The New Eldorado. A Summer Journey to Alaska
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British Columbia, of which this city is the capital, embraces all that portion of North America lying north of the United States and west of the Rocky Mountains to the Alaska line. Its area is three hundred and forty thousand square miles, and it certainly possesses more intrinsic wealth than any other portion of the Dominion, except the eastern cities of Canada. It is but sparsely settled, and its natural resources are quite undeveloped.
The well-constructed roads in and about Victoria give it an advantage over most newly settled places, and the idea is worthy of all commendation. The seaward, or western shore of Vancouver, overlooking the North Pacific is very rocky, and is indented by frequent arms of the sea, like the fjords of Scandinavia, while the surface of the island is generally mountainous.
The Haidas and the Timplons are the two native tribes of Vancouver, who are represented to have once been very numerous, brave, and warlike. Some of their canoes were eighty feet long, and most substantially constructed, being capable of carrying seventy-five fighting men, with their bows, arrows, spears, and shields of thick walrus hide. These war-boats were made from the trunk of a single tree, shaped and hollowed in fine nautical lines, so as to make them swift and buoyant, as well as quite safe in these inland waters. In these frail craft the natives were perfectly at home, and excited the admiration of the early navigators by the skill they displayed in managing them, so that Admiral L?tke named them the “Cossacks of the Sea.”
But the Haidas, like the tribes of the Aleutian islands and the Alaska groups generally, have rapidly dwindled into insignificance – slowly fading away. People who subsist on fish and oil as staples can hardly be expected to evince much enterprise or industry. It cannot be denied, however, that as a race they appear much more intelligent and self-reliant than the aborigines of our Western States. Vincent Colyer, special Indian commissioner, says with regard to the natives of the southern part of Alaska and the Alexander Archipelago: “I do not hesitate to say that if three fourths of these Alaska Indians were landed in New York as coming from Europe, they would be selected as among the most intelligent of the many worthy emigrants who daily arrive at that port.”
When these islands were first discovered by the whites, the native tribes occupying them were almost constantly at war one with another. The different tribes even to-day show no sympathy for each other, nor will they admit that they are of the same origin. Each has some theory of its exclusiveness and independence, all of which is a puzzle to ethnologists.
There seems never to have been any union of interest entertained among them. Before and after the advent of the Russians tribal wars raged among them incessantly. Blood was the only recognized atonement for offenses, and must be washed out by blood; thus vengeance was kept alive, and civil war was endless.Bancroft in his “Native Races of the Pacific” tells us that the Aleuts are still fond of pantomimic performances; of representing in dances their myths and their legends; of acting out a chase, one assuming the part of hunter, another of a bird or beast trying to escape the snare, now succeeding, now failing, until finally a captive bird is transformed into an attractive woman, who falls exhausted into the hunter’s arms.
With well-screened foot-lights, verdant woodland surroundings, characters assumed by a trained ballet troupe, framed in the usual proscenium boxes, with orchestra in front, this would be a fitting entertainment for a first-class Boston or New York audience.
The Indians, or portions of the native race, seen in and about the streets of Victoria are of the most squalid character, dirty and unintelligent, being altogether repulsive to look upon.
The Indians of the west coast of the island are brought less in contact with the whites, and still keep up to a certain extent their native manners and customs, wearing fewer garments of civilization, and being satisfied with a single blanket as a covering during some portions of the year. They are fond of wearing curiously carved wooden masks at all their festivals, – some representing the head of a bear, some that of a huge bird, and others forming exaggerated human faces. There seems to be a spirit of caricature prevailing among them, as it does among the Chinese and Japanese.
These Vancouver aborigines have an original and extraordinary method of expressing their warm regard for each other, in isolated districts where they are quite by themselves. When they meet, instead of grasping hands or embracing, they bite each other’s shoulders, and the scars thus produced are regarded with considerable satisfaction by the recipient. Their sacred rites are sanguinary, and their notions of religion are of a vague and incomprehensible kind. They believe in omens and sorcery, suffering as much from fear of supernatural evil as the most benighted African tribes. The west coast of Vancouver is nearly always bleak; the great waves of the North Pacific breaking upon it, even in quiet weather, with fierce grandeur, roaring sullenly among the rocks and caves.
The distant view from the eastern side of Vancouver is of a most charming character, embracing the blue Olympic range of mountains in the State of Washington, whose heads are turbaned with snow, while the lofty undulating peaks, taken en masse, resemble the fiercely agitated waves of the sea; a view which vividly recalled the Bernese Alps as seen from the city of Berne.
