Gold! We wheeled in the furrow, fired with the faith of fools...
Leaving our homes and our loved ones, crying exultantly, “Gold!”
—Robert Service, The Trail ofNinety-Eight
IT WAS one of the few times that Robert Service, “Bard of the Yukon,” could not be accused of embellishing the facts. If anything, he was underplaying the gold-rush fever that swept the world in 1897. It was a form of contagious insanity, and one that sent more than 100,000 gold-seekers on a wild stampede toward a remote valley in Canada’s Yukon. The headlines said it all: “Gold! Gold! Gold!”
The stampeders pushed north along several ill-defined trails. Some fought their way up the B.C. Interior; others—suckered by promoters—attempted to travel overland from Edmonton; hundreds more went snowblind and mad trying to hike along glacial icefields. The most direct route, and the most popular, was by ship up the Alaska panhandle and then dragging your supplies over either the Chilkoot or White passes and into Canada. From there, you would have to build a raft or small boat and sail down
the Yukon River. The gold-seekers were young, for the most part. Restless men still in their 20s. But there were women too, and children. There were former mayors and ex-bank presidents, aristocratic Brits and faux French “counts,” prize boxers and fugitives, rich men and poor. They moved in dishevelled columns, like a massive, undisciplined army trudging northward, ever northward. Fewer than 40,000 made it. Many died, most turned back.
The first ragged travellers didn’t arrive from the outside until 1898, stumbling in only to find that the best claims had already been staked by the prospectors who were living in the North. No matter. The journey itself had been a test of character and there was still gold to be made “mining the miners.” At the marshy confluence of the Yukon and Klondike rivers a boomtown had appeared, almost overnight. It was Dawson City, a sprawling community of canvas tents and false-front saloons, where millionaire miners in mud-caked boots jostled along the streets with Mississippi River gamblers and Belgian good-time girls.
By 1899, Dawson, with at least 30,000 people, was the largest city west of Winnipeg and north of Seattle—larger than Vancouver, larger than Victoria. In the farflung reaches of the sub-Arctic, Dawson City was hailed as the “Paris of the North,” a heady swirl of saloons, gaming houses and
raucous dance halls. The latest Parisian fashions could be seen on its streets, and the city boasted all the latest technological marvels—telephones, electric lights, and motion-picture cinemas—at a time when many cities to the south did not. And if Dawson’s elegant false fronts hid roughhewn log cabins, so be it. It was a falsefront sort of town.
The streets glittered with gold—literally at times; in the muck and mud of the alleyways and in the sawdust on the barroom floors, gold dust sparkled (the sawdust itself was regularly panned for gold at the end of the night). In Dawson, gold lost its meaning. It was, in fact, one of the most common commodities around. When a lovestruck suitor held up a restaurant to steal chocolates for his dance-hall girl, he found that although the gold was in the till, the chocolates—much rarer than gold—were locked away in a safe. He fled.
This summer, I decided to take my family to the Klondike along one of the original “Trails of ’98.” Travelling by plane, train, boat and automobile, we retraced the White Pass Route from Skagway, Alaska, to Dawson City. Our Klondike Ho! party included my wife and me, and our two children: Alex, who is, by his own calculations, “five-andthree-quarters,” and his brother, Alister, who is just over a year old and capable of producing twice his body weight in poop daily. I leave
it to you to decide which band of stampeders had a more difficult task ahead of them.
WE BEGIN our quest for Klondike gold in Skagway, once the haunt of criminals and con men, where thousands of hapless stampeders had been unloaded in a jumbled mess of chaos and confusion. In the lawless anarchy that was Skagway, miners were waylaid and separated from their money before they ever reached the White Pass. Today, it is a scenic town that seems to be comprised entirely of souvenir shops. When we arrive in Skagway, the cruise ships are in and the shops are crowded with tourists. Which is to say, not much has changed.
We cross the White Pass by rail, along narrow-gauge tracks first laid down between 1898 and 1900. The White Pass & Yukon Route Railway, built to move supplies and ore inland, now runs excursions to the summit. It is one of the steepest rail lines in the world. The train snakes alongside dead drops and leaps across heart-stopping trestles, past veil-like waterfalls and forested valleys. We plunge in and out of mountainsides, through tunnels blasted from the granite, and when we emerge, there, still visible like a memory, like a scar, is the original Trail of’98, the path that so many followed into the Yukon. The tracks span Dead Horse Gulch, where 3,000 pack animals, overloaded and treated cruelly, had tumbled to their death, and then, in the crisp alpine air, we reach the top. Canada.
Here, at the summit, the North West Mounted Police were once stationed. When one crossed over from Alaska to Yukon, from the U.S. to Canada, everything changed. Law and order replaced anarchy. Bureaucratic authority replaced bruising free-for-alls. The Mounties, among them the legendary Sam Steele, slapped down tough restrictions on the long line of stampeders making their way over the mountains. Here, atop a windswept icy pass, they carefully collected custom duties and made sure that everyone entering Canadian territory brought with them a year’s worth of supplies: a full ton of food and equipment that had to be dragged up the mountain in relays. (A ton of supplies, you say? A mere ton? Ha! We have at least that much with us. Why, the diapers alone could break a burro’s back.)
Having crossed into Canada, the stampeders converged on the frozen shores of Lake Bennett at the headwaters of the Yukon River system, and when the ice broke in spring, a ragtag flotilla set off, more than 7,000 craft: listing little boats and rope-bound rafts, handmade and jerry-rigged, swept along on the Yukon, heading for Dawson.
