Acknowledging the Real Tanana Chiefs

Acknowledging the Real Tanana Chiefs

I would like to acknowledge the Indigenous People on whose land unfold “my” Tales of the Tanana Chief. Actually, the list of all the Indigenous Peoples impacted along the way will require a longer acknowledgement, but I would like to acknowledge that the Tanana Chief of these Tales is just a boat, built by colonial prospectors of the Yukon Gold Rush. The real Tanana Chiefs are leaders of the many Athabascan Indigenous peoples in the Tanana Region. They have occupied the region since time immemorial, possibly as long as 20,000 years or more. Today, the Tanana Chiefs Conference continues to support the Indigenous people of central Alaska, providing sustenance, health, and voice. 

What is this Tanana Chief boat? In 1898, a group of men in Minnesota dreamed up a get-rich-quick scheme to join the Yukon Gold Rush.  They built a small sternwheeler and named her Tanana Chief, in the hopes it would smooth relations with the Indigenous People.  Beyond this act of cultural appropriation, these white men used the Tanana Chief to prospect (search for wealth) up the Yukon, Tanana, and Chena Rivers.  They only stayed a year, but they helped open up the heart of Alaska to white prospectors, who came to Alaska with a singular purpose: steal its gold. 

One of those Minnesota prospectors was James Edgerton Orme, my great grandfather.  It was exciting for me to discover his letters, detailing their adventures. I have transcribed his letters, and attempted to patch them together into stories. His stories tell tales of their adventure and hardship, but they also document effects of colonial racism on the indigenous people. By respectfully exploring these effects from an anti-bias and de-colonized perspective, perhaps I can make a small amends. The Tales contain examples of racist perceptions, colonizers’ health impacts on indigenous people, and erasure through education and journalism. I may be able to rematriate the Tanana Chief, and give her back to the rightful owners.

Image: Group portrait at the first Tanana Chiefs Conference, 1915. Seated front, L to R: Chief Alexander of Tolovana, Chief Thomas of Nenana, Chief Evan of Koschakat, Chief Alexander William of Tanana. Standing at rear, L to R: Chief William of Tanana, Paul Williams of Tanana, and Chief Charlie of Minto. Albert Johnson Photograph Collection, University of Alaska Fairbanks.

What’s My One Word?

What’s My One Word?

If you visit education twitter feeds this time of year, you’re bound to hear folks talking about their “one word”. A motto. Mantra. Inspiration. I heard “one word” rumblings on Twitter in September, at the start of the new school year. In fact, to begin the 2017 school year, our staff PD (professional development) included choosing a “one word” to describe and inspire our goal. But we didn’t revisit those words much. With a new year comesanother opportunity for a new “one word.”

I’m not sure what my old “one word” was. In 2017, I settled on “mindful enthusiasm,” but that’s two words. Cheater. My Twitter tag line is “Create! Inspire! Be Kind!” Well, that’s four words. My RR tagline is “Explore! Spread joy! Be Kind!” That’s five words. It’s just getting worse.

The beauty of ONE word is the power that it holds, all condensed into one SuperWord. The trouble with choosing just one word is that I’m afraid I might choose the “wrong” word. And that would be a Mistake, which is something I like to avoid. Part of me wants to rebel and call this whole one-Word-thing cliché. So 2018. Or is it so 2017?

New Year resolutions are definitely out of fashion. They feel like traps waiting to point out that it’s hard to change habits, and I end up feeling less empowered and more powerless. The “one word” thing is more of an Intention. I suppose I could get all word-o-phile here and pull up definitions and such, but suffice it to say that Intention feels a lot better than resolution. It rings truer to what my intention is for this Intention.

So what IS my one word?

One word that pops up is Adventure. Then I wonder if I shouldn’t be careful what I ask for. Adventures, as Bilbo Baggins pointed out, can be “nasty, uncomfortable things. Make you late for dinner.” But then Bilbo went out and had his grand adventure, which spun into epic adventure. Adventure means going out beyond the borders, which usually entails risk. Pushing the edges, going outside the box, taking risks. Going where I haven’t gone before, where new challenges, new experiences await.

A similar word, and one that often becomes my year-long class theme, is Explore. We become explorers, bringing curiosity and open eyes to discover the world around us. We explored Salmon Nation during the fall, including our wetlands, our forest, and our ocean. In January, we begin to explore Beringia, Alaska, and Sleddogs. In some ways, exploring seems synonymous with learning.

But I’m also drawn to “Joy.” Who isn’t drawn to joy? But the intention is to choose joy. When in doubt, choose the joyful path, the joyful act, the joyful gifts. Joy feels more service-oriented than adventure, because it feels more gift-like. Inviting others to share in joy. I suppose I can invite others along on adventures, and I can encourage others to adventure. But spreading joy feels right.

Thinking about my students, I realize that adventure would be great for them, but some have so much trauma in their lives that adventure is not something they can muster to. Joy is. Joy is kind and compassionate, two other words high on my list of intentions. Joy can come through creativity and creating. It can come through play. Or simply through a warm smile. Joy comes with a light heart, and I know many of my students have heavy hearts that could use some lightening.

So Joy it is.

