National Geographic Magazine/Volume 31/Number 1/A Game Country Without Rival in America

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A Game Country Without Rival in America[edit]

The Proposed Mount McKinley National Park

By Stephen R. Capps, of the U. S. Geological Survey


In the spring of 1916 a bill was presented to Congress to establish in Alaska the Mount McKinley National Park. This bill was passed by the Senate during the summer, and its final enactment into law now requires favorable action by the House and the President. Before this article is published the necessary legislation may have been completed and the dream of this new park have become a reality; but in any event every one of us who loves outdoor life should realize what a wonderful country—a country of impressive mountain scenery and big game—we have in that northern territory, and how seriously the wild life of that region is menaced.

Two parties from the U. S. Geological Survey were detailed to a part of the proposed park in 1916. We proceeded into interior Alaska by the usual route down Yukon River, and disembarked at the new town of Nenana, at which place construction on the new government railroad is in progress.

The 55-mile trip over a little-used trail up Nenana River was eventful enough. We had only a badly damaged and leaky boat to cross that swollen and turbulent stream, and for the better part of a day the horses refused to swim the icy torrent. Then, too, in the forested lowlands the mosquitos surrounded us in clouds. We could protect ourselves with gloves and head nets, but the horses were constantly covered with the insects, so that all of them—white, bay, and black—took on the dirty gray color of the mosquitos themselves.

We began our surveys at Nenana River, east of the park, and extended them westward over several thousand square miles.

We had spent only a short time in the field when we discovered that the park had been laid out in a most admirable way. It is true that there is fairly abundant big game and much country of great scenic beauty outside the boundaries, but we entered a game paradise and a land of unrivaled scenery when we crossed the park line. Singularly enough, too, when we were once within the high mountains of the park we left behind us most of the mosquitos, and for a month were almost free from the exasperating attacks of these annoying pests.

When, in the spring, we had first learned of the proposal to establish this park and had plotted its outline on the map, we wondered at its curious shape. Once we were on the ground, the reason for this shape became evident. The long dimension follows the general course of the Alaska Range from Mount Russell to Muldrow Glacier, the park including all the main range from its northwest face to and beyond the summit. East of Muldrow Glacier the range widens toward the north and consists of a number of parallel mountain ridges separated by broad, open basins.

The highest climb above snow-line in the world[edit]

There, at the headwaters of Toklat and Teklanika rivers, sheep and caribou range in greatest abundance, and the northern part of the park includes the best of the game country. The reëntrant angle in the park line north of Muldrow Glacier was so placed as to exclude the Kantishna mining district and the hunting ground from which the miners obtain their supply of meat. The total area of this great playground is about 2,200 square miles.

In scenic grandeur the stupendous mass of which Mount McKinley is the culminating peak has no rival. The snow-line here lies at about 7,000 feet, and above that elevation only a few sharp crags and seemingly perpendicular cliffs are free from the glistening white mantle. From the valley of McKinley Fork, which is at the north base of the mountain and lies at an elevation of only 1,500 feet, the bare rocks of the lower mountains extend upward for about 5,500 feet, and above them Mount McKinley rises in majestic whiteness to a height of 20,300 feet—the loftiest peak on the continent.

The upper 13,000 feet of the mountain is clad in glaciers and perpetual snows, thus offering to the mountaineer the highest climb above snow-line in the world. The rise of 18,000 feet from the lower end of Peters Glacier, north of the mountain, to the highest peak is made in a distance of only 13 miles. In no other mountain mass do we find so great a vertical ascent in so short a distance. The peaks of the Colorado Rockies, though wonderful, rise from a high plateau, so that at most points from which they can be seen they stand only 7,000 or, at most, 8,000 feet above the observer. Mount St. Elias, an 18,000-foot mountain, may be seen from sea-level, but the peak stands 35 miles from the coast, and so loses in height to the eye by the distance from which it must be viewed.

Similarly the high volcanic peaks of Mexico and South America and the world's loftiest mountains in the Himalayas rise from high plateaus, which diminish by their own elevation the visible magnitude and towering height of their culminating peaks.

The artist's color box is surpassed[edit]

Southwest of Mount McKinley, 15 miles away from it, stands Mount Foraker, only 3,300 feet lower and almost equally imposing. If it stood alone, Mount Foraker would be famous in its own right as a mighty peak, having few equals; but in the presence of its giant neighbor it is reduced to secondary rank.

These two dominating peaks, standing side by side and known to the interior natives as Denali and Denali's Wife, far outrank the flanking mountains to the northeast and southwest, among which, however, there are a score of other peaks that rise to heights between 7,000 and 14,000 feet, well above snow-line, and that are the gathering ground for many glaciers.

