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   Chapter 1 NORTHWARD HO!

The Land of Tomorrow By William B. Stephenson Characters: 12970

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


MEMORY, with unerring exactitude, carries me back to a never-to-be-forgotten day,-the twenty-ninth of May, 1909,-the day on which I sailed from Seattle on the S. S. St. Croix to take charge of the plant of the Pacific Cold Storage Company at St. Michael, Alaska. In my early manhood I had studied law, but the years immediately preceding this date I had spent among the great forests of British Columbia in charge of the interests of the British Columbia Tie and Timber Company. It was a life which appealed to me,-one which I loved and had planned to follow during my working years. But man proposes! And that inexplainable thing for which we have no definite name,-call it fate, fortune, destiny, or what you will-often disposes! Some sudden and utterly unforeseen event, almost in the twinkling of an eye, will change the whole current and meaning of a man's life. Such an experience was mine. So, like Columbus of old, I set forth once more upon the uncharted sea of life in search of a new world.

The last decade has brought about marvelous improvement in travel northward. Most ocean voyages are eventful and mine was particularly so. Therefore it may not be amiss to begin with it. At that time sailing to Alaska was unlike voyaging to any other part of the world. Man knew not whither he was going or whether he would return. The air of mystery which broods ever over all the northland seems to cast a spell upon the traveler from the moment of starting. Once there, the Land of Silence wraps her arms about him and holds him close, sometimes absorbing him!

There are two routes by which one may make his way northward. One is by what is known as the Inside Channel, by far the more beautiful and diverting and carrying him into the heart of the Yukon territory. The other is the Outside Passage and bears him directly across to the Alaskan Peninsula and thence around the coast to Nome. It was the latter route which I took on my first voyage to Alaska.

No man can see the lights of Victoria or Vancouver fade behind him without a feeling that he is standing in the dawn of a new life. Behind him lies the known; ahead, the unknown! From Vancouver to Skagway, up the Inside Channel, is a wonderful journey of a thousand miles, and as the boats pull away from shore one sees lying to right of him the mainland of British Columbia and to the left the island which bears the name of that intrepid explorer who navigated the then unknown waters of the North Pacific and charted them. Those who now journey northward will never realize their debt to Captain Vancouver. To the land-lubber the journey up the Channel seems fraught with a thousand dangers. But not so. Not a sunken rock but this old sea-dog has charted it, and the vessels thread their way with the utmost safety through a perfect maze of islands. To realize the miracle of this thousand miles of tangled maze one has but to stand in the bow of the boat and attempt to pick out the channel through which it will pass. He will guess wrong every time. One can not distinguish the isles from the shore. The mountains crash skyward, seemingly from the very deck of the vessel itself. But the inexperienced can not tell whether they crown an island or are on the mainland. The tourist gazes with admiration, not unmixed with awe, at the countless little bays and straits through which the boats twist, turn, creep forward and ofttimes turn backward! And so it is until the thousand miles of water, with its fairy islands and its gigantic icebergs lie far behind him,-a part of that past upon which he has turned his back.

The journey of the St. Croix (making the outside trip) was uneventful until we reached Cape Flattery. Here we encountered a terrific storm from the northwest. For a couple of days we had had a feeling that the glorious Pacific was in one of her sullen moods. It began with a gray sea and a few flying clouds. Followed a head wind which knocked fifty miles off the day's run and then,-a real storm, a miniature hurricane. It continued with unabated violence until we were within a day's run of Unimak Pass, at the foot of the Alaskan Peninsula. For six days we had sailed straight across the ocean to northwest, seeing nothing but sky and water,-huge, mountain-like waves which rose and fell with monotonous regularity. When we reached this point, however, we had a little diversion. Great numbers of walrus were splashing about in the water and lying on the ice. Here, also, I saw the first whales I had ever seen.

One of the sights of this ocean voyage is Mt. Shishaldin, an active volcano nearly nine thousand feet high and located about thirty miles east of Unimak Pass. In symmetry and in the beauty of its curves it rivals Fujiyama, the sacred mountain of Japan. No geographer has ever visited Mt. Shishaldin. No man has yet ascended it. Unimak, the island on which it stands, is a continuation of the Alaskan Peninsula, being separated from it only by a narrow strait. Like the rest of the Aleutian chain, it lies between Bering Sea and the Pacific Ocean.

It was about three o'clock in the morning of June ninth that we sighted the volcano. Scarcely any one on board had retired, as none wished to miss the view of the mountain. It is safe to say that none regretted the loss of sleep. It was a sight long to be remembered. Directly over the smoking cone the early-morning sun, dark red of hue, was slowly rising. The effect was most spectacular and-symbolic! No work of the Master's hand so symbolizes life as do the mountains. No matter how dark the vales and ca?ons, on the heights there is always light!

It was shortly after we entered the Pass that our journey began to afford us excitement. Here we encountered the first large ice floes and caught between them were many vessels,-the Ohio, Senator, Victoria, Olympia and Mackinac being plainly visible. Each was trying to find a passage through the ice and it was most amusing to see the grim smile which came over the face of our own Captain W-- when he saw their predicament. It is considered quite an honor to bring the first boat through the ice in the spring. No wonder, then, that the Captain was pleased. All these boats had sailed from one to three days ahead of us. Now the St. Croix had an equal chance with the rest.

