Alaska: Last Frontier

The editor in chief of Houghton Mifflin. PAUL BROOKS spends every holiday exploring the more remote and primitive of our national parks. As this goes to press he and his wife are deep in Canyonlands, that area in Utah which is note being considered for a new park.



TO THE lover of pure wilderness.” wrote John Muir eighty years ago, “Alaska is one of the most wonderful countries in the world.” It still is. A month’s travel and camping, barely touching on its wonders, can at least give you the sense, if not the substance, of this vast area which is indeed a country in its own right. Sheer size becomes here a quality as well as a quantity; distance is a palpable fact, of which you are always aware. Superimpose the outlines of Alaska on a map of the continental United States, placing Fairbanks, the principal inland city, on St. Louis. Point Barrowwill reach to the Great Lakes; Ketchikan, southernmost city in the coastal strip, will be in the Atlantic off Florida, and the Alaska Peninsula will cross Texas to the Mexican border. Look at the globe and you will sec that Nome is west of Hawaii, in the last time zone before tomorrow. Most striking, to eyes accustomed to maps crisscrossed with highways, is the virtual absence of roads. That amazing feat of construction, the Alaska highway, gets you to Anchorage and Fairbanks and northeast to Circle; but it is an artery without veins, a trunk road that has yet to sprout branches. North and west there is nothing. This is America’s last frontier. It is not only a joy but a responsibility. Still largely a virgin land, it offers a Godgiven opportunity to practice the principles of conservation that we have learned elsewhere at such appalling cost.

We had been well advised to enter Alaska by ship through the historic Inside Passage, an islandsheltered waterway extending for almost a thousand miles from Puget Sound to Skagway, near the border of the Yukon. This is the country of Muir’s Travels in Alaska. “The island-bound channels are like rivers,” he wrote, “the tide-currents, the fresh driftwood, the inflowing streams, and the luxuriant foliage of the out-leaning trees make this resemblance all the more complete.” My wife and I sailed from Vancouver, steaming slowly north and west for four nights and three days, “tracing shining ways through fiord and sound,” as Muir puts it. “past forests and waterfalls, islands and mountains and far azure headlands.” Hours passed without sight of a human habitation. Bald eagles circled overhead, flocks of scoters skimmed over the water, but the only signs of man were the occasional seine boats fishing for salmon. Here the towns, widely scattered along the coast, are like islands in themselves, oriented seaward: Ketchikan lives on the salmon run; Juneau, the state capital, flanked by mountains to the east, has a total of ninety miles of road, unconnected with the hinterland. As one travels northward, the mountains close in on the sea. Great glaciers, white on top and blue along the forward edge of the melting ice — some of them now slowly retreating into the valleys they have molded — give a sense of a land still in process of formation.

Historically as well as scenically, the Inside Passage is the true approach to Alaska. These tortuous channels and churning tide rips, the first — and for some the last — stage in the Klondike gold rush of the late nineties, have been lovingly refurbished as a tourist attraction. The ship goes as far as Skagway, docking beside the beach where mountains of miners’ luggage were once piled in massive confusion and horses and mules were slung overboard to swim ashore. A bulging city of tents at the height of the stampede, it is now a sleepy village, starting point of the narrow-gage railway that squirms up over White Pass, graveyard of men and mules. One can still see bits of the old foot trail from the train and get a sense of the triumph the sourdoughs must have felt when they reached the long lake at the summit. Here they built boats to sail sixty miles to the headwaters of the Yukon River and — if they survived the rapids — on downstream to Dawson and the Klondike. In 1900 more boats were built on the shores of Lake Bennett than anywhere else in the world.

At Whitehorse we had to leave the sourdoughs’ route. The great stern-wheelers, which until a few years ago would have taken us down the Yukon, now rot on the bank, their towering pilothouses nesting sites for cliff swallows. Reluctantly, we enplaned for Fairbanks. Yet we need not have worried about leaving the frontier behind. Fairbanks, metropolis of mid-Alaska, is a frontier town, a pinpoint of population on an empty map. With less than twenty-five thousand inhabitants, it is a supply depot for thousands of square miles to the north and west. Eskimos in parkas mingle on Second Avenue with briefcased businessmen. It is also an intellectual center, but in a frontier setting. The University of Alaska lies across the Tanana River from Fairbanks as Harvard lies across the Charles from Boston, but there arc detectable differences between the two. The Boylston Professor at Harvard has the right to pasture a cow in the Yard, but I have yet to see a Harvard biologist build his own log house or Harvard students cut classes in the fall to lay in their winter’s supply — not of debutantes, but of moose meat. Self-sufficiency, yes. but with it a sense of mutual help: the simple friendliness of frontier life, where least of all is any man an island.

