Popular Science Monthly/Volume 69/August 1906/Reminiscences of Yukon Exploration, 1865-1868



Smithsonian Institution.

OF the human flood which poured over the Chilkoot crest and inundated the drainage basin of the Yukon in the last years of the nineteenth century, Elizabeth Robins, Joaquin Miller and Jack London have given lurid pictures. The thirst for gold drew miners from every western camp, gamblers from every slum, dreamers from three continents, and human parasites from the whole round world. Ignorant of the climatic conditions, unprepared for the vicissitudes of life in the north, often burdened with preposterous machinery, unsuitable equipment and impossible loads—this motley horde invaded the Yukon territory in quest of fortune. With thousands exhaustion, exposure, disappointment, fear and panic dealt harshly in the end.

The interplay of human passions among those stripped thus of every conventionality offered an unrivaled opportunity to the observer. Greed, fear, suspicion, cruelty and selfishness revealed themselves, on occasion, as vividly as did the contrasted courage, kindliness, self-denial and heroic endurance of the nobler souls. On the just and the unjust, the strong and the weak, the coward and the courageous, indiscriminately, played the natural forces. The soft, white, clogging snow, the stinging cold, the searching wind, the claims of appetite—none might forego.

What with the fight for mere existence, the struggle for a paying location, the fitful gleaming of hope, fear, realization and disappointment, few in all that seething multitude may have had eyes for the beauty, the solemnity, the poetry of that wild north land. For most of them memory would picture the weary monotony of the trail, the buffeting of wind and snow, the penetrating rigor of the cold. These things so bit into their experience that all other impressions would seem trivial. Upon these factors fiction and romance would lean for local color, until, in the course of years, they would become to the average man essentially typical of the Yukon country. Under these conditions it seems possibly worth while, for one of the few who visited the Yukon region in its virgin prime, to put on record some of the impressions which it left upon his memory.

Like most great waterways, the Yukon itself has carved its kingdom out from the rude husk of mother earth. Before man was, its waters flowed in much their present channels. At times their flood was mighty, comparable only with such streams as Amazon and Nilus. Once its waters reflected the foliage of oak and plane-tree; the fig and the tulip tree flourished on its banks and the heights beyond were dark with forests of Sequoia. Later, its soft alluvial flats trembled under the ponderous tread of the hairy mammoth, while the wild horse grazed upon its verdant savannas. The bison knew its prairieland and the mazama its foothills. With the wane of the Age of Ice the musk-ox sought pasturage upon the Yukon tundra.

Strangely enough, during the height of the great Ice Age when the northeastern part of the continent as well as southern Alaska were buried deep under a continental ice-sheet, the greater part of the Yukon basin remained open to the sun. The traces of the glaciers are plain to see, about its head waters, on the Alaskan mountains to the south and the Yukon mountains to the north, but the terminal moraines are there to show where the deadly creeping of the ice was stayed, far above the present valley. During this time, perhaps, the muddy torrents bore to the river and the sea the alluvium which now composes the vast delta of the Yukon and the submarine flats, covering thousands of square miles, which are the characteristic feature of the eastern half of Bering Sea. With the shrinking of the glacier-sheet vast floods of water were let loose upon the alluvium of the lowlands, gradually shaping the features of the valley, concentrating the metallic contents of the gravels, and hurrying seaward the 'mountain meal' or impalpable white silt of the glacial grist.

From the volcanic craters of the mountain ranges to the south and west fine white ashes on one occasion poured in such volume as to cover the ground with a fleecy blanket, several feet thick, for many hundred square miles. Though covered by later accretions, this continuous layer of white ashes may still be traced for many leagues along the steep bluffs of the right bank of the river where it is under-cut by the current.

As the glaciers receded, the water supply became less profuse, the river settled between its banks, while the flats and prairies were invaded by willow and poplar, birch and spruce. The flora of the north, delicate and abundant, spread over the land, followed by the bee and the butterfly. Singing birds found nesting places, and with them all the small wild things which populate the wilderness, to gather sustenance from seed or berry, or seek refuge from the fox or hawk. And so at last the valley lay complete as first we knew it.

