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The State of the State, 1906

Alfred Brooks in Alaska around 1899.

Alfred Brooks in Alaska around 1899.

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey archives

Alfred Brooks was a geologist who traveled thousands of miles in Alaska and
left his name on the state¹s northernmost mountain range. Twenty years
before his death in 1924, he also left behind a summary of what Alaska was
like over a century ago, when "large areas (were) still practically
unexplored."

To see what Brooks had to say about the Alaska of 1906, I pulled a copy of
his Geography and Geology of Alaska: A Summary of Existing Knowledge from a
shelf of rare books in a Fairbanks library.

In his government report, Brooks pointed out misconceptions about Alaska
that endure today. He wrote in his introduction:

"If facts are presented which may seem elementary, it is because even
well-informed people have been known to harbor misconceptions in regard to
the orographic features, climate, and general character of Alaska. Those who
read about the perils and privations of winter travel and explorations are
apt to picture a region of ice and snow; others, again, who have personal
knowledge of the tourist route of southeastern Alaska, regard the whole
district as one of rugged mountains and glaciers."

In Brooks¹ day, about 60,000 people lived in Alaska, yet they were scattered
wider across the territory than people are today. The Klondike gold rush and
the stampedes that followed had driven determined men to the far corners of
Alaska.

"The more venturous prospector found no risk too hazardous, no difficulty
too great, and now there is hardly a stream which has not been panned by
him, and hardly a forest which has not resounded to the blows of his ax,"
Brooks wrote. "Evidences of his presence are to be found from the almost
tropical jungles of southeastern Alaska to the barren grounds of the north
which skirt the Arctic Ocean."

While today's scientists can sometimes use satellites to gain information
about Alaska without leaving their offices, Brooks and his contemporaries at
the U.S. Geological Survey spent their entire summers on traverses of the
land at the turn of the century. They performed their work without the help
of the airplane, which had not yet been invented, nor the internal
combustion engine.

Brooks wrote of an 1899 expedition he made with topographer William Peters
to map the country from Lynn Canal near Haines west through the mountains of
the St. Elias Range and northward through what is today Wrangell St. Elias
National Park. They filled in a void in Alaska¹s map until they reached the
settlement of Fortymile on the Yukon River.

"The journey was made with horses, with only five out of the original 15
reaching the Yukon," Brooks wrote.

Scientists of the USGS penetrated Alaska by following rivers and trekking
overland when they could, mapping one-fifth of Alaska by 1904. Brooks
attributed the agency¹s success to its ability to choose a few good men.

"Of the twenty or more parties which the Geological Survey has sent to
Alaska, hardly a single one has failed to execute the work allotted to it,"
Brooks wrote. "This is largely because those who were entrusted with their
leadership were specially fitted, by nature as well as by experience and
training, for the undertaking. The parties have usually been made up of a
few carefully chosen men, and the physical work and discomforts, as well as
hardships, have been shared by leaders and men alike."

Brooks, who later wrote about his personal experiences in Alaska, concluded
his section on exploration of the territory in "Geography and Geology of
Alaska" by addressing critics of government spending who had no idea of the
hazards and difficulty of travel in Alaska.

"Alaskan surveys and explorations have never been and never will be easy,"
Brooks wrote. "Throughout its history, the geographic investigation has been
a tale of hardship and suffering and not infrequently of death. Let those
who are not personally familiar with the character of the difficulties not
judge it too harshly."

This column is provided as a public service by the Geophysical Institute,
University of Alaska Fairbanks, in cooperation with the UAF research
community. Ned Rozell is a science writer at the institute. This column
first appeared in 2003.

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