Return to the Klondike! Our Intrepid Reporter Retraces Route Carved By Restless Dreamer In 1897
Ross Anderson Seattle Times Staff Reporter
One hundred years ago, Mont Hawthorne quit his job at a Puget Sound salmon cannery and went home to Astoria. He sat silently for a while in his favorite chair, gazing out the window at a steamship as it eased away from the docks and sailed off into the dusk. Then he announced to his aging mother: "Mama, I'm goin' Up North."
His mother was not surprised. She had been expecting this, now that the entire world knew about the steamer Portland and its "ton of gold" arriving in Seattle. That event had triggered a stampede north to the Klondike country, and Mont was bound to catch the fever.
So it was that Mont Hawthorne resumed the quest for fortune, adventure, elbow room or whatever it is that continues to lure Americans westward and, in Seattle's case, northward.
Now old Mont Hawthorne is goin' Up North again. And this time, I'm goin' with him. By the time you read this, Mont and I will be on our way to Alaska, the Yukon Territory and Dawson City, all in observance of the Klondike Gold Rush centennial.
The Klondike stampede, which began in July 1897, was perhaps the single most dramatic event in Pacific Northwest history. It made Seattle a household word around the world, luring an estimated 30,000 Klondike-bound fortune-seekers to these streets and transforming a frontier port into a booming metropolis.
For Mont, the journey is a return engagement. Like thousands of other men and women, he made the journey a century ago, hauling a ton of supplies onto a steamer and up the Inside Passage to Skagway, Alaska, over the snow-clogged Wrangell Mountains to Lake Bennett, then 500 miles down the mighty Yukon River to Dawson, the City of Gold.
And your reporter? A former editorial writer, worn-out but recovering, approaching his 50th birthday and yearning for an adventure. Like Mont a century ago, I've spent weeks collecting my gear, haunting the outfitters, trying to figure out what I need and what I don't. I have a comfortable backpack, a nylon tent that weighs 6 pounds, polypropylene fleece, freeze-dried foods and a miniature stove that weighs nothing and boils water faster than my kitchen range.
For company, I have old Mont Hawthorne in the form of a dog-eared copy of "The Trail Led North," long out of print, in which he tells the story of his Klondike adventure. OK, I'm well aware that he's been dead half a century. But Mont climbs out of those pages larger than life. So does his dog, Pedro. They will be fine company. And they don't eat much.
Why are we doing this? Good question. First, some history:
In the early summer of 1897, the Klondike was little more than a rumor drifting south from the virtually unexplored wilderness surrounding the Yukon River. Nearly a year earlier, in August 1896, a couple of prospectors took a wrong turn in those rugged hills, some 1,500 miles from nowhere, and stumbled onto a stream. In the stream bed, they found a gold nugget, and then another. In the months to come, those few acres of wilderness were to become one of the richest gold fields in history.
Word spread up and down the river, and prospectors converged on the Klondike Country. But it took months for the news to find its way south to The Outside. Even then, the news was greeted with skepticism; most such reports turned out to be wild exaggerations, if not outright fabrications. That changed in July 1897, when two steamers from the Yukon arrived on the West Coast. On the 15th, the tiny Excelsior tied up at San Francisco with 40 prospectors carrying perhaps $750,000 worth of gold - a staggering statistic for its day. The larger Portland arrived July 17 in Seattle with even more - the storied "ton of gold."
Within hours, the stampede had begun. Thanks to telegraph lines and an extraordinary advertising campaign, Seattle soon became the gateway to the Klondike, starting point for the steamships and chief supply center for the prospectors. A motley fleet of ramshackle steamers headed north loaded with fortune-seekers. They were men and women, white folks and black folks, old-timers and towheaded schoolboys. They were Seattle Mayor W.D. Wood and former Washington Gov. John McGraw, a promising young novelist named Jack London and a mediocre poet named Robert Service. They were Swedish boatbuilders and Chinese railroad workers, Russian sailors and British nobles, a great tide of humanity all determined to reach the same God-forsaken corner of a frozen Canadian wilderness.
Most of them never made it. If you were rich, it wasn't too rough; you could buy comfortable space on a steamer to St. Michaels, at the mouth of the Yukon, then travel by riverboat some 1,700 miles upstream to Dawson. Most, like Mont Hawthorne, were not rich. So they traveled the hard way. They collected up to a ton of supplies - clothing, tents, mining equipment, guns and ammunition, sacks of flour, sugar, beans, bacon . . . even horses, mules or dogs. They loaded their outfits onto crowded steamers or sailing ships and spent a couple of weeks beating into North Pacific storms to Skagway or other crude Alaskan ports.