The Chief’s Tale

Another November came and went, and I jumped into the National Novel Writing Month project with a new view on my great grandfather’s story.  I call this new view: The Chief’s Tale.  It’s the story of my great grandfather’s sternwheeler, told by the sternwheeler, the Tanana Chief.  She gets to tell it on her terms, and she gets to tell the stories that followed after she was sold by great grandfather and her “boys” from Minnesota.  I am editing it Here is the Prologuetanana chief with wickersham on board

Prologue: Hidden

Her gnarled and shaky hands lifted me from my shelf.  I was living in the leftmost corner of the closet shelf.  Paneled in knotty pine, the closet and its bedroom were added to the log cabin in the 60’s.  The cabin had stood much longer, at the end of a finger of lake in The Northwoods of Wisconsin.  The builder had brought logs from Finland, had lived in a tiny cabin down by the shore, and had assembled the not-quite-as-tiny cabin by hand.  That was years before I got there.  The builder was long gone, and the cabin had become a second home, a summer cottage that hosted Margaret’s family and friends. 

It was Margaret who brought me there years ago, and it was Margaret who lifted me from my shelf.  You might call her my half-sister.  Sort of.  Orme was her father, and he was one of my builders.  One of The Boys.  It was Orme who put me inside a box.  The box that Margaret carried to the summer cottage and tucked in the leftmost corner of her bedroom the shelf. 

She stood on tiptoes, opened the box, and lifted out my photo album.  Lifted it down to her chest, as the grandchildren rustled in combined glee and horror.  This wasn’t our first introduction.  They knew my photo album as the “Jed is Dead” book.  The book she pulled down in the summer of each year, to open in front of the massive stone hearth. 

“Look!  The blue fairies!” She would point them out to the grandchildren first, while I sat on her lap, on Orme’s cross-stitched bench seat, waiting.   The grandchildren flanked her, leaning in.  They would gaze at the blue fairies later.  They wanted to see Dead Jed. 

No, I’m not the dead body laid out on a page in the middle of the book.  I’m not Jed.  I was not Jed, although I knew him pretty well.  He was one of The Boys.  Yep, like the blue fairies, the Grandchildren passed me by.  For Jed.  Year after year, I was there.  They never really saw me.  Margaret saw me, and may have pointed me out once or twice, but the grandchildren only had eyes for Jed.

In the summers of ’90, The Granddaughter came with her own children.  Margaret was gone.  Had been gone for several years.  But I still lived in the leftmost corner of the bedroom overlooking Lake Katherine.  The Granddaughter pulled me down to share with the children, although they were much too young to recognize me, even if they could.  Well, one may have.  At nearly five, he was old enough to appreciate the macabre excitement of the “Jed is Dead” book.  But The Granddaughter skimmed past me, even skimmed past her own great grandfather, more quickly than Margaret had done.  Yes, the old, grey and brown photos were quaint and charming, but not so intriguing as a dead man on a cot in a cabin in Alaska.  Yet.

That was my last summer there.  My box was lifted down one last time,  and placed into a larger box.  Darkness.  Much rumbling of cars and planes later, I found myself in Denver, Colorado.  Over the next 15 years, I was moved from closet to closet several times before The Granddaughter brought me down and opened me up again.  The Granddaughter brought down my entire box, photo album and all, which was a first.  She sat on the floor and spread out my contents.  Photo album,  cigar box of loose photos and papers, and another box inside of box.  This was promising, and I started to wonder if perhaps I was going to be found.

Of course, she started with the Jed is Dead book, flipping through to the “title photo”.  My hopes waned, as The Granddaughter passed me by again and again.  But then she turned to the box of loose photos and the box inside of the box.  Sitting criss-cross-applesauce, she rifled the loose photos and papers, naming out loud the people and places that she recognized.  She began to sort them.  Photos that fit in her memories, photos that fit just outside her memories.   

A Sweitzer pile.  Newspaper clippings about  Grampa’s run for office, and his exploits as a young attorney, as president of the Emp Mut.  A portrait of Grampa with jet-black hair.  That got The Granddaughter’s attention.  Then, Uncle Russ, in news and photos.  Then, an aunt on a snow machine.   Gramma and Grampa with guests on the flagstone patio outside the summer cottage.  Gramma with cocktails at the bar in Hazelhurst. 

An Orme pile.  Clippings of Gramma’s engagement party, and others announcing that they would receive guests “at home” after the wedding.  Photos of Gramma in her wedding dress.  Photos from the Orme homestead, maybe.  Here was where the faces and places grew strange and uncertain.

The granddaughter set the newly-sorted piles at neatly spaced intervals around her, then turned to the box-inside-the-box.  Rocking the lid a bit, she pulled it off and laid it to the side.  No pictures.  Instead, there were envelopes. 

“Look!”  I whispered.  “Look!”  I yelled, silently.  “Look inside!”   My future hung in the balance.  Would I return the the dark and the closet, still unknown?  The One Ring scuffled deeper into the gravel bed of a river.  The Jumanji game settling deeper into the dirt, just out of sight.  I was nothing so powerful, so evil, so epic as these.  But I was there to be discovered, and I had stories to tell.  Would The Granddaughter find them?

Picking up one yellowed envelope, The Granddaughter gazed at the front.  It was addressed to “Miss Lulu Orme,” and it was dated 1898.  I heard her heart skip a beat, although she still had no idea what she was going to find.  She gently pried back the flap of the envelope, held in place by years of tight packing with the other envelopes below.  Laying on her belly now, The Granddaughter gingerly opened up this first letter, yellowish, a wad of smallish paper folded in half one time. 

