PC 45 Alaska Part Two (Continuing!!)

Part of our planning was to be in Alaska/Yukon on the longest day of the year!! Get your mind around this: in Dawson City the sun set at 00:47 on a bearing of 345° and rose at 02:59 on a bearing of 15°. So strange but actually it was wonderful, to have these long evenings, staying warm with a strong sun until you went to bed. Driving on unfamiliar roads, it was comforting to know you wouldn’t be wending your way up hill and down dale in the dark.

Dawson City developed a reputation for lawlessness and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police took a tough line. Consequently some Americans, wanting more freedom and fun maybe, took off down river to a newly established outpost called Eagle, which was over the border in Alaska, America. There is some speculation that Eagle was developed on the back of a half-truth, that a couple of prospectors staked out 50×100 foot plots, went to Dawson City with a bag of gold, sold the line that there was ‘gold in them thaar hills’, and gullible chaps, unable to find a free unclaimed creek around Dawson City to work, bought it! Eagle became a flourishing township of 2000, living in log cabins and tents. Obviously the London Alaska Syndicate that employed George bought several claims, particularly on the Fortymile River and at Colorado Creek and George spent several months here in 1901 and 1902.

The road to Eagle initially follows the Top of The World Highway, which is aptly named. This is emptiness writ large.

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The view from the ‘Top of the World’ Highway

Mile after mile of dirt road, astride the tops of the hills. In every direction you see more of the same; trees, hills, greens, blues, golds ……. and sky …. and only one or two vehicles came in the other direction during our drive. We were blessed with wonderful warm weather and, driving along this unique road, we truly felt ‘on top of the world’. The entry onto this highway had been a ferry across the Yukon River, only open from late spring to early autumn due to the icing up of the river; also the snow of course would make driving on it during the winter months too difficult. Amusing to stop at the US Customs Post, go through the formalities, and drive onto tarmac – a modern surface, even boasting a middle yellow line ….. which stopped when you were out of sight of Canada and it reverted to a hard-packed dirt surface.

After some 170 miles, we turned off the Top of The World Highway and onto the 70 mile Taylor Highway. This was the one part of our trip I had felt might be rather daunting. The Taylor follows the trail developed by the gold prospectors who did not go down the Yukon River from Dawson City to Eagle. After 10 miles we crossed the Fortymile River, and followed the O’Brien Creek northwards. The road twisted around hills, down to the river and up over another shoulder, no wildlife visible apart from rabbits, on and on; sometimes the drop off the roadside was quite steep and there were no guard rails, so this was not a road to hurry on!

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O’Brien Creek on the Taylor Highway

Two and a half hours later we drove slowly into Eagle. You remember I said earlier that Eagle had had a population of some 2000? Well! They left!! Currently there are about 109 people living here, swelled in the summer months by tourists to, maybe, 116. If you wanted to live away from it, here’s the place to come … Eagle City, only about 150 miles south from the Arctic Circle!!

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The Settlement of Eagle City (2015)

George wrote to Eva after his arrival at Eagle:

“I think I may say that I have at last reached the outermost edges of civilization. Dawson looks to me now as a place of refinement and luxury. Eagle City is a settlement of about fifty huts (log cabins), two large iron stores, and a board house used for Government purposes, and a little way out log buildings, round a space with a long pole flying the Stars & Stripes, of the Military barracks. The town site is a great improvement on Dawson. The hills stand well back from the town with a handsome bluff on the left, at the foot of which fans out Colorado Creek. A good view up and down the Yukon gives a feeling of breathing space.”

Everyone we met, from Theresa the postmistress who doubles up as the local historian, Mary the librarian, Terry who gave us the guided tour (and hoped we would spend money in the museum’s gift shop), and Philip, who was in the Visitors’ Centre and who looked old enough to have known George when he was here, were unfailing helpful, courteous and engaging. Lovely, lovely people! The restaurant was being refurbished and we had to improvise supper. We could cook at our B&B, so we looked in the village store for some provisions. The store owners were stocking the shelves; we looked into the freezer. Well, funny ‘burger’ shaped blocks called sausages, chunks of meat of all sorts (Moose? Caribou?), all very suspect – particularly if you’re a vegetarian as Celina is!

