[Pacific Lutheran Scene]
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-- Cover Story --

Pacific Lutheran Scene celebrates the 100th anniversary of Bjug Harstad's arduous journey to the Klondike. His quest for gold to help the struggling university out of debt went unrewarded, but PLU's connection to the state remains strong today.

Mr. and Mrs. Harstad and daughter in front of the President's residence, circa 1897.

Alaska. Its jagged mountains, countless island villages and sometimes impassable roads stretch from Juneau to the farthest corner of the Aleutian islands and into the reaches of the Arctic Circle. For many, it is the last great frontier of the American West.

Since its founding, PLU has played a part in expanding this portion of the frontier and has maintained a presence in the communities and minds of the people of Alaska. Pacific Lutheran Scene celebrates 100 years of connections to this vast wilderness with a look back at PLU President Bjug Harstad's quest for gold in the Klondike, and a look at the current ties between PLU and Alaska.


The first few years at Pacific Lutheran Academy were rocky as the administration and faculty could find little support for their new learning institution. After nine years, the newly founded PLA was drilled deeply into debt. Its leader, the Rev. Bjug Harstad, who served as president from 1894-95 and again from 1897-98, believed strongly in the university and was haunted by its financial situation.
      Then prospectors found gold in the Klondike.

In January 1898, the Parkland Help Society (PHS) was formed to search for gold in Alaska. If gold were found, half the profits would go to the members and half to the school. Niles J. Hong served as president while Harstad was away. The PLA board granted Mrs. Harstad use of the farm and the cows in her husband's absence.
      On Feb. 9, 1898 – only three months after his 50th birthday – Harstad and PHS member Otis Larson departed from Tacoma for Dyea, Alaska, on board the S.S. City of Seattle.
      During his year-and-a-half journey, Harstad wrote a series of letters to the Pacific Herold newspaper to inform his constituents of his progress. The boat was "occupied by an indescribable crowd of Irishmen, Norwegians, Germans and Americans," he wrote. Their tight quarters only permitted them to stand while they ate, keeping their hats or caps on. This caused Harstad to muse, "If any get seasick ... there will be fun."
      Harstad became a spiritual leader on board, leading Lent services. In his letters, he wondered how he could witness to the entire ship of 800 passengers.
      The SS City of Seattle docked in Skagway, about 100 miles south of Dyea, shortly after noon on Feb. 14, 1898.
      "It is not exactly cold today," Harstad wrote, "yet one would like a good fur coat. Most of those who meet at the wharf with transportation wear leather clothes. It is evident that there is a mixed population here. Some wear Eskimo clothes with furred trousers and loose shirt (sic) made of pelts of many colors. A hood is attached to this shirt and is either drawn over the head or hangs between the shoulder blades and looks like a monk's cowl."
      Larson, who was not as elaborately clad, contracted a bad cold and was advised by Harstad to remain in Skagway. Larson obliged, and Harstad continued on his way, climbing aboard a large, open, flat-bottomed barge that accommodated 200 men. The barge crept toward Dyea. About 8 pm, it was taken in tow by a little steamer, but after a short while the steamer left.
      "We had not landed nor were we aground as far as anyone knew. If anything, it seemed we would drift back again, but that did not happen either. After we had been standing so like trapped, unresisting cattle for some hours, we became frozen and impatient," Harstad wrote.
      From Dyea, the party moved slowly north, facing threats of avalanches, bitter cold and deep snow. By April 7, Harstad wrote the university a repentful letter, seeking forgiveness and offering hope that their journey would produce success.
      "Both you and I believe in that Lord to whom the world and its abundance belongs. Should He desire to allot to me any of the riches which He has clearly deposited in many places here in the far north, then you ought to know that is to be devoted to the repayment of the debt to you. (even) if the Lord will not find a solution for us here, I do not believe He will permit me to die as a swindler."
      Spring gave way to summer, and the travelers continued searching. The walking and hiking were treacherous, the days at least 12 hours long. By the time they reached Dawson, many had fallen ill, and food was scarce.
      "There has been much sickness and many deaths here in Dawson this summer. The bold and able dentist from La Crosse, Wis., Dr. Lee, was quite seriously ill this summer, but is since well. Weeks ago, he, together with a Jew, an Irishman and an American, went hunting. They went up the Klondike River 80 or 90 miles. After an absence of four weeks they returned well supplied with moose meat. They shot three, a large buck and one calf, and was (sic) so kind as to present the horns to the Lutheran University. It is an exceptionally stately and large pair of horns with a spread of some over five feet and has fourteen points (sic)."
      The horns were mounted with a memorial plaque celebrating the journey, and now reside in the PLU Archives on the third floor of Mortvedt Library.