This was it!  The One Ring pulled from the riverbed, Jumanji opened and set down to investigate, perhaps to play.  I was exposed to light for the first time in…  was it decades?  Or was it 100 years?  I had lost count of the years since I was last read by Margaret, when she tucked back me back into the box-inside-the-box.  It was a new century, at least.  My third century. And I was coming out to meet it.


NaNoWriMo: The Tales Begin

Image of the Tanana Chief in dry dock, Stillwater Minnesota, as it is being built for JL Morgan and the Tanana Mining Company. This photograph appeared in the St Paul Globe, March 1898.

Image of the Tanana Chief in dry dock, Stillwater Minnesota, as it is being built for JL Morgan and the Tanana Mining Company. This photograph appeared in the St Paul Globe, March 1898.

Flinching, James looked up at his father.  Looking up.  Always the looking up.    He was a small man.  And now he stared downward, at his small feet, his fine hands.   Why did it still bother him so? After all, he was 32 years old.  But there it was.  So much harder to confront him, to share the news.  Minutes ago, he’d been bursting with it, glowing, sparking excitement in every pore.  But now the shadow returned.

James had asked him to sit, but Henry had refused.  He was too busy.  He needed to check on the last few men at the Armstrong foundry, to visit the manager at the Omaha Railroad Office, stop by the bank.  But now he backed into his chair, and sat.  “What do you mean, you’re going to Alaska?”

James began to explain, talking too fast, “You don’t really need me here.  The Armstrong is closing, and you only need a small crew to run the Orme and Sons.  It’s this damn depression.  The Omaha isn’t going to recover, and you know it.   Without the railroad business, we’re only getting a few calls.  I’ll be saving you money.  I’ll be out of your hair.  You don’t really need me here.  I’ve found a company…”


National Novel Writing Month 2016 has begun.  It starts November 1st.  Or, the word-counting begins November 1.  They suggest you get the planning and such together earlier, September, October.  The goal: 50,000 words by November 30.  I’ve gotten a bit of a late start.  It’s the 5th today, so I have some catching up to do.  So far, I have 208 words.  I need to average about 1600 words per day.  208 words divided by 5 days.  So far, my average is 41 words per day.  At this rate, I will finish on March 4, 2020.

I guess I need to get back to the novel.  Back to the page.  I’ve signed up, logged in, and entered both a synopsis and the excerpt above.  Here is the synopsis:

Digging into a box containing an old family photo album, I found letters written by James E. Orme (my great grandfather)  to his father and sister, during his adventures on the Yukon Gold Rush of 1898-1899.  The letters, beginning in Seattle, chronicle his adventures from sailing to Unalaska, where they waited for the ice to melt in the Bering Sea, to their trip up and down the Yukon, Tanana, and Chena Rivers.

His father’s foundries were foundering during the economic collapse of 1893, so James had struck up with a dozen fortune-seekers, from a variety of professions and backgrounds, in St. Paul, Minnesota.  The group, calling themselves the Tanana Mining Company, constructed a steamship for penetrating up the Yukon River.  They named her the Tanana Chief.  

March, 1898,  “The Chief” was disassembled, loaded onto a Great Northern Railway train, and shipped to Seattle. From there, she sailed on board the barque Harry Morse, as a pile of lumber on the main deck. On the beach of Unalaska, she was reassembled during spring, 1898.  From there, she was towed by barge to St. Michaels, then  into the Yukon River.  The company steamed up the Yukon to the Tanana and Chena Rivers. On the Yukon, they encountered native villages of the Inuit People, and on the Tanana, they encountered villages of Athabascan Natives. At the mouth of the Chena, they were joined by the F.J. Currier company. They found the going rough on the Chena River,  with sandbars, islands, and tight turns.  When they came to its head of navigation, they pulled the steamer ashore for the winter, unloaded her,and built Fort Chena, their headquarters. At Fort Chena, they rescued Lt. Castner, an army surveyor who had become lost trying to take a shortcut from the goldfieds of the Yukon.  From Fort Chena, they hauled prospecting and mining gear up into the Tanana Hills, building a string of outpost cabins.   At first, they found hints that they were going in the right direction.  80 miles out from the Chena, they built their final outpost, Fort Independence.  After a fruitless winter, and the death of one of their members, the company was discouraged, and they decided to abandon the adventure.  They headed down and out, selling their boat and outfit at Weare,  Alaska. James separated from the company, and struck out with a lone prospector, to make one last-ditch run at finding gold.  Finding no fortune, he gave up when he had just enough money to for the return trip to St. Paul, Minnesota.

The Tanana Chief remained, and ended up becoming a piece of Alaska History. Under  Bought by Captain T.L. Hendricks, the Tanana Chief became a mail steamer, running errands along the Tanana River and its tributarie from 1899 to 1906s. In 1903, Judge Wickersham of Fairbanks hired the Tanana Chief to take him and a party of men up the Kantishna River, for the first recorded attempt to climb Mt. McKinley (Denali).  Three years later, May 10, 1906, the Tanana Chief was stranded and wrecked on the Kantishna River. No lives were lost. 


October on The Chena


This morning, I harnessed the girls (Annie and Sophie), bundled them and the scooter into the back of Little Blue (our “dog truck”), and headed for our favorite trail along the Willamette River.   It’s October 1, and the air is decidedly cooler.  The cottonwood definitely are beginning to yellow up, and leaves filter down with the breeze.  In a flash, I am transported to Alaska.


