Historic Resource Study
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As the 19th century approached its last decade, the sprinkling of U.S. citizens who had immigrated to Alaska since its 1867 purchase from Russia considered themselves neglected members of a lost colony. Alaska was not even a full-fledged territory, rather an administrative district. Governance and laws, a half-formed collection of precedents and practices from "Down Below," deprived citizens of representation, misread the nature of the country, and produced mixed results, usually interpreted by the locals as negative. This view prevailed even in the accessible towns of the Southeast Alaska panhandle, where ocean ships could nurture the American outposts.

In the distant reaches of the great Interior a few small steamboats plied the Yukon, whose forested banks opened occasionally for a log trading post or an Indian fish camp. Beyond the river, only scattered bands of hunters and the rare prospector roamed. Of government there was none. Over most of the Interior, for all one could see of "man sign," it was the world of Genesis before God's final creation. The Denali region and its approaches remained a blank space on the map, except for rough indications of mountains sighted from afar.

By the late 1880s the Arctic Mountains (later named the Brooks Range) had been partially explored—also the polar seas and coasts, the Yukon and its main tributaries, much of Southwest Alaska's delta lands, and, excepting mountain fastnesses, most of the Pacific rimlands. But at the center lay terra incognita.

In the main, the Russians had stayed near the coast. Beginning in the 1830s, having exhausted the populations of sea otter whose pelts had sustained the Tzar's enterprise in America for nearly a century, the Russian-American Company got serious about the Interior fur trade with establishment of posts on the lower or middle reaches of the Kuskokwim and Yukon rivers. Denali-region Indians participated indirectly in this trade via Indian middlemen who were based closer to Russian stations on the rivers and the coast.

British traders of the Hudson's Bay Company intruded Alaska in 1847 to establish Fort Yukon, far northeast of Denali on the upper Yukon River, and hundreds of miles from the nearest Russian post on the lower Yukon. Americans took over these posts after the purchase, linking the upper and lower river with additional stations along the middle Yukon, including several in the vicinity of the Yukon-Tanana confluence.

In time, direct contact began between American traders and the Indians of Denali, who floated downstream to trading posts and camps on the big rivers. The traders were content with this arrangement. There was no reason to labor up shallow rivers if the Indians would bring their furs down them. No other economic motivation existed to push settlement beyond the riverine highways—until the ever-roving prospectors began to find color around the outer margins of Denali. [1]

The first recorded reference to the Denali massif occurs in the 1794 journal of British explorer George Vancouver, who spent a month in Cook Inlet charting its waters—enough time for a break in the weather that gave him a view to the north. In his May 6 entry Vancouver named Cook Inlet in honor of his former captain on this same coast, James Cook, and noted "distant stupendous mountains covered with snow and apparently detached from each other," [2] a certain description of McKinley and its consort, Mount Foraker, from the inlet. In 1834, during explorations for a trade route between the Kuskokwim drainage and Cook Inlet, the Russian Creole explorer Andrei Glazunov portaged from the Yukon and ascended the Kuskokwim and Stony rivers seeking a pass across the Alaska range. When his Ingalik Athabaskan guides turned back to their Kuskokwim homeland, Glazunov was forced to turn back toward his base at St. Michael near the mouth of the Yukon [3], but not before noting on March 7 that he "saw a great mountain called Tenada, to the northeast." [4] At his location on the Stony River, Glazunov was nearly 200 miles from the mountain. His rendering of its name, Tenada, is traced to the Ingalik Dengadh. (The Koyukon name, Deenaalee, is the source of the modern Denali; all Athabaskan variants north of the Alaska Range mean "The High One.") [5]

Baron Ferdinand von Wrangell, Governor of the Russian-American Company, had sponsored Glazunov's expedition to document previously unexplored areas of Yukon and Kuskokwim geography. The Wrangell map of 1839 shows the massif described by Glazunov, with the label "Tenada." [6] In later Russian maps the approximately located mountains and the name were dropped, " they were considered too far away to position accurately." [7] Thus the Native naming of the mountain faded from maps and memories. [8]

Other Russian explorers provided geographic details on the margins. But the mountain citadel and its near approaches continued to loom at a distance, through the Russian period and well into the American.