Most crossed the Chilkoot or White passes in the dead of winter, enabling them to haul their gear much of the way on sleds. Temperatures dropped well-below zero and stayed there. Blizzards lasted for days. The summit of the Chilkoot was too steep for sleds, so many had to haul their outfits over one pack at a time - 20 or more trips hauling 100-pound loads up and over a rugged mountain pass. At Lake Bennett, they went to work sawing logs into planks for rudimentary boats. Mid-May, when the ice finally broke up, thousands launched their homemade boats onto the lakes and resumed the exodus - 600 miles across vast lakes, through whitewater rapids and mosquito-infested bogs. At each obstacle in the course, there were those who threw up their hands, sold their outfits and limped back home. Others persisted, endured. Hundreds died for their efforts - shipwrecked on the rocky Northwest coast, murdered for their outfits, buried in snow avalanches or frozen in their sleep, drowned in the Yukon River rapids or fallen by dysentery or other diseases in the muddy streets of Dawson.
Pierre Berton, a Canadian historian, figures 100,000 people set out for the Klondike in 1897-99. Of those, about one-third eventually reached it. Perhaps half of those actually worked in the gold fields, and a few hundred actually got rich. And most of those who found their fortunes squandered them on booze or bad investments before they made it back to civilization - if, indeed, they made it back.
Mont Hawthorne made it to Dawson, but he did not find much gold, barely enough to make his expenses.
And then he went home. What did he and thousands like him get for their efforts? Why this Herculean struggle to reach a virtually unmapped wilderness where the richest claims were staked out long before most fortune-seekers left home? What was this stampede about? That's why we're going back - me and Mont and Pedro. To see if we can figure that out.
Maybe it was simple greed, a need to get rich quick. Maybe it was desperation. Maybe it had to do with the raw beauty and challenge of Mother Nature, with that foggy notion of Frontier and The American West. Maybe it was the mystery of the unknown, an age-old love for adventure.
Whatever it was, Mont seemed to understand. It kept him moving for some 80 years - from the family farm in Pennsylvania to the plains of Nebraska. Then to the Black Hills country, on to the mines of Wyoming and across the continent to San Francisco. From there it turned him north, up the coast to Astoria and Puget Sound. And, finally, to Alaska, the Yukon and the Klondike.
It's a powerful thing, Mont says. But he can't explain it. He knows the feeling but not the words. Gotta go and see for yourself, he says. You gotta steam up the Inside Passage, where the glaciers slither down the mountains to meet the Pacific Ocean. Gotta step off the boat and resist the sinpots of Skagway, hoist a 60-pound backpack, climb Chilkoot Pass in a 40-mile-an hour gale. Gotta ride the big water through Five Finger Rapids.
You do it, says Mont. And then you'll understand why I did it.
So there you have it. Mama, we're goin' Up North.
Klondike! -- Trip To Goldfields Begins With Trip To Store --
"I gotta have a year's supply of grub," Mont Hawthorne instructed his grocer back in 1897. "It's got to be first-rate stuff. The list can be changed at your suggestion, but I've given it considerable thought."
So began Mont's Klondike expedition in 1897-99. Hardly a romantic beginning. "I'd rather pack 150 pounds all day than go shoppin'," he recalled later.
Me, too. But it's 1,500 miles from Seattle to Dawson City and the gold fields - 900 miles up the Inside Passage to Skagway, 35 miles of heavy packing over the Chilkoot Pass, then 550 miles through subarctic lakes and down the Yukon River.
Seeing as how Mont, my historical traveling companion and guide, has been there before, I paid particular attention to his "Yukon outfit."
He started with his grub. A year's supply of flour, sugar, baking powder, soda, chocolate, bacon shortening, syrup, rice, beans, canned milk, dried pears, peaches, apples, raisins and prunes. "Don't cotton much to prunes," Mont explained. "But they're good to have."
His food was packed in heavy canvas bags with no labels. Just a number. That way, any thief along the trail wouldn't know if he was stealing a bag of chocolate, beans or sand.
