Alaska – The North That Never Was

THE Frost King built himself a palace long ago, so men said. He walled it all about three sides with topless peaks, with snow perpetual, and on the fourth he placed a sea of ice which melted only when, one time each year, he waved a Merlin wand upon it, then swiftly closed again.

No white-skinned mortal knew the vast extent of all that lay enclosed there. A few had peeped in fear over the eastern wall, where the Great River cut a gate. A few had peered in from the frozen sea-side, in those short open months of summer. And one or two, seeing the river path stretch through the Frost King’s garden, had taken lives within their hands (or so they thought) and scampered through from east to west, like frightened boys that race fear-speeded, in dare-devilment, through a dark graveyard—as I believe they thought this inside of Alaska truly was. But from the highmost southern wall, most fearsome and most grizzly, no white man ever had looked down at any time upon what lay enclosed there. Men spoke of that which lay within as frozen, lifeless, cold, and without loveliness or good repute—a desolation. The only sound, they said, was crack of grinding icebergs; the only sight was static forms of life. Here all things, as within the Garden of the Sleeping Princess, were frozen in a waiting stillness, as of death. . . . They spoke of what they feared and they imagined, and not of what they knew.

There never was a garden walled—unfelt, unheard, unseen—but there grew up false stories of it, based. on mere peeping or on wildest rumor. There never was a garden walled, wherein a Sleeping Princess lay imprisoned, but one day there has come the hand-some prince of romance, predestined to break that spell. The age-old lies about the Frost King’s palace were forever shattered when, back in 1885, a very young and greatly daring Lieutenant of the Second U. S. Cavalry broached and broke the south-ern wall of Alaska, and for the first time in recorded history a white man looked north from that great divide and saw with truthful eyes the fertile summer-blooming reaches of our upper Tanana Valley, stretching away to join the greater Yukon—entered and brought back his good report.

I wish I might have looked north with Lieutenant Allen, at one-thirty of that June morning from his new-found pass within the mountains just above Sus-Iota Lake. After two months’ adventuring up the Copper River from the Pacific, at first by sled and then by cordelle with a moose-hide boat dragged on a tow-line against the tug of swift back-pulling current—after almost nameless hardships, due to misunderstanding and hostility of natives, to his own unpreparedness for climate and for country, as well as ” that last great enemy of all explorers, hunger” —he had at last, almost by chance, reached the di-vide between the Copper and the Tanana waters.

I have found in the archives of the State Department a worn old record of that journey, a record no Alaskan can read without a quickening heart; for this was the first white man to reach into the Frost King’s ill-reputed inner place—over that high south wall which had been previously described as ” one Mt. Hood piled on another.” His exploit was to open to white colonization a region with the boundaries of an empire.

” Fatigue and heat,” that yellowed journal reads, ” prevented a start . . . until 5 P. M. . . At 1:30 A. M. after the steepest ascent made by the expedition, we were on a very short and narrow ` divide,’ 4,500 feet above the sea level, with bold, barren bluffs on each side. From this the most grateful sight it has ever been my fortune to witness was presented. The sun was rising, but not in the east, in fact just 2 points east of north. We had nearly reached the ` land of the midnight sun,’ to find in our front the ` promised land.’ The views in advance and in rear were both grand; the former showing the extensive Tanana Valley with numerous lakes, and the low unbroken range of mountains between the Tanana and Yukon Rivers. On this pass, with both white and yellow buttercups around me and snow within a few feet, I sat proud of the grand sight which no visitor save an Atnatana or Tananatana had ever seen.”

This is the moment that I wish I might have shared, when, like Balboa on his peak in Darien, the halls of gold were opened and new worlds of empire swam into his ken. The wide valley of the Tanana stretched out below, luxuriant in growth of June-blown wild rose and grassy meadow, spinneys of birch and cottonwood, streams soon to be found a leap with salmon and with grayling, lakes rich in pickerel and whitefish. The Sleeping Princess of the Frost King’s Palace woke to life and to the love of man that early morning. The fairest daughter of the old North Gods shook from her magic sleep and, hero-won, submitted from that moment to a mortal’s conquest. The fabled ice walls crumbled, the leaping fire-music died away, the beauty of a truth replaced a grizzly legend.