At about half speed we started to plow through the ice. We made about fifty miles. Then the ice became much thicker and more difficult to penetrate. Many times we came to a standstill. T

hen we would back up some eight or nine hundred feet and at full speed would go ahead again, ramming the ice with all possible force. It was necessary to hold on to the rail in order to keep one's feet.

Now, this sort of thing may be interesting for a certain length of time, but when it becomes continuous one's interest flags! Operations were suspended for thirty minutes three times a day while meals were served, but except for these intervals, it went on night and day. I say night and day, but it was principally day. At this time of year there was only about one hour of the twenty-four when one could not see to read in his state-room without the electric light.

On the morning of June eleventh I was awakened by a terrific crash. I heard the swift scampering of feet along the deck toward the bow. I dressed as quickly as possible and hurried forward. We had bumped squarely into a young iceberg at full speed and had smashed our bow stem. This meant that we were caught in the ice floe with no means of getting out! We could no longer ram the ice with the ends of the planking exposed. It further developed that the owners had neglected to equip the boat with material necessary for repairs. But the Captain realized the necessity of doing something, so, in his dilemma, he ordered some of the steerage bunks torn up in order to get two by four lumber with which to patch the bow. It was wasted effort. The material was too light to be serviceable. It did not last as long as it took to put it on. One bump finished it.

There was among the passengers a ship-builder named Trahey. Being a practical individual, he suggested chaining the anchor across the bow and ramming the ice with it. This seemed to be all right, and we were beginning to think that our troubles were over, but all of a sudden we struck an ice floe about thirty feet thick. The anchor slid up the side and tore out the planking. The Captain (and the rest of us as well) saw that he was up against it. The boat began to take water. We all realized that the situation had become serious.

Presently the click-click of the wireless was heard. Calls for help were sent immediately. The first response was from the S. S. Thedias. She replied that she was stuck in the ice off Nome and could render assistance to no one. The second response was from the Corwin. She lay off St. Michael. She refused to come to our aid for less than six thousand dollars, which terms Captain W--, evidently valuing our lives at nothing, refused to accept. We carried no freight. Already the meals on the boat were getting poor, but at the moment no one was troubled with a large appetite! The Captain would give out no information as to his intentions, but it chanced that one of the passengers, an old friend of mine, a former Passenger Agent for the Santa Fe railroad, had been a telegraph operator and he kept me informed as the wireless messages broke over the antenna.

In our helpless condition we began to drift toward the Arctic Ocean at the rate of four miles an hour and we could not keep our minds from reverting to the tragic experience of the Portland which only a few years previously had floated about the Polar Sea all summer. It is needless to say that there was little sleep on the St. Croix that night. I retired at eleven-thirty but was up again at four and entertained myself by watching the seals and walruses playing near the boat.

We spent the next day, June twelfth, wondering what was to become of us, but as is usually the case in such crises, after the first shock is over one becomes philosophical about most things,-even the imminence of death. No man in his right mind really fears death. But the sudden realization that all one's plans have come to naught, that one shall never realize his cherished dreams, the thoughts of loved ones far away,-it is these and kindred things which make of it the staggering proposition that it is. So the men on board realized the necessity of keeping a stiff upper lip. We tried to make the others believe that we were cheerful, and although none of us could stifle his vague uneasiness we managed to keep it out of sight. In the afternoon a party of us got out on the ice, chose sides and had a snow-ball battle. It helped us to forget the seriousness of our plight and to amuse those who watched from the boat. By nightfall we had drifted as far north as latitude sixty-four, a few miles south of Nome. But-we danced on deck until two in the morning, the thirteenth day of June.

I have always scouted the prevailing notion that there is any bad luck connected with the number thirteen! I had no more than fallen asleep when I was awakened by the jar of the machinery. My first thought was that the Captain had decided to make a final attempt to buck the ice and I was confident that this could have but one result,-the wrecking of the boat. I dressed immediately and went on deck, only to come face to face with another of those mysterious twists of fortune which ofttimes in an instant turn danger to safety and just as frequently make of apparent surety a disaster. Right ahead of us, as far as the eye could see, was an open channel, straight as a die and just a little wider than the boat!

All was activity now. It seemed only a moment until we were under way. Once started we forged ahead with all possible speed in order that we might get out of the ice pack before the channel should close again. Luck favored us. A few hours later we landed at Nome. There was no coal to be had here and as we had only enough for twelve hours, after unloading the passengers the St. Croix headed immediately for St. Michael. At two o'clock in the afternoon, the thirteenth day of June, I reached my destination.

No steamers can land at the island. Both passengers and freight have to be lightered ashore. The inner bay was filled with ice. We anchored five miles out. I went ashore with a friend in his gasoline launch which had been sent out for him. We left the St. Croix at two-thirty, and we had to get out several times and pull the boat along the ice until we could launch her again in open water. At seven o'clock we reached the beach. I stepped ashore and took a look at what was to be my abiding-place for the next five years. Home was never like this! I was informed that the largest building in sight was the Steamboat Hotel. I took my way thither and was the sole occupant of this now-historic hostlery for more than a week.

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