Overland to Eldorado
Recording the adventures of one who took the inland route to the Klondyke in ’98
EDMUND E. PUGSLEY
IN MacLean’s issue of October 15, 1926, there appeared the second article of a series of three by Willard S. Dill, entitled “Over the Chilcoot to Eldorado.” With the article a photo showed a group of eleven men taken in Dawson City during the hectic Klondyke days, and the author named all but four of the group. Seated on the extreme left of the second row was one of the four, dubbed “unknown,” who has now been rediscovered living quietly with his family in New Westminster, B.C., where he has been a respected citizen for years.
How this member of that group was included in the photo he says he doesn’t quite know. The clothes he wore were loaned to him for the occasion, he declares, for such a swanky outfit was very uncommon in those days and was not included in the list of essentials to be carried and nursed along the long trail of hundreds of miles.
But how Leonard Dunbrack, now of New Westminster, B.C., arrived at the mouth of the Klondyke River a little over two years after he had commenced the trip makes quite a thrilling story of real adventure.
Battling White Water
A NATIVE of Dartmouth, Nova ■2 *■ Scotia, Leonard Dunbrack, was one of a party of nine, headed by a man named Dixon, which left Halifax on April 18, 1898, bound for the Klondyke by way of Edmonton and the water route north.
Leaving Edmonton, May 4, they walked the first hundred miles to Athabaska Landing without incident, where they built a scow thirty-four feet by eight, and started north. Dunbrack opened, and' kept very religiously, a diary of his trip for a portion of his journey, and an entry here states that they were four days running the first lap of 165 miles to Grand Rapids. Shooting Pelican Rapids safely, they saw one boat hung up on a rock in the middle of the rapids and the occupants said they had been there for four days. There was no way to help them and their fate was unknown. A disabled steamer was also reported ashore on the rocks.
At Grand Rapids they secured an Indian guide called Big Stone and commenced the long and perilous trip to McMurray which lasted about a month. Nine great rapids were encountered on this lap and a mile portage of all their goods was necessary before they commenced, while the scow was lowered by hand line.
At the Little Grand Rapids two boats were wrecked while this crew looked helplessly on and the crew of three were drowned, but they succeeded in rescuing the five men in the other boat minus all their worldly goods. In all, the diary records the witnessing of five outfits, one steamer and two Hudson’s Bay scows wrecked in this stretch of water.
It was here, also, that the diary records the first personal misadventure of Dunbrack. Their scow struck a submerged rock while he was standing in the extreme bow and the impact hurled him overboard into the boiling river. Fighting an almost hopeless battle, he was battered against rocks and tossed about, sometimes with his head beneath and occasionally just above the water. Once he was jammed against a rock where the current held him as in a vise, the while he spent his last energies worming a way around it, his lungs bursting for air. Good fortune, his youth and powerful physique prevailed, and he eventually landed nearly a mile downstream, badly bruised and bleeding but thankful to be alive.
At McMurray there were too many Indians and huskies for the liking of this party, so they moved across the river and repaired the scow while their goods were drying. Then once again they heeded the urge to hasten north, ever north. From McMurray the party navigated the 187 miles successfully to Chipewyan, pulling the scow off sand bars two to three times a day by wading in the stream, always tying it up at night. Some of the crew slept aboard the scow while others chose the shore.
ONE night a member of the party, named Johnston, rolled himself in blankets and sleeping-bag to sleep in a canoe. About midnight a commotion occurred and those who had not yet been asleep discovered that Johnston had fallen overboard and was being swept downstream by the current. As he was wound in his sleeping togs, he could not save himself, and being also a very heavy man, his rescuers eventually were obliged to haul in a bundle of about six hundred pounds in all because of the victim’s water-soaked condition. It took us two hours of rubbing to restore Johnston to consciousness, and, needless to say, he never slept again in the canoe.
We arrived at Chipewyan Lake to find its waters whipped by a big storm, “but,” says Dunbrack, “we had no more sense than to try to cross. We finally made a small island—Goose Island—in the centre of the lake and there we were marooned for two days while the storm raged
At Smith Landing, eighty-six miles from Chipewyan, the party ran foul of one of the central breeding grounds of Canada’s big small game—the mosquito.
Although the party dallied but one day here, some of the men who were not equipped with netting were totally blinded by swelling from the excessive bites.
In the next sixteen miles to Fort Smith, Dunbrack claims they encountered, perhaps, the hardest work of the whole voyage. Five times in this short distance they had to remove all the goods from the scow and portage a mile each, and this time the portage included the scow itself. Only the mad lure of gold could have kept such men steadfast in their purpose. Many stampeders were vanquished here in their unsuccessful attempt to pass this treacherous portion of the route. The river was one continuous series of rapids, and accidents were the rule rather than the exception. One party just ahead of Dunbrack struck a hidden rock and their boat was split from stem to stern, drowning all three of its occupants without any chance for rescue. Dunbrack’s scow had a hole punched in it but they were able to reach shore and unload for repairs.
