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A Trip to Forty-Mile,1896

An Explorer's Guide to Forty Mile, Yukon

The Indianapolis Journal, Tuesday morning, January 7, 1896

The Indianapolis Journal, Tuesday morning, January 7, 1896

A Trip to Forty-Mile, 1896

Letter in Boston Transcript.

    Now that the dispute as to whether Forty-Mile is in the United States or British territory has apparently been decided, the personal experiences of one who has made the trip may be of some interest. My friend K. had made up his mind during the winter of '92 to go the following summer to the Yukon, partly with a view to mining, but mostly out of sheer curiosity, and I, being at the "loose end," accepted his invitation to accompany him.

    We were neither of us "tenderfeet" by any means, both of us having been on the frontier for some years, and, consequently, hardened to rough travel; so that when K. said that it was his intention to go to Forty-Mile creek by way of the lakes of the upper Yukon, I was not at all disappointed, as that route offered chances of seeing more of the country than by going in by the mouth of the Yukon, the usual way.

    Our starting point was Chilcat, on the Alaska coast, to reach which place we traveled to Victoria, British Columbia, by the Canadian Pacific railway; from thence we took passage on a tramp steamship to Chilcat, going by what is known as the "inside route" -that is, keeping between the mainland and the islands, which are very numerous on the coast.

    On the way up we called at Nanaimo, the great British Columbia coaling station, and passed innumerable islands, capes and bays, the scenery all the way being a gorgeous panorama of mountains, which I shall not attempt to describe here.

    We passed the mouth of the Skeena river, the point at which, in 1866, the Western Union Telegraph Company sent a construction party with a view of connecting Europe and America by means of a cable across the Bering straits, but the project was abandoned at the successful laying of the Atlantic cable. To this point, also, an alternative route for the Canadan Pacific railway was roughly surveyed in 1870.

    We crossed the boundary between British Columbia and Alaska in latitude 54 deg. 45 min. The next point of interest is Fort Wrangel, the gateway to the Cussair gold mines of northern British Columbia and the scene of many a conflict between the Hudson's Bay Company and one of the Governors of Russian America, who gave his name to the town.

    Here may be seen the totem poles, the "coats of arms," so to speak, of the native aristocracy of Alaska, that stand before the houses, grotesquely carved to represent strange animals. They sometimes serve as tombstones of Indian chiefs, whose bones rest in boxes on the poles. They are not, as some think, symbols of worship, but simply heraldic trees.

    Next we pass Holkham bay, where placer mining was first begun in Alaska, in 1876. At last we reach Juneau, the metropolis of the North, and certainly one is surprised at the advanced state of civilization that exists in this Alaskan town. There are numerous shops, two weekly papers, with church schools and a population of three thousand souls. Its surroundings are beautiful in the extreme. On Douglas island, near by, is the famous Treadwell mine, with the greatest crushing mill in the world and an annual output of something like $1,000,000.


    From Juneau we steamed straight to Chilcat, which is just 1,000 miles from Victoria, and the point from which we started on our inland trip. Chilcat is quite an important place in its way; it has trading stores, a church, etc.

    Here we were given to understand that after crossing the Katusk mountains we should have to build a boat, first cutting down the trees and sawing the logs into planks on the shore of Lake Linderman, the first of the Upper Yukon chain. So we provided ourselves with a pit-saw, axes, nails, etc., and looked about for some Indians to act as guides and as "beasts of burden" (as K. called them) for us.

    After a delay of two days we were able to hire for the sum of $1 a day apiece and their food four Indians who knew the trail and who would pilot us over the mountains to the head lake chain. Our course lay across to Chilkoot inlet and across the Katusks to Lake Linderman.

    This climb from the summit of the mountains from the time we began to ascend until we reached the summit was very hard work; there is no road at all and it was a matter of stepping from rock to rock like goats, for the most part, carrying about sixty pounds of "swag" apiece, for we did our share with the Indians. These Indian guides of ours were the most miserable specimens of the "noble red man" I have ever seen, and I have lived among Indians a good deal. They did not compare well with any of the Indians of the western plains, being low in stature and very dirty. Of course, all Indians are more or less dirty - it is a matter of dirty! dirtier!! dirtiest!!! These were dirtiest.

    We made long days during this tramp, as we had plenty of daylight, night being only nominal here in summer. One can see to read till 12 o'clock (midnight), and it is daylight as early as 2 in the morning.

    The mosquitoes and sandfiies in these parts are very bad indeed; "they make life one continual scratch." as K. put it. One of our Indians, Black Fox, could speak a little English, and from him K. extracted some little information about his tribe.

