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   Chapter 19 ALASKAN WRITERS

The Land of Tomorrow By William B. Stephenson Characters: 23392

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


IN addition to her gold and copper, her furs and her fish, Alaska has produced a crop of writers of more or less importance. By far the truest exponent of the life of the country is Robert Service whose The Spell of the Yukon surely breathes the spirit of the land. Service is now an army surgeon in the European war and his latest volume Rhymes of a Red Cross Man has added to the reputation he justly enjoys because of the verse which went before it. This little volume is dedicated to the memory of his brother, Lieutenant Albert Service, killed in action, and the Foreword with which the collection opens is well worth quoting:

"I've tinkered at my bits of rhymes

In weary, woeful, waiting times;

In doleful hours of battle din

Ere yet they brought the wounded in!

Through vigils by the fateful night,

In lousy barns by candle light;

In dug-outs, sagging and aflood,

On stretchers stiff and bleared with blood;

By ragged grove, by ruined road,

By hearths accurst where Love abode;

By broken altars, blackened shrines-

I've tinkered at my bits of rhymes!

"I've solaced me with scraps of song

The desolated ways along;

Through sickly fields all shrapnel-sown

And meadows reaped by death alone;

By blazing cross and splintered spire,

By headless Virgin in the mire;

By gardens gashed amid their bloom,

By gutted grave, by shattered tomb;

Beside the dying and the dead,

Where rockets green and rockets red

In trembling pools of poising light,

With flowers of flame festoon the night.

Ah me! By what dark ways of wrong

I've cheered my heart with scraps of song!

"So here's my sheaf of war-won verse,

And some is bad, and some is worse.

And if at times I curse a bit,

You needn't read that part of it!

For through it all, like horror, runs

The red resentment of the guns!

And you yourself would mutter when

You took the things that once were men

And sped them through that zone of hate

To where the dripping surgeons wait!

You'd wonder, too, if, in God's sight,

War ever, ever can be right!"

Service is essentially a poet. His novel, The Trail of Ninety-eight, well,-we have forgiven him! It is lurid melodrama and certainly adds nothing to his literary reputation. But none can read The Spell of the Yukon without breathing deeply!

"There's a land where the mountains are nameless

And the rivers all run God knows where!

There are lives that are erring and aimless

And deaths that just hang by a hair!

There are hardships that nobody reckons,

There are valleys unpeopled and still!

There's a land-oh, it beckons and beckons!

I want to go back-and I will!"

REV. HUDSON STUCK, ARCHDEACON OF THE YUKON, PREACHING WITH INDIAN AND ESKIMO INTERPRETERS

INTERIOR OF GREEK CATHOLIC CHURCH IN ST. MICHAEL BUILT IN 1837

FINE OLD NATIONAL HOUSE WITH TOTEM POLES NEAR WRANGELL

I have already said that the true story of the Klondike stampede has never been written and perhaps never will be. A great deal was put out under the guise of literature, but it was mere journalistic stuff. It will not endure and should not. Jack London was in Klondike. And he was a born story-teller. He should have written something quite worth while of those stirring days with all the wealth of material which lay about him. But the best he did was The Call of the Wild and in it he indulged his love for the romantic to such an extent that you find yourself wondering whether dogs are real dogs and his men real men until in the end you conclude that they are not! His white men are like characters on the stage. And if there are any Indians in Alaska such as he portrayed I have never encountered them. They are absurdly untrue to life. Furthermore, the brutal side of life seems to have had undue attraction for London. It is true that it did exist. But it was not the whole of life in Alaska, by any means, and one sickens of it after continuous reading about it. Rex Beach's stories, The Spoilers and The Silver Horde (by far his best, in my judgment), are good and typical of the life of the period. Yet one can not read them without a feeling that they, too, leave much to be desired.

