Popular Science Monthly/Volume 33/July 1888/Arctic Alaska

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ARCTIC ALASKA.
By W. L. HOWARD,

ENSIGN, UNITED STATES NAVY,

IN 1883 Congress appropriated money to buy presents for the purpose of rewarding the natives of St. Lawrence Bay, northeastern Siberia. These people had been very kind to the officers and men of the United States relief-ship Rodgers, burned in that bay November, 1881, while in search of the ill-fated Jeannette, having fed and partly clothed them through a severe arctic winter. Lieutenant George M. Stoney, United States Navy, one of the officers of the Rodgers, was detailed to make the presents, and in May, 1883, took passage in the revenue-cutter Corwin with the gifts on board. The following July they were distributed from that vessel. Continuing on her cruise, the Corwin arrived in Kotzebue Sound, northwestern Alaska. Hearing through the Indians of a great stream emptying into Hotham Inlet, Lieutenant Stoney spent two weeks in searching for this river, and ascended it far enough to ascertain that it was a stream of considerable magnitude. Upon his return, he reported his discovery to the Secretary of the Navy, and requested leave to continue its exploration. The following spring a small party, with Lieutenant Stoney in command, was sent to survey this river. They succeeded in ascending about four hundred miles, when they were obliged to return, owing to the shortness of the season.

In the spring of 1885, a fully organized and equipped expedition left San Francisco, for the purpose of completing the survey of this river and exploring northern Alaska. The party was composed of Lieutenant George M. Stoney, in command; Ensigns J. L. Purcell, M. L. Read, W. L. Howard; Past Assistant Engineer A. V. Zane; Past Assistant Surgeon F. S. Nash, and ten picked men. A vessel was chartered to land the party, with provisions for two years, at Hotham Inlet. The expedition sailed May 3d, and reached the inlet July 12th, where everything was safely landed, and the vessel returned. A small stern-wheel steamer had been built in San Francisco, and carried on the schooner's deck, together with a powerful steam-launch. These were to be used in transporting the party and outfit up the river. Half of the provisions were cached or buried at the landing-point. Only a winter's supply was carried up the river.

The boats were loaded and started up the river, leaving half of the party at the landing-point. At night the boats were secured to the river's bank, and wood was cut for the next day's run. After ascending one hundred miles, the advance party encamped and the boats returned, bringing up more stores and the remainder of the party. In this way the river was ascended three hundred miles, when the winter-quarters were established. A large log house was built, and around it the dirt was piled to the eaves. Inside, the house was partitioned off, lined with painted canvas, and the floors covered with bear-skins. The steamer's smoke-pipe was used for a chimney. With three wood-burning stoves, there was never any difficulty in keeping the house warm, even at the lowest temperature, 70° below zero (Fahr.).

During all this time we were materially assisted by the natives, a number of whom followed up the river and built their winter huts near. They appeared very friendly and pleased with us. During the month of September a trip was made to the neighboring mountains. The party, consisting of two white men and three Indians, left in a large skin-boat, taking five dogs and provisions for ten days. The dogs were for the purpose of tracking, the Indian method of traveling in summer, and the only way the river can be ascended, on account of its rapid current. In tracking, the dogs are made to pull the boat by means of a long line, one end of which is secured to the boat and the other to the dogs' harness. The dogs trot along the bank, the boat being kept in the stream by a paddle astern. When the bank becomes impassable, they are taken into the boat and paddled to the other shore. After tracking two days, my companion and myself secured two natives as guides, and, leaving the river, set off for the mountains. At the end of the first day's tramp we sighted a black bear feeding upon berries about a mile distant. We were both so exhausted from our tiresome walk across the tundra, that we concluded to send one of the guides after the bear.

The Indian first seated himself and examined his rifle, selecting three cartridges and placing them in the gun. He then pulled a few hairs from his clothing, which he threw into the air to ascertain the direction of the wind, and then started so as to come up to leeward of the bear. We kept careful watch through a glass, and saw him on hands and knees work slowly toward the animal. When within one hundred and fifty yards, he fired two shots. The bear jumped and fell almost in his tracks.

