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Alaska’s early explorers were tough buzzards when it came to traveling and camping

  • Author: John Schandelmeier
    | Alaska Outdoors
  • Updated: August 5, 2019
  • Published August 5, 2019

We have turned into wimps when it comes to outdoor camping.

No longer do folks seem to able to travel across country without a plethora of gaudy, useless equipment. We should take a look at what the old-timers carried as they wandered about Alaska.

These weren’t just day trips. The good-ole-days expeditions went a thousand miles and better.

The early explorers, fur trappers and prospectors who opened up Alaska traveled mostly with some tattered canvas, a sleeping bag and a pot. Look at pictures of the camps of Alfred Brooks (of Brooks Range fame) and Hudson Stuck (Ten Thousand Miles With a Dog Sled"). I would be considered a minimalist camper by most folks’ standards, but I am a neophyte when compared to these tough buzzards.

In 1901 W.J. Peters and F.C. Schrader set out from Skagway by dog team in February, crossed the Yukon and then traveled downriver to Koyukuk. They left the dogs there, ascended the Koyukuk by canoe, crossed the divide to the Colville River and floated to the Arctic Ocean.

Peters and Schrader continued west to Barrow, where they ate the first food in months of travel that they hadn’t scrounged themselves. These hardy souls didn’t stop long in Barrow before traveling south to Cape Lisburne, where they finally caught a steamer for home.

That was a trip. There are records of many more similar trips. The early explorers and trappers rarely had any serious issues. What you or I might consider a tough situation was only a matter of course for early travelers. The stories of explorers dying on the trail mostly involved the inexperienced.

Robert McDonald was on Birch Creek near Central in 1863 and found gold on a tributary of that creek 35 years before the Klondike gold rush. What was this guy doing on Birch Creek before the United States owned Alaska? He was a missionary at Fort Yukon, and he gave the first report of placer gold on the Yukon. I bet he didn’t carry a water bottle or an extra pair of socks.

A couple of months ago, I guided a crew of green filmmakers on a three-mile hike scouting for a shooting location. The eight people all carried daypacks and water bottles even though we were crossing several streams, and they whined a bit about getting their feet wet.

The entire crew was outfitted with bear-spray canisters. There was an assistant from somewhere near Fairbanks who was to take over for me when filming actually began. He carried water bottles and water purification tablets despite this supposedly being a “reality” show. His recommendation was not to drink the water. These were glacier streams.

I can only shake my head at this. We have forgotten what it is like to actually travel in the woods.

However, not all aspects of our trips have degraded. We have made some improvements. Animals used by early travelers, mostly horses and dogs, were considered expendable. Peters and Brooks once left Lynn Canal with 15 horses en route to the Forty-mile District. Five horses made it.

That was normal.

Another party of five explorers jumped off the mouth of the Kobuk in April and went inland to the Colville River and then to the Chipp River, where they “disguarded” the dog team before continuing to Barrow.

Animals were used when needed and disposed of when they were not. Today, the horses and dogs we travel with are our friends. Losing one of them would ruin the entire camping experience.

Granted, today’s fish and game regulations would not allow the same freedom of cross-country travel that the frontier once knew. Even so, how many of us would shoulder a light pack and head out for a 100-mile jaunt with no support other than what was carried on your back?

In the 1940s, George Belanger used to walk from Palmer to the Gunsight Mountain area with a 100-pound pack of supplies for wintering at his placer claim. Those of you who like to hunt caribou in the Nelchina Basin should try this: take off from Eureka with a poncho, a box of Pilot Bread and a jar of peanut butter and head for the Denali Highway on foot.

I’d bet you’d get a caribou. And a pretty decent education in woodsmanship. And maybe a little hungry.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives near Paxson with his family. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and a two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.