ExploreNorth, your resource center for exploring the circumpolar North

Return to the Home Page The ExploreNorth Blog About ExploreNorth Contact ExploreNorth

Search ExploreNorth

Journey from the lower Yukon River to Dyea, 1893

Northern Ships and Shipping

The Examiner (San Francisco), April 3, 1893

1893 - The First Man to Cross the Yukon Summit Pass in Winter and Live to Tell the Story — Deserted by an Indian Guide at a Critical Time — Many Unique Trophies of His Journey,

Special to the EXAMINER.

    SEATTLE, April 2. - A journey of 1,500 miles through the snowy wilds of Alaska in mid-winter with no company except Indian guides and the dogs which drew his sleighs, is the feat accomplished by C. H. Hamilton, a young man of twenty-two, who returned from Alaska to-day on the steamer City of Topeka.

    Hamilton left here July 6, 1892, on the steamer Alice Blanchard in company with P. B. Weare of Chicago, Captain John Healy and Mrs. Healy, of Chilcat, Alaska, and a party of workmen to build the steamer P. B. Weare, which was taken up on the Blanchard in sections. As the Blanchard has no license to carry passengers, Weare went as a deckhand and Mrs. Healy as chambermaid. A full cargo for Weare was taken, including forty barrels of whisky, which sells at $40 a gallon at Forty Mile creek.

    The boat was built at St. Michael's, at the mouth of the Yukon, and on September 24th started up the river. She only steamed by day through the shallows of the lower course.

    By October 2d the boat had gone about 500 miles, when floating ice began to obstruct progress, and by the 5th was so thick that the steamer was tied up for the winter at Nagooleykket, at the mouth of the Nagooley river, to resume her journey to Forty Mile when the ice goes out in May. Then a large trading-post will be established at Forty Mile. The weather continued to grow colder and the ice thicker till November 4th, when the river was entirely closed over.


    To complete arrangements for sending on supplies next summer Hamilton started on snowshoes November 26th with four Nulato Indians for Chilcat, on the coast eighty miles from Juneau, a distance of 1,500 to 1,800 miles across territory which he had never traversed, and over half of which no one of the Indians had ever been.

    Winter had already set in, and in clear weather there were only five or six hours of daylight. He clothed himself in furs, loaded his outsit of 900 to 1,000 pounds on three sleighs, drawn by twenty-one dogs, and started on snowshoes up the Yukon.

    He followed rivers and lakes, except when crossing divides between two rivers, as there was less snow on the ice and it was harder, and brush offered many obstacles.

    On the Yukon it was rough traveling as the ice often piled up twenty and thirty feet at the bends where the current was swift, and they had to cut off sharp points to avoid damaging the sleighs. In this way they traveled an average of forty miles a day, one day, however, making eighty miles.

    At night they camped, turned the dogs loose and gave them the only meal of the day, consisting of half a dried king salmon weighing six to eight pounds. They would fell trees, lay them side by side and build a fire on them, often having a fire twelve to fifteen feet long. Then they would melt snow for water, cook their supper and turn in. Hamilton would spread a bear skin on some brush, wrap himself in a rabbit-skin robe and sleep like a top. Though the thermometer was often fifty degrees below zero, he never suffered from cold, in fact was always comfortably warm. The party were off again at daylight.


    On reaching Nuklakla he was joined by the Rev. Mr. Prevost, an Episcopal minister, who was going to visit the Indians on the Tananah river. They devised many little pleasantries to enliven the journey, and on Christmas day made camp early to have a Christmas dinner.

    At an Indian village they secured a guide to take them up the Jasa river over the divide to the headwaters of Forty-Mile creek. This divide was not difficult to cross, as the ascent is gradual and the summit not more than 500 feet above the timber line.

    They reached a mining camp at the junction of Forty-Mile creek with the Yukon on January 15th and found 185 miners there wintering in comparative comfort, with good cabins and flour and beans in plenty. There was a scarcity of sugar and molasses, which may be accounted for by the existence of several stills. There had been two saloons there, but both had been closed.

    Last summer, the miners said, had been a very fair mining season, the best they have had. Storekeeper McQuestion said he had taken in more gold than in any year before. They also expect next season to pan out big, unless there should be a scarcity of water. There have been no new discoveries since the one at Miller Creek. The statements that many of the prospectors are fugitives from justice is denied by the miners. The men, though rough, are hard-working, and have driven out a few hard characters. The Indians are very peaceful and friendly to the whites. The winter was called mild by the old-timers, the coldest weather having been 59 degrees below zero.


    Prevost left Hamilton at Forty Mile and the latter was joined by John Reed, who has been in the interior six years. He had bought several new dogs there, among them one which can haul a load of 800 pounds, and which Hamilton will take back to Chicago.