Vancouver is the largest island on the Pacific coast, and is well diversified with mountains, valleys, and long stretches of low pleasant shore. Its name commemorates that of one of the world’s great explorers. Vancouver had served, previous to these notable explorations, as an officer under Captain Cook for two long and eventful voyages, and was thus well fitted for a discoverer and pioneer. He made a careful survey of Puget Sound with all of its channels, inlets, and bays, and wrote a faithful description of the coast of the mainland as well as of the islands. Though this was about a century ago, so faithfully did he perform his work that his charts are still regarded as good authority, though not absolutely perfect.
That practical seaman, in his sailing-ship, puts us to shame with all our science and steam facilities as regards surveys of this complicated region. The coast survey organization of the United States has done little more than to corroborate a portion of Vancouver’s work. It is surprising that the government should neglect to properly explore and define by maps the islands, channels, and straits of the North Pacific coast. Notwithstanding our boasted enterprise, we are behind every power of Europe in these maritime matters.
The island of Vancouver has an area of eighteen thousand square miles, and is therefore larger than Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Delaware combined. It is only by these familiar comparisons that we can hope to convey clearly to the mind of the average reader such statistical facts, and cause them to be remembered.
Reference has been made to the favorable climate of Victoria. We should state that the maximum summer temperature is 84° Fah., and the minimum of the year is 22°.
From here our course lies in a northwest direction, leading through the broad Gulf of Georgia, which separates Vancouver from British Columbia. The magnificent ermine-clad head of Mount Baker is seen, for many hours, to the east of our course, looming far, far above the clouds, and radiating the glowing beauty of the sunset, which happened to be exceptionally fine at the close of our first day out from Victoria. The atmosphere, sea, and horizon were all the color of gold. The surface of the water was unbroken by a ripple, while it flashed in opaline variety the brilliant hues of the evening hour. The grand scenery which we encounter foreshadows the character of the voyage of a thousand miles, more or less, northward, to the locality of the great glaciers, forming a vast interior line of navigation unequaled elsewhere for bold shores, depth of water, numberless bays, and inviting harbors. The course is bordered for most of the distance with continuous forests, distinctly reflected in the placid surface of these straits and sounds. At times the passage, perhaps not more than a mile in width, is lined on either side with mountains of granite, whose dizzy heights are capped with snow, up whose precipitous sides spruce and pine trees struggle for a foothold, and clinging there thrive strangely upon food afforded by stones and atmospheric air. Occasionally we pass some deep, dark fjord, which pierces the mountains far inland, presenting mysterious and unexplored vistas. We come upon the island of San Juan, not long after leaving Victoria, which was for a considerable period a source of serious contention between England and America, the ownership being finally settled by arbitration, and awarded to us by the Late Emperor of Germany. San Juan is remarkable for producing limestone in sufficient quantity to keep scores of lime-kilns occupied for a hundred years. The island was only important to us by its position, and as establishing certain boundary lines.
Now and again smoke is seen winding upwards from some rude but comfortable cabin on the shore, where a white settler and his Indian wife live in semi-civilized style. A rude garden patch adjoins the cabin, carpeted with thriving root crops, bordered by currant and gooseberry bushes, while numerous wooden frames are reared close by on which to dry salmon, cod, and halibut for winter use. Three or four half-breed children, with a marvelous wealth of hair, and clothed in a single garment reaching to the knees, watch us with open eyes and mouths as we glide along the smooth water-way. At last the father’s attention is called to us by the exclamations of the papooses, and he waves us a salute with his slouchy fur cap. It is only a little spot on the lonely shore, but it is all the world to the squatter and his brood. One pauses mentally for an instant to contrast this type of lonely existence with the fierce and furious tide of life which exists in populous cities. Steamers, sailing craft, or native canoes have no storms to encounter here; the course is almost wholly sheltered, while coal or wood can be procured at nearly any place where the steamer chooses to stop. The fierce swell of the Pacific, so very near at hand, is completely warded off by the broad and beautiful islands of Vancouver, Queen Charlotte, Prince of Wales, Baranoff, and Chichagoff, which form a matchless panorama as they slowly pass, day after day, clad in thrifty verdure, before the eyes of the delighted voyager. Throughout so many hours of close observation one never wearies of the charming scene.
