Alaska by James A. Michener


  James A. Michener

  FAWCETT CREST NEW YORK A Fawcett Crest Book Published by Ballantine Books Copyright ©1988 by James A. Michener Cartography ©1988 by Jean Paul Tremblay All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.

  Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 87-43ISBN 0-449-21726-4

  This edition published by arrangement with Random House, Inc.

  Manufactured in the United States of America First International Edition: April 1989 First Ballantine Books Edition: July 1


  In recent books I have named all who helped in my research, and this was appreciated I intended doing so again, but this time, because so many provided information, the list became endless and could not be included However, certain scholars, sometimes of world renown, went beyond the normal bounds of courtesy, and read portions of the manuscript or helped in other important ways and suggested clarifications They must be thanked Dr David Stone, University of Alaska, on terranes Dr David Hopkins, University of Alaska, on Benngia Dr Jean Aigner, University of Alaska, on early peoples Professor Frank Roth, Sheldon Jackson College, on Healy and Jackson Dee McKenna, Nome Library, on the gold rush in that city Dr Timothy Joiner, foremost expert on salmon, on that fish Joe Honskey, premier Denah guide, on mountaineering Jonathan Waterman, Denali Park official, on that mountain Elva Scott, Eagle, on life at minus-fifty-two David Finley, Wamwnght, on education north of the Circle My research could not even have been started without assistance from the intrepid aviators of Alaska who flew me into all corners of their state Ken Ward to abandoned salmon canneries, Layton Bennett to the site of the sinking of the Canadian steamer, Tom Rupert to a remote part of the Yukon River, Bob Reeve, long ago to the Aleutians, and especially the helicopter men who flew me into spots that would otherwise have been inaccessible Officers Tom Walters and Pete Spence of the United States Coast Guard to Three Saints Bay, Randy Crosby and Price Brower of the Nome Rescue Service to the remote and desolate Will Rogers memorial To the many others whose unstinting help and sound advice were of such value, please accept my gratitude, especially my word-processing wizard, Kim Johnson-Bogart Lastly, and most particularly, to my hosts Mike and Mary Ann Kaelke at Sheldon Jackson College, Sitka, my warmest thanks for allowing my wife and me to occupy their log cabin for three seasons. Though it is based on fact, this novel uses fictional events, places and characters The following paragraphs endeavor to clarify which is which

  I. Terranes. The various geological concepts in this chapter have been developed and verified in recent decades but are still being refined Specific histories of the various Alaskan terranes have not yet been fully identified, but the great basics, like the existence, genesis, movement and collision of plates, are generally accepted There could be no other explanation of the Aleutian Islands and their violent behavior

  II. Beringia.

  Few geological theories are more solidly accepted than this, especially since it will probably return to existence within the next twenty-five thousand years The movements of animals from Asia into North America is generally accepted, but the existence and functioning of the ice-free corridor into the rest of North America is more debatable That the mastodons arrived well before the mammoths seems irrefutable

  III. Arrival of Humans.

  The earliest physical evidence of the existence of human beings in any part of Alaska seems to lie on a small island off the Aleutians and is dated no earlier than 12,000 B p E But other problematic finds of much earlier date in Canada, California, Mexico and South America cause many scholars to postulate human arrivals in Alaska as early as 40,000 and 30,000 B p E Regardless of the earliest date, it seems certain that the order of arrival was the Athapascans first, much later the Eskimos and finally the Aleuts, who were probably an offshoot of the Eskimos The Tlmgits were pretty clearly an offshoot of the Athapascans

  IV. Russians, Englishmen, Americans. Tsar Peter the Great, Vitus Bering, Georg Steller and Aleksei Chinkov are historical characters whose actions iv were pretty much as described Though Captain James Cook and his junior officers William Bhgh and George Vancouver did visit Alaska and the Aleutians at this time, they are shown here in a fictional setting, and quotations from their logbooks are imaginary The American ship Evening Star, Noah Pym, and all its crew are fictional, as is the island of Lapak The experimental shooting of eight Aleuts occurred

  V. Russian Orthodoxy and Shamanism. The religious facts are historical, the religious characters are all fictional Data regarding the settlement of Kodiak Island are historical Aleksandr Baranov is a historical personage of great importance

  VI. The Settlement of Sitka. Kot-le-an is a real legitimate leader, Raven-heart is fictional Prince Dmitri Maksutov, Baron Edouard de Stoeckl and General Jefferson C Davis, USA, are historical figures presented faithfully Father Vasili Voronov and his family are fictional, but a heroic Orthodox priest from the area was called back to St Petersburg to become Metropolitan of All the Russias

  VII. The Period of Chaos. Captain Michael Healy and Dr Sheldon Jackson are historical The Bear was a real ship as described Captain Emil Schransky and his Erebus are fictional The legal difficulties of Healy and Jackson were real

  VIII. The Gold Rush. Soapy Smith of Skagway and Samuel Steele of the North West Mounted Police are historical characters as depicted, as are George Carmack and Robert Henderson, the discoverers of the Yukon gold field All the others are fictional The two routes to the gold fields Yukon River and Chilkoot Pass are faithfully presented

