The New Eldorado. A Summer Journey to Alaska
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For a number of years the manufacture of oil from seal blubber was followed by the fur company with profit, thus disposing of the carcasses of the animals whose skin had been removed; but oil-making on the seal islands has been discontinued, as being no longer a paying business.
The sea-otter is a large animal, having fine, close black fur, sprinkled with long, white-tipped hairs, which strongly individualize it and add much to its beauty. Its pelt is used mostly for trimming, being both too heavy and too expensive for making up into entire garments. The size of a full-grown skin is about four feet in length by about two and a half wide. It is a solitary marine animal, never seen in numbers, rarely even with a mate, and is extremely shy, demanding great patience and shrewdness in the hunter to insure its capture. This animal rarely lands except to bring forth its young, and the natives say that it sometimes gives birth to its progeny on floating sedge or kelp at sea. Of this material the ingenious creature makes a sort of buoyant nest, according to the natives’ ideas. When sleeping, it floats upon its back, carrying its young clasped to its body in a ludicrously human fashion. The Indians hunt the animals by going out a considerable distance to sea in their frail canoes, and watching for the appearance of the otter’s nose above the water, they paddle silently towards it so as not to disturb the game. At the proper moment the well-balanced and delicate lance is thrown with unerring aim. A careful watch is then kept for the reappearance of the otter, which must soon come to the surface to breathe, being a warm-blooded, respiratory animal. A second lance is pretty sure to disable the otter, when it floats helpless on the surface, falling an easy prey to the pursuer. At times six or eight natives in single canoes join in the hunt, so as to form a broad circle; the nearest one to the otter when he rises after being wounded is the one to throw the second lance. The hunters obtain from the local traders between forty and fifty dollars for a full-grown otter skin, and sometimes double that amount, so that if successful in the pursuit they are well rewarded for many hours of patient watchfulness, aside from which they realize a keen enjoyment in the pursuit as sportsmen.
The hunters oftenest pursue their game alone, and if a native secures an otter after a whole week of watching he feels well repaid, though during that time he has lived on a scanty supply of food, and has slept nightly in the open air exposed to the rain. Sometimes his watch is kept in his boat upon the sea, and sometimes among the rocks on the shore, in a bay where the otters are known to resort occasionally. A few years of such rough life and exposure ages even an Alaskan Indian, and it is not surprising that rheumatism and consumption should so prevail among them. Up to a certain stage such a life may harden the hunter, but the turning-point comes at last, and when the native begins to fail in physical strength he does so rapidly; simply giving way to the first attack, rejecting all medicine which the white man may offer, and unless he is an important member of his tribe, a chief or a leader of some sort, even the shaman or medicine man with his incantations is not called in.Good nursing is discarded, the invalid considers it to be his fate to die, and seems to go half way to meet the grim destroyer.
The fur of the sea-otter varies in beauty of texture and value according to the animal’s age and the season of the year in which it is captured. They are considered to be in their prime when about five years old, and those skins which are taken in winter are always of a more beautiful texture than those which are secured in summer. Of all animals hunted by man it is most on the alert, and, as we have said, most difficult to obtain. One intelligent statement declares that before they were so systematically hunted eight thousand skins were shipped from Alaska in a single year, but we believe that from four to five thousand otter skins would be considered a good twelve months’ yield in these days. The Saanack islets and reefs are the principal resort of these animals on the coast, and hither the natives come from long distances to hunt them, camping on the main island. Frequent attempts have been made to rear the young sea-otter, specimens being often taken when the mother is captured, but they always perish by starvation, never partaking of food after being separated from the mother; a well-known fact, which was referred to with not a little sentiment by the experienced hunter who related the circumstance to us. “Him die of broke heart,” said the native, attempting an expression of tenderness upon his egg-shaped features, which proved a ludicrous caricature. We saw a stuffed specimen of a young sea-otter in a native cabin at Juneau, consisting of the skin only, but very cleverly mounted and preserved by the hunter who had captured its mother.
It is somewhat singular that the world’s supply of otter fur, like that of sealskin, comes almost entirely from the coast of Alaska, in the North Pacific and Behring Sea. Otter fur may be said to be almost confined in its geographical distribution to the northwest shores of America.