I think it no wonder that people living in Interior Alaska have, even to this day, a place feeling noticeably different from that of people living on Alaska’s coast, just as in the States there has always been a difference between dwellers in long-settled portions and those on the newer western borders. Sometimes our pioneer superiority complex takes amusing and extravagant angles, it is true, and I have sometimes caught myself indulging in it, and smiled to think, ” I’ve caught it.” But you can’t very well help this, if you live here long within this inner valley, amidst the men who first won to it through real tests of the long-stretching trails. Later colonists who come to-day across those coast passes, by then-undreamed-of luxury of train or on to-morrow’s wings of flight, cannot even imagine the groundwork for this feeling. But we who came into the North within the middle period and caught the ending of the older day as well as the beginning of the new, hold in our memory at least the basic facts which made the winning of the Middle North so real and vital an adventure.

A certain sifting process determined which of Alaska’s future citizens should live upon the coast close to the open highway-sea and which should dwell ” inside,” behind the ranges. Some people are not happy far from the sea, while to others the sea means unrest. Only those ventured through the smoking peaks and up the white-foamed canyons who were not appalled by the unthinkable vastness, were not afraid of being caught alone in awful avalanche, and did not know a vestige of that particular form of self-distrust which makes most men avoid great spaces and great silences.

The all-togetherness of ” the Interior spirit ” is an accepted symbol and an accepted fact. I have heard Coast people complain, in envy: “You Interiorites get more than your share of good things because you always pull together, in a gang. You beat us to things. You jump in and snatch at any bone with meat on it, like a pack of malemutes!”

That isn’t meant to be a compliment, but actually it is. We do work together, for people who have known the common experience of such trails have learned the unforgetable lesson of Arctic brotherhood: swift decision, followed by immediate, direct, effective, concerted action. It has become a quality ingrained and inescapable. When the people of Fairbanks decided a few years ago that a railroad to tide-water was an absolute necessity—if Interior Alaska was ever to be developed as a land of white and permanent colonization, like that great West which it so closely resembles—then the Interiorites got together and gave their views publicity through-out the entire U. S. A. In due time the railroad was an accomplished fact. Like the Western railroads built after the Civil War, this one has more than justified its creation ever since, and will continue to do so even more, in years to come. The Iron Horse took the trail which the feet of pioneers had broken.

” W. F.” says, ” As with other towns, so with Our Town—there are numerous things which need fixing. But it’s seldom we holler for help! ”

Toward those who are content to live in the more populous, easier-reached, and milder-climated Coast towns, the old Interiorites in turn show sometimes something of a scorn. The very same feeling used to exist in the Far West, in the old days of the cattle ranges. I’ll never forget my own first summer in the northwest tip of Colorado—I, a city-bred girl, dropped down a bride with a surveyor husband into that corner which was then the farthest from a railroad of any section of the States. I felt and knew at once that the old-timers there were sorry for me! I was so green, so tenderfoot, I had so much to learn. My very speech betrayed the easy ways of cities and dependence. It hurt—that feeling which grew in on me, of being different, lesser, and untried in resource.

One memorable day, well in my second Western year—a day I never can forget, for every item of that look and scene is fixed in memory as a flashlight shot —a chance cow-puncher with whom I was riding a mile or so on trail said casually, in speaking of him-self and myself : ” We Westerners! ” The swift reaction was so great, instinctively I jerked my horse to standstill and the man wheeled round to face me, startled—and was more startled when he saw (I could not help his seeing, though I’d have given much to hide it) the tears of a great, sudden, unexpected joy that filled my eyes.

” Great hat!” he cried. ” And what have I said now? ”

” It’s nothing—nothing,” I explained in haste. “Only—I am so happy! You’ve just said one of the nicest things any one ever told me. And though we’ll never likely meet again, I’m never going to forget it! ”

I left him, mystified and more than ever convinced, I have no doubt, that women are queer creatures! But I was as exalted as though I had received the stroke of knightly accolade, after long vigil and long test. He meant by “Western,” you see, very much the same thing our Interior Alaskans mean by ” Sourdough. And that is why I quickly under-stood the intense feeling our Interior sourdoughs have about their own hard-won land, even when they sometimes carry it to amusing extremes. Theirs is a generation that is swiftly passing, and one day this precious matrix of loyalty to their own inner land, in those who early came, will all be lost if it is not passed on in a tradition; and so it is perhaps well worth recording, now.

