The New Eldorado. A Summer Journey to Alaska
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There is not a lighthouse upon any headland amid all of these meandering channels, though it must be admitted that navigation is rarely impeded for want of light in summer, as one can see to read common print at midnight upon the ship’s deck without artificial aid any time during the traveling or excursion season of the year.
Now and again we look ahead inquiringly as we thread the labyrinth of islands and wonder how egress is possible from the many mountainous cliffs rising, sullen and frowning, directly in the steamer’s course. The exit from this maze is quite invisible; but presently there is a swift turn of the wheel, the rudder promptly responds, and we gracefully round a projecting point into another lonely, far-reaching channel framed by granite peaks a thousand feet in height.
At night, when all but the watch were sleeping, how gaunt and weird stood forth those tall, black sentinel rocks, past which we were gliding so silently, while overhead was spread the broad firmanent of space, dimly lighted by heaven’s distant lamps! How suggestive the dark, mysterious shadows! how active the imagination! Was the atmosphere indeed peopled with the invisible spirits of bygone ages? Did the air-waves vibrate with the history of the long, long past, the unknown story of these silent fjords and deep water gorges? Is it only thousands, or tens of thousands, of years since the first human beings appeared and disappeared among these now wild, untrodden shores?
The inlets which are found at the head of the Gulf of Georgia, northeast of Vancouver Island, are miniature Norwegian fjords, deeper and darker than the sombre Saguenay; a hundred and eighty fathoms of line will not reach the bottom. They are from forty to sixty miles in length, with an average width of nearly two miles, being walled by abrupt mountains from four to seven thousand feet in height. A grand elevation, whose name has escaped us, stands eight thousand feet above the sea at the head of Butte Inlet, while Mount Alfred, at the head of Jarvis Inlet, is still higher. A remarkable feature of these elongated arms of the sea is their great depth, some of them measuring over three hundred fathoms. It is a popular idea that the phosphorescence of the sea is exhibited in its strongest effect in the tropics; but we have seen in the Gulf of Georgia, after sunset, so brilliant an illumination from this cause that it was only comparable to liquid fire, quite equal in intensity to anything the author has witnessed in the Indian Ocean or the Caribbean Sea. It is impossible to convey by the pen an idea of the novel splendor of the scene. A drop of this flame-like water, dipped from the sea in equatorial or Arctic waters and placed under the microscope is found to be teeming with the most curious living and active organisms. These myriads of tiny creatures are so minute that, were it not for the revelations of the microscope, we should not even know of their existence. Nor are these infinitesimal objects the smallest representatives of animal life; glasses of greater power will show still more diminutive creatures.
Persons who are accustomed to make sea-voyages do not forget to supply themselves with a good but inexpensive microscope, for use on shipboard.The abundant specimens of minute animal and vegetable life which the sea affords, form a source of instructive amusement by which many otherwise monotonous hours are pleasantly beguiled. A little familiarity with the instrument enables one to profitably entertain a whole ship’s company with its powers.
In the region between Vancouver and Queen Charlotte Island we cross an open reach of the sea, and while the Pacific swell tosses us about after the usual erratic fashion of its unpacific waters, we observe a few ocean sights which serve pleasantly to vary the experience of the trip. A school of humpback whales put in an appearance, full of sport and frolic, in such extraordinary numbers that three or four are seen in the act of spouting all the while. In spots the sea is yellow, where its surface is covered for acres together with that animated food for other piscatory creatures, the jelly-fish. The shining, furry head of a sea-lion comes up to the surface now and again, gazing curiously at us with big, glassy eyes, and turning its face nimbly from side to side. A school of porpoises play about the hull of the steamer, leaping high out of the water and falling back again in graceful curves. The only shark we chanced to meet with on the entire voyage was observed in our wake just before entering Smith’s Sound, south of Calvert Island. In this region the huge gona-bird was seen sailing slowly on the wing, recalling the albatross of the low latitudes in its long, lazy sweeps, as well as by its size and gracefulness. These bird-monarchs of the north measure eight feet from tip to tip, and glide with or against the wind on their broad, outspread pinions without the least visible muscular exertion, a mystery of motive power which is sure to challenge the observer’s curiosity.
