The Alaska mid summer adventure


Yonder goes a whole family, grandparents and all, making a direct

course for some favorite stream and camp-ground. They are going to

gather berries, as the baskets tell. Never before in all my travels,

north or south, had I found so lavish an abundance of berries as here.

The woods and meadows are full of them, both on the lowlands and

mountains—huckleberries of many species, salmon-berries, blackberries,

raspberries, with service-berries on dry open places, and cranberries

in the bogs, sufficient for every bird, beast, and human being in the

territory and thousands of tons to spare. The huckleberries are

especially abundant. A species that grows well up on the mountains is

the best and largest, a half-inch and more in diameter and delicious in

flavor. These grow on bushes three or four inches to a foot high. The

berries of the commonest species are smaller and grow almost everywhere

on the low grounds on bushes from three to six or seven feet high. This

is the species on which the Indians depend most for food, gathering

them in large quantities, beating them into a paste, pressing the paste

into cakes about an inch thick, and drying them over a slow fire to

enrich their winter stores. Salmon-berries and service-berries are

preserved in the same way.

A little excursion to one of the best huckleberry fields adjacent to

Wrangell, under the direction of the Collector of Customs, to which I

was invited, I greatly enjoyed. There were nine Indians in the party,

mostly women and children going to gather huckleberries. As soon as we

had arrived at the chosen campground on the bank of a trout stream, all

ran into the bushes and began eating berries before anything in the way

of camp-making was done, laughing and chattering in natural animal

enjoyment. The Collector went up the stream to examine a meadow at its

head with reference to the quantity of hay it might yield for his cow,

fishing by the way. All the Indians except the two eldest boys who

joined the Collector, remained among the berries.

The fishermen had rather poor luck, owing, they said, to the sunny

brightness of the day, a complaint seldom heard in this climate. They

got good exercise, however, jumping from boulder to boulder in the

brawling stream, running along slippery logs and through the bushes

that fringe the bank, casting here and there into swirling pools at the

foot of cascades, imitating the tempting little skips and whirls of

flies so well known to fishing parsons, but perhaps still better known

to Indian boys. At the lake-basin the Collector, after he had surveyed

his hay-meadow, went around it to the inlet of the lake with his brown

pair of attendants to try their luck, while I botanized in the

delightful flora which called to mind the cool sphagnum and carex bogs

of Wisconsin and Canada. Here I found many of my old favorites the

heathworts—kalmia, pyrola, chiogenes, huckleberry, cranberry, etc. On

the margin of the meadow darling linnæa was in its glory; purple

panicled grasses in full flower reached over my head, and some of the

carices and ferns were almost as tall. Here, too, on the edge of the

woods I found the wild apple tree, the first I had seen in Alaska. The

Indians gather the fruit, small and sour as it is, to flavor their fat

salmon. I never saw a richer bog and meadow growth anywhere. The

principal forest-trees are hemlock, spruce, and Nootka cypress, with a

few pines (_P. contorta_) on the margin of the meadow, some of them

nearly a hundred feet high, draped with gray usnea, the bark also gray

with scale lichens.

We met all the berry-pickers at the lake, excepting only a small girl

and the camp-keeper. In their bright colors they made a lively picture

among the quivering bushes, keeping up a low pleasant chanting as if

the day and the place and the berries were according to their own

hearts. The children carried small baskets, holding two or three

quarts; the women two large ones swung over their shoulders. In the

afternoon, when the baskets were full, all started back to the

camp-ground, where the canoe was left. We parted at the lake, I

choosing to follow quietly the stream through the woods. I was the

first to arrive at camp. The rest of the party came in shortly

afterwards, singing and humming like heavy-laden bees. It was

interesting to note how kindly they held out handfuls of the best

berries to the little girl, who welcomed them all in succession with

smiles and merry words that I did not understand. But there was no

mistaking the kindliness and serene good nature.

While I was at Wrangell the chiefs and head men of the Stickeen tribe

got up a grand dinner and entertainment in honor of their distinguished

visitors, three doctors of divinity and their wives, fellow passengers

on the steamer with me, whose object was to organize the Presbyterian

church. To both the dinner and dances I was invited, was adopted by the

Stickeen tribe, and given an Indian name (Ancoutahan) said to mean

adopted chief. I was inclined to regard this honor as being unlikely to

have any practical value, but I was assured by Mr. Vanderbilt, Mr.