The trip between Victoria and Pyramid Harbor, in many of its features, recalls the voyage from Troms?e, on the coast of Norway, to the North Cape, where the traveler beholds the grand phenomenon of the midnight sun, – passing over deep, still waters, winding through groups of lovely islands, covered with primeval forests and veined with minerals, amidst the grandest of Alpine scenery, where the nearer mountain peaks are clad in misty purple and those far away are wrapped in snow shrouds, where signs of human life are seldom seen, and the deep silence of the passage is broken only by the shrill cry of some wandering sea-bird. In both of these northern regions, situated in opposite hemispheres, grand mountains, volcanic peaks, and mammoth glaciers form the guiding landmarks. The glaciers of Alaska are not only many times as large as anything of the sort in Switzerland, but they have the added charm of the ever-changing beauties of the sea, thus altogether forming scenery of peculiar and incomparable grandeur. One often finds examples of the Scotch and Italian lakes repeated again and again on this inland voyage, where the delightful tranquillity of the waters so adds to the appearance of profound depth. It requires but little stretch of the imagination to believe one’s self upon the Lake of Como or Lake Maggiore.
The enjoyment afforded to the intelligent tourist on this delightful route of travel is being more and more appreciated annually, as clearly evinced by the fact that over two thousand excursionists participated in the trips of steamers from Puget Sound to Sitka last year, by way of Glacier Bay and Pyramid Harbor, representing nearly every State in the Union, and also embracing many European travelers. “I thought it would be as cold as Greenland,” said one of these tourists to us; “but after leaving Port Townsend I hardly once had occasion to wear my overcoat, night or day, during the whole of the fourteen days’ summer voyage through Alaska’s Inland Sea. The thermometer ranged between 68° and 78° during the whole trip, while the pleasant daylight never quite faded out of the sky.”
Mount St. Elias, inexpressibly grand in its proportions, is probably the highest mountain in Alaska, and, indeed, is one of the half dozen loftiest peaks on the globe, reaching the remarkable height of nearly twenty thousand feet, according to the United States Coast Survey. It may fall short of, or it may exceed, this measurement by a few hundred feet. Owing to the low point to which the line of perpetual snow descends in this latitude, St. Elias is believed to present the greatest snow climb of all known mountains. Another notable peculiarity of this grand elevation is, like that of Tacoma, in its springing at once from the level of the Pacific Ocean, whereas most mountains, like those of Colorado, Norway, and Switzerland, say of twelve or fourteen thousand feet in height, rise from a plain already two or three thousand feet above sea level, detracting just so much from their effectiveness upon the eye, and from their apparent elevation. Vitus Behring, a Dane by birth and the discoverer of the strait which bears his name, first sighted this mountain on St. Elias’ day, and so gave it the name which it bears. When the American whalemen on the coast saw the summit of Mount Fairweather from the sea, they felt sure that some days of fair weather would follow, hence we have the expressive name which is bestowed upon it. Mount St. Elias, with its snow and ice mantle reaching nearly down to sea level, is higher than any elevation in Norway or Switzerland, rising from its base in pyramid form, straight, regular, and massive, to three times the height of our New England giant in the White Mountain range of New Hampshire, namely, Mount Washington. Only the Himalayas and the Andes exceed it in altitude. Eleven glaciers are known to come down from the south side of St. Elias, one of which, named Agassiz Glacier, is estimated to be twenty miles in width and fifty in length, covering an area of a thousand square miles!
Fairweather is situated about two hundred miles southeast of Mount St. Elias, its hoary head being often visible a hundred miles and more at sea; rising above the fogs and clouds, its summit is recognizable while all other land is far below the horizon. We were told that when the earthquake occurred at Sitka in 1847, this mountain emitted huge volumes of smoke and vapor. The force of volcanic action in Alaska is, however, evidently diminishing, though occasional slight shocks of earthquakes are experienced, especially on the outlying islands of the Aleutian group and near the mouth of Cook’s Inlet.
Besides these loftiest mountains named, – “Rough quarries, rocks, and hills whose heads touch heaven,” – Mount Cook, Mount Crillon, and Mount Wrangel should not be forgotten. Lieutenant H. T. Allen, U. S. A., makes the height of the latter exceed that of Mount St. Elias, but we think it very questionable. This officer’s statement that Mount Wrangel is the birthplace of some of the largest glaciers known to exist seems much more likely to be correct. In this region, therefore, this far northwest territory of the United States, we find the highest elevations on the North American continent. The mountain ranges of California and Montana unite with the Rocky Mountains, and turning to the south and west form the Alaska Peninsula, finally disappearing in the North Pacific, except where a high peak appears now and then, raising its rocky crest above the sea, like a giant standing breast-high in the ocean, and thus they form the Aleutian chain of treeless islands, which stretch away westward towards the opposite continent. That these islands are all connected beneath the sea, from Attoo, the most distant, to where they join the Alaska Peninsula, is made manifest by the exhibition of volcanic sympathy. When one of the lofty summits emits smoke or fiery d?bris the others are similarly affected, or at least experience slight shocks of earthquake. So the several islands which form the Hawaiian group are believed to be joined below the ocean depths, and several, if not all, of the islands of the West Indies are considered to be similarly connected.
