Alaska – The Long Gateway

WISH that I could skip this chapter—as I hope you will, if you don’t care for scenery! I dread to write it, for I know so well that only a true poet could do true justice to the memorable and haunting loveliness that is so typically the characteristic of our first step into the North.

But if I do not try, at least, to suggest something of the Inside Passage to Alaska—a thousand-mile long corridor through which we begin to approach the North—then at the very first I shall have played unfair with you. For you can never come to know just what and how the real Alaskans think unless you have some inkling of how they came to think it. And all the true Alaskan ” sourdoughs,” as the old-timers are called, continually do their thinking with this long stretch of Inside Passage (and all it means to them of separation, delay, removal, barrier) forever tucked away at the back of their memories.

If you live in Alaska, as I have many years, the beauty and the wonder of this gateway to the North will always stay with you; and you’ll re-wind the picture in your mind and often run it backwards, like a film of beauty once seen, never to be forgotten. But if you are a settler in Alaska, the Inside Passage will come to mean much more than merely beauty.

Just as the old-time Pilgrims, in their new home, remembered always, so they told, the rough miles of a gray-black winter sea which stretched in menace between them and Mother England, so-when you live within the far Interior of our Alaskan colony, in equal separation-you will find just one thing, no matter when or whence you came, that you must always have in common with all the other white folks living there. For this common memory which you carry, of all the miles you came to get here, is an experience which no true Alaskan can possibly forego; and hence it is a binding factor of incalculable potency in all Alaskan life.

In the long winters you will most recall not the warm color of this so safe and fine a summer passage, but rather that so many miles of leaden pewter colored sea lie between you and homeland. For in the winter months, when no adventuring tourists seek the North and we Alaskans only travel ” Outside ” when forced by a necessity to do so, then the waters of the Inside Passage to our North are often treacherous and cruel, and the bones of many a goodly ship have been winter-caught and picked upon these teeth of rock and lie to bleach here. To some who live today within Alaska, these miles of distance from the older world are miles of refuge, behind which our pride and isolation shelter. And to yet others, they remain a perpetual barrier. That is why, since recently two friends of mine have made this trip by air and winged it to Alaska, I wonder what differences will come to typical Alaskan thought, for good or ill, when pilgrims of the future have become air-minded and can slash the miles to nothing to hurry to us here, and wipe out mountain chains and rivers as a boy wipes with a sponge the markings on a slate-drawn map!

Another good reason for beginning our story by going to Alaska, instead of starting our story from within, is that truly few people really know where Uncle Sam’s attic begins. Do you?

Nineteen out of twenty people whom I meet when I am in the States, will say to me: ” So, you are from Alaska? Do you live in Dawson? I had a cousin once who went to the Klondike in ’98.” And if I answer, as I must, ” But Dawson is not in Alaska. It is the very British little capital city of Canadian Yukon Territory. Nor is the Klondike in Alaska, either, for it too lies across the border, within Canada “—they will be either very much surprised or, half the time, will not believe me, but think I’m simply spoofing them! Yet, if you will only look at the map a moment, you will see that both these things are absolutely true. Because it is a fact that by almost any way one chooses to enter American Alaska, one must first make a journey across Canadian waters or Canadian soil, there is therefore a great confusion in people’s minds as to the actual bounds and metes of Alaskan territory.

And so I think the only way for us to get Alaska safely pinned down on the map, where it belongs, is for you to go there with me. Our long gateway to the North begins in Seattle, and no small share of that young city’s prosperity has been due to the fact that travel to the North and treasure from it both pass through her doors. We’ll start our journey there, and try to blaze our trail so we shall not forget the way another time, in back track.

A blazed back trail is an all-important thing. Old-timers tell that the Indian woman, Kate (wife of that lucky Carmack who, with her brothers, first drove stakes on the great Klondike gold fields), went with her husband to San Francisco. Lost in the strange confusion of the city, this woman from the fastness of the Yukon took her own simple method to find the way back to her hotel room. With a fire hatchet snatched from the corridor wall, she slashed and cut a blaze from room to street, all down the varnished baluster windings of the stairs, all along the wooden panels of the halls! But her too-savage and direct method did not appeal to the hotel management, who made the newly rich gold king pay heavily for his squaw’s ignorance and indiscretion.