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The old and the modern in Eagle

George trekked out of Eagle up to the mines they were working. He wrote to Eva:

“I can only describe the trail as the worst on earth. Mostly swamp – one moment nearly dragged off by the scrub, the next floundering in black mud. All the time the mosquitoes were in swarms, driving us both mad, the animals to madness. Really the mosquitoes question is terrible. We all wear netting and gloves, but you can’t keep them on always. We have to burn smoke fires round camp day and night, but still are covered with bites. I had been warned about the Alaskan mosquito – but dear me, I had no idea they could be so persistent and so hungry. They have learnt to climb through the netting; I watched them do it! The inside of our tent is splashed with our blood and squashed mosquitoes.”

After a lovely peaceful mosquito-free night (!) in the Falcon Inn B&B we left, filled up with petrol at Ron’s (See PC 43), and made our way back to the ‘Top of The World Highway’ and turned west. There is no record of George having been in this direction, so we mentally left him at Eagle, ruminating about his London-based syndicate and the uncertainty of the whole project. After a few hours we got back onto tarmac and drove into Chicken. Only in Alaska maybe would a place be called ‘Chicken’! And you know what? One night, as the prospectors sat around the fire after a hard day panning for gold at the creeks, it was agreed that their settlement was large enough to be christened. The area was abundant with a wild bird, the Ptarmigan, and this was the popular choice. Unfortunately no one knew how to spell the word, and when someone helpfully suggested that a Ptarmigan looked vaguely like a chicken, a show of hands adopted that name instead! (Nice story huh?)

The roadhouse shop and petrol station at Chicken was a favourite stop for the large Recreational Vehicles (RVs) – and the place was fairly busy. In an adjacent steamy café, the menu board had all sorts of fried this and fried that, fizzy this and that ….. but what I really wanted was a decent coffee. “What sort of coffee do you do?” “Fancy coffee!” “Do you do expresso?” “Yes, fancy coffee! In the roadhouse they don’t know what an expresso is, so they do ordinary coffee and we do ‘fancy’ coffee.” And this is the C21st!! Bless their little cotton socks.

I have mentioned RVs. In America everything is bigger and this includes RVs (and some of the inhabitants!!); if you live in Europe, I don’t think you will have ever seen the size of the RVs we saw in Alaska. The biggest ones tow the family 4×4 and are the size of the biggest coaches you will see in the UK! In Tok (pronounced Toke) we blagged our way on board one, to see just how big they are inside. The elderly couple proudly showed us around; expanding sides gave an extra 6 feet when you were parked up, the fully-equipped kitchen came complete with an ‘American-style’ refrigerator, and there was the king-sized bed and walk-in shower. Wow! “How much?” I rather cheekily asked. “$300,000, but we don’t own a real house; this is it.” One could see the attraction, sort of, and we had also met people in Whitehorse who toured Alaska all summer in their RV, before heading back to Florida for the winter. The Australian writer Tim Winton observed that many people in Australia bought a RV when their retired, and drove around the coast of their island continent. He called them SAD – See Australia (and) Die! If they completed the circumnavigation before one of them passed on, they simply reversed and went around the other way!

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A smoke-shrouded Delta River on the way to Fairbanks

We arrived in Fairbanks in the gloom – there was sunshine somewhere but smoke from hundreds of forest fires had reduced visibility to a mile at best; not pleasant! Alaska’s second city, Fairbanks is fairly modern, sitting astride the Chena River and roughly in the centre of Alaska. Go north along the Dalton Highway for 500 miles and you arrive at Prudhoe Bay on the Beaufort Sea, the largest oilfield in North America. The Dalton Highway has become famous as the road the ‘Ice Road Truckers’ travel on. After a night beside the river, we head down to the railway station and board the Alaska Railroad train, bound for Anchorage. Over twelve hours the train would wind its way through some of the remotest, beautiful and rugged scenery in North America, past the entrance to the Denali National Park and hopefully, if the visibility improved, there would be a glimpse of the highest mountain in North America, Mount McKinley (20,320ft), in the distance.

