The well of human stupidity is supposed to be infinite, but in reality it will run out shortly after the power does.
At the moment we have the luxury to be stupid – to engage in protests that, if successful, would result in a sudden and brutal education. We have, in the beginning of the third millennium, raised a generation of adult children – a population dominated by people with no practical skills to speak of. Why learn how to make things when you can buy them? Why learn how to fix things when they are so cheap we can just replace them when they break? Why learn how to grow food? Why learn how to survive in the wild? We have food that magically appears in supermarkets and electricity that magically comes out of the wall.
I count myself as such a child. My one survival skill is that I can identify which plants are poisonous.* I live at not much more than 50° north in an urban heat island. I can’t remember the last time I was cold to the core. Meanwhile, I have a romantic image of the men and women who make their homes in the far north, thinking of them as pragmatic survivalists, the type who would be handy in an apocalypse and/or a bar fight.
So it was disconcerting to find that the Editor-in-Chief of High North News had drunk the Klimate Kool-Aid. Arne O. Holm, who looks like the type of guy who would have been seen captaining a longboat a millennium ago, claimed that climate disruption had cancelled his trip to Nome, Alaska:
Off the coast of Alaska, military activity is increasing while climate change is hitting the people in the Arctic with full force.
Just under a week ago, a historic storm raged along the coast of Alaska. Together with 40-something communities, cities like Nome and Unalakleet were brutally hit. The storm hit so hard that a state of disaster was declared.
A few days before disaster hit Alaska, one of Norway’s richest men stood on a stage in Oslo and took a fierce stand against those who want to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases through reduced consumption and production of fossil fuels.
He probably does not care about what is happening in Alaska at the same time, but he must have known that Pakistan’s population was drowning, while he himself was drowning in applause.
(I don’t know who the speaker he referred to is: anyone?) Perhaps you run out of stuff to talk about in the long cold winters of the high north, but the idea that a storm surge flooding the streets of Nome had anything to do with climate change seemed far fetched. “Nonsense,” I said to myself. “Nome is built on the beach. It probably floods several times a year when the wind is in the right direction.”
So I repaired to Google Earth to look for the location of the photograph used to illustrate the story. The professional eye will have noticed that it is labelled as “Hooper Bay, Nome, Alaska.” But Nome is not Hooper Bay. The two are not connected by a bus service. So I first looked at Hooper Bay, and with the landmark of the wind turbines in the back of the shot to guide me, soon found that it was indeed a photograph of Hooper Bay, not Nome. (The terrain layer of Google Earth thinks that the location is 8m in elevation, so that is some storm surge, if the number is true.)
But from there I went to the Wiki for Nome, and happened upon the amazing photo that is used as the featured image for this blog. You can go here for the hi-res version. The photograph is labelled as “Nome, 1900” – and I have no doubt that it is in fact Nome this time. What is going on in this incredible photo? I did my best to work out what I was seeing, so if you don’t want any hints, stop reading now and look at the hi-res photograph for a minute, then come back with the answer.
What we are looking at is the beach sand being mined for gold. As far as the eye can see, sluices run from the top of the beach to the sea. The chimneys are steam pumps, sucking water out of the sea, and over the sand to wash it down the sluices. There is even an enterprising team in the middle distance with a wind pump for the same purpose. The horses in the foreground confused me for a bit. Perhaps they are being used to bring up the material to be washed.
The next thing to wonder about was whether anyone had written about Nome in 1900. By good luck, they had. The following are excerpts from The Gold Fields of Cape Nome, Alaska, published by Wm. A. Pratt in 1900. This is how he described Nome:
All along the coast from the mouth of the Yukon River the Country is barren and sterile for a hundred miles inland, with the exception of Norton and Golofin Bays. The coast mountains are low and somewhat rounded, gently sloping towards the sea; there is not a tree to beautify this desolate region, not a single bird to cheer up the lonesome path of a broken down prospector. Nothing but rocks, moss and small willow brush whose branches are not substantial enough to, serve him for the purpose of preparing a cup of coffee. A more desolate and inhospitable country it would be difficult to find on the Globe, but there is hidden the most sought treasure of Mother earth.
The only wood is driftwood. Hunting is thin, other than when the salmon are swimming upriver.
The Summer is short, cold and wet, the rainfall being similar to that of western Oregon and Washington. The mosquito, that horrible plague of Alaska, is fully as well represented here as in the interior. In fact, the whole Country is a living torture for man and beast, and it takes men with more than ordinary energy and perseverence [sic] to spend a few years among the barren and storm infested mountains, looking for the precious metal. The Behring Sea and Norton Sound generally freeze up in December, and navigation opens in the middle of June. The Winter is very severe, with strong winds, and at times 60 to 70 degrees below zero. The lowest temperature on record last winter was 58 degrees below, and it is no fun to winter up there with the thermometer registering 30 or 40 degrees below, and a raging gale blowing at the rate of 60 miles an hour, with a scant supply of water soaked drift wood and a poorly built cabin.
