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Cold River Spirits: Sitka novelist explores her Athabascan-Irish roots

  • Author: Colleen Mondor
  • Updated: September 29, 2016
  • Published July 30, 2013

In Cold River Spirits Sitka-born author Jan Harper-Haines provides a nuanced view of a family history that touches on so much of Alaska's past it seems almost hard to believe. Her paternal great grandfather, Arthur Harper, was the first to discover gold in the Yukon and his letters Outside are credited with sparking the Klondike Gold Rush. Her maternal great grandfather John Minook was the first to find gold in the Rampart area; his defense of Alaska Native mining interests had a far-reaching impact on mineral location and development rights for all Native Americans. This is only the beginning of the family's involvement in the state's history, however.

In 1918 Haines's mother was growing up in North Nenana, a construction camp for the Alaska Railroad where several Native families had settled. In a particularly harrowing episode within her memoir, the author recounts the Harper family traveling over the thawing Tanana River as they sought medical attention from the nearby hospital, in the village of Nenana, during the flu epidemic:

A whistling cold wind made the children even more jittery. Behind them, Louise shouted, "See that dock? That's Nenana, don't let it out of your sight!"

For the next hour, the children locked their eyes on the dock, spinning their heads like owls as the sled went one direction, then the other. At times Sam found himself knee-high in the freezing water atop the frozen crust of the river, and the team had to dog paddle.

Ultimately, they made it and with assistance from the townspeople, the family survived. Those who stayed in North Nenana were not so fortunate: more than 100 people died there.

The most famous member of the author's family was easily Walter Harper, the first person to summit Denali. Haines writes in Cold River Spirits of her uncle's unique childhood in the village of Tanana. As the youngest, he was the only sibling who remained at home, after his older brothers and sisters (including her own grandfather) were sent Outside to school from the age of five. To some degree all of the brothers would struggle with identity issues, from Walter who for years only spoke Athabascan versus the others who had little knowledge of village life when they were abruptly returned to Tanana as teenagers. (The two sisters stayed Outside to attend college and later taught school in Alaska.)

Archdeacon Hudson Stuck took a special interest in Walter, who was educated at the mission school and immensely skilled in trapping, tracking and fishing. Haines recounts how Walter was greatly admired by the people of Tanana even before the ascent of Denali but agreed in an email exchange with me recently that he is largely overlooked today. This is something she would like to see changed:

I don't know if Walter is "adequately" known in Alaska for his achievement. I'd love to see a bust or statue of him, centrally placed in Fairbanks or Anchorage or Juneau. I feel it would contribute to the pride and self esteem of Alaska's Native people.

My mother's cousin, Yvonne Mozee, sent a vast collection of research papers and material to the UAF archive. Walter's diary of that climb was included. Hudson Stuck reprinted a portion of it in an edition of Ascent of Denali. The diary began and ended with Walter's experiences during the climb. His style was more journalistic than introspective, although his thrill at reaching the summit after over two months of struggling is evident.

Sadly, as Haines recounts in a chapter entitled "The Owl and the Ship," Walter Harper and his wife perished along with everyone else onboard in Alaska's greatest maritime disaster, the sinking of the Princess Sophia in 1918.

The chapters that will likely resonate most strongly with readers, and generate the most discussion among book club members, are those that highlight Flora Jane Harper, the author's mother and the first Alaska Native graduate of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, which has named a building named in her honor. Raised in the bush, sent away at the age of 10 to be educated at the Chemawa Indian School in Oregon, (her three younger siblings who accompanied her were eight, six and four), Flora Jane overcame enormous challenges to persevere and graduate from college in 1935. Her commitment to earning an education is truly staggering, especially when one considers the poverty and hardship she had to overcome.

It is while sharing those stories of just how hard life was for her family that Haines presents the most powerful statements in Cold River Spirits. She makes clear in these chapters that she is not interested in glossing over episodes of hunger and illness by uttering platitudes about rural life and a romanticized appeal of subsistence. The truth is, the Harper family spent a lot of time starving. Their struggles with alcoholism and despair crossed generations and more than once the female members of the family had to dodge unappealing matches with men they barely knew and had no wish to marry. The children were sent thousands of miles away at young ages, ("I'm think about sending the four oldest to an orphanage I heard about in Kansas," states the author's grandfather at one point. "It's either that or starve."), and the educations they received were marginal at best. Again and again Haines makes clear that life was not easy and the strong desire to live better is something that is impressed upon each succeeding generation.

One especially frank refrain in the book is the lack of family planning and the difficulties this brought to everyone. The constant pregnancies resulted in obvious health problems for the women but had another effect on the men, especially Haines' grandfather:

When the weight of being a husband, father and provider became too much for him, Sam turned to drink and his old girlfriends. Ribald women who had the grace not to get pregnant. If only Louise knew the secret!

As she writes all of these truths, taking readers across Interior Alaska from village life to Town, along the rivers and up into the highest mountain, Haines shares far more than just how her family lived and died. Cold River Spirits provides both a vivid portrayal of Alaskan life from the early to mid-twentieth century, while maintaining a clear-eyed and sympathetic view of her own family. It would have been so easy for her to write what readers might expect; to wax sentimental about lives that few can imagine living today. By showing just how difficult it was to navigate the period of modernization and adaption that continues to impact Alaskan society, Jan Harper-Haines not only gives readers a stirring look at the past, she also makes sure her indomitable family will never be forgotten.

Walter Harper's diary is on display at the Museum of the North's Denali Legacy exhibit through April 2014. Contact Colleen Mondor at colleen(at)

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