I’ve heard men often say, in speaking of Coast folk, ” They never crossed the ranges.” Among our-selves that is indictment! Or, as our ” W. F.” would often editorialize, in the old days, when irritated be-cause citizens of Juneau or of Anchorage would not see eye to eye with us of the Interior: “They’re beachcombers!” Or, as yet another said, so graphically: ” Sure, I know the body of Alaska was like a slab of critter-meat the Roosians and John Bull had bargained for and butchered, in betwixt them. They’d cut it like a T-bone steak, a juicy mouthful of good meat, but with a stringy tail of fat and gristle that no man likes to set atween his teeth, if he can have the good loin next the bone, or knows the better taste of! Sure, I know. The cut was all long made, and Uncle Sam had just to take it all, or leave it all. But a man don’t have to live where he don’t want to!”

The town of Fairbanks was located when and where it is by a trick of fate or luck or chance, even as most other gold camps have been located. It is on the right bank of Chena Slough of the Tanana because one man got stuck near here, another man got > lost near here, and, a cook went for a long ride! It doesn’t sound probable, I know, but it is true; and it is also true that Italian, French and Japanese names are all tangled up in the original settlement of Fairbanks: Pedro, Barnette, and Wada.

As Joe Ulmer (who is a Past Grand President of the Pioneers of Alaska) tells the story, Felix Pedro was born in Italy in 1859, emigrated to America as a young man, and at ter working in the mines of many Western states for several years, decided to try his luck in Alaska. Here he prospected the Fortymile, and it was here th it the late Alfred H. Brooks of the U. S. Geological Survey met Pedro and engaged his help in a reconnaissance of what is now the Fair-banks country. While near Piledriver Slough on the Tanana, Pedro found gold prospects in several places, but returned that year to Circle City. Once in the winter of 1900 he tried to find again those likely prospects, but could not. In the summer of 1901, however, he took a pack-horse called Old Pete and in company with some other experienced prospectors wandered over from the Chatanika River into the Little Chena. But Pedro was very evidently lost, and this country—coming upon it as he now did from such a different angle—all seemed totally different and unfamiliar. His comrades were angry that he had led them into such a wild-goose chase, as it seemed, and they would have lynched him, so the story goes, if Jack Kinally had not intervened. That winter was spent in desultory prospecting, but in July of 1902 Pedro himself at last found pay on the creek that now bears his name, Tom Gilmore washed some good discovery pans on the present Gilmore Creek, and others staked on Cleary and Coldstream. During the summer more prospectors from the Circle country drifted in, and soon a dozen near-by creeks were staked and named.

In the meantime Captain Barnette had started up the Yukon from Saint Michael with a small steam-boat, the Lavelle Young, and barge loaded with supplies which he planned to us in founding an Indian trading post where the Delta runs into the upper Tanana. Coming up Chena Slough, probably thinking it a short cut and misled b-’ his native pilot, he ran aground near here, due to low fall water, and was compelled to tie up his barge and winter. As he could get no further at that time, he decided to make a virtue of necessity and since there was an Indian village only twelve miles below, this island seemed as good a place as any for a permanent trading post. So he settled here, built a big log house for his store, and his coming proved a boon indeed to the hungry prospectors wintering near by on Pedro’s creek. In fact, every pound of his outfit was sold out by March, even though (as George MacQuarrie, one of the first comers, tells me) flour sold at $65 a hundred weight, bacon at $1.25 a pound and oatmeal at a dollar! It was this post established by Barnette which determined the present site of Fairbanks, for the ground he laid out as a town-site lot was later bought by the N. C. Company, and their present stores and warehouses are now built upon it.

News of Pedro’s gold strike spread rapidly to Circle, Dawson, Rampart and Nome, word being carried by Wada, a Japanese boy from Barnette’s stranded boat. As MacQuarrie says, ” He went up-river to Dawson that fall, and all the way along, when folks asked him about what was doing over on the Tanana, he kept his mouth shut and looked mysterious, the very best way in the world to start a rush, and there sure was one, It was not many weeks before the sourdoughs began pouring in, from all the old camps of :Alaska, and in four years these Fairbanks creeks became Alaska’s greatest gold producers.

When I first came to Fairbanks I lived on Front Street facing the river, in a rambling six-room log house, the older part of which had been one of the town’s original cabals. Just the other day, in looking over some forgotten papers, I happened on a letter which I had written from that house, during my first winter. Perhaps if I let you read it, in that way you will get my very first impression of housekeeping in Alaska’s Golden Heart, far better than I could rebuild it for you, now:

Do not think of us as freezing, please, or as living in an Eskimo snow igloo ! One of the many paradoxical things about Alaska that I have already discovered is the fact that people are more comfortable here in winter than they are in many places outside.” This is because the houses are of heavy logs, and solidly constructed, and well and newly chinked each fall with clay, so that all preparations are made beforehand for a severe winter; whereas so often in the States, because cold comes infrequently, the houses are not really built to withstand cold at all. We have a most modern bathroom, which is quite a rarity in Fairbanks for there are only six of them in town; and I find it a great treat to my new friends and neighbors here, to ask them to ” come over and take a bath ! ” You see, otherwise they have to go to one of the public bath-houses, but it is much pleasanter to bathe in a porcelain tub here, and, when the thermometer stands at forty below, to sit about and visit afterwards and have a hot cup of coffee before bundling up and scurrying home through the frost-teeming electric-lighted early-afternoon streets.