IN THEIR ecological study “Wildlife in Alaska,” Starker Leopold and F. Fraser Darling tell how they were impressed with “the grandeur and magnificence of this vast terrain,” and they wondered whether man with his modern technology “was going to be the despoiler or the good steward of this last frontier.” Mount McKinley National Park is a unique spot to observe man’s stewardship. Comprising over three thousand square miles in the Alaska Range southeast of Fairbanks, it can be reached by the Alaska Railroad (“Not responsible for train delays because of moose on right-of-way”) or, more recently, by car via the Richardson and Denali highways. It is traversed by a single, dead-end road about one hundred miles long, rising from an elevation of seventeen hundred feet at the park entrance to almost four thousand at the highest pass. The rest is wilderness. There are not many trails; if you leave the road, you walk up the broad river bottoms or over the rolling tundra, which stretches as far as the eye can see, to the base of the distant mountains. Few trees obscure the view, either of snow-clad Mount McKinley or of the animals, from Alaska moose to red-backed mouse, who unconcernedly share their ancient heritage with man.

On our first hike through the park we began to get some sense of what the term “tundra” really means. Prior to this trip we had only the vaguest idea of it, a hazy composite picture of flat plains ending in ice, summer wild flowers, ducks nesting in potholes, and in winter, Siberian sleigh drivers throwing the least attractive child to the wolves. Now the picture became a little sharper. From a distance the tundra looks like a smooth meadow, through which one might stroll as casually as a Vassar girl gathering flowers for the daisy chain. Not so. At every step the dense, scrubby mat squirmed beneath our feet as if we were walking on bedsprings. We were, in fact, striding on top of a lilliputian forest of trees and shrubs: dwarf birch and dwarf willow; miniature spruce; creeping blueberries and mats of cranberry; Labrador tea, with its sprucelike stem and white flowers; crowberry and the rough-leafed buffalo berry and succulent sedums. Slabs of upturned sod showed where a grizzly bear had been scratching for a favorite food, the root of the vetch (wild pea) or of the saxifrage. Above all — or, rather, below all — there grow here the delicate branching reindeer moss and papery lichen so important to the winter diet of the caribou. We were reminded of the miniature plant communities on the windswept rocks of Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior. But in the arctic it is not the gales and icy spray from above that dwarf the vegetation; it is the layer of eternal ice below, the so-called permafrost. During the brief arctic summers only the top layer of earth has time to thaw; beneath lies a layer of permanently frozen ground. Here only shallow-rooted plants can exist. Poplar, paper birch, sizable willows, and white spruce can live where there is four feet or more of unfrozen soil during the summer. Where the permafrost begins only two feet down or less, one gets occasional stands of black spruce and the sort of scrubby ground cover through which we were now hiking. Curiously enough, the same condition that limits growth of vegetation is also responsible for its very existence. The arctic is semiarid — Fairbanks has less than twelve inches of annual rainfall, and McKinley Park fifteen — but the short, cold summers minimize evaporation, and the frozen subsoil makes possible this luxuriant growth by preventing normal drainage and holding the groundwater where roots can get at it.

In summer the tundra teems with life. Plump arctic ground squirrels squeaked at us from their doorways, freezing bolt upright before diving into their holes, like the prairie dogs of the plains. These rodents are an essential link in the arctic food chain. Foxes prey heavily on them, and they are an important part of the wolves’ diet when caribou are scarce. For grizzly bears they are tasty tidbits; we saw many holes in the hillside where the bears had been patiently trying to dig the squirrels out of their burrows. Finally, they are the main support for the park’s greatest bird, the golden eagle. Ground squirrels are to the eagles what rice is to the Chinese. Near the top of one of the passes on the winding park road — may it never be “improved” ! — we had made a short climb to look down into the nest of a golden eagle built in a cranny of the cliff, and for an hour we watched and sketched the two black-and-white young, whose feathers were still fluffy but whose powerful yellow beaks looked ready for ground squirrels.

