Alaska Magazine: Arctic Village Revisited

I wrote this article for the May 2018 edition of Alaska Magazine about the evolution of the town of Wiseman, Alaska over the past 100 years. Here is the full version.

Sixty-three miles north of the Arctic Circle lies a cluster of log cabins that form the town of Wiseman. The town sits beneath towering mountains within the Central Brooks Range.  For much of history, there were no cabins, buildings or structures of any kind located at the present town’s location.  Glaciers covered the area with hundreds of feet of ice during the last glacial period.  Later on, the river (what is now called the Middle Fork of the Koyukuk) snaked back and forth across the valley, forming new channels and gravel bars as the water simultaneously eroded and deposited silt over long passages of time.  Flora and fauna have roamed the wilderness for thousands of years. People too. But until a gold rush brought white men to the region before the turn of the 20th century, the only people were nomadic bands, in search of food all throughout the year.  All that began to change in the year of 1907, when a small mining town named Wiseman was founded.

Early in the 20th century, the town of Wiseman was unknown to all but those who tried their luck in the gold fields of the far north.  Far from civilization, a journey to the town was an expedition in itself, taking months, often involving the use of horses, boats, and/or dogs before finally reaching the town. With no telegraph, and mail coming once per month (at its quickest), news was slow to leave the area.  Nonetheless, there were up to 300 individuals living in Wiseman and the surrounding area during those early days, battling frozen ground and weeks of no sun in hopes of finding a large paystreak.  Unlike many mining towns of that era, which lasted for a few years before fading away into oblivion, Wiseman and its culture were soon to be immortalized.  In the year 1929, a man named Robert Marshall landed in Wiseman and began his journey that would make Wiseman well known throughout the country.

Over the next decade, Marshall spent time in and around Wiseman on three separate occasions, with his longest stint lasting 15 months.  A curious and ambitious individual, he took to the country in all seasons of the year and made frequent trips along valleys and up mountains with companions from the area.  In town, Marshall would visit with the residents, both the natives and miners, learning more about the culture and style of living in this remote place.  After his first extended period of time in the town, he left and compiled all his notes together into a book, Arctic Village: A 1930s Portrait of Wiseman Alaska.

The book is a comprehensive look at the style of living found within this Arctic outpost.  Marshall covers all matters related to the economic livelihood of the people, from what supplies they get and how much they cost to descriptions of labor and other topics including transportation, food, clothing and shelter. The concept of frontier living and homesteading was not as foreign to the general masses then as it is today, but a unique aspect to the town was the emphasis on self-reliance and living off the resources found within the surrounding country.

Social aspects were not ignored, rather they formed the primary focus of the book.  Human relations take on a greater importance living in such an isolated locale and Wiseman was no exception to that.  Marshall recounts the dances, often lasting late into the next morning, that would draw miners in from all around the surrounding area whether it was 40 below or 40 above. Much to the chagrin of the residents, whole conversations filled with gossip were reproduced verbatim, leading to a handful of verbal disputes post-publishing.   

World War II brought an end to the era of Wiseman as a large town.  Gold prices became fixed, making the endeavor uneconomical for many and others left to join the war effort.  There were still some that remained, a small group of whites and natives who enjoyed the lifestyle and couldn’t fathom living anywhere else.  These were people who shuddered at the idea of going into town (Fairbanks), spending up to 20-25 years at a time between visits.

Those that remained held traits and habits of their own that didn’t entirely meld with that of the general public.  Such characters are often to be expected in such a rural locale. There was Ross Brockman. The Arctic vegetarian who maintained a large garden.  Ross enjoyed wandering the country, singing self-composed music and collecting wood daily throughout the winter months.  On the other side of the community was Harry Leonard, a prosperous miner who developed an animosity towards almost everyone but his dogs. The last native woman to live in Wiseman was named Florence Jonas, or Kahlabuk.    Kahlabuk still clung to the old ways of her people, speaking Inupiaq and living a life not much different than when her family first arrived in the town.  She often blended old ways with that of modern western society.  On racks outside, she would place strips of meat, making what’s known as dry meat.  In the summer, she would spray the meat with DDT to keep the flies off, despite advice from other residents within the community.

 These are a few of the individuals during that time period. They didn’t spend much time among each other, but they all shared a strong work ethic, a fondness for the surrounding country, and love of the Wiseman lifestyle.  The town became quieter as the years went by. As the population increased within the state and infrastructure developed, Wiseman seemed destined as just another ghost town to vanish into history.

However, in the late 1960s, oil was discovered in large quantities on the North Slope of Alaska, near the Arctic Ocean coast.  The oil companies decided that a pipeline running north to south through the state of Alaska would be the best option to transport whatever they recovered.  A road would run parallel to the pipeline in order to provide easy access for maintenance, security, and transporting necessary supplies among other things.  The final route would lead both the pipeline and the road within a mile of Wiseman.

The town’s residents were not happy upon discovering the pipeline’s route.  Construction of the road was pushed as quickly as possible, using historic trails and “roads” in order to legally begin the highway without heavy litigation. With their speed and attempted stealth, the oil company’s construction surprised residents when they began to hear large machinery in the valley. Old timers tried to stop construction by blocking its path with bulldozers.  However, their efforts were no match for the deep pockets of the oil corporations and their strong desire to begin moving the oil south.  In 1974 the Dalton Highway was completed and in the spring of 1977, oil flowed down the Trans Alaska Pipeline for the first time, flowing past Wiseman every day.

