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The Land of Tomorrow By William B. Stephenson Characters: 16408

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

ALASKA is a land of scenic splendor. She has scenery as beautiful as that of Switzerland or New Zealand. From my own cottage doorway I have seen sunsets which equaled those of Mont Blanc, famed in song and story, and I have traveled through valleys which in summer rivaled the celebrated Vale of Chamounix. Whoever it was who selected the Seven Wonders of the World of which we learned in our school days would have had to add to the list if he had ever dwelt for any length of time "north of fifty-three."

The country boasts some of the greatest wonders of Nature. The Calico Bluffs on the Yukon are as high as the Washington monument and their strata look much like agate formations. She has five thousand glaciers which are giants in comparison with those of the Alps. The Childs Glacier is as tall as the dome of the capital at Washington. Of the hundreds of others there are many that are known as "first class" glaciers. By this is meant that they discharge their contents into the sea direct. Among them are the LeConte, Dawes, Brown, Sawyer and Taku. It is the latter which furnishes the bergs that surround the ships which carry travelers northward through the "Inside" route. From the deck of the vessel, near Taku Inlet, forty-five glaciers may be counted. Of these, as you face Taku, Norris glacier stands to the left. It is unique in that it sends out two seemingly full-grown rivers, one flowing to north and one to south. Flowers may be seen growing in the forest glades nearby, and remnants of tree stumps two feet in diameter reveal that the glacier must once have withdrawn long enough at least to permit them to grow. Then a change of climate or other natural action must have pushed the ice forward again to cut them off and grind them into fragments,-making them a part of the glacial débris.

Mendenhall Glacier is near Juneau. It is easily reached by automobile and a delightful experience it is to ride along the highway leading to it. The road is fringed with masses of wild flowers. Imagine, if you can, sitting in the shade of a gigantic cottonwood, or spruce, and eating ice cream made from the milk of cows which now pasture upon the grass where once the ice stood a thousand feet deep! Mendenhall, according to the best authorities, is at least twenty-five miles long,-almost twice the length of the largest glacier the Alps affords.

The highest mountain peak in Alaska was known to the Russians as Bulshaia and to the natives of Cook Inlet as Traleyka. Both words signify the "great" or the "high" mountain. The natives of the interior called it Denali, but in 1895 it was named Mt. McKinley. It is twenty thousand three hundred feet high, exceeded in height only by Aconcogua of South America and Mt. Everest in Indo-China. It was named by W. A. Dickey, who saw it from the Susitna River. Later its position and altitude were determined. Many have attempted to ascend it. In 1912 Prof. Herschel Parker of Columbia University and Mr. Belmore Browne of Tacoma, Washington, got within three hundred feet of the summit, and in 1913, Rev. Hudson Stuck, Archdeacon of the Yukon and author of Ten Thousand Miles with a Dog Sled and Voyages on the Yukon, together with three companions, reached the top.

Above the recently-created National Park Mt. McKinley towers in majestic sublimity, the everlasting sentinel, the guardian, as it were, of the last and loveliest spot on earth which remains as Nature fashioned it, still untouched by human hands.

Mt. St. Elias is better known and has been much written about. Its height is eighteen thousand and twenty-four feet. Mt. Logan is nineteen thousand five hundred and forty feet. Of the two now-celebrated passes in the mountains of the Yukon, the Chilkoot and White Pass, the former is at a height of three thousand one hundred feet and the latter at a height of twenty-eight hundred feet. It was over these passes that the gold-seekers of 1898 stampeded into Klondike.

But the mountains of Alaska, glorious, majestic and awe-inspiring as they are, are the losers when compared with the greatest of Alaskan wonders, the volcanoes. Of these, Mt. Katmai, opposite the Island of Kodiak, the terrific eruption of which in June, 1912, is well remembered, is most celebrated. At that time a mass of ash and pummice, the volume of which is estimated at five cubic miles, was thrown into the air. It buried an area about the size of the State of Connecticut to a depth varying from ten inches to ten feet and smaller amounts of the ash fell as far as nine hundred miles away. Unquestionably, the notoriously cold, wet summer which followed the eruption was due to the fine dust which was thrown into the higher regions of the atmosphere to such an extent as to have a profound effect upon the weather. At the time of the eruption I was at sea, on my way from St. Michael to the States. It was not long until the ash began falling over us, filling the air and seemingly trying to cover the face of the waters. It got into our lungs and made them ache. It was not until some time later that I heard that it was Mt. Katmai which had exploded and that the eruption was one which would go down in history. There was not, of course, the enormous loss of life which followed the eruptions of Vesuvius, Stromboli and Mt. Pélee. But in other respects the explosion of Mt. Katmai was unique. Kodiak, the town which was buried, was a hundred miles away. Ash fell as far away as Juneau, Ketchikan and the Yukon valley, distant respectively six hundred, seven hundred and fifty and nine hundred miles.