The naming of the Alaska Range followed explorations of the Western Union Telegraph Expedition in 1865-67—part of a scheme to link the Old World and the New by a telegraph line across Alaska and Siberia. William H. Dall, chief of the expedition's Scientific Corps had viewed the range from the Yukon and in 1868 proposed the name "Alaskan Range," which was modified to "Alaska Range" by local usage. [9]

The end of the Russian period in America reflected Russia's imperial competition with Great Britain and the massive debts inherited from the Crimean War. Alaska, on the farthest periphery, was no longer an asset but a drain. For these reasons Russian administration in the final years showed signs of atrophy. [10] The sale to the United States in 1867 kept Alaska out of British hands and it opened a new chapter in the expansion of the United States. American traders, prospectors, and military and geological survey explorers would take up where the Russians had left off and push the frontiers of Alaskan exploration to the edge of the mountain realm.

As in the Russian period, the coastline and major rivers would attract the first American pioneers. Alaska's size and difficult terrain, plus its great distance from the seat of Federal government—fully engaged with settlement of its contiguous western territories-acted as brakes on penetration of the remote Interior. Systematic, government-sponsored exploration and mapping of the Denali region proper would be delayed for 30 years. Even prospectors drawn to the Yukon in the 1870s would take nearly 20 years to approach Denali's immediate vicinity. Thus it was by stages and dispersed probes of intervening geography that the mountain finally was approached. [11] A rich secondary literature [12] documents the details of Denali-region exploration, whose chronological highlights will be treated here, along with critical excerpts from original accounts.

  • As early as 1878 trader-prospectors Arthur Harper and Al Mayo ascended the Tanana River to the site of present Fairbanks, where they found fine gold in the river bars. Harper had earlier floated down the Tanana and seen the Alaska Range on the south horizon. Following his 1878 trip he reported "...a great ice mountain off to the south which was plainly of the most remarkable things.. .seen on this trip." [13] According to Bradford Washburn, this is the first known record of Mount McKinley as a single peak reported from the Interior. Notably, Harper's son Walter, born of an Indian mother, would be the first man to set foot on McKinley's summit a generation later. [14]

  • As late as 1880 historian Ivan Petrov stated in the Tenth United States Census report that "civilized men" knew nothing of the Susitna country north of Cook Inlet despite a century of coastal occupation.

    The Indians tell us that the rivers lead to lakes, and that the lakes are connected by rivers with other lakes again, until finally the waters flow into the basins of the Tennanah and the Yukon. But conflicting with this intermingling of the waters are stories of mountains visible for hundreds of miles... [15]

  • Lt. Henry T. Allen's 1885 U.S. Army expedition defined the eastern march of the Denali region by linking the Copper and Tanana river basins via passage through the eastern part of the Alaska Range. Allen took note of "very high snow-clad peaks" south of the Tanana River's middle reaches. [16]

  • Prospector Frank Densmore and several companions crossed from the Tanana to the Kuskokwim Basin in 1889. They probably ascended the Kantishna River and portaged to the Kuskokwim via Lake Minchumina, an ancient route used by Indian travelers, and, within 20 years, to be well worn by miners and mail carriers. This traverse came closer to the mountain (within 65 miles) than any previously recorded. Densmore's enthusiastic descriptions of the great mountain to the southeast, as viewed from the Minchumina country, prompted fellow prospectors to call it "Densmore's Mountain." [17]

  • Beginning in the mid-Nineties placer gold discoveries on the Kenai Peninsula and along the shores of Cook Inlet attracted many prospectors into full view of the mountain—among them William A. Dickey, who would name the peak McKinley. [18]

  • Dickey's ascent of the Susitna River in 1896 followed by a decade his coming west to Seattle after graduation from Princeton, where he impressed people as a winning personality, a talented pitcher, and a mathematical genius. His career as a business man never recovered from the destructive Seattle fire of 1889, so he eventually headed north to Alaska. His descriptions of the mountain, based on observations from prospecting camps on the Susitna, appeared in the New York Sun of January 24, 1897. [19]

Mosquito netting was an integral part of the early surveyors' outfits. Stephen R. Capps Collection, UAF

His was one of a hundred parties spurred by Cook Inlet gold discoveries to enter the mud-flat delta of the Susitna in spring 1896. All but a handful gave up the struggle against the turbid current before reaching Susitna Station trading post some 25 miles upstream. Here Dickey and his three companions abandoned their heavy sea dory and whipsawed lumber for two Yukon-style river boats 25 feet long, 18 inches wide on the bottom, and 40 inches across at the gunnels. After two weeks of false channels, boat dragging, and wet skies they reached the great forks near present Talkeetna, where:

On the clearing up of the weather we obtained our first good view of the great mountain, occasional glimpses of which we had before, the first from near Tyonick [Tyonek], where we saw its cloudlike summit over (much lower) Sushitna [Susitna] Mountain. The great mountain is far in the interior from Cook's Inlet, and almost due north of Tyonick. All the Indians of Cooks Inlet call it the "Bulshoe" [from the Russian word for "big"] Mountain, which is their word for anything very large. As it now appeared to us, its huge peak towering far above the high rugged range encircling its base, it compelled our unbounded admiration.... On Puget Sound for years we had been admirers of Mount Rainier, over 14,000 feet high, but never before had we seen anything to compare with this mountain. My companion in the boat, Mr. Monks, was one of the few who made the ascent of Rainier the previous summer. In his opinion Rainier was about the same altitude as the range this side of the huge peak, which towered at least 6,000 feet above its neighbors. For days we had glorious views of this mountain range, many of whose glaciers emptied apparently into our river.


About seventy miles from the great forks we came to a small village of the Kuilchau, or Copper River Indians [Ahtna], tall and fine looking, and great hunters. Throughout the long and arduous winter they camp on the trail of the caribou. They build huge fires of logs, then erect a reflector of skins back from the fire, between which reflector and the fire they sleep, practically out of doors, although the temperature reaches 50° below zero. We were surprised to find them outfitted with cooking stoves, planes, saws, axes, knives, sleds sixteen feet in length, 1894 model rifles, etc. They were encamped near a fish trap which they had constructed across a small side stream, and were catching and drying red salmon. They had no permanent houses, living in Russian tents, with the entrance arranged like our own to keep out the gnats and mosquitoes. They informed us that we could go no further with our boats, as the Sushitna now entered an impassable canon, whose upper end was blocked by a high waterfall. "Bulshoe!" they exclaimed, raising both hands high above their heads.


Unable to pass the falls on the main river we turned down the stream to the great forks. It was very exciting and dangerous running the rapids among the big boulders, the race-horse speed at which we travelled giving us no time to examine the river ahead. The boiling waves several times entered our boats, and we were constantly on the jump to keep them from swamping. We could make a greater distance down the stream in an hour than we could up in a day.

. . . We ascended Mount Sushitna near the mouth of the river and confirmed our previous observations on the upper river, namely, the extent of the broad, flat country, and the total absence of the great Alaska range as marked on the Government charts of Alaska.

We named our peak Mount McKinley, after William McKinley of Ohio, who had been nominated for the Presidency, and that fact was the first news we received on our way out of that wonderful wilderness. We have no doubt that this peak is the highest in North America, and estimate that it is over 20,000 feet high. [20]

When later asked why he named the mountain after McKinley, Dickey replied that the verbal bludgeoning he had received from free silver partisans had inspired him to retaliate with the name of the gold-standard champion. [21] For those dedicated to perpetuation of Native names on the land, beginning in the Denali-McKinley controversy with Charles Sheldon, this frivolous reason compounds the naming error.

Mountaineers responded with great interest to Dickey's claim, soon confirmed, that Mount McKinley was the highest mountain on the North American continent. Within a few years the pioneer climbers would begin the ongoing pilgrimage to this arctic giant's icy slopes. The turn of the century was the heyday of arctic exploration and the races for the poles. McKinley's lofty summit now joined the diminishing list of world-class objectives still left for those adventuring souls who mourned the earth's rapid domestication.

  • In 1897, as Denali-Mount McKinley began its transformation into the dominant symbol of Alaska, the Klondike Gold Rush became an international phenomenon. The cadre of American prospectors who had probed and picked the Yukon country for the past quarter century had found some respectable placers, but never enough to ignite a full-scale rush. The Klondike discoveries in Yukon Territory in 1896 did the job. Those hardened rovers who had worked hard-rock mines and placer streams through the Rockies and Sierras, the Australian outback and the Canadian mountains, and the Yukon itself, led the stampede. From their stories and tales, and the bullion they shipped south, the vision of instant riches spread across oceans and continents. Clerks, farmers, merchants, students, and the displaced and dispirited of all descriptions—along with calculating predators and their henchmen—dropped whatever life they had been living and grabbed passage on any ship that could sail, and some that had been condemned. In short order the Klondike excitement spread across the gold-fields of both Canada and Alaska.

