Alaska – Scraping The Arctic Circle

IF you leave Dawson about ten in the evening, on the much larger river boat which is to see you through to Fairbanks, the streets will still be light as day. Forty mile will be the first stop, and the last upon Canadian Yukon, for the International Boundary just beyond is crossed in the night. Fortymile is one of the very oldest gold camps in the far North, if not the oldest, and here the local methods of mining frozen ground were first effectively worked out way back in ’87. It is likely that you will wake up next morning in ” Eagle City,” the first port of call in Interior Alaska; and as you look out you will see the Stars and Stripes flying from store, customs house, and several small cabins which-as you will probably notice—are roofed with the hammered-out tin of five-gallon gasoline cans!

Eagle is an old camp, far antedating Dawson, for here French traders, trappers and voyageurs made old Belle Isle their winter rendezvous. To-day perhaps a hundred white people live near Eagle, but at one time it was a rallying point for swarms of destitute miners—either coming down from Dawson ” broke,” or on their way ” inside ” by the Copper River Valley route, reaching the Yukon at this point in an unbelievably tattered and exhausted condition. Those were days of defeat and bitterness, which men who suffered them are never likely to forget.

But tiny ” Eagle City ” had one day of triumph and such news as no proud town of all the world has ever known. If I could have a wish, I’d choose to be in Eagle City not as now, in midsummer, but rather on a cold and memorable day in February, 1906. Why? I’ll tell you, for the story has to do with one of the most courageous men, both in his life and death, our present century knows. He wrote his Viking name upon a long-drawn chapter of world history and geography, and signed the ” finis ” in the little telegraph office here in Eagle, at the end of the U. S. Signal Corps telegraph line.

If you had been in Eagle on that February day in 1906, you might have seen a tall gaunt figure of a man, blond-bearded to the very eyes, frost-coated, mush into the quiet town behind a team of dog-tired huskies, who dropped down in their tracks and curled immediately to sleep when their unknown driver entered the Company Store and began hurriedly to purchase a short list of medicines, tobacco and provisions. Men gathered here around the warm stove took him for just another ” Big Swede ” prospector in from the hills and began to question about “the diggings,” in the usual friendly, leisurely, inquisitive, Alaskan gossipy way.

But the big man, frost dripping from his pushed-back parka hood, was most laconic and seemed strangely hurried. He told them, shortly, that he had been ” cruising in a little sloop, up north; the vessel is in winter quarters at the mouth of the Mackenzie; one of my associates is sick, we are all out of tobacco, and so I’ve come (a mere matter of a little more than a thousand miles it was—on foot—over an unbroken trail!) to secure what’s needed.” ” He might have been talking of having ridden for a few miles to a country store, so far as appearing to regard his journey as anything unusual was concerned “—comments Jack Underwood, who talked with him. “Alone, save for the company of his dogs, he had made a tremendous journey in the dead-black sub-arctic winter, through a country he had never seen before, and was prepared to start back “—now, almost at once.

By accident he happened to see a sign over the little log cabin which was the end of the telegraph line, and, as though in afterthought, the big blond ” Swede ” stepped in and sent a message which was to be heard clear round the world. Between puffs on a newly-filled pipe he dictated to the man in khaki at the telegraph key a terse wire, addressed to ” Haakon, Christiania, Norway “—and signed it ” Amundsen.”

Almost before the close-mouthed stranger had left the little telegraph station the town of Eagle began fairly to bulge with excitement! The sloop in win-ter quarters at the Mackenzie had reached there from the east—not from the Pacific, but, as no other vessel had ever done before in the history of man, from the Atlantic! The Northwest Passage, which explorers from the day of Columbus had sought so long, so vainly, had been adventured, won—a dream turned to reality—by this shabby, quiet-eyed stranger who was even now, after tending his dogs, starting back over the long trail into the never-never land of the still farther North, with the needed medicines for a sick sailor and friendly tobacco for his ice-bound companions. The little office was soon piled high with messages addressed to Roald Amundsen—messages from kings and presidents and emperors, from editors frantic to get the great navigator’s story. But the man who had won the ages-sought prize of the Northwest Passage, who was later to win the prize of the South Pole, who crossed the North Pole in the Norge with Nobile, and later lost his life in greater-love-hath-no-man gift of footless searching for that same vainly lost Nobile—Roald Amundsen had faded out into the North again and made no answer.

