Isobel Wylie Hutchison: North to the Rime-Ringed Sun

Cover of North to the Rime-Ringed Sun by Isobel Wylie Hutchison

We were northward bound for Alaska and her blue midnights! Her golden blossoms! Her trackless forests! Her naked tundras!

I’ve written about the redoubtable Isobel Wylie Hutchison before—a Scottish lady of independent means who spent her life travelling and botanizing, often while walking prodigious distances alone. She recorded her travels in articles for National Geographic magazine, and also in a series of books. North to the Rime-Ringed Sun (1934) is subtitled, in its British edition by Blackie & Son, Being the record of an Alaskan-Canadian journey made in 1933-34. Which, together with the cover art, just about sums it up. (The US edition, published by Hillman-Curl in 1937, went for the less wordy An Alaskan Journey, choosing to ignore Hutchison’s time in Arctic Canada.)

Hutchison’s title comes from Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “The Long Trail”, which has more than a hint of Robert Service about it:

It’s North you may run to the rime-ringed sun
Or South to the blind Horn’s hate;
Or East all the way into Mississippi Bay,
Or West to the Golden Gate –
Where the blindest bluffs hold good, dear lass,
And the wildest tales are true,
And the men bulk big on the old trail, our own trail, the out trail,
And life runs large on the Long Trail – the trail that is always new.

Her plan for this trip was to get to Herschel Island, on the north coast of Yukon Territory. Along the way, she was going to collect plants for the Royal Herbarium at Kew, and purchase artefacts for the Museum of Ethnology in Cambridge.

Her itinerary involved leaving Britain as a passenger aboard a cargo ship, which was carrying, among other things, beer to the newly post-Prohibition United States. Disembarking in Vancouver, she would board a Canadian Pacific Railway steamer, bound to the old gold-rush port of Skagway. Then via narrow-gauge railway over White Pass to Whitehorse in Canada, and thence by stern-wheeler riverboat down the Yukon to Dawson City, the boom-town of the Klondike gold-rush of 1897. From Dawson, she aimed to take a succession of boats all the way down the Yukon to the tiny settlement of Mitchell, where she hoped to board a ship taking her to Nome, on the Barents Sea. After that, she planned on “trusting in Providence (for on this section of the journey American Express Companies and tourist itineraries no longer functioned)”. But the hope was to obtain a berth on a vessel heading north through the Bering Strait to the town of Barrow, on the Arctic Ocean, and then another boat to get to Herschel Island before the winter pack ice shut down sea travel. (Barrow, it transpires, was something of a hub for Arctic trading and supply vessels—boats from farther east would make their way to Barrow to pick up supplies coming in from the west, and would then scamper homewards before the ice closed in.) The following spring, she would push farther east to the Mackenzie Delta, and follow that river south until she could connect with the Canadian railway system.

She made this trip alone, with 300 pounds of luggage, which had grown to 500 pounds by the time she had completed her collection of artefacts and purchased Arctic clothing. Things went swimmingly until she reached the town of Tanana, on the Yukon, where it became evident that the boat that would take her farther down the Yukon was delayed, and that the ship she planned to meet for her journey to Nome might well not be available. This was a problem, because she needed to reach Nome before the last ship of the season headed north. So, undaunted, she took the train to Fairbanks, and arranged to fly to Nome aboard a scheduled Pacific-Alaska Airways floatplane. (Most of here extensive baggage came on in a second aeroplane, a few days later.) Then, after a period of ecstatic botanizing in Nome, she found a berth aboard the tiny M.S. Trader (pictured in the cover art at the head of this post) which, after multiple tribulations in the ice, got her to Barrow. There, with winter closing in, she hooked up with Gus Masik of the M.S. Topaz, who promised to take her east as far as the encroaching ice allowed:

She was a boat of much the same size as Trader, though the cabin was larger and had the advantage that one was able to stand upright. As it was also the engine-room, however, the smell of petrol and the constant noise somewhat counter-balanced this advantage. […] From the rigging hung the stiffened carcass of a frozen caribou, which became a sadder and sadder wreck as the journey proceeded, supplying most of the breakfasts, dinners and suppers of our six days’ voyage.

Gus got them as far as Barter Island (a place where the Inuit of Canada and Iñupiat of Alaska traditionally meet to trade) before the sea became impassable, 120 miles short of Herschel Island. At which point, Isobel was invited to stay at Gus’s place:

… the quaint “round-house” of wood, turf and canvas (built by himself) which was Gus’s trading-post.

