Billy Mitchell In Alaska


That night we made camp at the mouth of the Goodpaster. I decided to wait there until the other boats arrived and reorganize the expedition. Mosquitoes were beginning to get bad. It is impossible to convey to one who has not been in the North how terrible these insects really are. At night we built long smudges, or slow-burning fires, around which the mules and horses stood to escape the mosquitoes. After a while the animals got so they would not even leave the smudge to feed or graze, so great was the pain inflicted by the bites. Two of my mules were literally killed by mosquitoes on this expedition. They were bitten so severely that they would not leave the smudges to feed and grew constantly weaker. Later, trying to avoid the mosquitoes, they got into the swift water of the Tanana and were swept away and drowned.

Dutch and I worked down the river ahead of the working parties. When I found a suitable place to land, I would get out on the bank, strike the line where the telegraph should go, then with my prismatic compass lay a straight line from one point to another, and blaze the trail through myself, alone. I laid out from five to ten miles a day in this way. It was difficult working through the underbrush, bogs, and wet moss, with the mosquitoes and insects to contend with, but much easier and quicker than carrying a big outfit and several men along with me.

Rounding the promontory which is at the mouth of the Delta River, we entered Bates’ Rapids of the Tanana. The water here was much swifter than I had supposed. The river was wide, with an interminable number of sloughs. The current ran at a prodigious rate, carrying with it whatever trees or other floating material got into it. These things lodged on the bends, bars, or on projections along the banks and made a great heap like a log jam under which the current raced and roared. If a boat got under them, it would be all off with it.

We had only about one hundred miles more to go to finish the line, so I determined to take one of the large grub boats and handle it myself, to be sure that nothing happened to it on the way down. I had one of my other men take my own boat while I took Dutch and three others, all of them at the oars, two on each side. One was an ex-constable of the Canadian Mounted Police, a very good man on the water. I stood up in the stern and had a twenty-foot sweep with which to steer the boat. The channels were crooked and in many places “sweepers” fifty feet long hung over them, going down with the water, then rising with a swish and falling again.

We made very good time, and I was able to avoid both “sweepers” and the great piles of drift on the bars. I had never before seen such swift water, nor have I since. Suddenly the channel narrowed, and the speed of the current increased. I could see there was a sharp turn ahead, on the other side of which there would be an eddy, due to the water hitting the point and then swirling on the other side. Directly opposite this point was a long “sweeper,” a green spruce tree. Green trees are much more limber than dead ones, and whip in and out of the water with an incredible swing. If this “sweeper” hit us, we would certainly be swamped and lose our grub, and thus be delayed another year on the work. It was the supreme moment of test, on which hung the success of our expedition.

Shouting to the men to put on all the speed they could so as to get steerage, away we shot for the point. I planned to swing the boat as we got there, aiming it to the right and trusting it would hit the eddy on the other side and carry us to safety. As we neared the point, I thought I would make it. Standing in the stern, I pulled my steering sweep with all my might, but just as I did so, the spruce caught me squarely across the waist and lifted me from the boat.

Below us was a great pile of driftwood on a projection of the bank under which the water swirled. I knew if I let go of the tree, I would be carried under the driftwood and never be heard from again. The tree carried me under the icy water, then flopped up about fifteen feet in the air, then fell again and went under the current. I could hear Dutch telling me to hold on, and the other men shouting as they pulled for the shore. A quarter of a mile below me the boat landed. By that time I had wrapped both my arms and legs around the trunk and found that I could hold my breath while the “sweeper” went under the water. I thought I could hang on for fifteen or twenty minutes at least, but if I were swept off at the end of that time, I would have so little strength left I could not avoid going under the drift pile.

I saw three men leave the boat the instant it touched the shore, while a fourth made it fast to the trunk of a tree. One of them had a big coil of rope, another an axe. Never have I seen men work faster or to better effect. Going to the bend about thirty feet upstream from me, they tied the rope around Dutch, over his right shoulder and under his left arm, then took a turn around his body. They snubbed the rope around a tree, and Dutch jumped into the raging current, being let down gradually by the other three until he got to the point where the “sweeper” carried me upstream and down into the water. As I came up, he grabbed me around both shoulders, and I grabbed him. Holding on to each other like vises, we were pulled in by the other three men.

As we landed, Dutch said to me, “I don’t know if we are even, but you saved me from freezing last winter, and I have pulled you out of a bad place in this river.” If it had not been for men like these, I doubt if I would have been rescued.