Discoveries in Alaska

Publication Year: 1951.

Discoveries in Alaska (1896)

W. A. Dickey

[The following article, made available to us by Bradford Washburn, appeared in The Sun on Sunday, 24 January 1897. The headlines under the title read: “The Unknown Region North of Cooks Inlet Entered / Explorers find a Flat Country where the Government Maps show the Southern Part of the Alaskan Mountains / A mountain revealed which is believed to be 20,000 feet high. If so, it is the loftiest summit of this continent / Good Geographical work by Prospectors.”—Ed.]

THE largest unexplored region in the United States is the district north of Cooks Inlet, Alaska. The Kuskokwim and Nushaguk flowing into Behring Sea, the Tanana into the Yukon, the Sushitna into Cooks Inlet, and the Copper River into the Gulf of Alaska drain this “terra incognita.” They are all large, muddy rivers, draining great glaciers, and are at flood height throughout the short summer season. The difficulty of making headway against such swift streams, the clouds of gnats and mosquitoes, the reputed fierceness of the interior Indians (the Apaches of the North) have all served to keep out both the explorer and that most venturesome of all investigators, the prospector.

The discovery of paying placer mines on Cooks Inlet in the fall of 1895 brought about 2000 prospectors to its shores last summer. They swarmed over Kenai Peninsula, staking out claims in the deep snow, and the surplus ventured into the Kiuk and Sushitna valleys, both unexplored districts. Over one hundred parties entered the Sushitna River, but only five attained any great distance up the river. One party provisioned for two years proclaimed that they were prepared to ascend the Sushitna to its source, and if they found nothing there they would go on to the Tanana; if still unsuccessful, they would keep on northward to the Arctic Ocean. In five days they were on their way back, saying they thought there must be some easier way to the North Pole. Another party gave up the attempt after nearly losing their lives, their boat, driven by the swift current, jerking them off the bank from which they were towing. One young man from Boston turned back after he and his mate had been about a week on the river without reaching the station, giving as a reason his unwillingness to prospect a country where he was obliged to tie up his head in a gunny sack every night in order to escape the mosquitoes.

We landed at Tyonick, near the head of Cooks Inlet, the first week in May, 1896, in about two feet of snow, thick blocks of ice lining the shores, and awaited the opening of the Sushitna. Our object in prospecting the Sushitna was the hope of finding placer mines on its upper waters. There were several reasons leading to this conclusion. One of the most important was that anywhere on the shores of Cooks Inlet a few colors of fine gold could be found. Probably this gold came from the largest stream entering the inlet; then the Copper River, rising in the same district, was reputed to be rich in gold and copper.

Cooks Inlet is like the Bay of Fundy. It is shallow, with high, swift tides, the extreme being about sixty-five feet. It is often visited by violent storms, so violent that the natives pack many miles along its beach rather than venture out in boats.

Starting in an open dory, with the incoming tide, we reached the broad mud flats extending some fifteen miles from the mouths of the Sushitna. All night and a greater portion of the next day we spent on the flats hunting for the entrance of the river, for the Sushitna, like many Arctic rivers, has quite an extensive delta, which, with its network of channels, is eight or ten miles wide. Inside the entrance, the swift current, low, muddy, and caving banks, covered with thick brush and cottonwood trees, render progress very difficult. On all sides are the traces of great floods, the entire country for miles being subject to overflow. Many unable with oars to stem the mighty flood have given up the struggle before reaching the trading post thirty miles above tidewater on the river.

The river at the station has two channels: the eastern as measured on the ice is 855 yards wide, and flows swift and deep from shore to shore; the other channel is nearly as large, but not so swift and deep. Just above are the first high banks, perpendicular promontories of rock on each side, against which the stream rushes with great force. Whirlpools in the current seemed to threaten to engulf our boat, but as suddenly as they form they disappear, and we crossed in safety. Finding our sea dory too heavy to handle, we stopped at the station long enough to whipsaw lumber and make two river boats, such as are used on the Yukon, 25 feet in length over all, 18 inches wide on the bottom, and 40 inches at the top. Not having any tar, we pitched the seams with spruce gum and grease. Our equipment consisted of paddles, poles, and tow lines.

While building the boats we witnessed the annual run of candle fish, a species of smelt so fat that when dried they will burn like a candle. The natives stand on the bank with rude dips made of willow roots and catch quantities of them, which are dried on long racks in the sun. Indeed, the river was so full of the fish that it was impossible to dip a bucket of water without catching some of the little beauties. The lean Eskimo dogs put on a layer of fat during candle fish season. They stand on the bank and expertly paw the fish out of the water.

