Fragrance in Travel Literature-Alaska the Great Country bey Ella Higginson



Alaska, the great country (1910)
Higginson, Ella, 1862-1940


Millbank Sound, named by Mr. Duncan before Van-
couver's arrival, is open to the ocean, but there is only
an hour's run before the shelter of the islands is regained ;
so that, even when the weather is rough, but slight dis-
comfort is experienced by the most susceptible passengers.
The finest scenery on the regular steamer route, until the
great snow fields and glaciers are reached, is considered
by many well acquainted with the route, to lie from Mill-
bank on to Dixon Entrance. The days are not long
enough now for all the beauty that weighs upon the senses
like caresses. At evening, the sunset, blooming like a
rose upon these splendid reaches, seems to drop perfumed
petals of color, until the still air is pink with them, and
the steamer pushes them aside as it glides through with
faint throbbings that one feels rather than hears.

To one climbing the hill behind the village, island be-
yond island drifted into view, with blue water-ways wind-
ing through velvety labyrinths of green ; and, beyond all,
the strong, limitless sweep of the ocean. The winds
were but the softest zephyrs, touching the face and hair
like rose petals, or other delicate, visible things ; and, the
air was fragrant with things that grow day and night and
that fling their splendor forth in one riotous rush of
bloom. Shaken through and through their perfume was
that thrilling, indescribable sweetness which abides in
vast spaces where snow mountains glimmer and the opal-
ine palisades of glaciers shine.

Passengers who stay on deck late will be rewarded by
the witchery of night on Puget Sound — the soft fragrance
of the air, the scarlet, blue, and green lights wavering
across the water, the glistening wake of the ship, the city
glimmering faintly as it is left behind, the dim shores of
islands, and the dark shadows of bays.


It was two o'clock before we could leave our windows
that night. It was not dark, not even dusk. A kind of
blue-white light lay over the town and valley, deepening
toward the hills. In the air was that delicious quality
which charms the senses like perfumes. Only to breathe
it in was a drowsy, languorous joy. At White Horse one
opens the magic, invisible gate and passes into the en-
chanted land of Forgetfulness — and the gate swings shut
behind one.

In the afternoon of the same day we reached Tanana,
which is, as I have said, the most beautiful place on the
Yukon. It has a splendid site on a level plateau ; and
all the springlike greenness, the cleanliness and order,
the luxuriant vegetation, of Dawson, are outdone here.
One walks in a maze of delight along streets of tropic, in-
stead of arctic, bloom. The log houses are set far back
from the streets, and the deep dooryards are seas of tremu-
lous color, through which neat paths lead to flower-roofed
homes. Cleanliness, color, and perfume are everywhere
delights, but on the lonely Yukon their unexpectedness
is enchanting.


They are dull of soul and dull of imagination who com-
plain of monotony on the Yukon Flats. There is beauty
for all that have eyes wherewith to see. It is the beauty
of the desert ; the beauty and the lure of wonderful
distances, of marvellous lights and low skies, of dawns
that are like blown roses, and as perfumed, and sunsets
whose mists are as burning dust. When there is no color
anywhere, there is still the haunting, compelling beauty
that lies in distance alone. Vast spaces are majestic and
awesome ; the eye goes into them as the thought goes into
the realm of eternity — only to return, wearied out with the
beauty and the immensity that forever end in the fathom-
less mist that lies on the far horizon's rim. It is a mist
that nothing can pierce ; vision and thought return from
it upon themselves, only to go out again upon that mute
and trembling quest which ceases not until life itself ceases.
The northernmost mouth of the Yukon has been called
the Aphoon or Uphoon, ever since the advent of the Rus-
sians, and is the channel usually selected by steamers, the
Kwikhpak lying next to it on the south. By sea-coast
measurement the most northerly mouth is nearly a hundred
miles from the most southerly, and five others between
them assist in carrying the Yukon's gray, dull yellow, or
rose-colored floods out into Behring Sea, whose shallow
waters they make fresh for a long distance. It is not
without hazard that the flat-bottomed river boats make
the run to St. Michael ; and the pilots of steamers cross-
ing out anxiously scan the sea and relax not in vigi-
lance until the port is entered.

