The Mystery and Magic of Canada's Yukon
One hundred years ago, a grim procession of tired and dirty men (and a few courageous women) lined up in the northern frontier to climb stairs carved in ice. The steps led up the steep mountains of Alaska's Coast range, amidst glacier clad peaks, to the crest of Chilkoot pass. Each person, carrying a fifty-pound pack, would repeat the climb at least forty times. The numerous trips were required because at the top of the pass is the Canadian border, and there the Royal Canadian Mounted Police required each person entering the Yukon to possses one year's worth of food and other goods before they could pass into the interior.
Only one thing could have convinced 100,000 men and women to leave the comfort and security of civilization and venture across the globe to a land hardly explored, a land as wild and forbidding as any on earth.That one thing, of course, was GOLD!
The miners' story actually starts a few years earlier, on the Seventeenth of August, 1896. That's when George Carmacks and his Native American brothers-in-law, Skookum Jim and Tagish Charlie, discovered a thumb sized nugget of gold while resting at Rabbit Creek, a minor tributary of the Klondike River, itself a tributary to the mighty Yukon. Claims were staked, and the news soon spread among the hundred or so prospectors scattered up and down the Yukon.
Meanwhile, the United States and much of the rest of the world was locked in a deep depression. This was before the establishment of the Federal Reserve, and paper money as we know it did not exist. The currency was gold; but the supply of gold had hardly increased in the previous fifty years, while the population had quadrupled. Prices and wages had fallen, in many cases simply simply because there wasn't enough money avaialble to exchange goods. Those who had money often didn't spend it, because in those desperate times gold became more valuable every day.
No word of the strike left the Yukon in 1896. It would take some time to realize how substantial the strike was, and in any case no serious mining could begin until the ground froze. Only then would it be possible to dig a dry hole in the swampy creek bottom. All through the dark, sub-arctic winter, in temperatures as low as -60 degrees, the miners dug suspected paydirt from bedrock along the creek.
It was a brutal time, and those miners suffered serious deprivations. It's ironic, because they were finding more gold then they could ever imagine, yet there was a tremendous shortage of food and other necessities. Men sat hungry, pockets full of gold, dreaming of the lavish dinners they would buy back home!
By the spring of 1897, long rows of paydirt filled the valley of Rabbit Creek (newly renamed 'Bonanza Creek'). When the spring thaw came, the miners dammed the creek and used the water to sluice gold from the dirt. What they found exceed their wildest expectations when the first steamships made it up river, sixty eight miners left for civilization carrying with them over three tons of solid gold!
On July 17, 1897 the prospectors and their staggering wealth reached Seattle. Almost immediately the rush was on. Newspapers were a relatively new form of mass media out West, and they fanned the flames of hysteria, exaggerating the huge strike into mythical proportions. At the same time the new trans-continental railroads allowed an unprecedented number of people to pursue the wealth. The papers in Seattle and San Francisco, sensing the fortunes to be made, promoted themselves shamelessly as the most desirable ports of departure. Soon, hundreds of ships and boats of every description were making their way north to Skagway and the Klondike Trail.
What the would-be miners didn't know would soon stun them. After all their efforts crossing the continent by every imaginable means and enduring unbelievable hardships they arrived in Dawson City to find all the creeks had been claimed. Some stayed to eke out a living, others left to chase other Gold Rushes in Nome and Fairbanks, but most drifted home, changed forever by their experiences.
Few large areas on the earth can claim to have a smaller population today than 100 years ago. The Yukon is one. Well over 100,000 men headed to the Yukon, and about 60,000 actually made it to Dawson City, the town quickly established near the Bonanza Creek mines. Today, less than 30,000 people live in the entire Yukon Territory, an area roughly the size of Texas. Dawson City, which at one time had a population of 30,000, now has about 1,500 year-round residents. Skagway, where more than 60,000 men and women landed to climb the Chilkoot Pass, now has a winter population of less than 800.
The Rush lasted only a year. In 1899, the White Pass & Yukon Railroad was built from Skagway to Whitehorse, eliminating the need to climb Chilkoot Pass. Regular paddlewheel steamship service started on the Yukon River between Dawson City and Whitehorse, and that winter the Dawson Trail was built along the Yukon River.
The Gold Rush was one hundred years ago, but the path the miners blazed makes for some fascinating and spectacular travel through one of the most beautiful areas of the world.
The Klondike Trail starts in Skagway. Skagway has not forgotten its history, and frankly couldn't if it wanted to. Most of the buildings on Broadway Street, still the main street in town, were built during the rush or in the few years after. Several miles up the river, Gold Rush Cemetery contains the graves of about a hundred people from the Gold Rush, including the notorious con man, Soapy Smith. A short hike up the mountains takes us to beautiful Reid Falls, named after Frank Reid, the man who shot Soapy and was fatally wounded in the gunfight. Frank Reid has the largest monument in the graveyard. The inscription reads, "He died for the honor of Skagway."