In the report of the leader of the National Geographic Society's Mt. Katmai Expedition of 1915-'16, Robert F. Griggs, of the Ohio State University, is the following paragraph which gives concisely a good idea of the magnitude of the explosion:

"Such an eruption of Vesuvius would bury Naples under fifteen feet of ash. Rome would be covered a foot deep. The sound would be heard at Paris. Dust from the crater would fall in Brussels and Berlin and the fumes would be noticeable far beyond Christiana, Norway."

Yet it was only a little over a year after this eruption that I myself saw those ash-laden hills covered again with green verdure! The native blue-top hay was growing right through the ash which had been washed off the hills and was then covering the land a foot and a half deep. I was deeply interested in the native method of harvesting this hay. In the pursuit of agriculture as I understood it I had never encountered this practice elsewhere. The hay was cut high up on the mountain. It was done into bundles in fish nets and was then sent tumbling down the mountain-side to the bottom. There it was picked up and carried off homeward or else loaded on boats to be shipped elsewhere.

At the time of the eruption the natives, fortunately for them, were all away fishing. They were never permitted to return to their mountain. The government built them a new town and conveyed them thither in a body, thus establishing them in it. The village was not near the crater. It was about twenty-five miles away. This is five times as far distant from the volcano as Pompeii was from Vesuvius or St. Pièrre from Mt. Pélee.

As has been said, the verdure has returned. Around Kodiak it is vividly, beautifully green. But the Katmai Valley, once fertile and now a barren waste, contains what the writer firmly believes to be the most wonderful and awe-inspiring sight in the whole world. On the second visit of the Expedition of the National Geographic Society, the following year, Prof. Griggs explored and named it. He called it "The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes"-than which there could be no better name!

There are no words in the language capable of giving any definite impression of the scene. Stretching away as far as the eye can see, until the valley is lost in the far-distant mountains, lie literally thousands of small volcanos, replicas in miniature of Katmai, the Great! From almost every one of them shoots a slender column of steam which rises steadily and gracefully, sometimes to a height of a thousand feet before it breaks or even wavers! Words become futile. One could not exaggerate it if he t

ried. There would not be an adjective left in the language when he finished!

My own view of the valley was hasty, superficial and from a respectful distance! I can well appreciate, however, what the Expedition endured in order to give to the world knowledge of this wondrous spot. I heartily commend to the readers of this volume the report of Prof. Griggs in the National Geographic Magazine for May, 1917, in which he relates the experience of himself and his party as they made their way back and forth, plunging through suffocating vapors, trapping gases for chemical analysis, making soundings, mapping the course of the valley and studying the geology of what he calls "the most amazing example of her processes which Nature has yet revealed to twentieth century man,-one of Vulcan's melting pots from which the earth was created." In a tent less than two miles from one of the huge clouds of steam he slept at night and on one of the large flat stones outside, so hot that it was a natural stove, the members of the Expedition cooked their food.

One gets the best idea of the magnitude of the valley by comparing it with our Yellowstone Park. The Katmai valley is thirty-two miles long, about two miles wide and seventy square miles in area. In the Yellowstone are four thousand hot springs and a hundred geysers scattered over three thousand square miles. The geysers occur in isolated basins the total area of which is hardly twenty miles. The largest one, and it plays but seldom, shoots up a column about three hundred feet high. Old Faithful, which is the only one the tourist can ever be sure of seeing in action, is only a hundred feet high. In the Alaskan valley, however, observe the contrast. There are thousands of vents in constant action. Some of these ascend more than five thousand feet into the air when conditions are good and when the valley is wind-swept they creep along the ground for two or three miles! These vents are not geysers. They are hot springs. Geysers can exist only when the rock through which they break is sufficiently cool to permit water to form. It is unlikely therefore that there will ever be geysers here,-at least not for many centuries. The valley may gradually cool so as to permit their formation. But it will be ages hence.

Prof. Griggs is emphatic in his belief that there is nothing known to mankind with which "The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes" can be compared. I agree with him. Would that it were more accessible to the traveler and that no tourist would return from a sojourn in Alaska without seeing it! I shall never cease to be grateful that a fortunate circumstance permitted me to obtain even so small a peep at it. Surely nothing approaching it has been seen by man upon this earth. The Expedition report states, among other interesting things, that the water is so hot that the thermometer would not register it and that the heat from the stones would char a piece of wood instantly!

