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by Tom O'Dale

This story was written by Tom O'Dale, an Alaska gold miner, freighter, boat builder and adventurer; his story starts in 1906 and is a wealth of information about survival, transportation and long lost names of early entrepreneurs, landmarks and river boats. The article was published in The Alaska Journal: History and Arts of North America, a now defunct quarterly journal. Thank goodness, this story has survived.

A lot of men headed for Alaska in the year 1900, most of them looking for gold. I had one advantage over most of them in that my brother, Jerry, had arrived on the Kenai Peninsula four years earlier, at the height of the Hope-Sunrise gold rush.  I was able to draw on his experience and the experience of others I met through him and through them, to learn something about wilderness travel and wilderness living, about prospecting for gold and placer mining, and all of the things one needs to know if he is going to live comfortably in the North.

As I worked at various places on the Kenai Peninsula and then later on a job installing hydraulic mining equipment on Crow Creek, near the present Alyeska Resort, for the Nutter and Dawson Mining Company of California, I kept hearing stories about the country on the far side of the Alaska Range, in the drainage of the Kuskokwim River.  Others were looking in that direction, too, and I made up my mind to go there.

The year was 1906 and I teamed up with a man named Jack Clouse.  He proved to be a good partner. Later on he went "Down Below" -- our term for the States in those years -- and learned deep sea diving. Some years later he helped salvage the steamship Islander near Juneau

We did a lot of careful planning before we started out because we knew the stores and trading posts would be few and far between in that country.  We got together everything we could think of that we would need. This included such basic tools as a whipsaw and axes. Then there was a 10 by 12 tent, a Yukon stove, light canvas tarps to cover our grub, netting and light drill to make mosquito-proof tents for summer, four pair of snowshoes made by the Tyonek Indians, rifles and ammunition, fish hooks and line, nails, steel traps and so forth.

We figured on a two-year supply of grub and included 1,200 pounds of flour, 500 of sugar, 300 of beans, 250 of rice, 250 of bacon (it was better cured in those days and would keep), 75 of dried fruit and 20 of lard, in addition to such items as tea, salt and soda.  We had three boxes of candles, 360 in all, and a watertight five gallon can of sulfur matches.  Then we had our personal belongings, including plenty of warm clothing, rubber shoepacs, wool socks and mittens.

We got most of our outfit from the Alaska Commercial Company store at Sunrise. This was the oldest and largest trading company in Alaska with several trading stores on Cook Inlet, although at the time we outfitted they were selling many of their stores to other companies or to individuals.  You are apt to hear a variety of opinions about the AC Company, as it was known, but from my own dealings and from what I have heard from others, it was the best liked by the prospectors and trappers because it kept its prices down and didn't raise them the way some outfits did when grub got scarce.

We left in October, heading for a pass we had heard about that would take us across the Alaska Range. Although we didn't know its name at the time, this proved to be Rainy Pass, which had been discovered and named in 1902 by the famous Alaskan geologist Dr. Alfred H. Brooks.  We picked the fall of the year because we figured winter would be the easiest time to sled our outfit across the range.  We first crossed the inlet to Tyonek, then went up the Susitna River to Susitna Station.  This was another Alaska Commercial Company post, started many years before for the fur trade.  In recent years it had become more important as an outfitting point for prospectors and miners going up the Susitna and a few years later it would become one of the main stations on the Iditarod Trail.

We purchased an old boat at Susitna Station and with it started up the Yentna River and then up the south fork of the Skwentna.  On our way up, we met two old-time Alaskans, Jim Ward and Mike Stagner, also heading in our direction, and the four of us decided to throw in together.  We were to spend most of the next two years in this informal partnership.  We used the lumber from the old boat to build sleds, one for each of us.  We had no dogs and didn't want any.  When you use dogs, you have to pack along plenty of dog feed and in breaking trail through new country, the dogs eat more than they can haul.  Instead, we "necked" our sleds over the pass.