    They left on February 3d with the wind blowing a gale and the thermometer 48 below. In thirteen more days they reached Harper's trading port on the Pelly river with their stock of dried salmon nearly exhausted. They had to feed the dogs on oatmeal flour porridge, with some fish in it, and had to camp early in order to cook 1t.

    On leaving Harper’s they had with them a Nulato Indian and an Indian guide named Jim, who was to show them a short cut around the Rink rapids and the five fin- gers of Lewis river.

    About forty miles from Harper's they left the Pelly river and went up a small stream called the Fox, then crossed a small lake of the same name to a large lake named Indian Trail lake. They questioned Jim closely about the trail and got him to draw a map of it. He had gone ahead to mark out the trail across the lake to the creek beyond. Next morning when they started Jim stayed behind to fix his snowshoes, Hamilton hurried back to the camping place and could see him five miles down the lake, making tracks for home. His desertion is supposed to have been due to fear of getting into trouble by going into the country of other Indians.


    Passing on up the creek they came to what had been named Lost lake, then up another creek and across three other lakes, when they reached a large stream which they found to be the Little Salmon river. Following this down five miles they came out on the Yukon, having saved five days by making the cut.

    Then they went up Lewis river to the head of Lake Linderman, having come near mistaking the Hootolinqua river for the Lewis, as it is broader and looked more like the main river than a tributary of it. But for the rough ice on the Lewis river they would have made this mistake and they would probably never have come out alive. The scenery was monotonous - a never-ending succession of snow covered lakes, rivers and hills, with scarcely any variation.

    The last stage of the journey was most exciting, and is described as follows by Hamilton:

    "On the night of March 15th, at the foot of Lake Linderman, we fed our last bit of fish and our last pound of flour to the dogs, and those who were too weak to finish the journey we were obliged to kill. We were nearing the mountains; only twenty miles away was the summit.


    "Should we be able to find the pass? was the next anxious thought. The next morning we moved on till we were within to the timber line, and now, ten miles away, glistening in the sunlight, was the summit. Once over that and we would be safe. But can we make it? To be overtaken by a storm would mean suffering, perhaps death, and the weary toil of months wasted. Reed had crossed it before.

    "Familiar to both of us was the story of the sad fate of poor Williams, the only white man who has ever before attempted to come out from Forty Mile during the winter season. He passed the summit only to die from exposure and exhaustion at Wilson's.

    "There was no time for delay. Only seven dogs were left us, and nobly did they do their work and drag the sleighs up the grade for about twelve miles, until, at last, we reached the summit, and only two and a half miles below was a sheep camp. There was some daylight left. For about a quarter to a half mile on this side the pass was almost straight up and down with steps cut in it. Our dogs were turned loose, the sleighs rough-shod and started down. Over and over they went, but no harm was done, save a broken handle.


    "Our own progress was neither slow nor dignified. The snow was so hard that the foot made no impression. There was nothing left but to slide, and we did slide part of the time feet first and almost sailing through the air, but there was no monotony this time, for my head and feet changed places with a rapidity that would put to shame any presdigitator that ever lived. There was snow over everything, so that when we did bring up at the bottom we did not hurt ourselves. We could not have done this in the summer time, for the pass is very rocky.

    "We reached the sheep camp and pitched our tents for the last time. Only ten miles away was Wilson's. With the morning's dawn we moved forward on the home stretch and arrived safely at Wilson's, our tramp finished.

    "Eighteen hundred miles by the river's course lie between us and Nulato; by the short cut we had reduced it to about 1,500. Once again we were in the domain of steam, and Monday morning, March 20th, we were on board the little steamer Yukon and on our way to Juneau, whence we sailed for Seattle.


    Hamilton is boyish in appearance, with not a hair on his face, but he has the build and frame of an athlete, being five feet eight inches high, with square shoulders and well-knit figure, while his face glows with ruddy health. He has the air and manner of a man and talks of his exploit modestly, as though it were an ordinary affair.

    The fur clothing he wore is made of beautiful skins and nearly all of native workmanship. He has pantaloons of Siberian reindeer, Arctic socks lined with soft flannel, traveling boots of caribou, with sealskin soles and sewed with sinews. He has shows of white deerskin, soft long-legged boots with hair on the inside to sleep in, mittens of moose and lynxskin and trousers of Siberian reindeer, trimmed with wolverine, and another of white fawnskin, trimmed with wolverine and bearskin, a shirt of fawnskin and so on.

    He says the Northwestern Trading and Transportation Company, which Weare has formed, has gone into Alaska in the belief that there is business there for two companies. He expects to bring down the price of some articles and improve the quality of those of which the miners complain. Hamilton goes East from here.