Suddenly, the United States government, whose citizens comprised the great majority of stampeders, had a stake and responsibilities in Alaska. How could the mass of inexperienced gold-seekers get to the Klondike? How would they be supplied? What were the conditions of life in remote streams that were locked in ice and darkness for a good part of the year? Charlatans foisted false maps and manuals on the innocents, leading them astray, contributing to the potential disaster of marooned camps and death from scurvy and starvation. Boomers, shippers, and outfitters fed the excitement with rumors of new strikes. Hardly a stream in Yukon Territory or Alaska wasn't paved with nuggets that could change desperate lives into the stuff of dreams. Thus worked the alchemy of the Klondike Gold Rush—thought by its participants to be the last great adventure.

  • In 1898 responding to the demands of the Gold Rush, the Congress mandated that the U.S. Geological Survey should become the Nation's chief trailblazer in Alaska. Its task was to provide the public with accurate maps and information about the goldfields, including routes to them and the data of survival. At this time the Denali region was still marked "unexplored" on USGS maps. Separately, or in cooperation with the U.S. Army, the USGS launched several expeditions that year. Two of them would close in on the Denali region. [22]

    One of these, headed by J.E. Spurr, geologist, with W.S. Post, topographer, dragged canoes up the Susitna River's tributary, the Yentna, then followed up that stream's tributary, the Skwentna, to portage over the Alaska Range. The party then proceeded down the Kuskokwim to that great river's mouth and conducted further explorations along the coast. This remarkable trip through unexplored areas included the first recorded crossing of the Alaska Range in the Denali region. [23]

  • Also in 1898 George H. Eldridge and Robert Muldrow of the Survey mapped the Susitna River, traveling by boat and backpack. They reached the Nenana River (then called the Cantwell), tributary to the Tanana, then returned to the coast down the Susitna. Aside from exploratory mapping, this expedition provided hard data on the mountain and reported an idea that would later take root and shape the future of the Denali region. Muldrow made the first professional instrument determinations of Mount McKinley's altitude and position, confirming that its height exceeded 20,000 feet above the sea. [24] Eldridge, the leader of the expedition, fulfilled his charge to find a pass through the Alaska Range suitable for "the location of a railroad or wagon route from Cook Inlet to the Tanana." [25] In his report Eldridge made the prescient point that a feature of the "...route that should not be overlooked is its picturesqueness. It would be at the very foot of Mount McKinley and would pass through one of the grandest ranges on the North American Continent." [26] (In 1902 and 1903 private engineers made preliminary surveys for a railroad from the Pacific Coast to the Tanana via Susitna Valley and Broad Pass. Construction of a privately financed railroad began in 1903 at the new town of Seward on the coast. The line eventually reached the Turnagain Arm of Cook Inlet. It would later be bought and incorporated into the Government railroad system.) [27]

  • Army expeditions in 1898 and 1899 included reconnaissance surveys by Sgt. William Yanert and Pvt. George Vanschoonoven into the Susitna-Tanana divide area. These expeditions were elements of a larger Army effort under command of Capt. E.F. Glenn to define transportation routes to the Interior gold-fields. The Susitna River was deemed navigable for small steamers as far as the great forks near present Talkeetna. And the Susitna Valley-Broad Pass-Nenana River route to the Tanana Valley passed Captain Glenn's tests of feasibility for construction of a railroad or wagon road. Among the advantages of this route, the wide valleys and passes would avert avalanche dangers. Sub-reports from Captain Glenn's command noted the well worn trails used by Indian traders and hunters in their travels between the Susitna Valley and the Kuskokwim, Tanana, and Copper drainages. Yanert found the remains of a Tanana Indian hunting camp on the north side of Broad Pass. The condition of Natives at Tyonek and Susitna Station ranged from pitiable to fair, with many of the Indians in advance stages of pulmonary afflictions. By contrast, the Indians living at camps removed from the trading stations appeared healthy and provident, still engaged in traditional hunting and fishing for their livelihood. [28]

  • The 1899 expedition of 1st Lt. Joseph Herron, 8th Cavalry, was the last of the Army efforts under Captain Glenn to find an overland all-American route to the Interior goldfields, one that could not be interdicted by Canadian constraints or regulations. Herron's party crossed the Alaska Range via the Yentna and Kichatna rivers at Simpson Pass. Then, abandoned by their Tanaina Indian guides (perhaps because of fear of the upper Kuskokwim Indians), Herron and his men wandered to the brink of starvation or death-by-exposure through the maze of tributaries and swamps in the upper Kuskokwim drainage. Fortunately rescued, sheltered, outfitted, and guided by Indians of Telida village, the expedition eventually reached newly established Fort Gibbon at the Tanana-Yukon junction, using the Lake Minchumina-Cosna River trail to the Tanana.

