Alaska Travel: Rye Whiskey

 “England, France, and Spain, like dogs, jumped out of a sound sleep, pointed to the north and growled,” the author Hector Chevigny stated in his book Lord of Alaska: The Story of Baranov and the Russian Adventure.

Alaska photo

 

The reasons for the Age of Discovery were multifaceted; however, of two specific goals there can be little doubt. The first goal was to bring salvation to the aboriginal people through the introduction of Christianity. The second was to plunder the riches of all vulnerable and unclaimed land throughout the world. As the Portuguese, British, French, Spanish, and Dutch plied the earth’s waters, they jealously anticipated riches and were not disappointed. According to Chevigny, as the Europeans began to harvest the rewards of their adventures, they became complacent. Russia’s occupation of Alaska awakened them once more. However, it was already too late to usurp Russia’s control of Alaska’s settlements. The Europeans were forced to look elsewhere.

Russian Alaska

Historically, when aboriginal people have been conquered by those who possess more advanced weaponry, atrocities occur. The Age of Discovery has also been labeled the Age of Exploitation by some. One only need look at the history of Russian Alaska to realize the plight of the native tribes following the occupation of their ancestral lands. In the Aleutian Island chain the exploitation of the Tlingit was the foundation on which the fur trade built its success. Although it is believed that many Russian fur traders treated the native people with dignity and respect, others did not. Officially the tribes were to be treated well; however,  “God was high in his heaven and the Tsar was far away,” Chevigny quoted an old Russian proverb as saying. Traders who were determined to meet quotas often held the females and children of a tribe captive with the promise to release them to their husbands and fathers only after the designated number of pelts had been  delivered.

Alaska’s Klondike Gold Rush

After the purchase of Alaska in 1867, the world began to understand that it had underestimated this beautiful land. Initially, the change occurred gradually with a few hearty miners trickling in from all over the world. Then around the year 1880, a massive movement of humanity began. The reason for this change was gold, rich thick veins of nuggets that eventually resulted in individual claims that were the richest in the history of the world. Juneau played a prominent role in this process.

Many of those who stampeded to the gold fields were from the United States, hoping to escape the thirty years of depression that had gripped the nation. Washington congressman Frank Cushman explained that a large number of those who boarded Alaska-bound ships were poverty stricken men who had previously searched for gold in the California rush and been unsuccessful. “Reduced to digging clams on Puget Sound to keep alive, their stomachs rose and fell with the tides,” Cushman wrote in his memoirs.

Then, in  1880, Juneau, Alaska abruptly stirred, awakened from a deep primitive slumber. The bald eagle that soared over Gastineau Channel in Southeastern Alaska, would not have noticed those stirrings, for the Sitka spruce that blanketed Mount Juneau and her sister peaks disguised the awakening. To the eagle, it seemed but only a moment in time.  The world of the eagle was one of survival and the presence of the three men who knelt in Silver Bow Basin upon the muddy banks of the stream known as Gold Creek did not disturb her as she searched  the forest, her sharp eyes alert and watching for the tiny rodents that would fill her gullet. As the three men, Auk Tlingit Chief Kowee, Canadian Richard Harris, and French Canadian prospector Joseph Juneau made the discovery that would result in some of the largest placer and lode gold mines in the world, Juneau’s metamorphosis  began.

 

Perseverance Trail

Perseverance Trail

 

Mt. Roberts

Mt. Roberts

 

Flume Trail

Flume Trail

 

Voluntourism in Alaska

In an early May morning of 2013,  I sat and peered out the window on the second floor of the House of Wickersham, the quaint old Victorian home of “Fighting Jim”, the first federal judge in Alaska’s Third Judicial District. Still sleepy from my flight, I relaxed in the cool breeze that blew into the harbor, a welcome relief from the Texas heat from which I had escaped. Below me, the Regatta, the flagship of the Oceania Cruise Fleet, slipped silently into the harbor. I knew that I could not watch the ocean liner for long, for the first guests were to arrive at any moment. It was my duty, per my contract with the Alaska Division of Parks and Recreation, to provide tours in which I would describe the life and time of Judge Wickersham. I crossed my fingers, hoping that I could remember all the dates, names, and places that were significant in the Judge’s life. Alaska, the exquisitely beautiful land that I had visited for a short period many years ago had welcomed me, a history teacher and librarian, back to her shores to explain the significance of one of the most pivotal citizens in early 20th century Alaskan history to an anxiously waiting world of cruise ship travelers. I dared not disappoint them. It was my duty to serve as the docent for the House of Wickersham, a tiny museum located at the top of Juneau’s Chicken Ridge.