A brave domain, well defended, stretching some two thousand miles. On the north broad tundras hardly divided by low hills from the inviolate Arctic floes where they push upon the low sandy coast. To the northwest a turmoil of mountains, with hardly any game, kept off the explorer; while to the west, before the flatlands of the delta, lay many miles of mudflats and shifting sandbars, with no landmarks to indicate the channels of which only the salmon knew the secret. No invader, seeking a fairway for his vessel, might find comfort here. On the south the mighty rock walls of the Alaskan and St. Elias ranges, bristling with splintered crags, between which lurk the unconquered remnants of the Glacier Age, confront the would-be intruder. Lastly, on the east, mountains alternate with morasses for hundreds of miles; with streams unnavigable even by canoes, except at the price of hourly portages; tamarack thickets too dense to traverse, standing in bogs too soft to afford foothold, *and so populated by black flies and mosquitoes as to be abandoned in summer by all the larger animals. Here a little band of Hudson Bay voyageurs, bent on reaching the great unknown river, some sixty-six years ago, were driven, through desperate starvation, to the last imaginable horror. Not till MacMurray flanked them by descending the Mackenzie far beyond the Arctic circle and forcing the Eat River portage to the waters of the Porcupine, were the eastern defenses of the valley carried by an explorer.

Even then, a quarter of a century should pass before the white man from the east met his fellow from the west, under the Arctic circle, at Port Yukon, and the whole long river should know the stroke of their paddles and smoke of their camp-fires.

When the whites came they but followed on the trails of the Indian, whose far progenitors, lost in the mists of time, had penetrated to the valley, retreating, as legends tell, from massacre on the south at the hands of stronger tribes; or from starvation on the north, where, beyond the fiats of frozen mud, lay only the barren floe. To them the Yukon gave of her caribou and salmon, and among her clustered spruce trees they found a safe refuge. There they prospered and begat other generations, who in the fulness of time came to call themselves Yukonikatana, Men of the Yukon. The ancient feud between Indian and Eskimo kept them from the coasts. Thus in a very emphatic sense the valley of the Yukon was their world.

To enter into the Yukon Valley one must scale its watershed or advance by the stream itself through the delta. The former was more difficult, the latter longer and more monotonous. Creeping along the coast in shallow water, one came finally to a branch where a loaded sloop might enter, and, by hard pulling against the current, finally gain the main channel. After leaving the sea one rowed between steep banks, hour after hour, the traveler seeing nothing but muddy water and scattered driftwood. If, in desperation, one scrambled to the level of the land, one saw on every hand an apparently illimitable plain, broken only far to the southeast by a single summit, the isolated peak of Kusilvak Mountain, blue in the distance.

Over the level surface lay scattered the worn and shattered trunks of driftwood fibrous with grinding in the ice of the spring freshet and stranded by the falling waters. Here and there were small patches of herbage growing rankly in the day-long sunlight of the boreal springtime. Everywhere rose the harsh cries of water fowl, hovering over their shallow nests hollowed in the warm sand. Ducks, geese and all the smaller waders, with here and there a sand-hill crane or snowy swan, all busy in the brief domesticity of spring, thronged the flats, covered the pools, or rose in dark extended myriads, as far as the eye can see. Violent cries and flapping wings called attention to some disreputable looking fox, with the rags of his winter coat still hanging to him, prowling in search of eggs of nestlings, but valiantly faced by the mother birds with loud vociferation. Now and then the great Arctic hare, looking as big as a deer in the absence of objects of comparison, lopes silently and swiftly between the tufts of succulent herbage; or a great black raven croaks hoarsely overhead, watching his chance to snap up a downy duckling in the absence of its defenders. The sun, low in the heavens, sheds genial warmth over the noisy congregation, and rich green patches of Mertensia, or forget-me-not, open a profusion of blue petals, basking in the radiance. Dotted over the sands little yellow poppies stand singly, spreading silky corollas over their slender densely hispid stems. A profusion of Saxifrage, Potentilla, sedge and Claytonia is found on every hand, except where the latest freshets have been scouring. Steadily between its low steep banks flows the turbid river, dividing into many channels most of which, when the floods are over, become dry.

After days of laborious tracking or rowing the main river may be reached. This for hundreds of miles flows steadily, with its current mainly hugging the right bank. This, if there be any high land about, is high, facing the stream with bold bluffs, which are gradually eaten away at the base by the gnawing current. At intervals a vertical slice of the bluff cracks, quivers and plunges into the water, carrying with it undergrowth and trees, which may remain as dangers to navigation or join the fleet of arboreal derelicts steadily moving toward the sea.

The left bank is usually low, with perhaps a blue line of distant hills dimly visible. Islands in the lower river are not numerous, though many sand-bars come to light at stages of low water. The scour of the river in spate is not favorable to permanent islands.