Herron's trip, notable for its hardships and the saving help from the Indians, proved the infeasibility of the wet and stream-laced Kuskokwim-Tanana lowlands for road construction. (The Valdez Trail from tidewater to the Fortymile country and Eagle on the Yukon—scouted by another Army unit—became the all-American route.)

Herron's extended stay at Telida gave him splendid views of the north side of the Alaska Range, including Mount McKinley's 17,400-foot consort peak, which he named Foraker after yet another Ohio politician-U.S. Senator J.B. Foraker. (Indian names, according to Orth, included variants on Denali—thus treating Foraker as part of the massif—and "Sultana" and "Menlali," meaning Denali's Wife.) [29]

Herron, an 1891 graduate of West Point, had crossed 500 miles of unexplored country in a total of 1,000 miles traveled. His was the first instance in modern exploration of a Cook Inlet-Yukon River traverse. His official account, published in 1901 by the War Department, [30] offered a case study of do's and don'ts for future travelers in Alaska's varied terrains, especially the difficulties of summer travel in Interior lowlands and the limitations of horses for such work.

Doubtless Herron and his companions would have perished in the onsetting winter had not Chief Sesui and his Telida people succored them. The expedition had been reduced to rags and tatters, and as the season advanced constant immersion in cold water, along with the wet snows that avalanched from trees as they plunged through thick forests and thickets of brush preyed on the men's energy and will. The upper streams, blocked by drift piles and sweepers, could not be rafted—they had lost critical gear in a raft upset. The pack horses had weakened and been let go. So here were these weakened men trying to haul on their backs, with improvised canvas-and-rope packs, what gear remained, thrashing through brush, timber, and swamp.

Chief Sesui, hunting from Telida, killed the bear that had just robbed the Herron party's cache. Gutting the bear, Sesui discovered bacon, which meant that white men were near. Chief Sesui backtracked the bear and found the explorers lost and staggering through the swamps. It was September 19, with winter on the march, and, as Herron emphasized, he and his men both blessed the recently cursed bear and gave sincere welcome to the chief. Sesui took them to Telida, sheltering and feeding them for two months while the ground hardened, snow for travel fell, and the Indian women made winter clothes for them. Equipped with Indian snowshoes, transport provided by Indian dogs and sleds, and following Indian guides, Herron's party departed Telida November 25 and reached Fort Gibbon 3 weeks later. [31]

Carl Sesui and wife
Carl Sesui and wife, 1919. Stephen Foster Collection, UAF

The Herron-Chief Sesui episode has impelled anthropologist William Schneider to interesting commentary on the situation of the upper Kuskokwim people as direct contact with European culture began: [32]

The Upper Kuskokwim people were ready to assist Herron on his way through and they were ready to assist the hundreds of others that came in the early years of the twentieth century on their way to the gold strikes farther down river and at Nome. This readiness is rather unique for Indian groups which experienced gold rush activities and can be credited to a number of factors. A prolonged period of indirect contact [with both Russians and Americans] facilitated cultural integrity. The Upper Kuskokwim is geographically distant from the major western supply lines; therefore, Native services were vital to travelers. The Upper Kuskokwim Natives had flexibility to develop culturally appropriate and economically remunerative roles in activities of the gold rush—activities such as running roadhouses, supplying fish and game, and serving as dog team mail carriers.

In 1908 the Iditarod Trail was surveyed and became a winter route of travel for prospectors headed for Southwest and Northwest Alaska. In 1923, with the completion of the Alaska Railroad, the Kantishna/Upper Kuskokwim trail also became an important winter travel route. These two trails crossed the Upper Kuskokwim and were traveled by many people headed for the distant gold mining areas.

Strikes in Fairbanks in 1902 and Kantishna in 1905 also brought gold seekers who spilled over into the Upper Kuskokwim. To support the newcomers, roadhouses were built along the trails, and Upper Kuskokwim Natives were employed to work at these sites, and to provide food for the travelers and their dog teams. Some Natives were employed to carry the mail. In some cases the roadhouses were run and owned by Natives.