Meanwhile, scores of others were sweeping by in the wild race for the Klondyke, yet possibly few, if any, ever reached their goal. One of the portages at this point was over a hill. A skidway was built and a Spanish windlass rigged to haul up the scow. 150 men were portaging here at the same time.
Dunbrack relates how four of his party received “a bad scare” near here. “There was a drop in the river of about twelve feet, straight down. We had to unload all boats and lower with ropes. The scow I was on with three others broke loose, and before we could do a thing we were swept out into the river and heading straight for the worst place. There seemed no possible chance for us. The men on shore all thought we were goners. When we came to the drop I shut my eyes and waited for the end, hanging on but expecting every second to feel the water taking me under. Suddenly, one of the men shouted, and although I thought it was for the end I opened my eyes to realize that we still had a fighting chance. Maybe we didn’t fight! We got that old scow landed farther down the river all right, but I never worked so hard in all my life! Lucky? I’ll say we were! And darned badly scared, too!”
After arrival at Fort Resolution on Great Slave Lake the party decided on a good rest at Fort Resolution, only to have fate deal another blow in the shape of a ten-foot tidal wave which came sweeping in off the lake some two hours after their arrival. In a moment there ensued one mad scramble of panicky men and dogs. Men of all nationalities were fighting, shouting, cursing and working frantically to save their lives and their precious goods from that icy wall of water.
Crossing Slave Lake next day, the party stopped at the mouth of Hay River, whence a rumor had come that gold had been taken out. They prospected but found nothing. Dunbrack visited an English Church missionary established there and questioned him regarding the gold rumor. The clergyman smiled and replied:
“I have never heard of gold being found in the river, but, strangely enough, I have seen gold taken out of it, and this is where I think the story originated. My sister-in-law was visiting with us here and one day she lost her false teeth in the river. They were gold filled and we fished them out again. She laughed and said she had taken gold out of Hay River and wrote friends about it. And that’s how the yarn began.”
Overland to the Pacific
CLEARING the lake, the party finally entered the Mackenzie River and floated on north, ever north, for hundreds of miles. The diary refers to this river as deep and narrow. The crew were gradually becoming dissatisfied and the weather was drawing in toward the early fall season. Petty quarrelling began. Disagreements were common and much time was lost in that way. Drifting as far north as Fort Norman, the majority here prevailed upon the leader to head farther westward, and at last he turned them back upstream to the Liard River, intending to work up this toward the Rockies.
“This was slavish work,” comments Dunbrack, “for now it was all upstream and we must wade and tow the scow by main strength and awkwardness. We prospected the sand bars but found only colors in non-paying quantities. Late in the fall we reached a post kept by a family named McLeod, and here the disagreements in the party ended in final and complete disbanding. Dixon had all the money and we could only get it at the point of the gun; so the oldest and youngest, Boutlier and myself, agreed to carry on ourselves and strike west for the Pacific coast by way of the Stikine River.
“The McLeods were a fine family, with two boys and four girls, and they told us that we were the first white men they had seen in there, outside the company men. Mrs. McLeod seemed to feel keenly for the girls and hinted in favor of some of us staying there to live, so that their daughters might have the prospect of marrying white men instead of the inevitable Indian.
“We hired an Indian guide to pilot us to the Rocky Mountain pass. It was some trip. The Indian had his squaw and the squaw had her child—papoose. The
nights were very cold, running close around fifty below zero, and in the midst of this we woke one morning to find that our party’s population had increased by one, the squaw having given birth to a child during the night. At the usual hour, however, we started out again, the woman with the older child on her back and the baby at her breast. No complaints—just a few guttural grunts. Some hardy people, I want to say!
“We had been travelling about two weeks when suddenly the Indian wanted to turn back and leave us. We said, no, go on! One night he vamoosed. We followed him in the morning. Caught him. He refused to turn back with us. We threw a rope over his neck and strung him up to the limb of a tree and let him down again before he croaked. He agreed to go then, so we took his gun away from him and he stayed with us and showed us the pass; then we let him go back.”
At this point the diary ends, and one can but imagine the balance of that terrible journey, as the unassuming “Len” sits peacefully now before his own fireside with his family about him, and tries to recall the vivid details of hardship endured some thirty years ago—the fight against starvation, freezing, snow-blindness and utter exhaustion.
Heading first to Dease Lake and the Cassiar the two wanderers encountered the severest weather of the winter, and with no map to guide them it proved a superhuman task to traverse an utterly unknown country and haul behind them on toboggans the necessary supplies to sustain them under the most gruelling conditions.
