Flying the Trail of ’98

Edmonton to Dawson City — the heartbreaking route of old-time prospectors is now a ten-hour air flight

D. M. LeBOURDAIS November 1 1939

Flying the Trail of ’98

Edmonton to Dawson City — the heartbreaking route of old-time prospectors is now a ten-hour air flight

D. M. LeBOURDAIS November 1 1939

Flying the Trail of ’98

Edmonton to Dawson City — the heartbreaking route of old-time prospectors is now a ten-hour air flight


WHEN, in the late nineties, the news which had seeped out by moccasin telegraph was flashed round the world—that coarse gold could be had for the panning in the gravels of far-off Klondike —adventurous spirits flocked from the ends of the earth to share the spoils of this new El Dorado.

Nature seems to guard her riches jealously. The gold creeks of the Klondike were in one of the most out-of-theway spots on the globe. Not only was it far olT the beaten track, but to reach it required grit and bulldog endurance.

Most of the gold-seekers got there by way of the infamous Chilkoot Pass. From Vancouver or Seattle they travelled by steamship to Skagway, then by trail over the Chilkoot Pass to Lake Bennett, and down the Yukon River system to Dawson City, which was mushrooming where the Klondike flows in.

Some went up the Cariboo Road, in central British Columbia, with pack horses, or with packs on their own backs, and then hit the trail that leads into the wilderness beyond Hazel ton and Telegraph Creek. Many more came straggling back than ever got through.

Still others struck north from Edmonton. Crossing the Athabaska and the Peace rivers, they came to the headwaters of the Sikanni Chief and Fort Nelson rivers, and thence to the Liard, which provided them with an almost direct route into Yukon Territory.

Direct on the map, perhaps, but when the Argonauts attempted to follow the valley of this tortuous and tempestuous stream they met with heartbreaking obstacles.

Whichever route they followed, these seekers of the rainbow’s end, it took them months-—arduous, toiling months.

Weeks Then Hours Now

A FEW weeks ago, in less than ten hours flying time, I flew in comfort and safety from Fldmonton to Dawson City over this route that had taken such heavy toll of those who toiled along the trail of ’98.

As we took off from the Edmonton airport in a modern twin-motor, all-metal Barkley Grow plane of Yukon Southern Air Transport, and soared northwestward high above the spreading checkerboard of prairie farm lands. I thought of the difference wrought by the hand of time.

Below us we could see the railway and the motor highways which were only prairie trails in the days of the goldseekers. Streams, meandering across our course, looked like ditches, but some of them were real enough obstacles to pack-laden men or animals and to prairie carts.

The Athabaska River was merely a greyish-blue ribbon, and Lesser Slave Lake a shimmering patch of light on the eastern horizon, as we sped onward. The ramparts of the Rockies framed our view to the westward.

Above the clouds, we were yet in close contact with the world about us. Grant McConachie, president of Yukon Southern, himself at the controls that day, motioned me to the pilots’ compartment to hear a weather report radioed from the company’s station at Fort Nelson; and Captain James Bell, manager of the Edmonton airport, who was also a passenger to Whitehorse, spoke to his wife at the airport.

Grande Prairie, in the heart of the Peace River country, was our first stop. There we left two of our passengers; one of them, Jean Mackenzie, a nurse, not on some errand of mercy as might once have been the only justification for a trip by air, but merely on a holiday. In little more than two hours we had come a distance that would have taken the gold-seekers three weeks at the very least—and their troubles would then have really only begun.

Fort St. John, our next stop, is in British Columbia, but seems to be part of Alberta. One thinks of British Columbia as lying west of the Rocky Mountains, but here is prairie country with the mountain barrier still to the westward.

The motor car still meets spirited competition from the

horse in this region. Boys and girls both wear leather chaps as they ride to school, and the boys 8]x>rt six-gallon hats. 1 litching posts adorn the fronts of stores and eating places.

Fort St. John is a junction point for Yukon Southern. The sister ship to the one we brought in, which had left Vancouver about the time we left Edmonton, was at the airport when we arrived. McConachie would fly it to Edmonton, while its pilots, Ted Field and Ralph Oakes, would take us through to Whitehorse.

Hitherto we had flown through territory where the airplane may perhaps be called a luxury. But Fort St. John is fifty miles from the end of steel, and beyond there we would enter a region where the airplane’s only competitors, aside from Shanks’ mare, arc the canoe in summer and the dog-team in winter.

Forty years ago, the gold-seekers would have had to cross the Peace at Fort St. John and then strike northward, sticking to the ridges to avoid the muskeg. They would have come to the end of the prairie trails, and must thereafter find their own way through the wilderness.

Those who got through to the Sikanni Chief River would build boats there, and. if their horses had lasted that far. turn them loose to find their way back as best they might to the place they knew as home. The Sikanni Chief would take the Argonauts to the Fort Nelson River, which in turn would take them to the Liard.

