Editor’s note: This book review is one in a series about unsung or forgotten Alaskan histories.
When it comes to adventures, few Alaskans can top Walter Harper. Best known for being the first person to set foot on Denali’s summit, this was just one stop in Harper’s far too brief but physically and intellectually adventurous life.
In accounts of the climb, Harper is often overshadowed by the leaders, Archdeacon Hudson Stuck and Harry Karstens, both pivotal figures in early territorial Alaskan history. Yet he’s widely considered essential to the climb’s success. In Walter Harper: Alaska Native Son, University of Alaska Fairbanks emeritus history professor Mary Ehrlander told his story.
Born in 1893, Harper was the son of a Koyukon Athabascan mother and Irish immigrant father who separated when he was two. Raised by his mother in the Athabascan tradition in Tanana, he distinguished himself as a perpetually cheerful and intensively skilled outdoorsman.
Harper was young when the gold rush changed Alaska forever. Ehrlander, director emeritus of Arctic and northern studies at UAF, details how stampeders disrupted Native communities, introducing alcohol and fatal diseases, and upending subsistence and trade practices.
The era also brought missionaries, including Stuck, who, for that time, was unusually progressive regarding Native rights. Harper was attending the Episcopal boarding school in Nenana when Stuck, needing a dog driver and guide, hired him in 1910. The two developed a father-son relationship as they traveled across the far reaches of Alaska and ultimately to the top of Denali.
Ehrlander’s chapter-long summary of the ascent provides a clear telling of a climb that suffered its share of mishaps and personality clashes. The story has been recounted in great detail elsewhere, however, so Ehrlander doesn’t try to compete. She has a larger tale to tell.
For all the drama on the mountain, the most soaring adventures in this book take place along Alaska’s rivers and trails. Stuck ministered to an enormous territory and visited far-flung villages annually. Part of Harper’s job was getting him there. Ehrlander sits readers down in the dogsled as the pair traverses the Arctic in temperatures as low as minus 65 degrees. Aided by Harper, Stuck tended to both the spiritual and physical needs of people who lived far from help of any kind.
Harper continued his schooling under Stuck’s tutelage. This led to his next great adventure, attending Mount Hermon School in Massachusetts. He struggled as a student and suffered homesickness but left with the intention of becoming a medical missionary.
First it was back to Alaska for more Arctic adventures with Stuck, as well as the biggest adventure of all, marriage in 1918 to a young nurse named Frances Wells. The couple boarded the Princess Sophia at Skagway on October 23. In one of Alaska’s worst tragedies, the ship hit a reef the following day, and on the 25th broke apart and sank, with all 343 onboard lost. Harper was just 25.
“Walter Harper drew strength from both his mother’s Koyukon Athabascan and his father’s Western culture,” Ehrlander told me. “Self-respect grounded his character and guided his decisions. At a time when rapid socio-economic change was wreaking havoc with Indigenous lifeways, he learned to navigate comfortably in both worlds. His adventurous spirit, subsistence skillset, physical stamina, and congenial personality made possible his feat on Denali. These same qualities made him a terrific asset to Archdeacon Stuck and won him admirers throughout Alaska’s Interior.”
With Walter Harper: Alaska Native Son, Mary Ehrlander shows us how Harper’s skills and personality were critical to the success of the Denali climb. But more importantly, she shows readers how his skills and personality were honed by a brief life of nonstop adventure.