Thursday, June 4, 2015


I thought I came from a small town until I visited Wiseman.  It’s hard to imagine a community of about a dozen people until you walk through one.

Wiseman, founded in the heyday of the Alaskan and Yukon Gold Rushes, has been a small, but stable community for over 100 years now and counting.  Robert Marshall wrote about the town as it existed in 1930-31 for his book Arctic Village.  Here are some of the things I've noticed that have changed since Marshall’s observations:

Snowmobiles (“snow machines”) have mostly replaced dogsleds for winter transportation.  In winter, nearly all (if not all) creeks and rivers, including the mighty Yukon to the south, completely freeze over, becoming convenient highways for light transport.  Rivers are not without their perils, including thin ice and overflow, however.  Overflow is what happens when the pressure of the water under the ice becomes great enough to break through the surface and run over the top of the ice before eventually freezing again.  This liquid water can be difficult to spot, and getting wet in subzero temperatures can be life-threatening.  Even sweating when the air is -40 degrees Fahrenheit can lead to hypothermia.

The Dalton Highway has allowed for automobile transportation year-round.  The first automobile appeared in Wiseman sometime in the 1920s, and it was largely seen as a novelty.  It wasn't useful for transport in winter, it got stuck in the mud… it simply wasn't a better option than transport by sled, boat, horsepower, or even backpacking on foot in most circumstances.  However, at least since the construction of the highway and pipeline, 4-wheel drive vehicles are commonplace, though sleds, boats and planes are still used by some.

Most homes seem to have access to electricity and propane for modern refrigeration, cooking, heating, and other labor saving or entertainment devices.  However, there is no cell service and little running water.  Electricity, when available, is produced by homeowners’ windmills (which charge arrays of batteries) or fuel-burning generators.

Most residents are no longer mining for gold, although a few do.  Most offer lodging, provide tours and hunting guide services, and/or work elsewhere, such as the AIVC in Coldfoot.  Many save money through subsistence hunting, trapping, fishing, and gathering.  By hunting moose and other game, rural residents can acquire meat to eat and fur or hide to sell.  One resident turns fangs into jewelry to stretch the value of his kills.  For produce, it is possible to grow vegetables during the long, occasionally endless days of summer.  Because of the long days, vegetables can actually grow to incredible sizes.  Potatoes, for instance, can apparently grow quite large, though Bob Marshall’s Wiseman residents called them “waterballs,” since most of their excess girth was extra water weight, and these turned into husks when baked.  Potatoes and other root vegetables can be stored easily through winter, but leafy greens are impossible to grow or store through the dark months.  One modern resident lamented that in winter he “dreams of salad.”

Airplane service is far more common, but not new since Marshall’s visit.  The first plane touched down in Wiseman in the middle of the 1920s, and it was a sensation.  Airplanes were used by wealthier residents to get to and from Fairbanks, or by anyone else if it was necessary to get to the nearest hospital, again in Fairbanks (this is still true today).  A telegraph service was set up by the U.S. government (as I recall) for the primary purpose of calling for air transport if it was needed.  Today, at least one resident owns a plane and knows how to fly it, and I saw one or two others that looked usable.  And purchasing a flight is likely (I haven’t checked) less of a portion of a person’s yearly income today than it was in 1930.

I can't think of much else that hasn't also changed for everyone throughout the U.S. in the last 85 years.  Wiseman is still largely isolated from the rest of the world.  The residents today have a pretty similar diet.  The community is still extremely close-knit, nearly to the point of being family, although two households are actually family.  In 1930, it was common for everyone to pool their resources to help a community member in need, such as buying a plane ticket to the hospital for a girl whose father spends all the family’s money on booze and gambling.  Today, I haven't heard if such generosity still exists in that form, but neighbors in Wiseman seem to be quite neighborly.

That said, living in Wiseman requires a certain mindset, one accustomed to solitude, and the locals seem to value maintaining their distance from the world at large.  It’s almost paradoxical how friendly and guarded people can be at the same time, but I just think a person needs to earn the trust of the residents here, which is true pretty much everywhere in the world I've been.

I won't say much else, partly because I haven't been here long enough, partly because I'm not used to trying to explain human behavior, and largely because I haven't asked permission to write about anyone by name or conducted any interviews of my own.  But I hope this serves as an introduction for your own further reading, should you be interested.

Thanks for reading.


Bonus:  the Wiseman Trading Post

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