After the road was established, new families moved into Wiseman.  The town’s modern day population peaked in the 1990s with the number of residents totaling in the upper 30s. It was a struggle for residents to make ends meet during this time period, mining was diminished from the past and the tourism industry was not yet prevalent in the region.  For those who remained, they clung to the subsistence lifestyle, trapping, hunting, foraging, and gathering wood, which allowed them to maintain a high quality of life with limited monetary output.

For the most part, today the land is as it was during the early 20th century and at the time of Marshall’s writing.  The mountains still loom over the town on either side of the valley and the river continues to flow south to the Yukon.  Trees are more plentiful throughout the area than at any other time during the town’s existence.  With the discontinuation of steam engines and a low number of people wintering in the area, the consumption of wood has drastically decreased since those early days. 

Yet while some remains the same, much has changed.  Most notably is the ribbon of asphalt that runs on the opposite side of the valley, the Dalton Highway (also known as the Haul Road).  This industrial road is the path used by semi-trucks carrying machinery and equipment, vehicles, chemicals, and all other types of freight for operations at the oil fields at Prudhoe Bay, 240 miles to the north on the Arctic Ocean coast.  Gone are the days of the quiet, idyllic setting of Wiseman with only the occasional interruption of a plane landing on the airstrip nearby.  In its stead is the noise of trucks as they pass by at random intervals at all hours throughout the day, every day of the year. 

As road conditions have improved and the number of people visiting Alaska has increased, the number of people travelling to or through Wiseman has followed suit.  Visitors come from across the world to get a glimpse of the lifestyle that has vanished in almost the entire western world today.  Most arrive in the summer, when there is endless sun and temperatures reach into the upper 80s.  Yet, over the past few years, there have also been many who have come to brave the harsh, Arctic winter for a few days in hopes of seeing the aurora borealis (northern lights). 

Tourism is the economy of Wiseman.  Residents guide tours in the area, host visitors in overnight accommodations or work at the government’s interagency visitor center in the area. Locals shun the American urban mindset of living to work, instead choosing to work to live.  For those wishing to become monetarily wealthy, Wiseman is not the preferred locale.  Residents remain because they enjoy living close to nature and among large wild spaces.  People enjoy the ability to provide for themselves or their families from the land and otherwise enjoy being out in the country, whether that be watching wildlife, hiking or skiing or just taking in the area’s natural beauty.

The town’s characters aren’t only found in the history books, but are present today as well.  In recent years, there have been year-round residents who are so frugal as to eschew electricity throughout the year, going through a hibernative state throughout the dark winter months.  There’s those that have grown up in the area and remain to this day, embodying their own quirks from living in such an isolated locale throughout their lives.  Nicknames are attached freely with names like Walking Bob, Little Bob, Walking Back Jack, Clutch and 8-Ball. Although the community remains small, there is plenty of gossip among residents throughout the year to keep conversations flowing.

There is a downside to the increased traffic in the area.  Some visitors aren’t only shooting pictures, but bullets and arrows.  As Alaska’s population has increased over the years, hunting areas receive more and more pressure forcing hunters elsewhere.  For those in the Fairbanks area, that often means north to the Brooks Range.  Large game populations are down from historic numbers throughout the area and an increased human presence along with more hunting plays a large role in the decline. Caribou herds that cloud the valley floor and move along the mountain sides are no longer seen in the Middle Fork of the Koyukuk and Dietrich River Valleys.  Dall sheep, protected from most predators through their choice of habitat in rugged terrain, have proved no match for hunters spotting and arriving to hunts by aircraft over the years. Even the number of bears, within the valley and along the road system, has decreased, according to residents who have observed the land since the 1970s.

Even with the increased opportunities for income and travel, the subsistence lifestyle still plays a large role for residents of the village. For most, the level at which one adheres to the subsistence life has diminished from the past.  Nowadays, residents often (often being once every other month) make trips down to Fairbanks where they can resupply on groceries, hardware or other supplies.  The internet also allows for resupply of just about anything, often at a lower price.  In rural Alaska, Amazon is the major store, and Wiseman is no exception.  With one click, anything can be ordered and expected in 10-14 days, with free shipping.  That difference alone is a luxury beyond the imagination of Wiseman’s early residents, who waited for months at a time for goods to arrive while paying exorbitant freight costs.  

Despite Amazon, come each fall, Wiseman’s residents sight their rifles, sharpen knives and prepare their gear for the fall hunt.  Moose hunting still holds a critical importance in the community, usually providing the bulk of the meat for the year.  Sheep and caribou are also often pursued. Blueberries and low bush cranberries, if present, are picked in large quantities.  Like the early days, wood remains the sole heat source and is sourced throughout the year.  The community remains off grid and residents source their utilities via their own means.  For example, electricity is provided for through a battery bank and solar panels and/or wind turbine for most of the year, and water through individually installed wells.

The community has adapted to many and various changes over the past one hundred plus years, forging on when many small Alaskan towns have dwindled or collapsed.  Yet, the changes haven’t caused its residents to stray from the community’s principles and values that have emerged throughout the years.  Any day of the year, you can walk through the community and see various projects underway.  Someone may be fixing up a cabin, working on a plane or enjoying a view of the surrounding country.  Regardless of the changes, the land and obtaining a life from it in some fashion, is still valued above all else. Today, you’ll find there’s more noise, more people passing through and a higher level of technology, but for those who live in Wiseman, the lifestyle still resembles that which Robert Marshall found on his first foray into the country almost 100 years ago.

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