One hundred eighteen years ago, Grampa Orme (technically great grandpa) was pulling the Tanana Chief up to the shores of the Chena River, a bit past where Fairbanks now lies.  It was 1898, and the Tanana Chief was the steamer that he and his partners had built, disassembled, shipped, rebuilt, and towed up into the Yukon River.  They named her Tanana Chief in hopes of promoting friendlier encounters with the native peoples of the Yukon and Tanana watersheds.  By this day in 1898, they had met people and visited villages of both Inuit and Athabascan Alaskan Native.  They had found the Chena River, and navigated her twists and turns multiple times to get their gear, and that of another party, up to their landing spot.  Leaves were long gone, as trees had seemed to color and drop their leaves overnight in mid September.  The air had turned cold (16 degrees above on October 3), they had been through their first snowstorm, and his company decided it was the right time and the right place to bring “The Chief” ashore, and build “Fort Chena”letters.

Sept 15th 1898. On Chena River, Alaska

My dear Sister;
From the above heading, the first thing that you will ask is “where is the Chena River?” Well I will try and tell you, I suppose you have a map of Alaska, as well as one of Cuba and the seat of war, lay your map out and trace the Tanana River to where it widens the second time near the 148th meridian, pencil and make a point about ten or fifteen miles to the west of the 148th line, draw a line almost parallel to the Tanana River until almost the center of Bates Rapids, then draw a very crooked line to the headwaters of Birch Creek the South Fork and you will have an almost correct map of the Chena River.

Chena must mean crooked, you never saw anything like it, the turns are so short in places that we cannot turn without hitting the banks the river is about 200 feet wide, and in some places not much over 100 feet wide. Big trees overhang the bank on both sides so that we are constantly into or under them, we call them sweepers because the trees sweep everything off the boat that is loose and three of the men have had very narrow escapes from being swept off by these trees. Some of the windows have been smashed, some of the timbers near the wheel are broken and one big hole put into the cabin just back of the port engine, the bends are so sharp and the current swift and strong that it throws the boat against the bank in spite of all that we can do.

Sept 19th 1898. Monday

Just six months ago today we left St. Paul and what months they have been! Months of history, of war and excitement, how I long for a newspaper. June 29th is our latest, I do so wonder about what has happened since then, is the war over or only just began? Have other nations got into the fight? and is Uncle Sam holding his own? You bet he is, we can lick the world.
The current is so strong in this river that we could not take Mr. Currier’s boat the “Potlatch” with us, so we left it near the mouth and went up about forty miles and last Friday arrived at the foot of a small rapids. There,we left our barge, unloaded our goods from the steamer, and went back after the “Potlatch”. It took us seventeen hours to go up the river, it only took three and a half to get back, say! But we had a touch of high life, we just flew over the water and around the bends and turns, we ran into the bank but once on the down trip. We got back to the Potlatch safely Friday afternoon, loaded her freight into our steamer and started up River again just before six and tied up for the night about half after seven, it gets dark quite early. Saturday afternoon we came to a small creek, that we have named Little Beaver Creek. There we tied up the “Potlatch” for the winter and Mr. Currier and his party are now with us on our boat. Sunday we did not run. Sperbeck who is about the only man on board that can handle the wheel on this river was sick and could do nothing, we are running today as he is much better, and if nothing happens we will get back to our barge by tonight and tomorrow our troubles will begin in earnest.
I found my first gold on the 15th, it was very fine like flour, 8 or 10 little specks that I have glued on some paper and will send it to you, it is not much, but it proves that there is gold higher up and the thing to do now is to find where this flour gold came from if we can, if we can’t, our trip will have been in vain.

Tuesday Sept 20th

Chena River

We got back to the barge sooner than we expected yesterday afternoon, we stopped only a few minutes and then started up again to attack our first rapids, the water fell about two or three feet in perhaps about fifty feet, it took us about half an hour and we surprised ourselves at how easy it was done, we find now that the current is a little faster and we don’t make many miles an hour.
We are now running in a line with the foothills and just after we started this morning we could see through an opening in the trees, a snow-capped mountain. The head of navagation can’t be very far away.
I have not mentioned it before, I think, but the water of the Chena River is clean and clear, the Yukon was muddy, but the Tanana was mud, clear thin mud nothing else and it did seem so good to see clear water, the first since leaving Unalaska, even the Bering Sea, away out of sight of land was muddy.
In going up the rapids yesterday afternoon, our lifeboat got between the steamer and the rocks and was badly squeezed, a big hole put into each side of the lifeboat, I tried to nail it up a little while ago but it still leaks very badly, but you need not fear as there are two big airtight tanks one in each end of the boat and even if full of water it could not sink with three or four men in it.
We saw a bear last week, the first wild animal that we have seen. “Rowlands” saw it first, and he was so anxious that he could not wait until some of the others got their rifles and fired at the bear. The bear must have been hit as he jumped up, turned, and ran into the woods, we landed and most of us got our guns and started after the bear, but he could not be seen he had too good a start. You might wonder why we would land and go after the bear but when you remember that we have had no fresh meat for over five months you will understand why we wanted that particular bear.
We had some brant or geese at the mouth of the Yukon once for dinner, since then we have had ducks twice and partridge twice, so you see that we have had game only five times so far. The stories that we were told about these rivers being covered with ducks and geese and the woods full of moose and bear are all bosh. True we have seen both moose and bear tracks along the river bank but we can’t eat the tracks, there are not many ducks and less geese, the ducks are very tame but we can’t get within half a mile of the geese they are so shy. We almost ran over a black duck yesterday, the doctor fired at it with his rifle and missed it of course, but what is one poor little duck for twelve — just now fifteen, hungry men there would not have been even a taste to go round.
It has just come to my mind that you asked about send the mail to Weare, yes send all your letters there until told to send elsewhere. We have made arrangements with the postmaster to send us our mail by any white man coming up this way, and during the winter some of us may go down to Weare on purpose to get what mail there may be there for us.

