Kid In The Klondike
At eighteen this well-known pioneer survived the Trail of ’98. Before he died fifty years later he set down his experiences as one of the chain of humans who breasted the mountain passes and drifted down the cold grey Yukon to seek an uncertain fortune in the fabulous Klondike
THE GOLDEN TRAIL OF HEARTBREAK
ABOUT THE AUTHOR One of the best-known figures at International Sourdough Conventions for many years was Bert Parker (at left in photograph taken in Dawson City with an unidentified friend), whose story of early days in the Klondike, told in his own simple, unpolished but forceful words, begins in this issue. In May 1948 Mr. Parker learned that he had cancer and would live only a few months. He decided to do two things: First, write the story of his experiences in the north; second, attend the sourdough's convention in Vancouver that August. He achieved both these obiectives.
AM going to tell you some untold tales of the Klondike. I have been advised by friends for years that I should give my version of the Great Stampede of ’98, and as it is now fifty years since that great adventure took place, and as my time is drawing to a close, I figure it is now or never.
Now I think that I had better submit my qualifications. I make no pretensions to being the youngest kid on the trail, but I was the youngest sans father, mother, or guardian. And after I arrived in Dawson I became the youngest member of the Yukon Order of Pioneers.
I started to work when I was thirteen years old and never got into high school, so if my composition is a little shaky there’s a reason.
In the summer of 1897 there was a noise that was heard all around the earth. A ship had come down from the north with a load of gold. She had arrived at Seattle, and we heard from there that one of the greatest gold strikes of all time had been made at a place called the Klondike River. The Klondike was a small river flowing into the Yukon, which was in turn a large river flowing north through Yukon Territory and Alaska and emptying into the Bering Sea. This was all new country to me. The Klondike did not register and the maps did not even show it.
I do not think that anything ever happened on the face of this globe, aside from war, that was talked about as much or caused as much excitement as the discovery of gold on Bonanza Creek, a tributary of the Klondike, on Aug. 17, 1896, by George Carmack, Skookum Jim, Tagish Charlie, and the squaw who was along with them, and who, I believe, was the one who actually made the discovery. Everyone with a drop of red blood in his veins was interested. It was said at the time that ten million wanted to go, one million actually made enquiries and preparations, and that well over one hundred thousand really left horne and friends and started on the long trip north. About one third of that number finally got to the Klondike, and I want to say right here that the ones who got there were well repaid, even if t hey did not wash out an ounce of gold. I would not have missed it for anything.
I had saved up a couple of hundred dollars by the
time the news of the strike reached me in Waterloo County, Ont., and I was mighty interested. We understood then that it required about five hundred dollars to make the trip, that the Mounties would not let anyone go into the country who did not have a year’s outfit, and that you had to take all your food in with you. That made it a little rough for me, but there was a neighbor, a large, tough ScottishCanadian named Angus McInt osh, who was anxious to make the trip and wanted a good man for a partner. I was hardly eighteen at this time and weighed about one hundred and t wenty pounds, but
I was tough and he knew it. He agreed to make up what I was short and take me along with him as a partner. I was to pay him back when we struck it rich.
In February 1898 we left Guelph, Ont., on a colonist car for Vancouver. Our fare was twenty dollars each. We took a long time to decide which route we were going to take. Being Canadians we were strongly urged to take what was known as the “All Canadian Route.” This one used Edmonton, Alta., as an outfitting depot and that city flooded eastern Canada with literature pointing out the
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Thousands would float
of men building boats, scows, anything that for the mad race down the river to Dawson”
advantages of this route. They also made a strong appeal to patriotism, something I was overstocked with at that time. We finally decided that it would be the Chilkoot or the White Pass with Vancouver as an outfitting post. When we got to Vancouver, we were strongly urged by more patriots to take another All Canadian Route, by way of the Stikine River to Teslin Lake, then down the Teslin River into the Yukon. We were very lucky that we wrere not induced to take either of these routes.
