds can effect?

A few miles from the river the rival road-house signs began to appear. "Patronise Lewis; he cut this trail at his own expense," pleaded one. "Why go five miles out of your way," sneered another. Lewis's road-house is across the wide Yukon, and there was no point in crossing the river save one's determination to lend no countenance to the spitefulness of these mail runners. So across the river we went and were glad to be on the Yukon again. The next morning we encountered the same rival signs at the point where the trail from Lewis's joined the "mail trail."


Most of our travelling was now upon the surface of the Yukon, and four hundred and fifty miles of it stretched ahead of us ere our winter's travel should end at Fort Yukon. Four hours brought us to the military telegraph station at Melozi, and we were able to send word ahead that we were safely out of the Kuskokwim wilderness. Then a portage was crossed and then the river pursued again until with about thirty miles to our credit we made camp. The days were lengthening out now, the weather growing mild, although a keen, cold, down-river breeze was rarely absent, and travel began to be pleasant and camping no hardship. We preferred camping, on several scores, when the day's work had not been too arduous, chief amongst them being that it gave more opportunity and privacy for Walter's schooling. He was reading Treasure Island aloud, and I was getting as great pleasure from renewing as he from beginning an acquaintance with that prince of all pirate stories. Kokrines and Mouse Point one day, the next The Birches; we passed these well-known Yukon landmarks, camping, after a run of thirty-eight miles, some six miles beyond the last-named place, with a run of forty-four miles before us to Tanana. I judged it too much; but the trail was greatly improved and we decided to attempt it in one stage. A misreading of the watch, so that I roused myself and Walter at 3.30 A. M. instead of 5.15 A. M., and did not realise the mistake until the fire was made and it was not worth while returning to bed, gave us a fine start and we made good progress. Gold Mountain (so called, one supposes, because there is no gold there; there is no other reason), Grant Creek, "Old Station" were passed by, and at length Tanana loomed before us while yet ten miles away. In just eleven hours we ran the forty-four miles, making, with three additional miles out to the mission, forty-seven altogether, by far the longest journey of the winter. We reached Tanana on the 1st of April, just six weeks since we left.


We spent eight days at Tanana, including two Sundays, Passion Sunday and Palm Sunday, but I was under an old promise to spend Easter there also. Now, Easter, 1911, fell on the 16th of April, and for the three-hundred-mile journey to Fort Yukon a period of ten or twelve days at the least would be necessary, that might easily stretch to two weeks. Travelling on the Yukon ice so late in April as this would involve was not only fraught with great difficulty and discomfort, but also with actual danger, and I had to beg to be absolved of my promise. Some considerable preparation was on foot for the festival, and I was loath to leave, for Tanana was then without any resident minister, but it seemed foolish to take the chances that would have to be taken if we stayed.

Five days of almost ceaseless snow-storm during our stay at Tanana did not give prospect of good travelling, and, indeed, when we pulled out from the mission on the Monday in Holy Week there was no sign of any trail. From Tanana up to Fort Yukon there is very little travel; since the whole of this long stretch of river was deprived of winter mail a year or two before, no through travel at all. Cabins may usually be found to camp in, but there are no road-houses. What travel still takes place is local.

The journey divided itself into two roughly equal parts, a hundred and fifty miles through the Lower Ramparts, and a hundred and fifty miles through the Yukon Flats, almost all of it on the surface of the river. It was hoped to reach Stephen's Village, a native settlement just within the second half of the journey, for Easter.

Snow does not lie long at rest upon the river within the Ramparts, and particularly within the narrow, canon-like stretch of seventy-five miles from Tanana to Rampart City. Violent and almost ceaseless down-stream winds sweep the deep defile in the mountains through which the river winds its course. In places the ice is bare of snow; in places the snow is piled in huge, hardened drifts. So strong and so persistent is this wind that it is often possible to skate over an uninterrupted black surface of ice, polished like plate glass, for twenty miles on a down-river journey. To make way over such a surface up-stream, against such wind, is, however, almost impossible. The dogs get no footing and the wind carries the sled where it listeth. The journey so far as Rampart City has been described before; it will suffice now that it took three days of toilsome battling against wind and bad surface, with nights spent upon the floor of grimy cabins. So cold was the wind that it is noted in my diary with surprise, on the 12th of April, that I had worn fur cap, parkee, and muffler all day, as though it had been the dead of winter instead of three weeks past the vernal equinox.

On Wednesday night there was Divine service at Rampart, and on Maundy Thursday, after four miles upon the river, we took the portage of eleven miles that cuts a chord to the arc of the greatest bend of the river within the Ramparts and so saves nine miles. Three miles more took us to the deserted cabin at the site of the abandoned coal-mine opposite the mouth of the Mike Hess River, here confluent with the Yukon, and in that cabin we spent the night, having had the high, bitter wind in our faces all day. We hated to leave the shelter of the wooded portage and face the blast of the last three miles.

[Sidenote: WIND AND SNOW]

We woke the next morning to a veritable gale of wind and snow, and lay in the cabin till noon, occupied with the exercises of the solemn anniversary. The wind having then abated somewhat and the snow ceased, we sallied forth, still hopeful of making Stephen's Village for Easter. But when we got down upon the river surface it became doubtful if we could proceed, and as we turned the first bend we encountered a fresh gale that did not fall short of a blizzard. The air was filled with flying snow that stung our faces and blinded us. The dogs' muzzles became incrusted with snow and their eyes filled with it so that it was hard to keep them facing it. I could not see the boy at all when he was a hundred feet ahead of the team. We struggled along for four miles, and, since it was then evident that we could not go much farther without useless risk, we turned to a spot on the bank where Walter knew another deserted cabin to stand; for he knows every foot of this section of the river and once spent a summer, camped at the coal-mine, fishing. The spot was reached, but the cabin was gone. The fish rack still stood there, but the cabin was burned down. There was nothing for it but to return to the coal-mine cabin; so, for the first and only time in all my journeyings, it was necessary to abandon a day's march that had been entered upon and go back whence we had come. We ran before the gale at great speed and were within the cabin again by 2.30 P. M. All the evening and all night the storm raged, and I was in two minds about running back to Rampart before it for Easter, since it was now out of the question to reach Stephen's Village. If the season had not been so far advanced this is what I should have done, but it would set us back three days more on the journey, and on reflection I was not willing to take that chance with the break-up so near.

So on the morning of Easter Eve we sallied up-stream again, snow falling and driving heavily, and the wind still strong but with yesterday's keen edge blunted. By the time we had beaten around the long bend up which we had fought our way the day before, the snow had ceased, and by noon the wind had dropped and the sun was shining, and in a few moments of his unobscured strength all the loose snow on the sled was melted—a warning of the rapidity with which the general thaw would proceed once the skies were clear. That night saw us in the habitable though dirty, deserted cabin at Salt Creek (so called, one supposes, because the water of it is perfectly fresh) at which we had hoped to lodge the previous night.