Sheep Camp

April 17, 1898 "Many are surprised that the undersigned should go to Alaska among gold seekers. I should like to ask those if they know anyone who has a better reason for going into the gold fields than I.
      I suppose we can all agree that there are large fortunes of gold deposited in many places here in Alaska. This is clearly proven. Moreover, we may also agree that gold and silver as well as the earth and its fullness are the Lord's, that He desires that man should benefit thereby and that His gifts should be used in His service for building the Church.
      Furthermore, it is firmly impressed both upon me and many others that our school on the Coast is responsible for large sums of borrowed money that must be repaid. We are in duty bound to try every reasonable means of fulfilling our obligations.
      Perhaps it is the Lord's will to unlock for us some of the earthly treasures that are deposited here in Alaska.
– excerpt from one of
Harstad's first letters home

After a year and a half, Harstad returned to PLU empty-handed and full of regret for not finding the answer to the university's financial difficulties.
      "Unfortunately, the school has not yet received any financial help from my trip," he wrote. "The reason is that the Lord has not seen fit to give us any gold in Klondike. It is true, the undersigned owns half interest in three claims and is the sole owner of another. From these the Lord can, if He wills, give the school all it needs. So, I hope, no injury has been done. Yet, I am intensely sorry that my undertaking has caused dissatisfaction and concern for many, and for this I ask forgiveness."
      Indeed, many pastors and laymen of the district were unhappy with the results of Harstad's trip, grumbling about the expense. They even discussed taking over operation of the school. The proposal was rejected, however, and the district denied any responsibility, legally or fiscally, for the university.
      Harstad continued his support of PLU until a merger between three synods in the Northwest and a shift in theological perspective caused him to break his ties with the university.


PLU eventually recovered from its debt to become a thriving university with 3,600 students, a strong faculty and curriculum, and great possibilities for its future. Over the years, PLU has maintained strong ties with Alaska – it is the third largest state sending students to PLU, topped only by Washington and Oregon.
      According to Dave Gunovich '82, '95 an admissions director who has served the Alaska region for the past 15 years, between 80-90 students from Alaska are attending PLU this fall. Several of those are Regents' and President's scholars, and most are in the top 25 percent of their class.
      Gunovich said the strong tie between the university and Alaska comes from several similarities.
      "In Alaska, communities are small and close-knit. It's the same here at PLU. Prospective students are looking for a good education and a very personal experience, and they hear about us from friends or relatives who went here. PLU's reputation as a great place for Alaska students has traveled fast."
      Erika Thompson '98 was drawn to PLU precisely because of the small community feel, and also the close proximity to Seattle and Tacoma. "(PLU is) a draw on the hearts of Alaskans who haven't experienced it before," she said.
      Thompson is the new PLU Admissions Ambassador for the Alaska region. She takes the reigns from Lisa (Backlund '91) VanDoorne, one of the longest-serving alumni ambassadors in the short history of the program. (Admissions ambassadors are alumni who help the admissions office with outreach to prospective students.)


PLU's reputation is gaining ground in Alaska. Enrollment climbs every year, and the PLU administration is looking at new and unique ways it can serve the Alaska population. Ideas include hosting more events in Alaska and providing endowed scholarships specifically for students from the state.

Examples of current ties to Alaska:

  • The state's first Connections Event was held in Anchorage on Aug. 16, at Mayor Rick Mystrom's house (Mystrom's daughter Jennifer '00 is a student at PLU).
  • Alaska is part of PLU's corporate territory.
  • The Rev. Rick Rouse '69, PLU church relations director, hosts regular meetings and conferences in Alaska.
  • Two PLU Regents, Martin Pihl and Bishop Don Parsons, are from Alaska.
Along with key states such as Washington, Oregon, Hawaii and Montana, Alaska remains a major focus of PLU's continued growth and sense of mission. Alaska will always retain a special place in our hearts, however, because of the part it played in the university's early history.
      "Just as the ties of commerce and geographical proximity have always meant that the Pacific Northwest and Alaska have shared a special relationship, so has PLU enjoyed an historic and strong relationship with Alaska," said PLU President Loren J. Anderson. "One hundred years after Bjug Harstad's trip, you see a steadily increasing flow of new students and the return of PLU alumni back to Alaska.
      "It is these ties that ensure our relationship for the future."

[Photo: Nathe Lawver '98] Nathe Lawver '98 is living in Lakewood and recently joined the Lieutenant Governor's staff as a writer. He is engaged to Alicia Manley '98, a reporter at the Aberdeen Daily World. Nathe wishes to thank Phil Nordquist for the use of his book "Educating for Service: Pacific Lutheran University, 1890-1990," and Kris Ringdahl for sharing historical items from the PLU Archives.

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