The wit, the pathos, the comedies, the tragedies, the sordidness, the heroism of those days! Whose pen could delineate the characters of those who wrought them or adequately describe the country as it was,-and is! It would take the combined genius of a Poe, a Kipling and a Bret Harte to do justice to the subject. Richard Harding Davis was preparing to go to Klondike. Had he carried out his intention it might have been different. But one morning he picked up the morning paper and read therein that the Maine had been blown up in Havana harbor. He changed his mind!

I am convinced that the best tales of the land have never been put on paper. These are the stories related at the road-houses, or in the rooms of the Arctic Brotherhood or some similar gathering-place by those who took part in them. And they usually come out quite by accident. The participant thinks there is nothing wonderful about them. Some grizzled miner,-Service calls them "the silent men who do things,"-will suddenly begin talking, and sometimes the story he tells will beat any that has ever yet found its way into print. Why has no one ever written a steamboat story? Or a tale of the Arctic Brotherhood? There are material and local color galore for such.

Nearly all Alaskans are familiar with the writings of Samuel Clarke Dunham. He has occasionally burst into verse, and he has a dry humor which is exhilarating. I have already quoted from one of his best known effusions concerning the tundra. Tracking about in the wet Russian moss is often calculated to extract (not painlessly) about ninety per cent of one's enthusiasm! So one day Dunham broke forth in a poem which began thus:

"I've traversed the toe-twisting tundra

Where reindeer root round for their feed!" etc.

Would that there were some way of gathering together the fugitive stories and poems, replete with wit and humor, with pathos and tragedy, which are a part of Alaska's unwritten history! Many a time have I been guilty of hanging around a road-house, saloon or "joint" of some kind for no reason on earth except that I knew I should hear a good story or two from some wandering wayfarer who had just come in off the trail. And at such times I have often recalled the familiar song (peculiarly true to life in Alaska) the chorus of which runs:

"Sometimes you're glad,

Sometimes you're sad,

When you play in the game of life!"

I have heard in these miners' gatherings tales of tragedies almost unbelievable, comedies which would furnish excellent vehicles for the talents of Charlie Chaplin and not a few love stories worthy of a Dickens, a Hugo or a Tolstoi. But they were no sooner told than forgotten as no one was at hand to record them.

I well recall an evening when I joined a group who sat smoking beside a stove in one of the road-houses. There was conversation, but one usually loquacious individual sat silently and smoked his pipe. Whenever he had appeared there before he had always been accompanied by an older man. They seemed inseparable companions. I had a feeling that something tragic had happened and that he would relate it before the evening was over. So I decided to "stick around." Presently some one asked him where his partner was. He did not reply immediately, but presently took his pipe from between his teeth and speaking in the vernacular of the country said:

"He won't be here no more."

"You mean--?"

"Yep."

We were all interested immediately but forebore to ask questions. Presently he went on.

"We were just comin' along the trail. His foot slipped an' down he went into the crevasse. I hollered down, an' I heerd him answer. So I climbed down as far as I could, an' I could see him, an' talk to him. His face was jammed right in the ice an' was already freezin'. We couldn't do nothin' but just look at each other. Then he says, 'You might as well go on!' An' I says, 'I'm damned ef I do!' I untied the packs an' got all the rope we had, but it wouldn't reach him. 'I'll go git some more rope,' I says to him, but I knowed it'd be too late. 'Go on!' he says. 'Don't let the dark git you out here. You can't do nothin' fer me!' I knowed he was right. But I hated like hell to leave him. I'd 'a stayed ef it'd done any good. But it wouldn't. To-day I got some more rope an' went back. But--. The ice down where he was had opened again an' I could see straight down fer two hundred feet. He wuzn't there!"

Nobody said anything. He took a few more puffs from his pipe. Then he got up and went out.