A stout Mackinaw coat, two heavy shirts, red flannel underwear, two pairs of woolen mittens, two wool caps, lots of wool socks - all knitted by his aging mother. Two pairs of heavy wool pants, three pairs of cotton pants, cotton overalls big enough to fit over his woolen pants. "You can freeze to death easy in wool, cause the wind goes right through it," Mont explained. "But if you got cotton on the outside of the wool, you keep all the heat of your body."
Gotta sleep warm up North. So Mont bought two wool blankets. One weighed 14 pounds. He sewed them together into a sleeping bag, designed so he could put a canvas cover on the outside.
Hammer and nails. A hand drill with an inch-and-a-quarter bit. Ax and square. Handsaw and ripsaw for making a boat plumb. Caulking chisel, oakum for sealing boat seams, oar locks and fishing hooks, including big "shark hooks." "They always come in handy for getting bodies out after drownings." Rope, pick and shovel. Goldpan. Quicksilver for gathering fine gold. Pitch, and a pot to melt it in. Canvas tent. Ammunition for a .30-.40 Winchester rifle and for a .44 revolver. Folding Yukon stove, pans, skillet, two strong buckets, box of candles, matches packed in a tin. Two hickory Yukon sleds, made light and strong, 6 feet long by 16 inches wide.
A medicine kit with old linen napkins boiled for bandages, epsom salts, tincture of benzoine, turpentine, mosquito netting, homemade soap and sewing supplies.
Then there were the two dogs. Pedro, a big, red-haired part-St. Bernard, and a black Newfoundland. Mont also gave serious thought to taking a couple of cats. "Cats is useful," he explains. "And they are good company besides. I figgered I could kill birds along the trail to feed them. And then I could make a lot of money selling kittens to lonesome prospectors in Dawson. "I was fool enough to let folks laugh me out of those cats. I could've sold them in Dawson for fifty dollars apiece, easy."
As an afterthought, Mont packed his outfit in a big, wooden piano crate to protect it from rats on the steamer trip. When everything was packed, the crate weighed 2,600 pounds. Mont figured he was ready to go.
Fortunately, my outfit is less complicated. And 2,540 pounds lighter. But it still took a couple of weeks to assemble, then whittle down. Two pounds of oatmeal, a half-pound of French Roast coffee, a dozen paper coffee filters, a dozen granola bars, powdered milk, instant cocoa, tea bags, one can of chicken, one can of clams, three "gourmet" trail meals (of which I am highly skeptical), five packets of various pasta dishes, two pounds of trail mix with dried fruit and nuts, spices, olive oil. . . . And dried prunes, an appreciation I share with Mont and few others. My grub is stowed in Ziploc baggies, guaranteed to cause no confusion among thieves.
Then there is the hardware. Large pocketknife, pocket tool, MSR stove with two bottles of fuel, two-man tent (6 pounds), 2 1/2-pound sleeping bag, self-inflating pad, ground tarp, overhead tarp converted from old rainfly, binoculars, small porcelain-coated pot, water bottle, all-purpose bowl, eating utensils, insulated coffee cup, three Bic lighters, 50 feet of nylon line, first-aid kit with lots of Ibuprofin, one can of mosquito repellent, one can of pepper spray for fending off bears.
Heavy fleece shirt and pants, trail pants made of unknown miracle fabric, two pairs of nylon shorts with lots of pockets, cotton T-shirt, polypropylene long johns, five pairs of socks and a lightweight nylon rainjacket. Five reporter's notebooks, a half-dozen pens, waterproof notebook, weatherproof 35mm camera, five rolls of film, paperback editions of Pierre Berton, Tappan Adney, Murray Morgan and Jack London. . . . And a dog-eared copy of "The Trail Led North - Mont Hawthorne's Story," thoroughly underlined and annotated, and carefully stowed in its own waterproof bag. ("Well, I'll be danged!," Mont declares, which is the closest he gets to a profanity.)
My outfit rides in a brand-new, internal-frame backpack. It fits, barely, but only after some shedding.
"What's all that weigh?," Mont wants to know.
Sixty pounds. Fifty, without the books and stationery.
"Dang! That sure ain't gonna get you far!"
"It's OK, Mont. It's been a while. These days, we can resupply in Whitehorse, and there are supermarkets in Dawson."
Mont is obsessed with my tent and polypropylene fleece. He fingers it, smells it, furrows his brow. "What's this stuff made of?" he asks.
Various chemicals. Petroleum. I understand the fleece is made from old milk cartons.
"Son, I wasn't born yesterday, you know."
"It's great stuff, Mont." Nylon sheds water far better than canvas. The poly material wicks moisture away from the skin and dries quickly.
