Returning from a 10-day voyage in Alaska with my husband recently, I named that state “the land of surprises.”
We got there after three nights on a cruise ship, and landing at Skagway, Alaska, we toured the vast land that boasts 500 million acres of land; 3 million streams full of fish and otters, and tall snow-capped mountains providing shelter for all sorts of animals — bears, moose, mountain sheep and much more. And Alaska is rich with with history.
Our passageway — the Alaska Highway (or Alaska-Canadian Highway) — was built during WWII by Canada and the U.S. to kick out the Japanese force that had occupied two islands, Attu and Kiska. We stayed overnight at several different towns, including Skagway, White Horse, Dawson City, Fairbanks and Denali, and each town had a tale.
How bewildered Americans would have been when the U.S. government bought this land of beauty and wealth for only $7.2 million dollars in 1867! Surprisingly, the general American public at the time wasn’t happy about a land that was too far from their homes, too cold and too dark in winter, and had a spring and summer that was too short — only five months, May to September. They even criticized William Seward, then secretary of state, for wasting the taxpayers’ money.
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At the time, in the mid-19th century, the Russian government wanted to get rid of the land, after owning it more than a century, because it was at the verge of bankruptcy. It had been land that fur traders took over by force from the native people to dominate the fur-trading market in the world. But after a century the furry animals — beavers, otters, mink and fox — had been over hunted, and Russia declared the land useless.
In less than three decades after the purchase, an explorer named George Carmack discovered gold near Dawson City in a mountain area named Klondike bordering Alaska from northwestern Canada. About 30,000 fortune-seekers landed there —out of 100,000 who requested entry to Alaska but were denied.
Imagine 30,000 gold-seekers congregating on a remote mountain town that had no hotels or inns or private homes to accommodate 30,000 dreamers. Almost instantly, vendors selling food, liquor, bedding, transportation, clothing and anything we humans need rushed to the spot.
Of 30,000 gold-seekers, about 4,000 people found gold and became rich, some famous as well.
But for the rest of them, life was a curse in the freezing weather, in wilderness where daylight lasted only four to five hours during winter. The tent city that had been established during the gold rush serves today as a mirror of the past, with museums and gift shops selling memorabilia.
It’s common knowledge that where a lot of money changes hands hourly, demons in humans lurk. Fighting among the gold-seekers was frequent, as well as murder, violence and theft. Some folks sold telegram services when Alaska had no power lines anywhere, not even paved roads.
Mother Nature revolted against humans stampeding on her sacred land with their digging, drilling and dynamiting. On April 3, 1898, more than a 100 gold-seekers were buried in an avalanche, and the rescue teams were brought in. But more avalanches came. They dragged out 63 bodies from layers of snow.
Those who survived the avalanche quickly abandoned their dreams to get rich and ran for their lives. But the snow slides had blocked the only road they had come through, leaving them with no options but to go through rivers to return home. Many died in the rapid streams that had been swollen by the new snow, as their boats overturned or hit rocks.
When the gold played out in a few years, those valleys and mountains emptied, but some men who made fortunes remained and invested their money in Alaska.
George Carmack was such a man. In April 1896, Carmack and two friends discovered a gold nugget as large as his thumb. He had come to Alaska earlier by the reports of major gold strikes in the Juneau area, but he wasn’t lucky enough to find any gold. He and his friends further explored Yukon Territory, and finally hit their fortune.
Carmack got rich, reportedly taking a million dollars worth of gold out of Klondike, and he settled in Vancouver, B.C. Until he died in 1922 at age 61, he invested all of his fortune in Alaska, including a coalmine he owned and operated. Today his name appears on the highway, Carmack Gas Station, Carmack Coal Mine, Carmack Rest Area and more.
Coming home, I find myself staring at our backyard creek bottom. What if I saw a yellow nugget glittering at me? What would I do with it if I found a bucketful of yellow metal?
It’s a scary thought.
Retired musician and freelance columnist Therese Park has written three novels about Korea’s modern history