This journey was stunning and a fitting end to an amazing trip. We sat in the observation car, or stood on the open platform at the back of the carriage, watching Alaska unfold; around every bend, across rickety bridges, close-at-hand streams and woods and way-off the snow-covered mountains – the mournful whistle of the train forever announcing our presence.

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View from the train

People got on, people got off; it was a busy day – but what I will never understand was something they served at breakfast on the train – “biscuit & sausage gravy”. The biscuit is like the English scone …. and cold; the sausage gravy is warm, grey, with bits of unmentionables in it. Absolutely disgusting – and they had announced its inclusion in the breakfast meal with some pride! Over my breakfast plate we talked to Jason and Bob, two guys who had been hunting moose, and who were now making their way down to Denali to do some fishing. Jason hunted with a bow & arrow – proudly telling vegetarian Celina how he liked nothing better than to kill a moose, do all the butchery, and fill his family freezer in Montana. We didn’t check how many chest freezers he had but an adult moose regularly weighs 300kg! We had seen a mother and calf beside the road out of Tok – wonderful, powerful, magnificent creatures.

We arrived in Anchorage late in the day and prepared to fly down to Vancouver early the following morning. Our Alaska adventure was over. We had followed George for some part of his journey, we had driven over 1000 miles and travelled on one of the most scenic railroads; we had had virtually no rain in over three weeks and were blessed with hot sunny weather for the most part. We felt extremely privileged to have been able to visit this wild and beautiful state – and grateful to George for having planted the seed.

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Thanks George, my sentiments entirely!!

Richard Yates – richardyates24@gmail.com

P.S. You remember that Frank Sinatra song about traveling (?) “It’s very nice to go traveling, …. but it’s so much nicer to come home.” How true!!

P.P.S.   If you have read this and PC 44, and are tempted to go to Alaska yourself – GO!!

PC 44 Alaska Part One

Years ago I wouldn’t have been able to locate cities in Alaska, simply aware that it was that bit of North America up in the top left hand corner. Wasn’t it Russian at some stage? ’Cold and dark’ was another thought; you can tell I can’t have paid much attention in my geography lessons, or maybe we didn’t cover it. Since then a number of television programmes have been made about this vast American state, focused generally on survival, darkness, cold and oil;  “Ice Road Truckers” or Ben Fogle’s “New Lives – Alaska” for instance, or dramas like ‘Insomnia’ with Al Pacino.

Alaska is the largest state in the United States but has a population of only 750,000. It was bought from the Russians in 1867 for $7.2m – about 2 cents an acre – and most of the then population could not understand why US Secretary of State William Seward had paid good money for it – “Seward’s Folly” or “Uncle Sam’s Attic” were two descriptions! Eventually it became a fully-fledged state of the Union in 1959; Alaskans refer to the other states as ‘The Lower 48’!

Some eight years ago I uncovered the history of my mother’s father’s family, the Nations. I know few are interested in all the details, particularly of someone else’s ancestors; “They are dead; why the interest?” so I’ll be short, but it helps if you understand a little! George M Nation was born in India in 1848, moved with his family to New Zealand in 1860, and after marrying Eva Fosbery, moved to California in 1884. They arrived in London in 1890 with three children. I surmise that George was involved in gold mining in California, gaining valuable experience, because in 1900 he was hired by a London Gold Syndicate to manage their claims in The Yukon, in Canada. He returned in 1901 and 1902 to Alaska.

My great grandfather George was a prolific writer and some of the letters he wrote to his wife have been preserved, and are in the care of a cousin living on Vancouver Island. His beautiful writing covers sheet after sheet, all the letters beginning with “My Darling Eva” and finishing with ‘your loving husband, GM Nation” such was the formality of the time.

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Transcribed, they are a delightful insight into a world that now seems so distant from ours. Travel needs a purpose; it doesn’t have to be anything deep or exotic, but here a seed began to germinate. What if I followed his path, up into Alaska, to see what he saw, feel what he felt, be emotionally closer to an ancestor, but with the benefits of modern comforts?

