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Racing for survival: First Interior Alaska explorer navigates the unruly Tanana river

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Posted: Sunday, September 4, 2011 12:01 am | Updated: 1:21 pm, Wed Jan 16, 2013.

Editor’s note: Henry Allen was the first explorer to travel from Prince William Sound into Interior Alaska exclusively by river. In the process Allen mapped extensive routes for the Copper, Tanana and Koyukuk rivers, in total exploring about 1,500 miles. Russ Vander Lugt recently completed a graduate thesis on Allen’s 1885 Alaska expedition.

June 21, 1885 — Lt. Henry Allen placed his mud-soaked mukluk firmly on an unnamed gravel island, yards away from what would become Fairbanks’ present-day South Cushman Rifle Range. The other boot he balanced in a caribou-skin covered bidarka, or Native-made boat, which had just carried Allen and his party through one of the most treacherous sections of the Tanana. The boat had run aground again.

Stuck on a sand spit in the middle of the river, Allen paused just long enough to take an observation for longitude and measure the current. A recent West Point graduate and general’s aide who was sent to explore Alaska’s unknown territory, the ambitious young officer was anything but a military drudge. In fact, the entire expedition was largely his idea. Allen’s plan involved ascending the half-frozen Copper River from the Gulf of Alaska with a small, lightly-equipped party. After crossing the Alaska Range into the headwaters country of the Tanana, Allen figured he could float downstream to Norton Sound before freeze up.

Upriver, the Tanana spread its muddy water into several channels amidst fields of timber. Sweepers bound fast to riverbanks and trunks bobbing in the water presented constant obstacles. Huge piles of drift timber lodged near the head of gravel islands forced the expedition to make constant decisions regarding which channel to take.

Allen records, “The river is divided into so many channels that it is with difficulty we keep our small craft from running aground or find sufficient water to float our skin boat. We are occasionally aground when probably to our right or left, within a few hundred feet, is deep water. Once in a channel there is no halting unless run aground.”

The shallow, braided sections of rapids upriver had also taken their toll on the group. After several hours in the boat, nearly all in rapids, the expedition was “well tired by the exertions made in avoiding shoals, stringers, and drift piles ... so dangerous were the rapids that the steering paddle could not be dropped even sufficiently long to permit a compass observation.”

On this stretch, Allen and Sgt. Robertson were almost knocked out of the boat while running some rapids. According to Pvt. Fickett’s journal, the third military member of the expedition, they “very narrowly escaped a bad accident.” Interestingly, Allen makes no mention of this incident in his official report.

He does chronicle the expedition’s campsite closest to Fairbanks:

“During the afternoon of the 20th ... Large masses of driftwood and sunken soil, with its vegetation partly submerged, were passed; yet further down the river seemed to have no bounds, having attained a width, as best we could estimate, of three to four miles. After nine and quarter hours of paddling Camp 13 was made. This was left at 3 a.m. the following morning, June 21. Twenty miles below camp (where the Tanana passes Fairbanks) the current is more nearly confined to a single channel and is very much less rapid.”

Racing for survival

When studied closely, Allen’s maps and detailed notes reveal that his campsite that night was very near the southwest corner of Moose Creek Bluff. How did Fairbanks’ first explorer come to camp in such an unremarkable place? As it turns out, the curious bluff near the mouth of Moose Creek is significant for two reasons.

First, Allen tried to pause near bluffs whenever possible. For Allen’s expedition, camping near the base of a river bluff in flat country was a precedent established early on in his travels. “Bluff camps” allowed Allen to climb quickly above the river corridor and gaze across the flats for scientific and geographic observations. Occasionally, Allen also drew sketches of mountain ranges and rough maps from such bluffs. In Allen’s mind, if he could do nothing more than survive while passing through the country, at least he would map the Tanana, something that had never been accomplished with positioning instruments.

Second, this particular bluff, rising 300 feet above the Tanana flats, marked the confluence of a small clear water steam and the rushing Piledriver Slough, which at the time was over 200 yards wide and one of the main channels of the Tanana. Moreover, Allen’s detailed maps and journal entries (with over 400 compass bearings) show his campsite on June 20, 1885, located precisely near the base of Moose Creek Bluff, just before the Tanana arches back toward Fairbanks.

According to Wendy Steinberger, navigability specialist for the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, recent research and scientific data supports the theory that Allen was able to descend Piledriver Slough in 1885.

Despite its significance, Allen didn’t linger at this bluff camp. The account in Allen’s field journal gives insight into the expedition’s hardships and condition:

“Saturday, June 20. Rain nearly all night; slept in a pool of water most of the time. Still raining this morning. Went into camp during quite a rain at 8:45. Mosquitoes abundant.”