  IX. Nome. All characters are fictional The Dawson-Nome bicycle adventure is based on a real trip

  X. Salmon. All characters are fictional, but details of the salmon industry as it operated in the early 1900s are based on historical accounts The Ross & Raglan role in Alaskan shipping, merchandising and the canning industry is fictional and is not based on any historic company Pleiades Lake and River are fictional, as is the cannery situated on Taku Inlet, which is real

  XI. Matanuska Valley. All American characters are fictional, but the locations and their settling and development are historic Data regarding the Japanese invasion of the Aleutians are historic Details of the 1971 land claims settlement are as stated

  XII. Rim of Fire. All characters are fictional, especially the Japanese and Russian experts on Alaskan prospects The young woman schoolteacher and the two lawyers working the North Slope are totally invented and relate to no real persons The Japanese team of mountaineers is fictional but the climb is real The floating ice island, T-3, is historic and functioned as stated, T-7 is fictional The data about tsunamis originating in Alaska are accurate, and although the one that closes the novel is fictional, it could become quite real at any time The details of Eskimo life at Desolation Point, an imaginary village, are based on reality The Iditarod Race occurs each year, and the Jones Act of 1920 still sends cruise ships to Vancouver rather than Seattle


  About a billion years ago, long before the continents had separated to define the ancient oceans, or their own outlines had been determined, a small protuberance jutted out from the northwest corner of what would later become North America. It showed no lofty mountains or stern shorelines, but it was firmly rooted in solid rock and would remain permanently attached to primordial North America.

  Its position, fixed though it was in relation to the larger landmass, did not long remain at what seemed the northwest corner, because, as we know from studies which flowered in the middle years of this century, the surface features of the earth rest on massive subterranean plates which move restlessly about, sometimes ta
king this position or that and often colliding with one another. In these ancient times the future North America wandered and revolved at a lively rate; sometimes the protuberance lay to the east, or to the north or, more dramatically, the far south. During one long spell it served as the temporary North Pole of the entire earth. But later it stood near the equator and then had a tropical climate.

  It was, in effect, a fixed attachment to a wildly vagrant landmass, but it bore continuing relation to other would-be continents like Europe or, more significantly, to the Asia with which it would intimately be associated. However, if one had followed the errant behavior of this small jutting of rocky land attached to the larger body, one could never have predicted its present position.

  The destiny of this persistent fragment would be to form the rootstock of the future Alaska, but during this early formative period and for long thereafter, it remained only that: the ancestral nucleus to which the later and more important parts of Alaska would be joined.

  During one of the endless twists and turns, about half a billion years ago, the nucleus rested temporarily about where Alaska does today, that is, not far from the North Pole, and it would be instructive to visualize it as it then was. The land, in a period of subsidence after eons of violent uprising, lay not far above the surface of the surrounding seas, which had even yet not separated themselves into the oceans we know. No vast mountains broke the low profile, and since trees and ferns had not yet developed, Alaska, which amounted only to a minor promontory, was unwooded. In winter, even at these high latitudes, a phenomenon which would always characterize northern Alaska pertained: it did not receive much snow. The surrounding seas, often frozen, brought in so little precipitation that the great blizzards which swept other parts of the then world did not eventuate, and what little snow did fall was driven here and there by howling winds which swept the earth clear in many parts or left it lightly drifted in others.

  Then as now, the winter night was protracted. For six months the sun appeared low in the sky, if it appeared at all, while the blazing heat of summer came in a season of equal length when the sun set only briefly. The range of temperature, under a sky which contained less relative moisture than now, was incredible: from 120° Fahrenheit in summer to the same number of degrees below zero in winter. As a consequence, such plants as tried to grow and there were none that resembled anything with which we are now familiar had to accommodate to these wild fluctuations: prehistoric mosses, low shrubs with deep roots, little superstructure and almost no leaves, and ferns which had adapted to the cold clung to the thin earth, their roots often thrusting their way down through crevices in rock.

  No animals that we would recognize as such roamed this area, for the great dinosaurs were still far in the future, while the mastodons and mammoths which would at one time dominate these parts would not begin even their preliminary genesis for many millennia. But recognizable life had started, and in the southern half of the little promontory tentative forms moved in from the sea to experiment on land.

  In these remote and formless days little Alaska hung in suspense, uncertain as to where its mother continent would wander next, or what its climate would be, or what its destiny. It was a potential, nothing more. It could become a multitude of different things; it could switch its attachment to any of three different continents; and when it enlarged upon its ancestral nucleus it would be able to construct miraculous possibilities.

  It would lift up great mountains, the highest in North America. It would accumulate vast glaciers, none superior in the world. It would house, for some generations before the arrival of man, animals of the most majestic quality. And when it finally played host to wandering human beings coming in from Asia or elsewhere, it would provide residence for some of the most exciting people this earth has known: the Athapascans, the Tlingits and much later the Eskimos and Aleuts.