The Inside Passage, opening out from Seattle, extends northward through fringing island-sheltered sea waters—at first along the Canadian coast, where Victoria and Vancouver are the names that remind you of a crossed boundary line, then threading through the clustered islands of Alaska’s “panhandle” to, Skagway-for a four day trip of a full thousand miles which the travel-surfeited of all nations have proclaimed most beautiful long waterway of the world. It is the only easy way to go. Two other longer, harder ways are more historical than practical, today.. The old French voyageurs and early scouts of the ” Honorable Company ,of Merchant Adventurers Trading into Hudson Bay” came first into eastern Alaska, years ago, by grilling an unbroken trail of pack and portage across western Canada. And one may sail direct to Nome by sea, and so on up the Yukon into the Interior. If you wish, then go the long ungracious waterway to Nome. But I’ll not recommend it. That would be like getting into the attic by dropping down through the skylight! It can be done—but it’s surely not the natural or pleasant approach, whereas the Inside Passage is.

From Seattle’s lovely harbor the steamship noses north at once and without hesitation, as though her port she knew—out toward the Straits of Juan de Fuca as the sun drops, gilding on one hand the snow folded Selkirks, and flaming on the other against the calm Olympics. In such a setting a voyage is well begun. And it’s a comfortable and well-appointed boat we sail out to the north in, today so comfortable that we forget we’re pilgrims in this real luxury of travel. The first two days you will be threading through Canadian waters, along the coast of British Columbia, and all the first day there will be Vancouver Island lying to the west, until at Queen Charlotte Sound (if the wind happens to be sweeping in from the Pacific) you get a two-hour taste of open water. But soon you duck back of the sheltering islands, and the way is mill-pond smooth again.

If you have no love at all for beauty touched with strangeness, then I advise you to stay away from the Inside Passage, for beauty’s summer home is surely here. I know that there are many lovelier individual bits throughout the world; but nowhere, that I know, can you find any picture drawn on so vast a scale, so day-unto-day in uttering its speech. I’ve made this journey many times, in summer, fall, and winter. But of the summer passage north I’ve always carried back the same impression—of long and restful halcyon days full of a continuing sense of drifting, out and away, above the world, remove from it as though afloat on poised gray wings of snowy-breasted gulls, like those which follow us today in countless gliding escort. You sit before your cabin door as though upon the top deck of the world, and on tired minds these dipping ivory wings beat a slow, sure, withdrawing, wanderer’s tempo.

You see, as Kingsley’s Argonauts saw, a snow-white peak that, midway between sea and sky, ” hangs glittering sharp and bright above the clouds,” clean-lined and exquisite as a Japanese sketch. You say: ” That’s lovely, that is memorable. I’ll hold that picture, always.”

But there is not one single peak, to be so caught. This vista is not something that a frame will hold, but time is of its essence, continuity. Each day, each hour, brings other crowding pictures. There cannot be a single lovely fugitive glimpse to keep. That’s not Alaska’s way, for she—this new friend you have come to live with—is a famed prodigal in lavish generosity. She dips her hand into her chest of jewels, and faintly distant snow-patches are million-tinted with caught sun, scintillant as blue-white fine-cut stones, or glow soft rosy pearl of white. Opaline lights turn purple forests or the violet blue of foot-hills into sapphire or to amethyst. The wimpling water sliding past the keel is sheeted silver, till it breaks in jade. She will not rest content that you should keep just one jewelled hour, one day of mother-of-pearl and gold, because she pours her treasure forth unstinted—ten thousand vistas to be caught and kept, when you go sailing to Alaska between the darkly wooded sea-islands and the bright-tipped, mountainy, continental coast. In this, the gateway wears the name-plate of the Friendly Arctic; for when you come to know the true heart of the North, you’ll find that both the country and the people are warm of heart and supergenerous in gift. I never saw a niggard in the North!

Very little of all this beauty, though, caught in the memories of those wild frenzied souls who plunged north in the gold rush—crowded three-to-bunk in shifts, on tiny ships that dragged deep-loaded through these then uncharted waters, to an unsensed menace and a nightmare promise. Their eyes were clouded so with dust of gold, they saw no jewelled color here. The brooding summits drifting by in pomp of purple, the far peaks haze-hidden, the margined woods, the lakes of blue and violet, emerald and black, were never told of in that story. In reminiscing of those early days of going north, our dear later-found Alaskan friends tell instead of their still so-vividly-remembered hardships and discomfort.

