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Bob Marshall's 700 mile Alaska hike - 1929

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Former Missoulian Explores Wilds Within Artic Circle New To White Man

Forests Spreading to North Over Ground Barren Since Ice Cap Receded Many Centuries Ago.

Returning from a 51-day trek through the Alaska wilderness north of the Artic circle, during which he traversed an almost unknown region, Robert Marshall, formerly connected with the Norther Rocky Mountain forest experiment station here, is spending a few days in Missoula before returning to Johns Hopkins university at Baltimore.

Mr. Marshall’s object in making the trip was a study of the growth of timber at the northernmost point where trees are found, and to determine the factors that prevent growth farther north. By a study of the rings in the tree-trunks he examined, he found that climatic  conditions had little or no effect on their rate of growth. As no other causes were found that would check tree growth, he concluded that what is called the timberline is merely the point to which the forests have spread since melting of the ice cap which once covered the region. Apparently the timberline is still moving north and will continue to do so until climatic conditions become too harsh, according to this theory.

100 Miles From Neighbors

For 22 days Mr. Marshall traveled on foot through the wilderness without seeing a human being except his companion, Alexander Retzlaff, an Alaskan prospector. At one time the two were 109 miles from a human habitation.

Mr. Marshall flew the 200 miles from Fairbanks to Wiseman, within the Arctic circle, thus saving weeks of travel on the ground. With his companion he started up the north fork of the Koyukuk river and into the Hammond and Chandlair country, much of which had never before been visited by white men. They followed the northern timberline on four different drainages, living largely on grayling, which abounded in the rivers and creeks. Other supplies were carried on pack horses.

Plenty of Game.

Northern Alaska is a big game hunter’s paradise, Mr. Marshall said. Bears, moose, caribou and sheep roam the country. Once, while the two were more than a hundred miles from another human being, a grizzly stampeded their pack horses in the night and it was with difficulty that they were recaptured.

The scenery, Mr. Marshall said, is magnificent. They passed through a valley, one and one-half miles long, which contained 13 waterfalls, each more than 200 feet high. The water came from glaciers overhanging the valley on either side. Another valley is enclosed for five miles by perpendicular cliffs from 2,000 to 3,000 feet in height.

In Wiseman, the settlement from which he started his 700-mile hike, Mr. Marshall found a pre-industrial civilization, with each man working for himself. Although they are 200 miles from a wagon road or a railroad, they live comfortably, he said. Three of the 57 white men in the settlement had never seen an automobile. They live by mining and hunting, with caribou the chief source of meat. Transportation is provided by dogs, which are cared for almost like children. There are 106 persons in the settlement and 139 dogs, and the annual cost of feeding the animals is something like $25,000, he found. And they earn their keep, too, he added.

Farthest North.

Wiseman is said to be the most northern settlement in interior North America and contains the northernmost interior school on the continent. It also holds the record for “farthest north” in fraternal organizations, the Pioneers of Alaska having a lodge there. And no more hospitable people could be found anywhere, Mr. Marshall declared. Mail is received only 10 times a year.

The climate in the summer is little cooler than in the Northern United States, and although the wild vegetation is not as prolific, garden vegetables and grains produce good crops, perhaps aided by the three months during which the sun never sets. Snow is absent during the summer except on the north side of the higher peaks.

Traveling through the wilderness was slow and difficult, according to Mr. Marshall, who had set some records for fast hiking in Western Montana woods during his stay here. During the trip the average was nearly 14 miles a day, however, including many stops. The greatest trouble was with mosquitos, which settlers said were the worst in the 32 years white men have lived there. An unprecedented rainfall added to the difficulty, swelling streams and making travel harder. At one time, while they were camped on a point jutting into a river, the stream cut a new channel and left them marooned on an island, from which they escaped with little time to spare before the new channel became too deep to ford.

Mr. Marshall, who is a son of the late Louis Marshall, until his death one of the outstanding leaders of the Jewish race, will leave Missoula Monday for Johns Hopkins, where he is working for a doctor’s degree.

The above article appeared in The Sunday Missoulian on October 6, 1929.


Marshall documented his trip to Alaska in his book Artic Village. Somewhat of a sociologist he describes some of the people’s lives in very intimate detail. The site below furnishes a review of his book.



Last Updated on Monday, 08 January 2018 23:37