When I stepped off the train at Vancouver it was into a new world. There were all kinds of boosters, some for hotels, some for merchants and some ready to tell you where you could spend an interesting evening. There were thousands like ourselves, a lot already dressed in the clothes they intended to wear over the trail and some of those clothes were something to behold. We went to a hotel (the rate was one dollar per day American Plan) and began 'compiling a list of things that we would need.
We finally purchased our outfit, and what an outfit it was! We had a revolver each, a rifle for big
game, creepers for climbing over the glaciers—which we never used, and a lot of junk that was absolutely useless. We had a six-foot crosscut saw, a six-foot whipsaw to cut lumber for the boat, two pairs of ten-foot oars with oarlocks, oakum and pitch to caulk boat seams, nails, hammers, handsaws, planes and tools galore, and a window for our cabin. Practically everyone took a window, and I don’t suppose that one in a hundred got to Dawson in one piece. Then we had our grub, starting with three hundred pounds of flour each, one hundred pounds of bacon, fifty pounds of ham, ditto salt pork for the beans and rice, dried potatoes, beans and vegetables which we could not eat when we got into the Klondike. We also bought butter which we could not eat in fact we could not stay in the cabin with it once we opened the can. We bought tea and coffee, some cream and some sugar. We did not think that we would need much sugar or cream. This was the biggest mistake we made, for we found out that you need as much sugar as flour. We were out of sugar almost as soon as we arrived
at our dest ination, and it was impossible to buy any. Everybody made the same mistake.
We had decided to forgo the patriotic appeal of the All Canadian Routes and go in over the White Pass. We had to make arrangements to get to Skagway, a town that was getting considerable notoriety at this time, due to the machinations of one Soapy Smith whom we were warned to steer clear of. In fact, we were informed that our course from Vancouver to the gold fields would l>e beset by thugs, confidence men and all kinds of people who would do anything for money except work.
We finally arranged passage on a boat called the Ning Chow, a Chinese freighter brought across the Pacific to help to get the Argonauts on their way, and incidentally make some money for her owners. She was one of the largest boats on the west coast. She was fitted up below decks with rough lumber bunks in tiers four high with just room between bunks for a big man to get in and turn around. She carried t he largest passenger list of any ship that ever went up the Alaska coast. There were close to a
thousand people on that boat, numerous horses, mules, jackasses and God knows how many dogs. A lot of the passengers and all of the dogs got seasick. The grub was awful and some of the passengers got lighting with the stewards, and one morning at breakfast a man from Texas was going to shoot the steward, but he didn’t succeed.
Skagway when we reached it turned out to be a very primitive town and a very busy one. Everybody was on the make. The three wharves were all privately owned and you had to make arrangements with the owners’ agents to have your supplies put. on the wharf. And you had to get them off in a hurry to make room for other supplies that were arriving continually. There were all kinds of men there with all kinds of vehicles for hauling the freight from the wharf to the townsite; the thing to do was to find a place to pile it. There was not much danger of having it stolen because all kinds of supplies could be bought for next to nothing from men who had had enough of the Klondike and were on their way back home. There would have been a lot more in this category if they had had enough funds to make the return trip.
Skagway was a miserable-looking town, streets all mud and everybody out to make money, and believe me they were making it. Some of them were buying outfits from people who were giving up; thousands who started out never got their outfits over the trail. Many more were making money in the transportation business; there was a road of a kind put in from Skagway to the Summit of the White Pass and you could have your outfit put on t he Summit if you were willing to pay the price. It was not very far, about fifteen miles if I remember correctly. The next haul was from the Summit to Log Cabin—roughly fifteen miles.
I had a look at Soapy Smith, and I must confess that he was not a very dangerous-looking individual. He had a saloon and gambling house at that time and was doing well. I am not going to dwell upon his finish. He was killed in the summer of 1898 and it has been written up many times.