There is something within the human psyche that yearns for truth. As the late Paul Harvey always reminded us, we must look for the “rest of the story.”  In Alaska, with its diversity of native cultures, its vast resources, and its rich history, the “rest of the story” is as rich as the Gastineau Channel is deep.  Stories like the one below lie hidden in the cracks and crevices that is modern-day Alaska. This particular story was provided to me by Lisa, the docent of Fairbank’s House of Wickersham.
1298144986_climb-the-chilkoot-trail

 
 
                                “Sing Your Death Song and Die Like a Hero Going Home.”
                                                            Cherokee Chief Tecumseh

One of Judge Wickersham’s most amazing achievements, aside from his political successes, was his 1,100 mile journey by dogsled in temperatures that reached minus forty-five degrees at times for the purpose of administering justice.  He was fortunate in that he was able to travel to his destination in Alaska by boat instead of  by crossing either the Chilkoot Pass or White Pass. Most who sought the illusive gold nuggets in the Klondike were not so fortunate. They were destined to cross the mountain passes.

Klondike Prospectors

Klondike Prospectors

 

Crossing the Chilkoot Pass

Many of the prospectors  were “tenderfeet” and totally unprepared for the cruel environment in which the Klondike Gold Rush began, just across the Alaskan and Canadian border in a little town called Dawson. These miners were known as Cheechakos. There were also many prospectors who spent their entire lives wandering from one place to another searching for gold and attempting to escape the encroachment of civilization. They were called Sourdoughs.

In the winters of the Tanana Valley, life was precarious, with few assurances that one would survive. The prospectors’  best friend, the sled dog, was one of those assurances. The other was a bread that has historically been a staple food throughout the world. It is known by many names, but in Alaska it is simply sourdough. Sourdough bread is made from a dough mixture that requires yeast fermentation. Since yeast becomes inactive below fifty-degrees Fahrenheit, and the miners’ environment at times reached far below that temperature, it was essential that the dough be kept warm at all times. In order to do so the prospectors would place it in a can and  strap it to their bodies. Many times, when stranded on the trail, it was the only food that kept them and their animals alive. Even bears loved it. Bears have been observed to break into a cook’s tent where fresh moose strips were hanging from the rafters. Rather than eat the meat, the animals would head directly for the bubbling pot of sourdough mixture warming on the stove. Because it was so important for their survival, the old-time miners were known as Sourdoughs.

To get to the gold fields, most began their journey on a ship from Seattle and landed in Skagway, only a short distance from Juneau. From there, they took either the Chilkoot Pass or White Pass. The worse part of the Chilkoot began at Scales, a ramshackled collection of tents at the base of the “Golden Stairs,” a trek of 1,500 steps carved into solid mountain ice. The prospectors moved up the stairs in single file, clutching a rope balustrade and carrying fifty-to-sixty pounds of supplies on their backs. Each prospector could carry only one pack at a time over the pass. Then he would cache it and return to the base of the mountain to strap on another load. Again and again he would climb the Golden Stairs until all his supplies were safely cached on the other side of the Chilkoot Pass.

 

Rye Whiskey, Rye Whiskey, Rye Whiskey I Cry

One unlucky Cheechako slipped on the ice and fell into a crevasse. With his body broken and  wedged tightly between boulders, he was unable to move. His friends attempted over and over to rescue him, but it soon became apparent that it was impossible to do so. So, not knowing what else to do, they carefully lowered a bottle of rye whiskey on a rope down to their friend. As soon as the young man received the whiskey, he began to drink to deaden the pain and numb the cold. Soon his voice began to echo up and down the Golden Stairs. The Cheechako sang a child’s sweet  song that he had learned at the feet of his mother. His voice, choked and broken, sang about his father. Then as his song drifted throughout the frigid winter air, his lyrics changed,  to describe his first love and his hound chasing him through the wheat fields of his childhood home. Suddenly, his voice faltered. Weakened by his injuries,  his death song had ended. High above him, his friends peered into the darkened silence. It was only then, realizing that their friend had died like a hero going home, that the cheechakos again joined the long line of men. They grasped the frozen rope and hung on to it tightly to once again climb the Golden Stairs in search of riches.

Suggested Resources

Nonfiction

Berton, Pierre. Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush, 1896 to 1899
Chvigny, Hector. Lord of Alaska: The Story of Baranov and the Russian Adventure
Ferrel, Ed.  Frontier Justice: Alaska 1898 – The Last American Frontier
Gates, Michael. Gold at Forty Mile Creek: Early Days in the Yukon
Kaniut, Larry. Some Bears Kill
London, Jack. The Call of the Wild
Morgan, Leal.  Good Time Girls of the Alaska-Yukon Gold Rush: Secret History of the Far North
Murphy, Claire Rudolf. Gold Rush Women
Snyder, Gerrit Heinie. 100 Stories About Alaska
Treadwell, Timothy. Among Grizzlies: Living With Wild Bears in Alaska
Wickersham, James. Old Yukon: Trails, Tales, and Trials
Icy Hell (Author

 

Fiction

Alaska (Author James A. Michener

 

Poetry

The Malamute  (Author Pat O. Cotter)
The Cremation of Sam McGee (Author Robert W. Service)
The Spell of the Yukon and Other Verses (Author Robert W. Service)
If (Author Pat O. Cotter)

 

Music

My Song (By Yukon Poet Laureate, PJ Johnson)
Alaska and Me (Sung by John Denver)
North to Alaska (Sung by Johnny Horton)
Springtime in Alaska (Sung by Johnny Horton)

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