The term sourdough is one flung around in Alaskan literature when talking about the history of the state or people of its past. For the unfamiliar, the name brings to mind that of the bread, that trusty companion out on the trail or away from town. Upon hearing it is a term applied to people, to some it appears to be an insult. But rather its usage in Alaska was taken to be high praise. A sourdough was originally someone who had come before the major gold rushes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They were people who knew the country and had withstood the test of a few of its long winters. As opposed to a greenhorn or cheechako, a newcomer to the country, these men knew what they were doing and weren’t liable to make significant mistakes. Over time, the term was applied to old timers in general, to those who had spent many winters, usually decades, pursuing the Alaskan lifestyle.
During World War II, there was an exodus throughout the north. The purchase of gold was halted and men went off to contribute to the war effort. Some remained in the mining towns, carrying on their lifestyles despite the change. Wiseman was no exception to this. A handful of individuals stayed within the country, gaining experience and skills as they pursued their definition of a good life. By the time new families were moving into Wiseman in the 1970s, these individuals had taken on the status of old timers or sourdoughs. Below, I detail a few of their stories.
Harry Leonard came at the tail end of the boom town days of Wiseman. Arriving in the 1930s, he set about the country in search of gold. His search brought him ten miles north of the town to Gold Creek, where he built a cabin and began prospecting. Eventually, he built a cabin in Wiseman and began mining closer to the town in the Nolan mining district.
Harry was married, but his wife didn’t care for Fairbanks and left for warmer environments elsewhere. That seemed to set the path for the rest of Harry’s life in the interpersonal realm. He preferred the company of his dogs to most people, letting them sit at the table for dinner, their own placemats and all. There are two instances throughout Harry’s life that speak to his willingness or ability to get on with others. One was when he served as postmaster for the region. On the south side of the community, lived Charlie Breck, another long time Wiseman resident. They maintained a bitter relationship, which eventually led to Harry refusing to deliver Harry’s mail. The postmaster general for the region wrote to tell Harry that he was aware of the situation, but animosities or not he wasn’t allowed to withhold mail. The other instance involved Harry’s own brother. He decided to pay a visit to Wiseman and the brothers hadn’t seen each other in decades. Instead of putting him up in his own cabin, Harry constructed a brand new cabin for his brother to sleep in. Asked his reasoning by another resident Harry replied, “I haven’t seen him in a long time. I’m not sure if I like him.” After the visit, Harry was asked for the verdict. “I don’t like him.”
Ross Brockman was another miner who came to Wiseman to try his luck in the surrounding gold fields. Part of what made Ross unique was how fanatical he was about his health, especially given the time period when such things weren’t mainstream. Brockman maintained a strict vegetarian diet, an oddity in a region where hunting, fishing and trapping reign supreme among native peoples and immigrants to the area. In the summer season, he maintained large gardens and converted part of his entryway to a greenhouse with the use of plastic sheeting. Instead of hunting, he spent time writing pamphlets and short books on health. One prominently featured the virtues of the soybean, detailing its positive effects, how best to prepare it and listing a recipe for pancakes.
Brockman is a contrasting personality to many of the other miners. He was one to enjoy the country, hiking around the surrounding mountains and taking in their beauty. A cave high up on a mountain would draw him near, not for the potential mineral findings but to see what it beheld within and what view could be had from its lofty heights. He composed songs and would make recordings of himself singing. And he prided himself on his woodpile, going out each day in the winter, cutting trees and bringing them back on foot with his sled.
John Etalook, or Arctic Johnny, was a native resident of Wiseman. Born among the Ulumiut (People of Ulu or Oolah Valley), he grew up in the upper Dietrich River valley while his people were still nomadic. In his adult years he spent time between both Wiseman and Anaktuvuk Pass. Renowned as a hunter, he would spend days watching animals and studying their movements and habits. While most who hunt Dall sheep ascend to the top of the mountains to meet their prey, Arctic Johnny would wait until they cross the valley during their seasonal movements. He was able to time their movement just right so that he would drastically minimize or even eliminate any climbing on his part. The mark of a great hunter is patience and Arctic Johnny had it in spades.
Tishu Ulen was another native resident of the town, born forty miles to the east at Chandalar Lake in 1905. She was born near the end of the traditional days for the Inupiats, but continued on the culture and lifestyle throughout her time in Wiseman. Unlike many other native women, Tishu spent time hunting and fishing, to help feed her family and her dog team. She even ran a trap line for many years further upriver. Tishu’s husband, Joe, had some notoriety throughout the state as a radio operator. In the early days of aviation, there weren’t many places where the pilots could communicate with the ground, especially over the large, unpopulated expanse of the Arctic. Joe communicated with many pilots travelling to far off communities, like Barrow, and even to famous polar explorers attempting to reach the north pole.
In Wiseman and throughout the north, one can still find such characters, but in lesser numbers. With few individuals living away from communities and through the pervasiveness of digital technology throughout Alaska, a grand assimilation of culture has taken place. No longer are communities isolated from the mainstream, but exist one click away. While there may be no one that matches the prowess of Arctic Johnny’s hunting ability, quirks and notable skills remain. As each generation passes, there is thought that it is the last true Alaskans or old timers. Such was the case with the miners before the gold rush, the sourdoughs. Then the miners of the gold rush. Then those after that and after that and so on until you get to the current group of seasoned Alaskans. Each group takes on its own significance in its respective era. In today’s age, I look to soon to be and current old timers who knew those detailed above with what’s likely similar levels of respect and admiration they had when they were younger. Cultures and practices may change, but respect and the lifestyle carry on.