Of the glaciers that the tourist will visit in the park, the largest and most accessible is Muldrow Glacier. This ice-tongue, 39 miles long, flows from the summit of Mount McKinley and makes a great fish-hook curve to the northeast and north.

Not the least impressive feature of this part of the Alaska Range is the tremendous scale upon which the foundations of the earth are exposed to view. Especially in the valley heads, where vegetation is sparse or lacking, the high mountain ridges, cut by deep valleys, offer impressive sections for the study of the earth's structure.

Here great lava flows and volcanic intrusions, in vivid shades of red, purple, brown, and green, will tax the color box of the artist. Masses of sedimentary rocks, first deposited as flat-lying beds, but now standing vertical or twisted into giant folds, give a hint of the Titan forces that build a mountain range.

And near the eastern border of the park, at the Nenana coal field, the traveler can see how Nature, by her generous placing and preservation of coal within the rocks, makes possible the industrial prosperity of our nation by furnishing the fuel needed for its manufactures.

Our last chance[edit]

The Mount McKinley region now offers a last chance for the people of the United States to preserve, untouched by civilization, a great primeval park in its natural beauty. Historically this country is new. It was not until 1897 that W. A. Dickey, after having explored in the upper Susitna basin the previous summer, published a description of Mount McKinley, made his remarkably accurate estimate of 20,000 feet as the height of the mountain, and gave it the name it now bears. In 1898 the first actual survey in the neighborhood of the park was made near its east side by George H. Eldridge and Robert Muldrow, of the United States Geological Survey. In 1899 an army expedition, in charge of Capt. Joseph S. Herron, explored a part of the area near the southwestern boundary of the park.

In 1902 the first surveying party that actually reached the vicinity of Mount McKinley was conducted by Alfred H. Brooks and D. L. Raeburn, of the Geological Survey. This party entered the park at its southwest border and traversed it from end to end, bringing out the first authentic information in regard to an unexplored area of many thousand square miles and determining the position, height, and best route of approach to the base of Mount McKinley.

Inspired by the information furnished by the Brooks party, the first attempt to climb this great mountain was made in the summer of 1903 by James Wickersham, now delegate to Congress from Alaska and sponsor for the pending bill to create this great national park. Judge Wickersham's party succeeded in reaching an elevation of 10,000 feet, but a lack of proper equipment and sufficient provisions prevented them from climbing to the summit.

The highest peak remained unconquered until 1913, when, on March 17, Archdeacon Hudson Stuck, Harry Karstens, and two companions left the mouth of Nenana River, traveled by dog sled to the Kantishna district to pick up supplies landed there by boat in the fall of 1912, and proceeded to the basin of Clearwater Fork, at the north base of Mount McKinley. After preparing their own pemmican from wild meat obtained near camp, they began the actual ascent about the middle of April and reached the peak on June 7, 1913. Thus the mountain summit was scaled seventeen years after its first adequate description was published.

A big-game paradise[edit]

As a game refuge the new park includes an area that is unique on this continent, and few regions in the world can vie with it. Many parts of Alaska are famous for big game, and hunters have come half around the world to that territory to obtain trophies of their skill. It has been my good fortune to visit several of the choicest game ranges in Alaska, notably that east of Nenana River, adjacent to the Mount McKinley district, and the much praised White River country. Both of these regions are well stocked with game, but for abundant sheep, caribou, and moose over wide areas neither of them compares with the area within the limits of the new game preserve.

The mountains at the head of Toklat and Teklanika rivers literally swarm with the magnificent white bighorn sheep, which are elsewhere extremely wary and difficult to approach, but which in summer are here so little disturbed that they move off only when one comes to close range. A day's travel along one of these valleys will usually afford the casual traveler a view of many bands of sheep. The sheep range on the lower slopes of the mountains, especially in the upper reaches of the streams, near the glaciers at the valley heads, or even in the valley bottoms.

I have counted over 300 in a single day's journey of 10 miles along the river bars, and doubtless as many more were unobserved in the tributary valleys beyond my view. From a single point at my tent door one evening I counted nine bands of sheep, containing in all 171 animals.

The bighorn sheep prefers the slopes of high, rough mountains for its range, and may be found only in the mountains, within easy reach of rugged crags, to which it may retreat for safety from its enemies. Its range, therefore, lies between timber-line and the level of perpetual snow. It is difficult to make an accurate estimate of the number of sheep within the new park, but in the part that we visited there are easily 5,000 sheep, their range extending westward throughout the mountainous portion of the park.

