Michael Carey is the former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He gave us permission to share his column.
Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” is one of the rare pieces of fiction set in the Gold Rush that continues to attract readers. In vivid economical prose, London rapidly tells the story of a greenhorn who freezes to death, alone except for his dog, on a remote Klondike trail. This is a tale of small mistakes at 50 below zero (or colder) following a profound failure of judgment. When the man leaves his warm cabin without recognizing the danger the cold presents, he is doomed.
London’s fiction is founded in fact. Men did freeze to death on Alaska trails, and not all of them were greenhorns. Territorial inquest records confirm this. But the hundreds of inquests in the State Archives in Juneau suggest suicide was more common than freezing to death. Clearly suicide constituted an occupational hazard to many men who trapped, mined, cut wood or otherwise supported themselves in the woods. My Dad, Fabian, who spent 30 years trapping, made a distinction between “trappers and misfits with trapping licenses.”
Of course we don’t know if suicides had emotional problems when they arrived in the woods or developed them while living there. Read More