Editor’s note: This book review is one in a series about unsung or forgotten Alaska histories.
In 1894, Frederick James Currier left his Wisconsin home, bound for Oregon. Arriving by rail in Vancouver, British Columbia, he decided to visit nearby Victoria before turning south. But a chance meeting with several miners in his hotel there sent him north instead. They were departing for Juneau the following morning, planning to travel inland and prospect for gold. He joined them on the spot, and spent most of the following decade in Alaska and the Yukon.
Years later, Currier wrote a memoir about his experiences and stowed it away. It eventually landed in a desk drawer in Rasmuson Library at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, where longtime Alaskan Randy Zarnke first saw it in 2007. An avid reader of early northern pioneer writings, Zarnke realized he’d struck gold. In 2018, with help from the Alaska Trappers Association, he published it as An Alaskan Adventure.
American gold seekers began trickling into Alaska late in the Russian era, but until the famed 1896 strike, their numbers were limited. Currier beat the rush, and more than half of his book describes Alaska as it was before stampeders swarmed the territory. For this reason alone, Currier’s memoir would be essential. Firsthand accounts of the pre-gold-rush period are in short supply. But it’s the quality of Currier’s writing that will keep readers hooked. Through wonderfully descriptive, succinct prose and persistent humor, he takes readers along as he puts in a mine shaft, hunts caribou, shoots rapids aboard a hand-made raft, and more.
Road trips in 1890s Alaska didn’t happen on roads. There weren’t any. Currier traveled the northlands extensively by trails and rivers. He ascended Chilkoot Pass four years before the mad scramble of 1898, and repeatedly floated the Yukon River and its tributaries. He enjoyed hundreds of miles of scenery with minimal human presence. Those he did meet, both fellow miners and Alaska Natives, he recalls warmly with telling details.
Currier spent lengthy periods in the Forty Mile and Fairbanks regions. He also visited Dawson and Nome during their respective gold rushes. But, being a seasoned sourdough by then, he knew better prospects lay elsewhere, away from the invading crowds. How successful his prospecting was is unknown. But his subsequent property investments indicate that he carried a tidy sum when he left Alaska for good in 1903. He was, among many things, a very hard worker.
A major highlight is Currier’s first winter, spent in Circle City. His account of the cold and darkness is worthy of a Jack London tale, but without London’s hyperbole. Currier attended an Athabascan potlatch, saw the northern lights, watched dogsled races, played endless hands of poker, and found comradeship in a tiny community held together by the common challenge of interior Alaska’s frigid climate. The most dramatic scene is the trial and punishment of three thieves in an isolated frontier town, far from any formal judicial system.
Zarnke described the day he first read the manuscript. “A friend who was cleaning out his office handed me a typed manuscript with the comment, ‘Here, you’ll enjoy this.’ That night, less than five pages in, I knew it was a great story. Currier’s words made me feel as if I was in the scene with him; sharing his experiences of early-day Alaska. Within the next five pages, I knew that I would do whatever was necessary to share this great story with other readers.”
Frederick Currier’s 10-year road trip truly was An Alaskan Adventure, and over a century later, readers can share in it thanks to Randy Zarnke’s persistence in getting this remarkable book published.
Copies of An Alaskan Adventure can be ordered from the Alaska Trappers Association website for $17.95 plus shipping.