Alaska: Morning Of Creation

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Starting in 1879, the naturalist John Muir was so enthusiastic about Alaska that he is considered largely responsible for its first wave of tourism. “No excursion that I know of may be made into any other American wilderness where so marvelous an abundance of noble, newborn scenery is so charmingly brought to view,” he wrote. In 1884 cruise ships on the Inside Passage brought 1,650 visitors to the Great Land, as the Indians called it. Last year nearly a million tourists came.

Now, as then, the first-timer is likely to sign up for a tour. Each summer big outfits like Holland America-Westours and Tour Alaska deploy thousands of awestruck travelers over the rugged miles, briskly coordinating convoys of trains, buses, and ships. I was in the hands of Westours last summer on a twelve-day trip into Alaska’s interior, down the southeast coast, and over the Canadian border to the Yukon Territory. Reminders of the past were scattered everywhere—like the raw gold the jubilant miner George Carmack found in August 1896 along Bonanza Creek, “laying thick between flaky slabs like cheese sandwiches.”

In a ten-seat Piper Chief we flew into the heart of gold country, heading for the bush community of Eagle, population 150. Many of Eagle’s public buildings date from around 1901, the year it was named the first incorporated city in interior Alaska. From the courthouse, now the Historical Society, James Wickersham, the U.S. district judge, presided over three hundred thousand square miles, often journeying in brutal weather to outlying districts. Another circuit rider, the legendary mail carrier Percy De Wolfe, was called “The Iron Man of the North.” In the years 1915 to 1950 he logged more than one hundred thousand miles on eight-day round trips between Eagle and Dawson City. A lively walking tour of Eagle is offered regularly by town residents, who normally receive about sixteen visitors a day. Last summer Westours launched the only excursion boat on the Yukon River from Eagle to Dawson City, which means the daily tourist count might rise by about fifty. Tenaciously holding its ground against the surrounding spectacle of mountain and river, Eagle seems ready to handle these newcomers on its own terms.

 

On the brand-new Yukon Queen, it’s a six-and-a-half-hour trip upstream to Dawson City. The Yukon, born in the highlands of northern British Columbia and emptying into the Bering Sea, may well be the wildest river left on this continent. One gets a sense of that on this 109-mile stretch. The swift, muddy current is fierce and changeable, digging new channels and piling up shallow sandbars at majestic whim. The boat carries the latest sonar equipment to scout the river bottom, but there is also a pilot on board. He reads the river from its ripples and alternating shades of gray, and he can spot a change that might come up too fast for the sonar to be useful. On both sides of the constantly winding channel rise stony, fir-covered hills, impenetrable monoliths that seem to soak up all the light even in bright midsummer.

There can’t be a more dramatic way to enter Dawson City than by riverboat, as thousands of gold seekers did in 1898 and 1899. When word of George Carmack’s discovery got out, the former trading post ballooned to a city of thirty thousand, mostly Americans. A British correspondent wrote: “It is all unreal. A sawboard metropolis where no town should be. Daylight at midnight. Millionaires too occupied to bathe.” The expanded Dawson City enjoyed little more than a single season. “Martha, all the ground is taken. Everyone is a king but me. I’m off to Nome on the last boat out,” reads a huge blowup of a postcard at the excellent City Museum.

By 1899 all the good land had indeed been staked, and disappointed adventurers were leaving fast. Soon after, the tourists began to show up. “They stayed in town for forty-eight hours and often arrived in heavy fur coats when the summer temperatures were nudging the nineties,” observed a longtime resident. Much of what these first visitors saw we can still see. Wooden sidewalks tail off into dirt roads that climb the mountain behind town. Tipsy shacks with blindshuttered windows nudge up to pristinely painted tourist attractions—the Palace Grand Theater and Diamond Tooth Gertie’s Gambling Hall. The British-born poet Robert W. Service didn’t even get to Dawson City until 1904, but he wrote the lines that best capture the lure of “a land where the mountains are nameless/And the rivers all run God knows where.”

Since much of Alaska’s coast is accessible only by water and small plane, most travel plans include a cruise. At Juneau I joined up with Holland America’s Noordam, an elegant, spacious ship filled with artifacts relating to the Dutch East India Company. Twentyfour cruise ships were up in Alaska last summer. To minimize damage to the fragile environment, not all of them had permits to enter Glacier Bay National Park. The Noordam did, and, as is standard, two park rangers came aboard to explain the area’s geology and point out its wildlife. As recently as two hundred years ago, ice covered the whole bay. A persistent warming of the earth’s climate has caused these tidewater glaciers to retreat, forming the inlets we travel so silently and slowly, bounded by huge, bluestreaked cliffs of ice. There is a glacier nearby named for John Muir, and the cabin he lived in while exploring it still stands. “Here… one learns that the world, though made, is yet being made,” he wrote; ”… this is still the morning of creation.”