[Sidenote: ALASKAN "FORTS"]

Buoyed by the hope of doing a double stage in a clear, windless day and thus reaching Stephen's Village for service at night, we made a very early start that beautiful Easter morning. But it was not to be. Such trail as there was ran high up on the bank ice—level, doubtless, when it was made much earlier in the season, but now at a slope towards the middle of the river through the falling of the water, and seamed with great cracks. Such a trail, called a "sidling" trail in the vernacular of mushing, is always difficult and laborious to travel, for the sled slips continually off it into the loose snow or the ice cracks, and often for long stretches at a time one man must hold up the nose of the sled while the other toils at the handle-bars. In one place, while thus holding the front of the sled on the trail, Walter slipped into an ugly ice crack concealed by drifted snow, and so wedged his foot that I had difficulty in extricating him. The last two bends of the river within the Ramparts seemed interminable and it was 6.30 P. M., with twelve hours' travel behind us, when we reached old Fort Hamlin, on the verge of the Yukon Flats. These "forts," it might be explained, if one chose to pursue the elucidation of Alaskan nomenclature in the same strain, are so called because they never had any defences and never needed any. As a matter of fact, in the early days, when the Hudson Bay Company made its first establishments on the upper river, there was supposed to be some need of fortification, and Fort Selkirk and Fort Yukon were stockaded. Fort Selkirk, indeed, was sacked and burned sixty years ago, but not by Yukon Indians. The Chilkats from the coast, indignant at the loss of their middle-man profits by the invasion of the interior, crossed the mountains, descended the river, and destroyed the post. It thus became customary to call a trading-post a "fort," and every little point where a store and a warehouse stood was so dignified. Hence Fort Reliance, Fort Hamlin, Fort Adams.

For years Fort Hamlin had been quite deserted, but now smoke issued from the stovepipe and dogs gave tongue at our approach, and we found a white man with an Esquimau wife from Saint Michael and a half-breed child dwelling there and carrying a few goods for sale. With him we made our lodging, and with him and his family said our evening service of Easter, and so to bed, thoroughly tired.


A mile beyond Fort Hamlin the Ramparts suddenly cease and the wide expanse of the Yukon Flats opens at once. Ten miles or so brought us to Stephen's Village, where we had been long expected and where a very busy day was spent. A number of Indians were gathered and there were children to baptize and couples to marry, as well as the lesson of the season to teach. It was a great disappointment that we had been unable to get here before, and matter of regret that, being here at such labour, only so short a time could be spent. But the closing season called to us loudly. A mild, warm day set all the banks running with melting snow and made the surface of the river mushy. There was really no time to lose, for the next seventy-five miles was to give us the most difficult and disagreeable travelling of the journey. Here, in the Flats, where is greatest need of travel direction on the whole river, was no trail at all beyond part of the first day's journey. Within the Ramparts the river is confined in one channel; however bad the travelling may be, there is no danger of losing the way; but in the Flats the river divides into many wide channels and these lead off into many more back sloughs, with low, timbered banks and no salient landmarks at all. Behind us were the bluffs of the Ramparts, already growing faint; afar off on the horizon, to the right, were the dim shapes of the Beaver Mountains. All the rest was level for a couple of hundred miles.

A local trail to a neighbouring wood-chopper's took us some twelve miles, and then we were at a loss. The general direction we knew, and previous journeys both in winter and summer gave us some notion of the river bends to follow, but we wallowed and floundered until late at night before we reached the cabin we were bound for, the snow exceeding soft and wet for hours in the middle of the day.

The time had plainly come to change our day travel into night travel, for freezing was resumed each night after the sun was set, and the surface grew hard again. So at this cabin we lay all the next day, with an interesting recluse of these parts who knows many passages of Shakespeare by heart, and who drew us a chart of our course to the next habitation, marking every bend to be followed and the place where the river must be crossed. But there is always difficulty in getting a new travel schedule under way, and we did not leave until five in the morning instead of at two as we had planned. This gave us insufficient time to make the day's march before the sun softened the snow, and moccasins grew wet, and snow-shoe strings began to stretch, and the webbing underfoot to yield and sag—and we had to content ourselves with half a stage. By nine P. M. we were off again and did pretty well until the night grew so dark that we could no longer distinguish our landmarks. Then we went to the bank and built a big fire and made a pot of tea and sat and dozed around it for a couple of hours or so until the brief darkness of Alaskan spring was overpast, and the dawn began to give light enough to see our way again.

When our course lay on the open river, the snow had crust enough to hold us upon our snow-shoes; but when it took us through little sheltered sloughs, the crust was too thin and we broke through all the time, and that makes slow, painful travel. At last we came to a portage that cuts off a number of miles, but the snow slope by which the top of the bank should be reached had a southern exposure and was entirely melted and gone. The dogs had to be unhitched, the sled to be unloaded, the stuff packed in repeated journeys up the steep bank, and the sled hauled up with a rope. Then came the repacking and reloading and the rehitching; and when the portage was crossed the same thing had to be done to get down to the river bed again. Twice more on that day the process was gone through, and each time it took nigh an hour to get up the bank, so that it was around noon, and the snow miserably wet and mushy again, when we reached Beaver and went to bed at the only road-house between Fort Yukon and Tanana.

"Beaver City" owes its existence to quartz prospects in the Chandalar, in which men of money and influence in the East were interested. The Alaska Road Commission had built a trail some years before from the Chandalar diggings out to the Yukon, striking the river at this point, and on the opposite side of the river another trail is projected and "swamped out" direct to Fairbanks. The opening up of this route was expected to bring much travel through Beaver, and a town site was staked and many cabins built. But "Chandalar quartz" remains an interesting prospect, and the Chandalar placers have not proved productive, and all but a few of the cabins at "Beaver City" are unoccupied. If "the Chandalar" should ever make good, "Beaver City" will be its river port.

[Sidenote: LAST DAY]

We left Beaver at eleven P. M. on Friday night, hoping in two long all-night runs to cover the eighty miles and reach Fort Yukon by Sunday morning. Here was the first trail since we left Stephen's Village and the first fairly good trail since we left Tanana, for there had been some recent travel between Fort Yukon and Beaver. Here for the first time we had no need of snow-shoes, and when they have been worn virtually all the winter through and nigh a couple of thousand miles travelled in them, walking is strange at first in the naked moccasin. It is a blessed relief, however, to be rid of even the lightest of trail snow-shoes. We stepped out gaily into a beautiful clear night, with a sharp tang of frost in the air, and even the dogs rejoiced in the knowledge that the end of the journey was at hand. All night long we made good time and kept it up without a stop until eight o'clock in the morning, when we reached an inhabited but just then unoccupied cabin and ate supper or breakfast as one chooses to call it and went to bed, having covered fully half the distance to Fort Yukon. About noon we were rudely awakened by one of the usual Alaskan accompaniments of approaching summer. The heat of the sun was melting the snow above us, and water came trickling through the dirt roof upon our bed. We moved to a dry part of the cabin and slept again until the evening, and at nine P. M. entered upon what we hoped would be our last run.

