March 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 2
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.”
After Glacier Bay the ship came into a feeding ground called “whale heaven” by one of the rangers, with whales and bald eagles competing for the bountiful fish. The sky was filled with eagles; then slowly, as passengers watched from every deck, the humpbacks gathered. First there were just a couple of tentative spouts some distance off, then a shy arc of body, and finally the rewarding sight of a full span of a whale’s huge tail fin. The whales drew closer; they gathered in groups and for an enchanting hour performed in perfect synchronization, fins rising from the sea as others dipped back into it. Later, in the heat of a city summer, I often thought of them smartly presenting the whale ballet each day to a wildly appreciative audience.
At Sitka, the trip’s last port of call, Alaska’s earlier history came into focus. In a magical setting where the sea meets the mountains and small islands dot the bay, Sitka was first the ancestral home of the Tlingit Indians, then became the capital of Russian America. The first Russian traders appeared in the mid 170Os, and by 1804 the newcomers had changed the town’s name to New Archangel, had built a fort, and had subdued the natives. Secretary of State William H. Seward urged the American purchase of Alaska at a time when the czarist regime was in retreat from imperial dreams. Despite opposition from his own countrymen, Seward prevailed, and on October 18, 1867, the American flag replaced the Russian one on Castle Hill. Today that spot is a steep, grassy rise with a wide view of the harbor.
Its exotic antecedents aside, present day Sitka, with its gray clapboard buildings on the main street and its sea views, resembles a Maine fishing village, lightly touched by the specter of the first Indians. Several museums, most notably the one at Sheldon Jackson College, pay tribute to Tlingit history and art. Sitka National Historical Park, on the forested site of the 1804 battle that signaled Russian dominance over the natives, is a fifteen minute walk from the center of town. Here the scent of hundred-year-old spruce mingles with that of the sea, which lies just beyond the line of trees. Eleven fierce-looking totem poles have been planted on the milelong forest path. This was the notion of a local photographer at the turn of the century who was strongly interested in Tlingit culture. The original totem poles he collected from abandoned Indian settlements began to deteriorate in the outdoors and have been put in storage. What we see now are replicas, but no less powerful for that. Even the question of whether totem poles would in fact have been placed in a forest by the Indians—normally they were found in villages—seems irrelevant. They remind us of whose spirit truly inhabits this place.
Walking under the trees, I came upon a woman sitting on a bench, looking out at the water. She turned to me and said, “You know the story of the Russians in Sitka? I’m part Russian and part Aleut. And I was adopted by the Tlingits. This is my backyard. I come down here from time to time just to sit in my backyard.”