Billy Mitchell In Alaska
Early in his military career, the apostle of air power blazed a trail through the wilderness, forging the last link in a telegraph line to the edge of the Bering Sea
February 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 2
Just before Christmas I made a trip with Dutch to my various stations to see how things were going, and to make sure the men were well taken care of and would have whatever we could give them for Christmas. We had a wonderful horse trail made across the country, and with our sleds light, we went along at a great rate, often at a dead gallop. I was crossing the Forty Mile Creek on the way back, when I looked down the trail and saw a lone figure running toward me with a springy step and waving his hand. I brought the dogs to a halt, and he handed me a letter from the commander of the Mounted Police in Dawson, asking me to come there and spend Christmas with them.
We had to travel hard to get to Dawson in two days. Turning my teams in the trail, I made for the metropolis of the north. The dogs seemed to know that they were on the way to holiday and a rest. We jingled down the Forty Mile with our bells echoing from the hills on either side. That night we reached the little town of Forty Mile on the Yukon and stayed at the roadhouse, setting off early next morning.
The Yukon River trail was rough in spots, but we made good time. The winter trail along a large river follows the smooth ice as far as possible. On each side, broken fragments and high ridges of ice were heaped up where the water had pressed them aside before they froze solid. Behind them, the high and precipitous river banks thrust upward, heightening the boldness and grandeur of the scene. In some places the ice had no snow on it, and the wind whistled over the frozen surface with biting fierceness.
About three o’clock in the afternoon, the dogs showed that they smelled the town lying around the bend of the river ahead of us. We went straight down the main street at a gallop, our bells jingling merrily.
The Christmases at Dawson were renowned all over the Northland. I put up with Captain Cosby of the Mounted Police, one of the finest fellows I ever knew, while Dutch went with the noncommissioned officers, and our teams were carefully housed in a section of the Mounted Police dog corral where they could not fight the other dogs. Our teams were the envy of all the dog mushers in Dawson who gathered to inspect them.
The parties given by the various prosperous citizens were endless and all very well done. The ladies had as fine Paris gowns as could be found anywhere and wore wonderful jewels. At one dinner, we ate raw oysters on the half shell that cost one dollar apiece. I learned afterward that the shells had been brought in separately, and the oysters put on them, but they were very good indeed.
Most of the music consisted of fiddles, played by musicians who knew all the old-time dances. There were some accordions, guitars, and mandolins, and a few upright pianos.
On Christmas Eve, the Mounted Police gave a great ball. All turned out in their full-dress uniforms. As I had none with me, I wore one of Cosby’s, red coat and everything else, and had just as much fun as if it had been my own.
We stayed seven days, which was plenty long enough. Had we remained longer and accepted the lavish hospitality extended to us, both the dogs and ourselves would have lost our “trail condition.”
The temperature had been falling constantly, and when we left Dawson on January 2, the thermometer registered 62 degrees below zero. In weather as cold as that, when one exhales the breath, the moisture congeals instantly, and a distinct pop can be heard. It is practically impossible for wind to blow at this temperature. If it did, it would freeze you just the way a hot iron burns.
Having a long nose that protruded whenever it had a chance and was constantly being frozen on the end, I hit upon the scheme of putting a little piece of snowshoe rabbit fur on it, the hairs of which stick out about an inch and a half. The moisture from my face held it there.
Ice formed all over our parka hoods from the moisture of our breath and had to be knocked off every little while. Long beards and mustaches become instantly caked with ice, and are not only an inconvenience but a menace, as they might freeze one’s face. That is why men in the North shave clean in winter, after having let their beards grow long in the summer to keep the mosquitoes off.
One often hears inexperienced men say that after it gets below 40 degrees, a further drop does not make much difference. This is not so. Forty degrees below is not particularly cold, or even 45, but for every degree below 50, the intensity of the cold seems to double.
In spite of the intense cold, we made excellent time, going by way of Forty Mile, and in three days I reached the head of the Middlefork River and scaled the high divide where I had ordered a cache of supplies to be made. Here I was met by Chief Joseph. He had brought an excellent outfit with him, good snowshoes, caribou-skin clothing, and a 30/30 carbine. He seemed quite melancholy, however, and told me that he might never see his own people again as he was going with me into the country of the bad Indians. Although I did not expect to encounter any very unusual conditions, I knew that a long snowshoe trip with the temperature below 60 degrees was a serious thing, particularly if we ran into any warm springs and broke through the ice. The temperature had been falling steadily. It was now under 70 degrees below zero.