But once more our plans to spend Sunday were frustrated. The trail led through dry sloughs from which the advancing thaw had removed the snow in great patches. Sometimes the sled had to be hauled over bare sand; sometimes wide detours had to be made to avoid such sand; sometimes pools of open water covered with only that night's ice lay across our path. By eight o'clock in the morning we estimated that we were not more than seven or eight miles from Fort Yukon. But already the snow grew soft and our feet wet, and the dogs were very weary with the eleven hours' mushing. It would take a long time and much toil to plough through slush, even that seven or eight miles. So I gave the word to stop, and we made an open-air camp on a sunny bank, and after breakfast we covered our heads in the blankets from the glare of the sun, and slept till five. Then we ate our last trail meal, and were washed up and packed up and hitched up an hour and more before the snow was frozen enough for travel. A couple of hours' run took us to Fort Yukon, and so ended the winter journey of 1910-11, on the 23d of April, having been started on the 17th of November. We were back none too soon. Every day we should have found travelling decidedly worse. In a few more days the river would have begun to open in places, and only the middle would be safe for travel, with streams of water against either bank and no way of getting ashore. Seventeen days later the ice was gone out and the Yukon flowing bank full.


[G] The "claim" on a creek on which gold is first found is called "Discovery"; the claims above are numbered one, two, three, etc., "above" and the claims below, one, two, three, etc., "below."



WHEN one contemplates the native people of the interior of Alaska in the mass, when, with the stories told by the old men and old women of the days before they saw the white man in mind, one reconstructs that primitive life, lacking any of the implements, the conveniences, the alleviations of civilisation, the chief feeling that arises is a feeling of admiration and respect.

What a hardy people they must have been! How successfully for untold generations did they pit themselves against the rigour of this most inhospitable climate! With no tool but the stone-axe and the flint knife, with no weapon but the bow and arrow and spear, with no material for fish nets but root fibres, or for fish-hooks or needles but bone, and with no means of fire making save two dry sticks—one wonders at the skill and patient endurance that rendered subsistence possible at all. And there follows quickly upon such wonder a hot flush of indignation that, after so conquering their savage environment or accommodating themselves to it, that they not only held their own but increased throughout the land, they should be threatened with a wanton extermination now that the resources of civilisation are opened to them, now that tools and weapons and the knowledge of easier and more comfortable ways of life are available.

The natives of the interior are of two races, the Indian and the Esquimau. The Indian inhabits the valley of the Yukon down to within three or four hundred miles of its mouth; the Esquimau occupies the lower reaches of the Yukon and the Kuskokwim and the whole of the rivers that drain into the Arctic Ocean west and north. These inland Esquimaux are of the same race as the coast Esquimaux and constitute an interesting people, of whom something has been said in the account of journeys through their country.


The Indians of the interior are of one general stock, the Athabascan, as it is called, and of two main languages derived from a common root but differing as much perhaps as Spanish and Portuguese. The language of the upper Yukon (and by this term in these pages is meant the upper American Yukon) is almost identical with the language of the lower Mackenzie, from which region, doubtless, these people came, and with it have always maintained intercourse. The theory of the Asiatic origin of the natives of interior Alaska has always seemed fanciful and far-fetched to the writer. The same translations of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer serve for the lower Mackenzie and the upper Yukon and are in active use to-day through all that wide region, despite minor dialectical variations.

Near the lower ramparts of the Yukon, at Stephen's Village, the language changes and the new tongue maintains itself, though with continually increasing dialectical differences, until the Indians overlap the Esquimaux, six hundred miles farther down.

Fort Yukon is the most populous place on the river, and the last place on the river, where the upper language, or Takhud, is spoken. A stretch of one hundred and fifty miles separates it from the next native village, and the inhabitants of that village are not intelligible to the Fort Yukon Indians—an unintelligibility which seems to speak of long ages of little intercourse.

* * * * *

The history of the migrations of the Indians from the Athabascan or Mackenzie region is impossible to trace now. It is highly probable that the movement was by way of the Porcupine River. And it would seem that there must have been two distinct migrations: one that passed down the Yukon to the Tanana district and spread thence up the Tanana River and up the Koyukuk; and long after, as one supposes, a migration that peopled the upper Yukon. A portion of this last migration must have gone across country to the Ketchumstock and the upper Tanana, for the inhabitants of the upper Tanana do not speak the Tanana tongue, which is the tongue of the Middle Yukon but a variant of the tongue of the upper Yukon.

How long ago these migrations took place there is not the slightest knowledge to base even a surmise upon. The natives themselves have no records nor even traditions, and the first point of contact between white men and the natives of the interior is within three quarters of a century ago. It may have been two or three families only which penetrated to this region or to that and settled there, and what pressure started them on their wanderings no one will ever know. Perhaps some venturesome hunter pursuing his game across the highlands that separate the Mackenzie from the Yukon was disabled and compelled to remain until the summer, and then discovered the salmon that made their way up the tributaries of the Porcupine. The Mackenzie has no salmon. Or a local tribal quarrel may have sent fugitives over the divide.

When first the white man came to the upper Yukon, in 1846 and 1847, no one knew that it was the same river at the mouth of which the Russians had built Redoubt Saint Michael ten or twelve years before. The natives of the upper river knew nothing about the lower river. It is an easy matter to float down the Yukon for a thousand miles in a birch-bark canoe, but an exceedingly difficult matter to come up again. It was not until the voyageurs of the Hudson Bay Company, in their adventurous fur-trading expeditions, met at the mouth of the Tanana River the agents of the Russian Fur Company, come up from Nulato on the same quest, that the identity of the Yukon and Kwikpak Rivers was discovered; and that seems to have been well past the middle of the century. In the map of North America that the writer first used at school, the Yukon flowed north into the Arctic Ocean, parallel with the Mackenzie.


The Indians of the interior of Alaska are a gentle and kindly and tractable people. They have old traditions of bloody tribal warfare that have grown in ferocity, one supposes, with the lapse of time, for it is very difficult for one who knows them to believe that so mild a race could ever have been pugnacious or bloodthirsty. Whether it were that the exigencies of subsistence under arctic conditions demanded almost all their energies, or that a realisation of their constant dependence upon one another checked the play of passion, they differ most widely and, it seems certain, always differed most widely in character from the Indians of the American plains. A personal knowledge of the greater part of all the natives of interior Alaska, gained by living amongst them and travelling from village to village during seven or eight years, furnishes but a single instance of an Indian man guilty of any sort of violence against another Indian or against a white man—except under the influence of liquor.

It is true that there are unquestioned murders that have been committed—murders of white men at that; but in the sixty years from the Nulato massacre of 1851, over the whole vast interior, these crimes can be counted on the fingers of one hand. They are not a revengeful people. They do not cherish the memory of injuries and await opportunities of repayment; that trait is foreign to their character. On the contrary, they are exceedingly placable and bear no malice. Moreover, they are very submissive, even to the point of being imposed upon. In fact, they are decidedly a timid people in the matter of personal encounter. In all these characteristics they differ from the North American Indian generally as he appears in history.

They are capable of hard work, though apparently not of continuous hard work; they will cheerfully support great privation and fatigue; but when the immediate necessity is past they enjoy long periods of feasting and leisure. Having no property nor desire of property, save their clothes, their implements and weapons, and the rude furnishings of their cabins, there is no incentive to hard and continuous work.