The tundra is also a densely populated nesting ground for birds that we generally see only on migration. Driving through the park during the late afternoon, we had found practically every roadside pond occupied : here a red-throated loon, looking in the low light like a plate by Louis Agassiz Fuertes; there a pintail with half-grown young; farther on, a family of horned grebes, the adults in their rich nuptial plumage, with several of the tiny young riding on the mother bird’s back. Now a soft whistle caught our ear: on the top of the next rise was a golden plover that had made the long overseas flight from its winter home in the Hawaiian Islands. What a strange sensation to meet in the mountains, hundreds of miles from salt water, birds that one always associates with sand beaches or the sea! Shorebirds don’t belong in trees, but a lesser yellow legs screamed at me from the tip of a scraggly spruce, and an arctic tern had buzzed me so close that I heard the whoosh of his wings as I explored the delta area where both were nesting. Short-billed gulls were everywhere along the road and the gravel bars. And above the rolling tundra, hovering and plunging like a sparrow hawk, was a long-tailed jaeger, startlingly beautiful in form and motion, with his black cap and white throat and needlelike tail — a sea hawk that winters at sea in the Southern Hemisphere.

The rolling tundra is a good place for birding; it is also a good place to get momentarily lost. The smooth rounded hillocks, devoid of trees or other landmarks, blend into each other at surprisingly short distances to make an undulating sea of green. Out of the wind we were hot and thirsty under an almost cloudless sky, but we soon came on a stream of ice-cold water running through patches of snow that had survived since winter under the dense shade of the willow thickets — a reminder that in these mountains summer’s lease is short. The willow stands were dense because they had been browsed by moose, the tips of the branches torn off in a sort of natural pollarding process that results in thick broomlike growth and, happily for the moose, tends to keep the tender fresh sprouts within his reach. Now, at midday, no moose were in sight, but we had seen two big bulls the previous evening. A bull moose, God knows, is impressive anywhere, but the Alaska moose is even larger than his brethren to the south. I shall never forget that first glimpse of incredibly broad, flat antlers swaying among the willow tops. As the tall forequarters emerged into the open, one had a sense of sheer muscular power in a body that is grotesque only if one forgets its adaptation to the way of life of the moose, grazing as it does on the highest tree tips it can reach. Later that evening we had watched another bull belly-deep in a pond, feeding on subaqueous plants, torrents of water cascading from his antlers whenever he raised his head. The Alaska moose is one of the great American mammals that is holding its own. Though the species was seriously threatened in the gold rush days, when it was the staple food for miners and trappers, it has, under hunting regulations, come back in numbers and even extended its range. Indeed, recent studies suggest that more liberal game laws may be desirable in some areas to prevent overpopulation in relation to food supply. We had learned something about this problem on our visit to Isle Royale. Owing to a lack of natural predators, the moose on the island had gone through two cycles of population explosion and subsequent starvation before a pack of wolves, arriving on the ice from the mainland, at last began to keep them in check. In McKinley Park, where the wolves have always existed, the numbers of moose have not exceeded the carrying capacity of the range.

Early in our hike we had our first good look at a grizzly bear. He was emerging from a thicket, but we were some distance off, out in the open, which was fine. Uncaged and unmolested, the grizzly bear is not a dangerous beast. But he doesn’t like to be taken by surprise. We had been advised to whistle, or otherwise politely make our presence known, when walking through the dense willow thickets along the stream beds. Realizing that any whistling on my part would rouse a wellattuned bear to cold fury, I left this little courtesy to my more musical wife. Since this bear could hardly stumble on us, we were perfectly safe, and we could study him at leisure. Compared to the sleek black bears we knew so well in the Great Smoky Mountains, he looked round and woolly, like a huge and purposeful teddy bear. As with most grizzlies in summer, his forequarters and prominent hump were bleached by the sun to an almost straw-yellow; face and hindquarters were dark. (After the fall molt, his whole body would be dark brown.) Unlike most wild creatures, he did not seem particularly alert. Why should he be, since he had no natural enemies, and in the park not even that ultimate enemy, man? Seldom have I sensed more keenly than at this moment the spirit which lies at the core of wilderness philosophy. There is something refreshing to the soul in sharing your Lebensraum with a wild animal that neither attacks you nor flees at the sight of you. You feel slightly complimented, as Thoreau did “when Nature condescends to make use of me without my knowledge, as when I help scatter her seeds in my walk.” Though we were of no immediate use to the grizzly, we could at least accept the basic principle of his inalienable right to his domain.