Of the gold strike,
…the news spread like wild fire all along the coast, and people flocked over the ice to Cape Nome by the hundreds. All along the Yukon, in a short time the camps were all deserted, and, before the end of the following summer the people of Dawson City and vicinity, were at the new diggings. It is estimated that there were over four thousand people on this stampede. … The news of the discovery of gold on Snake and Nome rivers, brought a large crowd of disappointed Klondike prospectors to the new diggings and naturally some of them cast their eyes towards the beach, in curiosity, more than in hopes of striking anything. It was during the early part of July that the first good prospect was made, just below the present site of Nome City and it was’nt long before the beach was alive with people digging, panning and rocking from morning until night. The beach diggings embrace a space of land sixty feet wide and two hundred miles in length, and run along from the east side of Golofnin Bay, along the coast to Cape Prince of Wales.
The landing of goods from the Steamers is conducted with great difficulty. There is absolutely no harbor whatsoever, and the Steamers are entirely at the mercy of the strong winds that generally prevail during the time of navigation. When the weather permits, the steamers anchor some two miles off shore, and unload their cargoes in lighters and small boats, which are attached to a line running from the unloading vessel to the land. As soon as the heavy wind comes up, the steamers have to run further out from shore, to anchor. Sometimes they have to wait from four days, to two weeks before unloading.
The health conditions of Nome City were very bad last summer. The ground is swampy, and the evaporating moisture is dangerous to the human system. One of the practicing physicians told me, that on the 15th, of October over 100 people were sick with typhoid fever, and a good many others afflicted with various diseases, principally of the stomach. I hadn’t landed there three days before it took a firm grip upon me and it stayed with me until after I arrived at San Francisco.
The supply of fresh water is mostly taken from Dry Creek, but people living in town have to carry their water from this Creek quite a distance across a swampy, soggy, marsh land. Mess. Price & Lane sunk their well in the heart of the Town, the water being pumped by means of a steam pump, and it is dished out to the miners at the price of 25c. for two bucket fulls.
Just before I left there, coal took a jump to $250.00 a ton and in a day or so, the restaurants had the remaining coal all bought up. Some drift-wood will be used by the Town people, who will have to pay a high price for that water-soaked dead-wood, which burns well enough, if dried, but is lacking in life and heat.
I have seen men living like hogs, in dirt and mire, cooking their food in such a careless manner that nobody, but, well, themselves would attempt to eat it.
Extracted by Pratt from Nome newspapers:
The outlook for Nome during the coming winter months is not roseate; indeed, it is the reverse. Much sickness and death prevail at the present time, and it is to be feared that a serious condition of affairs will maintain the entire winter. The prevalence of disease and death is a concomitant of all new towns where the conditions are such as exist here.
Let the people of Nome keep a stiff upper lip. After clouds comes sunshine.^
Pratt offers the reader of 1900 a final piece of advice:
I would advise no one to leave a comfortable home and a good situation, for a speculative trip to the Alaskan rivers and mountains; but to those who “care not,” to those who have no one to depend upon them for support, and to those who cannot improve a miserable existance [sic] in a civilized community, I would say — go, and try your luck.
Fast forward a hundred and twenty two years, and Arne says:
I was going to Nome, Alaska, next week to meet people threatened by climate change, but who simultaneously depend on the income that oil brings to the American state. These meetings will not happen.
The few hotels that have not nailed shut their doors and windows, or the restaurants that did not burn down, were quickly filled by rescuers and people who had lost their houses to the flood and storm.
There was no room for a journalist from a country where climate deniers are greeted with roaring applause when they take the stage.
On the whole, I think a resident of Nome, Alaska would prefer life there now, in the midst of a climate crisis, than a hundred and twenty two years ago, in the midst of a gold rush. As for me, I’d love to visit Nome, just as Arne planned to. But I would like to visit the Nome of 2022, not the Nome of 1900, where I think I would have survived for about half an hour.
That world was not one for adult children.
*Almost all perennials are poisonous to varying degree, but often have edible fruit. Some have edible roots.
^Another excerpt from the papers:
The Hobo Kid is said to have celebrated his arrival from Dawson City by winning several hundred dollars at faro and threshing a fellow who insulted his best girl.
What’s faro? Dunno. Either way, it was unwise to insult the Hobo Kid’s best girl.