There are probably no more superstitious people in the world than the northern Alaska Indians. Every action of their daily life is governed by some belief handed down from father to son, or originated by the shaman, the Indian doctor, who holds great sway over them. The ceremonies attending the killing of the bear will illustrate. Bruin was first placed upon his back, with the head toward the mountains. The head was then skinned, severed from the body, and taken by one of the natives who, placing himself astride of the dead animal, raised and lowered the head three times, touching the bear just over the heart each time, and muttering some incantation. The third time he threw it from him, uttering a loud shout, in which the other natives joined. This was done to drive the bear's spirit to the mountains, so that it would cause them no future trouble. A part of the dead animal had to be left on the spot where he was killed, or the hunters would get no deer that season. A camp was made at the place, and after the head had been roasted and picked clean it was placed in the top of a high tree, but for what purpose they would not tell. The skin was stretched flat upon the tundra—fur-side down. The portion of the bear not consumed was placed in a tree and a rude scarecrow made to keep away birds. The following winter the skin and meat were sledged for and found in good condition.

While tracking along the river, numbers of dead salmon were noticed. A great many were also seen swimming sluggishly upon the surface of the water, with their dorsal fins well out, and apparently little life left. Their fins and tails all presented a stringy appearance, and were sloughing off. The natives say that these fish ascend the river but never go down; they go to the headwaters, spawn, and swim ashore to die. In our own experience, the salmon were constantly ascending the river; the later the season, the higher up they were found, and none were known to pass down. In the spring the young salmon go down and out to sea.

The valley of the Coobuck or Putnam River is about thirty miles in width. For half a mile on either bank is a heavy growth of spruce, cottonwood, and birch trees. Between this and the mountains is rolling tundra-land. The first forty-five miles of the river from the coast is the delta, with numerous lakes and marshes of various sizes, all connected by small streams, running in every direction, and communicating with numerous arms leading to the main stream. Most of the channels are too intricate to be followed. There are thirteen mouths to the river; the smallest and shoalest empties into Selewik Lake; all the others empty into Hotham Inlet. The main and most easily navigated entrance lies about one mile west of Selewik Lake. It is about fifty yards wide with twelve feet of water on the bar. Seven miles from this entrance it is eleven hundred yards wide and thirty feet deep; forty miles beyond it leads into the river proper.

The general direction of the river is westward. Its width varies from fifty to twelve hundred yards, according to the nature of the country. It is extremely tortuous, and at no place can be seen a straight course of two miles. Traces in the valley show that it has often changed its course. The current varies from three to five miles, according to the width and height of the river. Near the head-waters are rapids. The banks in places rise so gradually as to be barely noticeable, while in other places are foot-hills one hundred and fifty feet high. The river is filled with islands and has numerous tributaries.

The river freezes in October and opens in June. During the month of February the maximum thickness of ice made in twenty-four hours was four inches; the minimum, one half inch; and for the month, six feet. There is a hot spring near the river's bank about four hundred miles from its mouth. This was visited in midwinter, and its temperature found to be 100° above zero, the temperature of the surrounding atmosphere being 50° below zero. The natives state that it is so hot at times that meat can be cooked in it.

Winter is the only season in which one can travel in the interior of northern Alaska. The marshy tundra is then frozen and covered with snow, making it possible to cross. The natives kill their game and do their hunting and trapping during this season. In the summer they descend the rivers to the coast for the purpose of meeting the whalers and traders, and bartering the furs caught during the winter. The principal furs of the interior are the black and silver-gray fox-skins, black and brown bear, wolf, lynx, beaver, otter, and numerous smaller skins, as marten, ermine, etc. For these skins the Indians receive in exchange powder and lead, tobacco, cotton drilling, and various small articles. Rifles are highly prized, and, although they are contraband, nearly every Indian possesses one. Deer are caught in great numbers, but their skins are valuable only among the natives for clothing.

A deer-hunt which we witnessed was so different from our previous conceptions that I think it worthy a description. Upon this occasion, while sledging with a party of Indians, a herd of deer was sighted. The natives took their rifles and started, some going in one direction and some in another, but all keeping to leeward of the deer. Those who went directly toward the herd waited until the others had got partly around before starting. The first shot was the signal, whereupon all hands rushed toward the frightened animals, who separated and plunged blindly in every direction. The Indians shouted, making all the noise possible, the fleeing animals in their fear mistaking Indians for deer, and rushing on until a shot showed them their error, when they would turn and flee as blindly as before. Even after the first fright they circled around the danger, trying to get together, and in this way many more were killed. As much meat as could be carried was loaded upon the sleds, while the remainder was cached in the snow, to be sledged for at some future time.