I wish that I had been in Eagle that day in February, and seen the greatest Viking of our generation come, send that laconic message, and return again in modesty and mercy. I think it must have been one of those moments when a listening angel, setting down earth’s story, paused in his record of our usual trivial happenings, to smile and underscore one word. Here was a man. And yet, the North is full of similar men with the hearts of Vikings, and every little town boasts sourdough heroes who have gifts of physical endurance and stiff courage, almost equally remarkable.

That word ” sourdough ” is a term one hears the moment one steps foot on an Alaska-headed boat. It sounds so silly, yet it is overgrown with meaning. As soon as you learn how it’s spoken, and what the inner meaning is, you too wish to become a sour-dough and not be called with ill-concealed Alaskan pity a ” cheechako “—a tenderfoot, jackaroo, johnny-raw.

For ” Sourdough” is The North’s synonym for ” Pioneer.” The early miners always kept, in a closed crock or pot, a portion of the yeasty batter dough from pancakes or from bannocks. There were no handy fresh yeast cakes in those days, you know, whereas a sour dough is living and continuing ferment. It was a similar sour dough my own pioneer grandmother in the woods of Michigan (and yours, perhaps) made first from her potato yeast and kept to raise to-morrow’s ” flannel cakes.” From the new batter she would take a fraction out, to-day, and put it on the shelf in a warm place. To-morrow it became the little leaven which leaveneth the lump for to-morrow’s ” raised flaps.” And this is what Alaska’s pioneers did, too; only it was so cold in winter that, to keep the friendly yeast from freezing, they often took the crock to bed with them to warm it under blankets with their own body heat!

To be without their sour dough was real deprivation, and men would walk days’ journey to secure some. It was the last thing put upon the pack-horse or the sled of mornings, the first thing taken off at night. One old prospector tells me how, having lost his pack-mule because a snowslide rolled it down the mountain slope, he painfully climbed down and quickly scraped into his empty tobacco tin some of the sour dough which had broken from the pot and smeared all over the poor dead beast’s nose! In a vest pocket next his body he kept this warm till night and camp. Perhaps the story’s true—for stranger things have happened in the North.

So you can see that Sourdough has a meaning. It means the yeast of life, primarily–a synonym for all the daily bread of man. It means that one has lived alone, long years, and sought the unblazed trails behind the grim dark hills. It means the smell of birch fires burning in the dark at countless hard-won camps. It means that you have lived with silence as companion, in partnership with space, and out of freedom and the farness have now new vista and new creed, in knowledge of resources alive to your two hands and your own soul. If you are newly come to Nordland, you soon catch the rich symbol and high honor which lie behind this lightly-spoken word. And you, too, yearn to enter into the spiritual, deep, Arctic brotherhood of these self-reliant men.

The sourdoughs on our steamer are full of talk of ” going out ” and ” coming in,” for all beyond Alaska is forever ” the Outside,” and it’s here you first begin to learn the real Alaskan view-point. Our fellow passengers are sourdoughs mostly, although in all there are some fifty of us. There is a sergeant of the Northwest ” Mounties,” too, to lend us color. He is to disembark at the mouth of an almost unknown river that flows down to the Yukon from the north. Following that river—the only route—up to its source again in Canada, single-handed he is to bring back to the court of justice a native who committed murder. And he will do it, too. You can tell that, without a second look. This man is a particular pal and partner of Jim Fairborn, one of our dearest Alaskan friends; and, as Jim said to me not long ago, ” If you’ve read ` The Silent Force,’ you’ll know him!” When Sergeant D leaves us, the men call out to him as Alaskans always do in parting—” May our trails cross soon!”—” Here’s to the next crossing of the trail, old-timer! ” For it’s another language these men speak, of trails and strikes and pans and dust and dogs—with mixture of a strange vocabulary.