"So what's the downside?"
"You gotta be careful around fires."
"Well, it melts."
Mont's eyes light up. Well, when we get to Lake Bennett and start building our boat, we can use this stuff to caulk the seams.
Klondike! -- `Pack Your Things, Cause We're Going To Alaska'
ABOARD THE FERRY COLUMBIA IN THE GEORGIA STRAIT - Barely 10 days ago, Chris Syrjala woke her four children and said: "Pack your things, gang, cause we're going to Alaska!"
"Today! Let's get going."
Eight hours later, Syrjala and her teenaged brood were camped comfortably in a lightweight tent next to mine, lashed to the stern of the Alaska ferry Columbia, and headed up North.
Nary a complaint was heard from the Syrjala clan. "It's crazy, I know," Mom admits. "But I've always wanted to make this trip. I called the ferry Friday morning, and they had room for us on deck. I thought about it: The kids were all out of school - uncommitted - and three of them go for half-fare. If not now, then when?"
So it goes for most of the 643 souls (plus 66 crew members) aboard the Columbia, which tossed off its lines on a Friday evening and headed north.
We are a motley band of adventurers. Take, for example, Tom and Carolyn Ganner, geologists and seasoned travelers from Death Valley, Calif. A few weeks ago, they drove north to Bellingham and climbed onto the Alaska ferry, determined to hike the Chilkoot Pass.
Or Jim and Gloria McCarthy, from Tulare, Calif., who are on a two-week package tour of Alaska to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. Or the retired timber executive from Seattle and his wife en route to Skagway to visit their son.
There is 19-year-old Matt, with a scraggly moustache and rings through his lower lip, who plans to get a job in a fish cannery in Ketchikan. His pal, Skip, has set his sights higher. He plans on making big bucks in the Prudhoe Bay oil fields. He hasn't yet figured out that when he reaches the end of this voyage, he's still not halfway to Prudhoe Bay.
Then there's your reporter, a vagabond journalist just setting out to retrace the trail of the Klondike Gold Rush, the frenzied event that put Seattle on the map. And my historical traveling companion, Mont Hawthorne, with his shaggy dog, Pedro. Both made this trip nearly 100 years ago, and their spirit now inhabits this ship.
With just 91 cabins, the Columbia has berths for fewer than half of us. But this doesn't matter. Passengers have made camp in the lounges and on the stern decks, where I count 79 tents of various sizes, colors and shapes. Tent City, as it is called, quickly becomes a successful experiment in close living and human collaboration. Those on the edge lash their tents to the rails. Others duct tape their tents to the deck and lash them together. The winds and slipstream cause the lightweight domes to shudder and bend like amoeba, but nobody is blown away. People share food, trade stories, watch each other's kids and alert each other to sightings of whales, bald eagles, genuine Alaskans or other wildlife.
Under other circumstances, these conditions might lead to hard feelings. But not here. The Columbia is fueled by a sense of adventure.
"It wasn't much different a century ago," says Mont, my friend and guide. “There ain't nothin' like heading up North to make folks feel their oats," he says, shaking his head and stroking his footlong beard as he examines Tent City.
One hundred years ago, Mont set out from Astoria aboard the round-bottomed steamer, George W. Elder, bound for Skagway and the Klondike gold fields via this same route. Unlike our voyage, the Elder encountered foul winter storms through the Inside Passage, the ship rocking and rolling until "everyone was sicker 'n dogs," Mont recalls. "No, that ain't right, 'cause Pedro and the rest of them dogs was even worse off. . . .
"But sick as I was, and foolish as it might seem to give up a good job to go prospecting, I was glad, REAL GLAD, that I was headin' up North."
By that time, after the arrival in Seattle on July 17, 1897, of the steamer, Portland, and its cargo of gold and newly-rich prospectors, the stampede was well under way. In the five weeks following the Portland's arrival, at least 20 steamers left Seattle and other West Coast ports, bound for Alaska and the Yukon River. The small Seattle steamer, Alki, was the first to get under way, horribly overloaded with 110 passengers, 900 sheep, 65 head of cattle, 30 horses and 350 tons of supplies.
Even Seattle Mayor W.C. Wood was afflicted with Klondike fever. He submitted his resignation, raised $150,000 from various investors, bought an ocean steamer, and began selling tickets and cargo space. Every northbound ship was similarly, and dangerously, overloaded.
