ISLANDS OF BERING SEA (Historic Information)
There are numerous small islands around Bristol and Kuskoquim Bays, and north of the latter are Nunivak and Nelson Islands, both large and inhabited by the Esquimaux. A hundred miles westward are Hall and St. Mathews, of no value, and a hundred miles north of them is the large island St. Lawrence, tundra-covered, of volcanic construction, and eighty miles long, visible from Siberia in clear weather; discovered by Bering, 1728.
Two or three hundred Esquimaux live here, and in good weather could reach either Siberia or Alaska. Polar bears land on the island by means of icebergs, which usually melt soon after entering the warmer waters of the Japanese Current.
The sea lion, a giant furless seal, often weighing a thousand pounds, may be found here, as well as in numerous other places on the Pacific and Arctic Coasts, the intestines of which are very valuable to the natives for waterproof clothing, and the skin for boats. Also the walrus, which is another yet larger hairless seal, weighing as much as the largest horse or cow. The fur seal can waddle along at about one mile per hour on land; the sea lion not half so fast, and the walrus scarcely at all, and they make comparatively the same difference in swimming. Either of them can float in a somnambulistic siesta on the surface of the ocean, with as much grace as they can bask in the sunshine on the shore, and they can remain a month at sea with no inconvenience. They usually swim two or three feet beneath the surface, arising at times for respiration. The oil of the seal, sea lion and walrus constitute the light, fuel, and a large part of the fat and food needed by the natives of this island. Their flesh fills the larder, and their skins make the boots, boats, summer houses, and some of the clothing, and provide thongs and leather for innumerable purposes. The walrus skin is from a half to three inches thick. The animal is a helpless bundle of blubber, subsisting on clams and seaweed, which it digs up with its tusks and strong whiskers on the end of its nose.
Sledge Island (so named by Cook because he found a sledge upon it), near Nome, is important simply because it can be reached from there; but King Island has attracted the attention of all who have seen it because a number of Esquimaux hang their skin houses on its ledges in summer and burrow into them in winter, from which they watch for animals in the drift of the surrounding sea. Much has been written about these peculiar people being the connecting link somehow between the peoples of East and West, but it seems they are the same as all the other Esquimaux, except that they have changed their modes of living, building and burial to conform to the rock on which they live.
The Diomede Islands are of the most importance, inasmuch as they are mere stepping stones between East Cape of Siberia and Cape Prince of Wales in Alaska, some of them in Russia and some in Alaska. From these islands the mainland on either side is plainly in view, and but a pleasure journey for a small boat, or a day's walk when frozen over. Their inhabitants now, and long before the advent of white men, were Esquimaux, trading in both continents, and by them the Alaskans went to Siberia and the Siberians to Alaska. On the Siberian side the Mongolian blood thickens until it reaches China and Japan; on the American side it thins until it reaches at least to Puget Sound.
There are no islands of importance in the Arctic Ocean belonging to Alaska; however, there are some small shore islands or sand spits known as Flaxman, Barter, Midway, and Thetis Islands, on which whalers or natives sometimes winter. East of the boundary line is Hershel Island on one side and Geography Island on the other side of the Mackenzie River.
Between 1770 and 1860 a stream of explorers, lead by Samuel Hern, and including such men as Franklin, Beechey, McClintock, McKay, Hood, Mackenzie and Richardson, came to the Arctic in search of it, of copper or of Ross and Franklin, and from them we have our earliest reliable information concerning the natives.
They usually came from the Hudson Bay or lake regions of Canada, down the Copper Mine or Mackenzie Rivers. They reported the Esquimaux from Icy Cape or Point Barrow eastward to be the same people as those on Hudson Bay and in Labrador, and near of kin to those of Greenland. The exploration of this part of the Alaska shore is credited to these overland expeditions, and is but little better known now.
The Northwest Passage, for the discovery of which all maritime nations strove for three hundred and fifty years, was not successfully navigated (excepting possibly some whaler) until 1903-7, by Amundsen, in the Gjoa. In these vain searches several hundred men lost their lives, and as much money was appropriated as has since been set aside to discover the similarly elusive poles.
Amundsen found the Franklin Monument, placed by McClintock, 1838. and some of the supply station left on Beechey Island, 1852, for Franklin, but Franklin and his brave men were silent in death not many miles away, after having passed through the coveted passage.
The whole Bering and Arctic tundra-covered coast of Alaska is thawed enough on the top in summer to grow moss, breed mosquitoes, and fill the surface with water; in winter it is bleak, snow-covered, icebound, blizzard-swept, and at all times it is the most uninviting land for man or beast. The land, as a rule, slopes back gently, with low mud banks along the sea and rivers. The water, loaded with mud, flows sluggishly to the Bering Sea. which is now almost filled, so that near the mouths of large rivers boats can not approach land, and can find anchorage almost anywhere at sea. A few scattered willows or birch may be found in the sheltered valleys or river banks, otherwise it is a waste of well-rounded, cheerless, treeless hills, interrupted by the Nushegak Mountains back of Kuskoquim Bay; Kusilvak, Chantinak, Kaiyuth, and Kaltag Mountains back of Norton Sound; Hooper Mountains behind Point Barrow, and Franklin and Romiantzov Mountains inshore from Flaxman Island, and Polly Mountains behind Pelly Bay. These mountains, or hills, as a rule, rise to a climax at about 1,500 feet, back from the coast twenty-five to one hundred and fifty miles, and somewhat mark the boundary of the tundra lands inhabited by the Esquimaux.
After the search for the Northwest Passage. Ross and Franklin discontinued, the country north of the Yukon was abandoned by the white man. and for the most part is now unknown. The natives are few, whale are scarce, and thus far the country beyond Teller is poor in mineral.
The district southward of the Yukon, particularly along the shore and rivers, was the trapping ground of the Russian-American Fur Company until the United States purchased Alaska, but their discoveries were rarely published; however, the remains of missions, trading stores, block houses and the like, may still be seen along the Yukon to bort Yukon, along the Kuskoquim to Kolmakofski, on the Nushegak, Lake Iliamna and small rivers.