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   Chapter 4 NORTHERN LIGHTS

The Land of Tomorrow By William B. Stephenson Characters: 6842

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


ALASKA is a land of such wild beauty, so full of interest and charm, that it seems a pity that so mistaken an idea persists in regard to her climate. Yet that it does persist is scarcely to be wondered at. It is the knowledge we acquire in childhood which usually abides with us longest. So the preconceived idea which we absorbed in our youth from both our histories and our geographies is hard to eradicate. "Our country purchased this cold and barren land from Russia," we were taught, and "Alaska is noted for her ice-covered seas and her glaciers." Furthermore, when that far-sighted statesman, W. H. Seward, negotiated, in 1867, for the purchase of this great territory from Russia, the majority of Americans had so visualized Alaska as a country of perpetual snows and glaciers that even the most important newspapers and journals facetiously referred to the purchase as Seward's ice-box.

Severe climatic conditions, while they do exist in the extreme Arctic regions, are by no means typical of the country as a whole. The greater part of Alaska lies in the North Temperate Zone. Southeastern Alaska is comparatively mild. The Alaskan Peninsula, while rather frigid in winter, is most enjoyable in summer. There is no fact, seemingly, which is so hard to impress upon those who have never visited Alaska as that in regard to the "strong" cold of the interior. Yet it is a fact that if one is prepared for it he does not find it uncomfortable. True, for six months of the year the average temperature is below zero, and zero in this country, instead of being at the bottom of the thermometer, is half way up the scale! Fifty below is often recorded. Eighty below is not unusual. And occasionally the mercury freezes and the thermometer refuses to register! But--. It is the absolute and unvarnished truth that the climate of the interior of Alaska is fully as comfortable in winter as that of the northern part of the United States,-much more comfortable than in those states and cities where one is subjected to fogs and dampness in addition to low temperature. I have been colder and far more uncomfortable in both Boston and Chicago than I ever was in Alaska. In the interior there is practically no wind, no dampness. The still, dry air is wonderfully invigorating, and heavily charged with electricity. One frequently gets a shock from shaking hands, while a kiss for one's best girl is a matter for prayerful consideration!

One may wear in the Alaskan cities clothing of the same quality and weight as that worn in the States. The addition of a fur coat will make him thoroughly comfortable, even in the most extreme weather. This is not true of the trails, however. One must resort to the parka, the native costume with the long fur boots, if he wishes to be able to resist the cold.

Spirit thermometers are expensive and so other means of taking the temperature have been devised. Pain-killer is known to freeze at forty-five and alcohol at seventy-five below zero. When the still cold comes on the pain-killer is put out. When it freezes, the alcohol replaces it. When the latter freezes we give it up with a feeling that it really does not matter how much colder than seventy-five below it is!

We are familiar with the old legend to the effect that the abode of the Hyperboreans was in some distant region far beyond the North Wind! That it was a Paradise, the Elysian Fields, a land of perpet

ual sunshine and marvelous fertility, inaccessible by land or by sea! I have often had occasion to ponder upon this legend during my various journeyings in Alaska. Did you ever take a daylight photograph by the Midnight Sun? I have. Did you ever sun yourself, at midnight, at a picnic? Or try to sleep in a land where there is no such thing as night? Where there are twenty-four hours of sunshine, necessitating the curtaining of the windows in order to be able to keep one's eyes closed and to obtain for both eyes and nerves that real rest which comes only with the darkness? I have, many times.

Nowhere else in all the world are there such wondrous tints as in Alaska. To appreciate the beauty of the land, however, one needs must be an early riser. To have seen the marvelous change which comes over the pure whiteness of the snow-crowned crests between the darkness and the dawn! The tender violet becomes topaz, the topaz deepens into gold. The gold merges into burnished copper, the copper into rose, the rose into crimson, and then-the day is born! No man can see the dawn break over the mountain tops, especially if it be in a lonely, sparsely-peopled land, without feeling as did the poet when he wrote:

"For I know of a sun and a wind.

And some plains and a mountain behind,

Where there's neither a road nor a tree-

Only my Maker and me!"

In Alaska, as elsewhere, we have a land of contrasts, it is true. In December there are but two and a half hours of daylight. At noon the sun throws long horizontal rays and on cloudy days the colors of the sunrise merge into those of the sunset! And there is ever the long twilight-no matter what time of the year it may be. On the shortest day there are slight traces of daylight from about nine until three o'clock.

He who has never seen the winter night in Alaska has missed one of the most beautiful sights in the whole world. In many other corners of this earth I have watched the coming of the night but nowhere else has it ever moved me so deeply. Here, as nowhere else, "the heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament showeth His handiwork!" How many times have I sat in my door-way and watched the ending of the day. If there have been a few flying clouds during the afternoon they seldom fail to clear at evening. One by one the stars come out. From some remote darkness long meteors slip silently and shoot across the heavens, leaving phosphorescent trails, their scattered star dust, behind them. The features of the distant mountains, so lovable by day, become grim, hard, forbidding, when at nightfall they gather their gray hoods about their heads and go to sleep, standing! Ah, the wild, weird beauty of an unpeopled land!

The old Italian adage "See Naples and die!" never fails to spring to my mind whenever I look out upon the dark, crisp, bespangled night sky in Alaska. Over all its other brilliancy the vivid tones of the Aurora, flashes of green and red, shoot riotously. The Northern Lights! Only in Alaska does one see them in all their gorgeous glory! If sentiment be a part of man's make-up (and where is he who can deny it?), the lover of the Land of Tomorrow will not even attempt to stifle in his heart a wish that is almost a prayer. It is that when the hour shall come for him to venture forth into that undiscovered country whence no traveler returns, the Northern Lights may light him on his way!

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