"Didn't matter one bit," says Mont. "Folks was feeling their oats. They figgered their luck was good, or they wouldn't be starting out in the first place. So no matter what happens to them, they go around talkin' and braggin' and hopin'."
He eases back in his lounge chair, watching the forested slopes and snow-capped peaks drift past the window. "We felt good. That is, at first we did. We didn't know what was ahead of us. We was headed north, and that's all we cared."
Reality made a rude appearance the next day, as the George W. Elder steamed toward Juneau. "We got word that a ship had blowed up between Juneau and Skagway," Mont recalled, still gazing out that window. "We was supposed to keep going past Juneau, find that ship and look for survivors."
They pressed on to where the steamer, Clara Nevada, had been reported. "We gathered in little groups along the rail, while the boat jig-jagged back and forth. We come to a place where the water was covered with boards and stuff. . . . But there wasn't a soul left. Seemed like, just standing there and looking at those little boards that had been that big ship, and then looking up at them high mountains, and knowin' we had to go over them, and then on beyond. . . . Well, it quieted us down. . . . Somehow, we didn't feel the same way anymore. This country didn't look so cordial. It made you feel like cutting out the horseplay and saying a prayer for those fellows who wasn't here no more. And maybe for the rest of us who didn't know what was ahead of us, either."
Klondike! -- Sights Along Inside Passage
ABOARD THE FERRY COLUMBIA IN THE CHATHAM STRAIT - Our ship steams steadily northwest through channels so narrow you want to reach out and pluck spruce limbs from the shoreline, then into inland seas like this one, where vast expanses of sea and sky are bisected by distant, jagged mountain ranges.
From the stern of the ship, immersed in reading Mont Hawthorne's Klondike stories, I watch a school of porpoise frolicking in the ship's frothy wake. Each sighting of orcas or humpback whales, porpoise or bald eagles draws scores of fellow travelers to the rails, cameras whirring. Beneath cloudless skies, surrounded by breathtaking views, a blissful air of freedom pervades our ship. The mood was established within minutes of leaving the dock at Bellingham. It lingers three days later as we approach our destination. We are the only ship on our horizon.
"This," says Capt. Ervin Hagerup, master of the Columbia, "is Alaska's best-kept secret."
The Columbia is outclassed by the grand cruise ships we pass along the way. There is no casino, no swimming pool, no stage show, no grand buffet with white-hatted chefs carving roast beef to order. What we have are the essentials: the Inside Passage, a wilderness of spruce forests, tidewater glaciers, wildlife galore, plus good company and the romance of the North Country.
All this at Alaska Marine Highway fares a working stiff can afford without tapping the kids' college fund.
My journey from Bellingham to Skagway covers 900 spectacular miles - more if you count detours to Southeast ports like Petersburg and Sitka. The price for three days of bliss, and seven feet of deck space for my tent, is $246. Mont Hawthorne, my historical friend, and his dog Pedro, ride for free. Mont is impressed.
Hagerup, a compact and soft-spoken man with a thin moustache, surveys the lower decks, where 643 passengers are having their breath taken away. "I've been cruising these waters for 30 years, and I never get tired of it," he says. "So imagine what it's like for folks from Iowa. They've been wanting to do this all their lives. And this is it."
The Inside Passage has been luring people north for more than a century. Even before the Klondike Gold Rush, frontier towns like Juneau and Sitka were attracting visitors. Salmon canneries drew fishermen and cannery workers, some of whom fell for the place and stayed.
But it took a national stampede to a Canadian gold field 600 miles inland to truly market Alaska - and its gateway, Seattle - to the rest of the world. Even when the gold fields had played out, Alaska continued to fire the imagination. Newspaper and magazine ads from early in the century sold package deals on Alaska steamers, many of them decked out with chandeliers, teak paneling, white linens, and hot and cold water. Wealthy tourists from around the world helped to make fortunes for companies like Alaska Steamship. Alaska natives adapted their ancient handicrafts, carving miniature totems for the mantles of rich tourists.
But for most people, a northern adventure was out of reach. The Alaska ferries, known as the Alaska Marine Highway, made it affordable. About 400,000 people each year board these prosaic but comfortable ships that link communities from Juneau to Wrangell to Metlakatla.
"It's easy to forget how isolated these communities are, particularly in the winter when flying is tough," Hagerup says.
In the summer, the Columbia is jammed with outside adventurers, tour groups, fortune-seekers - in some respects, the contemporary descendants of prospectors who plied these waters a century ago.
