The birches’ last blaze

Walter Harper, one of Alaska’s greatest, is buried in Juneau’s Evergreen Cemetery. His wife, Frances Wells Harper, lies beside him. They’d been married for less than two months when they boarded the SS Princess Sophia in late October of 1918.

Harper was born of the taiga, the eerie expanse of black spruce and birch trees composing much of the Interior of Alaska and Yukon, in 1893. His first memories were of the whispering of the Yukon River, racks of drying salmon, the buzzing of mosquitoes, the smell of fermenting cranberries, the calls of migratory birds, cold so deep it seemed alive and, most of all, his mother, Seentahna, a Koyukon Athabascan woman.

His father, Arthur Harper, dubbed by some the “King of the Klondike,” was one of the first white men to come into the north country looking for gold. Walter was the youngest of eight children — and the only one not sent to Lower 48 to be educated. The old prospector left two years after the boy was born, developed tuberculosis and died just as the great Klondike Gold Rush was beginning.

Walter was likely born where the Koyukuk and Yukon rivers meet. His mother’s people were said to be starving when his father, traveling with Al Mayo, met her on the banks of the Yukon River. Seentahna moved to Tanana soon after the birth of Walter. The boy grew up seeing hunger in emaciated wolves stalking exhausted moose, in flocks of chickadees fighting over the frozen droplets of blood and in the laughter and sorrow of his village. The land, river, animals and his mother’s people were his teachers.

When Walter was a teenager he went to an Episcopal boarding school in Nenana. There, he met Hudson Stuck, a most unusual missionary and explorer. Jan Harper Haines, Walter Harper’s great-niece, wrote in Northfield Mount Hermon Magazine: “According to stories my family told me, Harper was 16 and spoke only his mother’s Athabascan language when he met Hudson Stuck, known as the ‘Archdeacon of the Yukon.’ Impressed with the boy’s friendly manner and quick mind, Stuck took on Harper as his dog handler, boat engineer, and interpreter when visiting remote villages in central Alaska. He taught Harper to read and write English, as well as history, arithmetic and geography. After several years of working together, Stuck began envisioning Harper as one who might follow in his footsteps.”

Stuck is famous for leading the first successful ascent of Denali, an expedition that began in March of 1913 by dogsled. On June 7, Walter Harper, at just 20, became the first person to stand atop the summit of North America’s tallest mountain. He was followed by Harry Karstens, Robert G. Tatum and Stuck, all of whom were weakened to varying degrees. Stuck would later write of Harper: “A native Alaskan, he is the first human being to set foot upon the top of Alaska’s great mountain, and he has well earned the lifelong distinction.”

Stuck dabbled with mountain climbing, but his real passion was in the taiga, trying to bridge cultures, bring the word of Christ, protect and help Native Alaskans assimilate to the strange, often brutal and predatory nature of colonialism. Harper became more than a companion to Stuck, he became a son and Stuck’s hope for Alaska.

After Denali, Stuck sent Harper to a prestigious prep school in Massachusetts. It was Harper’s first trip Outside, into a world that was much more difficult for him to navigate than the northern wilds. Like every other obstacle Harper faced, he eventually succeeded. He decided to study medicine.

According to Jan Harper Haines, “Stuck, however felt the school’s curriculum didn’t relate to the young man’s future as a missionary, so he decided to take Harper back to Alaska and help him prepare independently for university.”

Together, the two set out on a six-month more than 2,000-mile dog sled journey to different villages and outposts. When they returned to Fort Yukon late in the season, right before breakup, Harper went alone with a team of nine dogs to Circle. The journey was dangerous but the young man was in love. Frances Wells, who worked as a nurse stationed in Fort Yukon, had been sent to Circle to help fight an epidemic of pneumonia. Walter and his dogs were exhausted when they stumbled into the village. The two were able to spend an evening together before Walter had to make a mad dash back to Fort Yukon. Frances wrote in a letter to her father, “he (Walter)…insisting upon it that ‘it was worth it’ and I don’t know but I seconded the motion.”

In another letter to her father, written five days later, Frances, giddy and slightly apologetic, announced her and Walter’s engagement. She expressed worries about the racism Walter would likely face back east. She wrote that she was, “Very well and happier than I have ever been in my life. In fact I have been pretty happy many times but never in a happiest dream did I come to any near what I am these days.”

Walter and Frances were married at the beginning of September of 1918, amidst the golden leaves of birch trees strewn around the altar of the Fort Yukon missionary church. Stuck presided over the ceremony.

The newlyweds traveled up the Porcupine River for their honeymoon. They hunted. They listened to silence. They huddled close to each other near camp fires. Frances learned to flesh bear hides. Walter might have learned a few new things, too.

Frances wrote to Walter’s sister, Margaret O’Farrell on September 28, 1918: “We are just back and have had one famous time — we were gone almost three weeks—our luck was fair, Walter getting two moose, two caribou and three bears beside small game as ducks and porcupine…But it was all miles of fun and I venture to say that no two people could have gotten more real pleasure out of it than we did.”

Now, it was time to head south. Frances planned to join the Red Cross. Walter had gotten into medical school in Philadelphia but it also appears, at least according to Frances’s letter to her father, they believed Walter would be shipped out to Europe to fight in the war.

They embarked on the steamer Yukon, up the silty currents of the Yukon River bound for Whitehorse, shortly before freeze up. The last blaze of birches shone golden on the ancient crumbly hills and mountains. Snow was slowly creeping down from the summits and the air bit coldly and smelt of fermenting high bush cranberries. There’s no time more beautiful in that country than right before winter’s embrace, and there was likely no time more beautiful in either Walter or Frances’s young lives.

They died a handful of days later, along with the other 350 or so people aboard the SS Princess Sophia, after it grounded out on Vanderbilt Reef a few miles from Benjamin Island in Lynn Canal. In accordance to Stuck’s wishes, Walter and Frances were buried side by side in Juneau. The taiga was frozen in — there was no reasonable way to transport or bury bodies north.

Their lives were cut short, but their testament remains alive in the savage beauty of Lynn Canal, the towering heights of our continents biggest mountain, the September glow of the taiga and the hospitality of the people of the north.

Walter did a lot more than climb a mountain, and he should be remembered for that.

• Bjorn Dihle is a Juneau writer. He can be reached at bjorndihle@gmail.com.

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