In the narrow passages the tall peaks, arched by the soft gray of the clouds and the clear blue of the sky, cast deep shadows where the water looked like pools of ink, whose blackness intensified the fact of their great but unknown depth.
The American whalers have never been accustomed to seek their big game in these immediate waters, preferring to attack the leviathans in lesser depths, such as the waters of Behring Sea, or farther north in the vicinity of the strait, between the frozen ocean and the North Pacific. There, if a whale dove after being struck by the harpoon, he was sure very soon to fetch up in the muddy bottom; but here, among the channels of the islands, he might dive, and dive again, to almost any depth, and unless great care was taken he was liable in his lightning-like velocity to carry down with him a whole boat’s crew and all their belongings. Were it not that the whaling industry has gradually declined here, as it has done in all other sections of the globe, the possession of Alaska, with its great number of safe harbors, would be an invaluable boon to those of our countrymen engaged in that branch of commercial enterprise.
Inland sea travel is the perfection of steamboating, but the rapidly-changing landscape of these wild Alaskan shores, rimmed with sharp volcanic peaks, at last wearies the senses, and one is forced to seek a brief intermission by finding rest in sleep, only, however, to again renew the charm with greater zest on the morrow.
Our journey through that portion of Alaska known as the Inland Sea was made in the steamship Corona, Captain Carroll, a commander who has had long experience in these waters. His pleasure seemed to lie in the degree of enjoyment which he could afford his passengers, and the amount of information which he was enabled to impart to them. There were on board the Corona the members of a large excursion party conducted by Raymond & Whitcomb of Boston, numbering some eighty persons. We have rarely seen together a large party of ladies and gentlemen embracing so many cultured and agreeable persons. They had already occupied some weeks in a tour of Mexico and southern California. It was exceedingly pleasant to see the courtesy and consideration exercised among them towards each other, – amenities which go so far to lighten the inevitable inconveniences of travel, and to enhance its enjoyments. Oftentimes friendships are formed under such circumstances which continue through every exigency to the very end of life.
Having reached latitude 54° 40? (the fifty-four forty or fight of 1862), we come to the boundary line between British Columbia and the United States, Dixon Entrance being on the left and Fort Tongas on the right. Here the far-reaching Portland Canal, or more properly channel, penetrates the mainland for a great distance, precisely like the Norwegian fjords, presenting, with its various arms, stupendous watery ca?ons, whence arise mountain precipices thousands of feet high on either side of the deep narrow course, their heads shrouded in perpetual snow. This channel, or fjord, runs nearly due north, and forms a boundary line to its head between the English and United States possessions.
Opposite and just south of Fort Tongas lies Fort Simpson, on British soil, and close at hand is Metla-katla, where that self-sacrificing missionary, Mr. Duncan, gathered and established a village of a thousand Christian residents from the various savage tribes of the vicinity. By his individual effort, with almost miraculous success, he raised from the lowest depths of barbarous life a law-abiding, religious, industrious, and self-supporting community, who justly considered him their moral and physical savior. Official persecution drove Mr. Duncan from Metla-katla to the nearest available American island, namely, Annetta, lying some sixty miles northward. Eight hundred of these aborigines whom he had reclaimed from savage life and its terrible practices have followed him with their families, freely abandoning all their property and improvements at Metla-katla, and are now struggling to create for themselves a new and permanent home under the United States.
The Senate committee, whose members lately visited Alaska, made a call at Annetta, and “found,” as one of its members writes to the press, “the Indians living in an apparent condition of contentment, and engaged in almost all the pursuits of the whites. Their execution of artistic designs upon silver wrought by themselves into bracelets, rings, and all kinds of jewelry is marvelous. Baskets made in brilliant colors from stripped reeds constitute a beautiful and artistic employment of most of the women of the tribe. Their particular ambition is their anxiety to possess lands in severalty, or to have certain parcels set aside for them, that they may cultivate and hold in individual right. They ask that the whole of Gravine Island be given to their tribe. They found the state of the morals of the Indian women at Annetta, or, as they call it, New Metla-katla, far above the average of Indian women of this Territory. At Sitka the committee visited the habitations of the Indians, and learned much from personal intercourse as to their habits and needs. It was found that the companionship and virtue of the women is a matter of simply dollars and cents, and not difficult to negotiate for.”
