Alaska – Sons Of The Midnight Sun

IN 1883 Lieutenant Schwatka U. S. A. constructed a raft on that Lake Lindeman which he had named, and navigated the Yukon River to its mouth. As in his reconnaissance he neared this middle section of The Great River of Alaska, where it throws a league-long half hitch up over the Arctic Circle and returns again, he wrote in his journal: ” The 29th of July was a hot sweltering day, with the sun and its thousand reflections sending their blistering heat into our faces. In fact, our greatest inconvenience near the short Arctic strip of the stream was the tropical heat. We drifted down the hot river, by low banks that needed nothing but a few breech-clouted negroes to convince us that we were on the Congo.” One surely does not enter through any icy portal, to reach these flattened polar areas! In fact, temperatures of 110° and 115° in the sun have been recorded here.

The only town on the supra-arctic twist of the Yukon is old Fort Yukon, directly on the Circle and about halfway of the river’s total length. It is the oldest English-speaking settlement of this region, and has been a hunters’ and trappers’ trading post of importance ever since established in 1847 by Mac-Murray of the Hudson Bay Company. I am wondering if you have noticed, as I have, how many names of these earliest pioneers are Scotch and Scotch-Irish names? McQuesten, Duncan, Harper, Mackenzie, Stewart, MacMillan, Ogilvie, Mac-Gregor, Campbell, Muir, MacMurray—these sound like a roll-call of the clans, and these are the names first-comers wrote upon our northern maps, to set their broad Scotch stamp upon the country like a covering plaid. Fort Yukon lies at the inflow of the Porcupine, which rises in Canada and comes down from the north and east. On the upper Porcupine is the now famous Hudson Bay outpost, Rampart House.

The Hudson Bay had held Fort Yukon for so long that, when Uncle Sam bought Alaska, they refused to move from this post, professing to believe that it lay well within Canadian territory and not in ” Russian America ” at all. Now Russia and Great Britain had agreed long ago that the 141st meridian should be the western boundary of British territory and trading concessions; and Uncle Sam, in buying his attic, had taken over these treaty rights, too. But the Hudson Bay people at Fort Yukon insisted that the 141st meridian still lay well to the west of them, instead of more than a hundred miles to the east as it is air line, or nearly two hundred miles as the crooked river runs!

Maybe the Hudson Bay factors knew the truth. Maybe it was a colossal bluff. But what this great semi-official British fur monopoly said, in effect, was: “You may have bought what you call ‘Alaska’ from Russia, with all the rights and privileges appertaining thereunto; but we are here, we have been here, and here we stay ! ” And yet the Hudson Bay did move this fur post, and moved it twice—until it finally did reach British territory. A small detachment of the U. S. Army was needed to start that move, however, for ” The Great Company” had rather run things in its own high-handed way, in northwest Canada, and saw no reason why it should not continue to do so here.

Uncle Sam felt differently, however. You see, he had a fur company of his own, now, which wanted to “make trade and barter” in Alaska, and so of course would like to have no rivals. The Alaska Commercial Company, a San Francisco firm, was organized about the time of Alaska’s purchase and took over many of the old Russian trading posts and concessions, which had been included in the bargaining. They also took a twenty-year lease on the rich fur-seal rookeries of the Pribilof Islands. Later, the Alaska Commercial Company changed its name to the Northern Commercial Company; but under whatever name it operated, it was and meant to colonial Alaska very much the same thing that the Hudson Bay meant in early Canadian days.

Unhappily, though, the Commercial Company took over as a liability (whether they were aware of it or not) much of that bitter hate the Indians felt for the cruelties and injustices of the old Russian fur company. The Tsars used to send fighters to their Russia-in-America, to protect their fur interests; but Uncle Sam didn’t do that, and the Indians consequently murdered in cold blood some of the earliest American traders, both on the coast and in the Interior. Mrs. Bean, wife of the first fur trader on the lower Tanana, was cruelly killed and her death went unavenged for many years. There was no justice in the land, there was no form of government, there was no hand of law in all of this enormous inland region during that unhappy twenty-year interregnum between the going of the Russians and the final coming of Uncle Sam’s men. Slavery of war captives still continued, and old hates, old fears, and old distrusts, bred by malpractices of Russians, persisted here until very late in the nineteenth century. This is a phase of things almost forgotten now, but once it was a very terrible reality. The early story of the “N. C. Company ” contains a mort of rigorous drama !