On the day that I stood upon this headland the sunlight
lay like gold upon the island; the winds were low, murmur-
ous, and soothing; flowers spent their color riotously about
me; the tundra was as soft as deep-napped velvet ; and
the blue waves, set with flashes of gold, went pushing
languorously away to the shores of another continent.
Scarcely a stone's throw from me was a small mountain-
island, only large enough for a few graves, but with no
graves upon it. In all the world there cannot be another
spot so noble in which to lie down and rest when " life's
fevers and life's passions — all are past." There, alone, —
but never again to be lonely ! — facing that sublime sweep
of sapphire summer sea, set here and there with islands,
and those miles upon miles of glittering winter ice ; with
white sails drifting by in summer, and in winter the wikl
and roaring march of icebergs ; with summer nights of
lavender dusk, and winter nights set with the great stars
and the magnificent brilliance of Northern Lights ; with
the perfume of flowers, the songs of birds, tlie music of lone
winds and waves, out on the edge of the world — could
any clipped and cared-forplotbeso noble a place in which
to lie down for the last time ? Could any be so close to God ?

Their wares consist chiefly of baskets; but there are
also immense spoons carved artistically out of the horns
of mountain sheep; richly beaded moccasins of many
different materials; carved and gay ly painted canoes and
paddles of the fragrant Alaska cedar or Sitka pine;
totem-poles carved out of dark gray slate stone ; lamps,
carved out of wood and inlaid with a fine pearl-like shell.
These are formed like animals, with the backs hollowed to
hold oil. There are silver spoons, rings, bracelets, and
chains, all delicately traced with totemic designs; knives,
virgin charms, Chilkaht blankets, and now and then a
genuine old spear, or bow and arrow, that proves the
dearest treasure of all.

Vast plains and hillsides of bloom are passed. Some
mountainsides are blue with lupine, others rosy with fire-
weed ; acres upon acres are covered with violets, bluebells,
wild geranium, anemones, spotted moccasin and other
orchids, buttercups, and dozens of others — all large and
vivid of color. It has often been said that the flowers of
Alaska are not fragrant, but this is not true.

The real sea lover will find an indescribable charm in
this gulf, and will not miss an hour of it. It has the
boldness and the sweep of the ocean, but the setting, the
coloring, and the fragrance of the forest-bordered, snow-
peaked sea. A few miles above the boundary, the Fraser
River pours its turbulent waters into the gulf, upon whose
dark surface they wind and float for many miles, at sun-
rise and at sunset resembling broad ribbons of palest old
rose crinkled over waves of silvery amber silk. At times
these narrow streaks widen into still pools of color that
seem to float suspended over the heavier waters of the
gulf. Other times they draw lines of different color
everywhere, or drift solid banks of smoky pink out to
meet others of clear blue, with only the faintest thread of
pearl to separate them. These islands of color constitute
one of the cliarms of this part of the voyage to Alaska ;
along with the velvety pressure of the winds ; the pic-
turesque shores, high and wooded in places, and in others
sloping down into the cool shadowy bays where the
sliingle is splashed by spent waves ; and the snow-peaks
linked above the clouds on either side of the steamer.

Yehl performed many noble and miraculous deeds, the
most dazzling of which was the giving of light to the
world. He had heard that a rich old chief kept the sun,
moon, and stars in boxes, carefully locked and guarded.
This chief had an only daughter whom he worshipped.
He would allow no one to make love to her, so Yehl, per-
ceiving that only a descendant of the old man could secure
access to the boxes, and knowing that the chief examined
all his daughter's food before she ate it, and that it would
therefore avail him nothing to turn himself into ordinary
food, conceived the idea of converting himself into a
fragrant grass and by springing up persistently in the
maiden's path, he was one day eaten and swallowed. A
grandson was then born to the old chief, who wrought
upon his affections — as grandsons have a way of doing —
to such an extent that he could deny him nothing.