“The committee were surprised to observe such an apparent freedom from rowdyism, quarrels, and disturbances of any character in any portion of the Territory, and remarked the entire absence of six-shooters about the person of a single individual, a feature always so prominent in the mining camps of the West.”
Until Alaska – The New Eldorado – came into our possession, it was from the persistent and adventurous fur-traders that our knowledge of the country was almost solely obtained. To most of the public it was (and is still to many) scarcely more than a geographical expression, occupying an insignificant space on the extreme northwest portion of the maps of North America, without any regard being paid to the scale on which the other States and Territories of the country are delineated. The fact nevertheless stares us in the face, that Alaska is nearly as large as the whole of the United States lying east of the Mississippi River, or three times as large as France. Within the last twenty years greater intelligence has been shown, in part through missionaries, – self-sacrificing and devout men, – who have sought by their teachings to abolish the wild superstitions of the natives, together with their cruel rites of Shamanism. Organized companies of explorers, as well as enterprising miners and prospectors, have also liberally furnished us with general information relating to this great outlying province, which has been found to be so full of mineral wealth and future promise. But so vast is the Territory, so varied the climate, and so undeveloped are the means of access to its several parts, that our information as regards detail is still very meagre. There are not ten miles of roadway in all of Alaska outside of the island of Kodiak; or rather, we should say, the island just opposite Kodiak, namely, Wood Island, which has a road constructed completely round it, covering a dozen miles or thereabouts. The only road at Sitka is not over a mile and a half in length, and these two are the only ones in this vast Territory. Two objects of commercial gain, the profitable fur-trade and seeking for gold, have been the great agents of progress and development thus far in Alaska. In a like manner it was the greed for gold that first sent the Spaniards to Mexico and Peru; in pursuit of the lucrative fur-traffic the French and Britons opened the way for civilization in Canada. Here in Alaska it will not be philanthropy, – some of whose noblest exponents are upon the ground, – but self-interest; not government enterprise, but the seeking for precious metals, which will gradually unfold the great wealth and resources of this extensive province, whose area is greater than the thirteen original States of this Union. The hope of commercial gain has doubtless done nearly as much for the cause of truth and progress as the love of truth itself. The course of multitudes, guided by the natural instinct of selfishness, will be overruled by a higher power for the general good.
The very name of Alaska has to the popular ear a ring of glacier fields and snow-clad peaks, conveying a frigid impression of the climate quite contrary to fact. The most habitable portions of the country lie between 55° and 60° north, about the same latitude as that of Scotland and southern Scandinavia, but the area of this portion of Alaska is greater than that of both these countries combined. The name is derived from Al-ay-ck-sa, which was given to the mainland by the aborigines, and which signifies “great country.” On the old maps it is very properly designated as Russian America, and so it really was until its transfer from the possession of that government to our own. It was at the request of Charles Sumner, whose able, eloquent, and consistent advocacy did so much towards its acquirement, that the aboriginal title of Alaska was adopted. The portion of the country which is at present visited by excursionists is the southeastern coast line and the archipelago of the Sitkan Islands or Alexander group. If one desires to reach the vast country and islands lying to the west and northwest, the proper way to do so is to sail direct from San Francisco for Unalaska and Kodiak. The last named island lies south of Cook’s Inlet, one of the most remarkable volcanic regions in the Territory. Sitka is five hundred and fifty miles to the eastward of Kodiak. Cook’s Inlet is well named, as the great discoverer sailed to its very head in 1778, being the first white man who ever did so, and, indeed, few have done it since. This was while he was prosecuting his vain search for a northwest passage around the continent of America. The finest and largest salmon which were ever known are taken in Cook’s Inlet, reaching the weight of one hundred pounds in some instances, and measuring six feet in length. The island of Kodiak is also famous for its excellent and abundant salmon fisheries.