A short distance above the station a great branch comes in from the west. The Indians say that this branch runs around the head of Cooks Inlet and rises in a high range of mountains which we had seen from Tyonick. Above this fork the river again spreads out into many channels, so that it is difficult to tell where to go, the low banks affording no clue as to the probable main course of the river. Twenty miles further another large branch comes in from the west, the main river bearing almost due north. For two weeks we travelled amid islands and sloughs, the river at times several miles wide across its many channels.

On the east were the mountains that form the watershed between the Knik and Sushitna valleys, a low but rugged range from 3000 to 6000 feet in altitude. From these mountains several small rivers flow into the Sushitna, but they did not prospect as well as the main stream, which gave us from six to 200 colors per pan, it being almost impossible to get a pan which did not have some colors.

Several days of heavy rain, which carried off the snow still reaching almost to the river’s banks, raised the stream to flood height, and further progress was for the time being impossible. The driftwood ran in a continuous stream, and the river rose until we had to move our camp. It seemed as though the whole country was to be submerged, when, as suddenly as the rise, the river commenced to fall, and after a week’s delay we resumed our trip on the swollen stream. The first day we made only two miles, though we worked desperately hard, a part of the time in the icy water up to our waists, crossing and recrossing the channels. We were even obliged to unload our boats, take them out of the water, and carry them overland across islands to avoid places where great jams of driftwood, acting as wing dams, rendered the channels we were in impassable. The river here was full of cottonwood snags, around which the current rushes in great swirls, very dangerous to a boat. Where we could, we waded and towed our boats, relying on our quickness to cross safely the treacherous quicksands into which we frequently sank to our knees; at one place we actually lost one of our long poles, which was held so firmly in the quicksand that we could not pull it out.

The mosquitoes hung in clouds about us, compelling the constant use of veils and gloves. Even the Indians on this river wear cheese cloth veils over their faces. At night we pitched our tents low, sewed the entrance up tight, pulling the sides and ends under a canvas flooring on which we made our beds. Each of us taking a corner of the tent, we could kill off the mosquitoes that had come in with us as we crawled under the flap, and then sleep in peace. Luckily in June the days are so long that it is never too dark to see to kill mosquitoes.

On the clearing up of the weather we obtained our first good view of the great mountain, occasional glimpses of which we had had before, the first from near Tyonick, where we saw its cloudlike summit over Sushitna Mountain. This mountain is far in the interior from Cooks Inlet, and almost due north of Tyonick. All the Indians of Cooks Inlet call it the “Bulshoe” Mountain, which is their word for anything very large. As it now appeared to us, its huge peak towering far above the high, rugged range encircling its base, it compelled our unbounded admiration. On Cooks Inlet we had seen Iliamna’s still smoking summit, 12,066 feet above us, rising precipitously from the salt water. Inland is a continuation of the same range, and even higher, probably 14,000 to 15,000 feet in altitude. On Puget Sound for years we had been admirers of Mount Rainier, over 14,000 feet high, but never before had we seen anything to compare with this mountain. My companion in the boat, Mr. Monks, was one of the few who made the ascent of Rainier the previous summer. In his opinion Rainier was about the same altitude as the range this side of the huge peak, which towered at least 6000 feet above its neighbors. For days we had glorious views of this mountain range, many of whose glaciers emptied apparently into our river.

July 4 was ushered in with a heavy rain. While we were encamped waiting for the storm to pass over, a great rumbling proclaimed the approach of an earthquake, which was very violent and of considerable duration. This, the second violent earthquake since our arrival in this country, the high volcanoes still active, the great tides, the huge mountains covered with glaciers, impressed us that here man must indeed battle with nature. In fact, this whole country seems new, unfinished, unfit for the habitation of man. Few and scattered are the Indians who have the hardihood to withstand the severe winters and the many pests that make the short summer season almost unbearable.

According to our journal, 100 miles above the trading station, the river again forked, this time into three branches. The branch from the northwest apparently drains the southern slope of the great range, and like a flowing sea of mud spreads out in many channels about two miles wide. The branch from the northeast is as white as milk, while the middle stream, which we concluded was the main river, was nearly clear. This last river had good towing banks, and but few channels, and we soon entered a narrow valley almost a canon, between the mountains, which now enclosed us on both sides. Ascending one of the highest of these that stood out into the valley, we had a splendid view of the river valley below, and solved a question which had previously given us much study, namely, why such large branches came in from the west, where the Government chart of Alaska shows a great range of mountains.

The fact is, there is no range there, but a broad, flat valley extended westward as far as the eye could reach, heavily timbered with spruce and birch. It is apparently a continuation of the flat country that surrounds the upper portion of Cooks Inlet. I should estimate the dimensions of this valley as being nearly 100 miles each way. In the south, Mount Sushitna, some 5000 or 6000 feet high, marked the mouth of the river. In the east was the rugged but low range that separated us from the Kiuk Valley. In the northeast was an apparent gap in the range, through which our river ran, and whose course we could trace for thirty or forty miles.

In the northwest was the greatest range of mountains we had ever seen, of which the great mountain previously mentioned was the culminating point.

We were amazed at the fine growth of grass, which in the short time since the snow had been gone, had attained a height of nearly four feet. In any open glade one could make most excellent hay. It is hard to understand why, with such fine feed in a country so sparsely inhabited, there are no more moose and reindeer. Perhaps it is due to the rigorous climate and the abundance of fierce timber wolves and a large brown bear as large and dangerous as the Rocky Mountain grizzly.

The river now had many boulders and rapids. On one side we passed a high bank in which were seams of coal of fair quality, eight or ten feet thick, to which a steamer could extend its gangplank and get a load with pick and wheelbarrow. After passing this coal formation the river entered a long series of canons with slate walls. Back of these, some seven or eight miles, were low granite mountains. Some of this granite is a rich green, the most beautiful I have ever seen. About seventy miles from the great forks we came to a small village of the Kuilchau, or Copper River Indians, tall and fine looking, and great hunters. Throughout the long and arduous winter they camp on the trail of the caribou. They build huge fires of logs, then erect a reflector of skins back from the fire, between which reflector and the fire they sleep, practically out of doors, although the temperature reaches 50° below zero. We were surprised to find them outfitted with cooking stoves, planes, saws, axes, knives, sleds sixteen feet in length, 1894 model rifles, etc. They were encamped near a fish trap which they had constructed across a small side stream, and were catching and drying red salmon. They had no permanent houses, living in Russian tents, with the entrance arranged like our own to keep out the gnats and mosquitoes. They informed us that we could go no further with our boats, as the Sushitna now entered an impassable canon, whose upper end was blocked by a high waterfall. “Bul- shoe!” they exclaimed, raising both hands high above their heads.

As the small side river on which they had their traps prospected well, we followed it for some distance, until it ran into a canon, where further progress was impossible without a long and hard detour over a mountain side.

One of the Indians undertook to show us the portage around the falls on the main river, but finding the path very steep and difficult, dangerous even to carry our packs, we gave up the attempt without seeing the falls, which must be very high, from the appearance of the canon and surrounding country.

The river at the highest point we reached was about 200 yards across, deep from shore to shore, with a millrace current. From the maps which the Indians made for us of the continuation of the river above the falls, we inferred that it ran a long distance to the northeast, probably from 150 to 200 miles, though none of the natives had been to its source. The Kuilchaus, who trade at the Kiuk station of the Alaska Commercial Company, say that some of the tribes live on a lake that empties into the headwaters of Copper River, and the balance on a lake not far distant, in which the Sushitna rises, and that it is only a short portage from either lake into the Tanana.

At all events, from the size of the Sushitna at the falls and from its direction it must flow nearly from the Copper River. Other prospectors who ascended the muddy western branch informed us that about forty miles from the great forks it branched, one stream flowing northward around the base of the great range from whose many glaciers it receives several tributaries: the other, flowing west, drains the southern side of the great range, finally turning back into the flat valley that runs a long way to the west. From a mountain top they could trace its course in the flat country for many miles. To the north they could see a stream apparently flowing west, which they thought was the Kuskokwim. One glacier at the forks came down almost to the river’s bank and was the source of a large stream. They could trace the glacier far back toward the great mountain.

Unable to pass the falls on the main river we turned down the stream to the great forks. It was very exciting and dangerous running the rapids among the big boulders, the race-horse speed at which we travelled giving us no time to examine the river ahead. The boiling waves several times entered our boats, and we were constantly on the jump to keep them from swamping. We could make a greater distance down the stream in an hour than we could up in a day.

We ascended the western branch nearly to the canon, where we met a party of prospectors coming down. Their boat, which they were towing, had been dragged by the swift current under a snag and upset, and they lost all their outfit. They reported the canon ahead impassable, owing to the high water in the river. Two weeks of almost continual rain raised all the river to flood height. Our provisions being low, and one of the party being sick, we reluctantly turned back to the station, which we reached in two days. We ascended Mount Sushitna near the mouth of the river and confirmed our previous observations on the upper river, namely, the extent of the broad, flat country, and the total absence of the great Alaska range as marked on the Government charts of Alaska.

We named our great peak Mount McKinley, after William McKinley of Ohio, who had been nominated for the Presidency, and that fact was the first news we received on our way out of that wonderful wilderness. We have no doubt that this peak is the highest in North America, and estimate that it is over 20,000 feet high. We have talked with seven different parties who saw the mountain this summer, and they estimate its height at over 20,000 feet. Most of them think it is nearly 25,000 feet in altitude. Our last view of its towering summit was from one of the tideland islands at the mouth of the Sushitna. Here on a glorious evening we had a fine view of Iliamna, 100 miles south, and Mount McKinley, to the north. Field glasses brought out the details on Iliamna, but made no change in the appearance of Mount McKinley, which was nearly twice the distance away. Notwithstanding its greater distance, Mount McKinley looked much the higher of the two peaks.

Much interested in the geography of this country, and finding the Government charts so unreliable, we gathered all the information possible from the Indians and the few whites who had, during the summer, prospected on the upper river. The Kuilchaus drew for me a map of the river, holding the pencil by the extreme end, and much amused with their first experience with pencils and paper. When they reached as far in the drawing as they had ever been on the river, they drew their pencil around back and shook their heads, and we could not get them to venture any further opinion as to the river beyond. Their only way of estimating distances was by sleeps, as they had no conception of what a mile was; in fact, they did not know what the words Indian or white signified.

One of the Kiuk tribe, an intelligent and prosperous Indian who trades with the interior Indians and who travels every winter in the interior country, drew a map showing the relation of the upper Copper, Sushitna and Tanana rivers. He makes, as do all the interior Indians, the three rivers in close proximity at their head waters.

We found colors of fine gold in nearly every pan, and on the upper river platinum. The formation for the last forty miles below the falls was slate porphyry and granite, many veins of white quartz running through the slate. One specimen assaying well in silver, copper and gold would be very valuable were it nearer means of transportation or in a less rigorous climate.

The natives on Cooks Inlet are devout Greek Catholics. Every village has its church and even the Copper River Indians fear the priests. Last winter some of the Copper River Indians who came down to trade at the Kiuk station had several wives. This the Greek priest said was wrong, and ordered them to put away all but the woman they had married first. Too superstitious to refuse, the Indians sent their extra wives away, but on the departure of the priest for other parishes the banished wives, who had only retired a short distance, promptly returned to their former lords.

Many Indians were killed or seriously wounded by the great brown bear, which they hold in great respect. They never bring in the head or claws, although they would bring higher prices at the store with them left on the skin. At Kuskutan last spring a hunter did not return to the village after his daily trips of inspection to his traps. The next morning another brave, axe in hand, went to search for him. He also failed to return, and the next day the whole village went in search of the missing. They found nothing except the axe and huge bear tracks. A few days later an enormous bear chased some of the natives to their very doors, notwithstanding the many wounds inflicted by the rifles of the pursued. After that he hung about the village, and although shot many times he would soon return. Just after dark one evening he suddenly appeared at a window at one of the cabins, smashed in the glass, and gave the lamp standing inside a knock that sent it across the room. Without further ceremony the monster proceeded to climb into the room. Luckily all escaped through the door, and the men finally drove the bear away with no further damage than the wrecking of the furniture. All were now afraid, for surely this must be an evil spirit or shaman and not an ordinary bear, as bullets seemed to have no effect on him. As a last resort they took some bullets to the church, had special prayers recited and holy water sprinkled over them; then they marched three times around the church, carrying the sacred candles and praying for deliverance from the shaman. The next time the bear appeared one of the holy bullets found a mortal spot, and the huge bear came crashing to the earth. “God killed the bear and not our bullets,” cried the old chief who told us the story, as he reverently stood with hands uplifted. I counted thirty-two bullet holes in the hide which he showed us; one hole in the head undoubtedly did the work.

Some idea of the remoteness of Cooks Inlet can be gained by the fact that it was more than seven weeks from the time we commenced our homeward voyage before we finally reached Seattle, much benefited by our summer’s outing in unexplored Alaska.