But the gravest danger still lay ahead. At Miles Canyon, the river narrowed and sheer basalt cliffs, 30 m high, created a crashing rush of water. It was like a shooting gallery of hazards: hidden sandbars, sudden boulders, bone-crushing log-jams. And it only got
DAWSON was once the ‘Paris of the North,’ larger than Vancouver and boasting the latest fashions and technological marvels, along with saloons and dance halls
worse. Having made it through the canyon, the flotilla faced a series of whitewater rapids that spewed up like the manes on wild stallions. It was an image that would give both the rapids and the town that developed just beyond them their name: White Horse.
No, I do not shoot the rapids with two small children in tow, if only because the White Horse Rapids no longer exist. They were drowned in 1957, when a dam was built, the same year the town’s name was contracted to Whitehorse. The Yukon River has been tamed, and now, a tour boat, the MV Schwatka, takes us upriver through Miles Canyon, chugging along on waters where more than 100 vessels went down and a dozen men died within the first few weeks of the flotilla’s arrival.
At one time, the Yukon River was a major
supply line, but with the paved highways and daily flights of today, the river has been all but deserted. It is a wide, murky flow, a pewter-grey expanse of water that winds its way below us on our bumpy flight north from Whitehorse.
At Dawson, the silty waters of the Yukon meet the clear-running Klondike. And gold— or rather, the pursuit of gold—is evident as soon as we land. Driving into town from Dawson’s small airport, we pass the caterpillarlike maze of rubbled tailings. The entire Klondike Valley has been recontoured and reworked: first by miners and later by large, earth-chewing dredges and now miners again, restlessly sifting the ground for gold.
Dawson today is home to about 2,000 residents, and though small-scale mining still continues on the creeks, its main industry is “mining tourists” in the same way that the city once “mined the miners.” It is a remarkable town: the muddy streets and wooden sidewalks, the false fronts and the tin roofs, the buildings that lean drunkenly, this way and that, riding the frost heaves. Dogs lope by, big barrel-chested mutts soaked in mud, and the purple-sheened ravens—trickster creators of Native mythology-croak out their tuneless welcomes. They watch you like pickpockets eyeing a crowd.
From elegant mansions to the ramshackle Westminster Hotel with its patchwork of adjoining rooms, from the well-preserved sternwheeler to the abandoned bank beside it (the very bank where a poet by the name of Service once worked as a teller), Dawson City is still Dawson. I expected to find a ghost town, wistful and lonely—and there are ghosts aplenty in Dawson—but there is no sense of lingering despair or yearning nostalgia. Only the celebration of a glorious and unprecedented moment in history, when a sub-Arctic gold rush created a city unlike any other.
Among bustling businesses and derelict buildings overrun with weeds, along the riverbanks and roadsides, wherever you turn there are bursts of colour. The fireweed is in bloom: great magenta stalks, so named because they are among the first plant to grow in an area after a fire has swept through. Like the ravens that loiter along the telephone wires, fireweed flowers are a territorial emblem. A sign of reclamation and regrowth, the flowers are
also—suitably enough—entirely edible.
When the wildfire of the Klondike Gold Rush first swept through, the Native population was forced to retreat downriver. For the Hän people of the Klondike region, the gold rush was devastating. Chief Isaac, leader of the Klondike-area Hän, knew that his people’s way of life was in peril. He sent a delegation across the border to the Native community at Eagle, Alaska to teach them their songs and dances, to preserve these until the Klondike Hän were strong enough to reclaim them. At one point there were very few fluent speakers of Hän left. But in recent years, the songs and dances have been returned, intact from Alaska, and the language and culture is being revived, stubbornly, joyously. Fireweed taking root.
Dawson, too, is a fireweed town, reclaimed and rediscovered. At Diamond Tooth Gertie’s Gambling Hall, girls dance the cancan in a froth of uplifted, ruffled skirts. There may be little evidence that the cancan was ever danced in Dawson, but Diamond Tooth Gertie was real enough. Our cabins were named
in honour of Klondike Kate, and yes, there really was a Klondike Kate as well. (Two of them in fact, the title being in dispute even now.) Skookum Jim, Silent Sam, Swiftwater Bill, the Lucky Swede and Limejuice Lil: the Klondike Gold Rush was an arena of nicknames and tail-striding characters.
And Dawson City remains an odd mix of cosmopolitan culture and backwoods charm even today. One chooses Dawson. It takes a conscious act of will to settle here. Among those who have chosen this life is a laid-back young man from Germany named Holli. Holli owns a fine workhorse and a wagon he built by hand, and he runs his Slow Rush Tours in a suitably ambling manner, with his horse plodding along, up and down the anecdote-rich streets.
Holli crossed the Chilkoot Trail by foot in 1998, on the 100th anniversary of the first rush, and he never looked back. “Germany is good,” he says. “But this is where I belong.”
“You’re a lucky man,” I say. “You found what you were looking for. A lot of people never do.”
“A lot of people never look,” he says, with an easy grin.
OUR TRIP ended in Dawson, and we even found gold. True story. In the glowing blue midnight light, we drove out to Bonanza Creek, where the first find was made—and even as I spun lurid tales of fortunes won and fortunes lost to my family—Alex suddenly pointed and shouted “Gold!” He plunged into the water and pulled up a rock the size of his fist. Gold! And I saw in that moment how the madness begins. Because it was just a yellowing piece of river stone. But what if it wasn’t, what if...
And I whispered to him, “You know, they never found the motherlode. Some say it is up the valley somewhere, waiting to be discovered.”
His eyes glowed. fi1]
Will Ferguson is the author of Bastards & Boneheads, a history of Canadian characters. For more on Ferguson, visit his Web site, www.willferguson.ca.
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