“Amid the furor of adding a new star to the flag,” the BSA professional wrote, “people want to know what Alaska is like, and Scouters are asking about Scouting in Alaska.”
For those of us who have never visited the state, Alaska is still a largely unknown frontier. But 55 years ago, the Land of the Midnight Sun was even more of a mystery.
Interest in the former Territory of Alaska reached a fever pitch in 1959 when Alaska officially became our country’s 49th state. Scouting had been around since the 1920s there, but Scouters in the Lower 48 had new questions about what Scouting looked like in somewhere so vastly different from what they were used to.
Questions included: How do people live in Alaska? How do Scouts camp? And how do they gather for meetings in a land so spread out that “each person can have almost three square miles to himself”?
To find out, Ray W. Sweazey, the BSA’s director of interracial service (a title we don’t use today, thankfully), visited this “state of extremes and violent contrasts” in late 1958. He wanted to take the temperature of Scouting in our country’s newest state.
His story appeared in the January 1959 edition of Scouting magazine. Eight years later, Scouting magazine published another interesting account of “Scouting Under the Midnight Sun.”
You can read both stories in their entirety below. But first, I’ve picked out 14 of my favorite facts from the article. Some are specifically about about Scouting in Alaska, while others cover general life there during the late 1950s and 1960s. Because, as Sweazey wrote, “you can’t know about Scouting there without learning something about Alaska first.”
1. “Prices are higher in Alaska”
Sweazey balked at the cost of living on his Alaska trip. “A glass of milk is 40 to 50 cents. Lettuce is a dollar a head and bananas 50 cents a pound. Bread is 40 cents a loaf in Juneau, 45 cents in Anchorage, and 50 cents at Fairbanks.”
But it was the cost of a breakfast that really got to him. “A typical restaurant breakfast — juice, one egg, bacon, toast, and coffee — costs $2.29!”
That seems cheap at first glance, but adjusted for inflation that would be $18.41 in today’s dollars. Yikes!
2. “It’s 9:30 in the evening and the sun hasn’t set yet”
It’s called the Land of the Midnight Sun for a reason. The 1967 article posed this hypothetical: “You’re at summer camp. It’s 9:30 in the evening and the sun hasn’t set yet. Would you start the campfire or wait for dark?
“In Alaska … you would start the campfire because it wouldn’t be dark until next September.”
Ninety percent of Scouting in Alaska is just like Scouting anywhere else, the article said. “It’s the lure of the 10 percent that makes it so interesting.”
3. “A land of many miles and few people”
In the 1959 article, Sweazey said he was amazed by the sheer size of Alaska. “Alaska’s 586,400 square miles would make 550 Rhode Islands and more than two Texases. Yet Rhode Island has almost four times the population of Alaska.”
Alaska has caught up to Rhode Island in population. In the 2010 census, Alaska had about 710,000 residents compared to Rhode Island’s roughly 1 million.
Here’s one description of a hike taken in January 1965:
“Scoutmaster James W. Griffin reported the 7-mile adventure with 38 boys in 45 degrees below zero temperature. ‘We took very few breaks to rest — this was one time you wanted to keep moving. I did have to unplug my frosted nostrils every once in a while in order to breathe!’”
To stay warm, Scouts made igloos, snow huts and underground snow caves. Has your troop or crew done this?
5. “Only about a thousand miles of paved roads”
Getting around Alaska wasn’t easy in the 1950s. Paved roads ran from Seward to Anchorage to Fairbanks. “Secondary roads,” Sweazey wrote, “are not kept in repair and are impassable more than half the year.”
Alaska’s official state website says the state has 14,336 miles of public roads today.
6. “A higher percentage of city boys” in Scouting
Almost every boy registered in Scouting in Juneau’s Southeastern Alaska Council — 99 percent — lived in the city. That was a higher percentage than any other council in the United States.
That’s probably because anyone who didn’t live in the city at that time had no way of getting to meetings or weekend activities.
7. A lonely job for a professional
The Southeastern Alaska Council had a staff of one. His name was Larry Barrett, and he did all his travel by boat or plane. At that time Juneau had roads that ran just 35 miles out of the city, so he couldn’t get far by car.
Travel in winter for Barrett was almost impossible, Sweazey wrote. “Boats don’t go, and mountains and an almost constant blanket of fog make air transportation hazardous and uncertain.”
Speaking of distant, one district executive in Alaska operated a Scout camp 1,700 miles from his council’s headquarters. It was “a little closer to Tokyo than to Anchorage,” Sweazey wrote.
8. “Council-wide meetings aren’t possible”
Think an hourlong commute to your council’s headquarters for a meeting is far? In Alaska in the 1950s, things were so spread out they didn’t even bother.
Visits by professionals like Barrett relied on “some Scouter who happens to be going that way.” District operations were confined to key towns. In the 1960s, snail mail (which “had its shortcomings”) and radio were the only ways to communicate with distant units. For some periods during winter, mail was dropped from planes or delivered by dogsleds.
These days, technology allows councils with similar geographic hurdles to have face-to-face meetings online.
9. Cars? What cars?
The BSA had sent a troop in Hoonah, “one of Alaska’s most poverty-stricken villages,” a supply of “Safety Good Turn” bumper stickers. Oops.
“We got a kick out of learning that [the bumper stickers] … would completely cover the town’s one motor vehicle, a broken-down surplus jeep bearing the proud label, ‘Fire Dept.’”
10. “Marvelous cooperation”
Sweazey was impressed by the support for Scouting in Alaska.
“The government workers, military personnel, and missionaries are the mainstays of Scouting and all of them go far out of the way to help in every possible way.”
Community support like that remains critical today.
11. A taste of “muktuk”
During his visit to one village, Sweazey tried “muktuk, the meat of the white beluga whale which is the mainstay of the Eskimo diet.”
How’d it taste? “I found none of the native food tasty or even palatable,” he confessed.
12. Eskimos love Boys’ Life
In the Midnight Sun District, which was a little larger in area than Texas, Sweazey noted that a copy of Boys’ Life magazine was supplied to each native school.
“We found the Eskimos crowded around the tables wherever we set up displays of Boys’ Life, Scouting magazine, and take-me-homes,” he said.
Why was it so popular? For one thing, “it was another contact with the outside world,” Sweazey wrote.
13. The 100 Below Club
The new accomplishment was created in the 1960s to “prepare boys for survival under severe conditions.”
Scouts had to accumulate enough subzero nights of camping to equal 100 degrees below zero. Four straight nights of minus-25 temperatures would count, for example. They also had to snowshoe or ski, carrying a pack, at least 6 miles.
14. “Alaska needs help to get Scouting outside of the cities”
The sheer expense of providing quality Scouting to villages “five hundred, seven hundred or even a thousand miles away” wasn’t easy for the Alaskan Scout councils in the 1950s. But the “native boys” in those villages wanted and needed Scouting, so Sweazey challenged Alaskan Scouters to reach beyond their cities and work in these remote areas.
If that happened, he wrote, “every Eskimo boy will say, Wanga e-la-ree-mik — ‘I thank you.’”
Complete article (Jan. 1959 Scouting)
Click each page to enlarge