Kilauea, in Hawaii, has always borne the reputation of being king of volcanoes. It is now dethroned. Mention has already been made of Mt. Shishaldin, on Unimak Island. As no geographer has ever visited it, little is known about it. Katmai, however, is unquestionably the monarch. Not so much in diameter, circumference or area does it exceed Kilauea. It is in depth. Kilauea's greatest depth is five hundred feet. Katmai's is thirty-seven hundred feet!

In an attempt to give some idea of the magnitude of Katmai, I quote once more from Prof. Griggs' report:

"If every single structure in New York, Brooklyn, the Bronx and the other boroughs of Greater New York were gathered together and deposited in the crater of Mt. Katmai," he says, "the hole that remained would still be more than twice as large as that of Kilauea." The king is dead. Long live the king-of volcanoes!

From the glaciers and the mountains of Alaska to the rivers is but a natural turn. One of the most important factors in the life and commercial development of a country is, of course, her river navigation. Alaska has two great gateways to Bering Strait,-the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers. Until recently only the Yukon was available for commercial purposes, but the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey has announced that at last a channel has been charted through the delta of the Kuskokwim. This means much. It means that a River of Doubt has become a River of Promise!

Because of the latitude at which they enter Bering Sea the Yukon is navigable for three and a half and the Kuskokwim for four months only. The entrance of the Yukon is shallow, that of the Kuskokwim tortuous and not well known. But once inside, an ordinary river boat can navigate the Yukon to White Horse, in Canada, a distance of twenty-two hundred miles. In spite of the short seasons the possibilities of using the river in the development of the valley are apparent and will suffice for some time to come. Navigation is also fairly good on the lower Copper River, the Kobuk, and smaller streams. When it comes to the most winding and tortuous watercourse I have ever encountered, however,-respectfully I salute the Iditarod! One's supply of adjectives, however ample under ordinary circumstances, fails him completely when he attempts to do justice to the crookedness of this river. It writhes and twists and turns like some huge serpent, and when it can think of nothing else to do it doubles back on its own track! To try to follow it would give a man delirium tremens, and like Tennyson's brook it "goes on forever!"

The Pacific coast line, including the Aleutian Islands, has many excellent harbors. With the exception of Cook Inlet, these are open to navigation from November until June, but the ice pack does not extend far south of St. Lawrence Island. This part of the coast is almost without harbors. The Arctic Ocean is open from July to September, permitting navigation to Alaskan ports.

There is cable communication between Seattle and certain parts of southeastern Alaska,-Cordova, Valdez and Seward. Telegraph lines run from Valdez to Fairbanks and down the Yukon to St. Michael from which point there is wireless communication with Nome. These are all military lines. The Navy Department maintains wireless stations at Kodiak and Unalaska. The War Department has wireless stations at Sitka, Cordova, Fairbanks, Circle, Eagle and Nulato. There are also private wireless stations at Iditarod and on Bristol Bay and many of the mining districts are now provided with telephone lines.

The United States Government is thoroughly awake to the necessity of making safe the now-dangerous waters of southern Alaska. They are now being charted and soon the old title "The Graveyard of the Pacific" will no longer apply to them. Within the past sixty years three hundred ships have gone down upon the rocks. Valuable cargoes amounting to eight million dollars and lives to the number of five hundred have here been lost. Both to southeast and southwest of Alaska lie many mountainous islands, and ofttimes the lower half of the mountain will be lost in the water. Like the submerged lower half of the iceberg which wrecked the Titanic, they lie in wait, seemingly, for the ignorant or the unwary and rip open the hulls of the ships that venture too near.

The light-house service of Alaska leaves much to be desired. The first buoy was floated in 1884. The first light was put up ten years later. There are three hundred and twenty-nine aids to navigation now on the whole Alaskan coast line. These include a hundred and forty lights of which twenty-eight were placed in 1915. On the much-traveled route from Icy Strait to Nome, a distance equal to that between New York and London, there are but three lighthouses!

There are indications of improvement along this line, however. A first class light is to be placed on Cape St. Elias. New vessels are being built for light-house work and for the Coast Survey, but like all great enterprises, things progress slowly. About one-half of the main channels of southeastern Alaska have been explored by a wire drag and as rapidly as the appropriations by Congress will permit the work will be pushed forward.

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