Ascending the river to the very center of the Alaskan territory, its width is suddenly contracted, its rate of flow increased, while high on either hand the banks rise steep and mountainous. This canon received from the Hudson Bay men the picturesque name of 'the Ramparts.' Between the June water level and that of July, at the lower end of the cañon, there is a difference of seventy feet, and the maximum is even greater.

About one hundred miles of the river are comprised within the Ramparts, which do not rise as rocky walls, but rather as steep sparsely wooded slopes, formerly beloved of the mountain sheep. Above the Ramparts the river spreads out upon a wide alluvial plain, dividing itself amongst innumerable islands.

Just below the lower end of the cañon enters from the south the Tanana, River of the Mountain Men, a noble tributary. Here lay Nuklukahyet the neutral trading ground for many years.

On the border of Alaska, just above the Arctic Circle, enters the Porcupine River from the northeast, the channel by which MacMurray won his way into the Yukon valley in the early forties. Here the great river bends to the southeast, enters British territory, and carries its navigable waters further nearly five hundred miles. In this stretch its hitherto pellucid waters receive the milky flow of the White River, glacier-fed, which tinges their flood henceforward, to the sea.

The Yukon is the highway of all this land. When the frosts of October lock the streamlets and choke the outlets of the mountain springs, the wide stream is quickly ice-bound. At some points where the swifter current ripples, open water still remains, giving out feathery streaks of mist to the crisp air.

Migratory fishes hurry to the sea. Already the water fowl have departed. The first snow lies feathery soft amongst the seedling willows on the sandbars. The broad sheets of ice on either shore glisten in the enfeebled sunlight, and as the river falls, they sink, creaking and crashing until the early ice of the shallows lies unevenly on the gravelly river-bed. The turbidity of summer lessens and the current flows steely-dark along the open spaces. Sharper grows the cold; the heavy sun relinquishes more and more of its meridian arc. The skies turn gray, and presently comes the snow, steady, silent, soft, incessant, clothing the world.

Deep under the fleecy blanket nestle the little green herbs. The field mouse tunnels the drifts where he may roam unseen and nibble the sweet bark of the young birches. Stately, silent, vigorous, the ptarmigan cock treads pathways amongst the willows, in snow no whiter than his plumage. Here the admiring flock may pluck the spicy buds to their content, heedless of the fowler's snare, and hardly disturbed when the lesser hare, like them snow white, avails himself of their convenient runway.

The red squirrel chirrups in the branches of the spruce, nipping off the loaded cones. Around him chirp the winter redbirds, cheeriest of residents, while in a neighboring poplar the raucous voice of the whisky-jack declares that the world owes him a living. The yellow-headed woodpecker hammers busily away on some decaying alder and from the steep bluff among the rocks comes with solemn repetition the hoarse cry of the raven.

As the sun sinks early to the horizon the owls call to one another and issue from their retreats, whirring softly among the loaded branches. The squirrels are safe in their holes, but let the incautious snowbird beware, lest he be snatched incontinently from his perch. Snake-like the mink in his dark glistening coat winds among the willows by the waterside, on murder bent. The petulant bark of the dogfox is hushed as he too moves with stealthy tread in search of prey. The stars come out, the shadows blacken, hunters and hunted alike are still. Save for the musical twang of splitting ice, now and then, along the river, a measureless silence descends upon the world. As the cold strengthens, in the northern heavens the pale aurora lifts its quivering arch.

The extreme cold is felt always in still weather. As the wind rises, so does the temperature. When sixty-eight below zero of Fahrenheit implies a calm, a rise of thirty-eight degrees is probable as the wind rises. While it does not often snow at this temperature, the wind may carry so much fine loose already-fallen snow along the surface of the open tundra or the river that it has the effect of a blinding snow-storm, against which nor man nor beast may stand. This is the dreaded 'poorga' of the Russian, the 'blizzard' of the western prairies. Here the ignorant gold seeker, ill-clothed, ill-shod, wearing himself out by vain efforts to withstand the forces of nature, often meets his fate. But who has heard of a Yukon Indian perishing in a poorga? The man of the Yukon had adapted his dress, his snowshoes, his tools, his movements, to his surroundings. Like the beasts of the valley, whose skins he wore, he knew how to seek or build a shelter which would shield him from the blast and keep him safe, even if uncomfortable, until the elements wearied of their rage. The humming of the wind in the swaying spruces, the rattle of flying bits of ice or dead branches blown over the crusted snow, the complaining cry of the hawk-owl as his hollow tree quivered under the gusts, all told of the progress of the storm to him brought up to listen to and understand the voices of the wilderness.

