Alaska, the Last Frontier - Summer 2012 travel blog

map of Beringia

wooly mammoth skeleton

giant beaver

hugging a mammoth

SS Klondike

first class lounge

dining room

goods for miners

galley

luggage and mail


I have vague childhood memories of being told in school that early men walked to North America from Asia. I studied the map of the Aleutian Island chain which reaches only half way across the Pacific and felt rather unsatisfied by that explanation. Today we discovered that when we were in school, the whole story had not yet been put together. At the Beringia Center we understood that this theory is probably correct, because so much evidence has been discovered here that makes this scenario likely.

As men came here to mine gold in the late 1800's, they kept discovering wooly mammoth tusks and other interesting skeletal remnants buried in the permafrost. A common mining technique here even today, is to use high pressure water hoses to melt the frozen ground and yield the flakes of gold. As the miners work, they continue to find skeletons of animals that only remotely correspond to animals on the earth today.

Using these skeletal finds and analysis of core sediments, scientists from Arctic areas in Russia and North America have come to understand what probably happened. During the last Ice Age, the thickening ice absorbed more and more of the world's water, lowering the level of the ocean about 375 feet; the opposite of the problem we are contemplating today as global warming melts the glaciers today. A sub continent scientists call Beringia was revealed by the receding sea, a large land mass uniting Asia and North America. Of course, the growing ice fields also had this effect in other parts of the world, doubling the size of Florida, for example. The warmth from the remaining sea and the cold from the nearby glaciers created high winds and an environment with little rain. Grass grew on the steppes here, corresponding to the steppes still found in Mongolia today. These winds kept the grass exposed even in the deepest winter and the arid climate meant that little snow fell here. The grass was so high in nutrition, it supported extremely large creatures including the wooly mammoth, which resembles African elephants, but has small ears, less vulnerable to the cold. Skeletal evidence of a short faced bear much larger than any bear alive today have also been found. Small horses also lived here, but after they became extinct, there were no horses on the continent again until the Spanish brought them in the 1500's. The only creatures that lived in the area then and are still around today are musk oxen and men, who left lots of arrow head evidence of their presence.

At the Beringia Center we watch a fascinating film which combined footage of animals today and CGI versions of the animals during the Ice Age. In the northern Yukon miners are still finding evidence preserved in the permafrost. The front half of a horse was found recently and added to the collection here.

We also toured the SS Klondike, the largest sternwheeler that sailed on the Yukon River. Once the railroad was built from Skagway on the coast to Whitehorse, the Klondike brought miners and the supplies they needed further inland to the Dawson City area. The steamship needed tremendous amounts of wood to fire its boilers, which kept many men employed year round, logging the forests and piling up lumber for the warm weather sailing season. Eventually the Klondike brought back the yield from the mines, generating riches coming and going. The Klondike sailed until 1955 when it was made obsolete by decent roads and long distance trucking that serve the mining areas today.

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