Good intentions sometimes pave the road to you-know-where. While the Yukon Relief Expedition didn't exactly go to hell, the quixotic venture never reached the Yukon and gave its participants ample occasion to rue their involvement.
In 1898, the U.S. government recruited rustic Laplanders and a large herd of reindeer and tried to ship them posthaste more than halfway around the world to deliver food to stranded Klondike gold miners. The result was a classic Alaska boondoggle with a surprise ending.
Now this peculiar incident comes to life in "The Yukon Rescue Expedition and the Journal of Carl Johan Sakariassen," edited by V.R. Rausch and D.L. Baldwin. The book also contains a remarkable eyewitness account of Nome's gold rush origins not mentioned on its cover.
Sakariassen was a young Norwegian who signed on to the expedition for adventure and a chance to travel to America. He faithfully kept a diary from the time he signed on in Altenfjord, Norway, on Feb. 2, 1898, until he left Nome for San Francisco in October of 1899.
He resolved to record his experiences with the aim of perhaps gathering " material for the contents of a little book of recollections since foreign travels to strange places are anything but monotonous."
Sakariassen proved an astute observer, and the trip gave him plenty to record. He wrote with brevity and candor, kept a level head, included pithy details and doled out both criticism and praise.
The book has three parts: a 62-page introduction that explains the context and origins of the expedition, the journal and a series of notes and appendices that complement the journal by filling in information that Sakariassen omitted or did not know.
The adventure began when dire news from the northlands reached the rest of the world. Low water stranded Yukon supply boats and prevented them from delivering food to the Klondike gold fields, which swarmed with ill-equipped prospectors. At the same time, an early freeze trapped the whaling fleet in the Arctic Ocean. Suddenly everyone was talking about the threat of Americans starving and freezing in the unforgiving arctic winter.
Sheldon Jackson, the energetic missionary and education commissioner legendary for his schemes for "civilizing" the territory, advocated sending rescue supplies via reindeer-drawn sleds. He had worked to introduce domesticated deer into western Alaska to improve the Natives' living standards.
"Unfortunately, the number of government-owned animals was too small to meet the demands presented by two concurrent emergencies ," the editors write. "A new plan of action was needed, to which it was hoped Congress would give generous support."
Congress appropriated $200,000 for an emergency relief expedition, with Jackson and the military in charge. But by the time President McKinley signed the bill, it was already January.
As soon as Jackson and his assistants arrived in Europe, things began going wrong. An outbreak of livestock disease caused quarantines restricting availability of suitable ships. Storms raged in the North Sea. Poor communications tripped everyone up. The military's representative ended up under house arrest in Oslo due to a lawsuit.
Yet a boat sailed in early February with 539 trained draft reindeer, 418 sledges, 511 harnesses, 68 men, 26 women and 19 children. The people were a mix of Saami (Lapps) and Norwegians (including Sakariassen) hired to tend and drive the deer.
He soon complained about the appalling conditions, with lousy food, reindeer manure leaking into quarters and the vomit of passengers seasick or drunk. People asked to get off the boat before it was out of sight of the port, he wrote.
Sakariassen arrived in America with few preconceptions, noted its wonders with fresh eyes and was surprised by his group's fame. On the train from New Jersey to Seattle he first heard rumors about their destination:
"I get the impression that Alaska must be frequently talked about," he wrote March 4. "Children shout 'Klondike' time after time; and many people who spoke Norwegian told us that we were going to Alaska and could find gold and get rich; so there were many who envied us this journey."
By the time the expedition finally reached Alaska, winter was ending and the Klondike mission canceled. Yet its darkest hour came in the spring at Haines, as food for man and beast ran out and the Scandinavians tried to take dying deer through the mountains above Klukwan.
On April 16, he wrote: "Now we could also observe how many are starving and tortured; for they are so hungry that they ate the bark of spruce trees and licked each other a little, and even bit into our clothing, which was pitiful to see. Everything was done to save them, and we shall later know the results of all of our difficulty and toil."
Jackson arranged for the remnant herd and handlers to ship instead to the Bering Sea, to a new agricultural station near Unalakleet. There Sakariassen helped build cabins and recorded gossip of gold in the streams to the north.
Eventually men from the dwindled expedition resigned to try prospecting. One was Jafet Lindeberg, known in Alaska history as one of the "Three Lucky Swedes" who struck gold at the future site of Nome.
Sakariassen has biases and lapses, but his notes contain many gems for history buffs, such as impressions of Natives, claim jumpers and scrounging for food on the trail.
The editors have done a great job researching and documenting the ancillary material. The result is a handsome volume with historic photos, maps and a thorough references list.
For those accustomed to reading novels and creative nonfiction, the format of journal and notes is cumbersome. Yet the content makes for a gripping saga told with rare immediacy about one of Alaska's oddest adventures.
Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.
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