And when at last the storm had spent itself, the traveler came forth from his temporary shelter to beat the snow crystals from his garments and look upon a world swept clean of litter, sparkling white under the winter sunbeams. The grouse from her tunnel in the snowdrift, the squirrel from his hollow log, the snowbirds from their retreats beneath the half-buried branches of the spruce, all issued forth upon their daily sustenance intent. The world was a good world, after all, and the singing gale merely a break in its monotony.

Where the tenderfoot, untrained, undisciplined and terrified, found only a demoniac nature striving to overwhelm a shivering victim, those to the manner born might feel a power, a majesty, an unswerving flight, as of the passing of a messenger of God.

As the days grow longer, while the trails harden, the deep snow settles, bearing a solid crust. There is a mildness in the air and in sheltered places little pools form on the ice about midday. The poplar buds are swelling. The raven's nest among the rocks of the bluff is no longer empty. The river ice whitens though it does not yield. Presently the cry of the wild goose is heard, the flocks are returning from the. south. The ptarmigan forsakes the willow thickets, and the hare retreats from the edge of the river. They know what the creaking of the ice portends. The native fish-traps in the channel are dismantled, the snow on the beaches disappears. The river ice settles closer to the sand-bars; there is slush on the trail to the water-hole. The little brooks begin to trickle, and form pools where the grayling makes his retreat from the main river. The smaller migrant birds begin to appear, the wheatear, the American robin and a host of others, with phalaropes and sandpipers. The harlequin ducks arrive in pairs, silently making their way up the smaller streams, seeking secluded spots for nesting. The first mosquitoes appear, advance guard of the multitudinous pests of summer.

As the streams increase in volume the river rises, the ice becomes rotten and is lifted from the sand-bars; man and beast seem to wait breathless for the ice to go out. The sun pours down with a fervor not soon forgotten, though in the shade it is always cool.

The cry of the brant, northward bound, is continually heard, and myriads of smaller water fowl appear on every hand. All the minor forms of life, native to the region or migrants from the south, with startling suddenness people the copses and pervade the air. Vegetation springs into leaf and flower at a bound. The water creeps up on the beaches, the ice is shaken by tremors often accompanied by a groaning sound.

The tributary streams begin to run bank-high and flood the surface of the river ice; at last the crisis comes with the upriver rise. The ice breaks, great cakes are driven high upon the beaches or jam in the narrower channels between islands; at last it floods the lowlands; ice, debris, and driftwood pour, with a grinding noise, headlong toward the sea. Below the Ramparts at least a week goes by before the river is free enough from floating ice and broken timber to be navigable, even for canoes. With hardly a hint of spring, summer is upon the valley. Mosquitoes appear in clouds. Except in midstream or where a brisk air is blowing, life without a net and leather gloves is misery. The Indians smear their faces with a mixture of grease and charcoal, and paddle with a smudge on a square of turf, in the bows of their birch canoes. The cribou, moose and bear, driven from the thickets by the clouds of insects, plunge into the river for a temporary respite, where they are often slain by the hunter in his canoe. Whoso must travel will be prudent to sleep at noon and utilize the cooler hours when the sun sweeps low along the northern horizon and the insects are less active.

As the summer ripens the mosquitoes become less troublesome, though never entirely absent. The strenuous period of the spring floods being over, the great river settles down into its normal summer flow. Early in July it was the ancient custom for the Yukon Men, the Mountain Men from the Tanana River, and sometimes strangers from the Upper Yukon or the Koyukon tributary, to meet on a small fiat island where the Tanana and Yukon come together. This was the neutral ground, Nu-klfik-a-yet' in the Indian tongue. Here no man might bring his quarrel, no tribe its feud. The meeting was devoted to the peaceful barter of furs, and to festivities where food, the weird Indian music and Indian dances, were the rule.

Many years ago I was fortunate enough to be present at the annual meeting. My companion and myself were the first whites to have that experience. On arrival, after the usual harangue from the senior chief ashore and the spokesman of our party, and several salvos from flintlock muskets ashore and the shot guns afloat, we were allowed to land and a camping ground designated for us by the master of ceremonies, who held his office with dignity.

Later on shouts announced the arrival of the Mountain Men and we hastened to the beach to witness their reception. Dressed in his finest array the senior chief stood at the top of the bank, his followers all arrayed in their best, standing with loaded muskets ready for the salute.