We also have a big kitchen with a modern range and plumbing, and many double-glassed windows that face the south—where such sun as we now have is to be seen peeping over the mountains for just an hour or so at noon each day. People tell us that we have an old domestic tragedy to thank for our many unusual conveniences to-day in this really very comfortable house. For to me, coming from our three years at the radium mine in Colorado and living in a tent there on a mountain top, this house is the epitome of comfort. They tell me that one of the old-timers of this camp built our original house and lived here, with his wife and children. But one day he fell in with a crowd of his old pals from early Skagway days, and forgot about his present domestic ties so far that he disappeared for nearly two weeks, on a pro-longed drinking party! When he got back he was so ashamed of himself that he promised, if his wife would ” forget it,” not only to add a much-needed wing to the original cabin, but also to install the ” finest kitchen and bathroom in the North.” From such strange springs do the warm waters of our present domestic comfort arise!

We have also to thank this little tragi-comedy for our big furnace (which eats up incredible cords of wood, in logs that I just can lift, and that’s all) and our own well, located in the cellar just under the furnace so that it never freezes even when, as yesterday, the thermometer on our front porch hit the amazing point of sixty-eight below zero. There is an electric pump attached to this well, and it fills up a. tank located in the attic. The house is hung with burlap in soft warm brown tones, instead of being papered; for they tell me that there is too much expansion and contraction of the walls, in the extremes of temperature here, for plaster to hold tight. The burlap is very satisfactory and indeed most artistic, making a neutral background like a studio wall, and it tones amazingly well with the old pieces of furniture we have brought from home—the grandpa clock, the old Nantucket desk, great-grandmother’s four-poster and the other things—as well as with our oriental rugs. And don’t think these things incongruous here. These rugs of Orient are far more near to Asia now than ever they have been since knotted in Saruk! And the old grandpa clock that once was made in Perth, has much more chance to catch again a Perthshire cadence here than in Nantucket or in Denver. They seem content, these old things. They seem to say: ” Ah, yes, we understand. Another colony, and we are your true colonials. We feel quite comfortably at home here, thank you.”

And so, you see, although the spirit thermometer outside says ” deep cold” (and mercury will freeze at minus forty, so they cannot use it here), our house inside says home and comfort.” I wrote you last August, after we got here, of the unbelievable beauty of the gardens and the wonder and the mystery of sun-filled summer mid-night dusks. Do you know, I think I’m going to like the winters just as well? ;I like the contrasts here—the land is like the serpent of old Nile, bewitching because of her infinite variety. I’m keen about it all. Most of the people living here consider this the finest climate on earth, and I’m beginning to believe it, myself.

Aside from our joy in the pieces themselves, I’m glad I brought our old furniture. It’s so suggestive, all the time, of that New England past and those other colonists who brought with them their treasures from their home-land overseas, when setting up their new colonial home—to help to keep their hearts from home-sickening, and as a symbol that their minds were solemn-set to root here and make the place a pledge of faith to all the past. For, you see, we feel ourselves already as a part of this great new American adventure, but moving in the pattern of those old colonial home-makers, carrying forward the customs—and even the furniture—of an older world into the new soil. And these worn pieces of a glowing warm mahogany help us each day to keep in mind that other picture. Men back in England thought New England was a barren cruel land, and felt a misplaced sympathy for friends who went to live there in the wilderness, very like the sympathy expressed by you in your last letter to us here ! Don’t waste such thou is on us, my dear, for the old-timers here who know it best, call it ” God’s Pocket.” Isn’t that a phrase of faith and wealth and all security? These sourdoughs, as they call themselves, though they are very far from being saints,, yet have most of the qualities we think of saints as made of, seems to me—high courage, faith, and gripping everlastingly to an ideal they’ve set their hearts upon. ” And what is else, not to be overcome? ” coffee-and-cream color,

Outside, our house is a sort of coorrugated iron over the with a dull-sage painted roof of soft blanket of a foot or wood—all covered now with a so which he to keep us warm more of close-packed snow, which helps are newly daubed and cozy. And as the logs of the outside with white-gray limey stripes of chinking, we present in our exterior phase a winter symphony of pleasant white and brown, really very lovely. Here is indeed good architecture, for it so squarely fits the purposes for which it was designed, and is so truly adapted to the environment in which it is set and out of which it roots and grows. Our little brown home in the North is in perfect focus with the climate, with the social customs of the community, with the history of the camp’s development and with good sane common sense! What more can you ask of architecture?