The Indians spend their winters in the mountains. They are generally found in villages consisting of from two to a dozen houses. The winter house of these people consists of a hemispherically shaped hut, made by bending willow saplings or cutting spruce to the desired shape. The framework is covered with brush, and over this dried moss and turf to the depth of a foot or more. There is an ice-window on either side of the entrance. In the roof is a hole just over the fireplace for the smoke. Inside, the center of the hut is used as the fireplace, the fire being made the same as in the open air. At the back of the hut is a meat-stand, upon which several hundred pounds of deer-meat are kept, so that a quantity will be on hand sufficiently thawed for use. Upon entering a hut when traveling, some of this partially thawed meat is always offered to the new-comer. The floor of the hut is covered with brush, upon which they sit during the day, and spread skins to sleep upon at night. Meat is cooked but once a day. About 5 p. m. a large fire is started and the pots are put on. These are the ordinary kettles of civilization which they get in trade, or, in their absence, pots made of native clay are used The cooking is done by the women, who taste the meat from the moment it is put on the fire until looked. The remainder of the fire is then thrown out through the hole in the roof by the young men, and, as soon as the hut is clear of smoke, the flap that covers the chimney-hole is hauled over for the night. The hunters return usually about this time of the day, and upon entering the hut take off most of their clothes. After eating pounds of the deer-meat, alternating the cooked with raw meat, and drinking quantities of the soup, they smoke a pipe, and all hands go to sleep. All the household are fond of stripping and baking themselves before the fire, particularly the old people, who go so close as to almost blister themselves. They say the heat makes them young, and drives away their pains.

The deer are not usually hunted as in the manner just described, but are killed in the following fashion: For miles before arriving at a village, long rows of stakes were noticed stuck in the snow. They consisted of bushes about six feet high, and were placed about fifty feet apart. Against the white background they give the appearance of a man. Two lines of these bushes are made, their outer extremities a mile apart. The lines gradually converge, so as to form a lane. At the end of this lane is a corral, built of brush and wood, through which a deer can not penetrate. The brush is hung with nooses to catch the animals should they attempt to pierce the confines. A herd of deer being sighted, they are driven by the natives toward the entrance of this trap. The deer flee from one side of the lane to the other, mistaking the bushes for men, and finally enter the corral, where they are killed with bow and arrow. Hundreds are killed every season in these traps.

The first of December, as there was then plenty of snow on the ground, the sledging-trips commenced. I had looked forward to them, anticipating a great deal of pleasure. My idea of sledging was based upon a half-forgotten picture in an old school atlas, representing a man dressed in furs comfortably seated upon a sled, brandishing a long whip over six dogs in front, all on a trot.

The first thing to be considered upon preparing for a sledging trip is the question of provisions—for both party and dogs—cooking-utensils, clothing, tent, and numerous smaller articles, until the prospect of comfortably tucking one's self in a robe on the sled looks very much like riding upon the hump of a camel. At least two persons are necessary in the management of a sled: one to run ahead for the dogs to follow, and the other to remain with and guide the vehicle. The dogs will follow a beaten path, but in crossing the trackless country it is always necessary to have a runner ahead. The sleds were loaded so heavily that all thought of riding was given up, and in less than a mile from the starting-point all hands were upon snow-shoes. These shoes are from three to five feet in length, bowed and curved upward at the toes, and tapering to a point behind. In the center are thongs upon which the foot rests. They are secured to the feet by two thongs crossing just forward of the instep, passing around the heel, and attached to the shoe near the toes. This gives the foot full play, and enables one to rise upon the ball of the foot, as in walking, and shove the shoe forward over the snow instead of lifting it. It is very easy to walk a short distance, but, when running after a sled over the uneven country, the tendency of the shoes to rise is equal to that of a pair of roller-skates upon the feet of a novice.

The first sledging-trip was to the northward. At 4 p. m., after a hard day's march, a camp was established, it being then too dark to travel. The dogs are first unharnessed, and chained separately to bushes, to prevent fighting. After an hour's rest they are fed upon dried fish, this being the only meal they receive in twenty-four hours. They are given all they can eat unless the supply is short, and in such cases their endurance is wonderful, a small piece of fish once a day sufficing a dog and enabling him to work for a couple of weeks. A great many interesting facts could be given illustrating the sagacity and endurance of these animals. As a rule, they have no affection. They recognize the person who feeds them as their master, but they obey only through fear. They are more than half wolf, as all young wolves caught are raised and used as dogs. In every team there is generally one dog who constitutes himself master. He is naturally one of the most powerful of the number, and the others seem to recognize his supremacy. This dog, upon seeing any one of the others habitually shirking while the rest are pulling, will attempt to reach and punish him, and if it is impossible to do so while in harness, will deliberately go to him when the day's sledging is finished and administer the deserved chastisement.

