A whale’s tale
Nearly every school-age child knows the story of how the cowboys bravely drove cattle over harsh land and raging rivers, protecting the animals from hungry coyotes and bandits determined to steal a little steak on the hoof.
For generations, kids (and quite a few of their parents) have thrilled to the story of cattle drives.
Now imagine herding almost 500 hoofed animals over 700 miles of frozen ground, freezing water, and mountains of sharp ice in temperatures that could plummet to seventy degrees below the freezing point. Bravery takes on a whole new meaning when you read “In a Far Country” by John Taliaferro.
Back in the Gilded Age of the 1890s, when women wore corsets that were stiffened by whale bone, entire fleets of ships and their crews spent summer months killing whales in areas near Alaska and Siberia so that the demand for fashion could be filled. In addition to the whalebone, blubber was also harvested and made into oil that kept lamps going in the far North Country.
The work was full of peril, and not necessarily because of the whales themselves. True, it wasn’t easy to kill a whale and haul it aboard for processing – which was itself a messy, nasty job. What made the voyage so perilous was that Arctic summers last for such a very short time and weather was unpredictable. Whaling vessels in the 1890s had time enough to dash north, harvest as many whales as possible, and get back south quickly before winter conditions roared back in.
Missing the boat, so to speak, could mean the ship was locked in by ice. If that happened, nobody was going anywhere for months.
Long, dark, deadly-monotonous months. Months when food and heat could become quite scarce.
Missionary Tom Lopp had come to Alaska in 1890 from Indiana. Ellen, who later became his wife, had come two years later from Minnesota by way of New England. The Lopp family had expanded considerably by 1898 when officials arrived to request that Tom, who had become somewhat of an expert on reindeer, do something daring, something that even the natives thought impossible.
Several ships had become ice-bound and their crews were in danger of starving. Officials asked Lopp to herd almost 500 reindeer north to save the lives of the men. Seeing no other option, Tom Lopp temporarily left his family in a remote Alaskan village and embraced the challenge.
Rather than let this story become a deerskin-covered footnote in history, author John Taliaferro brings the story of Tom Lopp alive. While I was interested in Taliaferro’s recounting of life on whaling ships, I enjoyed more reading about the relationship between the Lopps themselves and the acceptance they found in living with Native Alaskans, which other missionaries warily described as “savage” but with which the Lopps found friends and community.
If it’s too cold to venture outside, grab a cup of hot cocoa and “In a Far Country.” This exciting adventure will keep you reading far into the long, dark night.
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