But we did not have to follow those twisting streams. Keeping the Fort Nelson Valley to his right—we were not making a stop at Fort Nelson—Ted Field headed northwestward toward the point where the Liard River comes foaming from the confinement of its rocky gorges as it cuts through the northern escarpment of the Rocky Mountains.

Dangerous Rapids Relow

ALL THE way from Edmonton the mountains had been in sight on our left, as they would have been had we flown from Lethbridge. But now we were come to the end of. them. We were at the end of the Rocky Mountains. Many mountains lie beyond but they go under other names, and before the next range begins a broad plateau intervenes.

The Liard, which refuses to follow the general trend of the country but cuts across it, rises in Yukon Territory and flows southeasterly through occasional canyons and over frequent rapids till it strikes this dead end of the Rockies. Here, for about eighty miles, it boils and foams through one canyon after another, and then turns sharply Continued on page 37

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to the northeast to pour its waters into the mighty Mackenzie River.

Hudson’s Bay Company traders first travelled up the Liard nearly 100 years ago, and, hardy voyageurs even though they were, the names they gave to its rapids and canyons show what they thougnt of it.

Where it flows between frowning cliffs, after its eighty-mile course of canyons and cataracts, they called “Hell Gate,” and no doubt the gold-seekers who followed them could agree that the name was well chosen. Many miles of portaging and weeks of time bore testimony to that specimen of nature’s handiwork.

“Rapids of the Drowned” is another name that leaves little to the imagination. These rapids, more innocent looking than some others and therefore more deadly, took their regular toll of those foolhardy enough not to try the portage at once.

Finally, the “Devil’s Portage” epitomizes all other portages. By the time the voyageurs had packed their boats and outfits over its rocky headlands and through its boulder-strewn ravines, they were ready to ask themselves what madness had ever brought them there.

We in the plane could only picture to ourselves the heartbreaking efforts of those who had battled that course in years gone by. Here were we, not yet half a day out from Edmonton, while they would have taken half a season to get as far. We could look forward to the end of the trail while the sun was still high in the sky ; they would not have reached it before winter set in, and some not at all.

Impressive Mountains

ALTHOUGH our course lay along the Liard Valley, we flew at a greater' height than that of the mountains which were spread out to the south of us in one of the finest mountain panoramas to be seen anywhere.

Mountains are never so majestic when viewed from the air as when one looks up at them from the valley. On the other hand, it is easier to understand mountains as crumpled, folded, broken and upthrust fragments of the earth’s crust, when they are seen from above.

To the landfast pilgrim, they wear an air of mystery; they seem to hold up the sky, and clouds are but garlands about their brows. The traveller in an airplane, however, sees them with their masks off. The sky now seems miles above, and even the clouds look down upon them. The towering peak is really but little higher than its neighbors, and its neighbors are legion.

But if the majesty of the single giant be dwarfed when seen from the air, that is amply made up for by the grandeur of the great mountain masses, considered as samples of nature’s works. The wild beauty of serried ranks, not of single mountains but of mountain ranges, cannot be fully appreciated until it is seen from an airplane.

It is impossible to comprehend a glacier, for instance, when only part of it fills the whole horizon; but when it is seen from a distance as merely one of a number of straggling strips of snow and ice pushed down the space between two mountains among myriads of mountains, its part in the whole scheme is clear.

Likewise with rivers. It is hard to comprehend a river when one views it in all its great strength, perhaps a mile wide. But when one sees it begin, high up near the tops of the mountains, as a series of tiny tendrils, ever converging into larger streams, eventually to become a river in some distant valley, the process appears quite simple.

The Liard Valley beneath us was now much wider. Many lakes relieved the dark green velvet of spruce forests covering the

whole country, except where patches of poplars supplied a lighter green. Shortly after crossing the British Columbia-Yukon line we alighted on one of these lakes— Watson Lake.

Log-Cabin Radio Station

ON A point of land jutting out from the north shore, against a background of forest, stood a peeled-log cabin. The drooping wind-direction “sock” at the top of a tall pole and the high radio aerial suggested that this was no mere trapper’s shack. It was, in fact, a station, modest ’tis true, on what may yet be one of the world’s great airways. Vic Johnson and Frank Baker were the air company’s resident radio operators and weather observers.

If any of the gold-seekers had got this far, they would probably have wintered somewhere near here. The following spring they would have gone northward to the headwaters of a tributary called the Frances River, and thence over a low divide to the Pelly, after which they could easily have paddled downstream the remaining five or six hundred miles to the Klondike.