In establishing a night-camp when in a wooded country, the most sheltered spot is selected and a pit is dug in the snow about fifteen feet in diameter and a foot deep. The bottom is then stamped down to make a hard floor. Around this pit is built a wall about four feet high, by laying young spruce-trees on top of one another and cutting off their inside branches. This wall has two openings or breaks diametrically opposed, dividing the pit into halves with a through passage-way separating them. Along this way, which must always face the wind, dried wood is piled and fired. On either side pine-boughs are laid on the snow, and on top of them the sleeping-bags. Such night-camps are easily made, and the coldest nights can be comfortably passed in them. The only drawback is the difficulty in getting wood.

After a nine days' trip the village of Nimyuk, the highest settlement on the "No Talk" or Inland River, was reached. This village consisted of four huts, containing thirty inhabitants. They subsist almost exclusively upon deer-meat, of which they had at least two thousand pounds on hand. The day of our arrival thirteen deer were killed, and in some of the caches were as many as thirty. We were greatly annoyed by the curiosity of these people, some of whom had never seen white men before, and by their superstitions. As it was their dancing season, no meat could be cut with an axe, and we were compelled to saw up a frozen deer—a difficult task. Neither could any meat be cooked in the house nor tea drawn. The work had to be done outside, and the things passed through the chimney-hole. These fancies are persisted in, in the belief that to do otherwise would drive the deer from the mountains. In some instances their superstitions can be overcome by the payment of a bribe.

On the 12th of April the writer of this article started on a trip across the country, the object being to reach the arctic coast if possible, and thus penetrate a portion of the Territory never crossed before. Previous to this I had made two trips one hundred miles to the northward, and cached dog-food for use on the final journey. I took with me at starting one white man, two Indians, fifteen dogs, and two sleds, and all the provisions the sleds could carry. The snow had commenced melting at midday, but at midnight the temperature fell as low as 25° below zero. A week's travel brought me to the village whose inhabitants make the trip to the arctic coast. As I intended journeying with these natives, one sled and the two Indians were sent back to the winter station. Many attempts were made during the winter to induce these people to cross this northern region, but they could not be tempted, saying it was impossible on account of the cold and scarcity of food. Northern Alaska can only be crossed at two seasons of the year: in the spring just before the rivers break up, and in the fall just as they close. The deer leave the mountains at these seasons and cross, thus settling the question of food. A few of the most interesting facts observed upon this trip are briefly related, as follows:

On May 1st twenty sleds left the village in the mountains on their annual visit to the coast. This caravan, stretching out over half a mile of country presented a peculiar spectacle, men, women, children, and dogs all pulling at sleds. When an Indian travels he carries all his possessions with him. Everybody was upon snowshoes, and numerous stops had to be made to allow the old people to catch up. During this trip an addition was made to the party in the person of a baby boy born on the march. One noon, while the caravan halted, some Indians hollowed a shelter out of a snow-drift, and put in a couple of deer-skins. The sleds then started on, leaving the prospective mother behind alone. That evening the mother and child came into camp, the woman having given birth to the child and walked several miles. While traveling the next day the woman had hard work keeping up, and, upon passing her as she rested in the snow, I offered her a seat upon my sled, but the others would not allow her to ride. Also, in cooking, she was compelled to make her own fire and cook alone, for she could not drink from the same cup as the others; and there were numerous other absurdities. According to their superstitions, the non-observance of these customs would result in misfortune to the child.

After a week's hard sledging the head-waters of the Kunyanook or Colville River were reached. Here all hands encamped near the site of an old village, and preparations were made for spending several days. Part of the caravan were to remain at this place until the river broke up, and then make the remainder of the distance in boats. This point was the highest on the river that the natives could reach in boats. They ascend here in the fall and wait for the snow to come to enable them to sledge to the mountains. The boats are stripped, the skins which form their covering being buried until the next season, and the frames placed high up on racks to prevent wild animals from reaching them and eating the lashings. In the spring they sledge from the mountains to the boats, where they wait for the river to break up and thence descend to the coast. This practice is general with all the interior natives.