After all, where is the high and peculiar virtue that lies in the performance of continuous hard work? Why should any one labour incessantly? This is the question the Indian would ask, and one is not always sure that the mills of Massachusetts and the coal-mines of Pennsylvania return an entirely satisfactory answer. As regards thrift, the Indian knows little of it; but the average white man of the country does not know much more. There is little difference as regards thrift between wasting one's substance in a "potlatch," which is a feast for all comers, and wasting it in drunkenness, which is a feast for the liquor sellers, save that one is barbarous and the other civilised, as the terms go.

It would seem that the general timidity of the native character is the reason for a very general untruthfulness, though there one must speak with qualification and exception. There are Indians whose word may be taken as unhesitatingly as the word of any white man, and there are white men in the country whose word carries no more assurance than the word of any Indian. The Indian is prone to evasion and quibbling rather than to downright lying, though there are many who are utterly unreliable and untrustworthy.


In the matter of sexual morality the Indian standards are very low, though certainly not any lower than the standards of the average white man in the country. One is forced to this constant comparison; the white man in the country is the only white man the Indian knows anything about. To the Indian a physical act is merely a physical act; all down his generations there has been no moral connotation therewith, and it is hard to change the point of view of ages when it affects personal indulgence so profoundly. The white man has been taught, down as many ages, perhaps, that these physical acts have moral connotation and are illicit when divorced therefrom, yet he is as careless and immoral in this country as the Indian is careless and unmoral. And the white man's careless and immoral conduct is the chief obstacle which those who would engraft upon the Indian the moral consciousness must contend against.

The Indian woman is not chaste because the Indian man does not demand chastity of her, does not set any special value upon her chastity as such. And the example of the chastity which the white man demands of his women, though he be not chaste himself, is an example with which the native of Alaska has not come much into contact. Too often, in the vicinity of mining camps, the white women who are most in evidence are of another class.


The Indian is commonly intelligent and teachable, and in most cases eager to learn and eager that his children may learn. Here it becomes necessary to deal with a difficult and somewhat contentious matter that one would rather let alone. The government has undertaken the education of the Indian, and has set up a bureau charged with the establishment and conduct of native schools.

There are five such schools on the Yukon between Eagle and Tanana, including these two points, amongst Indians all of whom belong to the Episcopal Church, and five more between Tanana and Anvik, amongst natives divided in allegiance between the Episcopal and the Roman Catholic Churches. Below Anvik to the river's mouth the natives are divided between the Roman and the Greek Churches, and they are outside the scope of this book. On the tributaries of the Yukon the only native schools are conducted by the missions of the Episcopal Church, on the Koyukuk and Tanana Rivers, and have no connection with the government.

When, somewhat late in the day, the government set its hand to the education of the natives, mission schools had been conducted for many years at the five stations of the Episcopal Church above Tanana and at the various mission stations below that point. The Bureau of Education professed its earnest purpose of working in harmony with the mission authorities, and upon this profession it secured deeds of gift for government school sites within the mission reservations from the Bishop of Alaska.

It cannot be stated, upon a survey of the last five or six years, that this profession has been carried out. The administration of the Bureau of Education has shared too much the common fault of other departments of the government in a detached and lofty, not to say supercilious, attitude. Things are not necessarily right because a government bureau orders them, nor are government officials invested with superior wisdom merely by reason of their connection with Washington. It is just as important for a government school as for a mission school to be in harmony with its environment, to adapt itself to the needs of the people it designs to serve; and that harmony and adaptation may only be secured by a single-minded study of the situation and of the habits and character, the occupations and resources of the people.

To keep a school in session when the population of a village is gone on its necessary occasions of hunting or trapping, and to have the annual recess when all the population is returned again, is folly, whoever orders it, in accord with what time-honoured routine soever, and this has not infrequently been done. Moreover, it is folly to fail to recognise that the apprenticeship of an Indian boy to the arts by which he must make a living, the arts of hunting and trapping, is more important than schooling, however important the latter may be, and that any talk—and there has been loud talk—of a compulsory education law which shall compel such boys to be in school at times when they should be off in the wilds with their parents, is worse than mere folly, and would, if carried out, be a fatal blunder. If such boys grow up incompetent to make a living out of the surrounding wilderness, whence shall their living come?

The next step would be the issuing of rations, and that would mean the ultimate degradation and extinction of the natives. When the question is stated in its baldest terms, is the writer perverse and barbarous and uncivilised if he avow his belief that a race of hardy, peaceful, independent, self-supporting illiterates is of more value and worthy of more respect than a race of literate paupers? Be it remembered also that many of these "illiterates" can read the Bible in their own tongue and can make written communication with one another in the same—very scornful as the officials of the bureau have been about such attainment. One grows a little impatient sometimes when a high official at Washington writes in response to a request for permission to use a school building after school hours, for a class of instruction in the native Bible, that the law requires that all instruction in the school be in the English language, and that it is against the policy of Congress to use public money for religious instruction! When the thermometer drops to 50 deg. below zero and stays there for a couple of weeks, it is an expensive matter to heat a church for a Bible class three times a week—and the schoolhouse is already cosy and warm.

But the question does not reduce itself to the bald terms referred to above; by proper advantage of times and seasons the Indian boy may have all the English education that will be of any service to him, and may yet serve his apprenticeship in the indispensable wilderness arts. And, given a kindly and competent teacher, there is no need of any sort of compulsion to bring Indian boys and girls to school when they are within reach of it.

The Indian school problem is not an easy one in the sense that it can be solved by issuing rules and regulations at Washington, but it can be solved by sympathetic study and by the careful selection of intelligent, cultured teachers.

After all, this last is the most important requisite. Too often it is assumed that any one can teach ignorant youth: and women with no culture at all, or with none beyond the bald "pedagogy" of a low-grade schoolroom, have been sent to Alaska. There have, indeed, been notable exceptions; there have been some very valuable and capable teachers, and with such there has never been friction at the missions, but glad co-operation.

The situation shows signs of improvement; there are signs of withdrawal from its detached and supercilious attitude on the part of the bureau, signs which are very welcome to those connected with the missions. For the best interest of the native demands that the two agencies at work for his good work heartily and sympathetically together. The missions can do without the government—did do without it for many years, though glad of the government's aid in carrying the burden of the schools—but the government cannot do without the missions; and if the missions were forced to the re-establishment of their own schools, there would be empty benches in the schools of the government.


That the Indian race of interior Alaska is threatened with extinction, there is unhappily little room to doubt; and that the threat may be averted is the hope and labour of the missionaries amongst them. At most places where vital statistics are kept the death-rate exceeds the birth-rate, though it is sometimes very difficult to secure accurate statistics and to be sure that they always cover the same ground. The natives wander; within certain territorial limits they wander widely. Whenever a child is born it is certain that if it lives long enough it will be brought to a mission to be baptized, but a death often occurs at some isolated camp that is not reported till long after, and may escape registration altogether.