We also left the Liard near the mouth of the Frances, but headed almost due west over the tops of the mass of mountains which separate the Liard drainage area from that of the Yukon. To avoid surface winds, Ted Field climbed to 8,000 feet, to 10,000. and finally to 12,600 feet, twice the height of the mountains. Great cumulus clouds were below and seemed to be drifting past us, but their shadows on the mountain tops showed them to be almost stationary. The beauty of the view, as we saw it that day, defies description.

Passing by Wolf Lake, which, till the airplane came,was little more than a name on the map, we soon saw the northern end of Teslin Lake, then Marsh Lake, with Tagish Lake lying in long narrow arms between the mountains, in the distance to the south.

The Lewes River was beneath us, and we knew that soon we should be in Whitehorse. Yes, there it is, a few crisscrosses of streets with a cluster of steamboats drawn up on the river bank. The thin line of the White Pass & Yukon Railway, coming in from Skagway, 110 miles away, seems strangely out of place in such a setting, but it is no stranger than the well-laid-out airport and the many large modem aircraft that regularly make use of it.

Whitehorse, as head of navigation on the Yukon and Lewes rivers, and terminus of the narrow-gauge railway from Skagway, was already an important transportation centre before the coming of the airplane, but now that it has regular air connections with Edmonton and Vancouver, as well as with other Yukon and Alaskan points, it is more important still. It has only about 600 people, but the value of a Northern community cannot be judged by the number of its inhabitants.

From Vancouver or Seattle to Whitehorse by steamship and train is a week’s journey. But since Yukon Southern Air Transport established its weekly service in July, 1937, Vancouver has been brought almost next door. Not only that, but Edmonton, also only a few hours away, opens the door to the cities of the East.

Modern Dawson City

AFTER a comfortable night at the Whitehorse Inn, I went on to Dawson in a tri-motor Ford plane of White Pass & Yukon Airlines, piloted by Lionel Vines. Dawson is 460 miles by river north and west of Whitehorse, but only about 300 by air

Our course lay down the west side of the Lewes River Valley, past Lake Laberge, famous as the cremation place of Robert

Service’s Sam McGee, thence across the valley where the Felly and the Lewes unite to form the Yukon. From that point the Yukon makes a great curve to the southwestward. We, however, flew straight across the hills to Dawson, over Stewart River, and directly above such famous creeks as Dominion, Gold Run, Sulphur, Bonanza and Hunker. Beneath us, like toys, were the giant dredgers sweeping up the gold that was left by the miners who, in the days of ’98, disdained to work any hut the richest ground.

Beneath us, nearly all the way, we could see the straggling line of the stage road. Rivers are not bridged and muskegs are too soft for wheeled traffic, consequently the road is used only in winter. It is a long cold stage trip from Whitehorse to Dawson. Sometimes it took a week and more often longer. Flanes have changed all that: less than three hours in a comfortable plane, at any season of the year, lands one in Dawson.

In summer, steamers still ply on the river and make the trip from Whitehorse to Dawson in thirty-six hours, but they take five days to make the return trip.

The airplane means everything to the people of Dawson. In winter they receive regular supplies of fresh eggs, fruits and vegetables by air. The rate from Whitehorse is sixteen cents a pound, but Dawson people cheerfully pay the price.

Perhaps the greatest boon is the air mail. A letter mailed today is delivered day after tomorrow in Edmonton or Vancouver, and a reply can be liad within a week. Gold now travels by air. All gold dust may seem the same to the novice, but no two lots of gold dust have quite the same value. Not till the miner’s clean-up has reached the mint and the returns are received, can miner and banker settle their account, and it is a great advantage not to be compelled to wait weeks, or even months, as formerly.

The great fur sales are held in London, and it often means much to a trapper to get his season’s catch to the London sales at the proper time. The airplane now makes it iiossible for the Yukon trapper to take advantage of the best fur markets.

New Wealth

(YN THE return trip, among my fellow passengers were an officer of the Hudson’s Bay Company and a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. These two pioneer Northern organizations are making increasing use of airplanes. Last winter, joint boundary patrols of Canadian and Alaskan police were conducted by plane.

It is also interesting that the Hudson’s Bay Company, which had their posts along the Yukon River nearly a century ago, are this year building their first store in Dawson City.

Dawson, once a roaring mining camp filled with figures that since have become legendary, is now but the ghost of its former self. For some time past it has drawn crowds of summer tourists, lured by the fascination that such places have for many persons.

This has been one of its principal industries. But a new generation of Klondikers believes that the time has come to cremate Sam McGee once and for all. and to lay the spirit of Dangerous Dan McGrew. They are not interested in making a shrine of the cabin in which Robert W. Service once lived, or in repeating endlessly the lurid tales already mellow with time.

Dawson is still an important mining centre, and its dredgers have yet ahead of them at least twenty-five years work. With the coming of the airplane, the trail of '98 fades into the background of memory, and a younger Yukon looks forward with confidence to the development of new sources of wealth in that once fabulous land.