We got our supplies up to the Summit in due time. It was a hard trail, over three thousand feet rise in the fifteen miles, and it was a tough road. There was one place on the trail to the Summit called Dead Horse Canyon. The trail alongside this Canyon was very treacherous and three thousand horses fell off the road into the canyon and were killed. Mules and jackasses are much more surefooted than horses and were not so prone to fall.
I will never forget the night we got the last of our outfit up to the Summit. We were both very tired and rat her than pit ch our tent and get supper ready we went to a tent called “Charlie’s Place.” We had something to eat and we had no sooner finished than a blizzard started outside, and it was almost impossible to stick your nose out of the tent without getting lost. We stood around fora while, undecided as to what to do; there were about a dozen of us in the tent at the time. The tent was about fourteen by twenty feet, and there was a counter across the end of it, opposite the entrance, which was at the front. This counter was about six feet from the back end and the stove and the rest of the paraphernalia necessary to conduct a primitive eating house were behind the counter.
Charlie finally suggested that we stay there for the night —he figured that way he would have a good crowd for breakfast. We agreed, and the twelve of us lay down in a row. We were packed in like sardines in a can and it was impossible for one man to turn over unless we all turned. To make matters worse I was taken violently ill during the night, and as it was considered very bad form to complain I just lay there and put in one of the most miserable nights of my life. In the morning when the gang started to stir I got up and, while the violent pains had ceased, I guess I must have looked pretty tough. A man came into the tent looking for his partner, saw that I was sick and asked me to share his tent until the storm was over. He was a man about forty years old, by the name of Marshall, with a small tent and a good supply of wood, which was very scarce on the Summit. We stayed in that tent for two days while the wind howled outside. There was nobody Continued on pa fie 51
Kid in the Klondike
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traveling. Business was at an absolute standstill. Marshall told me that it was generally understood that Charlie got all his meat from the dead horses in Dead Horse Canyon, and that was likely the cause of my illness.
When the storm was over it was almost impossible to find our outfits. We had never imagined we would have to contend with snow in such quantities. Most of the outfits were completely covered and we had to go along tramping down the snow and examining the various dumps until we came to our own.
Now, before we leave the westward side of the pass I want to tell of an event that occurred while we were on the trail, that cast a shadow of gloom over the travelers on both trails, the Dyea Trail and the Skagway Trail. On Sunday, April 3, 1898, on the Dyea Trail at a place called Sheep Camp, without a moment’s warning an immense mass of snow came rushing with a fearful roar from a steep mountainside, choking off a long stretch of the trail and burying alive some seventy people, including one woman. The catastrophe caused a tremendous surge of sympathy among the men of the trail and all thoughts of getting over were forgotten as everybody went to work digging. Seven men were taken out alive, some of whom died later, and about sixty bodies.
Nearly everybody in the outside world knew someone who was on his •. ay to the Klondike, so this was big news. Among those on the trail at that time was a young fellow' of about twenty-one named Bert E. Collyer. Bert afterwards became well known as owner and publisher of Collyer’s Weekly and the Referee in Chicago. He was born in Guelph and I had known him when we were kids. He was a natural news hound, and when the Sheep Camp calamity happened he immediately recognized its news value. He had a working agreement with the Hearst Syndicate so he went right down to the wharf, chartered a steamship, got all the available news that could be had at the time, then jumped aboard and was on his way to Victoria.
There was no cable up the Alaska coast and no telegraph lines north of Vancouver, so there was no other way of getting news to what we called the outside world except by mail, which was slow and very uncertain.
When the ship arrived in Victoria Bert immediately went to the various telegraph offices, placed a copy of the Bible in front of the operator and told him to start transmitting it to some place not too far away. Having tied up all the telegraph lines that way, he got into the last remaining office and started to send his story of the Chilkoot Slide to the San Francisco Examiner. 'Fhe result was that the Examiner had the story on the streets long before anybody else had heard anything about it. It was a great newspaper scoop.