Thursday Sept 22nd

Winter is here, about five o’clock this morning it began to snow, at first very lightly until about seven when it began to come down very lively, it is now nine o’clock and still snowing a little, as most of the snow melts as fast as it falls, it may not last very long.
The leaves on the trees, birch, cottonwood, and willows, began to turn yellow about the first of this month and by the fifteenth the leaves were falling very fast, the leaves have all fallen from the cranberry bushes, the bushes are about three feet high and look very pretty now with clusters of red cranberries upon them. Our cook does not think much of cranberries because for every quart of berries he has to use a quart of sugar and he thinks they are not worth it.
The river here is if anything more crooked and swifter, last Tuesday we came to a creek that we will call Beaver Dam Creek, I think that we will make our winter quarters there, we have to make three trips from below the rapids I mentioned up to Beaver Dam Creek, we are now about half way up on our second trip and by the time we make a third trip we may have to stop. Beaver Dam Creek is about ten miles from the mountains in a straight line it may be twice that far by river but when we get all our goods up there we may try and go up still farther if possible. Three men are at the mouth of the creek to cut logs for cabins, so as to have them ready if we decide to stay there.

Oct 4th Tuesday

Lieut. Carson of the regular army arrived here this morning, a little more than a living skeleton, he has been about starved and has had an awful time, he leaves here tomorrow and will take our letters to Weare with him. Lieut. Carson lost all he had. He has two men waiting for him at the mouth of this river, he and the other two lived for six days on berries, before they were wrecked they shot a wolf and lived for two days on that wolf, they then found the dead body of a mule that had died and each man cut off a piece after driving off the ravens that had nearly eaten up the mule.
We had a hard time making our last trip up this river but we finally got all our outfit up and have been busy building our winter quarters, two large log houses they are not quite finished. We arrived here on our last trip Sept 25th and have been very busy building our house it will be finished in a few days now. The weather has been the finest that one could want although now it is cold. Yesterday morning it was 16′ above I don’t know how cold it was this morning, there is no snow on the ground now, we had a snow storm but it melted about as fast as it fell.

Night same day.
I must begin all over with the Lieuts story. He left Capt. Glenn on the Delta River and got to the Tanana River, he has one soldier and a packer with him, but I am ahead of the story he started out from Cooks Inlet to find a trail to Circle City, and on the Delta River he was overtaken by Capt. Glenn, who afterward turned back. The Lieut. and his party were traveling overland and had two pack mules one of the mules died just after crossing the Tanana River, then he went down the Tanana to the Valkmar River and started up that river for Circle City, and about this time began to get short of provisions and to make things worse the mule gave out, and they had to shoot him and pack what they had on their backs the mule was shot when they were about half way up the Volkemar River, well they got to the head of the river and looked for the pass that Capt. Ray had gone through, but they could see nothing but snow capped mountains and being short of grub turned back and started for the Tanana River, and to us as he had heard from the Indians that white men with a steamboat was here, well they built a raft and started down the river by this time the last of their provisions gave out and all they had to eat was what they could shoot and berries, on Sept 19th they were wrecked and lost everything they had except what clothes they were wearing, the Lieut. only had shirt and trousers he had taken off his coat and vest to help handle the raft in the swift water, none of them had on their shoes only their stockings, for two days before they were wrecked they lived on a wolf that they had killed, and after they lost everything that they had, they started, without coats or blankets and barefoot, for the place where they had killed the mule. They were six days getting there, and all that time they had nothing to eat but cranberries and those little apples that you see on wild rose bushes, after the flowers have dropped off and are full of seeds. The Lieut. says that one has no idea of how much nourishment there is in those apples or berries, well they all took a big slice out of what was left of the mule that had been dead for over two weeks and started on and in two days got to an Indian camp. He hired the Indians to take him to us, he left his two men at an Indian camp at the mouth of this river, he tasted bread today for the first time in three weeks. Every man in the party is getting out what clothes they can spare for them, I am going to give him some underclothes, stockings, and a cap and maybe my coat and vest the blue one that I wore when I left home, we will let him have our lifeboat and enough provision to last him to Weare, and he will try to send us our mail that may be at Weare to us by any Indians that may be coming this way, and will take letters from us to mail at Weare, this gives us a chance to write that we had not looked for.