Certain diseases that have played havoc in the past are not much feared now. For the last seven years supplies of the diphtheritic antitoxin have been kept at all the missions of the Episcopal Church, and in the summer of 1911, when there was an outbreak of smallpox at Porcupine River, almost every Indian of interior Alaska was vaccinated, mainly by the mission staffs. Diphtheria has been a dreadful scourge. The valley of the upper Kuskokwim was almost depopulated by it in 1906. A disease resembling measles took half the population of the lower Yukon villages in 1900. In the last few years there have been no serious epidemics; but epidemic disease does not constitute the chief danger that threatens the native.


That chief danger looms from two things: tuberculosis and whisky. Whether tuberculosis is a disease indigenous to these parts, or whether it was introduced with the white man, has been disputed and would be difficult of determination. Probably it was always present amongst the natives; the old ones declare that it was; but the changed conditions of their lives have certainly much aggravated it. They lived much more in the open when they had no tree-felling tool but a stone-axe and did not build cabins. The winter residence in those days was, it is true, a dark, half-underground hut covered with earth and poles, but the time of residence therein was much shorter; the skin tent sheltered them most of the year. Indeed, some tribes, such as the Chandalar, lived in their skin tents the year round. Now an ill-ventilated and very commonly overcrowded cabin shelters them most of the year. It is true that the cabins are constantly improving and the standard of living within them is constantly rising. The process is slow, despite all urgings and warnings, and overcrowding and lack of ventilation still prevail.

Perhaps as great a cause of the spread of tuberculosis is the change in clothing. The original native was clad in skins, which are the warmest clothing in the world. Moose hide or caribou hide garments, tanned and smoked, are impervious to the wind, and a parkee of muskrat or squirrel, or, as was not uncommon in the old days, of marten, or one of caribou tanned with the hair on, with boots of this last material, give all the warmth that exposure to the coldest weather requires. Nowadays fur garments of any sort are not usual amongst the natives. There is a market, at an ever-growing price, for all the furs they can procure. A law has, indeed, gone recently into effect prohibiting the sale of beaver for a term of years, and already beaver coats and caps begin to appear again amongst the people. It would be an excellent, wise thing, worthy of a government that takes a fatherly interest in very childlike folks, to make this law permanent. If it were fit to prohibit the sale of beaver pelts for a term of years to protect the beaver, surely it would be proper to perpetuate the enactment to protect the Indian. It would mean warm clothing for man, woman, and child.


The Indian usually sells all his furs and then turns round and buys manufactured clothing from the trader at a fancy price. That clothing is almost always cotton and shoddy. Genuine woollens are not to be found in the Indian trader's stock at all, and in whatever guise it may masquerade, and by whatever alias it may pass, the native wear is cotton. Yet there is no country in the world where it is more imperative, for the preservation of health, that wool be worn.

However much fur the Indian may catch and sell, he is always poor. He is paid in trade, not in cash; and when the merchant has bought the Indian's catch of fur he straightway spreads out before him an alluring display of goods specially manufactured for native trade. Here are brilliant cotton velvets and sateens and tinselled muslins and gay ribbons that take the eye of his women folk; here are trays of Brummagem knickknacks, brass watches, and rings set with coloured glass, gorgeous celluloid hair combs, mirrors with elaborate, gilded frames, and brass lamps with "hand-painted" shades and dangling lustres; here are German accordions and mouth-organs and all sorts of pocket-knives and alarm-clocks—the greatest collection of glittering and noisy trash that can be imagined, bought at so much a dozen and retailed, usually, at about the same price for one. And when the Indian has done his trading the trader has most of his money back again.

The news that an Indian has caught a black fox, the most exciting item of news that ever flies around a native village, does not give any great pleasure to one who is acquainted with native conditions, because he knows that it will bring little real benefit to the Indian. There will be keen competition, within limits, of course, amongst the traders for it; and the fortunate trapper may get three or four hundred dollars in trade for a skin that will fetch eight hundred or a thousand in cash on the London market; but if his wife get the solid advantage of a new cooking-stove or a sewing-machine from it she is doing well.

Food the Indian never buys much beyond his present need, unless it is to squander it in feast after feast, to which every one is invited and at which there is the greatest lavishness. If a son is born, or a black fox is caught, or a member of the family recovers from a severe illness, custom permits, if it do not actually demand, that a "potlatch" be given, and most Indians are eager, whenever they are able, to be the heroes of the prandial hour.

So he, his women, and his children go clad mainly in cotton, and there is abundant evidence that the tendency to pulmonary trouble, always latent amongst them, is developed by the severe colds which they catch through the inadequate covering of their bodies, and is then cherished into virulent activity by the close atmosphere of overcrowded, overheated cabins.

The missions help the Indians, especially the women and children, in this matter of clothing as much as possible. Every year large bales of good though left-off under and over wear are secured through church organisations outside, and are traded to the natives at nominal prices, usually for fish or game or a little labour in sawing wood. And this naturally does not ingratiate missions with the trading class. One's anger is aroused sometimes at seeing the cotton-flannel underclothes and "cotton-filled" blankets and the "all-wool" cotton coats and trousers which they pay high prices for at the stores. The Canadian Indians, who are their neighbours, buy genuine Hudson Bay blankets and other real woollen goods, but the Alaskan Indian can buy nothing but cotton.

But far and away beyond any other cause of the native decline stands the curse of the country, whisky. Recognising by its long Indian experience the consequences of forming liquor-drinking habits amongst the natives, the government has forbidden under penalty the giving or selling of any intoxicants to them. A few years ago a new law passed making such giving or selling a felony. These laws are largely a dead letter.


The country is a very large one, very sparsely populated; the distances are enormous, the means of transportation entirely primitive, and the police and legal machinery insufficient to the end of suppressing this illicit traffic, especially in view of the fact that a considerable part of the whole population does not look with favour upon any vigorous attempt to suppress it. Great areas of the country are without telegraphic communication, and in parts mail is received only once a month. One stretch of two hundred and fifty miles of the Yukon receives no mail at all during the winter months—more than half the year. In that instance, as in many others, the country has gone distinctly backward in the past few years. The magistrates—"commissioners" they are called, receive no salary, but eke out a precarious and often wretched existence on fees, so that it is frequently impossible to get men of character and capacity to accept such offices.

One would have supposed that amongst all the legislating that has been done for and about Alaska in the last year or two, one crying evil that the attention of successive administrations has been called to for twenty years past would have been remedied. That evil is the unpaid magistrate and the vicious fee system by which he must make a living. It is a system that has been abolished in nearly all civilised countries; a system that lends itself to all sorts of petty abuse; a system that no one pretends to defend. No greater single step in advance could be made in the government of Alaska, no measure could be enacted that would tend to bring about in greater degree respect for the law than the abolition of the unpaid magistracy and the setting up of a body of stipendiaries of character and ability.

