klondike gold rush
Until recently, I had never given much thought to historic events concerning Alaska. It wasn’t that I wasn’t interested, but rather that other places occupied my mind. Nevertheless, with the recent trip Bob and I took, Alaska has found a place in my mind and heart. Does that mean I have the Alaska Bug…well maybe, because if you offered me a free trip, I would be there with bells on. That said, I noticed the fact that today is a hugely significant day in Alaska’s history. Alaska became a state on December 7, 1959, the 50th state, Hawaii joined the union on August 21, 1959. It is very strange to think that it took almost 172 years to acquire all 50 states, and the final two joined within my lifetime. In our minds, we rather expect that all the states would have been within the first hundred years of each other, but such was not the case at all. Nevertheless, all but two states were within the first 125 years, with only the last two joining 47 years later.
Alaska was first discovered in 1741 when a Russian expedition led by a Danish navigator named Vitus Bering sighted the Alaskan mainland. Before long Russian hunters were making trips into Alaska, and their presence wreaked havoc on the Aleutian people, who had been relatively disease free prior to their exposure to foreign diseases. The first permanent Russian colony in Alaska was established on Kodiak Island in 1784 by Grigory Sheliknov. Settlements spread across the west coast of North America during the 19th century, with the southernmost fort located near Bodega Bay in California. By the 1820’s, the Russians were spending less and less time in the new world, and the British and Americans were allowed to trade in Alaska…after a few diplomatic conflicts. By the 1860s, Russia was nearly bankrupt, and so they decided to offer Alaska for sale to the United States, because they had expressed an interest earlier. The purchase took place on March 30, 1867 when Secretary of State William H Seward…I wondered where some of the names came from…signed the agreement and the United States purchased Alaska for 7.2 million…which was about two cents an acre…quite a deal really. Nevertheless, the purchase was ridiculed by Congress and the place was called “Seward’s Folly”, “Seward’s Icebox”, and President Andrew Johnson’s “polar bear garden” for some time. Still, the Senate ratified the purchase of this vast land that measured one fifth of the size of the continental United States.
Settlement of the new territory was very slow. It seemed that people didn’t feel comfortable about this cold, desolate wilderness, where the sun didn’t act like it did in the rest of their world. Nevertheless, all their apprehension was quickly forgotten with the discovery of gold in 1898. People moved to Alaska in droves to try to make their fortune. In my travels to Alaska, I had the opportunity to watch a movie about the Klondike Gold Rush. While people did find gold, it came at a heavy price, and many people paid the ultimate price. This land was an unforgiving place. Those who were not prepared for it’s harshness, soon found out what it took to live there, and not everyone could do so. It didn’t make them less manly, it just wasn’t for everyone…gold or no gold.
Still, those people who came to Alaska and felt an instant connection, knew in their hearts that this harsh, vast wilderness had somehow gotten into their blood. That is how Alaskans feel about their state to this day. Not everyone is cut out for it, and they do have a tendency to laugh and joke a bit about the light weights who go home, but they also understand that the ones who stay are a bit of a rare breed. In years gone by, we would have called them Mountain Men, and I suppose that fits the early Alaskan people, but by the same token, they would not have made it either, had it not been for the wisdom of the Aleutian people concerning their health. There weren’t all kinds of things like antibiotics, and immune system boosters then. And fruits and such were not plentiful either. But the Aleutian people knew of ways to get vitamin C and other things to prevent disease. Even so, at that time, people did not stay permanently in Alaska. They summered there. Many people still do. They just don’t like the winters there. And yet, if you look, there are areas of Alaska…along the coast, like Anchorage that is actually warmer than places like Chicago. Of course, the interior just doesn’t fall into the warm category, with temperatures reported as low as -65° is some places. I think I might want to get out of there for the winter too. Nevertheless, Alaska is an amazing state, and one that I would love to visit again. Not only is it big in size, but everything there seems huge. The mountains are amazing, and the glaciers awe inspiring. If you ever get the chance to visit our 49th state, it is a trip you will never forget…believe me.
As a kid, I heard the song, North to Alaska often. My parents were fascinated with the idea of going to visit there. Dad talked about it so much, that when it came time for their 50th Wedding Anniversary, our gift to them was a simple choice…a cruise to Alaska. They had such a wonderful time, and it was a memory that has lived on. Then a couple of years ago, I started thinking about how great it would be to see Alaska for myself. Everyone talked about how big Alaska was, and as a state, it is…very big, but that is not really what makes Alaska big…as I found out.
There is a quality about Alaska that can’t be described any other way, but big…a vastness that you can actually feel. That was part of the draw for my parents, and then for me. I felt like the pioneers or gold rushers, setting out into the unknown. Yes, it was quite different for me than it was for them, because so many had traveled before me, and the route is known. There are guides all the way. Still, you get a feeling of being in the wilderness, in the last frontier. Alaska truly is just that, the last frontier, and yet, how could that still be when it has been a state for 55 years? I suppose that it is because much of Alaska hasn’t changed in all those years. About 94% of the state is still uninhabited…at least by permanent residents. Just knowing that makes Alaska have an air of mystery…of wildness.
While in Alaska, I found myself wondering what the gold rush was like. We watched a movie at the visitors center in Anchorage, about the Klondike Gold Rush, and I realized that not only were lives lost in the search for wealth, but lives were destroyed. People lost everything they had…betting on the possibility of striking it rich. Around 100,000 men set out on the journey to the Klondike region in northwestern Canada, most of them by way of Skagway, White Pass, and the Yukon River, where they sailed to the Klondike, but only about 30,000 to 40,000 made it. The rest gave up, or died. Alaska is a place that is very unforgiving. The mountains are very high and topped with glaciers. It was cold and filled with steep climbs. Citrus fruit was scarce, so Scurvy was common. It was a really miserable place to be in winter, and yet they came.
There is still something about Alaska that draws people to it. Yes, there is still gold in Alaska, but there is much more to it than that. There is something about its vast wilderness that challenges them…keeps them there or keeps them coming back. Maybe it’s the beauty of the whole place, or the mountains rising sharply right out of the water,…that are able to dwarf a cruise ship, or any other vessel. It could be the hunting and fishing, or maybe the whale watching. It could be any or all of those things, but for me it was a combination of several of these, coupled with a desire to see the things my parents had seen on their trip. So far, Bob and I are the only ones in the family to go to Alaska, besides Mom and Dad, but if I’m not mistaken, more will follow. Alaska has a way of calling your name…drawing you north.