This was a common method of hauling an outfit in those early years.  There were various ways of pulling the sled.  Some men rigged a harness with a strap over each shoulder.  Others used a single strap that went over one shoulder, across the chest and under the opposite arm.  This could be changed off from one shoulder to the other, and sometimes travelers relieved aching shoulders by putting the strap across the forehead and pulling with the neck muscles.  Still other sledders rigged a tumpline, much like that used by many backpackers and always pulled part of the load with the neck muscles.  This developed the neck tremendously and it used to be said you could always spot an oldtime Alaska traveler because, while he could wear a size 16 shirt, he needed a 19 collar.

We had lots of time so we didn't rush it and took five months to make the distance of about 150 miles from where we started up on the Skwentna to where we were able to build a boat on the south fork of the Kuskokwim. The way we worked it was to set up a camp, then relay our supplies six or seven miles to a new campsite.  Each camp was good for four or five days and sometimes longer if the weather was bad.  It sometimes got down to 50 to 70 degrees below zero at night and was often between 30 and 40 below during the daytime.

Our camp was comfortable enough.  After picking a site, we would trample the snow down with our snowshoes and set up the tent and floor it with a lot of fresh-cut spruce boughs.  Each of us had a caribou skin and these were spread over the boughs and the blankets on top of the skins. The stove was placed within easy reach of one of the beds so a fire could be started in the morning without having to get out of bed.

Travel was possible only during daylight and in many of the canyons we traveled in, this was only about six hours.  We always tried to get camp set up well before dark so we could cut plenty of wood.  We allowed ourselves only one candle each day, for use in the evening and early morning. We saved all the candle ends and most of us carried a few on the trail.  With them, we could get a fire going very quickly if we got our moccasins wet as we sometimes did in an overflow.  Our candle holders were simple and easily made. We took a fairly long stick, usually willow, and split it about four inches down one end. A strip of cloth was wrapped around the lower end of the candle and the two ends pulled tightly into the split stick, the other end of which was then thrust into the snow or the ground.

Our breakfast was usually hotcakes with Mapleine syrup and bacon - as long as the supplies lasted.  In Alaska in those days, hotcakes were invariably made from sourdough, a starter always being packed along as a necessary part of the supplies.  We kept our starter all the way to the Kuskokwim and back again.  I made a square pot out of spruce lumber. When full, it held about ten pounds and I always kept enough in it so it would be sour at all times.  When we got to camp in the afternoon and got a fire going, I set the pot back of the fire to start thawing. Then that night, before going to bed, it would be thawed enough so I could add all the fixings like soda to sweeten it, sugar, salt and flour and set it back of the stove again.  We didn't keep a fire going at night, so in the morning it would be frozen again.  I'd scrape it out like ice cream and drop chunks in the frying pan.

Supper usually consisted of beans or rice, but sometimes we had that for breakfast too.  We didn't have time to go hunting for game but did shoot an occasional ptarmigan.  After supper, we usually sat in the tent, sometimes drinking tea, and whittled shave sticks for a quick, hot fire in the morning, but after a hard day of trail breaking and relaying supplies, we didn't sit up very late.

After we broke trail ahead to a new campsite, we usually relayed two loads of supplies forward each day until the whole outfit was at the  new site. Then we moved the camp. But in places it was slow going. We ran into snow more than six feet deep on Happy River and by Christmas we were only about seven miles up the river, which was overflowing. We took time off for Christmas and Jim Ward and I went hunting and found a moose which we killed, skinned out and cleaned. By that time it was late, so we hung the meat to freeze and went back to camp.  There we found that Mike Stagner had caught a fat porcupine and cooked it with rice for our Christmas dinner. It was mighty welcome because it was the first fresh meat, except for a few ptarmigan, we had had since we started the relays. The next day we brought in the moose, including the hide which we saved for snowshoe repairs.

Relaying up that river canyon was the toughest part of the whole trip.  Snow fell continuously and once it took three days of tramping it down before we could make a relay.  Also, the ice kept settling and the water underneath kept flooding up over the ice and we had to get our outfit to higher ground and wait for it to freeze solid again.  In later years, when the Iditarod Trail was cut through and the roadhouses came in, the trail was up in the timber away from the canyon and overflows.

We made some false starts but finally found the branch that led over to the Kuskokwim side. This branch was later known as Pass Creek.  By January 30 we had everything relayed over the summit and down to the spruce line on Dalzell Creek.  We then moved on down Dalzell to the Rhone River, about four miles from where it runs into the Kuskokwim.  From there on, the going was much easier. Both the Rhone and the south Fork were overflowing and freezing with slick ice and the weather was clear and mostly from 30 to 50 below zero.