As I said above, stream beds here serve for trails. In the next few hours we found out why. The dry tundra of the high ridges, consisting of matted plants and mosses and even bare rock, is easy walking; the scrub on the slopes is not bad if you don’t fight it; but the wet tundra of bogs and niggerheads and shoulder-high brush is simply hell. We had been told, but we had to learn for ourselves. A mile or so beyond the spot we had stopped to quench our thirst, we reached the bank of the creek near which, some miles downstream, stood the log cabin that was our goal for the night. This was not one of those broad river valleys, characteristic of the north country, that are largely dry in midsummer; it was a swift mountain stream, with a narrow, well-defined bed, thickly wooded islands. rock-strewn rapids, and occasional sand and gravel bars. Fondly hoping to keep our feet dry, we started to follow a well-worn trail along the bank, so neat and clear that we thought it must be man-made. Soon it branched and branched again and finally petered out completely in a nightmarish jungle of willow and alder and dwarf birch: a moose paradise, but purgatory for anything on two legs. We slithered slowly ahead by literally walking in the trees, with unsure foothold on springy horizontal branches, or teetering on the hummocks between them. We could well believe the park ranger who told us that, though he is a fast walker, he once took twelve hours to negotiate ten miles of niggerheads. So we stumbled back to the creek and waded in, forgetting about dry feet and crossing from gravel bar to gravel bar through snowmelt water up to our knees.

When at length we picked up a bit of blazed trail running through a small spruce forest, we knew that the cabin was at hand. There it stood in a grassy clearing, surrounded by a litter of tiny flat-topped log houses — winter quarters for sled dogs — and, well away from the trees, a miniature peak-roofed log cabin held twenty feet in the air by spruce poles banded with sheet metal: the cache, universal trademark of the Alaska wilderness. The grizzly bear is the main object of the domestic defenses in the arctic. He may leave you alone, but your food supply is fair game. Before we could enter the cabin we had to remove the “bear door” with which every wilderness structure is equipped — heavy planking with a porcupine surface of sixinch spikes driven through from the back. Similar shutters covered the windows. Even this doesn’t always work. Friends of ours who have a camp outside the park returned in the spring to find it a shambles. The bears had consumed everything in sight.

The cabin had no defenses against the only wild animal that was out for our blood. In this damp sheltered spot the mosquitoes rose from the grass like fighter pilots in the Battle of Britain. Protected by liberal applications of Off, we soon got used to them.

The creek down which we had hiked ran through a series of rocky pools a hundred yards from the clearing. Here was my first chance to cast for grayling, which take the place of trout in arctic waters. Fish after fish rose beautifully to a dry fly, and in an hour I had all we could use for supper, several running to twelve inches or more. They didn’t fight so doggedly as a brook trout or rainbow of equivalent size, but they were, to our taste, even better eating. We cooked the catch on the cabin’s 1911 wood-burning stove and went to bed content. The sky was still light between the spruce tops, for summer days here are long, but the silence was complete. Looking back over the hours just passed, I felt again that wilderness is a positive concept and that wilderness travel is a good deal more than simply getting along without roads, just as peace is more than getting along without war. In outdoor recreation, the means don’t merely shape the ends, they become the ends. Ask any fisherman. And, thinking of roads, a jarring question kept intruding itself. Had this obvious relation of means to ends eluded the authorities who have begun to convert the unique and beautiful road through McKinley Park into a common highway? The present road serves its purposes admirably. Driving slowly, one can stop almost anywhere for an intimate view of a moose browsing, a beaver building his dam, fox cubs playing at the entrance to their den, a golden eagle returning to its nest. This and the magnificent scenery are what most visitors come for. There is no point in hurrying, because the road doesn’t go anywhere. Why, then, construct at vast expense a broad hard-top speedway, with shoulders built up above the surrounding countryside, marring the landscape, inviting fast driving, destroying by its very size and design the subtle relationship between the visitor and what he came to visit?

