Billy Mitchell In Alaska


We found the Goodpaster to be a beautiful stream, gradually broadening out between washed-down hills, with excellent timber. We threaded our way through groves of spruce trees, birches, and alders, and as we descended the river course, we began to get more and more into the bed of the stream.

The terrible cold continued, constantly around 70 below. The wise huskies would stop every little while and bite the snow out of their feet to keep them from freezing. A snowshoe trail in cold weather is extremely hard on dogs, because even after it has been broken, the dogs go in almost up to their bellies. As their feet go down through the snow, their toes spread out, with the web and hairs projecting so as to offer the greatest surface possible. The snow sticks to the hair between the toes, and in a little while it is a good deal the same as marbles between them.

We made about fifteen miles a day, which we considered good, as the snow was quite deep compared to the Yukon. On our fifth day out we ran across a trail which Joe at once pronounced to be made by an Indian, one of his tribe, he thought, who had left his own country and gone into the forbidden territory because it was so rich in furs. The trail went ahead of us down the river. Soon we saw the smoke of a fire rising through the spruce trees, and getting closer, saw an Indian wickiup, a lodge built something in the form of a beehive, covered with bark and spruce boughs.

“Him David house. I guess he die,” said Joe, meaning that the lodge belonged to a man of his tribe named David, who was probably starving to death.

Leaving Dutch with the dogs, Joe and I went to the wickiup and looked in. There sat David with his head in his hands, emaciated and pale. Three children, practically unable to move, were on the other side of him, while his squaw was just able to put wood on the fire. Three dogs were in the lodge, two of them hardly able to move, but one came toward the door to try to attack us. He was so weak he fell into the fire on the way and had to be pulled out.

Joe talked to David and elicited the information that David had come across with his family at the first snow. It had grown cold so quickly that he had been unable to get sufficient caribou meat to last him through the winter. The snow was so light that the game ran right through it, but it offered the maximum impediment to snowshoes. He had only killed a couple of caribou since the middle of November, and for over a month they had subsisted on moosehide from their moccasins and the sinews out of their snowshoes, had eaten one dog, and were about to kill the others. All these Indians seemed perfectly numb, mentally and physically, so exhausted were they. A white man under the same conditions would have frozen and died long before.

We had been hitting a terrific gait along the trail. Dutch was getting tired, but Indian Joe was becoming much more so, although neither of them said anything about it. I therefore decided to give them a day’s rest and at the same time try to save this Indian family. If I split my own meager store of provisions with them at that time, they would eat everything up in a few days; so I gave them only meals that we cooked ourselves during the day we were there, and left them just enough food to last for ten days, by which time I expected to return.

Naturally this was cutting down our own supply pretty low, but I knew I could get to the mouth of the Goodpaster in four or five days, and I expected the Indians there to have some dried salmon left and possibly some game. We chopped an additional store of wood for David’s family and fixed up his lodge. The effect of a little food on the dogs was even more marked than the effect on the Indians.

The day’s rest had stiffened up both Joe and Dutch, who showed increasing signs of fatigue. Dutch kept lagging behind, so I sent him forward where I could watch him. When cold begins to seize people, they become very pleasant, and everything seems rosy to them. They want to lie down and take it easy, and when they do, they freeze to death in a couple of minutes.

The second day out from the camp of the starving Indians, Dutch began to lag behind worse than ever. As we rounded a turn in the river, I looked back and did not see him. I could tell by the action of the Indian that he was worried. A little way down the stream we saw a dry spruce tree, sticking over the bank above the ice. I told Joe to go down there and make a fire instantly while I ran back on my snowshoes to look for Dutch. I found him about 150 yards back, lying in the snow. I spoke to him, asking him why he had not kept up. Dutch answered that he was so tired he had to lie down and take a rest, and he didn’t believe it was possible for him to move, that he was perfectly comfortable there in the snow.