The introduction of fishwheels by 1918 on the upper river signalled a major technological advance that permitted Upper Kuskokwim people to catch large quantities of salmon on the main river. Fish were also caught in traps in the streams and sold to the roadhouses to feed travelers and their dog teams. The dramatic picture that emerges is of a small Native population which very quickly and effectively provided basic services on the trails and at the roadhouses. The services involved some skills that they had used all of their lives: hunting, fishing, and dog team driving. The introduction of the fishwheels was advantageous and, along with the traditional fish traps, provided a ready source of fish near the main travel routes. The ownership of roadhouses and the entrepreneurial skills that this demanded are of considerable interest.

The Upper Kuskokwim presented unique problems of supply. In summer, river steamers could operate dependably as far up river as McGrath, but the roadhouses farther up river had to depend on shallow-draft boats, and, of course, winter supply over the trails. One suspects that for these roadhouses, local—meaning Native—supply was very important, more important than elsewhere where white traders could depend upon steamboats for supply. The geographical remoteness from outside supply necessitated a dependance on local resources, and therefore permitted a relatively high degree of local control, paralleling in some respects the situation Herron found himself in during his stay at Telida.

Unfortunately, the period of employment and entrepreneurship was short-lived, lasting only until the 1930s when the airplane signalled an end to dog team mail delivery. Many of the roadhouses and even the trails ceased to be important. The employment opportunities decreased dramatically. By then the hordes of prospectors were gone. Those who had found paying quantities of gold were established in a few locales, most outside the Upper Kuskokwim. The traffic had decreased, the wage labor opportunities were few, and people returned to much of the trapping life that they had practiced before, only now the area was less isolated and white trappers shared in the rich fur resources.

Reflecting on the historical events surrounding Herron and the gold seekers, we are left with the strong feeling that the Upper Kuskokwim Natives not only culturally survived but thrived during the early phases of direct contact....


Unlike many other parts of Alaska where direct contact in a home territory followed rather quickly after indirect contact and necessitated immediate change, the Upper Kuskokwim people maintained insulation for a long time, absorbing what they wanted and declining what they did not want. For many years they dealt with strangers on their own terms, and that may have influenced their willingness to exploit the opportunities that finally developed in their home territory. The people who entered their territory had destinations elsewhere. They sought gold outside that territory and did not provide direct competition for the employment opportunities. A contact situation was thus created which permitted the resident population ample opportunity to maintain its integrity and to benefit from their geographically remote location.

  • The 1902 exploration along the northwest base of the Alaska Range by USGS geologist Alfred Hulse Brooks transected the Denali region, touched the slopes of the Denali-McKinley massif, and produced works of mapping, description, and data (including mountaineering recommendations) that remained the standard references on the region for half a century. [33] An 1894 graduate in geology from Harvard, Brooks had been called from studies in Paris to join USGS Alaskan explorations in 1898. Each year thenceforth he participated in or led Alaska field expeditions in anticipation of his Mount McKinley exploration. In 1903 he became chief of USGS mineral surveys in Alaska, and later Chief Alaskan Geologist for the Survey. In 1912-13 he was vice chairman of the Alaska Railroad Commission, whose report prompted President Woodrow Wilson to choose the route for the government built-and-operated Alaska Railroad that runs "along the very foot of Mount McKinley." Brooks' distinguished service as chief geologist for the American Expeditionary Force in World War I was followed by further Alaskan work, and authorship of essays and papers that became a posthumously published book classic, Blazing Alaska's Trails. [34]

U.S. Geological Survey work party
A U.S. Geological Survey party at work, near present-day Talkeetna. Stephen R. Capps Collection, UAF

Brooks' leadership of a volunteer cadre of USGS geologists and topographers spurred that agency to excel in its mission as the Nation's chief trailblazer in Alaska. In the Denali-McKinley region, his work effectively brought to a close the period of early exploration and charted the course for mining, mountaineering, and railroad transportation, which, in combination, would open an unexplored land to the world. [35]