George journeyed from London, across the Atlantic by steamer to New York, took a train north to Winnepeg, another across Canada and eventually arrived in Seattle, after about 3 weeks travelling! We jumped the ‘pond’ and continental North America and arrived in Seattle – 11 hours later! There was no sign of the Hotel Butler he had stayed in, demolished years ago for some more modern development. Cruise ships are popular on this coast, going north into south east and southern Alaska, but we chose to follow George by taking a ferry up the Inland Passage on what’s known as the Alaskan Marine Highway; this was a smaller ship used by locals, campers, hikers and the like. George wrote of his trip:

“The steamer we left in is only really intended for river travel and very top heavy. We met with very rough weather and it was nervous work to see how the boat rolled. As usual she was overloaded with freight, horses and sheep and crammed with managers. However we got to Skagway after calling at several canneries two days late. Of course the winter scenery was wonderful to see.”

There was a period of rolling swell crossing the Queen Charlotte Sound, but otherwise ours was generally a smooth passage; whilst it was summer, there is still snow on the tops of some of the higher mountains. A brief stop in Ketchikan, the little town a magnet for the cruise ships, enabled us to access the internet to keep in touch with the outside world. Some people got off our ferry, some got on! (CF The Hurtigruten along the Norwegian coast)

George had stopped at Douglas Island, lying opposite Juneau, the capital of Alaska; we stopped here for a couple of nights. There had been a huge mining operation that only closed in 1944, and now the town focuses on tourism and State administration. We took a ride out to the Mendenhall Glacier and looked astonished at this slow-moving icefield. The Park Rangers pulled a large chunk of clear ice from the lake; 200 years old?? Staying in Juneau enabled us to book a ‘Whale Watching’ trip. “Guaranteed!” they said: “or your money back”; they haven’t given much back, they say! A small boat took us out into the Sounds, and we watched and waited. Sure enough, more than 6 humpback whales, some mothers with calf, hunted for herring, forming those famous bubble circles and then rising up to snap the fish. Neither of us had experienced this, being close to some of the most enormous mammals in the world. Did you know that all their fins are unique, similar to the the ears of the reindeer? It enables researchers to keep a track of individual whales. To pinch an overused American word ….it was ‘awesome’.

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A Humpback Whale off Juneau

We completed our journey to Skagway, from where the gold prospectors started their trek, on a smaller ferry and had a night at the Mile Zero B&B – see PC 43! When the cruise ships are in, Skagway’s sort of crowded; when they depart, it’s a ghost town, but the museum was interesting and the snow-plough engine used to keep the railway line to Whitehorse open in the ‘Gold Rush’ days was a wonderful piece of engineering. George took the train; we hired a car …… and went to Whitehorse, a sprawling town on the Yukon River, crossing over the international border to do so. We had imagined Alaska would be full of fast-flowing rivers, crystal-clear and freezing. Well, some were! They were fast-flowing for sure and the water was pretty cold, but the Yukon River itself was grey, like diluted cement. Its waters originate in a glacier in British Columbia, and consist of fine-grained, silt-sized particles of rock; the water appears cloudy and is sometimes referred to as Glacial Milk.

In Whitehorse we watched The Frantic Follies Vaudeville Revue, which claims to have been entertaining ‘visitors from around the world for over 40 years’. Actually a clever mixture of music and dance and …… gags, the latter hardly changed since they started: eg. “Where are you staying in Whitehorse?” “The Fiddler Hotel.” “Oh! I’ve heard it’s a vile inn!” (Violin? Fiddle? Get it?). But we did go on board the SS Klondike, an old paddle steamer that historically took the gold prospectors and supplies down river to Dawson City, which gave one a feel for travel in this part of the world in the late 1890s. And we did practise panning for gold!! Well, in the hands-on museum we took the pan of soil/grit/sand and washed it, slowly, to get rid of everything except specks of gold; it’d helped that our pans was seeded with $5 worth of the precious metal!!

