Hiking to Siberia

Lawrence Millman is a man of many talents.

Lawrence Millman, standing, at the Alchemy Café in July 2019. Photo: Dan Davidson

As an author, he has written 16 books, including Last PlacesA Kayak Full of GhostsAn Evening Among HeadhuntersLost in the Arctic and Hiking to SiberiaThe latter is the main subject of this column and the source of most of the stories Millman read to an attentive audience at the Alchemy Café when he visited Dawson City last July. 

Millman reads well and inserts asides into his own essays. He is fascinated, not just by our North, but by any north, which means the stories in this book involve more than his Yukon journeys. 

By training Millman is a mycologist. He has studied fungi all over the world. His experience with Yukon mushrooms dates from some of the big fires between Dawson and the burn just south of Braeburn, from a time when Shawn Ryan was better known as a mushroom-finder than as the gold-finder he has since become. Some of that tale is told in “Mush Rush.”

One of the strangest of all Millman’s Yukon stories is that of the Russian woman whose Anglicized name was Lillian Alling. Fresh off the boat in New York, she set out to return to her native Siberia. Since Millman first tried to follow her, in the essay which gave this book its title, there have been other attempts, including magazine articles, a graphic novel and several full-length books. Alling lived in Dawson for a while before setting off to the Bering Sea in a boat. While here, she worked at St. Paul’s hostel and at the original hospital.

Another European who finally washed up in Dawson was the Czech storyteller Jan Welzl, whose fantastical adventures took place before the First World War in what he claimed were several Alaskan native villages. Welzl’s stories were printed by a couple of Czech reporters in a book called Thirty Years in the Golden North. It was a Book of the Month Club selection when the English translation appeared in 1932, but Welzl had sold his stories and got no royalties. When he decided to make his way back to where he had been happy, Dawson was as far as he got. 

There is an elaborately decorated grave in Dawson, a pilgrimage site for many eastern Europeans who hail from the former Austo-Hungarian Empire where Welzl was born. We’re not sure if it’s actually his, but it’s probably more credible than his stories.

The rest of Millman’s collection doesn’t relate so strongly to the Klondike, but it’s great stuff. 

Millman has a mountain named after him outside Tasiilaq, in eastern Greenland. His work has appeared in Yukon News, SmithsonianNational Geographic AdventureAtlantic MonthlySports Illustrated and many other publications.

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