Young, and others that it would be a great safeguard while I was on my

travels among the different tribes of the archipelago. For travelers

without an Indian name might be killed and robbed without the offender

being called to account as long as the crime was kept secret from the

whites; but, being adopted by the Stickeens, no one belonging to the

other tribes would dare attack me, knowing that the Stickeens would

hold them responsible.

The dinner-tables were tastefully decorated with flowers, and the food

and general arrangements were in good taste, but there was no trace of

Indian dishes. It was mostly imported canned stuff served Boston

fashion. After the dinner we assembled in Chief Shakes’s large

block-house and were entertained with lively examples of their dances

and amusements, carried on with great spirit, making a very novel

barbarous durbar. The dances seemed to me wonderfully like those of the

American Indians in general, a monotonous stamping accompanied by

hand-clapping, head-jerking, and explosive grunts kept in time to grim

drum-beats. The chief dancer and leader scattered great quantities of

downy feathers like a snowstorm as blessings on everybody, while all

chanted, “Hee-ee-ah-ah, hee-ee-ah-ah,” jumping up and down until all

were bathed in perspiration.

After the dancing excellent imitations were given of the gait,

gestures, and behavior of several animals under different

circumstances—walking, hunting, capturing, and devouring their prey,

etc. While all were quietly seated, waiting to see what next was going

to happen, the door of the big house was suddenly thrown open and in

bounced a bear, so true to life in form and gestures we were all

startled, though it was only a bear-skin nicely fitted on a man who was

intimately acquainted with the animals and knew how to imitate them.

The bear shuffled down into the middle of the floor and made the motion

of jumping into a stream and catching a wooden salmon that was ready

for him, carrying it out on to the bank, throwing his head around to

listen and see if any one was coming, then tearing it to pieces,

jerking his head from side to side, looking and listening in fear of

hunters’ rifles. Besides the bear dance, there were porpoise and deer

dances with one of the party imitating the animals by stuffed specimens

with an Indian inside, and the movements were so accurately imitated

that they seemed the real thing.

These animal plays were followed by serious speeches, interpreted by an

Indian woman: “Dear Brothers and Sisters, this is the way we used to

dance. We liked it long ago when we were blind, we always danced this

way, but now we are not blind. The Good Lord has taken pity upon us and

sent his son, Jesus Christ, to tell us what to do. We have danced

to-day only to show you how blind we were to like to dance in this

foolish way. We will not dance any more.”

Another speech was interpreted as follows: “‘Dear Brothers and

Sisters,’ the chief says, ‘this is else way we used to dance and play.

We do not wish to do so any more. We will give away all the dance

dresses you have seen us wearing, though we value them very highly.’ He

says he feels much honored to have so many white brothers and sisters

at our dinner and plays.”

Several short explanatory remarks were made all through the exercises

by Chief Shakes, presiding with grave dignity. The last of his speeches

concluded thus: “Dear Brothers and Sisters, we have been long, long in

the dark. You have led us into strong guiding light and taught us the

right way to live and the right way to die. I thank you for myself and

all my people, and I give you my heart.”

At the close of the amusements there was a potlatch when robes made of

the skins of deer, wild sheep, marmots, and sables were distributed,

and many of the fantastic head-dresses that had been worn by Shamans.

One of these fell to my share.

The floor of the house was strewn with fresh hemlock boughs, bunches of

showy wild flowers adorned the walls, and the hearth was filled with

huckleberry branches and epilobium. Altogether it was a wonderful show.

I have found southeastern Alaska a good, healthy country to live in.