In 1874 a committee from the Icelandic residents of Wisconsin, aided by our government, made an excursion to Alaska to determine whether it would be advisable to recommend their people in Iceland to seek homes in and about Kodiak. The report of this committee, which consisted of three experienced and intelligent men, was published from the government printing-office in Washington, and from it we quote as follows: —
“Potatoes grow and do well, although the natives have not the slightest idea of how they should be cultivated, which goes to show they would thrive excellently if properly cared for. Cabbages, turnips, and the various garden vegetables have great success, and to judge from the soil and climate there is no reason why everything that succeeds in Scotland should not succeed at Kodiak. Pasture land is so excellent on the island, and the hay harvest so abundant, that our countrymen would here, just as in Iceland, make sheep breeding and cattle-raising their chief method of livelihood. The quality of the grass is such that the milk, the beef, and mutton must be excellent; and we had also an opportunity to try these at Kodiak.”
The purpose of colonizing portions of Alaska with people from Iceland is being revived, and active measures to this end are now progressing. The people of that country are eager to avail themselves of such an opportunity. They are being gradually crowded out of their native land by the increased flow of volcanic matter over their plains and valleys. Alaska, while it affords them in certain portions, say the valley of the Yukon, a climate similar to their own, offers them also many advantages over the place of their nativity. It is authoritatively stated that over fifty thousand souls will gladly avail themselves of this chance to emigrate to Alaska, provided our government will aid them in the matter of transportation. At this writing, in the village of Afognak, on the island of Kodiak, with a population of three hundred natives, over one hundred acres of rich land is planted in potatoes and turnips, and has yielded annually a large crop of excellent vegetables for three or four consecutive years. If it were necessary we could point to several other successful agricultural developments in islands even less favorably situated than is the Kodiak group. Nevertheless, there are plenty of writers who assert that domestic vegetables will not grow in Alaska. One has no patience with such perversion of facts.
Miss Kate Field says in a late published article relative to Alaska: “In agriculture Alaska is not promising, but the country is by no means as impossible in this respect as it has been represented. ‘There is not an acre of grain in the whole territory,’ wrote Whymper. Because there was no grain grown, it by no means follows that grain cannot be grown in certain localities. Hundreds of acres of land near Wrangel can be drained and cultivated. The Indians on the neighboring islands raise tons of potatoes and turnips for their own consumption. Butter made for me by the Scotch housekeeper of Wrangel mission was a sweet boon, and proved that cows were a success in that region, and that dairies were a mere question of time.”
The island of the Aleutian group situated the farthest seaward is named Attoo, and forms the most westerly point of the possessions of the United States. This island is situated about seven thousand five hundred miles in a straight line from the eastern coast of Maine, and is a little over three thousand miles west of San Francisco, making that city about the central point between the extreme east and west of this Union. It would be nearer, if one desired to reach England from Attoo, to continue his journey westward, rather than to travel east and cross the Atlantic. A few moments’ examination of the globe or a good map of the world is especially desirable in this connection, and unless one is already familiar with this region will prove interesting and instructive. The Aleutian group, besides innumerable islets and rocks, contains over fifty islands exceeding three miles in length, seven of them being over forty miles long. Unimak, which is the largest, is over seventy miles long, with an average width of twenty.
It seems almost impossible to conceive of these islands having ever been densely populated, where human life is so sparsely represented to-day, and yet scientific investigation gives ample proof that in the far past every cove and bay echoed to the cry of the successful otter hunter, and the beaches now lined with numberless bidarkas or native canoes. The mummies which W. H. Dall brought hence may have been ten centuries old. This able investigator tells us of ruined villages and deserted hearths, to be found in almost any sheltered cove or favorably situated upland. A few strokes of the pick and the spade is sure to unearth arrow-heads, stone axes, and chipped implements of flint, or perhaps even the singularly proportioned bones of a now extinct human race. Bones have been exhumed on these islands which have puzzled scientists to account for.
When these islands were discovered by the Russians the inhabitants of Attoo were numerous, warlike, and brave, being well supplied with otter skins, and altogether were a self-reliant and thrifty tribe. Now the place contains but one small village, numbering about a hundred and twenty souls, situated on the south side of the island in a sheltered cove.
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