I have more than once mentioned the Reverend Hudson Stuck, Archdeacon of the Yukon, author, missionary and first white man to ascend Mt. McKinley. The Archdeacon is known and loved by all who know him, not only for his services but because of his personality and his adaptability to the needs and conditions of the land in which he lives. His books, The Ascent of Denali, Ten Thousand Miles with a Dog Sled and Voyages on the Yukon, are excellent reading, good examples of Alaskan literature and history. The Archdeacon has a sense of humor which makes friends for him wherever he goes, and one evening Gene Doyle, the oldest mail-carrier in our part of Alaska, a hardened traveler of the trails, blew in with a good story. Gene was a sourdough of the most pronounced type. He had wintered many times in Alaska.

When two people meet on the trails each is warned of the other's approach by the actions of the dogs. First the leader and then the rest of the team will begin to bristle and cut antics of various kinds. The usual salutation in Alaska is not "How are you?" or "Hello!" as might be the case elsewhere. Instead we call out: "How are the trails ahead?" On this occasion Doyle knew by the actions of his dogs that he was about to meet another team. There was a storm in progress and neither man could see the driver of the other team. Doyle had had a particularly difficult day's trip and was a bit out of temper when the driver of the other team thus accosted him:

"Friend, how are the trails ahead?"

"They are the G-- d-- dest, blank, blank, blankety-blankedest I've ever seen in Alaska!" Doyle replied. "How are they your way?"

"The same!" was the somewhat emphatic response of the gentleman. It was the Archdeacon!

As I have already said, weather which in lower latitudes would promptly convert one into an icicle has little effect upon one who understands how to prepare for it. With hands and feet warmly protected, with winter underwear and wind-proof outer clothes one can comfortably and successfully "weather the weather!" It is no uncommon experience, however, to meet a man on the trail who sings out to you:

"I say, old fellow,-your nose is frozen!"

"Thanks!" you respond. "So is yours!"

Each will then blissfully apply a little snow to the disabled member and proceed on his way. But there is one other thing which should be rigorously guarded against as it is a painful and distressing experience. This is snow-blindness. The glare on the snow causes the film of the eye to become a water blister, which takes three or four days to heal. One of my most poignant recollections is a three days' siege of snow-blindness, during which I lay helpless in a hut while an old squaw put wet tea leaves on my eyes. Never again!

I have heard that from the fighting men of the allied armies now in Europe have come back some exquisite verse,-such verse as one could not reasonably expect from men of their youth

and previous environment. The same may be said of much of the verse of Alaska. The poems of Service and Dunham are well known. But alas, the bulk of the others never saw the light of day in print!

As has been said, however, Alaska is a land of contrasts. Not every one gets the same impression of the same thing! To prove it I quote a poem written by one of the many who did not find in Alaska just what they came to seek. The writer of the verses below was the steward on the Susie,-one of the boats which plied the Yukon during the gold rush. Evidently his claim proved worthless, or something else went wrong. For he has thus expressed himself:

AN IMPRESSION OF ALASKA

The Devil in hell, we are told, was chained.

Thousands of years he thus remained,

But he did not complain nor did he groan.

He decided to have a hell of his own

Where he could torment the souls of men

Without being chained in a sulphur pen!

So he asked the Lord if He had any land

In a clime cool enough for a Devil to stand.

The Lord said: "Yes-but it's not much use.

It's called Alaska. It's cold as the deuce.

In fact, old boy, the place is so bare

I fear you could not make a good hell there!"

But the Devil said he could not see why;

He knew his business. He'd like to try.

So the bargain was made, the deed was given,

And the Devil took his departure from heaven.

He next appeared in the far, far North,

Exploring Alaska to learn its worth;

And he said from McKinley as he looked at the truck,

"I got it for nothing,-but still I'm stuck!"

But, oh,-it was fine to be out in the cold!

The wind blew a gale, but the Devil grew bold,

And thus on the mountain height he planned:

"I'll make of Alaska the home of the damned!

A different place from the old-fashioned hell,

Where each soul burns in a brimstone cell.

I'll use every means a wise Devil need

To make a good hell. You bet I'll succeed!"

First he filled the air with millions of gnats.

Then he spread the Yukon all over the Flats,

Set a line of volcanos from Unimak Pass,

And covered the soil with tundra grass.