Swiftly around the bend in the river came the little fleet of birch canoes elegantly fashioned, uniform in length and pattern, each holding one man with his bundle of furs and store of provisions. They were uniformly dressed in their purely aboriginal costume of dressed deerskin, ornamented with fringes, quill embroidery, and patterns drawn in red, derived from a soft argillaceous ore of iron. The trousers were continuous with the moccasins, and the upper garment bore a pointed skirt or pendant before and behind. Their long hair tied in two locks at the side of the head, wound with beads and polished with bear's grease, was sprinkled with the chopped up down of swans. Their faces were painted with red ochre, every man wore an ornament piercing the cartilage of the nose, and a belt of dentalium shell or caribou teeth. Their guns lay beside them. With military precision the paddles struck the water in unison, the canoes wheeled and came to rest, paddles uplifted, a short distance from the beach, while every gun on shore boomed its salute. The ceremonies of landing and camping once over, the interest felt in meeting these handsome athletic men, who had never before seen or been seen by whites, was very great. Although they possessed beads, guns and pipes, these had been acquired from other tribes acting as middlemen. It is probable that people so little touched by our civilization no longer exist in North America. The basin of the Tanana is now occupied by a large mining camp with all that that implies, and the dignity and glory of the Mountain Men have departed.

Midsummer brought all dwellers in the valley to the rivers, that the winter's supply of salmon might be secured, the real staff of life to these people. The banks near the fishing camps were scarlet with long lines of fish, split and cleaned, drying in the sun. On the lower river the salmon were mostly taken in traps. Sis hundred miles up-stream only the larger and stronger species made their way. One of my most vivid recollections is of the sight, just after shooting the riffle at the lower Ramparts, of a fishing party provided with very large dip nets on long poles. The dusk was close upon us and the rank of birch canoes, arranged in line transversely to the stream, was already in the shadow of the canon. Chanting a weird low chant in perfect time, at a given moment the broad nets were simultaneously plunged into the water while the frail birches rocked under the strain. Two canoemen were needed to lift one of the great king salmon out of his native element. The order, precision and silence, except for the mystical chant; the bronzed faces and sinewy arms half disclosed in the waning twilight, the swift water and towering heights of the cañon, left an ineffaceable impression.

The Yukon was good to her children. From her waters came the fish of many sorts, their staff of life. On her broad sloughs and amongst her thickets, the wild geese rested and the ducks raised their downy broods. The furs and skins which kept the native warm and dry, came from her banks. The stately spruce and silvery birch along her shores supplied houses, canoes, utensils, traps and fuel. Floored with ice or flowing yellow in the sun, she was her people's highway. In death their elevated tombs were placed where might be had the widest view of Yukon water.

The Men of the Yukon had, like other men, their careers, affections, tragedies and triumphs. The valley whose rim enclosed their world, since they knew none other, was as wide for them as our world is for us. It is certain that for their world they had worked out problems which we are still facing with puzzled trepidation in ours. No man went hungry in a Yukon village. No youth might wed until he had killed a deer, as token that he could support his family. The trail might be lined with temporary caches, yet no man put out his hand to steal. Men were valued by their achievements and their liberality. Any man might rise to eminence and leadership by showing his fitness in his community. That there were evil doers occasionally is probable, but there was an unwritten limit which might not be transgressed without condign punishment.

The stranger was welcomed without inquisitiveness, sheltered and fed without ostentation, and sent on his way without fee or reward. The dead were protected and remembered; their deeds of prowess handed down as examples for the young. Debauchery was unknown until taught by men of whiter skins.

They suffered from the dread of mysterious powers, and the shaman took his tithes of them. Their religion was vague and their politics mostly a minus quantity; but in practice they knew what was just and good, and in the main made it their rule of life.

Such were the Men of the Yukon, to whom civilization and the greed of gold brought drink, disease and death. The fittest has survived, but the fittest for what?

Time will restore their verdure to the Yukon placers, when the gold has been extracted and the prospector ceases from troubling. The graceful spruce will clothe her ravaged banks once more, and even the salmon exterminated by the canneries will replenish her waters in the fulness of time. The stern wheeler will pass away with the exhaustion of the mines, or at least become a rarity. The Arctic calm will rest once more upon her hillsides. But the Men of the Yukon trained to her ways by the experience of generations, wise in her capabilities, contented with her bounty, the true children of the river and its valley, these she shall know no more.