But most of the ferry system's clientele are Alaskans, whose most reliable link to neighbors and points south is this floating highway.
The system is in jeopardy. Its state subsidy is a juicy target for Interior Alaska politicians who dominate the state Legislature. They don't equate the ferry system's annual $25 million worth of red ink with a conventional highway. Southeast Alaskans argue that fares are too high, schedules are inadequate and the fleet is aging. The state, they say, does a poor job marketing the profitable run to Washington state.
"To really appreciate all this, come back in the fall or spring, the shoulders of the season, when the weather is still pretty good, but the tourist traffic thins out," the skipper says. "That's when Alaskans like to ride these boats. It may get a bit tougher on the open water, but the overall atmosphere is more . . . well, more Alaskan. You sense that pioneer spirit."
I promise to do that. But not now. Mont and I have a mission farther up North.
Klondike! -- Skagway, Alaska: Heart Of Darkness
SKAGWAY, Alaska - In the winter of 1897-98, Mont Hawthorne stepped off the steamer George W. Elder and into a northern Heart of Darkness. Just six months earlier, Skagway had been a remote outpost at the top of Lynn Canal, which juts into the coastal mountains north of Juneau. By mid-winter, it was a seething mass of 5,000 people. Most of them were desperate to cross the mountains to the Klondike gold fields. The rest were looking for ways to mine the miners.
"Things was about as bad as they could get," says Mont. The town was in winter darkness 16 hours per day. There were saloons on every corner, dance halls, whorehouses, gamblers, swindlers, con men and no legitimate lawmen. A well-traveled Englishman described it as "the most outrageously lawless quarter I ever struck. . . . It seemed as if the scum of the earth had hastened here to fleece and rob or to murder. . . . Might was right."
And the unchallenged ruler of this darkness was a notorious bunko artist last seen on the Seattle waterfront - Jefferson "Soapy" Smith.
Minutes after stepping off the ship, Mont was confronted by one of Smith's mob, suspicious of Mont's big piano crate.
"You got a piano," says the thug. "That means you come up here to start a dance hall. And we got something to say about any businesses that opens around here."
Mont would have gotten himself into trouble, but an old friend from Oregon intervened and explained that the box contained not a piano, but Mont's rat-proof Yukon outfit.
Walking through town, Mont encountered a man sitting on his Yukon sled, head in his hands, mumbling to himself. "It's hell. It's hell. Multiply it by ten, and that ain't half as bad as this is."
A century later, Skagway is a long way from hell. This time of year, it's one part Alaska, two parts Disneyland. There is barely enough flat land for one main street lined with wooden storefronts, many dating to the gold rush.
There's the Klondike Park headquarters, the Skagway News, the Red Onion Saloon (once Smith's headquarters), dozens of gift shops and the venerable Skagway Inn, a one-time brothel converted to a small hotel.
Summer days begin quietly enough - perhaps a few hikers hitching a ride from Dyea Road to the foot of the Chilkoot Trail nine miles away. But by mid-morning, there is at least one big, white cruise ship anchored in the harbor. By noon, there may be two more, each unleashing its army of tourists - in a single day as many as 6,000 camera-toting seniors, Japanese tour groups, German adventurers and California honeymooners - upon this small village.
Cruise-ship companies favor Skagway for the same reasons the steamers did a century ago: a decent harbor, access to the interior and a town with plenty of entertainment.
Skagway, of course, welcomes the invaders. With logging in decline, tourists are the local economy. And cruise ships provide most of the tourists - customers for gift shops, tour buses, railroad tours up the pass and back, helicopter rides, whitewater raft trips, ice cream parlors and more. For eight to 10 hours a day, Skagway teems with bus traffic, honky-tonk piano music, train whistles and chopper flyovers reminiscent of another Heart of Darkness.
But like all economies, the tourist windfall has a price tag. Cruise-ship passengers tax the town's all-volunteer emergency-medic squad -three calls the day I was in town. The helicopters annoy hikers and others who come for wilderness experiences. Trash generated by tourists compounds headaches at the local dump, which is overflowing - a huge problem in a town where flat land is scarce.
"The cruise companies are trying to be good neighbors," says Sioux Plummer, propietor of the Skagway Inn and town mayor. "We're talking to them about getting medical help during the tourist season. But you also don't want to look a gift horse in the mouth."
