An Alaskan Adventure: A Story of Finding Gold in the Far North From 1893-1903
Frederick James Currier, foreword by Randy Zarnke; Publication Consultants/Alaska Trapper Association; 2018; 176 pages; $17.95
Like so very many who would follow in his footsteps, Frederick James Currier stumbled into Alaska by happenstance.
In early spring of 1894, Currier set off from his home in Wisconsin to investigate the possibility of purchasing an apple orchard in Oregon. Traveling aboard the Canadian Pacific Railway, he arrived in Vancouver and decided to go sightseeing in Victoria before heading south. While eating dinner in a hotel, he had a chance encounter with three men bound for Alaska to go prospecting. They invited him along and away he went the next morning. Most of the next decade of his life would be spent in the gold fields of the North.
"An Alaskan Adventure" is Currier's memoir of his experiences, one that was written nearly a century ago and never published. Subsequently edited by Currier's daughter, Amy June Currier Jorgensen, the manuscript eventually found its way into Rasmuson Library at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
In 2007 it was shown to Randy Zarnke, president of the Alaska Trappers Association and a writer with a deep interest in Alaska history. Immediately recognizing that this was a much better than average account from the era, Zarnke set out locating Currier's family (his daughter is still alive) and obtaining permission to publish the work. Eleven years later, with the assistance of the Trappers Association and Anchorage-based Publication Consultants, the manuscript has finally been published, and it's an instant classic of its genre.
Currier spent two lengthy periods in the North. The first was from 1894 to 1896 working in the Forty Mile River region of Interior Alaska, and the second from 1898 to 1903, spent along the Chena River near where Fairbanks now lies, and then in the greater regions around Nome and Dawson.
The extent of his success isn't clear from the book, but as Zarnke notes in his introduction, Currier must have done reasonably well since he was able to purchase a sizable prune orchard in California after he returned home. Currier does mention some of the lucky strikes he and the men he partnered with had, but most of this book is focused on his adventures on the land rather than the day-to-day minutiae of mining.
What's striking from the first page is how remarkably gifted of a writer Currier was. He could create vivid scenes with minimal words, and despite the brevity of most of the passages, readers will feel as if they are along for the ride, be it running a boat down a river, mushing over frozen snowscapes or stumbling through the tussocks. Currier's passages are both informative and fun to read. An example would be this description of breakfast along the Yukon River, while bound for Circle City:
"Under Kelly's skillful, quick manipulations, bacon and beans were soon sending out appetizing odors, coffee was bubbling in the pot, and as soon as the hot baking powder biscuits were taken from the oval oven we were invited to 'throw it into you!' which we proceeded to do in total disregard to all laws of health or hygiene. The crisp, outdoor air encouraged us to devour an amount of hot bread, slapjacks, bacon, beans, and strong coffee that would paralyze an Eastern dyspeptic, and we felt none the worse for it!"
Anyone who has ever camped would want to be at that meal.
Eighty pages and several years later, traveling upward on the Yukon from its mouth rather than down it from its source, Currier's observational and writing skills perfectly capture the appearance and desolate feel of that vast river as it meanders its way through the heart of Alaska's Interior:
"Between the scattered fishing camps was a wild, unbroken expanse of mountain-covered forests and island with scarcely a trace of human life. The restless river is cutting and undermining the islands, tearing them down in one place only to build anew in another spot lower down, and annually sweeping millions of yards of soil down into the Bering Sea, thus rapidly shoaling its basin. The ice gorges in the spring aid in the work of destruction as the scarred and broken tree trunks along the banks could testify. I marked one island where for over a mile every tree had been mowed down slick and clean from the ice movement. Only the split and twisted stumps, fifteen or twenty inches in diameter, were left to mark what once was a heavy growth of spruces."
One could quote from nearly any page of this book and find similar passages, alive with language that draws the reader into the story. Whether it's observing wildlife, navigating a river, running aground on a sandbar, climbing down a mineshaft or building a cabin, Currier could describe it clearly while drawing from a wellspring of words that render this not simply an important historical reference work, but a literary accomplishment as well. Few accounts from the era can match the creativity of Currier's vocabulary.
The book is short but packed with memorable scenes. A trial for theft in Circle City in the dead of winter leads to a sentence of certain death, a reminder of how frontier justice was meted out far from civilization. Moose and caribou hunts are recreated. Currier had deep respect for Alaska Natives, and a Christmastime visit with one family is an early example of finding cross-cultural commonalities.
This book works on both the literary and historic levels. Since part of it covers the period prior to the Klondike gold strike, it explores a time from which we have fewer firsthand accounts than resulted from the subsequent Gold Rush. Currier was among the earliest prospectors to venture into Alaska, and his memoir evokes a time that didn't last long. For these reasons and more, one hopes Zarnke can find a publisher with a broader reach for this book, which warrants widespread distribution. This was a remarkable find, and Zarnke and the Trappers Association deserve considerable gratitude for bringing it to print.