Now to go back to where we left our outfit on the Summit of the White Pass. Standing on the Summit, you can look westward and see the town of Skagway and the Pacific Ocean. Turn
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around and you look eastward. Some of that snow that you are standing on will run west and will be in the Pacific in a few hours, once it melts. Some of the snow only a few yards away will flow east when it melts and eventually back into that same Pacific Ocean—but before it gets there it will have to flow some two or three thousand miles.
To understand some of our hardships on the trail you must know what a snowshoe trail on a wind-swept summit is like. The trail is something like a huge rope about six or eight feet in diameter. First, a man goes over the course with snowshoes, then when the path is frozen they start pulling the sleds over, and the trail becomes hard as ice. Then more snow falls on it, and this is packed in and finally the trail
becomes higher than the snow alongside. Sometimes the surface of these trails is six or even ten feet above the ground and the snow alongside is loose. When a man steps off the trail into the loose snow he has quite a job to get back again.
The mushers starting out from the Summit for Log Cabin used to get up as early as three or four a.m. so that they could get on the trail, for there were thousands of them. A man would load up his sled with all he could pull. The sled was strongly constructed, about eighteen inches wide and six or seven feet long, with hooks on the sides for a lashrope. You do not hear things fall when they drop off in the snow, and when they get in the snow they are lost. There were two eyelets
at the front, on each side, for the purpose of fixing a rope with which to haul the sled and on the right side there were two rings, about an inch and a half or two inches in diameter. Into these rings a pole—called a “gee pole” —about six to eight feet long was driven to steer the sled.
There was snow everywhere, no city smoke to make it dirty, a snow so white that it was absolutely necessary, when the sun was shining, to put on smoked glasses or else blacken your eyelids and cheeks to keep from becoming painfully snowblind . . . The trail, like a big ice-covered pipeline, miles long, and covered with the stampeders like a swarm of ants, with sleds loaded usually with more than they could carry. The mushers would have the rope over one shoulder and under the other arm, and would hold the gee-pole in their right hand and strain like mules. It was a long fifteen-mile trip with a load from the Summit to Log Cabin, and by the time you got back with the empty sled it made a long day. To most of us, who were not used to such hardships, it all made life very miserable. A lot of the faint-hearted who had the cash to pay for a ticket home sold their outfits for what they could get for them and went south again. Others quit and went back to Skagway and became disciples of Soapy Smith.
But there were many others, the kind who finish anything they start or die in the attempt. Back on the snowshoe trail we see them moving along, each man right behind the other like an endless chain gang. If a man forgets for a moment what he is doing his sled is likely to get off the trail and upset in the snow. The minute this happens the man behind him steps up and takes his place and he stays there until the whole cavalcade passes by, which may take four or five hours. Sometimes you would think that a man had gone crazy when his sled upset. He would throw his cap in the snow, shut his fists and throw his head back and ask Jesus Christ to come down there on the trail so that He could be told what the unhappy sourdough thought of Him for playing a trick like that.
We put up a tent at Log Cabin and started to haul our stuff from there to Lake Bennett at the head of navigation. On the first load we took we had three hundred and fifty pounds each and started along the trail until we came to Lake Lindeman—a small lake at the foot of the Chilkoot Pass. We went down the lake, over the ice, and through the little river that runs into Lake Bennett, picked out a campsite at the head of Lake Bennet t and stacked our loads. This we repeated until our supplies were moved.
Bennett became quite a camp during the latter part of April and May. There were thousands of men therç building boats, scows and anything that would float for the mad race down the river to Dawson. Most of the voyageurs had their boats built long before the ice went out of the lakes and just sat around waiting for the thaw.
While we were building our boat and waiting for the ice to move, a lot of us met men and made friendships that ended only with death. One of the most resourceful men I met at Bennett was Pete Anderson, who left his wife and kids behind in Washington State and worked his way north on a small steamer in the winter of 1897. Pete had no outfit of his own so he had an easy time of it over the trail and soon discovered that it was easy to pick one up. He got a job hauling hay from Log Cabin to a camp near Atlin and with the proceeds bought an outfit cheap from a man who had given up the fight. At Bennett, Pete undertook to
build a boat for another miner for twelve hundred dollars. He picked up some more money doing other odd jobs and by the time we were ready to sail down river he had a good outfit and seventeen hundred dollars in cash—not bad when you consider he had exactly a dollar and a half in cash when he stepped aboard the steamer in Seattle. Pete went into the wood-cutting business in the Klondike, did quite well and later became a big logging operator back home in Washington. Not long ago he retired with about a million dollars. He did a lot better than some who found gold in the Yukon.