The climate of the islands and shores of the mainland is remarkably

bland and temperate and free from extremes of either heat or cold

throughout the year. It is rainy, however,—so much so that hay-making

will hardly ever be extensively engaged in here, whatever the future

may show in the way of the development of mines, forests, and

fisheries. This rainy weather, however, is of good quality, the best of

the kind I ever experienced, mild in temperature, mostly gentle in its

fall, filling the fountains of the rivers and keeping the whole land

fresh and fruitful, while anything more delightful than the shining

weather in the midst of the rain, the great round sun-days of July and

August, may hardly be found anywhere, north or south. An Alaska summer

day is a day without night. In the Far North, at Point Barrow, the sun

does not set for weeks, and even here in southeastern Alaska it is only

a few degrees below the horizon at its lowest point, and the topmost

colors of the sunset blend with those of the sunrise, leaving no gap of

darkness between. Midnight is only a low noon, the middle point of the

gloaming. The thin clouds that are almost always present are then

colored yellow and red, making a striking advertisement of the sun’s

progress beneath the horizon. The day opens slowly. The low arc of

light steals around to the northeastward with gradual increase of

height and span and intensity of tone; and when at length the sun

appears, it is without much of that stirring, impressive pomp, of

flashing, awakening, triumphant energy, suggestive of the Bible

imagery, a bridegroom coming out of his chamber and rejoicing like a

strong man to run a race. The red clouds with yellow edges dissolve in

hazy dimness; the islands, with grayish-white ruffs of mist about them,

cast ill-defined shadows on the glistening waters, and the whole

down-bending firmament becomes pearl-gray. For three or four hours

after sunrise there is nothing especially impressive in the landscape.

The sun, though seemingly unclouded, may almost be looked in the face,

and the islands and mountains, with their wealth of woods and snow and

varied beauty of architecture, seem comparatively sleepy and


As the day advances toward high noon, the sun-flood streaming through

the damp atmosphere lights the water levels and the sky to glowing

silver. Brightly play the ripples about the bushy edges of the islands

and on the plume-shaped streaks between them, ruffled by gentle passing

wind-currents. The warm air throbs and makes itself felt as a

life-giving, energizing ocean, embracing all the landscape, quickening

the imagination, and bringing to mind the life and motion about us—the

tides, the rivers, the flood of light streaming through the satiny sky;

the marvelous abundance of fishes feeding in the lower ocean; the misty

flocks of insects in the air; wild sheep and goats on a thousand grassy

ridges; beaver and mink far back on many a rushing stream; Indians

floating and basking along the shores; leaves and crystals drinking the

sunbeams; and glaciers on the mountains, making valleys and basins for

new rivers and lakes and fertile beds of soil.

Through the afternoon, all the way down to the sunset, the day grows in

beauty. The light seems to thicken and become yet more generously

fruitful without losing its soft mellow brightness. Everything seems to

settle into conscious repose. The winds breathe gently or are wholly at

rest. The few clouds visible are downy and luminous and combed out fine

on the edges. Gulls here and there, winnowing the air on easy wing, are

brought into striking relief; and every stroke of the paddles of Indian

hunters in their canoes is told by a quick, glancing flash. Bird choirs

in the grove are scarce heard as they sweeten the brooding stillness;

and the sky, land, and water meet and blend in one inseparable scene of

enchantment. Then comes the sunset with its purple and gold, not a

narrow arch on the horizon, but oftentimes filling all the sky. The

level cloud-bars usually present are fired on the edges, and the spaces

of clear sky between them are greenish-yellow or pale amber, while the

orderly flocks of small overlapping clouds, often seen higher up, are

mostly touched with crimson like the out-leaning sprays of maple-groves

in the beginning of an Eastern Indian Summer. Soft, mellow purple

flushes the sky to the zenith and fills the air, fairly steeping and

transfiguring the islands and making all the water look like wine.

After the sun goes down, the glowing gold vanishes, but because it

descends on a curve nearly in the same plane with the horizon, the

glowing portion of the display lasts much longer than in more southern

latitudes, while the upper colors with gradually lessening intensity of

tone sweep around to the north, gradually increase to the eastward, and

unite with those of the morning.

The most extravagantly colored of all the sunsets I have yet seen in

Alaska was one I enjoyed on the voyage from Portland to Wrangell, when

we were in the midst of one of the most thickly islanded parts of the

Alexander Archipelago. The day had been showery, but late in the

afternoon the clouds melted away from the west, all save a few that

settled down in narrow level bars near the horizon. The evening was

calm and the sunset colors came on gradually, increasing in extent and

richness of tone by slow degrees as if requiring more time than usual

to ripen. At a height of about thirty degrees there was a heavy

cloud-bank, deeply reddened on its lower edge and the projecting parts

of its face. Below this were three horizontal belts of purple edged

with gold, while a vividly defined, spreading fan of flame streamed

upward across the purple bars and faded in a feather edge of dull red.