The world has become very sensitive to the issues of original exploitation of ‘first nation’ people by the ‘early settlers’, almost exclusively European. In New Zealand the local Maori population have reclaimed some of their ancient rights; in Australia the Aboriginal people have gained much long-deserved recognition; in the USA, the native-born Americans have are no longer ‘redskins’ and in Canada the various tribes who inhabited the country long before the Europeans arrived have achieved huge acceptance of their ancient rights, and their wish to retain their customs and not integrate into the ‘white man’s society’ ….. but in Whitehorse you see evidence of those who partially integrated and failed, and who are now alcohol and drug dependant. It’s the same the whole world over, sadly. In Canada ‘Eskimos’ became ‘Inuit’ …… became ‘First Nation’ ….. became ‘Aboriginal’.

The drive up the Klondike Highway to Dawson City was some 330 miles long and took seven hours. It was uneventful except a close encounter with a grizzly bear, awful coffee, the lack of petrol stations …… and after a while, one Black Spruce fir tree looks like another ……. and there were millions of them, one ‘wow’ comment on the simply stunning scenery loses its poignancy with multiple use …… and you wonder when it will …. er ….. end! We passed Five Finger Rapids, where both paddle steamers and melting ice got stuck as they made their way down river to Dawson City.

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Five Finger Rapids

If you really want to see what we drove through, go onto YouTube and watch the 3 minutes of ‘Whitehorse – Dawson City’, except that that trip was recorded in the winter. We even bought a ‘pot luck’ CD from the first and only place to get breakfast – ‘The Greatest Hits of Shania Twain’. I really can’t comment on songs she might have sung that were not ‘greatest hits’, but out of the 21 on this Canadian singer’s CD, two, possibly three, were bearable!! Sorry, fans of Shania!

George took a horse-drawn sleigh from Whitehorse to get to Dawson City. He wrote:

“…. over deep rivers and lakes, always following the trail  worn by the traffic. Of course the cold was far beyond anything I had ever felt, especially when the wind blew a little. Every morning we started at 4 o’clock to take advantage of the morning frost. We took our meals at Road houses (Rough Cabins), regular labourers’ food on tin plates and cups and their beds of course, stretched across poles between one another, the blankets I found moist as they had been used by every one who had come  along through the winter. Of course we washed and slept in our day underclothes. Marvellous to say we escaped all vermin and disease and after a good soaping with hot water wash we are  more the warmer.”

Amazing that this trip in March 1901 took less than a week!!

At the height of the Gold Rush in 1898, Dawson City was home to some 30,000 souls. Most had made the arduous trek too late, arriving to find that all the creeks had been staked out and claimed; such is the lure of gold that most apparently felt an achievement simply in getting here. Today, Dawson City claims to be a bit of a cultural centre; maybe that’s because there is nothing for miles in any direction!! It’s C21st meets the wild west! Our hotel was Swiss run and great, good food, WiFi etc. The town museum’s a solid building housing good memorabilia of the city’s heydays but the rest of the place is dusty, with dirt roads and replica facades of buildings. Interestingly, they have allowed some of the older structures to show the long-term effects of building on permafrost, slopping and sinking in all sorts of different directions. If George hadn’t come here, there was not much to recommend it!!

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Dawson City with the confluence of the Klondike River (the dark one) and the Yukon River (the grey one)

(To Be Continued ………..)

Richard Yates – richardyates24@gmail.com

PC 43 Guns and America

We’ve just returned from a real adventure, following in the footsteps of great grandfather George, who was in Alaska in 1900, 1901 and 1902. Whilst I gather my thoughts on the trip and how to share some of our experiences through my PCs, in the following I simply report what I heard!

The gold prospectors arrived in Alaska in the 1890s at Skagway, a town lying at the northern end of a sea inlet; so did we! We stayed at the Mile Zero B&B, appropriately named as the starting point for the trip into the Klondike and Yukon. At breakfast the following morning, we heard of the horrific attack by a white supremacist on a bible study group within a church in Charleston; nine people were dead. “Oh! This is so awful!” exclaimed our host as she watched the morning TV. I don’t think I have talked to an American about their views on gun ownership before, although I am aware that there are very polarized positions. Without knowing anything about this lady, I simply said that the United States seemed very wedded to their gun culture, so this news wasn’t very surprising. Wow! It was as if I had stuck a stick into a hornet’s nest!