This has been in some period, long ago, a very active volcanic region, as the lofty peaks, both among the Aleutian Islands and on the mainland, which emit more or less smoke and ashes, clearly testify; not only suggestive of the past, but significant of possible contingencies in the future. There are, in fact, according to the best authorities, sixty-one volcanic peaks in Alaska. One of the extinct volcanoes near Sitka, Mount Edgecombe, according to the Coast Pilot, has a dimension at the ancient crater of two thousand feet across, and an elevation of over three thousand feet above the sea. The depth of the crater is said to be three hundred feet. From the top, radiating downwards in singular regularity, are the deep red gorges scored by the burning lava in its fiery course, as thrown out of the crater less than a hundred years ago.
This is a Mount Olympus for the natives, about which many ancient myths are told by these imaginative aborigines.
For more than twenty-four hours after sailing from Victoria the irregular, kelp-fringed shore of Vancouver, which is three hundred miles long, is seen on our left, until presently the large, iron-bearing island of Texada, with its tall summit, appears on the right of our course. The magnetic ore found here in abundance is of such purity as to render it suitable for the manufacture of the highest grade of steel, and it is shipped to the furnaces at Seattle and elsewhere for this purpose.
It is found in pursuing the voyage northward that the fierce tide-way prevailing in some of the deep, narrow channels produces such turbulent rapids that steamers are obliged to wait for a favorable condition of the waters before attempting their passage, as the adverse current runs at the rate of nine miles an hour. This was especially the case in the Seymour Narrows, which is about nine hundred yards wide, and situated at no great distance from Nanaimo, in the Gulf of Georgia. It is a far more tumultuous water-way, at certain stages of the tide – which has a rise and fall of thirteen feet – than the famous Maelstrom on the coast of Norway. The latter is also caused by the power of the wind and tide, though it was long held as the mystery and terror of the ocean.
The author remembers in his school geography a crude woodcut, which depicted a ship being drawn by some mysterious power into a gaping vortex of the ocean, and already half submerged. It was intended to represent the terrible perils of passing too near the Maelstrom, off the Lofoden Islands. In after years he sailed quietly across this once dreaded spot in the North Sea, without experiencing even an extra lurch of the ship. Thus do the marvels and terrors of youth melt away. Travel and experience make great havoc in the wonderland of our credulity, and yet modern discovery outdoes in reality the miracles of the past.
A powerful steamer which attempted to pass through the Seymour Narrows at an unfavorable state of the water, last season, was unable to make way against the current, and came near being wrecked. By crowding on all steam she succeeded in holding her position until the waters subsided, though she made no headway for two hours. It was here that the United States steamer Saranac was lost a few years since, being caught at disadvantage in the seething waters, and forced upon the mid-channel rocks. Her hull now lies seventy fathoms below the surface of the sea. Since this event took place the United States ship Suwanee struck on an unknown rock farther north, and was also totally wrecked. Perhaps after a few more national vessels are lost in these channels our government will awaken from its lethargy, and have a proper survey made and reliable charts issued of this important coast and its intricate water-ways. A single vessel is now engaged in this survey, but half a dozen should be employed in Alaskan waters. Nanaimo is situated on the east side of Vancouver Island, seventy miles from Victoria, with which it is connected by railroad. It is a thrifty little town, mainly supported by the coal interest, though there are two or three manufacturing establishments. The extensive coal mines in its neighborhood are of great value, and are constantly worked. These coal deposits are of the bituminous sort, particularly well adapted for steamboat use, and are so situated as to facilitate the growing commerce of these islands. Many thousands of tons are shipped during the summer months to San Francisco. We are told that it cost the proprietors of these coal mines one dollar and a half a ton to place the product on board steamers, which on arriving at San Francisco fetches from twelve to fifteen dollars per ton. There are five mines worked here, giving employment to some two thousand men, who receive two dollars and a half per day as laborers.
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