The moose and caribou were all up above timber line where the small willows grow and where there was sunshine for about four hours a day and it was much warmer there than down in the river bottom.  We finally found a good camping spot on the east side of the South Fork, several miles below Post River.  It was on a high bench covered with spruce that were large enough for boat lumber. A big problem at first was the water; we had to cut down through some seven feet of ice to get to running water. We set up a saw pit and got busy with the whipsaw, ripping out enough boards for a 26-foot boat, six feet wide and scow shaped.  We piled the lumber with strips of wood between so it would dry.

By the time we were finished with that it was the latter part of March and our moose meat was about gone. so Jim Ward and I went hunting, traveling light.  We figured spring was close at hand and we would siwash it - that is, carry only some light bedding and a small amount of grub. I took a caribou skin and Jim a light bedroll.

But winter hadn't finished with us.  That night, up on Post River, it turned cold. There was a five-mile draught down-river and we felt it was too severe for us to travel back to our main camp. so we made the best we could of it, taking turns keeping two fires going so we could keep warm between them. We spent six days and nights there and when it warmed we were mighty glad to get back to warmer beds.

We found that Mike and Jack were both sick with scurvy, what the miners called blackleg. Fortunately, I had heard about an old Indian cure for this. I boiled spruce needles and the under-bark of cottonwood, making a strong infusion. After a few days of drinking quantities of it, they were up and around again.

Jim Ward didn't get scurvy but did fall in the water hole one day when it was 40 below. Fortunately, we heard him holler and got him out. He was almost frozen and his clothes were frozen before we got him to the tent about 40 yards away. Incidentally, in such a happening the big woolen mittens we almost always wore could be lifesavers. Once they are wet, they will quickly freeze to the surrounding surface, giving a handhold by which a man may pull himself out. If a man just thrashes around in the water, the sides get so slick he probably never will get out.

Despite the perils and mishaps, we got safely through the winter and in April we built out boat so as to have it ready for the early May breakup.  The South Fork had frozen to the bottom, then overflowed and built up the ice to a total depth of 20 feet or more, and it was slow in going out.  We finally loaded everything into the boat and started off with one man ahead to watch for ice jams.  On the second day we arrived at the Nicolai Indian Village, about 20 miles above the junction of the south and North Forks of the Kuskokwim. There we heard about a new gold strike on Ganes Creek and also leaned that Pete McGrath had started a trading post at the mouth of the Takotna River. We headed first for the trading post and found that there were in fact two stores. The second was owned by a man named Apple.

We replenished our supplies there, loaded the boat again and necked it up the Takotna River to Berry's Landing where we set up camp.  That was a hard pull against the current, and that river has a lot of twists and turns. As an old-timer named Ben Atwater once said, "It is so crooked you can jump across it and still be on the same side!!"

We set up camp at Berry's Landing made up packs with supplies for three weeks for the three of us, and left Mike Stagner in charge of the camp while the rest of us investigated Ganes Creek. It was just over the divide between the Kuskokwim and the Yukon rivers.  Unfortunately, when we got there, we found that everything had been staked, clear down to where Ganes flows into the Innoko River.  We kept going and found some color on a creek we named Spruce Creek and staked four claims there.  Four more claims were staked over the divide from the head of Spruce Creek on what we called Dollar Creek. It also flowed into the Innoko.

By the time we got back to the claims on Spruce Creek, our grub was running short, so we headed back to camp by way of Yankee Creek.  By then we had been living 12 days, mostly on rice and the dozen grayling Mike fried up for us were sure a treat.  That was good country. All the streams had grayling, northern pike and other fish and later on in the season there were salmon.  Of course, there were swarms of mosquitoes and other insects. We had to wear head nets and pack light bug-proof sleeping tents.  These tents did not shut out much of the continuous daylight of that time of year - until we had been inside for about 10 minutes. By then, so many mosquitoes had settled on them that they became quite dark.