The successful pursuit of the animal, so far as the natives are concerned, is of even more importance than that of the fur-seals, for contingent upon its chase, and from the proceeds of its pelts, some five thousand natives are enabled to live in comparative luxury. It requires, as we have shown, great energy, hardihood, and patient application to effect its capture, but the sea-otter is a most beneficent gift of Providence to these aborigines, and administers, as well, to the pride of the fashionable world. The natives in former times attached great importance to preparing themselves for hunting the sea-otter, fasting, bathing, and performing certain mystic rites before embarking for the purpose. After his return from a successful hunt the Aleut was accustomed to destroy the garments which he wore during the expedition, throwing them into the sea, so that the otters might find them and come to the conclusion that their late persecutor had been drowned and there was no further danger in frequenting the shore. This practice, ridiculous as it seems to us, serves to illustrate the superstitious character of the Alaskan natives, who seldom fail to see omens in the most trifling every-day occurrences.
The interior and northern parts of Alaska are the greatest breeding-places for birds in the world, being the resort of innumerable flocks, which come from various parts of this continent, and others which make the tropical islands their home a large portion of the year on both the Atlantic and Pacific sides of America. These myriads of the feathered tribes consist largely of geese, ducks, and swans, coming hither for nesting, and to fatten upon the wild salmon berries, red and black currants, cranberries, blackberries, bilberries, and the like, which greatly abound during the brief but intense Arctic summer. There are eleven kinds of edible berries which mature in August, among which the wild strawberries are the finest flavored we have ever eaten. It is said that the geese especially become so fat feeding upon the plentiful supply of wholesome food that at the close of the season they can hardly fly, and are thus easily caught by the natives, who, in turn, feast luxuriously upon their tender and succulent flesh. Explorers tell us that they have seen on the banks of the Yukon – the great river of central Alaska, and the third in magnitude in America – the breeding-place of the canvas-back ducks, which has been heretofore a matter of some mystery. They prepare on the banks of this northern watercourse broad platforms of sedge, mingled with small twigs and bushes, laid compactly on marshy places, and without building a carefully arranged nest deposit their eggs in untold numbers. That keen and scientific observer, the late Major Kennicott, says he saw on the banks of the Yukon acres of marshy ground thus covered with the eggs of the canvas-back ducks, in numbers defying computation. “The region drained by the Upper Yukon is spoken of by explorers,” says Mr. Charles Hallock, editor of “Forest and Stream,” “as being a perfect Eden, where flowers bloom, beneficent plants yield their berries and fruits, majestic trees spread their umbrageous fronds, and song-birds make the branches vocal. The water of the streams is pure and pellucid; the blue of the rippled lake is like Geneva’s; their banks resplendent with verdure, and with grass and shining pebbles.”
At the first approach of winter the augmented millions of birds take flight for the low latitudes, or their homes in the temperate zone, the old birds accompanied by the broods which they have hatched in the solitudes of the far north. Those which have come from the neighborhood of the Caribbean Sea turn in their flight unerringly in that direction; those from the South Pacific islands heading as surely for that tropical region. Only the ptarmigan and the Arctic owl, with a few of the white-hawk family, remain to brave the winter cold of northern Alaska, with the hardy Eskimo, the walrus, and the polar bear. The smaller tribes of birds are well represented here in the summer season, even including several species of swallows, martins, and sparrows, these tiny creatures seeming to follow some general bird instinct. Even the domestic robin is seen as far north as Sitka. Limited scientific research has recognized and classified one hundred and ninety-two different kinds of birds which are found in this Territory, a considerable number of which were unknown to science previous to 1867.
