Monthly Archives: January 2019

Chutes Montmorency

Going back over the falls:

Qu├ębec, Canada

Camera: Leica M3; Film: Kodak 35mm, Ektar 100


Walter Harper

A book review, of sorts:


Walter Harper’s biography, cover

Prompted by the post on here about the sinking of the Princess Sophia, I had to read Walter Harper’s biography by Mary Ehrlander. It turned out to be a well written, and fascinating read.

Walter Harper was the youngest child of the famed Irish gold prospector Arthur Harper and Athabascan Jenny Albert. He was born in Nuchelawoya, which is now the village of Tanana, in December of 1892. Walter did not know his father, as his parents separated after his birth, and Jenny raised him in the traditional Athabascan ways.

At 16, Walter met the Episcopal archdeacon, Hudson Stuck. Stuck was immediately impressed by Walter, and he soon became the archdeacon’s trail assistant. It was a role that Harper flourished in. Already an accomplished hunter and fisherman, Harper quickly mastered the river boat and dog team, as Walter traveled with Stuck throughout the Yukon River basin.


Walter Harper with a pet fox kit

It didn’t take long for Harper to become vital to Stuck’s operation. In 1913, Stuck and Harry Karstens decided to attempt to climb Denali, North America’s highest peak. There was never any question that the 21 year old Harper would be a member of the expedition. Missionary Robert Tatum also joined the group. On June 7 of that year, Walter Harper became the first known person to step on the summit of Denali. By all accounts, Harper was the glue that held the expedition together, allowing it to succeed.

Walter Harper led an incredible life, in many ways he experienced the very best that Alaska had to offer at that time. Hudson Stuck was a prolific writer, and Harper kept his own journals of his experiences, although only Walter’s journal of the Denali summit has survived. Ehrlander is a great storyteller, and does a wonderful job of recreating Harper & Stuck’s adventures, as well as exploring what had developed into a father/son relationship.

Harper packed a lot of life into his short time on earth. Fresh off of his marriage at the age of 25, Harper and his new bride, Frances Wells, left for a camping trip, spending their wedding night in a tent along the Porcupine River. They did a hunting-honeymoon, for food to stock the Fort Yukon mission & hospital for the coming winter. Having such a good time in each other’s company, they stayed longer than planned, missing a steamer to Whitehorse, for their trip Outside. Eventually, the couple did leave Fort Yukon on the steamer Alaska for Whitehorse. From Whitehorse, they took the White Pass & Yukon Railway to Skagway, where they booked passage on the Princess Sophia’s last trip south for the season. The Princess Sophia would strike Vanderbilt Reef, and rough seas would eventually sink the ship. All lives on board were lost.

Walter Harper and Frances Wells were buried in Juneau.


“Here Lie the Bodies of Walter Harper and Frances Wells, His Wife, Drowned on the Princess Sophia, 25th October 1918. May Light Perpetually Shine on Them. They Were Lovely and Pleasant in Their Lives, And in Death They Were Not Divided

Harper Glacier on Denali is named after both Walter and his father, Arthur. The ranger station in Talkeetna is also named after Walter Harper. I highly recommend Walter Harper: Alaska Native Son to anyone interested in this unique time and place in history. Nothing is quite like early 20th Century Alaska, and Walter Harper makes an extraordinary subject. The sky is the limit as to what this Alaskan could have accomplished if he had lived a longer life. Which is simply amazing in itself, considering what he did accomplish in such a short time span.


Raven Bauble


Two common ravens in Fairbanks; cell phone photo

The Curator’s curiosity towards wildlife, knows no bounds, and he has more than once inquired about the difference between the American Crow and the Common Raven. A pair of Fairbanks ravens are pictured here.

Ravens are larger, about the size of a red-tailed hawk, and they often travel in pairs, where crows often travel in a flock. Crows have tail feathers that are basically the same length, so when they spread their tail, it looks like a fan. Ravens have longer middle tail feathers, so theirs looks like a wedge when spread out. Crows also emit a cawing sound, while a raven gives off more of a low croak.

The audio of a raven is an Alaska Field Recording, which is in the public domain. Thanks to floydstinkyboy for sharing it.