The anomalies of the present situation are in some cases amusing. At one place on the Yukon it is only possible for a man to make a living as United States commissioner if he can combine the office of postmaster with it. A man who was removed as commissioner still retained the post-office, and no one could be found to accept the vacant judgeship. In another precinct the commissioner was moving all those whom he thought had influence to get him appointed deputy marshal instead of commissioner, because the deputy marshal gets a salary of two thousand dollars a year and allowances, which was more than the commissionership yielded. One is reminded of some comic-opera topsyturvyism when the judge tries in vain to get off the bench and be appointed constable. It sounds like the Bab Ballads. The district court is compelled to wink at irregularities of life and conduct in its commissioners because it cannot get men of a higher stamp to accept its appointments.


The only policemen are deputy United States marshals, primarily process-servers and not at all fitted in the majority of cases for any sort of detective work. Their appointment is often dictated and their action often hampered by political considerations. The liquor interest is very strong and knows how to bring pressure to bear against a marshal who is offensively active. They are responsible only to the United States marshal of their district, and he is responsible to the attorney-general, the head of the department of justice. But Washington is a long way off, and the attorney-general is a very busy man, not without his own interest, moreover, in politics. An attempt to get some notice taken of a particular case in which it was the general opinion that an energetic and vigilant deputy had been removed, and an elderly lethargic man substituted, because of too great activity in the prosecution of liquor cases, resulted in the conviction that what should have been a matter of administrative righteousness only was a political matter as well.

The threatened extinction of the Alaskan native was referred to as wanton, and the term was used in the sense that there are no necessary natural causes fighting against his survival.

Here is no economic pressure of white settlers determined to occupy the land, such as drove the Indians of the plains farther and farther west until there was no more west to be driven to. If such delusion possess any mind as a result of foolish newspaper and magazine writings, let it be dismissed at once. No man who has lived in the country and travelled in the country will countenance such notion. The white men in Alaska are miners and prospectors, trappers and traders, wood-choppers and steamboat men. Around a mining camp will be found a few truck-farmers; alongside road-houses and wood camps will often be found flourishing vegetable gardens, but outside of such agriculture there are, speaking broadly, no farmers at all in the interior of Alaska. Probably a majority of all the homesteads that have been taken up have been located that the trees on them might be cut down and hauled to town to be sold for fire-wood. A few miles away from the towns there are no homesteads, except perhaps on a well-travelled trail where a man has homesteaded a road-house.

All the settlements in the country are on the rivers, save the purely mining settlements that die and are abandoned as the placers play out. Yet one will travel two hundred and fifty miles up the Porcupine—till Canada is reached—and pass not more than three white men's cabins, all of them trappers; one will travel three hundred and fifty miles up the Koyukuk before the first white man's cabin is reached, and as many miles up the Innoko and the Iditarod and find no white men save wood-choppers. There are a few more white men on the Tanana than on any other tributary of the Yukon, because Fairbanks is on that river and there is more steamboat traffic, but they are mainly wood-choppers, while on the lesser tributaries of the Yukon, it is safe to say, there are no settled white men at all. As soon as one leaves the rivers and starts across country one is in the uninhabited wilderness.

The writer is no prophet; he cannot tell what may happen agriculturally in Alaska or the rest of the arctic regions when the world outside is filled up and all unfrozen lands are under cultivation. Still less is he one who would belittle a country he has learned to love or detract in any way from its due claims to the attention of mankind. There is in the territory a false newspaper sentiment that every one who lives in the land should be continually singing extravagant praises of it and continually making extravagant claims for it. A man may love Alaska because he believes it to have "vast agricultural possibilities," because, in his visions, he sees its barren wilds transformed into "waving fields of golden grain." But a man may also love it who regards all such visions as delusions.

[Sidenote: FOOD AND FURS]

The game and the fish of Alaska, the natural subsistence of the Indian, are virtually undiminished. Vast herds of caribou still wander on the hills, and far more are killed every year by wolves than by men. Great numbers of moose still roam the lowlands. The rivers still teem with salmon and grayling and the lakes with whitefish, ling, and lush. Unless the outrage of canneries should be permitted at the mouths of the Yukon—and that would threaten the chief subsistence of all the Indians of the interior—there seems no danger of permanent failure of the salmon run, though, of course, it varies greatly from year to year. Furs, though they diminish in number, continually rise in price. There are localities, it is true, where the game has been largely killed off and the furs trapped out; the Koyukuk country is one of them, though perhaps that region never was a very good game country. In this region, when a few years ago there was a partial failure of the salmon, there was distress amongst the Indians. But the country on the whole is almost as good an Indian country as ever it was, and there are few signs that it tends otherwise, though things happen so quickly and changes come with so little warning in Alaska that one does not like to be too confident.

The Indian is the only settled inhabitant of interior Alaska to-day; for the prospectors and miners, who constitute the bulk of the white population, are not often very long in one place. Many of them might rightly be classed as permanent, but very few as settled inhabitants. It is the commonest thing to meet men a thousand miles away from the place where one met them last. A new "strike" will draw men from every mining camp in Alaska. A big strike will shift the centre of gravity of the whole white population in a few months. Indeed, a certain restless belief in the superior opportunities of some other spot is one of the characteristics of the prospector. The tide of white men that has flowed into an Indian neighbourhood gradually ebbs away and leaves the Indian behind with new habits, with new desires, with new diseases, with new vices, and with a varied assortment of illegitimate half-breed children to support. The Indian remains, usually in diminished numbers, with impaired character, with lowered physique, with the tag-ends of the white man's blackguardism as his chief acquirement in English—but he remains.

It is unquestionable that the best natives in the country are those that have had the least intimacy with the white man, and it follows that the most hopeful and promising mission stations are those far up the tributary streams, away from mining camps and off the routes of travel, difficult of access, winter or summer, never seen by tourists at all; seen only of those who seek them with cost and trouble. At such stations the improvement of the Indian is manifest and the population increases. By reason of their remoteness they are very expensive to equip and maintain, but they are well worth while. One such has been described on the Koyukuk; another, at this writing, is establishing with equal promise at the Tanana Crossing, one of the most difficult points to reach in all interior Alaska.

This chapter must not close without a few words about the native children. Dirty, of course, they almost always are; children in a state of nature will always be dirty, and even those farthest removed from that state show a marked tendency to revert to it; but when one has become sufficiently used to their dirt to be able to ignore it, they are very attractive. Intolerance of dirt is largely an acquired habit anyway. In view of their indulgent rearing, for Indian parents are perhaps the most indulgent in the world, they are singularly docile; they have an affectionate disposition and are quick and eager to learn. Many of them are very pretty, with a soft beauty of complexion and a delicate moulding of feature that are lost as they grow older. It takes some time to overcome their shyness and win their confidence, but when friendly relations have been established one grows very fond of them. Foregathering with them again is distinctly something to look forward to upon the return to a mission, and to see them come running, to have them press around, thrusting their little hands into one's own or hanging to one's coat, is a delight that compensates for much disappointment with the grown ups. In the midst of such a crowd of healthy, vivacious youngsters, clear-eyed, clean-limbed, and eager, one positively refuses to be hopeless about the race.