But today the old N. C. Company is again reorganized, to meet the new conditions in the North; and now there’s not a town in all this section of Alaska, to my knowledge, which does not have a ” Company Store,” and ” company ” always means the N. C. Every one of these little river settlements is dominated by its N. C. warehouse and shop; for as The Company grew it spread, reaching from Unalaska and Kodiak up the Susitna with its trading posts, north to Saint Michael, and eventually up the Yukon to the very gates of Dawson. It bought out the Hudson Bay post at Fort Yukon—when the British company was finally persuaded that it was trespassing considerably beyond its own national bounds. Captain Raymond of the Engineers, U. S. A., himself ascended the Yukon and in August of ’69 determined, under the skeptical British eyes and noses, the actual longitude of this post.

The old N. C. was the owner and operator of several ocean-going vessels, too, and long before the famous Klondike stampede it had placed a river fleet on the Yukon, for the use of miners and its own traders. These boats were on hand to transport the stampeders and their outfits when, in 1902, gold was discovered in the Tanana Valley near Fairbanks. But in the early days, and before Uncle Sam officially came to the North, it was the Hudson Bay Company which built and held Fort Yukon.

In 1862 Archdeacon McDonald had set up an Indian mission here, under the Church of England, and translated the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer into the Indian dialect. His was indeed a good work—the oldest, except for Russian missions on the lower Yukon—a work still continued in the hospital of Fort Yukon, by the Episcopal Church under the direction of our friend Dr. Grafton-Burke. This far northern hospital in America is a gracious building made of log, with many windows from which, on this warm summer day in which we see it, flutter innumerable white curtains in the open July air. For, as Schwatka found back in the eighties, this willow-grown and poplar-lined flat stretch of the Yukon can be really hot at times, all through the sun-drenched summer.

These fluttering-curtained hospital windows are situated within the Arctic Zone, but look south across our imaginary Circle into the North Temperate Zone. After five years exploring in the Arctic, Vilhjalmur Stefansson spent three months under this friendly roof as the guest of another famous explorer —Archdeacon Stuck, who first ascended ” Denali.” Stefansson had been stricken at Herschel Island with typhoid, and then with pneumonia and two attacks of pleurisy. His life was despaired of by his friends; in April, 1918, they brought him overland to St. Stephen’s, where he was finally nursed back to health through the care of a dear Fairbanks friend of my own who was then one of the mission staff at the hospital.

At Fort Yukon you may truly see the midnight sun, if you are here near summer-solstice time. At midnight the sun will be low, and touch the horizon in the north. Yet it will not sink below that line, but will swing up, without disappearing, and continue its northern circle. You can read newsprint here at midnight, as readily as at noon.

Though we arrive at these little river towns at the most impossible hours, it makes no difference to the people; for the summer nights are white nights, and more comfortable than day because the low sun is a refuge from the heat. As the packet swings in sight around the river bend, and the long blast echoes and re-echoes back into the drowsing heather-colored hills, the whole town wakes and rushes to the bank—a bank of gelid mud, but turned ethereal pastel color by the long flattering northern light. The cry of ” Ste-e-a-e-am boat” (a long-drawn-out rising inflection on the first word, a short drop on the second) sounds all along the waking town, ashore.

With splashes and with puffs, with creakings down inside of her, and clanging bells that echo from below, our boat which seems so clumsy turns slowly, heads upstream, quarters the current, rounds to, drifts back, and edges in toward the steepening bank. The caught lines thrown ashore may sing like harp-strings, but they must hold. The high bank is the only landing place, and this The River, as is the wilful way of great rivers, is constantly re-shaping to suit its own shifting whimsy so that each landing of each voyage is a new; separate problem. No wonder there are seaman’s wrinkles about the pilot’s eyes, for he must read those channel changes constantly. New bars are forming, and the sounding poles out on the foremost barge are continually a work and flashing down, and up. Old beds, hidden snags, surface ripples, undercurrents—all these the pilot reads, subconsciously. He knows, but cannot for the life of him tell how he knows!