Although they carried arms they could find no trace of game; which, in itself, testifies to the extreme barrenness of the country and of the severity of the winter. Such a state of affairs led in time to a shortage of rations and this did not add either to comfort or speed.
Constant exposure to extreme cold had its effect on the brain as well as the body, and they became dull and stupidly listless, proceeding only by a sheer dogged will. Fires were lighted at night and kept going alternately, one guarding while the other slept. Matches had to be carefully husbanded, for if once they were exhausted, the end would not be far off.
The long nights grew almost unbearable and with such short northern days progress grew slower and slower. Once a lone dog wolf was sighted and immediately shot, but the famished animal had fared worse than they, and was so emaciated that they could do nothing with the meat except to steep it for hours and drink the soup. The flesh was entirely impossible of consumption even for half-nourished men.
Bacon had long since disappeared and flour and beans followed, leaving nothing but a meagre supply of rice with neither sugar nor salt to relieve its monotony. Powdered milk was then, of course, unheard of.
A Lucky Find
"pORTUNATELY they arrived at a lone post somewhere in the Cassiar— Dunbrack doesn’t know for sure just where it was. Here the emergency belt he had secretly girded himself with at Halifax for just such an extremity, was thankfully pressed into service and its contents cleaned of the hundred dollars. Bacon at $2.50 per pound, flour at one dollar required a goodly portion of this amount, so that other accessories were bought very sparingly. And now with fresh food and a good rest among friendly white folks the two adventurers again struck out hopefully for the headwaters of the Stikine and the coast.
But storms and continued exposure were having their effect on the older man, who was unable to keep up the pace for barely a moderate speed. Game was still non-existent and nothing but a stray hawk and owl was seen, with the result that the food supply again dwindled and they became weaker for lack of proper nourishment. Eventually, however, they reached the Stikine and started down its course, but the older man grew steadily weaker and progress accordingly slower. Dunbrack was obliged to call up all his forces of reserve strength of body and will to keep the frail party moving at even a snail’s pace.
At length he was rewarded by the sight of smoke far down the river, and with a whoop he informed his partner. The welcome news, however, had an opposite effect on the other, for he collapsed completely. With safety now in sight, the younger man could not afford to waste time on scruples. He couldn’t handle all himself, so he took the only alternative: he walked over to the
crumpled figure and struck him a smart blow in the face with the flat of his hand.
“Get up, you lazy dog!” he called. “You’re not going to lay down on me now !”
In the telling of this incident the quiet voice of the subject of this story became a trifle uncertain and his nostrils betrayed a slight quiver.
“God knows, it hurt me to do that to my old partner, but it was my only hope and I guess I was getting pretty hard myself. It worked ! The old fellow stared up at me rather stupidly; then he seemed to understand, and gritting his teeth he staggered to his feet and lurched off down the ice. But he didn’t go very far before he fell again and I had to repeat the dose. At last he couldn’t get up any more, so I threw away everything possible but the blankets and put him on my sled. When I got to the camp with the smoke, it was high up on the river bank, and as I was too weak to climb the hill I hollered up to
them. A man came out and looked down at us.
“ ‘What do you want?’ he called.
“ T want some help to get my partner up there.’
“ ‘What’s the matter with him?’
“ ‘Why, he’s played out—starved. I can’t carry him myself.’
“The man went back into the tent and when he didn’t come out soon, I shouted again. After a while another man came out and told me to keep going.
“ T can’t do it,’ I said. ‘For God’s sake give us a lift over night anyway!’
“He spoke something to the others;
then, and after an argument, three of them came down and looked us over. At length they decided to take us in. They were about as tough a looking gang as I ever saw, and I guess they thought the same of us. But I didn’t care how they looked then. All I wanted was something to eat and a chance to lie down. Boutlier managed to eat a little when we got him roused, and afterwards we both stretched out on the floor and slept until well on into the next day. The gang woke us up, and gave us another meal, then told us to move on.
“ ‘You can’t stay here,’ they said. ‘We haven’t enough grub for ourselves, And we don’t want you anyway. So clear out!’
“I asked how far it was to another camp and they told me it was only fifteen miles to Telegraph Creek; so I started out again and dragged my partner there and put him in the hospital. I have never seen him since.”
At Mile-a-Minute Rapids
' I 'HE river broke up soon after we got to Telegraph Creek and I started to look around for a way to get out, for I had no money. There was an old discarded bateau down at the river. With two other men we patched it up and as soon as the ice was clear enough we pushed off. Everything was all right until we hit what was known as the “Mile-a-Minute” rapids. We had heard about this place and were watching for it. We got through all right but at the bottom was a whirlpool that we didn’t know of. As soon as I sighted it I knew that we were done. No boat like ours could make it, so I dived off one side as far as I could for the bank, yelling to the others to do the same. One fellow jumped the opposite way and swam ashore but the other stayed with the boat and we never saw him agam. I dragged myself out and tried to dry my clothes, then walked down the river to where there was an eddy and found the boat floating around. The other man came down his side of the river and we made new paddles and started out again. We came to a Mounted Police camp after a while and reported losing a man. I don’t think they ever found his body.