Thousands of caribou everywhere[edit]

I remember well my first big day for caribou. The pack-train had gone ahead to pitch camp at a prearranged spot near the last spruce timber on the main Toklat, and I was examining the rocks a few miles east of the camping place. Herds of sheep were scattered along the ridges, some feeding on the tender grasses, some sleeping in the sun. I was far above timber-line and my view was unobstructed for miles in all directions. With my glass I had already counted half a dozen solitary caribou, all young bulls, grazing among the stunted willows of the stream flats.

Soon my attention was attracted by a sight unusual in this district—a frightened caribou bull, which was running from the direction in which my pack-train had gone. Soon two yearlings came rushing from the same quarter; then a cow and a young calf in full flight, the cow with tongue out and sides heaving and the calf following closely, but in no apparent distress. Then more came, singly or in twos and threes. Soon a lone calf, lost from its mother, passed close to me, uttering plaintive grunts. As I approached the main river valley from which the frightened animals came, I met the main herd, twenty-five or more, walking slowly up a narrow gulch a hundred yards from me, and apparently unworried by the presence of strangers on their range.

During the next few days I saw more caribou than I dreamed existed in any one locality, including a herd of 200 which was viewed at close range on the Toklat bars. In the pass between Toklat and Stony rivers the two pack-trains and eight men stood in the midst of a vast herd, scattered for miles in all directions.

Caribou avoid the mosquito plains[edit]

We counted with the naked eye over a thousand within half a mile of us, and hundreds of others could be seen too far away for accurate count. In order not to exaggerate, even to ourselves, we estimated the number in sight at one time as 1,500, and I believe that this is an understatement of the number actually there. Most of them were cows and calves or yearlings, but there were a few old bulls, conspicuous for their towering horns. During the following week we constantly saw herds of caribou, some of them numbering hundreds.

Most of these herds were on the bare gravel bars, where the strong winds afford some relief from the attacks by flies and mosquitos. Other herds were high on rugged mountain ridges, and several large droves were observed far up on the glaciers well toward snow-line, seeking a little respite from insect pests.

In other parts of Alaska caribou at times appear in huge droves as they migrate from place to place, but they stay only a short time in any one locality. In the Toklat basin and in the vicinity of Muldrow Glacier, however, the caribou are at home, and they remain there throughout the summer to rear their young.

Differences in animal behavior[edit]

There is abundant indication that this is a permanent range. Deeply worn trails form a veritable labyrinth along the stream flats, and bedding grounds, old and new, occur everywhere. The miners from the Kantishna report that caribou may always be seen in great numbers on this range.

There is a striking difference between the actions of caribou and those of the bighorn sheep when surprised by man. A sheep, once aroused, knows exactly where he wants to go, and usually starts, without a moment's hesitation, on the shortest route to some rugged mountain mass. He may stop to look around and appraise the danger, but he is sure to follow the route he first chose.

By contrast, the caribou appears a foolish animal; he seems at a loss to decide whether it is necessary to run away at all. Then, when convinced that danger threatens, he has difficulty in making up his mind which way to run. He has sharp eyes for any moving object, but evidently refuses to trust his sight until his nose confirms his sense of danger.

I have many times seen a caribou, after he has discovered me at a distance of no more than 100 yards, stand and look, snort, lower his head half a dozen times, then run wildly off for a short distance, turn back toward me, repeat the same maneuvers, and make several false, zigzag sprints, all within easy gunshot, before he finally ran to leeward, got the man scent, and started off for good in great panic. In this region, with proper caution and a favoring wind, one can approach within 200 yards or less of a band of caribou, even in the open, before they take alarm and move away.

Moose are wary animals[edit]

Moose are very plentiful in certain parts of the new park, but are not so commonly seen as sheep and caribou. As their food supply consists of willow and birch twigs and leaves and the succulent roots of water plants, they stay much of the time in timbered and brushy areas, where they are inconspicuous. By nature, too, the moose is a wary animal and permits much less familiarity than the caribou.

The best moose country in this region lies in the lowlands north of the main Alaska Range, outside of the boundaries of the proposed park; but some moose were seen within the park lines, and doubtless more of them will take refuge in this game preserve when they are more vigorously hunted in the neighboring regions. It is said that there is an excellent moose range within the park, in the area southwest of that which we visited.

There are some black, brown, and grizzly bears in this district, but the bear hunter has a much better chance of obtaining a hide in other parts of Alaska than he has here. All told, only eight bears were seen by the members of the two survey parties during the last summer, and bear sign was so little noted in this region that it cannot be considered an especially good bear country.