SPIRITUALLY as well as topographically, the high spot of the McKinley trip was our day with those two great naturalists, the Murie brothers, among the mountain sheep. To be introduced to Dall sheep by Olaus and Adolph Murie is like being introduced to St. Peter by the Pope. Better, really, since none of us today felt quite ready for St. Peter. It was a bright windy morning, the air washed by last night’s drizzle. Adolph, who conducts his summer studies in the park, knew exactly where the rams were likely to be — knew it, I’m convinced, a shade before they had made up their own minds. He set a course across the tundra and then on up a long draw to the foot of a steep talus slope. We stopped often to identify wild flowers: the low evergreen crowberry, the tall white saxifrage, that delicate deep-blue delphinium, the Jacob’s ladder, and several of the twentyodd varieties of willow. A snowshoe rabbit bounded through the scrub, and flocks of red polls rattled overhead. No sooner were we near the rocks than we heard the clear manlike whistle of a marmot; there he was, upright on a boulder, whistling back memories of the Olympics and the Rockies and the other high free places where we had listened to him with affection over the years. He was an old friend. But a moment later there trotted into view, not bounding like a deer, but pacing smartly up the incline, an animal that we had read about often, the very symbol of the arctic. Rangifer arcticus, the Barren Ground caribou. A mature bull, he held his head high as if to balance his fine spread of antlers. His coat was a grayish brown, lacking as yet the white bib that would appear in winter; but his white hocks stood out clearly as he emerged onto the bare ground. We were lucky to see him, since the spring migration had already passed through. Though small compared with the great aggregations north of the Arctic Circle, a number of caribou herds, like the one in McKinley Park, survived the indiscriminate slaughter of the early days, which has been compared to the slaughter of the bison on the prairies. (Unlike the moose, they have not recovered dramatically under protection, in part because the widespread burning of the range, which actually increases the moose’s food supply of second-growth scrub, destroys the lichens on which the caribou depend.) In the complex web of life the McKinley caribou have an important relation to the sheep, as Adolph Murie shows in his classic study “The Wolves of Mount McKinley.” Browsing on the lower slopes, they form a sort of buffer between the sheep on the high ridges and the hungry timber wolves.

Mountain sheep are seldom found far from the rocks. The reason is clear. I can’t imagine a wolf or any other predator catching a sheep on the sliding shale up which we were scrambling. We climbed in short bursts, more or less on all fours, the wind helping to blow us uphill as we neared the crest. A last hitch and we were over the top. Like a sailboat rounding a breakwater, we were suddenly snug and sheltered, looking down into an enclosed world of rounded hills and flat grassy plateaus divided by knife-edged ridges and sculptured cliffs of bare rock. Behind us the wind crackled with a sound of tearing paper, and the odor of sage was in the air. The green slope at our feet was dotted with the blue of wild forget-menots‚ the yellow of arctic poppies, and clumps of tiny pink cranberry blossoms. Far to the southwest rose the white mass of Mount McKinley, towering over the neighboring peaks as if they were mere foothills — Denali, the Indians called it. “the Great One.” For a moment, as we lay catching our breath, we saw nothing stirring. Then, on a ridge opposite, there appeared, one by one, fourteen white figures walking slowly in single file. Even at a distance their great curving horns identified them as rams. The horns of the Dall sheep are slenderer than those of his larger and darker cousin to the south, the bighorn. The whole animal gives you an impression of delicate poise and effortless control. He is a pure creature of the mountaintops, unimaginable on any less rugged terrain. Close up, his facial resemblance to domestic sheep somehow underscores this essential wildness. We were shortly able to look a ram in the eye. Following the rooftree of the ridge we had just climbed, we peeked cautiously around a great boulder. From a few yards away an old ram and a young spikehorn stared back at us, alert and curious, but unalarmed. We advanced a few more steps, dropping below the ridge, since sheep like to have the top berth. Calmly they went back to their grazing. Taking the hint, we got out our sandwiches. For perhaps half an hour we and the sheep shared the mountain meadow, while across the valley, as if in happy augury, two golden eagles soared and plunged. Then we decided that we were probably lying between the old ram and his favorite resting place; it was only polite to go. We were content. For this we had come. For this, indeed, McKinley Park had been founded: to save the homeland of the wild white sheep who have dwelt among these cliffs for untold thousands of years.