Whenever our sourdoughs leave us, at various camps along the Yukon, we learn what the Alaskan gentleman affects in summer headgear! The movement of the boat is usually sufficient to keep mosquitoes at a respectful distance; but the moment we stop to ” wood up ” or let off freight or passengers, their humming of an orchestra begins. ” If there were more, they’d just have to be smaller,” the mate imprecates. So, as our sourdough passengers alight, they tie about their broad-brimmed hats great rectangles of black (or sometimes highly colored) net or chiffon, which have attached strings at the lower corners to tie beneath the arms. Thus the whole head and neck will be protected. Otherwise, on inland excursions such as our sourdoughs make during these midsummer weeks, in boggy places and by the marshy rims of lakes, the pests would be quite unendurable, for here they rise in dense swarms. Haven’t you read ” The Barrier” ? The name of Barrier is a play on words for Rampart, a town where Rex Beach himself once lived, and which lies on this section of the Yukon. If you have read that story then I know you will recall the not exaggerated episode in which a torment of Yukon mosquitoes figures so dramatically.

Below Dawson we have been noting signs of muskrat and of otter. Our first Alaskan moose is a sight not soon forgotten, for the great brown awkward-looking creature comes plunging through the willow bank, palmated antlers upthrust and curious. Then some one cries ” Caribou!” and everybody rushes to the boat side to see five caribou swimming the river. They run along the bank, within a few yards of us. We have more calls of ” caribou ” later, and take pictures of them swimming across our bow—pictures taken at nine P. M., for we are nearly at the Arctic Circle now and the light is strong. Circle City is our next morning’s stop, though Circle City belies its name and is not yet inside the Circle; but McQuesten and the men who named it thought so, when they built here in ’96 what called itself ” the largest log-cabin town in the world.” Today there is an excellent and scenic road stretching across country from Circle City to Fairbanks, just completed, and one may take a motor here and drive the hundred and sixty-four miles in seven hours or less, and avoid several slow days of summer river travel, or a full week’s old-time mushing.

The Yukon flats begin where the channel splits and subdivides and the river spreads itself out over a sometimes ten-mile-wide island-strewn bed, where the native Indian pilot marks the daily shifting channel by tin cans set on the tops of stakes. For the next two hundred miles we shall be running through level country, with mountains still in sight but as far away as the eye can reach, pale blue and indistinct as in mirage. Trees along the bank are being pulled into the river as the undercut soil of the sun-melted bank gives way. They hang head-down, as dangerous ” sweepers,” until next spring’s high water will work them loose and float them on and down the river, to be a boon to treeless Eskimo villages far beyond, out in the west. It’s Sunday, and a Deaconess of the Episcopal Church, coming back to her long Indian missionary work in Stephens Village, leads a service and we all join voices in old hymns. The day is bright and warm. A large brown bear with two black cubs is walking on the low bank, hunting a salmon catch, and the captain swings the boat inshore so we may take a picture. Though time does not seem much to matter here, we ask him curiously how long it takes to get to Fairbanks, and he says: ” Five days from Dawson, if we’re lucky. It may be less—but yet again it may be a lot more if the river is too low, for we have lots of freight.”

Our river captain is descended from one of the very earliest explorers of the great Oregon tract, and so he has inherited his wandering foot. And he will tell you that an uncle once was master of a racing packet on the Mississippi, the one on which Mark Twain travelled and of which he wrote. Here we find a similar great river and a similar river tradition and conditions. Our river boat is a large stern-wheeler and a direct copy of old Mississippi packets, even to her high stacks and to the man with sounding pole out on the freight barges which we push ahead downstream—the man who calls back in his high-pitched, musical, monotonous voice the marks so meaningful to all who ” read the river.”

For the lore of The Great River—and so the word ” Yukon ” is interpreted—is another fascinating chapter in Alaskan history and experience. Those who graduate from this good school are weather-beaten, wise and keen, with wrinkled crow’s-feet at the eye corners which pucker swiftly into fun or whimsy at the slightest provocation. All those who read the river’s shift of depth and shallow, constantly, are quick to read the equally mysterious human shallows, too; and rivers breed their type of men as true as mountains do, or seas.