THERE is no country in which an anastigmatic lens is of more use to the photographer than Alaska, and every camera with which it is hoped to take winter scenes should have this equipment. During two or three months in the year it makes the difference in practice between getting photographs and getting none. In theory one may always set up a tripod and increase length of exposure as light diminishes. But the most interesting scenes, the most attractive effects often present themselves under the severest conditions of weather, and he must be an enthusiast, indeed, who will get his tripod from the sled, pull out its telescoped tubes, set it up and adjust it for a picture with the thermometer at 40 deg. or 50 deg. below zero; and when he is done he is very likely to be a frozen enthusiast.

With an anastigmatic lens working at, say f. 6-3, and with a "speed" film (glass plates are utterly out of the question on the trail), it is possible to make a snap-shot at one twenty-fifth of a second on a clear day, around noon, even in the dead of winter, in any part of Alaska that the writer has travelled in. There are those who write that they can always hold a camera still enough to get a sharp negative at even one tenth of a second. Probably the personal equation counts largely in such a matter, and a man of very decided phlegmatic temperament may have advantage over his more sanguine and nervous brother. The thing may be done; the writer has done it himself; but the point is it cannot be depended on; at this speed three out of four of his exposures will be blurred, whereas at one twenty-fifth of a second a sharp, clear negative may always be secured.

It may be admitted at once that at extremely low temperatures the working of any shutter becomes doubtful, and most of them go out of any reliable action altogether. After trying and failing completely with three or four of the more expensive makes of shutters, the writer has for the last few years used a "Volute" with general satisfaction, though in the great cold even that shutter (from which all trace of grease or oil was carefully removed by the makers) is somewhat slowed up, so that a rare exposure at 50 deg. or 60 deg. below zero would be made at an indicated speed of one fiftieth rather than at one twenty-fifth, taking the chance of an under-exposed rather than a blurred negative. To wish for a shutter of absolute correctness and of absolute dependability under all circumstances, arranged for exposures of one fifteenth and one twentieth as well as one tenth and one twenty-fifth, is probably to wish for the unobtainable.


The care of the camera and the films, exposed and unexposed, the winter through, when travelling on the Alaskan trail, is a very important and very simple matter, though not generally learned until many negatives have been spoiled and sometimes lenses injured. It may be summed up in one general rule—keep instrument and films always outdoors.

One unfamiliar with arctic conditions would not suppose that much trouble would be caused by that arch-enemy of all photographic preparations and apparatus—damp, in a country where the thermometer rarely goes above freezing the winter through; and that is a just conclusion provided such things be kept in the natural temperature, outdoors. But consider the great range of temperature when the thermometer stands at -50 deg. outdoors, and, say, 75 deg. indoors. Here is a difference of 125 deg.. Anything wooden or metallic, especially anything metallic, brought into the house immediately condenses the moisture with which the warm interior atmosphere is laden and becomes in a few moments covered with frost. Gradually, as the article assumes the temperature of the room, the frost melts, the water is absorbed, and the damage is done as surely as though it had been soused in a bucket. If it be necessary to take camera and films indoors for an interior view—which one does somewhat reluctantly—the films must be taken at once to the stove and the camera only very gradually; leaving the latter on the floor, the coldest part of the room, for a while and shifting its position nearer and nearer until the frost it has accumulated begins to melt, whereupon it should be placed close to the heat that the water may evaporate as fast as it forms.

Outdoors, camera and films alike are perfectly safe, however intense the cold. Indeed, films keep almost indefinitely in the cold and do not deteriorate at all. One learns, by and by, to have all films sent sealed up in tin cans, and to put them back and seal them up again when exposed, despite the maker's instructions not to do so. The maker knows the rules, but the user learns the exceptions. When films are thus protected they may be taken indoors or left out indifferently, as no moist air can get to them.

The rule given is one that all men in this country follow with firearms. They are always left outdoors, and no iron will rust outdoors in the winter. Unless a man intend to take his gun to pieces and clean it thoroughly, he never brings it in the house. The writer has on several occasions removed an exposed film and inserted a new one outdoors, using the loaded sled for a table, at 50 deg. below zero; taking the chance of freezing his fingers rather than of ruining the film. It is an interesting exercise in dexterity of manipulation. Everything that can be done with the mittened hand is done, the material is placed within easy reach—then off with the mittens and gloves, and make the change as quickly as may be!

There is just one brief season in the year when high speeds of shutters may be used: in the month of April, when a new flurry of snow has put a mantle of dazzling whiteness upon the earth and the sun mounts comparatively high in the heavens. Under such circumstances there is almost, if not quite, tropical illumination. Here is a picture of native football at the Allakaket, just north of the Arctic Circle, made late in April with a Graflex, fitted with a lens working at f. 4.5, at the full speed of its focal-plane shutter—one one-thousandth of a second. In five years' use that was the only time when that speed was used, or any speed above one two-hundred-and-fiftieth. Commonly, even in summer, many more exposures are made with it at one fiftieth than at one one-hundredth, for this is not a brightly lit country in summer, and nearly all visitors and tourists find their negatives much under-timed.

The Graflex, though unapproached in its own sphere, is not a good all-round camera, despite confident assertions to the contrary. It is too bulky to carry at all in the winter, and its mechanism is apt to refuse duty in the cold. The 3A Graflex cannot be turned to make a perpendicular photograph, but must always be used with the greatest dimension horizontal. Except in brilliant sunshine it is difficult to get a sharp focus, and, even though the focus appear sharp on the ground glass, the negative may prove blurred. Then the instrument is a great dust catcher and seems to have been constructed with a perverse ingenuity so as to make it as difficult as possible to clean.

The writer uses his Graflex almost solely for native portraits and studies, for which purpose it is admirable, and has enabled him to secure negatives that he could not have obtained with any other hand camera. Even in the summer, however, he always carries his 3A Folding Pocket Kodak as well, and uses it instead of the Graflex for landscapes and large groups. If he had to choose between the two instruments and confine himself to one, he would unhesitatingly choose the Folding Pocket Kodak.

The difficulties of winter photography in Alaska do not end with the making of the exposure. All water must be brought up in a bucket from a water-hole in the river, and though it be clear water when it is dipped up from under the ice, it is chiefly ice by the time it reaches the house, during any cold spell. One learns to be very economical of water when it is procured with such difficulty, learns to dry prints with blotting-paper between the successive washings, which is the best way of washing with the minimum of water. Blotting-paper is decidedly cheaper than water under some circumstances.

While the rivers run perfectly clear and bright under the ice in the winter, in summer the turbid water of nearly all our large streams introduces another difficulty, and photographic operation must sometimes be deferred for weeks, unless the rain barrels be full or enough ice be found in the ice-house, over and above the domestic needs, to serve.


It seems certain that the speed of the sensitive emulsions with which the films are covered is reduced in very cold weather. To determine whether or not this was so, the following experiments were resorted to. The camera was brought out of the house half an hour before noon, at 50 deg. below zero, and an exposure made immediately. Then the camera was left in position for an hour and another exposure made. There was little difference in the strength of the negatives, and what difference there was seemed in favour of the second exposure. Evidently, if the emulsion had slowed, the shutter had slowed also; so opportunity was awaited to make a more decisive test. When there remained but one exposure on a roll of film, the camera was set outdoors at a temperature of 55 deg. below zero and left for an hour. Then an exposure was made and the film wound up and withdrawn; while a new film, just brought from the house, was as quickly as possible inserted in its place and a second exposure made. The latter was appreciably stronger. Even this test is, of course, not entirely conclusive; one would have to be quite sure that the emulsions were identical; but it confirms the writer's impression that extreme cold slows the film. It would be an easy matter for the manufacturers to settle this point beyond question in a modern laboratory, and it is certainly worth doing.