We have said nothing relative to the hair-seals, or sea-lions, of Alaska, because their importance is comparatively insignificant, having no commercial value. Nevertheless, they are utilized by the ingenious natives in various ways; the hides serve as a covering for a certain class of boats, made with wooden frames, and are also employed for several domestic purposes. The walrus is found in largest numbers on the north coast, in the true Arctic region, affording some valuable oil, together with considerable ivory, in carving which the natives are very expert. Though the fur-trade of the land is by no means equal to that of the sea, still its aggregate results are very considerable. It employs numerous hunters and gives profitable business to many white traders, nearly all of whom make a permanent home in the Territory. Undoubtedly the most prolific and valuable fur-yielding district on the mainland is the valley of the Yukon, where the beaver, marten, several kinds of bears, with the wolf and fox, afford the best fur. We saw at the principal store in Wrangel many packages of bearskins prepared for shipment to San Francisco. These packages would average five hundred dollars each in value, and had been gathered from those brought in by the natives during the two weeks intervening between the arrival of the regular steamers. Single bearskins sell here, according to their marketable character, for from twenty-five to thirty-five dollars each. The natives make little or no use of these skins, preferring the woolen blanket of commerce. The red and cross fox is found everywhere in the Territory, and its skin is comparatively cheap. It is singular that the blue fox is found only on the islands of St. Paul, St. George, Attoo, and Atkha, while the white fox is to be sought only at the far north. There is also the black fox, which, however, is a great rarity, thought to be an occasional accident of nature; the skins always bring extravagant prices from the traders. The black fox is not found in any special locality, but occurs now and again in any part of the Territory. The skin of the silver fox is also highly prized, and proves a valuable peltry to the native hunters, forty dollars each being the usual price paid by the white traders. Only a few hundred are taken yearly. The land-otter and the beaver so abound as to make up a large total value annually. The latest official records show that there has been produced and shipped from Alaska annually an average of fifty-seven thousand beaver skins; eighteen thousand land-otter skins; seventy-one thousand foxes’ skins of the various sorts; and of musk-rats two hundred and twenty-one thousand. These figures should be largely added to in each instance (we were told by one official that this aggregate estimate should be doubled), in order to include the unregistered pelts which are annually secured by various hunters, both whites and natives, and which find their way to distant markets through irregular channels, more especially over the borders of British Columbia.
This fur-trade is open to all, but requires capital, organization, and persistency to make it profitable. The natives do nearly all of the hunting and trapping, and will only engage in it, as a rule, to supply themselves with means to procure certain luxuries from the trader’s store, such as sugar, tea, and tobacco. We are sorry to add to these comparative necessities the article of whiskey, which is only too often furnished illicitly to the eager natives. When these wants are supplied they idle away their time until stimulated once more by their necessities to go upon the trail of the fur-bearing animals. Of course there are some exceptions to this, many of them being steady and willing workers, but we speak of the average native. There is no fear of the supply of furs being exhausted under this system of capture; even a combined and vigorous effort on the part of the hunters could not accomplish that in many years. Unlike our western Indians, these Alaskans are a comparatively thrifty race, entirely self-sustaining, and never require support from the government, notwithstanding idleness is their besetting sin, as is, indeed, characteristic of uncivilized people everywhere.
We were told of several of these aborigines who had learned the lesson of thrift from the whites to such good effect as to have saved sums of money varying from one to five hundred dollars, which they had deposited in the Savings Bank of San Francisco, and upon which they drew their annual interest; an investment, the safety and economy of which they fully appreciated.
It is a well-known fact, proven by official observations, that the climate of the Pacific coast is considerably more temperate than that of the same latitude on the Atlantic side of the continent. The record of ten consecutive years, kept at Sitka, gave an annual mean of 46° Fah.
This is in latitude 57° 3? north, and is found by comparison to be four degrees warmer than the average of Portland, Me., or six degrees warmer than the temperature of Quebec, Canada. The average winter is milder, therefore, at Sitka than it is at Boston, however singular the assertion may at first strike us, in connection with the commonly entertained idea of this northwestern Territory. The mean winter temperature of Sitka and Newport, R. I., are very nearly the same, and there is only a difference of six degrees in their mean yearly temperature, though there is a difference of sixteen degrees of latitude.
We have before us a printed letter which appeared in the “Philadelphia Press,” signed by Mr. C. F. Fowler, late an agent of the Alaska Fur Company, who has resided for twelve years in Alaska, in which he says: “You who live in the States look upon this country as a land of perpetual ice and snow, yet I grew in my garden last year, at Kodiak, abundant crops of radishes, lettuce, carrots, onions, cauliflowers, cabbages, peas, turnips, potatoes, beets, parsnips, and celery. Within five miles of this garden was one of the largest glaciers in Alaska.” In a certain sense it is surely a country of paradoxes.
The harbor of Sitka is never closed by ice, which cannot be truthfully said of Boston or New York.
Dr. Sheldon Jackson, long resident in the Territory as United States general agent of education for Alaska, tells us that the temperature of Sitka and that of Richmond, Va., are nearly identical. Mr. McLean of the United States Signal Service, who has been located at Sitka for several years, says, “the climate of southern Alaska is the most equable I ever experienced.”