We were awakened early one morning in early June by sounds of men yelling—the ice had gone out of the lake. A lot of the men were busy loading their boats and some of them were already pulling out. We went back to the tent, had breakfast, pulled the fire out of the sheet-iron cook-stove so that it would be cool when we got ready to pack it into the boat, and then started to break camp. It was about noon before we had everything packed. There were four of us in the boat (we had been joined by two others), with two tents, two stoves and about three tons of miscellaneous cargo, about everything that a man could imagine that he would need to set up a home and a gold mine in first-class working condition, as well as a lot of miniature artillery.
I must confess that we got rather a late start; most of the stampeders were away ahead of us, but we made good time once we got under way. We had a wind astern so we put up sail and before five we were at the outlet of Lake Bennett and into a deep short river, three or four miles long, called Caribou Crossing. We came out into Lake Tagish about six, and it is the one part of our whole trip to the Klondike that stands out most clearly in my memory.
There was not a breath of wind blowing now and we had seen very few boats after we had left the head of Lake Bennett. But there were thousands here in Tagish, and more coming every minute. The sun was high in the sky, for it was June and daylight all night now, and there was a sort of a haze that seemed to soften the light but did not obstruct the view. Most of the sails were still up, but hanging absolutely limp. A very few were rowing into shore, others were singing and we could hear one or two quartets. Everybody had had a hard eventful day, and the logical thing to do was to pull in to the shore, make some supper, spend the night there and get away early in the morning. This course was followed by most of us, and the campfires could be seen for miles around the lake, until we went to sleep late that night.
This was the last big bunch of the voyageurs we saw until after we got to Dawson. It was also the quietest and best-behaved crowd that I saw during the twenty-one years that I was to spend in the Klondike. Before that day, I do not suppose that there had ever been more than ten men on Lake Tagish at any time since creation. Everything was in its natural state and then on this second day of June 1898 there were some ten to twenty thousand men on its shore. They left the next morning and they have never been back, nor has any other similar crowd been there since that memorable day.
We pulled out early next morning. We had been warned of a place called Windy Arm, an arm of the lake on the east side about halfway down. When the wind was blowing out of Windy Arm it was pretty hard for anybody but a skilled mariner to get past. We got halfway across when the wind, growing stronger every minute, threatened
to blow us on to the west shore. We took the sail down and all took to the oars. I almost pulled my heart out but to no avail. We were being blown ashore. As soon as we could see the bottom we all jumped into the water up to our wishbones and eased the boat up on shore. We were lucky, and the boat was not damaged. We unloaded her and put up the stove and got ready to have some lunch. I was the chief cook on this trip, since I was the youngest and the position of cook was the least desirable of all the jobs in a camp. We had a stove that had the oven in the pipe. You could put in a pan about nine by twelve inches and bake about two loaves of bread at one time. The boys were hollering for grub, so Í was hurrying; in my haste I forgot to take the pan out of the oven when we lit the fire. We had packed everything in that oven that we could get in to save space, and it was all burned. The knives and forks all had wooden handles, and it was a mess from then on as there was nothing left but the rivets that had held the wooden handles in place. We put the butcher knife out of business also, so we had good cause to remember Windy Arm for a long time. We were there all that day and all the next, listening to the wind, and then about three o’clock next morning it dropped.