But more than people come to meet the midnight landing of our boat at tiny villages. The huskies hear the slow chug of the steamboat’s labored breathing long before the white folk or the Indians do, and their long howl of a delighted greeting is usually the first note of warning we are here, and antedates even the cry of ” steamboat.” At some small fish camps where the boat does not tie up, the dogs who pull Alaska’s winter sleds are being boarded for the summer. Chained to old packing-boxes on the gravel bars, lying on the flat box roofs, mosquito stung, hot in their furry winter coats, they howl a long-drawn protest as we pass. In winter they are needed and are busy, but in the summer they are boarded out wherever fish is plenty, and must fight the flies and fleas and other pests, in doggy boredom. Their wolf howl is a declamation against the whole new scheme of things. Some one has said that if Alaskan dogs had known the trouble George Carmack was to make for them, they surely would have bitten him to death!

At places where we stop, the dogs are waiting for us on the high banks, yapping, snarling, fighting fiercely for position; for they know they will be thrown the food scraps from the boat, and they are almost crazy with excitement. Sometimes they run so fast to reach the bank, they can’t stop at the edge and tumble in. The most amusing sight I know along this length of river is the crowd of huskies, with their solemn, wolf-wise faces, crowding the bank, their anxious tongues a drip with expectation, lined up like company upon parade, with eyes glued to the porthole of the cook’s galley. And they are never disappointed.

Some of our longest stops are merely ” wooding up,” for Yukon steamers feed upon the country. All winter long ” The Company’s ” woodchoppers have been busy in the silent woods, and great stacks of cut logs are neatly piled at stated intervals along the river banks. At Gibbon there’s a pile—or used to be-of 6,000 cords! Going downstream we burn a cord an hour. Going up (as soon we must do, when we swing into the Tanana, and push our heavy barges) we shall be burning four or five an hour. The boat is run in close to high cut-bank, and gang-planks are thrown out. The purser goes ashore with a long notched pole and measures up the wood on hand, as he will later measure and report the cordage taken. Instantly there is great business and commotion below deck. Gangs of Indian stevedores seem to spring from nowhere, down in the hold, and begin to rush ashore with hand trucks and rush back with loads of logs, like ants at work upon an ant pile—fast and furious—taking on fifteen to twenty-five cords of spruce at each such landing. We passengers don’t mind these delays at all, for we can go ashore and prowl about, exploring, coming back with plenty of flowers and berries-and mosquito bites, if we forget our sourdough nets!

Below the Yukon flats the river narrows between high hills again, and here is Rampart City, founded in ’97 during the Klondike stampede, when gold was discovered near here by the half-breed Russian, Joe Minook. It is at Rampart-on-the-Yukon (not Ram-part House upon the Porcupine, as some have thought) that Rex Beach lived one time for several months. His cabin will be pointed out to you, if you care to walk to it past the long streamline of buildings. Many of these are now deserted, for Rampart was a ” boom ” mining town and the Beach cabin is at the farther end. ” W. F.” has told with great gusto how, on the day of his arrival at Rampart, Rex Beach mixed up a batch of scrambled eggs in his new ” outside ” derby hat, for his first meal here! This really happened, and the sight must certainly have been quite as ridiculous as any of Chaplin’s delicious foolishness in ” The Gold Rush.” In a letter to a Fairbanks friend of mine, dated January 5, 1917, Beach tells that the reason he “left that roof and sought another was because Annie, my sour-dough associate’s helpmate, insisted upon boiling frozen fish-heads in a tomato can and eating the eyes, while we college boys were at our meals. It was not appetizing to try to eat while those fish craniums were being vacuum-cleaned! ”

When we reach old Fort Gibbon, where we leave the Yukon to turn into the Tanana River, the pilot puts off in a small boat to explore the channel. For the Tanana silts up its two-mile-wide mouth so constantly, the bars are most uncertain and a channel must be hunted every trip to find a way through. And we are pushing two heavy freight barges, one balanced on the nose of the other, so to speak. These are attached to us and to each other by lines and winches, that must constantly be let out and adjusted as we ” jackknife” around the sharp river bends or swing inshore to make our landings. There is no sleep for captain, or for pilot, on the Missouri-like muddy Tanana, with its “quicks” and boiling sand-spits. Every time we hit a bar we must back off, if back we can, and try again. The river trail is a slow primitive way, but this is the manner in which new lands are always opened, and I am glad I saw the true North first by tracing this slow, patient, natural artery up into her very heart. And though the upstream going is now so slow, why should we hurry? It’s warm—so warm we never wear a coat. We take long walks out on the big freight barges, and we have had our first heavenly sight of Mt. McKinley,—the ” Denali ” or ” Most High ” of the Indians,–the topmost peak in all of North America. Although it lies more than a hundred miles to south-ward, the mountain top hangs in a glow of rosy opal above the low trees of our wide river flat, and appears to be unbelievably close and near.

