Wrangell Island and Alaska Summers


Chapter III

Wrangell Island and Alaska Summers

Wrangell Island is about fourteen miles long, separated from the

mainland by a narrow channel or fiord, and trending in the direction of

the flow of the ancient ice-sheet. Like all its neighbors, it is

densely forested down to the water’s edge with trees that never seem to

have suffered from thirst or fire or the axe of the lumberman in all

their long century lives. Beneath soft, shady clouds, with abundance of

rain, they flourish in wonderful strength and beauty to a good old age,

while the many warm days, half cloudy, half clear, and the little

groups of pure sun-days enable them to ripen their cones and send

myriads of seeds flying every autumn to insure the permanence of the

forests and feed the multitude of animals.

The Wrangell village was a rough place. No mining hamlet in the placer

gulches of California, nor any backwoods village I ever saw, approached

it in picturesque, devil-may-care _abandon_. It was a lawless draggle

of wooden huts and houses, built in crooked lines, wrangling around the

boggy shore of the island for a mile or so in the general form of the

letter S, without the slightest subordination to the points of the

compass or to building laws of any kind. Stumps and logs, like precious

monuments, adorned its two streets, each stump and log, on account of

the moist climate, moss-grown and tufted with grass and bushes, but

muddy on the sides below the limit of the bog-line. The ground in

general was an oozy, mossy bog on a foundation of jagged rocks, full of

concealed pit-holes. These picturesque rock, bog, and stump

obstructions, however, were not so very much in the way, for there were

no wagons or carriages there. There was not a horse on the island. The

domestic animals were represented by chickens, a lonely cow, a few

sheep, and hogs of a breed well calculated to deepen and complicate the

mud of the streets.

Most of the permanent residents of Wrangell were engaged in trade. Some

little trade was carried on in fish and furs, but most of the

quickening business of the place was derived from the Cassiar

gold-mines, some two hundred and fifty or three hundred miles inland,

by way of the Stickeen River and Dease Lake. Two stern-wheel steamers

plied on the river between Wrangell and Telegraph Creek at the head of

navigation, a hundred and fifty miles from Wrangell, carrying freight

and passengers and connecting with pack-trains for the mines. These

placer mines, on tributaries of the Mackenzie River, were discovered in

the year 1874. About eighteen hundred miners and prospectors were said

to have passed through Wrangell that season of 1879, about half of them

being Chinamen. Nearly a third of this whole number set out from here

in the month of February, traveling on the Stickeen River, which

usually remains safely frozen until toward the end of April. The main

body of the miners, however, went up on the steamers in May and June.

On account of the severe winters they were all compelled to leave the

mines the end of September. Perhaps about two thirds of them passed the

winter in Portland and Victoria and the towns of Puget Sound. The rest

remained here in Wrangell, dozing away the long winter as best they


Indians, mostly of the Stickeen tribe, occupied the two ends of the

town, the whites, of whom there were about forty or fifty, the middle

portion; but there was no determinate line of demarcation, the

dwellings of the Indians being mostly as large and solidly built of

logs and planks as those of the whites. Some of them were adorned with

tall totem poles.

The fort was a quadrangular stockade with a dozen block and frame

buildings located upon rising ground just back of the business part of

the town. It was built by our Government shortly after the purchase of

Alaska, and was abandoned in 1872, reoccupied by the military in 1875,

and finally abandoned and sold to private parties in 1877. In the fort

and about it there were a few good, clean homes, which shone all the

more brightly in their sombre surroundings. The ground occupied by the

fort, by being carefully leveled and drained, was dry, though formerly

a portion of the general swamp, showing how easily the whole town could

have been improved. But in spite of disorder and squalor, shaded with

clouds, washed and wiped by rain and sea winds, it was triumphantly

salubrious through all the seasons. And though the houses seemed to

rest uneasily among the miry rocks and stumps, squirming at all angles

as if they had been tossed and twisted by earthquake shocks, and

showing but little more relation to one another than may be observed

among moraine boulders, Wrangell was a tranquil place. I never heard a

noisy brawl in the streets, or a clap of thunder, and the waves seldom

spoke much above a whisper along the beach. In summer the rain comes

straight down, steamy and tepid. The clouds are usually united, filling

the sky, not racing along in threatening ranks suggesting energy of an

overbearing destructive kind, but forming a bland, mild, laving bath.

The cloudless days are calm, pearl-gray, and brooding in tone,

inclining to rest and peace; the islands seem to drowse and float on

the glassy water, and in the woods scarce a leaf stirs.

The very brightest of Wrangell days are not what Californians would

call bright. The tempered sunshine sifting through the moist atmosphere

makes no dazzling glare, and the town, like the landscape, rests

beneath a hazy, hushing, Indian-summerish spell. On the longest days

the sun rises about three o’clock, but it is daybreak at midnight. The

cocks crowed when they woke, without reference to the dawn, for it is

never quite dark; there were only a few full-grown roosters in

Wrangell, half a dozen or so, to awaken the town and give it a

civilized character. After sunrise a few languid smoke-columns might be

seen, telling the first stir of the people. Soon an Indian or two might

be noticed here and there at the doors of their barnlike cabins, and a

merchant getting ready for trade; but scarcely a sound was heard, only

a dull, muffled stir gradually deepening. There were only two white

babies in the town, so far as I saw, and as for Indian babies, they

woke and ate and made no crying sound. Later you might hear the

croaking of ravens, and the strokes of an axe on firewood. About eight

or nine o’clock the town was awake. Indians, mostly women and children,

began to gather on the front platforms of the half-dozen stores,

sitting carelessly on their blankets, every other face hideously

blackened, a naked circle around the eyes, and perhaps a spot on the

cheek-bone and the nose where the smut has been rubbed off. Some of the

little children were also blackened, and none were over-clad, their

light and airy costume consisting of a calico shirt reaching only to

the waist. Boys eight or ten years old sometimes had an additional

garment,—a pair of castaway miner’s overalls wide enough and ragged

enough for extravagant ventilation. The larger girls and young women

were arrayed in showy calico, and wore jaunty straw hats, gorgeously

ribboned, and glowed among the blackened and blanketed old crones like

scarlet tanagers in a flock of blackbirds. The women, seated on the

steps and platform of the traders’ shops, could hardly be called

loafers, for they had berries to sell, basketfuls of huckleberries,

large yellow salmon-berries, and bog raspberries that looked wondrous

fresh and clean amid the surrounding squalor. After patiently waiting

for purchasers until hungry, they ate what they could not sell, and

went away to gather more.

Yonder you see a canoe gliding out from the shore, containing perhaps a

man, a woman, and a child or two, all paddling together in natural,

easy rhythm. They are going to catch a fish, no difficult matter, and

when this is done their day’s work is done. Another party puts out to

capture bits of driftwood, for it is easier to procure fuel in this way

than to drag it down from the outskirts of the woods through rocks and

bushes. As the day advances, a fleet of canoes may be seen along the

shore, all fashioned alike, high and long beak-like prows and sterns,

with lines as fine as those of the breast of a duck. What the mustang

is to the Mexican _vaquero_, the canoe is to these coast Indians. They

skim along the shores to fish and hunt and trade, or merely to visit

their neighbors, for they are sociable, and have family pride

remarkably well developed, meeting often to inquire after each other’s

health, attend potlatches and dances, and gossip concerning coming

marriages, births, deaths, etc. Others seem to sail for the pure

pleasure of the thing, their canoes decorated with handfuls of the tall

purple epilobium.

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