The silence is so intense and the channel so narrow,
that frequently at dawn wild birds on the shores are heard
saluting the sun with song ; and never, under any other
circumstances, has bird song seemed so nearly divine, so
golden with magic and message, as when thrilled through
the fragrant, green stillness of Wrangell Narrows at such
an hour.

There is no air so indescribably, thrillingly sweet as the
air of a glacier on a fair day. It seems to palpitate with
a fragrance that ravishes the senses. I saw a great, re-
cently captured bear, chained on the hurricane deck of a
steamer, stand with his nose stretched out toward the
glacier, his nostrils quivering and a look of almost human
longing and rebellion in his small eyes. The feeling of
pain and pity with which a humane person always be-
holds a chained wild animal is accented in these wide and
noble spaces swimming from snow mountain to snow
mountain, where the very watchword of the silence seems
to be " Freedom." The chained bear recognized the scent
of the glacier and remembered that he had once been free.

The vegetation is all of tropical luxuriance, and, owing
to its constant dew and mist baths, it is of an intense
and vivid green that is fairly dazzling where the sun
touches it. One of the chief charms of the wooded reserve
is its stillness — broken only by the musical rush of waters
and the lyrical notes of birds. A kind of lavender twi-
light abides beneath the trees, and, with the narrow,
spruce-aisled vistas that open at every turn, gives one a
sensation as of being in some dim and scented cathedral.

Along the curving road to Indian River stands the soft
gray Episcopal Church, St. Peter's-by-the-Sea. Built of
rough gray stone and shingles, it is an immediate pleasure
and rest to the eye,
" Its doors stand open to the sea,
The wind goes thro' at will,
And bears the scent of brine and blue
To the far emerald hill."
Any stranger may enter alone, and passing into any
pew, may kneel in silent communion with the God who
has created few things on this earth more beautiful than
Sitka.

After this came a scented, primeval forest, through
which we rode in silence. Its charm was too elusive for
speech. Our horses' feet sank into the moss without
sound. There was no underbrush ; only dim aisles and
arcades fashioned from the gray trunks of trees. The
pale green foliage floating above us completely shut out
the sun. Soft gray, mottled moss dripped from the
limbs and branches of the spruce trees in delicate, lacy
festoons.


At other times the sunset sank over us, about us,
and upon us, like a cloud of gold and scarlet dust tliat
is scented with coming rain ; but of all the different
sunset effects that are but memories now, the most un-
usual was a great mist of brilliant, vivid green just
touched with fire, that went marching down the wide
straits of Shelikoff late one night in June.

The air in these lake valleys on a warm day is indescrib-
ably soft and balmy. It is scented with pine, balm, Cot-
tonwood, and flowers. The lower slopes are covered with
fireweed, lark-spur, dandelions, monk's-hood, purple as-
ters, marguerites, wild roses, dwarf goldenrod, and many
other varieties of wild flowers. The fireweed is of special
beauty. Its blooms are larger and of a richer red than
along the coast. Blooms covering acres of hillside seem
to float like a rosy mist suspended in the atmosjjhere.
The grasses are also very beautiful, some having the rich,
changeable tints of a humming-bird.

The Alaska cedar is the most prized of all the cedars.
It is in great demand for ship-building, interior finishing,
cabinet-making, and other fine work, because of its close
texture, durable quality, and aromatic odor, which some-
what resembles that of sandalwood. In early years it
was shipped to Japan, where it was made into fancy boxes
and fans, which were sold under guise of that scented
Oriental wood. Its lasting qualities are remarkable —
sills having been found in perfect preservation after sixty
years' use in a wet climate. Its pleasant odor is as endur-
ing as the wood. The long, slender, pendulous fruits
which hang from the branches in season, give the tree a
peculiarly graceful and appealing appearance.

It was a violet day. There were no warm purple tones
anywhere ; but the cool, sparkling violet ones that mean
the nearness of mountains of snow. One could almost
feel the crisp ting of ice in the air, and smell the sunlight
that opalizes, without melting, the ice.