Brooks' McKinley expedition of 1902 comprised 7 men and 20 pack horses, with D.L. Reaburn, topographer, and L.M. Prindle, geologic assistant. Their traverse began on June 2 at Tyonek near the head of Cook Inlet, and ended at Rampart on the Yukon. The route ran northwest across the Skwentna River to the Kichatna, then up that stream and across the Alaska Range through Rainy Pass—which Brooks named—to the Kuskokwim headwaters. Then for 200 miles the party followed the margin of the inland front of the range northeastward. On the northerly end of that course Brooks closely paralleled, and in places probably trod upon, the route of the present park road, reaching the Nenana River via Hines and Riley creeks as do today's park road travelers. Thence the party aimed north via the Nenana River, crossing the Tanana Valley and arriving at Rampart on the Yukon, having traveled 800 miles in 105 days. [36]

The expedition accomplished with dispatch this long trek across some of Alaska's most trying terrain. Savage mosquitos, swamps, and swift glacial rivers combined with thick brush and timber and rugged topography to make many of the miles traveled seem like individual battlefields. Years of Alaska field experience gave Brooks and his professional colleagues both foresight in preparation and stamina in execution. Skilled horse wranglers and campmen simplified travel and camp routines so that men and animals could last the course. Sufficient minimums ruled in equipage, supply, and—to the extent possible—energy expended. And in the rich game country of the Denali region fresh meat was never lacking. [37]

Mount McKinley
Mount McKinley, showing one of Brooks' campsites during his 1902 expedition. A.H. Brooks Collection, USGS

Excerpts from Brooks' 1903 article [38] give a flavor of the Denali region's geography, landscapes, and wildlife—and the impact of the great mountain upon a skilled and literate observer:

[From the summit of Mount Susitna, near Tyonek] . . . the broad lowland of the Sushitna Valley lay spread before us, the dark greens of its spruce forest contrasting with the lighter greens of the open marshes and the bright gleam of small lakes or winding water courses. Beyond rose a range of highlands, and then, forming the sky-line, snow-covered Alaskan mountains. From our vantage point the rugged crest line seemed unbroken, and had we not known that it was in fact cleft by passes we might have despaired of finding a route through such a forbidding mountain mass.

As we gazed a mass of clouds hanging over what appeared to be the center of the range broke and revealed two majestic peaks, Mount McKinley and Mount Foraker, glistening in the slanting rays of the afternoon sun. Far above the crest line they towered, enormous mountains, even at a distance of 120 miles. Four years before, while making an exploration down the Tanana with canoes, I had seen the same peaks and at about the same distance, but from the opposite direction.

The task before us was to find a route across the swampy lowland, traverse the mountains, and, following their northern front, approach from the inland slope as near the base of this culminating peak of the continent as conditions and means would permit; we must map the country and incidentally explore a route which some time could be used by that mountaineer to whom should fall the honor of first setting foot on Mount McKinley.

From the forests we now entered a belt of foothills, which formed a northern spur of the main range, and once more obtained a clear view of Mount McKinley, still almost as far distant as when we first saw it from Mount Sushitna six weeks before. This was no cause for depression, however, for then we were separated from our goal by an apparently impenetrable swamp and a great, snow-covered range, whereas now there seemed no serious obstacles to our achieving our purpose.

Among these foothills, averaging a height of 3,000 or 4,000 feet, dwelt large numbers of mountain sheep, their pure white color, which in this region remains unchanged throughout the year, making them conspicuous objects on the bare rocks or moss-covered slopes. In the course of one morning's roaming over the hills, I] counted more than 100 of these mountain dwellers. In fact, the abundance of sheep, bear, moose, and caribou found along the north slope of the Alaska Range rank it as one of the finest hunting grounds in North America.

Our descent from the foothills brought us to a gravel-floored plateau which butted directly upon the base of the range. Its smooth, moss-covered surface afforded such excellent footing and so few obstacles to progress that for days we hardly varied our direction a degree, heading straight for Mount McKinley. That mountain and its twin peak, Mount Foraker, now only 50 miles away, seemed to us to rise almost sheer from the gravel plain. We passed many large glaciers which debouched from the mountain valleys upon the plateau and discharged roaring, turbulent, bowlder-filled rivers, which were our most serious impediment.


These were the happiest days of the summer. Cheered by the thought that every day's march was bringing us visibly nearer to our goal, we lent ourselves readily to the influence of the clear, invigorating air and the inspiration of that majestic peak ever looming before us, the highest mountain of North America, which we were to be the first to explore.


