U.S. DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIORBUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT
 
Fortymile National Wild, Scenic and Recreational River
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Title graphic for Letters from the Kink

Story by
SUSAN MITCHELL
Research by
JOHN P. COOK
Photos by
JOHANNES PETERSEN

 Historic photo of the Kink on the Fortymile River
Before 1900, the Fortymile River meandered around a rocky ridgeline in a long, lazy bend known as the Kink. After the turn of the century, however, there was a 75-foot-wide gap in this ridgeline. The razorsharp crest of the ridge looks as though someone took a huge ax and cut a notch in it, allowing the river to cascade through the gap, about 25 miles north of Chicken, Alaska.

The gap through the ridge is not natural, but no one knew who had made it until 1982. That was the year Poul Nelleberg arrived in Tok, Alaska, from Denmark, with an armful of old photographs and letters written by his father. The letters unraveled the tales of a young Danish entrepreneur, Johannes Petersen, who mined gold on the North Fork of the Fortymile River. Petersen, a dynamic man who was determined to make his fortune where many men had failed, blasted the gap in the ridge to divert the river, giving him easier access to the gold.

Petersen's letters retraced the days of the gold rush. When gold fever hit the Klondike in 1898 and spread quickly to interior Alaska, thousands of men hurried North, spending their savings and sweat to become one of few who came home rich. Among them were Johannes Petersen, his older brother, Emil, and two others, who traveled about 1,000 miles on an overland journey.

"Brother Emil and I are on our way to Alaska's gold fields," Johannes wrote to his father on March 14, 1898. "It is not an amusement trip we are facing, but if we are lucky, then it doesn't matter to suffer a little. . . . Every man who starts that trip hopes that, but there are thousands and further thousands who are on their way."

The Canadian government required each miner to have a minimum of 2,000 pounds of equipment and provisions per man. This equipment had to be hauled on their backs from Skagway over the infamous 2,500-foot Chilkoot Pass.

Johannes wrote, "It is so steep that there are steps cut in the sides. Everything is snow and ice, so to get down we slid on our trouser-seats-that is the only way. We had to cross from 30 to 40 times, carrying 50 pounds each time.

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Last updated: 07-13-2013