He made six months' night-when 'twas sixty below,

A howling wind and a pelting snow!

And six months' day-with a spell now and then

Too hot for the Devil and all of his men!

Brought hungry wolves and dogs by the pack

Whose yells send chills right down your back,

And as you "mush" o'er the bleak expanse

The North Wind blows holes in your pants!

But of all the pests the imp could devise

The Yukon mosquitoes bear off the prize.

They've a rattler's bite, a scorpion's sting,

And they measure six inches from wing to wing!

The Devil said when he fashioned these:

"One of 'em is worse than a thousand fleas!"

Then, over the mountain and rolling plain

Where the dew falls soft and there's plenty of rain

He grew flowers and berries. 'Twas just a bluff!

The Devil knows how to peddle his stuff!

And to prove how well he knew the game

He next proceeded to salt his claim.

He put gold nuggets in all the streams

To lure men on in dreams! In dreams!

He hid them deep in the glacial ice,

As a glittering city hides its vice!

Then he bade Dame Rumor spread the news

Throughout all the world to its motley crews

That there was gold in piles and piles,

Of every color and in all styles!

Then he grinned a grim, sardonic grin,

And said: "Now watch the fools rush in!

They'll fight for gold. They'll steal and slay!

But in the end I'm the one they'll pay!"

'Tis a fine hell this that the Devil owns!

Its trails are marked with frozen bones;

The wild winds moan over bleak chaparral;

'Tis a hell of a place he chose for his hell!

And now you know, should anyone ask you,

What kind of a place is our Alaska!

I am convinced that the Alaskans, whether they realize it or not, are poetic and imaginative. All over the country one finds the quaintest of names that have been bestowed upon the various localities by some follower of the trail, prospector, or other traveler. In one's journeyings he will come upon settlements bearing such names as Sunset, Paystreak, Anchorage and Fortymile. There are also the "Isles of God's Mercy" where Henry Hudson found shelter on his last voyage, "Anxiety Point" and "Return Reef" of Sir John Franklin, that Sir Galahad of explorers whose Eskimo name means "the man who does not molest our women." In Bank's Land is "Mercy Bay" and there is also the "Thank God" harbor so named by poor Hall on the Polaris.

So, if one could but gather them together, the poems and songs and pretty names of Alaska, each a part of her real history, it might make a column about three miles long, but-it would be mighty interesting reading!

One has but to glance at the map to see the similarity of the Alaskan coast to that of Norway. Will not the day come when her fiords and mountains, her Northern Lights and Midnight Sun will be as famed in song and story as those of Norway? Surely it will!

* * *

CONCLUSION

In concluding this volume I am reminded of two stories, both of which seem applicable to the subject. One of the quaintest and most interesting characters I ever ran across was a French-Canadian, Captain of one of the boats which plied the Yukon during the summer and in the winter stayed at St. Michael. One day the river, or the boat, or both, behaved badly. So he sang out:

"T'row over the anch'!"

"But, Capitaine," expostulated a sailor, "ze anch' she have no chain on her!"

The Captain glared at him wrathfully.

"T'row her over any way!" he bawled. "She may help some!"

The second story concerns this same gentleman. When the mail service was established at St. Michael he was told that all he had to do if he wanted a letter was to go up to the window and ask for it. Never having had a letter he thought he would like the experience. So he went and demanded one. The postmaster asked his name.

"Pièrre LeGros," he said.

"How do you spell it?" asked the man inside.

This was a poser. Pièrre's knowledge did not extend to orthography. But he was nothing if not adaptable. He eyed the man balefully for a moment and the expression on his face was worth a fortune. It changed slowly from interest to scorn. He straightened himself up as proudly as a king and remarked without the slightest trace of temper:

"Vell,-eef you no can spell Pièrre LeGros zen I zink yo' better sell your damn' post-offees!"