Although we weren't sure they were worth recording, we decided we had better find some place to record our eight claims and we headed back to McGrath, as the trading post was beginning to be known. There we learned that W. A. Vinal had been appointed U.S. Commissioner and Recorder for the Ganes Creek District and was on his way to McGrath from Nome. While we waited for him, we earned some money by freighting supplies up to Berry's Landing. A storekeeper from Nome had about 3,500 pounds of goods, mostly gum boots and shoepacs, and we contracted to take them up to Berry's Landing for six cents a pound.  When we got the boat all loaded, it looked like a two-story house, but we had an easy trip up the crooked, sluggish Takotna.

The storekeeper had a crate of spuds and onions and we hadn't seen any of either for the best part of a year. He said we could use some, and we did, with grouse and spruce hens and grayling. The crate was a good deal emptier when we piled it ashore at the landing.

Commissioner Vinal and his wife were at McGrath by the time we got back there. They had traveled from Nome to Bethel by steamer, then up up the river on the Hattie B., a fur buyer's boat. But no grub had come in yet, and there were a hundred or more prospectors there, waiting impatiently. We were offered a dollar a pound for our flour, sugar and other supplies, but we declined. We recorded our claims, then took Judge Vinal and his wife up to Berry's Landing before we headed back toward the Innoko, leaving Mike with the boat.

That was hard mining on Spruce Creek.  Under the yellow moss, which was two to four feet thick, everything was frozen solid clear down to bedrock. The only way to work it was to build fires and thaw down, and sometimes we went down only about a foot a day. It takes two men to sink a hole, so I teamed up with Bill Dikeman, who had a claim just below ours. Jim Ward and Jack Clouse went over to Dollar Creek. About six feet down we found a fair showing of color, so I took a day off and walked over to Dollar Creek to see how they were doing and report our progress. It was there on Dollar that I first met Jack O'Connor. He and his partners had come down the Tanana and the Yukon from Fairbanks, then up the Innoko. In later years, Jack became a game warden with the old Alaska Game Commission and I saw him frequently when I was operating a hunting lodge on Tustumena Lake, on the Kenai.

Bill Dikeman and I had a row after I got back to camp and we split up. My two partners had had enough of Dollar Creek, too, and we headed back to McGrath where we visited with Ben Atwater and other old-timers.

While we were there, an old Indian told us about a strike up country and we concluded to give it a look.  We got some supplies from a large sternwheeler that had come up the river. I bought two cases of Eagle Brand milk at $20 a case, the first milk any of us had had for a year. I also traded my heavy Krag .30-40 rifle for a light .30-30 Winchester.

The four of us boated up the Takotna and then up Nixon Fork to a place where there was a good stand of spruce. We built a 12 by 14 log cabin to hold our 5,000 pounds of extra supplies. We also whipsawed lumber for a light 22-foot riverboat which would be better for prospecting than our scow. The cabin was a dandy, a masterpiece of that kind of construction, if I do say so myself. There was a lot of birch there and we peeled enough bark to cover the roof. Birch bark sheds water and doesn't rot. Over the birch bark we piled six to eight inches of soil and moss for insulation and to hold down the bark.

Jim Ward knotted up a salmon net with five-inch mesh, making it about 20 feet long. We whittle floats out of dry spruce and used small sacks of gravel on the lead line. There were plenty of salmon and we smoked up a good supply of siwash candy. One day, after we had finished the boat, Jim and I pushed it up Nixon Fork to the foothills and picked a supply of ripe blueberries and low-bush cranberries. There were lots of grouse and lots of ducks and geese. The young ones were big and fat but hadn't feathered out enough yet to be able to fly and for a while we feasted on them and on sour dock which is generally known in that part of the country as wild rhubarb.

Before the first frost, we crossed over to Ganes Creek to check on our claims but found everyone there was having poor results. Only a few places were rich enough to work by hand. Later on, with steam thawing and dredges, a lot of gold was taken out of that area. But we decided to cross back over to the Susitna River side of the range as soon as travel conditions were right. A  trapper bought our cabin on Nixon Fork and we returned to McGrath where we sold the small boat.  Then we started the long haul back up the Kuskokwim. On the way we leaned something more about Indian ways. At the mouth of Big River we found an old and decrepit Indian. We couldn't talk with him and we supposed he had gotten lost or accidentally been left behind. So we loaded him aboard and took him up to the Nicolai village, four days up-river. We expected to get a hearty welcome when we returned the old man, but instead the Indians were pretty unhappy with us. The old man was no longer of any use and was becoming a burden, so he had been left behind to die. We were interfering with an age-old solution to geriatrics.