The park contains good trapping grounds for the fur hunter, and a number of trappers spend part of each winter there. Foxes are plentiful, and an unusually large proportion of the pelts taken are of silver gray or black fox. One trapper told me than in Toklat basin the winter's catch for a number of years has yielded one silver gray fox skin for every eight foxes caught, and of the remaining seven, several are likely to be good cross-fox. We saw a good many foxes and found two dens around which young ones were playing. Lynx are also plentiful, and numerous mink, marten, and ermine have been taken.

Many and busy beavers[edit]

Beaver were seen in the park, but are exceptionally abundant in the marshy lowlands north of it. On our trip down Bearpaw River, in the fall, while we were on our way to Tanana, we saw everywhere along the banks signs of beaver. Freshly cut cottonwood and willow trees lie along the shores, and the trails used by the beaver to bring sections of trees down the banks were seen at short intervals.

Night after night we would hear the sharp splash of the swimming animals as they whacked their tails upon the surface of the stream. Beaver are protected by law until 1920, and under this protection have greatly increased in numbers. In the lowlands they have so much obstructed all the smaller streams with their dams that foot travel overland is impossible until ice forms.

In order to give the reader an idea of the abundance and variety of game to be seen by the traveler in the Mount McKinley Park, I am showing above a photograph of a page taken from my diary, in which I each day made record of the big-game animals I saw. In making my count I was perhaps overmoderate, for if in a trip up a valley I saw 90 sheep, and on my return by the same route I saw the same number, I added nothing to my count, presuming that the sheep last seen were the same as those counted earlier in the day. Thus while traveling among herds of animals that were in constant movement from one feeding ground to another I may have failed to make record of many new herds that came into sight, because I was not sure they were new herds. The same practice was followed in counting caribou.

Gameless days are rare[edit]

An examination of that diary or record, which was made from day to day in the field, shows how wisely the park lines were established so as to include the best game ranges. Until July 8 we were outside the park, and although we were in a good game country, we saw comparatively few animals on any one day, and on some days none. Our crossing of the park line was coincident with a remarkable increase in the number of animals seen, and afterward there was a steady succession of days in which game was sighted.

The decrease in numbers on July 26, 27, and 28 was due not to a paucity of game in that part of the park, but to a violent rain-storm that kept us in camp. Even then we had only one gameless day, for our record was kept almost unbroken by caribou that passed close to our tents on two of the three bad days.

I have tried to make plain the fact that the area within the proposed national park is a game country without rival in America. That is certainly true today, but unless this game refuge is immediately reserved a few years may see these great herds destroyed beyond hope of re-establishment. Even today the encroachments of the market hunter are serious. True, there are game laws in Alaska, but they are by no means everywhere strictly enforced, and many sled-loads of wild meat are carried into the towns during the winter. The town of Fairbanks, about 100 miles away from the new park, and the largest settlement in the interior, is the destination of most of the wild meat killed on the north side of the Alaska Range. The mountains just south of Fairbanks and east of Nenana River offered a convenient field for the market hunter, and for years large numbers of mountain sheep were killed there for the Fairbanks market.

The pot-hunters' destructive toll[edit]

Within the last few years, however, the sheep herds in the nearer mountains have become so depleted that the hunter has been forced to go constantly farther from this market, and now finds the most satisfactory hunting ground within the limits of the proposed reserve.

I talked with several men who take sheep meat to Fairbanks for sale, and one of them estimated that each winter for the last three years from 1,500 to 2,000 sheep have been taken from the basin of Toklat and Teklanika rivers. Only a part of these reaches Fairbanks, for the sled dogs must be fed during the hunt and on the trail, and some hunters leave behind all but the choicest hind quarters.

It can be readily seen that slaughter on such a scale can last only a short time, until the game here, too, has been nearly exterminated. The sheep, being of choicest flavor, are taken first, but the moose and caribou will not escape after the sheep become harder to get.

The absence of a supply of wild meat in Fairbanks and other interior towns will not work no hardship on the residents, for there is already a well-established trade in refrigerated domestic meat, and the dealers will readily supply all the fresh meat for which there is a demand, and at a cost little, if any, above that charged by the market hunters for game.

A big-game paradise 15 miles from a railroad[edit]

Such are the conditions today, even in a region so difficult of access. How much more rapidly will the game disappear when the railroad is completed to a point within 15 miles of this game paradise! The establishment of a town at Nenana, where the railroad crosses Tanana River, has even now brought a market for game some 50 miles nearer the sheep hills of the Toklat.

