Books

3 classic adventure books present the 1940s in Alaska’s Arctic

“We Live in the Arctic,” “Our Summer with the Eskimos” and “Our Alaskan Winter”

By Constance Helmericks and Harmon Helmericks. Epicenter Press, 2021. $19.95 each

Connie and Bud Helmericks, self-described “explorers” of Alaska’s Arctic regions, spent 26 months from 1944 to 1946 first overwintering alone above the Arctic Circle and then canoeing to the Arctic coast where they spent another winter and finally traveled eastward to the Mackenzie River in Canada. The three books detailing their adventures, first published in 1947, 1948 and 1949 have now been reissued by Epicenter Press, with new prefaces by Jean Aspen, the Helmericks’ daughter.

The three books, along with the previously reissued “We Live in Alaska,” are true classics, bringing to life what is now a historical period and highlighting not only the personal adventures of the couple, then in their 20s, but the environmental and social conditions at the time. The lives of the Inupiat people the Helmerickses met and learned from are presented with respect and humility, if sometimes with misunderstandings and impatience.

There is no question that the Helmerickses were a remarkable couple. Judging from their books, at least, they fully embraced life in the north, including living under extreme conditions that often threatened their survival. They traveled in a 14-foot homemade canoe with a bare minimum of equipment and supplies, lived on meat and fish, sheltered in tents, and gloried in their surroundings as true romantics and wilderness lovers. Of their first “voluptuous summer,” Connie wrote, “You won’t mind living in poverty and rags, because the explorer is rich, and it is others who are poor. The wolves are his watchdogs and a drifted-over track is his highway, but he is glad.” For his part, Bud could not believe that the country was so empty; he wondered why everyone wouldn’t want to live in such a paradise.

Both Helmerickses kept journals, but Connie was the writer in the family. According to their daughter, the three books were composed by her hand in the light of a kerosene lantern, the manuscripts wrapped in caribou hide and carried by foot, dogsled, and canoe across the top of Alaska. Curiously, while in the first of the three books we hear Connie speaking about their life together, the next two are written from Bud’s point of view. Connie told her daughter that, once they began living with Inupiat people, they adopted separate gender-based roles. Bud was the one hunting with the other men — and so his life was, she said, more interesting.

Of course the adventure-authors belonged to their time, and their language and expressed attitudes could be considered insensitive and even racist today. The words “primitive” and “civilized” are used throughout to apply to ways of life. Although the Helmerickses admired Native people for their skills, they also sometimes characterized them as child-like and criticized what they considered the lack of a work ethic. They accepted the mainstream American belief at the time — that Alaska’s Natives, with the help of teachers and missionaries, would give up the old ways and be brought into modern life.

The first volume, “We Live in the Arctic, chronicles the adventurers’ 1944 canoe journey from Nenana on the Tanana River down the Yukon River, then up the Koyukuk and the Alatna Rivers to treeline, where they built a log cabin as winter closed in. The distance, with all the rivers’ twists and turns, was about a thousand miles, and the three-horsepower motor was so unreliable that they lined the canoe much of the way. In that hungry country they might well have starved to death except for the fortuitous, just-in-time appearances of a couple of moose and a caribou. An overland trek in April, in an attempt to trap beavers, nearly did them in. Spring came on slowly, and it was mid-June before break-up allowed them to descend the river to Alatna and then Hughes.

“Our Summer with the Eskimos” continues the story, as the Helmerickses amended their plan to somehow cross the Arctic divide on their own power and managed to get on a supply flight to Umiat, on the Colville River. The Navy had just begun exploring the National Petroleum Reserve, and the Seabee camp there was bustling. The Helmerickses reassembled their small canoe and took off down the unexplored Colville. They met one Inupiat family along the river and another at the coast, and they learned that their plan to canoe to Canada wasn’t possible because of the ice pack. They finally settled at Beechy Point, where a few families lived around a minimal trading post. Bud joined the men in a seal hunt and then, as new ice threatened to close off travel, both Helmerickses left with a small party for Barrow, 240 miles distant, to collect supplies that had failed to be delivered; fortunately, two larger launches from the Barrow store intercepted their whaleboat, and the trip was a success.

In, “Our Alaskan Winter” the Helmerickses soon learned that wintering on the coast was not a good idea, and they hired a young man with a dogsled and team to move them to a winter camp up the Itkillik River, where they could hunt caribou and find willows to burn for heat. The young man and his girl-cousin lived with and helped the Helmerickses, with some significant cross-cultural learning — and inevitable misunderstandings and conflict. Back on the coast, Bud shot a polar bear, fulfilling one of his goals. As summer came around again, the Helmerickses traveled by cargo boat eastward to Barter Island, from which they again launched their canoe and proceeded to the Mackenzie River and the end of their adventure.

These records of Arctic life in the 1940s are immensely valuable historical contributions to understanding that place and time. As the Helmerickses discovered, Alaska’s Arctic was very lightly populated at the time, since epidemics had devastated, and still were devastating, communities. Some men were also serving in the military, which left their families without support. People lived in sod houses and tents, relied on dog teams, and followed a yearly subsistence cycle. Airplanes were not yet in common use, and the landscape was poorly mapped. The environment, too, differed from today’s; winter temperatures often fell to minus 50 degrees F and below, and the sea ice rarely left the coast.

Along with recording their lives in the north, Connie and Bud Helmericks also had a lot to say about the history of the area, nutritional needs, caribou numbers and migration patterns, fur trapping, the value of Eskimo clothing, the influence of missionaries, the beginnings of oil development, the practice of dousing everything in DDT to kill mosquitoes and so much more. Reading their books, one can only wonder what the Inupiat people who appear in the pages would say for themselves. What stories would they tell about the two white people who showed up among them? What stories would they share about their own lives and the changes that were bearing down on them?


Nancy Lord

Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska writer laureate. Her books include "Fishcamp," "Beluga Days," and "Early Warming." Her latest book is "pH: A Novel."

Sponsored