A road leads nine miles from downtown Skagway, to Dyea, at the head of the Chilkoot Trail. This thirty-three-mile trail goes from sea level, over Chilkoot Pass (elevation 3739 feet/ 1,140 m), to Lake Bennett in the Yukon Territory. The scenery is spectacular, and the ground is littered with historical relics from the Gold Rush. Along these lakes the Gold Stampeders cut native timber to make boats they floated down rivers to the Klondike. It takes roughly three days to hike the trail hikers should check with Parks Canada in Whitehorse at (403) 667-3910.
From downtown Skagway, you can still ride the White Pass & Yukon Railroad. The WP is quite possibly the most scenic railroad in the world. The train doesn't go all the way to Whitehorse anymore, a road was completed in 1982, but it will take you along the precipitous mountains over White Pass, crossing many small rivers, waterfalls, and trestles, as it winds its way above treeline over the pass. You can buy tickets at the railroad terminal in Skagway.
The paved Klondike Highway runs from Skagway through Whitehorse to Dawson City. The portion from Skagway to Whitehorse, a distance of 108 miles, is the site of an annual relay running race. It also offers excellent bicycling. The portion from the Skagway to White Pass is very steep, but the scenery is amazing!
As you cross the top of the pass you enter the Yukon River drainage. Some people take canoes from the mountain lakes all the way to Dawson City, a distance of over 400 miles. Only one portage is strictly necessary at the dam in Whitehorse. Just north of Whitehorse the Yukon River widens into Lake LaBarge. Canoeists must paddle forty miles across the lake to the outflow on the north shore. If there is a north wind blowing, forget it. Camp out and wait. Fortunately there is generally a south wind in the Yukon. From Lake LaBarge it is possible to float all the way to Dawson. Plan on a canoe trip like this taking at least two weeks, and remember that you will be away from any highway for several days at a time. You must be self sufficient to make this trip.
Fifty-five miles north of Whitehorse on the Klondike Highway is Braeburn Lodge. Braeburn features possibly the largest (and best) cinnamon buns in the world. The buns are so famous, the airstrip across the highway is shown on maps as 'Cinnamon Bun Field'! Behind the lodge are the Braeburn Lakes, and the proprietor, Steve, will be glad to take you out on the lake in his canoes. The beautiful lakes offer an excellent chance to see bald eagles and loons.
The next forty seven miles of the highway wind through beautiful hills and valleys It passes Montague House, the ruins of an original Dawson Trail roadhouses, and soon thereafter rejoins the Yukon River at Carmacks. Carmacks is a village of about 450, and features a hotel, restaurants, store and gas station. If you're hungry, you had better eat. It's 110 miles to the next restaurant of any kind! Twenty five miles past Carmacks, there is a roadside stop next to the Yukon River at Five Fingers Rapids. Four gigantic conglomerate rocks break the mighty river into five channels. The steam boats were required to attach themselves to cables and winch themselves up the current! A stairway and trail lead one mile from the road down to the river.
Thirty miles farther up the road the Yukon River leaves the highway for the last time until Dawson City. At Minto Resorts there is an excellent campground and a boat landing. Heinz Saur, the owner of Pristine River Runs, offers small boat tours on the Yukon River. A six-hour boat ride will take you down the Yukon to the abandoned Fort Selkirk. The fort was originally established at the confluence of the Yukon and Pelly Rivers as a Hudson Bay Company fur trading post in the mid 1800's. It was burned twice by the local Tribes, rebuilt twice, and eventually became a stop on the steamboat route. The fort was abandoned in the 1950's with the establishment of a full time road, but is now being restored by the First Nations Tribes in the area.
Leaving Minto the road crosses the boreal forest, crossing the Pelly and Stewart Rivers, before heading up into the highlands of the Klondike River Drainage. For the first time you encounter the Taiga; the stunted trees and marshland that separate the Great North Woods from the Arctic Tundra farther to the north. This lonely road and stark scenery make for a fascinating bicycle ride. Soon the road arrives at the Klondike River Valley, and glides downhill the last thirty miles into Dawson City.
Dawson City was founded in 1896, at the closest point steamboats could get to the gold fields of Bonanza and Eldorado Creeks. Originally laid out for a population of 30,000, Dawson is now the home to about 1,500 year-round residents and is best described as a living ghost town. Modern hotels and fine restaurants stand next to long-abandoned buildings dating from the stampede. Dawson is enjoying a rebirth, based on its fascinating history. You can see the homes of Robert Service and Jack London, visit the excellent museum, and gamble the night away watching can-can girls at Diamond Tooth Gertie's Casino.
Thirteen miles away, on Bonanza Creek, there is a small monument at George Carmack's Discovery Claim. Standing in this non-descript little valley it's hard to believe this was once the richest land on earth. In the distance bulldozers are still at work, gleaning gold from the tailings, which have already been mined ten times over. As you stand at the confluence of Bonanza and Eldorado Creeks, in water barely calf deep, it's hard to believe you've arrived at the world-famous destination for which an entire generation gave up so much. It's hard to believe that some 500 foot sections of this creek yielded over 100,000 ounces of gold! Yet it's all true, and it was happening 100 years ago today.
For Further Reading
"Klondike" or "The Klondike Fever" by Pierre Berton - The definitive history of the Rush of '98
"The Milepost" by Vernon Publications The bible of north country travel I mean it! Don't come north without it.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication