I. GENERAL DESCRIPTION (History of Alaska Information)
It is unnecessary to narrate here the history of Alaska, especially as existent conditions in the Territory are entirely disassociated with the past as to material interests, and as to its administrative, judicial, or religious methods. However, the Table at the end gives such matters of historical interest, and dates of occurrence, as are of special importance.
It is difficult to give an idea of the geography of Alaska that shall be brief and adequate, or satisfactory, owing to its vast area and its divergent conditions.
All are familiar with the accurate but misleading statement that Attu Island, Alaska, is farther west of San Francisco than that city is west of Eastport, Maine. The Alaska known to the tourist is a strip of coast and fringe of islands of about 425 miles by 100 miles, extending from Ketchikan north to Mount St. Elias, in fact, about one-twelfth of Alaska. The main Territory just begins at St. Elias, stretching northward about 700 miles to the Arctic Ocean and the same distance to the westward to Bering Sea, its total area being given by Gannett as 590,884 square miles. Perhaps some idea of its great extent may be hact from the statement that its area is one-third greater than that of the Atlantic States from Maine to Florida. While the northernmost land, Point Barrow, is more than 300 miles within the Arctic Circle with the sun absent forty days, its extreme southern point, at the entrance to Portland Canal, is in practically the same latitude as Hamburg, Germany.
Generally speaking, the southern two-fifths of Alaska consist of rugged, precipitous mountains, sometimes glacier-covered but more often densely wooded. The northern fifth is the largely treeless and barren shores of the Arctic coast. Intervening between these regions the remaining two-fifths are the watersheds of the great Yukon and the lesser Kuskokwim rivers. Other distinctively-separate areas are the Seward (Nome) peninsula and the chain of Aleutian Islands. The general features of Alaska appear in the relief map herewith reproduced.
For the purpose of description the following are adopted as districts, in view of their distinct and separate entity from the standpoints of resources, business, and transportation.
1. Sitkan Alaska, covering the mainland and outlying islands from Ketchikan northward to Skagway. This is Alaska as known to the tourists, though only about one-twelfth of the Territory.
2. Southwestern Alaska the watersheds draining into the Pacific, from St. Elias westward to the Alaskan peninsula and the outlying islands.
3. The Aleutian and Pribilof islands.
4. The Yukon and Kuskokwim watersheds.
5. The Seward Peninsula (Nome region).
6. The Arctic watersheds.
Sitkan Alaska includes the mainland and outlying islands from Ketchikan northward to Skagway. The mainland is a narrow strip, scarcely averaging twenty miles in width of available ground, overshadowed by the high, snow-capped mountains that separate Alaska from British Columbia. The whole of the Sitkan region is of the fiord type, the shores rising abruptly hundreds, often thousands of feet above the sea or straits, with bordering or entering fiords of such great and sudden depths as permit large-draft ships to safely skirt the very shore. The land surfaces are most irregular, and it is with difficulty that a square mile of fairly level land can be found. The whole country is more or less densely wooded to the height of several hundred feet above the sea.
Southwestern Alaska is also a fiord region, marked by three great inlets, Yakutat Bay, Prince William Sound, and Cook Inlet. While Yakutat Bay lies under the very shadow of the St. Elias Alps and its enormously debouching glaciers, it is favored with heavy forest growth wherever there is ice-free land. The continuity of the fiord coast is broken at the Copper River delta, where there is a great projecting shelf, with moderate depth seaward and shallows at the river mouth. To the west Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet, with the Kenai Peninsula between the two sounds, are magnificent in their fiord aspects and glacier formations, which excel in beauty the more extensive glacial fields of St. Elias. In the inlet country, along and adjoining the glaciers, woodland regions are also extensive. The extreme west of the mainland, Alaska Peninsula, between Cook Inlet to the east and Bristol Bay, Bering Sea, to the north, is a mountain ridge of several hundred miles with sharply descending spurs and sides to the very sea. Its northeastern borders are divided between coast forests and lake districts, but seven-eighths are upturned stratified beds, with many volcanic peaks whose destructive activities are not wholly of the past, as instanced by Illiamna and Redoubt, by adjacent Bogoslof and Grewingk. To the south of the peninsula is the forest-covered isle of Afognak, and beautiful Kodiak, 3,642 square miles largest of Alaskan islands, though some claim that it is second in size to Prince of Wales Island where the forests of its northern coast thin rapidly to the southward.
The Aleutians stretch as a long bow-shaped chain of seventy treeless islands, excluding islets, for a thousand miles from Alaska Peninsula to the coast of Kamchatka; they extend so far that two groups Nearer and Rat are in the Eastern Hemisphere. From west to east the groups are Nearer Islands, W. of 175° E., of which probably Attu is best known owing to its basketry, and from its extreme western position, which in June holds the setting sun until it rises in Maine. Between 175° E. and 180° E. are Rat Islands, of which Semisopochnoi or Seven Peaks is one. The Andreanofski, of which well-known Atka, with its beautifully woven baskets and mats, lies between 180° W. and 172° W. The most important and best known, however, are the Fox Islands, which lie to the westward of Alaska Peninsula. Of these is Unimak, washed by the pass of that name, which is the route to and from Nome; and Unalaska, on which the Dutch harbor is located, formerly the base of operations for trade and travel in the Bering Sea region. Scarcely more than a score of the Aleutian Islands are inhabited. In general the islands are desolate and scraggy, with many hot springs and other evidences of their volcanic origin, while several craters show minor activity.
While the Pribilof group, better known as the Seal Islands, are some 200 miles north of Unalaska, they appear to pertain rather to the Aleutian than to any other system; they are considered elsewhere.