After resting three days at this village the journey was resumed, only six sleds going on. The Indians told of another river farther to the westward, and I concluded to accompany them to find this new river. After sledging upon the Colville six days, that river was left, and a range of hills about five hundred feet high crossed, bringing us to the Ik-pik-puk, the Indian name of the new river. These hills form the northern limit of the mountains of Alaska. On one side is the Colville, which here makes a sudden bend to the eastward; on the other the Ik-pik-puk finds its head-waters. Proceeding farther north, the country gradually becomes more and more level, until, for the last fifty miles from the arctic coast, it is perfectly flat, with no elevation, and is so full of lakes, marshes, and rivers that it is impossible to walk any distance in a given direction. In crossing this section we could gather no fuel of any kind, and our food had to be eaten uncooked; but this fact did not trouble the natives. The greater part of the time we had no food, and our diet consisted mainly of a succulent root growing in the marshes, which the natives gather in quantities, depending upon it when other resources fail.

A camp was made at the head-waters of the Ik-pik-puk, and runners were sent ahead to the village below to announce our arrival—this being the usual custom. Early the next morning dogs came to help our worn-out animals, and at noon we reached the village, where one hundred and fifty Indians were encamped waiting for the river to break up. We had evidently been expected—a place having been reserved for us—and while the new-comers rested, the women unharnessed and fed the dogs, pitched our tents, and prepared food. In the center of the village was a great dance house, where the men gathered to work during the day, and dance at night. They are very fond of this amusement, sometimes continuing it the night through. Some of the dances are pretty, the motions being graceful, but they soon become monotonous. The music is produced by from four to ten "tom-toms," upon which they beat time, while shouting at the top of their voices a rude monotone. Men, women, and children all dance—often continuing until they drop from exhaustion. The first things taught children are to dance, shoot the bow and arrow, and to smoke. It is a common occurrence to see a mother take the child from her breast and give it her pipe.

At this time—the last of May—we had quantities of berries. They had ripened during the last season; the snow had preserved them through the winter, and was now melting sufficiently to expose the bushes. While waiting for the river to break up, the men busied themselves in repairing the old and making new boat frames. Their boats are of two kinds: the kayak or one-man boat, and the oomiak, a large boat capable of carrying a ton. The frames for these boats are whittled entirely by hand. After they are thus made and fitted, they are securely lashed with whalebone strips, and are then ready for their covers. The oomiaks are covered with seal or walrus skins, five to seven of which form a cover. The kayaks are covered with deer-skin, the skins being first soaked and scraped. These covers, which had been cached all winter, were now taken out and buried beneath the melting snow, to render them soft and pliable.

The women were busy currying deer-skins for clothing, and making twine for fish-nets. The native tanning consists of scraping the dried skin thoroughly with an instrument made by putting a piece of flint-rock in a wooden handle, so curved as to fit the hand perfectly. The stone is chipped at one end, so as to make a rough, sharp edge. After scraping, it is rubbed with a soft stone resembling pumice, which whitens and softens it. The finished skin looks and feels like chamois. The twine with which they sew is made from the sinews of the deer, which are dried and torn in shreds, and these are twisted together, making a very strong cord. This is used for making nets also, any required strength being given by using larger shreds. The only disadvantage in using it is, that the nets and lines must be taken from the water and dried frequently to prevent rotting. A stout line is made by cutting a deer-skin in one continuous strip, about one quarter-inch wide. The stoutest line—used in tracking—is made in the same way from walrus-hide.

The river broke up June 3d, and on the 8th five oomiaks left the village. After an interval of two days, five more left, and so on, the country not furnishing enough food for all to go in a body. June 27th the arctic coast was reached. The river proved to be about two hundred and fifty miles in length, and enters the Arctic Ocean about forty miles to the eastward of Point Barrow. While floating this distance, I procured two mammoth-tusks, weighing about one hundred and fifty pounds each, and twelve feet in length. Every spring the river rises and washes away the icy earth forming its banks, thus exposing fresh surface. These tusks are found firmly imbedded in the ice. Three of them were exposed that season.

I was detained on the arctic coast from June 27th to July 16th, waiting for the ice to break up sufficiently to enable us to make our way inside of the heavy ice to Point Barrow. The northern shore of Alaska is extremely shallow and sandy, great sand-spits being shoved up by the ice all along the coast. The beach is covered with drift-wood, which comes from the rivers emptying into Behring Sea. In conclusion, the Indians of Alaska have been reported as savage and treacherous. In my experience, I found the natives of interior northern Alaska the most kind and hospitable people in the world.