The following morning Allen simply notes, “Left camp at 3 a.m.; rained all night and is raining this morning” and later in the day, “Raining quite hard and cold. Have no meat except the fat we had hoped to fry fish with.” In his polished, official report he writes, “Living on tallow only, without any chance of obtaining even rabbits, was not conducive to cheerfulness of mind, though we were running downstream.”

The half-starved condition of the expedition together with few prospects for finding food intensified this first-ever recorded descent down the Tanana. Driven by hunger, the expedition floated 50 to 60 miles a day in their race to the Yukon, where they hoped some food awaited them at Nuklukyet, just below the present-day village of Tanana. Moreover, two of the expedition’s five members were already incapacitated due to scurvy and other ailments. Allen recalls, “Insufficiency of food here as elsewhere was our greatest source of anxiety. The exhausted condition of the party caused me to start down the Tanana as soon as possible, vainly hoping that on reaching the Yukon our wants would be immediately supplied.”

More accurately, had it not been for generous Natives who had guided and sacrificed what meager rations they could provide, the expedition members would have perished before crossing the Alaska Range.

‘First contact’

But the group was without Native assistance now. After leading them through a low pass in the Alaska Range in early 1885, and building a baidarra near Tetlin Lake, the Natives sent the outsiders on their way and refused to accompany them. Living off the land — without adequate food, clothing, or shelter — and without medical treatment for his ailing comrades, Allen was forced to race down a river of unknown length.

Sometime after departing Tetlin on June 14 he wrote, “We have worn our clothes day and night since March 20. That this, as well as the scanty quantity and unusual quantity of food, together with the exposure, assisted in sowing the seeds of scurvy there can be no doubt.”

Earlier that day, near the mouth of the Little Delta, the expedition encountered the first Natives since Mansfield Lake (near Tanacross), two women and a girl. They were also the first Natives who spoke of the river by the name Tanana; those on the upper river referred to it as the Nabesna River. According to linguist James Kari of the Alaska Native Language Center, Tanana comes from the Koyukon (Athabaskan) “tene no,’ tenene,” which means ‘trail river.’ The Russians revered it as the “River of the Mountains.”

This group of Natives, too, was hungry. According to Allen, “Their fishing stand was erected and dip-net at hand, but the salmon had not yet arrived; hence a hungry appearance prevailed.”

For many of the Natives along the Tanana, Allen’s expedition represented “first contact.” Most had never glimpsed a white man before. Some were so alarmed they quickly disappeared from the banks. Writes Fickett, “They wouldn’t have been more surprised had we dropped from the clouds.”

Of course, Allen would have also been surprised if he had known that while standing on a deserted gravel bar looking north, observing the country’s forested hills, he was in the future backyard of Alaska’s largest Interior city and neighboring Army post. 125 years later, Allen could have walked into town along South Cushman, or heard the shots of marksmen from nearby ranges.

End of the Tanana

Allen’s party made it to the Yukon, but barely alive. From Fickett’s journal:

“Thursday, June 25. Entered Yukon about 5 p.m. on June 25. Got some fish from an Indian woman just below mouth of Tanana on right bank of Yukon, and learned from her that we could get no food at the trading post (Nuklukyet) a little ways below. This piece of information was rather discouraging, for we have based all our calculations upon getting food there. Must live on machine oil and fish till the steamer comes up the river with supplies. Hot and dry. Flies and mosquitoes bad. Have not life enough to do anything but eat and sleep.”

The group had survived 548 miles, based on Allen’s reckoning, along a reckless river whose route on earlier maps had been nothing but conjecture. Allen’s extraordinary map work symbolized the first accurate geographic representation of Alaska’s Interior, while the expedition’s encounters with Alaska’s Natives present a largely undiscovered cultural gold mine.

Looking at a map of Alaska’s Interior to visualize what Allen’s expedition accomplished is one thing. It’s quite another being exposed to the raw elements of Alaska — without shelter, starving, sleep deprived, with numerous ailments and the constant uncertainty of what lies ahead.

Allen stepped back into the skin boat among his hungry companions, and pushed off downstream into the unknown — leaving behind the quiet, spruce-lined bowl that would one day be Fairbanks.

Now protected from this mighty and unruly torrent by extensive levees, Fairbanks has all but forgotten the significance of its “trail river” — the Tanana — and the adventures of its first explorer, Henry Allen.

Russ Vander Lugt is an Army officer who has studied Alaska’s history and geography at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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