” I left Seattle in the fall of ’97,” Jack says, ” on a fishing boat built to accommodate a crew of twenty, but carrying two hundred men. Meals were served in wash-tubs, on the dirty decks—if you can call it ‘served,’ for every man of us dug in and grabbed what we could get, or fight for! If you didn’t hog it, you went hungry, that’s all. There were no lights or buoys or any sea-marks along the Inside Passage, then. At nights, or in a fog, the captain blew his whistle and listened for the echo. If it sounded ‘clean’ and didn’t baffle back at him, he ploughed ahead. He didn’t know a thing about this coast, any more than we did. We wanted to get North. We’d paid the man big money to dump us, any way or how, at the foot of Chilkoot pass. And ‘head North ‘ was what he did. No decent boat would risk the trip. All we could get, those early days, was a rotten bottom that wouldn’t hold two bits’ worth of marine insurance. And no one ever saw the Plimsoll mark-if she wore one! It’s a miracle that any of us ever got here, with whole skins. But we were young scamps then, and never thought of danger.”

” My husband had just died,” another Fairbanks friend has told me, ” when the Excelsior put into San Francisco. I was desperate, tired, and didn’t care. Life seemed pretty much not worth living, anyway. I thought, ` I’ll take the little that I have, and gamble. If God wants me to live, He’ll let me get to Dawson. I know that I can make a living, once I get there; for where there are a lot of hungry men, they must pay high for food. And God knows I can cook!’

“So I turned into hundred-dollar bills every penny I could lay my hands on, in a hurry. I sewed these bills inside a pair of those stiff high old corsets, the kind we women used to be such fools to wear, and hired me a passage on the first boat going North. That boat was awful—the smells and the crowd. There were five of us in one small stateroom. I was deadly sick, and the steward was good to me; but he thought I was going to die, and so did I. But near dead as I was, I wouldn’t let them take my corsets off—or I knew I’d never see that cash again. So every time they tried to make me comfortable by easing them, I yelled my loudest for the Captain! He came, and told them I was crazy, sure, and would be dying soon, so let me be. Well, after six days of it, I got better. Yes, I got to Dawson, but I never struck it rich, like some did.”

Then I said, ” That must have been in summer, or the early fall. The Inside Passage is so lovely, then. Didn’t you see any of it, at all? ”

” Lovely!” She almost screamed, and I could well realize why that Captain had come a-running when they tried to take away her stiff and high-boned ” bank”! ” Lovely! Why, woman, that stretch of time along that Passage has been for thirty years my pet idea of Hades, let me tell you! I’ve never left The North, since, for I’ve never wanted to face that trip, again. That was quite a-plenty, thank you. Never again—for me!”

And that is why one hunts through all the tales of argonauts and finds no word there of these, today, so easily tourist-seen, rose-touched and salmon-tinted, copper skies at dusk; and why one looks in vain for any hint of the slow-dawning thought, such as must come to all who traverse here today, that here the heavens are a purer tone, the stars come clearer to the nightly skies, as one drifts North and leaves the smoke-dimmed cities far behind. Mountains seem to shift and wheel, apparently changing their position as the boat twists. One seen astern will pop up dead ahead. You feel that you are turning on your track, and yet you know that you are steadily going North, because the sun stays longer with you. At nine, now, there’s no sign of darkness. Then a new moon shows faintly through a deep notch in high hills. Headlands have little lighthouses set on their tips, like tiny flaming cigarettes stuck up on end. The densely wooded islands—so still, so silent, so apparently untenanted—will move aside to let you pass and close in silently again, behind. As though you travelled in a quiet, deep, mountain-cleft canal, these locks built by no human engineer close up their gates and lift you by their quiet even waters, into the promised land.

By the time that you reach Prince Rupert, the terminus of Canada’s new transcontinental railroad—and just beyond it the international boundary over into Alaska’s south tip, at 54′ 40’—you have already climbed seven rungs of the ladder into Uncle Sam’s attic, seven degrees of latitude above Seattle. The churning screws purr softly, softly. ” Going North ! “