The first of these stories is illustrative of my motive in writing this book. So desirous am I that all men may know our Land of Tomorrow as she really is that I have tried to set forth her advantages and her opportunities which lie on every hand only waiting to be grasped. Therefore I hope she may help some! Also, I feel that wisdom and thoughtfulness on the part of our government will be necessary in order to protect Alaska. And she must be protected because she can not yet protect herself. If we can not protect her, keep her safe from invasion by a foreign enemy, then again I am one with Pièrre LeGros. We had better sell her!

I am not so pessimistic as to think that such a thing will happen, however. The United States seldom fails to do the right thing at the right time. Alaska is the first country peopled by a race which has back of it the spirit and the traditions of democracy! It is the last great fertile and temperate land on which western civilization may take a fresh start. The democracy which now exists in Alaska is of the very best brand. It is that of a country which, critical of her own mistakes, is capable of showing the world what she has learned from experience. The distilled experience of America and of the whole world is hers to draw upon. There is no excuse for a repetition of any of the blunders the motherland may have made during the days of her youth and her inexperience.

That the government realizes all this is evident. It was made plain when after a long struggle she saved Alaska's resources from monopoly. Now the problem is to make sure that whatever is done in the way of economical development, of building railroads, town sites, schools, public buildings, establishing home government and promoting industrial and agricultural possibilities, shall be done in the right way,-sanely, harmoniously, permanently. Statesmen must be trained for this work and it is a trust which any statesman ought to hold sacred. To build a new civilization! How splendid a task at which to spend one's working years! Alaska is America's opportunity.

So long as the United States owns Alaska (and may it be always!) she is wealthy. She bought fabulous riches in 1867 for two cents an acre! With a mere handful of adventurous spirits, with no railroads to speak of, Alaska has already shown what she can do. With good transportation, with thriving, teeming, hustling, heavily populated cities,-what will the future reveal? Read the answer in the history of the American people!

Time was when the Great West lured all men. Now it is the Great North! The West, that once fabled land of the bad man, the gold mine, the gun fighter and similar attractions, has vanished from our scheme. If there is now a spot in the West which has not passed into the hands of private management, rest assured that it is a spot where nothing but sage brush and jack rabbits will thrive! But the Great North is waiting! And calling! The last frontier! The only territory under the Stars and Stripes where the man without capital has yet a reasonable chance of reaping the reward of his labors. And the North is waiting and calling for you!

As I write the closing pages of this book I find that I myself am once more hearing-the Voice! Is it the same Voice which called me to the Northland some ten years ago? I think so. And never before have I heard it in tones so distinct, so insistent. I have been somewhat critical (justly so, I feel) of the indifference of the government toward the present and future needs of Alaska. But--. Only a few hours ago I donned the most comfortable suit of clothes I have ever worn, namely, the uniform of the good old U. S. A. I am for peace,-just so long as there is no legitimate reason for war. But Germany can not step on the tail of my Uncle Sam's coat with impunity!

Would that I were able to put into words a fitting tribute to the staunch friends among whom I have come and gone under almost every conceivable circumstance and condition! To form friendships such as these, cemented by events which can not occur elsewhere, is well worth living for. Whenever my mind reverts to this subject I recall a little stanza which expresses my thoughts far better than I can voice them myself. So, to my friends, the Alaskans, I can only say:

"I have eaten your bread and your salt;

I have drunk of your water and wine;

The deaths you have died I have watched beside,

And the lives that you lived were mine!"

Transcriber notes:

Some words were broken up due to line endings. As they only occur once in the book it's not absolutely clear if they should be hyphenated or not. This concerns the words:

snow-slides, playwright, omnipresent, half-politician, sourdough;

The following corrections have been made:

p. 129 noticable changed to noticeable

p. 169 betwen changed to between

p. 203 whiskey changed to whisky

p. 208 bagbage changed to baggage

p. 215 characteristice changed to characteristic

p. 228 added ' after You can't do nothin' fer me!

p. 228 added . after But----

Illustrations moved to paragraph breaks. Everything else has been retained as printed.

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