Billy Mitchell In Alaska


After having provided for our dogs and eaten a good meal ourselves, we settled down to smoke, and I gleaned from the Indians all the information I could about the country. I asked when they thought the breakup would come in the spring, and where they thought was a good place for us to build boats. The conversation shifted to when the salmon would come, whether there were many of them, how much game there was in the country, and where it was located. The Goodpaster, they told me, was the best place for marten, or Alaska sable, but the Delta River, the mouth of which was about ten miles below, was the best place for foxes, particularly’ black and silver tips, several of which they had obtained during the last month.

Finally, an Indian who was telling me about the Delta River, said, “Me come back yesterday from line of traps, Delta River, me catchum two white men. They heap sick, too much eat.”

This was astonishing information, two white men in the country at that time of the year, and sick from eating too much! I could get no more out of him except that he had left two Indians with them, that he had given them frozen salmon to eat, and that they had been on the trail a long time, coming from the Copper River. Joe elicited the information that these men were nearly frozen to death and in a very bad condition.

I determined to push down there at once and see what the trouble was. Telling one of the Goodpaster Indians to start down ahead of me, I borrowed a sled from them to use instead of my toboggan, hitched my team to it, took a little rice and bacon with me, and left Dutch to look after things at the Goodpaster village.

In a couple of hours I reached the Indian camp, a little above the mouth of the Delta. Sure enough, I found two white men, one an Irishman and the other a Swede. The Indians had built a nice wickiup for them, with a comfortable fire which made it quite warm. The Irishman’s face and hands were entirely black from freezing, and his ears were all shriveled up and sloughing off. The front teeth of both men were broken off from having tried to bite into the frozen fresh salmon which the Indians had given them, and both were very sick at their stomachs from having eaten so much of it. The Swede was in much better condition than the Irishman. His toes and fingers were a little frozen, but his face, except for the nose and ears, was pretty clear of frost, as were his legs, arms, and back.

I looked over the Irishman. The Indians had taken off his trousers and were rubbing him with snow to try and save him, but I saw at once that his legs were gone and probably his arms. He had worn suspenders to hold up his trousers, and these had frozen from the moisture. There was a black streak on each side of his chest and down his back where they had extended. I did not see how the man could have lived.

I gave him a little Perry Davis Pain Killer, and cooked some rice, bacon, and salmon for them. It would have been impossible to get these men back to my working parties or to Eagle City, but there was a trading station at a little place called Chena, about a hundred miles below, where a gold strike had just been made. I therefore told the Indians that they must mush these men on down there, and they would be paid liberally for their efforts by the government or by private individuals. Both the frozen men said they had plenty of money and produced an order from the Northern Commercial Company to give them practically anything they wanted.

In the meantime, the Swede, whose vitality seemed enormous, began telling me what had happened to them. To begin with, he and his partner had determined to go into the upper Tanana River country, as they thought it offered the best chance for making a strike. During the summer they hired some packers to take them up the Chestachina River, and carried a good outfit across the divide, which is without timber for about thirty miles. They made a good strong cache for it, which would resist wolverines or any other animals, then crossed the divide and waited for the freeze in a cabin on the Chestachina about fifty miles from their cache.

When the freeze came, they crossed the divide under great difficulty, then found that their cache had been robbed by the Delta Indians of everything except a little corn meal. They debated whether they should go back or go ahead, and decided that the trip back was almost as bad as the trip ahead. As they were both good shots, they thought they could kill game sufficient for their subsistence, but little did they know about hunting at that time of the year in northern Alaska. They saw sheep several times but could get nowhere near them, and in a week’s hunting only killed two rabbits.

Still they decided to push ahead. Soon their scanty supply of corn meal was exhausted. They went several days without eating, and their dogs became so exhausted that they could go no further. A dog can work from four to seven days without anything to eat. After that he dies if he is not fed. So they killed one dog, ate some of it, and fed the rest to the other dogs. This carried them on a little further. Two dogs ran away, which left them only two others. These they also killed. Pulling their own sled, they still made from six to eight miles a day.