But beautiful and impressive as was this painting on the sky, the most

novel and exciting effect was in the body of the atmosphere itself,

which, laden with moisture, became one mass of color—a fine translucent

purple haze in which the islands with softened outlines seemed to

float, while a dense red ring lay around the base of each of them as a

fitting border. The peaks, too, in the distance, and the snow-fields

and glaciers and fleecy rolls of mist that lay in the hollows, were

flushed with a deep, rosy alpenglow of ineffable loveliness. Everything

near and far, even the ship, was comprehended in the glorious picture

and the general color effect. The mission divines we had aboard seemed

then to be truly divine as they gazed transfigured in the celestial

glory. So also seemed our bluff, storm-fighting old captain, and his

tarry sailors and all.

About one third of the summer days I spent in the Wrangell region were

cloudy with very little or no rain, one third decidedly rainy, and one

third clear. According to a record kept here of a hundred and

forty-seven days beginning May 17 of that year, there were sixty-five

on which rain fell, forty-three cloudy with no rain, and thirty-nine

clear. In June rain fell on eighteen days, in July eight days, in

August fifteen days, in September twenty days. But on some of these

days there was only a few minutes’ rain, light showers scarce enough to

count, while as a general thing the rain fell so gently and the

temperature was so mild, very few of them could be called stormy or

dismal; even the bleakest, most bedraggled of them all usually had a

flush of late or early color to cheer them, or some white illumination

about the noon hours. I never before saw so much rain fall with so

little noise. None of the summer winds make roaring storms, and thunder

is seldom heard. I heard none at all. This wet, misty weather seems

perfectly healthful. There is no mildew in the houses, as far as I have

seen, or any tendency toward mouldiness in nooks hidden from the sun;

and neither among the people nor the plants do we find anything flabby

or dropsical.

In September clear days were rare, more than three fourths of them were

either decidedly cloudy or rainy, and the rains of this month were,

with one wild exception, only moderately heavy, and the clouds between

showers drooped and crawled in a ragged, unsettled way without

betraying hints of violence such as one often sees in the gestures of

mountain storm-clouds.

July was the brightest month of the summer, with fourteen days of

sunshine, six of them in uninterrupted succession, with a temperature

at 7 A.M. of about 60°, at 12 M., 70°. The average 7 A.M. temperature

for June was 54.3°; the average 7 A.M. temperature for July was 55.3°;

at 12 M. the average temperature was 61.45°; the average 7 A.M.

temperature for August was 54.12°; 12 M., 61.48°; the average 7 A.M.

temperature for September was 52.14°; and 12 M., 56.12°.

The highest temperature observed here during the summer was seventy-six

degrees. The most remarkable characteristic of this summer weather,

even the brightest of it, is the velvet softness of the atmosphere. On

the mountains of California, throughout the greater part of the year,

the presence of an atmosphere is hardly recognized, and the thin,

white, bodiless light of the morning comes to the peaks and glaciers as

a pure spiritual essence, the most impressive of all the terrestrial

manifestations of God. The clearest of Alaskan air is always

appreciably substantial, so much so that it would seem as if one might

test its quality by rubbing it between the thumb and finger. I never

before saw summer days so white and so full of subdued lustre.

The winter storms, up to the end of December when I left Wrangell, were

mostly rain at a temperature of thirty-five or forty degrees, with

strong winds which sometimes roughly lash the shores and carry scud far

into the woods. The long nights are then gloomy enough and the value of

snug homes with crackling yellow cedar fires may be finely appreciated.

Snow falls frequently, but never to any great depth or to lie long. It

is said that only once since the settlement of Fort Wrangell has the

ground been covered to a depth of four feet. The mercury seldom falls

more than five or six degrees below the freezing-point, unless the wind

blows steadily from the mainland. Back from the coast, however, beyond

the mountains, the winter months are very cold. On the Stickeen River

at Glenora, less than a thousand feet above the level of the sea, a

temperature of from thirty to forty degrees below zero is not uncommon.

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