Already homesteds have been taken up along the railroad, and in a few years this untouched wilderness will hear the sound of the mower and the clatter of railroad trains. If the park is established now, the game can be saved and will remain for other generations to enjoy. If action is postponed a few years, the market hunter and sportsman will have done their work and the game will have gone forever.

Most of the larger streams of the park, heading as they do in glaciers, are so muddy that fish will not live in them. All of the smaller tributary creeks that carry clear water, however, are stocked with grayling and furnish excellent fishing. The grayling, a relative of the trout, is a game fish, rises well to the fly, and affords excellent sport. In texture and flavor it compares well with the trout and is a welcome addition to the menu of the camper. As will be seen from the photographs, the new park lies almost entirely above timber-line. Trees grow along the valleys of the main streams to an elevation of about 3,000 feet above sea-level, but the timbered areas comprise only a small fraction of the whole. The only trees of importance are the spruce, birch, and cottonwood, and none of these are large. The best patches of trees afford logs big enough for making log cabins, but there is no merchantable timber in the park. Willow brush and some alders grow somewhat farther up the valleys than the trees and enable the camper to find fuel for his fire in some areas where trees are lacking.

The park is easily accessible[edit]

On the completion of the new government railroad, now under construction, the park will immediately become accessible. The railroad line runs within 15 miles of the east park line. On leaving Seattle one can then plan to reach Seward or Anchorage within a week, spend a single day on the railroad to the park station, and in another day or two, by saddle-horse, penetrate well into the park and into the midst of its game herds.

With a completed wagon road built from the railway, it should be an easy half day's journey of 80 miles by automobile from the railroad to the center of the park, the whole route traversing mountains of wonderful scenic beauty and teeming with big game.

At the western terminus of the wagon road there will some day be a hotel for the accommodation of tourists and mountain climbers. There, below the terminus of Muldrow Glacier, in constant view of the mighty snow-clad monarchs to the south, one will be able to find complete rest in the grandest of natural surroundings, or will have close at hand tasks of mountain-climbing that will tax the resources of the sturdiest. Few regions offer the inducements to the mountaineer that can be found here.

The highest point of Mount McKinley, the lord of the range, has been scaled but once, and only one route on that vast icedome has been explored. Mount Foraker, only less majestic than McKinley and 17,000 feet in elevation, is still unconquered, and associated with Foraker and McKinley there are many peaks that rise from 4,000 to 8,000 feet above the line of perpetual snow (see pictures, page 70).

All this great group of noble mountains, until now so remote as to be impossible of attack except by elaborately prepared expeditions, will be easily accessible to even the modestly equipped explorer. The main highway of travel through the park will pass within 20 or 30 miles of the highest mountains. Thus that bugbear of the climber in so many regions—the task of getting within striking distance of his chosen peak—is here a matter of no great difficulty.

So much for the park itself—its marvelous advantages as a national reserve, its unequaled scenic beauty, and its abundance of big game. I have tried to tell something of what is there for the people of the United States, to be had merely for the taking. The question may be asked, “How necessary is it that this park should be reserved immediately, rather than at some indefinite date in the future? Is there any danger that the park will not keep, even if not reserved?”

The answer is plain and admits of no argument. The scenery will keep indefinitely, but the game will not, and it must be protected soon or it will have been destroyed.

Will it pay?[edit]

Considered as a purely business measure, without taking account of the esthetic value of such a permanent national reserve in its influence on the development of the American people, the Mount McKinley National Park will be a tremendous financial asset to the territory of Alaska and to the United States as a whole.

Prodigal as nature has been in endowing us with unrivaled scenery, we have until recent years been blind to the money value of this resource. Other nations not so blessed with fertile soils, vast forests, and mines of almost fabulous value have widely advertised their natural beauties in a way to attract the tourist, so that for years American travelers have spent abroad milions of dollars that might have yielded them no less pleasure if they had spent it in seeing America first. The good roads, well-equipped hotels, and beautiful mountains of the Swiss and Italian Alps attract the traveler like a magnet. Even our nearer neighbor on the north, by judicious advertising and careful attention to the comfort of the traveler, attracts great numbers of our people to her western mountains.

If the United States wishes to share in the profits of the tourist business it may readily do so, for any well-chosen expenditure made in building good roads and hotels in our national parks will return large dividends not only in dollars and cents, but in the health, enjoyment, and education of our people. And the traveling public will soon learn that one of the grandest of our parks, one of those most worth visiting, is that which, let us hope, is soon to be established in the Mount McKinley region.

Source: Stephen R. Capps (January 1917), “A Game Country Without Rival in America”, The National Geographic Magazine 31(1): 69–84.