There is much sameness about winter scenes in Alaska, as the reader has doubtless already remarked; yet the sameness is more due to a lack of alertness in the photographer than to an absence of variety. If the traveller had nothing to think about but his camera, if all other considerations could be subordinated to the securing of negatives, then, here as elsewhere, the average merit of pictures would be greater. Sometimes the most interesting scenes occur in the midst of stress of difficult travel when there is opportunity for no more than a fleeting recognition of their pictorial interest. "Tight places" often make attractive pictures, but most commonly do not get made into pictures at all. The study of the aspects of nature is likely to languish amidst the severe weather of the Northern winter, and the bright, clear, mild day gets photographed into undue prominence. Snow is more or less white and spruce-trees in the mass are more or less black; one dog team is very like another; a native village has to be known very well, indeed, to be distinguishable from another native village. Yet there is individuality, there is distinction, there is variety, there is contrast, if a man have but the grace to recognise them and the zeal to record them. Snow itself has infinite variety; trees, all of them, have characters of their own. Dogs differ as widely as men and Indians as widely as white men.


The fear of the camera, or the dislike of the camera, that used to affect the native mind is gone now, save, perhaps, in certain remote quarters, and these interesting people are generally quite willing to stand still and be snapped. They ask for a print, and upon one's next visit there is clamorous demand for "picter, picter." A famous French physician said that his dread of the world to come lay in his expectation that the souls he met would reproach him for not having cured a certain obstinate malady that he had much repute in dealing with; so the travelling amateur in photography sometimes feels his conscience heavy under a load of promised pictures that he has forgotten or has been unable to make. He feels that his native friends whom he shall meet in the world to come will assuredly greet him with "where's my picture?" The burden increases all the time, and the Indian never forgets. It avails nothing even to explain that the exposure was a failure. A picture was promised; no picture has been given; that is as far as the native gets. And the making of extra prints, in the cases where it is possible to make them, is itself quite a tax upon time and material.

Just as it is true that to be well informed on any subject a man must read a great deal and be content not to have use for a great deal that he reads, so to secure good photographs of spots and scenes of note as he travels, he must make many negatives and be content to destroy many. The records of a second visit in better weather or at a more favourable season will supersede an earlier; typical groups more casual ones. The standard that he exacts of himself rises and work he was content with contents him no more. Sometimes one is tempted to think that the main difference between an unsuccessful and a successful amateur photographer is that the former hoards all his negatives while the latter relentlessly burns those which do not come up to the mark—if not at once, yet assuredly by and by. So the surprise that one feels at many of the illustrations in modern books of arctic travel is not that the travellers made such poor photographs but that they kept them and used them; for there can be no question that poor photographs are worse than none at all.



THE Northern Lights are a very common phenomenon of interior Alaska, much more common than in the very high latitudes around the North Pole, for it has been pretty well determined that there is an auroral pole, just as there is a magnetic pole and a pole of cold, none of which coincides with the geographical Pole itself. All the arctic explorers seem agreed that north of the 80th parallel these appearances are less in frequency and brilliance than in the regions ten or fifteen degrees farther south. It may be said roundly that it is a rare thing in winter for a still, clear night, when there is not much moon, to pass without some auroral display in the interior of Alaska. As long as we have any night at all in the early summer, and as soon as we begin to have night again late in the summer, they may be seen; so that one gains the impression that the phenomenon occurs the year round and is merely rendered invisible by the perpetual daylight of midsummer.


The Alaskan auroras seem to divide themselves into two great classes, those that occupy the whole heavens on a grand scale and appear to be at a great distance above the earth, and those that are smaller and seem much closer. Inasmuch as a letter written from Fort Yukon to a town in Massachusetts describing one of the former class brought a reply that on the same night a brilliant aurora was observed there also, it would seem that auroras on the grand scale are visible over a large part of the earth's surface at once, whereas the lesser manifestations, though sometimes of great brilliance and beauty, give one the impression of being local.

One gets, unfortunately, so accustomed to this light in the sky in Alaska that it becomes a matter of course and is little noticed unless it be extraordinarily vivid. Again, often very splendid displays occur in the intensely cold weather, when, no matter how warmly one may be clad, it is impossible to stand still long outdoors, and outdoors an observer must be to follow the constant movement that accompanies the aurora. Moreover, there is something very tantalising in the observing, for it is impossible to say at what moment an ordinary waving auroral streamer that stretches its greenish milky light across the sky, beautiful yet commonplace, may burst forth into a display of the first magnitude, or if it will do so at all.

The winter traveller has the best chance for observing this phenomenon, because much of his travel is done before daylight, and often much more than he desires or deserves is done after daylight; while, if his journeys be protracted so long as snow and ice serve for passage at all, towards spring he will travel entirely at night instead of by day.

It is intended in this chapter merely to attempt a description of a few of the more striking auroral displays that the writer has seen, the accounts being transcribed from journals written within a few hours, at most, from the time of occurrence, and in the first case written so soon as he went indoors.

This was on the 6th of October, 1904, at Fairbanks, a little removed from the town itself. When first the heavens were noticed there was one clear bow of milky light stretching from the northern to the southern horizon, reflected in the broken surface of the river, and glistening on the ice cakes that swirled down with the swift current. Then the southern end of the bow began to twist on itself until it had produced a queer elongated corkscrew appearance half-way up to the zenith, while the northern end spread out and bellied from east to west. Then the whole display moved rapidly across the sky until it lay low and faint on the western horizon, and it seemed to be all over. But before one could turn to go indoors a new point of light appeared suddenly high up in the sky and burst like a pyrotechnic bomb into a thousand pear-shaped globules with a molten centre flung far out to north and south. Then began one of the most beautiful celestial exhibitions that the writer has ever seen. These globules stretched into ribbon streamers, dividing and subdividing until the whole sky was filled with them, and these ribbon streamers of greenish opalescent light curved constantly inward and outward upon themselves, with a quick jerking movement like the cracking of a whip, and every time the ribbons curved, their lower edges frayed out, and the fringe was prismatic. The pinks and mauves flashed as the ribbon curved and frayed—and were gone. There was no other colour in the whole heavens save the milky greenish-white light, but every time the streamers thrashed back and forth their under edges fringed into the glowing tints of mother-of-pearl. Presently, the whole display faded out until it was gone. But, as we turned again to seek the warmth of the house, all at once tiny fingers of light appeared all over the upper sky, like the flashing of spicules of alum under a microscope when a solution has dried to the point of crystallisation, and stretched up and down, lengthening and lengthening to the horizon, and gathering themselves together at the zenith into a crown. Three times this was repeated; each time the light faded gradually but completely from the sky and flashed out again instantaneously.

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