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The Ultimate Confrontation
Robert Cantwell
March 24, 1969
It has come in the Brooks Range of Alaska, a majestic wilderness where wolves are many and people are rare—or were, until oil gushed at Prudhoe Bay
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March 24, 1969

The Ultimate Confrontation

It has come in the Brooks Range of Alaska, a majestic wilderness where wolves are many and people are rare—or were, until oil gushed at Prudhoe Bay

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The Brooks Range has always been mysterious. The men who explored it were young. Their reports were squirreled away, printed in private editions, lost or buried in scientific volumes with forbidding titles and few readers. Forty years after Sir John Franklin first laid eyes on the range the next explorer, Robert Kennicott, aged 30, saw it from a distance—and turned back. In 1865 far-sighted people were sure it would never be possible to lay a cable under the Atlantic Ocean, and Kennicott was employed by Perry McDonough Collins to seek an alternate route across Canada and Alaska to Siberia.

Kennicott had made expeditions into northern Canada and was almost the only American with both scientific training and Arctic experience. But on this exploration he was soon stranded in the Russian trading post of Nulato, near the junction of the Yukon and the Koyukuk. From there he traveled north "in search of a pass for telegraphic purposes" and found none: "Nothing was seen but continuous ranges of snow-covered mountains rolling one over another for God knows how many miles." Back at Nulato, Kennicott wrote, "I am going to succeed fully by God if it is only to put myself in a position to punish those who have been the cause of this absurd outfit." When spring arrived he exercised every morning on the sand beside the Yukon and made compass bearings of landmarks. One May morning he did not return, and members of his party found him lying dead among diagramed compass figures he had marked in the sand. His death was attributed to heart failure. (The Kennecott Copper Corporation was later named for the dead explorer, but the company organizers misspelled his name.)

"He was murdered," said William Healy Dall, who succeeded Kennicott in the cable route search. Dall talked that way. He was only 21 when he took over. Nobody else wanted the job. In his new post of responsibility Dall tossed around accusations of murder, madness, poisoning, theft and drunken orgies as if he were writing a school paper on how he spent his summer vacation. He looked like a schoolboy, but he was in fact a tireless and fearless collector for the Smithsonian (Dall sheep ultimately were named for him), filling 27 kegs with Arctic plants and picking up shells, bones, skulls, fossils, eggs, fish, furs, Indian ornaments, pipes, carvings, arrows, spears, sleds, snow-shoes, canoes, pottery and 4,550 geological specimens. Dall kept a diary. Alaska was then a Russian penal colony, and he was convinced that the convicts sent there were those too bad to be merely exiled to Siberia. He saw the Russian officials as men "of great energy and iron will, with a fondness for strong liquor and ungovernable passions in certain directions."

It was a trying life for a well-born Bostonian whose scientific training consisted of an unfinished medical course at Harvard. "I rolled myself in a blanket and after some difficulty got to sleep," he wrote at one point. "The rain continued; the Russians were holding an orgy; the dogs howled all night; the roof leaked." Dall eventually made his way 630 miles up the Yukon to a point where he could see the mountains of the Brooks Range to the north. He realized he must be seeing from the south the same range that Sir John Franklin had seen from the Arctic Ocean, but he assumed that, apart from the peaks (where the Arctic National Wildlife Range is now located), only low hills and a level plain lay between the Yukon and the northern sea.

Another youngster, Henry Tureman Allen, aged 26, proved how wrong Dall was. Fresh out of West Point and possessed of a fanatical determination to explore Alaska, Allen was discouraged by the War Department. But he won the support of General Nelson Miles, who in 1885 persuaded the War Department to change its mind for the elementary reason that Alaska had now become U.S. territory and someone should see what we had bought. The Army surrendered with ill grace. Allen was told that he could have no more than three men in his party, including himself, that he could spend only $2,000 and that he must not let his party go hungry because, "you now have ample funds." He was to gather "all information which will be valuable and important, especially to the military branch of the government."

Thus cheered on his way, Allen set out in 1885 with a private and sergeant on an exploring achievement that ranks with those of Lewis and Clark. He made his way up the Copper River in southern Alaska, over the Alaska Range and down the Tanana to the Yukon, charting these river systems for the first time. Then he decided to take a look at the Koyukuk. He headed north some 200 miles over land he said was as saturated as a wet sponge. He had not intended to explore the Koyukuk, but where he encountered it—1,030 river-miles from the sea—the Koyukuk was 300 yards wide, 14 feet deep and moving four miles an hour. He thought that perhaps it flowed from some immense lake in the flatlands that Dall said stretched to the Arctic. But after poling upstream for seven days Allen became aware of cold winds that had to come from snow peaks. He turned north up a big tributary, later called John River, and found himself in the central Brooks Range, with snow-covered mountains stretching from east to west along the northern horizon.

Allen's book about this trip has perhaps the least fetching title in the annals of exploration. He called it Report of an Expedition to the Copper, Tanana and Koyukuk Rivers in the Territory of Alaska for the Purpose of Obtaining All Information which Will Be Valuable and Important Especially to the Military Branch of the Government. Whether or not this was an elliptical reference to his orders, it killed the sale of the book. But Allen's later career was so distinguished—he was commander of the Army of Occupation in Germany in 1919 and military attach� to Berlin and Moscow—that his youthful exploration was forgotten. He named the mountains for William Endicott, the Secretary of War in Cleveland's administration, and a generation passed before it was known that half a dozen separate chains—the Romanzof Mountains, the Endicotts and others—were part of a single connected range. The whole range was then named for Dr. Alfred Brooks, an Alaskan authority and director of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Lieutenant Allen did not know it, but in that same winter of 1885 a Navy expedition reached the Brooks Range only 130 miles west of where he was. Lieutenant George Stoney headed a party of six officers and 12 men. They spent the months of darkness in a cabin they called Fort Cosmos. Unlike Allen, Stoney was a vivid writer, but he was even more unfortunate: his book disappeared. One of his officers, Ensign William Howard (aged 26), became the first explorer ever to cross through the mountains to the Arctic, so Stoney had a genuine adventure story to tell. He was amazed at the grandeur of the setting: magnificent scenery, deep gorges, rolling valleys, turbulent rivers, enormous waterfalls and the incredible variety of the mountains—"They appear every way and shape; there are rugged, weather-scarred peaks, lofty minarets, high towers and rounded domes, with circular knobs, flat tops, serrated edges and smooth backbones." The lakes were filled with salmon, the largest reaching six feet long. Sheefish—which some gourmets say is the best-tasting fish in the world—were plentiful. The men lived on ptarmigan, rabbits, geese, ducks and 2,500 pounds of caribou meat, with fresh meat twice a week during the winter and every day in the spring.

Congress authorized the publication of Stoney's book (called Naval Explorations in Alaska ), but then, as Stoney wrote laconically, "In some way the papers have mysteriously disappeared." They were never found.

In 1898 some 80,000 gold seekers arrived in Alaska, and 1,200 of these strayed into the upper Koyukuk region and the southern foothills of the Brooks Range. One prospector picked up a nugget worth $660 on a creek that flowed into the North Fork of the Koyukuk. On nearby Howard Creek another prospector found a $1,100 nugget. Half a dozen towns started on the edge of the mountain country, but the Brooks Range was never popular gold-hunting territory. Two towns survived, after a fashion. Wiseman, with a population of 80 in 1929, was down to five inhabitants last year. Bettles, at the junction of the John River and the Koyukuk, is now only a landing field.

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