Our log house will be finished before the end of this week and we will be in there by Saturday, we have the roof on and covered with moss one side of the roof is finished, the floor will be laid tomorrow and the windows and doors put in.
On the 1st of Sept the leaves on the birch trees and on the cottonwood trees began to turn yellow, by the 15th the hills and valleys looked most beautiful all colors, now the birch, cottonwood, and willows are all bare, the leaves have all fallen and every day it seems to get a little colder, the sun is getting quite low and the moon high. I do not mind the cold a bit so far, why when I cut wood or cut moss I am all in a perspiration in a minute, it seems queer to be so warm as to sweat and have ice on my mustache at the same time, I will have to cut it off, can’t have whiskers here in winter time on account of the ice that forms on them.
Well dear sister I will close soon we are all well except the Dr and Wells, they are always sick when there is any hard work to do and let me say right here that there is no easy road to Alaska. I almost forgot we had some moose meat, that we bought from an Indian, this was the first fresh meat that I had tasted since Apr13th last, moose meat tastes a great deal like beef steak and you don’t know how good it was. I hate bacon and beans, I eat bacon between two slices of bread and I cover the nasty beans with mustard. I can eat them that way.
We were just two months getting here, we left the mouth of the Yukon on July 25th and got the last of our outfit up here on the afternoon of Sept 25th.
If nothing comes of our trip we can say that we have in a way saved the lives of three men, the Lieut. and his two men would never get to Weare had we not been here, just think of men living on berries and sleeping under trees, no blankets to sleep under and their clothes in rags, they used to build a big fire at night and they would rake away the burning wood and lie down in the warm ashes, sometimes they would find a live coal in the ashes and then they would get up right quick in that way they burnt up what little clothes they had saved, none of them had a coat. I wonder how they lived so long.
I do hope that the Lieut. will find a way to send us our mail at Weare, you don’t know how I long for a letter from home and for a newspaper.
How do we live? Well, I get up about six o’clock and have breakfast we have dinner at twelve and supper at six, we go to bed right after supper, at least some of us do, I go to bed about eight or half past eight o’clock, it has been a long time since I have been up later than nine o’clock. While we were building the cabin, I helped to haul the logs from the woods and cut one side flat, I put all the moss in the cracks of the roof.
This is about the last chance for us to send any letters to our friends this year, so this letter will, in all probability, be the last that you will get until next spring or summer, so dear sister, Goodbye.
With love to all at home
I remain
Your brother

Fort Chena. Chena River, Alaska
Send all letters to Weare


Image from JE Orme’s photo album showing Fort Chena, the cabin they built on the Chen River, October 1898, to serve as headquarters for string of 8 relay cabins into the Tanana Hills.


JEO’s Yukon Gold Rush- Beginnings

James Edgerton Orme (1865-1941)

James Edgerton Orme (1865-1941)

James was a small man.  Not very tall, he had delicate hands, and his feet were unusually small for a man.  In his early twenties, his ill health moved him to spend five years in San Francisco, California, where he regained his strength. Later, he was diagnosed as diabetic, and had to inject insulin.  Therefore, it is not surprising that no one in his family, especially not his father, suspected that James Edgerton Orme, at the age of 33, would pick up and head off to Alaska, in search of the gold fields.


James Edgerton Orme: Before Alaska





Iditarod 2016 Come and Gone

nomecam goodbye arch

Just minutes after the Nome webcam captured this photo of the finish chute being plowed up, it captured an empty Front Street.  All remnants from this week of finishers’ joy, pride, and revelry were gone from the streets of Nome. Similarly, the used drop bags, leftover food, and extra sleds deposited along the trail are finding their ways home,  or to new homes, unlittering the villages along the way.  Alaska is being de-Iditaroded until next year.  It almost seems like it never happened. So, what does remain?

There are so many moments and memories from watching the mushers and their sleddog teams, I can’t even entertain the idea of summarizing. It’s not possible.  Much of it, for me, was spent on my laptop and iPad: Refreshing the GPS, tuning in to the livestream video, chatting with the livestream fans, sharing on Facebook.  Did it all really happen?

I wonder if the mushers have that eerie sense of disbelief. They, no doubt, still feel the exhaustion, the muddledness of sleep deprivation.  They have mountains of gear to go through, clean, organize, and store away for their next runs. Even for those who will return soon to ordinary jobs, the Iditarod follows them home.  They have the dogs to feed, the poop to scoop.  I’m sure it’s still an unreal descent into non-trail life, falling into the dream that is not the trail. For me, and those others who are simply long distance fans of the sport, our Iditarod ends with the closing of the laptop.

This  year, the Iditarod Trail Committee made it easier than ever to feel a part of the race.  Like the last couple years, there were the start and restart live broadcasts, the video clip uploads to the web page, and newsblogs by Seb, Terri, and the Teacher on the Trail (Laura).  This year, they were brilliant, and found ways to broadcast live throughout the race.  During the first week, Danny Seavey and Joe Runyan came on at least twice a day to share Iditarod Insider updates, interviews, and background stories.  Better yet, the Iditarod Insider crew was able to stream live video from many checkpoints along the trail.  Anywhere they were able to establish a link, even if for only part of the day, they brought the Iditarod live. And, with these live broadcast streams, there were chat windows.  When Danny joined the chat window, and answered our questions, we were ecstatic.  Best Iditarod Ever.

Brilliant doesn’t even begin to describe how the live video was able to bring people around the world together,  meeting out at some of the most remote locations in North America, supporting the Last Great Race.  I think it was Cripple where they set up a lath welcome arch with Christmas lights wound around it.  I was at my laptop, alongside many other fans at their laptops and iPads, as we gazed out over the emptiness, a pink and lavender dusk settling.  We had loved watching the teams come in around the bend.  We also loved the calm of just gazing on the landscape.  We talked, in chat,  about the thrill and the beauty.  We shared it as friends.    But… that real?