“I think everybody should carry a gun, then people like this man wouldn’t do it (not quite sure why she really believed this, but I could not interject!). I have guns in my house (not in the B&B thank God!) and we leave the doors open ….. so anyone coming in we don’t like will get shot. Mind you, I have been personally affected by shootings. One of my brothers shot the nose off the other when he was quite young; well! Just nicked a bit! But my! Was it bloody! Then my niece and nephew had a fight over a gun when they were young, 7 and 5 I think, and it went off ……. and my niece is in a wheelchair for the rest of her life! (So you have had 2 extended family members injured by guns, and yet you don’t bat an eyelid when it comes to having a gun in the house?) But it’s in the Constitution! We must be free to carry guns!”

At this point I decided that it was too difficult to influence this lady in any way, especially as my toast was getting cold. I emailed my daughter Jade to tell her of this experience. She replied: Oh! A gun law conversation over breakfast! Punchy! Next PC sorted then.” And so it was! I was pleased to read later that Barack Obama had said: “At the very least we should be able to talk about this issue. At some point we will have to reckon with the fact that this kind of mass violence doesn’t happen in other advanced countries.”

The polarised positions have their own way of proving their case, so it’s not easy to get definitive data, but accept that some 60 people are shot in the UK every year ….. and in the USA it’s about 11,000. So the comparative figures are, for every 100,000 people, 0.1 of a person (!) in England & Wales and 3.6 people in the US. (But per 100k, 3.5 people in the UK and 11 people in the USA are killed in automobile accidents every year!) Another startling figure is that there are 88 guns per 100 residents in the US!

I am sure Americans choose bits of their Constitution that they like, and ignore those they don’t. In this case Article 2, amended in 1791, states: “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” I am not sure the lady in the Mile Zero B&B was a member of some militia, but there you go.

Just outside Eagle, a hamlet sitting beside the Yuk,on River, lies Ron’s garage cum scrap yard cum workshop cum timber yard; we pull in for some ‘gas’. “Where’yer from?” asks Ron , mid 60s, bearded, fit. “England!” And without further prompting, Ron launches into: “Oh! You let everyone in, anyone from Europe, migrants, asylum seekers. Here I have a white friend who wants to settle here but she ain’t black, homosexual, with HIV, from Haiti, and unless you’re black, homosexual, with HIV and from Haiti, you can’t come here! Of course we have a Communist president so it’s kinda weird! What did you do?” I felt immediately that expressions of liberal views would not go down well: safer to be short and, talking to someone I guessed would be an appreciative audience, I said I was an ex-military man.  “Oh! Well! So you know how to shoot!, he said, visibly relaxing; “Of course only the criminals in England can get a gun! Here, you can walk into a shop, choose a gun from any number of types, buy a box of slugs, walk out the door …..” and, I thought, “start shooting innocent people in Charleston”, but didn’t say it aloud! “That’ll be 25 dollars …… cheap huh compared with where you’re from ….  you pay by the gallon or by the litre?? Have a nice day!” This all at half past eight in the morning!

It may have been we would have got a different view if we had raised the issue in Vancouver or in San Francisco, where we would be a week or so later. Maybe Alaska is still pretty much a wild state, where residents naturally keep guns for hunting and for protection. We all remember Sarah Pallin? But do you really need a semi-automatic rifle? For what? Maybe if you live in an environment where the law-enforcers are always armed, unlike in the United Kingdom, there is a tacit acceptance that this is the norm, to carry a gun. Any conflict, however minor, requires a range of responses, generally more serious with each step. But it seems to me that having a personal weapon takes away a huge part of the gradual response, and that’s sad.

Just musings whilst the memory is still fresh!

Richard Yates – richardyates24@gmail.com