We jumped out of bed, put the boat in the water, loaded it in less than half an hour and shoved off. We grabbed the oars and started to row for the bottom of the lake when a strong head wind came up and we pulled for all we were worth for nearly two hours before we got that boat in. We were all nearly starved, as it was noon by the time we got ashore, so we put up the stove and had a good feed. Next day, before we could stop, we shot through Miles Canyon. We had been warned that the canyon, together with Whitehorse Rapids below, was the end of the journey for a great many stampeders. We made it, though, and tied up below the canyon and went down to have a look at the rapids. They looked pretty bad, so we hired a pilot who took us through for twenty-five dollars in about three minutes.
We tied up below the rapids and went back to have a look around. For a mile below on the east bank of the river the ground was covered with provisions, dried fruit, beans, rice—everything in the produce line that one could imagine, all spread out there to dry -goods that others had got wet on the trip through the rapids.
There was a boat insurance racket being worked at Whitehorse when we arrived. You could tie your boat up for the purpose of having a look at the canyon and rapids before you took the risk of running them. An agent would step up and tell you that you were foolish to chance it without insurance. He would inform you there was an insurance company that would cover your boat and furnish pilot and crew for very little more than some of the incompetent pilots were charging. He pointed out that you took no chances of losing your life, and that if anything happened to your boat you’d have the money to purchase a new outfit.
This company made good on any boats that were lost because they never lost any boats that were insured. They would keep the owners of the boat busy talking about insurance rates long enough for some of the rest of the gang to run the boat through. Then on news of the successful termination of the trip they would close the deal, get the money, and turn the boat, over to the owners. The owners would be so pleased to see the boat below the rapids that even if they did find out that they had been gypped they
made no great fuss about the scheme.
Another scheme in operation at Whitehorse was a tramway on wooden rollers around the canyon and rapids. It did a thriving business. You could have your boat and the whole outfit hauled around on the tramway for a nominal sum, which was, however, pretty high when compared with the charge for a pilot.
We left Whitehorse later that afternoon and were soon crossing into Lake La berge, later made famous by Robert Service.
From then on we had no more trouble. There were two more rapids, Five Fingers Rapids, where four large rocks stand in the river and the water flows through five channels, and Rink Rapids, caused by a rocky shelf that lay across the river. The current was so fast that very few of the boys rowed —they just kept the boat in the fast part of the current and let her drift along.
We were getting close to our goal and we should have been a bit excited, but I can’t say that we were. We knew that we were getting close to Dawson, but we had learned from experience that there was no use asking anyone how far it was.
We saw quite a few people now. Some were cutting wood and some seemed to be on their way up to the mouth of Indian River, Stewart River, the Sixty Mile or the White River, to prospect. We were all told when we landed in Dawson that everything was staked and that if we were going to get a rich claim we would have to go prospecting and find it. All these rivers gave promise of being good streams to try one’s luck on. Some of the men never unloaded their boats, just started for one of the other rivers, and some sold most of their outfits for what they could get and started right back on the trail for home. These, of course, would have to pole and line their boats back to the head of Lake Rennett—it was some job, but could be done in about six weeks with luck.
We would ask one of these fellows how far it was to Dawson, and he might say it was around the next bend Then we would pass a couple of bends without seeing Dawson and we would ask someone else how far we were from our destination. He would likely say about a hundred miles. We were very anxious to know because we knew that the town was on the east bank of the river. It was a mighty river and if we happened to be on the west side or even in the middle of t he stream when we came to the city it was going to be a hard job to get the boat into the shore. So we were hugging the right bank and this impeded our progress.
Finally we came around a bluff and could see the camp. I am bound to call it a camp, for there was nothing about it that measured up to our ideas of what a city should be. We tied our boat up to a boat that was tied to the stern of another boat and that one to still another, and this condition prevailed as far up and down the river bank as we could see. It was roughly a mile and a half from the bluff at Klondike City “Lousetown” to the bluff below Dawson and the boats were four deep all along the bank of the river. We had arrived, at last, at our destination. All we had to do was find the gold we came for.
ENI) OF PART ONE The Concluding Installment Girls, Gold and Gamblers
Will Appear Next Issue