I have only two faults to find, and they are so minor I’m almost ashamed to mention them. The other day, the day of the first ” deep cold,” I looked up from my sewing and saw some little white spots on the wall. I knew they had not been there that morning, for I had freshly swept and garnished the big square living-room, expecting guests that afternoon for ” sewing and coffee,” as the telephone invitations are usually given. At last, my woman’s curiosity was too much, and in the middle of a sentence I got up, walked across the room, and tried to pick off one of those white dots. I guess that my look of amazement was open enough, for the ladies of our sewing bee, who had been watching, burst into a delighted laughter at my look of consternation ! The white dots were the heads of nails, in door jamb and window frames uncovered by the burlap; and the deep cold penetrating the walls had followed along the iron and condensed the moisture in the warm room into a frost, covering the nails’ heads so tightly and completely it could not be scraped off. My new friends have been kidding me ever since about ” seeing spots.”

Yesterday when I took a bath, I was luxuriating in the warm steaming tub—especially luxurious to tall me because it is an extra large and extra deep tub, an ” over size ” to fit the huge body of that once old-timer who, as I told you, built this house for his own comfort. Well, steaming there and thinking with amusement of your let-ter of polite sympathy about the cold we must be suffering here, I happened to look up and saw three irregular white streaks running across the blue-gray ” sanitas ” of the bathroom wall, just above the tub.

I had learned my lesson about spots, but streaks seemed to be a different matter. Besides, I argued, frost would be impossible just above that tub of steam. Gingerly I reached up and scratched with a finger nail, and—sure enough—a great blob of white frost fell down and splashed into the tub !

Upon investigation, I realized that the bathroom had been built in the jog formed by the corner of the house’s new ell, and hence that one of its inner walls over the tub was really an old outside wall. The frost of this deep cold spell we are having just now had followed in along the logs, which stuck their ends outside, and the heat of the room had brought the frost out all along the chinks. I could feel the bulge of the logs under the sanitas.

My other objection, aside from dots and streaks, is that our house isn’t ” on the level.” Nothing is on the level here ! Mind you, I say ” thing,” not people, for the people are the squarest and truest I’ve ever known, and are a lot like the best of those in the West. But our living-room floor is so wavy it almost makes me seasick to walk across it; for it has an oceana roll! You see, all of this town is built on deeply-frozen gravels of an island in the big river. Except for a small cellar big enough to hold the furnace and not much else, the house is built right on the ground, on mud-sills of logs. Especially because we are so close to the river bank, which forms a sort of fault,—and which is itself contracting and snapping from cold, with cracks like rifle shots,—the ground is forever moving and adjusting and heaving, and so the floors heave and move, too. But all the other housekeepers have wavy floors, so we never notice it any more.

You weren’t sorry for me about the right things! You never thought of spots and streaks and wavy floors, I’ll wager. And I can add one more Alaskan rarity that I’m very sure you’ve never guessed: Last week we were sitting here playing a quiet hand of bridge when suddenly there rose such a clatter that I thought the roof was caving in. Then I located the noise in the kitchen and rushed out there, only to see the dishes on the shelf dancing up and down as though the ghosties had them—and the bulb of light on a cord was swaying back and forth in a big arc, as though possessed. Allen, too, had jumped up and was rushing about to see what was the matter. But our guests called to us—” Come on back and finish out the hand. It’s nothing. Just another earthquake. Katmai is turning over, that’s all. You’ll soon get used to that. It happens every month or so. When you have seen the ice come and go, then you’ll begin to be a sourdough too, and you’ll never notice a little thing like earthquakes. It’s your lead.”

Now what a Land of Paradox this is, I ask you? Frost one day, and an earthquake the next! A woman said to me at church last Sunday : ” You’ll like Alaska. It’s the land where anything might happen—and most generally it does ! ”

I guess that she was about right. I do like Alaska, and things do happen !