A Biting Bet

Tourists have been coming to Alaska for a long time and as always, they enjoy interacting with Alaskans—especially the more colorful ones. The following humorous story is about one such encounter that took place sometime between 1900-1910 and was recounted many years later in a Fairbanks newspaper article.

Fairbanks Daily News Miner – March 27, 1934


A wood-cutter by name of John the Bear-Hunter was calmly sitting on a stump chewing tobacco and practicing spitting through a knot-hole on a milk box while the steamer Tanana was loading wood at his wood camp on the Yukon river about 30 miles above Circle. The boat was loaded with tourists and other perishables, a great number of whom marveled at John’s apparent unconcern about the millions of mosquitoes that were buzzing around him.

Finally one of the more inquisitive tourists asked John how he could sit calmly there and allow hundreds of mosquitoes to light on him without making some effort to brush them off. With his customary politeness, which made John a favorite with the transient population, he slowly shifted his cud of tobacco from his jaw to his hand and answered that mosquitoes didn’t bother him at all. He further added that he could peel off his clothes and lay down and sleep without the mosquitoes causing him any discomfort.

The tourist naturally doubted him and offered to give John $10.00 (roughly $250 in today’s money,) if he would take off his clothes and lay down for ten minutes and let the mosquitoes work on him. John needed $10 and it was no time at all until he was stripped and prone on his stomach. A considerable number of male tourists were attracted to this exhibition and a watch was held to time the performance. A minute, two minutes, five minutes slipped by, as minutes do, but John lay there in blissful inertia seeming to enjoy the wonder of his spellbound audience.

After eight minutes had passed in rapid succession, the donor of the $10 felt uneasy and was quite convinced John was going to keep his bargain and win the money. Feeling that he didn’t have $10 to invest in the enterprise, the donor, who was smoking a cheap cigar, reached over and gently pressed the burning end to a prominent part of John’s exposed anatomy. The flesh sizzled and smoked a little and no doubt caused John some discomfort, but still he held his ground. John squirmed a wee bit but not enough to disqualify him. He sensed that things were not as they should be but not wishing to jeopardize his well-earned $10 he said: “Mister if you will knock that damn yaller-jacket off me I’ll lie here for 20 minutes.”

Note: John the Bear-Hunter, aka John Ratliff, came to Alaska in 1893, and for the next 21 years he resided at Circle City, Fortymile, Tanana, and Fairbanks. He left Fairbanks in the Spring of 1914, for the Old Soldiers’ home in Dayton, Ohio, where he was to spend the rest of his onerous days. He was often mentioned in the recollections of Pioneers many years after his passing. This biting history nugget was proudly brought to you by Men’s Igloo No. 4 and Women’s Igloo No. 8 of the Pioneers of Alaska.

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