WE WERE determined to pitch our tent, for at least a few days, north of the Arctic Circle. We wanted a glimpse of that vast expanse of arctic tundra that encircles the globe between the northern limit of the forest and the southern limit of the ice cap —a land almost as broad as the sea, and like the sea, an environment all of its own. We drove back to Fairbanks, where a professor at the university proposed a splendid if slightly startling plan. Two of his friends were just starting on a voyage in a skin boat up the Noatak River, which drains several hundred square miles of northwestern Alaska, opposite the tip of Siberia. We could fly to Kotzebue, the “Eskimo capital,” and from there get a bush pilot to take tis up the river, spot the skin boat from the air, and land on the nearest gravel bar, where we should meet the voyageurs and, incidentally, deliver a package of reading matter and a bottle of rum. Our instructions sounded easier to follow than most directions to a dinner party in the suburbs. “They will have the only skin boat on the river. . . . Will have a white tent flying two strips of Hi-viz orange fluorescent cloth.” What could be simpler?

Now, as we peered down from the little fourseater plane, it seemed that our rendezvous had gone awry. Our pilot, Nelson Walker, knew this country as well as the caribou or the Eskimos. We had spotted a cow moose feeding in a pond, and a grizzly who broke into gallop at the sight of this strange bird overhead. But for the last hour we had searched every bend of the river, banking to right and left like a marsh hawk hunting for a mouse. No boat, no tent, no Jdi-viz. Nothing for it but to set up camp and await their arrival. Our gasoline was running low, but Nelson, like the true bush pilot he was. had his private cache of five-gallon tins in the willow scrub at a fork in the river. We landed with a series of bumps on the gravel bar where the two streams met. One tin was empty, broken open by grizzlies; the rest, as usual, were intact, since a single taste of high octane is enough, even for a bear. Refueled, we flew back downstream to find a campsite. Since the river was high, the gravel bars were short and narrow. Nelson found one that he felt would do; he circled, flew over it once, and came in. It was rougher this time—what his friends call “one of Nelson Walker’s controlled-crash landings.” Safely down, he contemplated several rocks, any one of which might have smashed us up, and remarked in wonder, “How did I manage to miss all of ‘em?” We promised to clear a proper airstrip against his return. Lightened of its load, the plane rose easily and headed south for Kotzebue. We were alone on our gravel bar, with a hundred miles of elbowroom in every direction.

Using rocks instead of pegs for the guy ropes, we pitched our tent well out on the bar where, owing to a slight breeze, there seemed to be more gaps between the mosquitoes. We had wondered about firewood in this treeless country, but found ample piles of willow-scrub driftwood that had been drying since the spring freshets. I loaded the 30-30 rifle which I had been persuaded to take along as a last resort against importunate grizzlies, though I much preferred the method suggested by Mamie Beaver, Eskimo lady in Kotzebue — that is, banging two tin plates together. Even this proved unnecessary. Whenever we left camp to fish for grayling or to explore the tundra, we divided our food supply into several different caches so that a visiting grizzly might not get it all at once. But the only fresh tracks we found on our return were those of a large moose and a caribou.

And so for a few days we enjoyed a taste of the far-northern tundra — the breathtaking vastness, the utter silence, and the sunlit nights. Time came for the plane to return. With loving care we staked out a landing strip, marking each end with white rags, and rolled away the largest rocks.

So silent is the arctic that we were instantly alerted by the first faint hum of the approaching plane. Moments later it swept by‚ dipped wings in salute, and dropped down softly beside us.

Flying south through scattered showers, we could read the landscape below us a little more intelligently than before. We carried away some sense of a wilderness whose only limits are the limits of the land itself. We also bore with us a hope for the future which I believe to be founded on fact. No part of the earth today is too remote for exploitation. But in Alaska it must be obvious to every chamber of commerce that conservation is good business. More than half the population depends on wildlife resources: salmon, caribou, moose, and, less directly but ever more importantly, those “lovers of pure wilderness” who will continue to come north in increasing numbers while that wilderness remains unspoiled.

We in America have conquered a continent, and we now realize at what cost. Alaska today offers us something that history seldom affords — a second chance.