Some of the most intriguing people are the ones we know the least about. One Yukon character who distinguished herself in a most remarkable way was Lillian Alling, the woman who walked from New York to Siberia between 1926 and 1929.
Much has been written but so little known about this enigmatic woman who undertook a remarkable journey. Newspaper accounts, magazine articles, books, radio plays, even an opera have been written about her. Very little is known about Alling. She has been romanticized to such an extent that it is becoming increasingly hard to separate the fact, what little there is, from the fiction.
That is why this new book is worth reading. Lillian Alling: The Journey Home, written by Susan Smith-Josephy and recently published by B.C.‘s Caitlin Press. In this 255-page book, the author has made a genuine and thorough effort of searching for the facts and sifting through the accounts to reveal who Alling really was.
The deck was stacked against Alling from the start. The distance she proposed to travel was incomprehensible. She had no resources at all, except for her own two legs and an obsessive determination to reach her objective. Yet we know that alone, she hiked across the continent, turned north in British Columbia and travelled over the Telegraph Trail to the Yukon. She made it to Dawson City, then floated downstream and vanished into an obscure destiny somewhere along the coast of Alaska or Siberia.
Lillian Alling passed into Canada from New York State on Christmas Eve, 1926. By March 1, 1927, she was reported as being in Winnipeg. Two months later, she was leaving Kamsack, Sask. headed west. She arrived in Peace River, Alta. in June where she stayed for a month before hitting the road again in July. There was no well-established road system in Canada at the time. She followed roads where they existed and rail lines where they didn’t. Where there were no railroad tracks to follow, she hiked along ancient hunting trails.
With little money in her pocket, she carried her few belongings stuffed into a small back pack. She walked most of the distance alone, frequently turning down rides. She did have a dog for a traveling companion for a short time.
By September, 1927, she was in Hazelton, B.C.. She turned north and started to follow the overland telegraph line north to the Yukon. The authorities turned her back and sent her to jail in Vancouver on a charge of carrying a concealed weapon. They feared the harsh winter would be too dangerous for this diminutive woman and her limited supplies.
Alling continued her journey north over the Telegraph Trail the next spring and arrived in Dawson around freeze-up 1928. Small and slender, with jet-black hair, she was tired and fatigue accentuating every line on her tanned and weather-beaten face.
She spent the winter in the Klondike capital, working at various jobs before casting off and floating down the Yukon River in her boat, headed for the Bering Sea. She arrived in Nome on Aug. 31. She then headed up the coast toward Cape Prince of Wales, where she planned to cross the Bering Strait to Siberia. This is where her trail seemingly vanishes.
In this remarkable narrative, author Smith-Josephy searched for clues to Alling’s identity in libraries and archives across the continent. She devotes considerable text to discussions of the evidence, from which she attempts to separate the fact from the legend.
Smith-Josephy sifted through the varying and often confusing or conflicting accounts of Lillian Alling’s journey to harvest the truth. There are frequently repeated and ludicrous references to Alling having her dog stuffed and carrying it along with her on her journey, which the author dismisses. She also evaluates the content of other accounts, so if she discounts them as incorrect or inaccurate, she explains how she came to her conclusions.
Where she is lacking in direct evidence, the author generates a contextual image of Alling’s progress and the conditions she likely encountered. We see how, in order to cross the Canadian Shield, she would have had to follow the railroad line. Through the Rockies west of Edmonton, her access would have been reduced in some places to old pack trails. We know the weather in Hazelton the summer of 1927 was the hottest on record. If we don’t know the exact route or the exact details of her travel, we can certainly imagine them from the picture she paints.
Approximately 30 pages are devoted to contextual side bars that describe the places Alling visited, the people she met and other details such as foreign immigration, B.C. policing and even Oakalla Prison, where she was detained in 1927.
Smith-Josephy further augments her account with three maps and 60 photographs of people and places associated with Alling’s odyssey, including the few images of Alling known to exist. For those who want to know where the information came from, there are 18 pages of end notes and a six-page bibliography at the back of the book. There is no index.
Though the details of her journey were of little interest to observers across Ontario and the Prairies, by the time she reached Hazelton she was a person of interest. Newspaper accounts and personal reminiscences of people she met along the way add texture to her story as she makes her way north along the Telegraph Trail in northern B.C. and along the roads and rivers of the Yukon.
Yet there is little detail these accounts to tell us who Alling was, where she came from and why she had decided to embark on this epic journey. This probably explains why writers have tried to fill in the gaps with their own speculations.
Smith-Josephy also has an opinion about whether or not Alling succeeded in reaching Siberia at the end of her journey. What is clear is after the many acts of generosity apparently offered to Alling along the way, if she arrived in Siberia, she did so during a period of terror and turmoil. Documentation, if any, about Siberia for that time period, is going to be hard to find.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His book, History Hunting in the Yukon, is now available. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.