Lillian Alling's walk from New York to Siberia

First aired on NXNW (01/03/12)

journey-175.jpgB.C. author Susan Smith-Josephy is a history buff who lives to learn about unique stories in her province. But when she heard a legend about a young Russian immigrant who tried to walk back home from New York to Siberia in the 1920s, her instincts were to dig deeper and find out more about this "mystery woman."

"I was intrigued when I read about her in a few little articles and I thought, 'Gosh, could that possibly be true,' because I thought it was a tall tale," Smith-Josephy told CBC's NXNW in a recent interview.

"And so I started collecting papers and started phoning descendants of people who knew her and writing letters to littlie museums all over Canada. Before you knew it, I had two feet of paper!"

That mysterious traveller's name was Lillian Alling, a struggling immigrant who had become severely homesick after arriving in New York some time before. She didn't have much money, so she made the decision to hike across the continent and into Alaska, where she hoped to cross the Bering Strait to Russia.

Her hitching journey took her from New York into several Canadian cities, from Winnipeg to Kamsack, Sask., to Peace River, Alta., before taking the Telegraph Trail through B.C. into the Yukon. With no established modern road system at the time, Alling followed an ancient path, used before by many of Canada's earliest inhabitants when they came from the East. She eventually made it as far as Nome, Alaska, and was thought to have been preparing to cross the Bering Strait when last seen, but she vanished.

Smith-Josephy went to great lengths to piece together the most thorough and detailed chronicle of Alling's adventure yet. In the process, the author had a remarkable journey of her own, meeting plenty of new friends from around the world along the way. She's befriended a Siberian journalist who helped her find various archivists and connected with Russian researchers and Estonian counterparts on the internet.

"That's one of the greatest things about doing the book was meeting the different people I met through the internet, but [also] through  letters, through interviews, through travelling and visiting and talking with the descendants."

lillian_alling-175.jpgLillian Alling: The Journey Home
by Susan Smith-Josephy

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From the publisher:

"In 1926, Lillian Alling, a European immigrant, set out on a journey home from New York. She had little money and no transportation, but plenty of determination. In the three years that followed, Alling walked all the way to Dawson City, Yukon, crossing the North American continent on foot. She walked across the Canadian landscape, weathering the baking sun and freezing winter, crossed the rugged Rocky Mountains and hiked the untested wilderness of British Columbia and the Yukon. Finally, on a make-shift raft, she sailed alone down the Yukon River from Dawson City all the way to the Bering Sea.

Lillian Alling is a legend. She has been the subject of novels, plays, epic poems, an opera and more tall tales than can be remembered. Her life has been subjected to speculation, fiction and exaggeration. But as legendary as she may be, the true story of Lillian Alling has never been told. 'The Mystery Woman,' as she came to be known, is as intriguing to us now as she was to those she met on her trek. Lillian's name lives on in the folk tales of British Columbia, the Yukon and Alaska, but her life leading up to her journey and what waited for her at home in Eastern Europe still remains a shadowy mystery.

Lillian Alling: The Journey Home is a collection of personal documents, first-hand recollections, family tales and archival research that provide tantalizing new clues to Lillian's story. Smith-Josephy places Lillian firmly in the context of history and among the cast of unique and colourful characters she met along her journey.

Read more at Caitlin Press.