When teams were heading into Nulato, we waited along with schoolchildren.  They made signs and waved at us, laughed, ran, slid down hills, and shared their joy with us.  We watched Karen Ramstead  (Iditarod Judge) interact with the people from the village, as the first Iditarod teams arrived.  By the time we saw Jeff and Aliy coming in with news of the snowmobile attacks, we already had grown connected to Nulato.  It made perfect sense, it was perfectly clear that it was not Nulato that was at fault.  We knew they also were victims, it was not their fault. We saw the joy and enthusiasm of the children and teachers, we felt connected to them, as if we KNEW them.  THEY were Nulato. And we loved how they loved “our” mushers and dogs.

The live streaming from across Alaska both capitalized on and  galvanized the online phenomenon of Idita-fandom that has been growing over the last few years.  In 2013, the live chat during the 24/7 streaming of the finish gave birth to the Iditalurkers, a Facebook group of new-found friends with a common passion.  Over hours of GPS refreshing and speedy-fingered chatting, we created a community of fun, caring online friends.   In 2014 and 2015, our lurking community grew and more Facebook groups were born.  This year, one of these groups, the Idita-Live Chat Friends group, invited new members right from the chat screen.  They now have over 400 members.  Our Iditalurker group, hesitant to open up willy-nilly and lose our group personality, decided to grow more carefully.   Over the same few years, Facebook fan clubs sprouted up, like the Bears’ Den of fans for Brent Sass.  Mushers have created kennel web platforms and Facebook pages, from which they can grow fan support, as well as financial support. Individuals like Helen Hegener have created Facebook pages for sharing information, photos, and news about the Iditarod, mushing, mushers, and sled dogs.  Fans and pseudomushers like myself started to follow the Facebook pages of regional mushing groups in Alaska (Willow Dog Mushers, Two Rivers, Tok, etc),  as well as pages created by race organizers, and sled dog groups and races in the lower 48.

So what?   Aren’t these just a bunch of crazy fans watching from afar, glued to screens?  Isn’t it all just un-real? In some ways, yes.   Mushers who have learned how to create a charismatic online presence have grown up what some have criticized as “hordes of dewey-eyed fans”, and have gained a lot of financial support.  Is it commercializing mushers and sleddog teams?  Is it wrong to make mushers into “heroes”?   I am probably one of those dewey-eyed fans, and sometimes wonder if I’m choosing my heroes wisely.  When it turns out that they aren’t perfect, they are human and fallible, and they make decisions that may put themselves or their dogs at risk…. does it mean I chose poorly, that I was tricked into hero-worship by online fandom?  Or, does it mean that my understanding of them as human beings becomes more complex, more complicated than hero-worship?

A better example of the power of Facebook Iditafans is what happened during and after the devastating Sockeye fires around Willow during June, 2015.  Rob Cooke and others started a UK-based web auction via Facebook, and what happened then was nothing short of phenomenal.  It went viral, networking out through the many Idita-Facebook communities, and brought hundreds of people together to help support the mushers who lost their homes and kennels.  I’m sure the organizers wondered what they had created, as it grew exponentially and outgrew their own capacity to manage, but it generated an unbelievable amount of financial support for those who lost everything in the fires.  And, it connected people’s hearts around the world.  Virtual connections that feel real and create real help for people in need.

And what about Dwayne?  He quit his job, and sold everything he had, to create a livestreaming capability that he could take to Alaska, to connect people with sleddog sports.  He took off for Alaska on a one-way-seat-of-the-pants adventure.  In some ways, he is competing with the Iditarod Insider and ITC, who have launched into their own version of livestreaming along the trail.  But I don’t think he will ever doubt that this adventure was worth it.  He has made connections and stirred up joy wherever he went, despite being essentially homeless and alone across Alaska.  I suspect there are things about his way of “covering” the race that could make the Iditarod Insider.  Meaning, I think there is a place for his dream in the Iditarod.  In any case, I really look forward to hearing more about his adventure.  He has grown an audience of his own.

So today, as I watched the Nome Webcam capture glimpses of the deconstruction of the burled arch, I sent a sequence of images out to my fellow Iditalurkers.  Going, going, gone.  Being spring break, I spent my first day of Idita-withdrawal watching videos from the banquet and connecting with my different communities, off and on throughout the day. Iditalurkers welcomed a new member, with plenty of humor. We continue to share memories of the last 2 weeks, we share how the transition to “real life” is going for us, and we share the real life that always, inevitably shows up.    One friend’s “real” dog rushed out into the street, where it was hit and injured, then ran/limped off.  Quick Facebook sharing mustered friends who helped find the poor dog, and she was able to get her to medical care.  Today, she is resting and recovering from a fractured leg.  Another friend lost her “real” dog across the rainbow bridge, to a sudden illness.  Another friend shares her joy in adopting a new puppy.  One worries about his mother, while another is preparing for her wedding, and another is recovering from shoulder surgery.  Real life is unavoidable, but we now have communities, born in Iditarod, where we can share our struggles and joys.

Born in Iditarod.  Well, I may be a bit of a romantic.  But I have friendships born in Iditarod.  My relationship with my dogs has become much deeper and richer because of what I have learned from Iditarod.  I have become an urban musher, visited Alaska in summer, reconnected with my Great Grandfather’s Yukon adventure, articulated my belief in Iditarod for education, gone to the Iditarod Educator’s Conference as a finalist for Teacher on the Trail, helped teams get to the ceremonial and official start lines, inspired a generation of Iditastudents, and gained insights into what  makes humans truly heroic. Two weeks glued to laptops and iPads doesn’t seem real.  But Iditarod is real. The heroes are humans and dogs, and the lessons for my life, our lives, are real.