  BUT THE IMMEDIATE TASK IS TO UNDERSTAND HOW THIS trivial ancestral nucleus could aggregate to itself the many additional segments of rocky land which would ultimately unite to comprise the Alaska we know. Like a spider waiting to grab any passing fly, the nucleus remained passive but did accept any passing terranes those unified agglomerations of rock considerable in size and adventurous in motion that wandered within reach. Where did these disparate terranes originate? How could blocks so massive move about? If they did move, what carried them north toward Alaska? And how did they behave when they bumped into the ancestral nucleus and its outriders?

  The explanation is a narrative of almost delicate intricacy, so wonderfully do the various terranes move about, but it is also one of cataclysmic violence when the terranes finally collide with something fixed. This part of Alaska's history is one of the most instructive offered by earth.

  The visible features of the earth, including its oceans, rest on some six or eight major identifiable subterranean plates Asia is one, obviously; Australia another plus a score of smaller plates, each clearly defined, and upon their slow, almost imperceptible movement depends where and how the continents and the oceans shall sit in relation each to the other.

  At what speed might a plate move? The present distance from California to Tokyo is 5,149 miles. If the North American plate were to move relentlessly toward Japan at the infinitesimal rate of one-half inch per year, San Francisco would bump into Tokyo in only six hundred and fifty million years. If the plate movement were a foot a year, the transit could be made in about twenty-seven million years, which is not long in geologic time.

  So the movement of a terrane from anywhere in Asia, the Pacific Ocean or North America to the growing shoreline of Alaska presented no insuperable difficulties. Given enough time and enough movement of the respective plates, anything could happen ... and did.

  IN ONE OF THE FAR WASTES OF THE SOUTH PACIFIC OCEAN a long-vanished island-studded landmass of some magnitude arose, now given the name Wrangellia, and had it stayed put, it might have produced another assembly of islands like the Tahiti group or the Samoan. Instead, for reasons not known, it fragmented, and its two halves moved with a part of the Pacific Plate in a northerly direction, with the eastern half ending up along the Snake River in Idaho and the western as a part of the Alaskan peninsula. We can make this statement with certainty because scientists have compared the structure of the two segments in minute detail, and one layer after another of the terrane which landed in Idaho matches perfectly the one which wandered to Alaska. The layers of rock were laid down at the same time, in the same sequence and with the same relative thickness and magnetic orientation.

  The fit is absolute, and is verified by many matching strata.

  Through the millennia similar wandering terranes seem to have attached themselves to the Alaskan nucleus. Frequently some enormous slab of rocky earth sometimes as big as Kentucky would creep relentlessly north from somewhere and bang into what was already there. There would be a rending of the edges of the two terranes, a sudden uprising of mountains, a revolution in the existing landscape, and Alaska would be enlarged by a significant percentage.

  Sometimes two smaller terranes would collide far distant from Alaska; they would merge and for eons would form an island somewhere in the Pacific, and then their plate would imperceptibly move them toward Alaska, and one day they would touch Alaska, so gently that even the birds inhabiting the island would not know that contact had been made, but the onetime island would keep remorselessly encroaching, grinding down opposition, overwhelming the existing shoreline of Alaska or being overwhelmed by it, and no casual observer would be able to detect where or how the join of this new land to the old had been accomplished.

  Now, obviously, after eight or ten such terranes had pushed against the ancestral nucleus, none of its original structure still touched the ocean, for it had been surrounded on all exposed sides by the incoming lands. A great peninsula, one of the largest on earth, was in the process of being formed, an immense proboscis reaching out toward Asia, which was also in the process of its formation. About seventy million years ago
this nascent peninsula began to assume a shape vaguely like present-day Alaska, but shortly thereafter it acquired a peculiarity with which we today would not be familiar.

  A land bridge seemed to rise from the seas connecting Alaska to Asia, or the other way around, and it was so broad and permanent that it provided a continuous land connection between the continents. But at this time little advantage accrued to the change, for there were few animals and of course no humans at all on earth to profit from the bridge which had been so mysteriously exposed, but a few adventurous dinosaurs do seem to have used it for crossing from Asia.

  In time the land bridge disappeared, overrun by the seas, and then Asia and Alaska were separated, with the latter still free to accept such wandering terranes as might come her way and thus to double or treble her size.

  WE ARE NOW PREPARED TO LOOK AT THE SPECIFIC Formulation of the Alaskan land forms. When the northern half of the final outline was more or less set, but still awaiting the arrival of the final terranes, the Pacific Plate seems to have crashed into the continental plate on which the original Alaska rested, and the force was so great and persistent that a grand chain of mountains, to be known later as the Brooks Range, rose in an east-west direction. In the bleak and snow less area, north of the range, well beyond the Arctic Circle, would appear a multitude of small lakes, so many that they would never be counted.

  The range itself, originally very high and mysteriously composed of slabs of limestone stacked one atop the other, would be eroded by wind, freezing, breakage and the action of summer rain, until the tallest peaks would stand at only six to eight thousand feet, the stumps of mountains that were once twice as high. But they would always be a noble range, the essence of the real Alaska.

  South of them, spacious valleys spread out, garnering sunlight summer and winter, bitterly cold at times, delightful for much of the year. Here snow did fall, animals prospered, and all was readied for the appearance of man, and held that way eons before he finally appeared.

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