The Tanana carries vast quantities of water down from the snow-peaks to the southward, but for the most part it is so wide a stream that its channels are not deep, even for these river boats which draw but four or five feet. Its valley is one of the most richly fertile in all the North, containing more than half a million acres, it is estimated, of agricultural land; and rye, oats, wheat and barley are being grown by farmers here and dairymen, in ever-increasing volume. Tanana means River of the Mountains, the -na, -no or -nu ending (as variously pronounced in central Alaskan native tongues) denoting always ” river ” or ” water.”

Fairbanks is located about three hundred miles from the junction of the Tanana with the Yukon, and at about one third of the river’s total length. But first we pass the mouths of the Kantishna, Tolovana and Nenana rivers, and at Nenana is a smart new town of green-and-white buildings, made to order for our Uncle Sam. Here the government-built Alaska Railroad, running in from the Pacific coast at Anchorage and Seward, now crosses the river on a fine high bridge. And here, today, you leave the boat and go by rail the forty miles to Fairbanks. But when I first came to the North there was no railroad built here and one went on by boat, up twisted sloughs,- past Whiskey Island and innumerable fish wheels turning in the current, spilling their sluggish salmon catch—to Fairbanks and a new home there. The rail way is the easier and swifter, but the water way was lovelier.

I never can forget my first sight of Alaska’s Golden Heart, as Fairbanks has been called in love by those who know her best. The spindle of the wireless tower, the three great stacks of N. C. power plant, thrust up into the soft-hazed, low-sunned, midnight hour and broke across a dome of fathomless sapphire. To the left, against a slope of low prone hills, the waves of shadow rustled on green fields of the wide outspread Government Farm. An arching mesh of iron dead ahead marked the new road-bridge across the river, setting a limit to navigation here and connecting Fairbanks with its clustered suburb, Garden Island. Spreading for a mile along its serpentine of river bank, the spacious town stretched out as far as eye could see, and looked a real metropolis in contrast to the tiny camps or mock Norwegian villages we had been seeing ever since we left Dawson.

Older log cabins had their roofs earth-covered, on which grew flowers and bright and lovely weeds,—“Arctic roof gardens,” we came to call them. Here were the docks, the spires of churches, big buildings which I later came to know as The Company’s store and warehouses, and the square, clean, three-storied, large, gray-painted edifice they told me was Saint Joseph’s hospital. The slow boat pushed her way, with slackened pulse and almost noiseless whispered low breath now, up through the narrowing channel and between the rows of houses, as though she drew through a canal of Venice. The cabins crowded close upon the right, so I could look into their tiny yards and spy the faces of the friends whom I was soon to come to know: hear husky Scotch-burred voices call a greeting to returning sourdoughs, from the street, or warm and fun-packed Irish voices thrown from shore to those aboard come home again —until, in my remembering of these moments, now, it seems as though the boat was slowly pulled to dock by those caught words, those outstretched hands of greeting which tugged so at our stranger heart-strings.

This rambling green-roofed cottage on a corner, set in its yard of rose and berry bushes, will be my first home for the next two years. The graceful tiny church of logs next door, with its toy belfry topped with golden-glinting cross caught in the north sun’s light, is our soon-to-be-loved Saint Matthew’s, as built by that Archdeacon Stuck of grateful and well-famous memory. This square-verandahed log house, lined in a mass of pansy boxes, is the town’s library of which I one day shall become director. The white frame building next, so fresh and clean, against which the geranium boxes flame in color, is Dr. Sutherland’s—he who will be the hero of our memorable flu panic. And on the N. C. dock, the window boxes filled with massed nasturtiums are red-gold orange blobs of color, unforgetable, to symbolize forever to my eye this Gold Heart of the North.

A first impression is a treasure, and I for one can never lose my first, rich, warm impression of this far sub-arctic town. Beauty and friendliness and cheer were here. It seemed a place where comfort and good living met, and nothing in my years of taking root have ever made a change of that opinion.