My favorite Facebook meme from the 44th Iditarod:  zirkle


Madonna, the Three Legged Sleddog


This story was written by KR, one of my 5th grade students.

Hello, my name is Madonna. I’ve lived in Brent Sass’s Wild and Free Kennel for about my entire life. I was one of the first to come here and many others followed. Brent Sass says I am 13 Years old so, I believed him. I never knew my parents that well, but that’s ok… Not like I’m the first. Oh, I almost forgot! I look like a normal husky with grey and white fur… with some black too.      Shortly after my retirement I got caught in some sorta trap. Got my leg stuck, so some people went and helped me. Now, I only have three legs. Still fast like I used to be though. I was the main leader of The Wild and Free sled team when we went through the Yukon Quest. We did them 5 times in total. I also ran Brents first Iditarod… About 3 years ago was it? Ya… I think so.

Some other things I’ve done is…uh.. Have pups… Their names are U-Turn and Celia. Their father is Silver (The king of the Kennel). It’s nice having a big family, because I can visit them whenever I please. Me and Silver get to spend all day together. Just relaxing and patrolling… I should get going. Bye!

James Edgerton Orme: Before Alaska

James Edgerton Orme (1865-1941)

James Edgerton Orme (1865-1941)

In the spring of ’65, the United States was finally settling its Civil War.  In April, General Lee surrendered to General Grant. Five days later President Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth.  Within a couple weeks, Jefferson Davis had surrendered and dissolved the confederacy.  Over the summer,  the last remnants of the Civil War  played out, and the last confederate armies surrendered.  On September 4, my great grandfather, James Edgerton Orme, was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Henry and Mary Orme, James’ parents, came to Wisconsin from England.   In the 19th century, the name “Henry Orme” seems to have been as ubiquitous in England as the name “John Smith”.  Following the threads of ancestry back through the years, it seems unlikely that our Henry-Father-of-James Orme was the one in prison.  Nor was he one of the many Henry Ormes who still could be found in Great Britain at the end of the 19th century.  Exactly which Henry Orme emigrated to Wisconsin, USA, is unclear.  The history passed down to his grandchildren suggests that Henry went to Canada first, then followed the iron ore in the Mesabi Range, south to St. Paul, where he built his foundries.  Sadly, the oral historians never knew about the Wisconsin years.

When James was born, his father Henry was 26 years old, and  Mary was 19. When James was 2, his brother Henry Herbert was born.  Henry-the-father worked as a “moulder” in a Milwaukee foundry, turning iron and brass into the tools and structures of a growing industrial city.  Mary worked at home, keeping house and tending her two small boys.  Out in the world-at-large, Ulysses S. Grant was president, the right to vote had finally been ratified for black males, Charles Dickens died, the Franco-Prussian war began and ended, John Muir first stepped in Yosemite, and Yellowstone became the first national park.Hudson waterfront WI

On January 3, 1873, when James was just 7 years old, his mother Mary passed away. She was only 26 years old.   Perhaps, as was all too common, she died in childbirth, along with her infant.  Or perhaps she drowned in Lake Michigan, or was struck by a train.  Losing a mother at the age of 7, by any means, is tragic.

His father did not stay a widower for long.  Six short weeks later, February 11, 1873, Henry married Margaret Bauer, a seamstress who lived and worked next door.  Margaret was a sturdy German girl, 29 years old and hardy enough to take on a grieving husband and his two small sons.  Later that year, in September, a stock market crash set off one of the great financial panics of the 19th century.wisconsin map

When  James was 9 years old, he moved west with his father, brother, and new mother.  In the panic of 1873, moulders like Henry found themselves without paid work.   Putting faith in the machinery of industrial America, Henry found himself a location where he could build his own foundry.  They settled at North Hudson, Wisconsin, just across the St Croix River and 15 miles east from St. Paul, Minnesota.   In 1874, Henry established the North Hudson Foundry, and contracted to manufacture all the castings (except wheels) used by the local railroad company, the Hudson and River Falls Railway.   Living in North Hudson,  James attended the common school until he was 15.  Henry and Margaret had two children together,   Emmeline (Lulu) was born in 1878, when James was 13, and became his darling sister. Frank J.W. was born soon after, in 1879.

In 1880,  the fatrain in st croix countymily jumped to the other side of the St. Croix River,  to St. Paul.   That year, the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Omaha Railway  (The Omaha Road) was  incorporated, consolidating  several regional railways.   Henry established the Orme Foundry, which worked closely with machine shops for “The Omaha” Railroad. Son James went to work for the Omaha shops, where he began to learn the trade of machinist.

Owing to poor health, James went to California in 1887.  He lived in San Francisco for 5 years.  Later in life, he was diabetic, and used insulin.  Perhaps he was beginning to show symptoms of the diabetes that eventually developed to the point he required insulin shots.  Perhaps working in the machine shops made him ill. Perhaps he suffered from mental illness.  Whatever the illness, he was able to regain his strength.

He returned to St, Paul in 1892, and lived there the rest of his life, with the exception of his Alaska adventure in 1898-99.