“I waited at Wrangel quite a time doing odd jobs for my meals and then a boat came in with a captain I knew. I talked him into taking me down to Victoria.
“I was the first passenger to arrive there who had started on the inland route and the papers wanted a story, but I had little news to give them except about a tiresome, useless trip. I don’t know whether any of our original party ever got to the Yukon or not; I never met any of them.
“I got a job with a logging company at Victoria in the fall and they sent me in to Lake Bennett. I stayed with this job just long enough to pay for my passage and then pulled out down river. I met a man who owned a scow at Lake Lebarge and he was looking for some one to handle it down to Dawson. When I told him of my experiences he said I was just the man he was looking for. I found out later that I wasn’t the first man to whom he had said that. He made it a business of finding suckers like myself to take his load of stuff down and then he’d beat them out of their wages.
“But I was itching to get to the Klondyke and didn’t ask any unnecessary questions. He told me to go on down to the lake and get busy. I found the scow all right and four cayuses belonging to him. I paid a policeman two dollars for a meal before I found anything belonging to the scow owner. All I got for my money was dog biscuit and tea, but I was too hungry to protest.
“It was some job snaking that scow across the lake with the horses. They broke through the soft ice twice but I had hired a couple of husky Swedes and we got the horses out again without losing anything but a lot of bad language in three different tongues.
“We launched the scow at Lower Lebarge and followed the ice as soon as it moved in the lower river. There were hundreds of boats and scows which had started ahead of us and we found many of them had come to grief on sandbars and rocks. One of my Swedes was inclined to have his own way in running the scow and he nearly wrecked us once when he wouldn’t pull on the sweep after I found we were heading in the wrong channel. I was getting pretty hard boiled then after two years of such a life, so I just pulled my gun on Mr. Swede and stuck it in his ribs to show him who was boss. I didn’t have any more trouble after that.
“I had heard a lot of talk about the bad water at Hell’s Gate and I was watching for it. All along we saw sandbars with boats and scows on them and the poor fellows trying all sorts of ways to pry themselves off, but we were lucky enough to keep clear. There was a high cliff on one side of the river and a sharp turn away ahead, so I thought we must be getting close to Hell’s Gate. We passed a scow piled up on a bar with the water rushing over most of the deck. I yelled at them :
“ Tley, partner, can you tell us how far it is to Hell’s Gate?’
“The crew all stopped and stared at us with open mouths and we shot by them almost out of hearing but I managed to get this quite clearly:
‘You fool for luck! You’re through Hell’s Gate!’
“I didn’t sleep any more after that or tie up until we got safely landed at Dawson. I went up town to look for the owner who had gone on ahead before the break-up, and he sent a team down to unload the stuff, keeping out of sight, himself. I stopped the teamster and made him keep off until he went for the boss. He finally came down then in a big bluster and wanted to know what I was trying to do. I told him straight that he couldn’t move his stuff till he paid me my wages and the rest of the crew. He laughed at me and ordered the driver to go ahead. I pulled my gun, then, for I was fighting mad. A police sergeant came running down and asked what the trouble was. When I had told him he turned to the crook and talked straight turkey to him, but he made me put away my gun first. That sergeant was a sample of the real men who composed the police in those days. He didn’t fear anything, and he was judge, jury and army combined. He told the scow man that he knew just what he was doing and had been waiting for just such a chance to get the goods on him. The fellow tried to bluster out of it but Mac gave him five minutes to settle up or he’d run him in and put him on the woodpile. Everybody knew what a real workhouse the woodpile of the Yukon was in those days and the crook came through.
“I thanked the sergeant and offered him a bill for his trouble, but he turned it down cold and gave me a piece of good advice before he left.
“Distant pastures look green always. After my two years of fighting to get to the Klondyke it didn’t look nearly so good to me. I got a job on the creeks and did some prospecting, but didn’t hit anything worth while. It was just luck that I got into the picture that was in MacLean’s.
“The worst cases of outlawry seemed to have been over before I got to Dawson. The police had things pretty well under control, then.
“I saw more real tragedy in one month on the trail in 1898 than I did all the time I was in the Dawson country. There was no law on the trail except the gun, but T have never talked about this, for it is not a nice business. All I can say is that many a man dropped in his tracks because he was slow on the draw. Life was strenuous and men’s tempers grew pretty ugly with the strain of repeated setbacks and hardships. A man, in the heat of the moment, might call another by an unwelcome name, but I if he wasn’t backing it up with a gun at ' the same time the chances were that he I had made his last call.”