On Sunday, Alaska honored Walter Harper, an extraordinary Alaskan whose accomplishments included being the first person to stand at the summit of Denali.
The Alaska Legislature earlier this year established June 7 as Walter Harper Day. Sunday was the first of what will be an annual remembrance.
Harper’s short life — he was just 25 years of age when he and his wife died in the 1918 grounding and sinking of the passenger liner Princess Sophia in Lynn Canal — was one of character and courage.
Born in 1892 to an Athabascan mother and Irish father in Tanana, Harper at age 17 already displayed the knowledge and skill to work as a winter trail guide, dog sled driver, interpreter and riverboat pilot to the Episcopal Archdeacon Hudson Stuck on missionary excursions throughout Alaska’s Interior.
After three years of working together, Stuck invited Harper to accompany Stuck, guide Harry Karstens and missionary Robert Tatum on what would prove to be the first successful expedition to the top of Denali.
Details of that extraordinary effort — which included Esiaias George and Johnny Fredson, Gwich’in teens who maintained the expedition’s base camp — are recounted in the excellent 2017 book “Walter Harper, Alaska Native Son,” by University of Alaska Fairbanks Professor of History Mary F. Ehrlander.
It took the expedition more than two and a half months of difficult travel from Nenana to reach the summit.
Said Sen. Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks, who sponsored the Walter Harper Day legislation: “The sheer stamina and exceptional self-composure (Harper) displayed during this expedition were the trademarks of this great Alaskan’s impeccable character.”
After the expedition, Harper continued to work on his education. He was accepted to attend medical school in Philadelphia, with the goal of returning to Alaska as a medical missionary. He and Frances Wells Harper, his wife of seven weeks, were en route to the Lower 48 to begin that training when tragedy struck in Lynn Canal.
Harper’s life story resonates with Bishop, who said the Walter Harper Day legislation recognizes the full scope of Harper’s life.
“This young man, Walter Harper, was the first to reach the top of the summit and I think I can safely say that his stamina, his fortitude, his knowledge and his survival skills living in the interior of Alaska, that were passed down from his Koyukon ancestors, greatly contributed to the success of this climb,” Bishop said, also citing Harper’s “superb subsistence skills, his integrity, his strong sense of identity and purpose, and his ability to navigate comfortably in both the Athabascan culture and other cultures of the United States.”
Harper, said Bishop, “is not only a role model to the Alaska Native youth, but a role model to us all.”
One wonders what more Walter Harper would have accomplished beyond the age of 25. But as Bishop notes, the life Harper lived contained plenty to inspire every Alaskan, now and for generations to come.