There is in Alaska a very large section of country, composed of islands and the mainland, where the average temperature is higher than at Christiania, capital of Norway, or Stockholm, capital of Sweden, – where the winters are milder and the fall of rain and snow is less than in southern Scandinavia, which is the geographical counterpart of Alaska in the opposite hemisphere. Sitka harbor is no more subject to arctic temperature than is Chesapeake Bay. “It must be a fastidious person,” said Mr. Seward in his speech upon Alaska, “who complains of a climate in which, while the eagle delights to soar, the hummingbird does not disdain to flutter.” If it is sometimes misty and foggy on the coast, it is not so to a greater extent than is the case during a large portion of the year in the cities of London and Liverpool.
Both the islands and mainland of this latitude afford ample grass for cows, sheep, and horses, also producing, with ordinary care, the usual domestic vegetables, as we have shown, the assertion of certain writers to the contrary notwithstanding. We have not far to look for the cause of this favorable temperature existing at so northerly a range of latitude. The thermal stream known as the Japanese Current, coming from the far south charged with equatorial heat, is precisely similar in its effect to that of the better known Gulf Stream on our Atlantic coast, rendering the climate of these islands and the coast of the mainland of the North Pacific remarkably warm and humid. We speak especially and at length of this subject of the temperature of Alaska, because a wrong impression is so generally held concerning it. At a distance from the coast the temperature falls, and most of the inland rivers are closed by ice half the year. Even in the interior we are in about the same latitude and average temperature of St. Petersburg. Thus on the line of Behring Strait the annual mean at Fort Yukon, which lies just inside of the Arctic circle, six hundred miles inland from Norton Sound, is 16.92°; this is in latitude 64° north. Along the coast of southern Alaska the fall of snow is not greater in amount than is experienced during an ordinary winter in the New England States, and it disappears even more quickly than it does in Vermont and New Hampshire. In the interior and at the far north, the quantity of snow is of course much greater, and covers the ground for about half the year.
But where the sun shines continuously throughout the twenty-four hours, the growth of vegetable life is extremely rapid. The snow has hardly disappeared before a mass of herbage springs up, and on the spot so lately covered by a white sheet, sparkling with frosty crystals, there is spread a soft mantle of variegated green. The leaves, blossoms, and fruits rapidly follow each other, so that even in this boreal region there is seed-time and harvest. The annual recurrence of this carnival season is all the more impressive in the realm of the Frost King.
The Japanese Current, already referred to, strikes these shores at Queen Charlotte Island in latitude 50° north, where it divides, one portion going northward and westward along the coast of Alaska, and the other southward, tempering the waters which border upon Washington, Oregon, and California; hence their mild climate. Sea captains who frequently make the voyage between San Francisco and Yokohama have told the author that this Japanese Current – with banks and bottom of cold water, while its body and surface are warm – is so clearly defined as to be distinguishable in color from the ordinary hue of the Pacific Ocean, and that its deep blue forms a visible line of demarcation between the greater body and itself along its entire course. The thermometer will easily define such a current, and this the author has often seen demonstrated from a ship’s deck; but it must be a very keen eye that can distinguish such differences of color at sea as the above assertion would indicate.
In so extended a territory as that of Alaska, with broad plains, deep valleys, and lofty mountain ranges, it is reasonable to suppose there must be a great diversity of climate. The brief inland summer is represented to exhibit marked extremes of heat, and the winter corresponding extremes of cold. W. H. Dall, an undoubted authority in all matters relating to the valley of the Yukon, though his book upon the country was published some twenty years since, says: “At Fort Yukon I have seen the thermometer at noon, not in the direct rays of the sun, stand at 112°, and I was informed by the commander of the post that several spirit thermometers graded up to 120° had burst under the scorching sun of the Arctic midsummer.” Fort Yukon is the most northerly point in Alaska inhabited by white men. It is estimated that ten or twelve thousand Eskimos live in the uninviting region north of the Yukon valley. They are a most remarkable people, who are struggling with the cold three quarters of the year, and who seem to be strangely content with a bare existence. Their days and nights, their seasons and years, are not like those of the rest of the world. Six months of day is succeeded by six months of night. They have three months of sunless winter, three months of nightless summer, and six months of gloomy twilight. No Christian enlightenment or religious teaching of any sort has ever found its way into this region. The people believe in evil spirits and powers who are in some way to be propitiated, but have no conception of a Divine Being who overrules all things for good. Like the southern Alaskans they are superstitious to the last degree, and discover omens in the most ordinary occurrences. The decencies of life are almost totally disregarded among them, their highest purpose being apparently the achievement of animal comfort and gorging themselves with food and oil.
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