She stayed for several weeks with Gus in his single-room dwelling, listening to his stories and taking walks along the length of the little shingle island he called home. They seem to have got along well enough, since Gus came to visit her in Scotland, during a trip to Europe a few years later, as recounted in the recent compilation of her writings, Peak Beyond Peak.

Isobel Wylie Hutchison at demarcation pillar on Alaska/Canada border
Click to enlarge

Then, with the sea-ice thick enough for dog-sledding, Gus ferried her to the RCMP station on Herschel Island—stopping off on the way for a photo opportunity at the little obelisk that marks the border between Alaska and Canada.

From Herschel, onwards by a series of dog-sled journeys into the Mackenzie Delta, sometimes having to run behind the sled in deep snow at forty degrees below zero*, before reaching the settlement of Aklavik. (Aklavik was prone to frequent flooding from the Mackenzie River, and in the sixties the main population centre moved to the new town of Inuvik.) Hutchison tells us a bit about the economics of travelling as a passenger on a dog-sled:

Ten dollars a day is the customary charge in Alaska and Canada at this season, full price being charged as a rule for the return journey (without the passenger). Travel by dog-sled in the Arctic is thus, for a long distance, still considerably dearer than an aeroplane…

Finally, another flight, this time on a ski-equipped plane, down the length of the Mackenzie River, stopping off at a series of outposts with the word “Fort” in their names before reaching the railhead at Fort McMurray:

Next morning a taxi conveyed me to the station at Waterways, where I caught the weekly train to Edmonton.
But I had heard the call of the wild on star-lit nights under the Northern Lights; I had slept in a snow-hut; I had broken a new trail at the foot of the splintered Endicotts, and my heart beat for the wilderness.

My first edition of this book has a nice map of Hutchison’s journey, in the old useful style—at the back of the book, and designed to fold out sideways so that it can be consulted while reading, without flipping back and forth. Here’s my own map, prepared for your delectation (you might need to click for an enlarged view):

Isobel Wylie Hutchison travels in Alaska and Canada, 1933-34
Click to enlarge
Prepared using Natural Earth data

Through all this, Hutchison is an amiable, observant and apparently unflappable companion, and her narrative paints a detailed picture of life along the north coast of North America in this era. I was fascinated by the sheer number of people she encountered, going about their business in a landscape that, while desolate, is dotted with trapper’s huts, mission stations, RCMP posts, trading posts, and the shelters of indigenous hunters.

I particularly enjoyed her visit to two eccentric and reclusive Polish woodcarvers in the little settlement of Purgatory (“a hell of a place to live in”), on the banks of the Yukon—you can read more about them here. Hutchison reports:

Some years ago, when the steamer called at Purgatory, the passengers noticed on the beach a fresh pile of gravel about the size of a newly-made grave, above which was a cross reading:

‘He robbed my cache and here he lies’

When the local Marshal and two deputies arrived to investigate this murder, they found that the grave contained only the corpse of a Canada Jay, a bird so clever at robbing food caches that it’s known locally as the “camp robber”.

And then there’s an episode reminiscent of a Clive Cussler novel—the encounter between the Trader and the derelict S.S. Baychimo, embedded in the ice fifteen miles from the settlement of Wainwright. The ship had been abandoned by her crew in 1931, after becoming locked in the ice, but continued to drift around the Beaufort Sea for another 38 years. A little later, as Trader threaded its way between the ice floes close inshore, it was actually overtaken by the Baychimo, which was moving eastwards with the pack ice farther out to sea.

Second-hand copies of the original volume seem to be relatively rare and correspondingly expensive. You can borrow a scanned version of the book online from the Internet Archive, and it has been reissued recently, in paperback and hardback editions, by Hassell Street Press.

* Forty degrees below zero is the same temperature in Celsius and Fahrenheit. I’ve been waiting for years for the opportunity to write “forty degrees below zero” without specifying the units.

2 thoughts on “Isobel Wylie Hutchison: North to the Rime-Ringed Sun”

  1. Personally, I’ve come to find that at 40 below or lower the units sort of become irrelavent. (Especially with any sort of wind.)

    I’ve been in fifty below (F), with a 35mph wind. That kind of cold is a whole other reality. (One that doesn’t like people very much.)

    There’s definately a dress code inherent to those conditions.

    1. Reminds me of Timothy Ferris, who said that an astronomer once quoted a temperature of “a million degrees” to him, and he asked “Centigrade or Fahrenheit?” He said it was the most embarrassingly foolish question he’d ever asked.

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