    We had noticed that the features of these Indians were very like those of Chinese; they had almond eyes and high cheek bones, small hands, with long thin fingers, and their color was that dull yellow which seems more in keeping with the Chinese than the Indian.

    Black Fox told us this much about his people. He said:

    "Many moons past my people, they come in canoe across the big lake (meaning the Straits of Bering); other tribes he come too - my people kill other tribes. We some day kill all white men."

    Nice, cheerful news to hear when tramping with the people that are going to kill all whites, two to one on a lonely mountain trip.

    It is strange that this belief that some day a leader will arise and lead the red men against the white, to the total annihilation of the latter, infests the Indian mind in the West, from Alaska to Mexico.

    We noticed that each one of these Indians wore a seal's tooth suspended from his neck by a small necklace of beads. K. discovered that these seals' teeth were believed to be a charm against sickness, and tried to induce them to sell them to us, but found that neither tobacco nor tea would tempt them to part with so precious a possession.

    The last mile and a half of our tramp to the summit took us nine hours to make, part of the distance having to be done on our hands and knees, and our "swag" having to be carried by sections in six trips. There was some snow in the mountains. and far more vegetation than we expected to see.


    We made the descent to Lake Linderman in good time, having crossed the mountains without adventure except a demand from our guides for extra pay, which led to our having to show them who was master and who was servant.

    On arriving at the lake we dismissed the Indians, though we should have liked to keep one of them to pilot us down the chain, but none of them would stay unless they all did, so we paid them and let them go.

    Near the shore of the lake we found a saw pit already dug, so we set about cutting down trees with which to build our boat. Luckily K. and I were pretty handy with tools, and at the end of nine days we had sawed the planks and built a punt which, if it was not a beauty, saw us through some 750 miles of lake and river navigation safely.

    We left the head of Lake Linderman, punting or rowing, as it suited us best, keeping near the shore all the time, for although this made the trip longer by a good many miles, we had been warned of the squails that spring up so suddenly on these waters, and so for safety's sake we thought it best to hug the shore, especially as we had neglected to bring tow and pitch and our boat was only caulked with rags, each of us having sacrificed some article of clothing for this purpose. But we soaked the boat well before we started, and it was surprising how little she leaked.

    In this way we crossed Lake Linderman and four other lakes, the name of one of which we never found out; then Lake Benett, Lake Marsh and Lake Kluh-tas-si, the latter being the last of the chain and joining the Yukon. These lakes are similar in character, being joined to each other by creeks of various lengths, "snags" (that is, sunken trees that have been blown down) making traveling dangerous in places.

    All the lakes lie in a perfect bed of mountains, snowcapped for the most part; and the scenery is perfect all the way down the chain. We saw only one human being while crossing the lakes, in fact, between the time we parted with our Indians and the arrival at Forty-Mile. It was one morning while punting along the shores of Lake Marsh that we saw a little Indian boy, apparently about seven or eight years old, standing all by himself on the shores. We put in, and seeing that he was in a half-starved condition, we fed the poor little chap. He was in a horribly filthy condition, and his clothing consisted of a piece of old blanket. We waited for some time and as no one turned up to claim him he being more than willing, we took him with us. He was a useless little savage, but we could not find it in our hearts to leave him to his fate. We handed him over to some Indians at Forty-Mile, who undertook to look after him.

    On leaving Lake Kluh-tas-si we struck the Yukon proper and were glad enough to be done with lake navigation. The current of the Yukon is strong, so, as we were going down stream, we could make from twenty-five to thirty miles a day, counting portages we had to make around rapids. The river runs through mountains till the Pelly river joins it, and from there to Forty-Mile creek, through a broken country, wooded and in places somewhat mountainous. We arrived at Forty-Mile, the trip having taken us about two months.

    The town of Forty Mile is exactly at the junction of Forty-Mile creek and the Yukon river. When we were there there were in the camp about six hundred miners, of all nationalities - Americans, Englishmen, Scots, Irish, Chinamen, and strange though true, two Arabs. This spring, I hear, a detachment of the Canada Northwest mounted police has been stationed at Forty-Mile.

    The Alaska Trading Company of Chicago's store is the principal place of business. The company does a general business in miners' supplies and also acts as bankers, and to their credit be it said that their dealings with the miners are always of the most honorable nature.

    A Church of England missionary bishop has his headquarters at Forty-Mile. He and his plucky little English wife have lived on the Yukon for twenty years, going down to civilization every four or five years.