Seward Peninsula. As one proceeds northward into Bering Sea the shore conditions materially change beyond Bristol Bay. The coast forests disappear and the low shores continue treeless to the Arctic Ocean, excepting a woodland fringe on the east shore of Norton Sound and in the eastern portions of Seward Peninsula.
The great sounds of Norton to the south and Kotzebue to the north, form Seward Peninsula, a region of about 20,000 square miles. Its flat-topped uplands, from 800 to 2,500 feet elevation, drain most largely to the south through broad valleys of the tundra type. The coasts are low and sandy, unsuited even in the few bays for shipping except very light draft boats.
Kotzebue Sound receives two quite large streams, the Noatak to the north with scant timber, and the more important Kobuk (Kowak) to the south, where considerable bits of forest and abundant game are found.
The most northerly and important cape of the Arctic coast is Point Barrow, 71° 25' N. From Kotzebue Sound to Barrow the shore is low and sandy; thence eastward along the Arctic Ocean to the Canadian boundary the coast is low, without harbors, and fringed with outlying shoals. To the east of Barrow the country is practically uninhabited, although the interior forests, which begin about one hundred miles inward, and the watercourses are visited by Esquimaux hunters. As is elsewhere shown, Point Barrow obtains its importance as a base of operations for the whaling industry.
The Yukon watershed comprises nearly one-half of Alaska, the river running in a bow-shaped, generally western course for 1,500 miles from the Canadian boundary to Norton Sound. It is separated from the Arctic coast by low ranges of mountains, in which find their sources far to the northeast in Canada the Porcupine, and in the north the Koyukuk, a parallel stream to the Yukon for several hundred miles. To the southeastward the watershed is limited by the lofty Alaska range, from whose glacial coverings flows the Tanana northward, joining the Yukon at Fort Gibbon. The Yukon watershed is practically covered with small timber, except in the lower reaches of a hundred miles or so in the delta country. In general the country is rough, and apart from the mountain masses consists largely of low hills. Where it is not mountainous, as in the extensive flats near Fort Yukon, the plateaus are almost wholly tundra. The Kuskokwim watershed, while much smaller than the Yukon, is of the same general character; in its more elevated parts near the McKinley range forest covered and rough; but in the coastal region a tundra country interspersed with lakes, with many belts of timber, although its immediate delta is treeless.
Among the many interesting features of Alaskan geography there are four which are notable owing to their practical absence from the physical features of the United States. These unique characteristics are the fiords, the glacial fields, the volcanic ranges, and the tundra regions.
The sharply indented fiords have great depth of water, are confined by lofty precipitous cliffs, and many are from 20 to 100 miles in length. With many ramifications they intersect the mountainous coasts of the Alaskan mainland from Portland Canal northward to Prince William Sound. Their beauty and picturesqueness are set forth elsewhere.
The Alaskan mainland as far north as the Alaska Peninsula presents ideal conditions for extensive glaciation. The shores rise precipitously from the open sea, while the atmospheric pressures are so distributed that the vapor-laden winds are normally drawn upward over the mountain ranges. Largely through the cold of elevation, the prevailing fogs and clouds in their passage deposit their moisture as snow. So frequent are such cloud-bearing currents that enormous snowfalls occur, exceeding in many places a hundred feet or more annually (see Chapter II) ; hence the great glacial fields or névés of Alaska, which are nowhere else equalled on the North American continent. While such conditions obtain to a greater or less extent over an area of more than 40,000 square miles of which one-fourth is ice-clad the deepest snowfalls and the maximum resulting névés are between Icy Strait, south of the Fairweather range, and the Kenai Peninsula to the west of Prince William Sound.
Apart from the larger glaciers, numbering two hundred and more, Muir writes:
In the iciest region the smaller glaciers, a mile or two to ten or fifteen miles in length, once tributary to large ones, now fill in countless thousands all the subordinate canons and upper hollows of the mountains.
The grandeur and splendor of these wonderful remnants of the great ice age are set forth in Chapter XVIII.
In striking contrast to the great glaciers of the central névé region, are the adjacent peaks of fire and lava. From smoking Wrangell of to-day there stretch westward for a thousand miles a series of volcanic-formed peaks, mute witnesses of the terrific internal forces which rent the earth, displaced the sea, and reformed lands of considerable extent. Dead craters they are mostly termed, but ever-changing Grewingk (New Bogoslof) Island affords living evidence that the days of lava torrents, flame columns, uprising ridges, and tidal waves have not passed for aye. The awe-inspiring exhibitions of volcanic forces are considered in Chapter XIX, in connection with the subject of Alaskan mountain masses.
Wonderfully dissimilar to peaks of fire and rivers of ice, as well as to striking conformations of canon and fiord, are the immense coastal plains scarcely rising above the level of Bering Sea, and the gently undulating plateaus bordering many reaches of the Yukon and Kuskokwim. As English speech found no name for our Western prairies, so Americans have adopted the Siberian tundra to describe the Alaskan lowland. The tundra is a marshy, practically unbroken plain, overgrown with vegetation, which, though level to the eye, presents surfaces most irregular in form and hence most difficult to traverse. Collier thus describes it:
On the lowland plains and portions of the upland where drainage is imperfect a thick mat of vegetation, composed of mosses, lichens, sedges, dwarf shrubs, and some grass, overlying peat beds, covers the surface and forms the tundra. The underlying soil is perpetually frozen, as the mat of vegetation and peat protects it from changes of temperature, but during the open season the tundra is difficult to traverse on account of its soft, swampy surface.
In many places the tundra is covered with great, detached bunches of rough grass, known as nigger-heads, and travel is possible only by stepping from one bunch to another a most exhausting method owing to irregular distances between the niggerheads and the uncertain footing afforded by them.