The farther we got up the South Fork, the harder the going became, of course as the river grew narrower and swifter. With three men on the towline and one in the boat to keep it off the banks, we made slow progress.  Now and then we stopped to prospect some of the side streams but all we found was some peacock copper and some quicksilver-washed gravel.

By the time the cold weather came and slush ice began running in the river, we were within 10 miles of where we had built our boat the previous April. We made camp there to fix up our snowshoes and built three sleds with lumber from our boat. I also used the top of our mosquito tent to make myself a canvas parka and faced the hood with fur from a wolverine I had shot near the camp.

It was really cold by the first of November and with clear weather and ice ahead, we loaded everything on our sleds and started out. We had learned a lot the year before and we knew the trail, so we made much better time on this crossing.  I shot a fat cow moose which gave us plenty of meat, and we had pretty good going the whole way. We pulled into Lake Creek Roadhouse first, then moved down to Susitna Station after having been away for almost exactly two years.

Jim Ward and Mike Stagner stayed at the station and later would sled in a load of supplies to Cache Creek.  Jack Clouse and I headed for Seward, by way of Knik. That was a rugged trip. Fish Creek hadn't frozen over yet and we stripped to the waist and packed everything across with the thermometer at around 10 degrees below zero. It was snowing heavily over Crow Creek Pass and it took us three days to reach Girdwood.  My brother Jerry was taking care of the sawmill at Girdwood and the Alaska Central Railroad warehouse at Kern Creek, and we visited with him for a few days.  The railroad which had been built only to Mile 41 out of Seward, was shut down for the winter, but it had been graded and most of the tunnels completed as far as Mile 52, near Spencer Glacier.

We started along the railroad right-of-way for Seward and it took us four days to make the trip. There was ice in many of the tunnels and we found about 25 feet of snow between miles 54 and 45, so we had to break trail over the summit. It was about New Year's when we got to Seward and separated. Jack, as I mentioned before, was interested in deep sea diving and he went to Seattle to learn that trade. I found a former partner, John Coffee, living along in a log cabin on Pinochle Row at the foot of the hill in Seward and moved in with him for the winter. We took a contract to cut 16-inch wood for Harry V. Hoben and Alvin F. Davis, both old-timers from Hope, who were operating a transfer company in Seward. We found good timber on the south side of Glacier Creek and made a good grubstake.

As spring began to come on, the claim owners began arriving to start the summer's work in the placer mines. Doc Herndon, H.H. Morris and Charles Jacobs together owned most of Nugget Gulch on Cache Creek and John and I hired out to them. We took our gear and boarded the Portland for the trip to Seldovia, where we caught a smaller steamer up to Tyonek. There we waited for the ice to go out of the Susitna. Some 100 other miners and prospectors were also waiting there.

After about a week, a heavy run of ice came down with the tide and we thought the river was open. Lee Ellickson owned a small gas boat, the P.V., and about a dozen of us headed up-river on her. It was a false start; we ran into solid ice just above Alexander River and all the boats hauled out there and we camped four days until the ice broke. Most of the prospectors headed for susitna Station, but the P.V. kept on up the Susitna and then the Yentna to the mouth of Lake Creek. From there we packed across country to Nugget Creek, which took us another four days. We found things in good shape, the summer's supply of grub having been sledded in during the winter.

We put in the summer, shoveling gravel into sluice boxes, making money for the owners. At the end of it, I joined Jim Ward and Mike Stagner and we went down to Susitna Station in a small boat. There I ran into Bill Murphy who had a boat named the Swan, one of the only four boats working on Upper Cook Inlet at that time. She was about 34 feet long with a 12-horsepower Frisco Standard gas engine. Another boat was the P.V., previously mentioned, and a third was the Lina K., owned by an old-timer known as Red Jack. Probably he had another name, but I don't remember it. The Lina K. had a kerosene engine.