Ravens are seen year-round in Fairbanks. They are incredibly smart birds. I knew a sled dog who, I was told, had to defend his meals from ravens as a puppy, and he never forgot. He grew to hate ravens, and just the sight of them flying overhead drew a raucous, angry, bark fest. The ravens seemed to know this, as they would torment him just by chatting with him calmly from the tree top near his doghouse.
One of my favorite raven encounters happened in a lumber yard parking lot. I was in my truck talking to a customer on the phone, when a rather large raven landed on a truck in front of me. I watched captivated as the raven tore off the rubber from a windshield wiper. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a man flailing his arms and running towards the truck. The raven quickened its pace, and promptly removed the rubber from the other wiper blade. Just as the man reached the truck’s hood, the raven lifted off into the air, with both rubber strips trailing behind it like a couple of thin snakes. An exasperated gentleman, proceeded to round on me for not defending his truck from the opportunistic flying thief. I had to admit to the man, that I was so mesmerized by the raven’s actions, that intervention never occurred to me. The entire time, the customer was howling in the phone, as I had been giving a play by play of the action.


Snowy Pioneer Park


Historic cabins within the park

I spent some time walking through Pioneer Park, which was originally known as Alaskaland. The temperature was hovering just above zero at the time, and there was absolutely no one else in the park. None of the buildings were open either, with the tourist season running from Memorial Weekend to Labor Day Weekend.


Border Battle Weekend

The Minnesota Golden Gophers host the Wisconsin Badgers this weekend at Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis. The Gophers will be celebrating their 1979 National Championship team on its 40th anniversary. Herb Brooks may be gone, but former players will be honored, and can no doubt be found wandering the rink’s concourse before games and during intermission.

The Gophers defeated North Dakota 4-3 in the title game in Detroit. They had three 70 point scorers on the team: Steve Christoff (77), Don Micheletti (72), and Neal Broten (71). Captain Bill Baker set a program record that year with 54 points from the blue line. Eight members of the 1978-79 Gopher hockey team would join Coach Herb Brooks at the 1980 Winter Olympics.

Prices at the concession stands are said to be at 1979 prices for Saturday’s game. Which makes me ask: Were they really charging $2.00 for a hotdog at the hockey end of Williams Arena back in 1979?

A program note: All University of Minnesota home games will be free to Federal employees & one guest, from now until the government shutdown ends.

Visuals courtesy of Golden Gopher Hockey


The Last Lady of the River

The SS Nenana today:

In 1957, the SS Nenana was brought to Fairbanks. She was docked on the Chena River and became a restaurant and boatel. By 1960, her new owners were not making enough money in the venture, so the Nenana sat unused until 1965. During that time, souvenir hunters hit the old sternwheeler hard.

The 100th anniversary of the purchase of Alaska was closing in at that time. “Alaskaland”, a borough park dedicated to Fairbanks history, had just opened, and the SS Nenana would be a welcomed addition. A channel was dug from the Chena River to the park, and the old sternwheeler was floated in.

That is where one can find her today. In 1986, the Nenana saw an extensive restoration. Working off of old photos and the original floor plan, the renovation took six years. Some original items from the ship were found, others had to be fabricated.

The SS Nenana is one of only three steam-powered passenger sternwheelers left in the United States, and of the three, the Nenana is the largest. She is also the first sternwheeler to be built from blue-prints.
Time and the elements have once again taken their toll on the Nenana. Recently, the borough has closed the interior of the ship to summer tours. Another renovation of the old sternwheeler looks to be on the horizon. Without it, the ship will be dismantled. The “Friends of the SS Nenana” are gearing up to “stabilize and restore this one of a kind piece of history”.


SS Nenana display at the Noel Wien Library, Fairbanks; installed by the Friends of the SS Nenana, notice the original blue prints


Thin ice on the Tanana


2nd Place Winner from Wasilla, for the Ice Classic poster contest

Nenana Ice Classic officials announced the ice thickness of the Tanana River recently. It was the thinnest ice ever recorded on the Tanana in January. To be fair, the Nenana Ice Classic contest may be over 100 years old, but officials only started announcing the ice thickness back in 1989.

January ice thickness usually falls between 30 and 45 inches in January. In 2019, the thickness was only 16 inches. The previous low was 21.5″ in 2004.

The Tanana River froze over in October, which is normal, but we had such a mild first half of the winter, that the ice has not thickened to normal levels. That is the case for rivers throughout Interior Alaska right now. River travel has been sketchy in spots.

The annual Nenana Ice Classic is Alaska’s longest running game of chance. Every year we guess the date & time the ice “goes out” on the Tanana River. Tickets for the 2019 event go on sale February 1.