Our camp of August 1 was pitched in a grove of cottonwoods near the foot of a glacier which flowed down from the neve fields of Mount Foraker. This we called the "Herron Glacier," in honor of Capt. Joseph S. Herron, our predecessor in the exploration of the upper Kuskokwim Basin. A short scramble through the underbrush brought me to the front of the moraine, which stretched like a cyclopean wall across the valley. Climbing to the top, I surveyed the mass spread out before me, very like the preliminary dumping ground of a railway excavation. It was a striking scene and an unusual one, for a newly formed moraine is the exception in land forms. Nature in her sculpturing delights in rounded and symmetrical outlines, and it is only when the forces of erosion have not had time to do their molding that such a crude, unfinished surface is exposed to view. It is, so to speak, the raw material which streams and rains will carve into beautifully rounded topography, and then vegetation, nature's decorative artist, will clothe with greens of various hues.

Two days later we made our nearest camp to Mount McKinley in a broad, shallow valley incised in the piedmont plateau and drained by a stream which found its source in the ice-clad slopes of the high mountain. We had reached the base of the peak, and part of our mission was accomplished, with a margin of six weeks left for its completion. This bade us make haste, for we still must traverse some 400 miles of unexplored region before we could hope to reach even the outposts of civilization. The ascent of Mount McKinley had never been part of our plan, for our mission was exploration and surveying, not mountaineering, but it now seemed very hard to us that we had neither time nor equipment to attempt the mastery of this highest peak of the continent.

The next morning dawned clear and bright. Climbing the bluff above our camp, I overlooked the upper part of the valley, spread before me like a broad amphitheater, its sides formed by the slopes of the mountain and its spurs. Here and there glistened in the sun the white surfaces of glaciers which found their way down from the peaks above. The great mountain rose 17,000 feet above our camp, apparently almost sheer from the flat valley floor. Its domed-shaped summit and upper slopes were white with snow, relieved here and there by black areas which marked cliffs too steep for the snow to lie upon.

A two hours' walk across the valley, through several deep glacial streams, brought me to the very base of the mountain. As I approached the top was soon lost to view; the slopes were steep and I had to scramble as best I could. Soon all vegetation was left behind me, and my way zig-zagged across smooth, bare rocks and talus slopes of broken fragments. My objective point was a shoulder of the mountain about 10,000 feet high, but at 3 in the afternoon I found my route blocked by a smooth expanse of ice. With the aid of my geologic pick, I managed to cut steps in the slippery surface, and thus climb 100 feet higher; then the angle of slope became steeper; and as the ridge on which the glacier lay fell off at the sides in sheer cliffs, a slip would have been fatal. Convinced at length that it would be utterly foolhardy, alone as I was, to attempt to reach the shoulder for which I was headed, at 7,500 feet I turned and cautiously retraced my steps, finding the descent to bare ground more perilous than the ascent.

I had now consumed all the time that could be spared to explore this mountain, which had been reached at the expense of so much preparation and hard toil, but at least I must leave a record to mark our highest point. On a prominent cliff near the base of the glacier which had turned me back I built a cairn, in which I buried a cartridge shell from my pistol, containing a brief account of the journey, together with a roster of the party.

By this time I was forcibly reminded that I had forgotten to eat my lunch. As I sat resting from my labors I surveyed a striking scene. Around me were bare rock, ice, and snow, not a sign of life, the silence broken now and then by the roar of an avalanche loosened by the midday sun, tumbling like a waterfall over some cliff to find a resting place thousands of feet below. I gazed along the precipitous slopes of the mountain and tried to realize again its great altitude, with a thrill of satisfaction at being the first man to approach the summit, which was only 9 miles from where I smoked my pipe.


The era of early exploration thus ended in contemplation of the great mountain. This lofty banner, visible for 200 miles, marked the center of a region long familiar to Indian hunters and now encircled and transected by newcomers upon the land. Their maps, photos, and written descriptions dissipated the mists of distance and filled the blank spaces recently marked "unexplored." The Denali region beckoned to prospectors, mountaineers, and engineers. Hunters, naturalists, and artists would soon follow. In time their experiences, reports, and renderings would cast a special meaning upon these mythic landscapes, the regal creatures that roamed them, and the towering massif that topped them all. Then would arise the notion that these scenes should be discovered anew by each generation. Despite their diverse callings, the second wave of pilgrims, like the first, would fall under the spell of this marvelous region. Purposefully or otherwise, they would all contribute to its dedication as a public treasure, a place of perpetual discovery.

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Last Updated: 04-Jan-2004