Bill Murphy needed a hired hand on the Swan and I signed on. We were kept busy taking passengers from Susitna Station down to Tyonek to catch a steamer, or across to some point where they could hike to Seward to catch a steamer. Around the first of November the ice started to run. Murphy and I on the Swan and Red Jack on the Lina K., started from Tyonek to go to Seldovia for the winter. We didn't have any charts so we just pointed the boats down the inlet. Then we saw a steamer which proved to the Bertha and we followed her to Seldovia. There we found a party of 10 men who wanted badly to get up the Inlet and they chartered the Swan.

Bill Murphy wanted a bigger boat and I made a down payment on the Swan, with hope that I could find Jim Ward and take him into partnership on the deal. We headed for Seward. It took two days to get to Knik, where we bought an old dory to cross the arm. We worked our way through the ice and made shore just below Eagle River. We sure were glad to get there because it was 10 below zero and the ice was getting heavier and heavier. We went over Eagle River Pass and Indian Creek Pass, cutting trail all the way. It took us eight days and we were out of salt. Did you ever work hard for eight days without the taste of salt? I don't recommend it. When we got to the roadhouse at the mouth of Bird Creek we sure enjoyed a big meal of moose meat, boiled spuds and lots of salt.

We finally made Seward and from there went to Seldovia on the Dora the mail boat that ran west from Valdez each month. There were lots of odd jobs for us. One of them was towing piling to Seldovia for W.G. Whorf who was driving a cannery dock. Gasoline was scarce but there was lots of kerosene and those old heavy-duty gas engines would run on it once you got them warmed up. Toward spring, the Alaska Commercial Company started building a wharf at Port Graham and there was also a cannery starting there, and that made more work.

The A.C. Company was making Port Graham one of its main transfer points. They had bought the little steamer Tyonek, from P.D. Blodget to take goods from Port Graham to the Beluga River, where another dock and warehouse were built. Goods were transferred at Beluga River to a light draft river boat which went up to Susitna Station. Mining was increasing on Cache Creek, Peters Creek, Valdez Creek and other points along the Susitna and this created a demand for more supplies.

We made several trips up the Inlet with passengers that spring, then hired out to do the hauling for the firm of Snow and Watson. The Alaska Central Railroad had been recognized as the Alaska Northern Railroad and was building northward from Mile 41 where tracks had stopped.  Snow and Watson had contracted to do the grading from a point near Mile 52 to Mile 71 at Kern Creek. Steamers brought construction materials up the Inlet to Fire Island and we towed loaded barges from there up to Girdwood. There was a sawmill at Girdwood, cutting bridge timbers and ties and we took these up as far as Mile 63, now known as Portage. Steel was laid as far as Mile 71 at Kern Creek, but after that everything shut down and stayed shut down until the federal government bought the railroad and, starting in 1915, carried it through to Fairbanks.

With the railroad shutting down, we had to look for new employment for ourselves and our boat. The Post Office Department was calling for bids to carry the mail, two boat trips a month from April to December, on a route that started at Seldovia and ran to such places as Port Graham, Ninilchik, Kasilof, Kenai, Hope, Sunrise, Knik, Beluga and Tyonek. I went to Seward in June 1909, to try and raise the necessary bond to put in a bid.

At Seward I found there was a lot of interest in another mail route, a winter route to the new mining camps in the Iditarod country. Seward was very anxious to become the terminus of the route and Valdez was after it too. The Seward Chamber of commerce hired Alfred Lowell to find a feasible route and Alf, knowing that I had been over the range and into the Kuskokwim, looked me up. I drew the best map I could of the route we had taken and gave Alf some tips on what to look for and what to avoid. The next winter he teamed up with a Japanese fellow, Jujiro Wada, widely known in the North as Wada the Musher. And together they blazed out what became known as the Iditarod Trail.

At Seward I was able to raise the necessary bond and I put in a bid on the mail contract. Somewhat to my surprise, since I knew the A.C. Company was also bidding, we got the contract. As soon as we finished our work with Snow and Watson, we went to Seldovia and began getting out timber for a new and larger boat. This kept us busy until the following year when we launched the Bydarky in April, just in time to start carrying the mail. We were to have an adventurous four years in that business on Cook Inlet, but that's another story.