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

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