Mercifully, the invasions are short-lived. Late in the day, the tourists return to their ships and Skagway heaves a sigh and tallies up its profits.
Come September, the ships become less frequent. By the end of the month, the town throws a party and begins hunkering down for a long winter. It's a curious life cycle, the flip side to the gold rush. Like other Southeast Alaskan ports, folks here resent the invasions, but also thrive on them. And perhaps they remember that day, two or 20 years ago, when they stepped off a boat and onto the streets of this northern hideaway, and somehow decided to stay.
Not me. Not for now. One day in the city is plenty for Mont and me. We're gathering our outfits, repacking our gear and gazing up at the coastal mountains and their ice-blue glaciers, feeling the pull of the Klondike gold fields.
Klondike! -- Trail Up Chilkoot Pass Not For Weak - Or Meek --
To get up here from down there, you start early. Preferably before dawn. Except that in the northern summer, there is no dawn, only a gray dusk that lingers through the night and segues into tomorrow.
So we start at 6 a.m. "We" being an accidental assemblage of humanity who have met at a trailside camp 12 miles up the Chilkoot Pass. We are an Anchorage historian with her 16-year-old son. We are a couple in their 40s, geologists from Southern California. We are a middle-aged accountant from Vancouver, B.C., on a weeklong jaunt with his 10-year-old son named, appropriately, Dawson. We are a group of 10 Czechs, mostly from Prague, including a skinny fellow with a beard who carries a full-sized guitar strapped to his backpack, two older fellows who march along with ski poles, and a 60ish woman named Lida with sparkling gray eyes and calves of Slavic iron.
And we are me, a burned-out political columnist traveling with a tattered copy of the stories of the late Mont Hawthorne, Klondiker extraordinaire.
The common denominator is Chilkoot Pass, best-known route to the Klondike gold fields, whose centennial we will observe with the toughest physical challenge many of us have undertaken in years - if ever.
The Czechs are first out of camp. They nod farewell and tromp off with a clatter of ski poles and thick-soled boots. The rest of us fall into place.
From Sheep Camp, the trail wanders briefly alongside the upper Taiya River. Here and there, hidden in the tangled undergrowth, are rusted traces of the tent city that sprouted here 100 years ago and then disappeared almost as quickly a year later. All too soon, the trail lurches upward, past the tree line and onto snow fields alternating with rock piles. The trail becomes no trail at all, but rather a series of markers - rock cairns erected by rangers, or orange PVC pipe jammed into crevasses.
The going gets tough. At one point, I'm struggling to keep my footing on snowfields, listening for the telltale gurgle of water that indicates thin snow. A few feet higher, I'm lifting an aching leg to a rocky step carved by the boots of a thousand predecessors, gripping a clammy ridge of basalt for support.
The real ascent is yet to come. After two exhausting hours and a liter of water, I stagger over a rocky ridge to The Scales - so named because this is where hired packers stopped, reweighed their loads and raised their rates before attacking the summit.
My friends are there, cooling off and gazing upward at our first good glimpse of that famous ascent. Above us is an even-steeper slope of rocks, topped by a seemingly vertical snowfield. And speckled up that field of white is a column of 10 ant-like figures, moving slowly, steadily, upward. . . .
It's the Czechs - guitar and all. They are approaching the summit, and I have hardly begun.
A century ago, Mont Hawthorne's first glimpse came from the top, looking down. "That wasn't no pass at all," he recalled later. "It was a straight up-and-down mountain. Way down at the foot of the pass, I could see men clustered around. . . . And straight up from the bottom was a line of men climbing. They was climbing them fifteen hundred steps cut out of the ice. The slow ones set the pace, but nobody could have hurried anyhow. Fellows on top told me it took them six hours to make the last thousand feet. Every man was bent almost double under the load he was carrying. The fellows who had cut the steps collected a toll from the climbers."
That image, recorded on film by E.A. Hegg and other pioneer photographers, has come to symbolize the Klondike Gold Rush. But for me, that image will always be modified by the sight of those Czechs. . . .
I hoist my pack and start again - from rock piles to snowfield and back to rock, ever steeper until the best I can do is 15 steps and rest, then 10, then five. To my left are strands of rusted steel cable, remnants of the overhead tramway built by entrepreneurs in 1898 to carry the outfits of those who could afford it. I begin looking for flat rocks where I can rest my pack without taking it off. The overcast has burned off, putting us in direct sun.
The pay-off is a series of spectacular views back down the pass. The price is heat, a pounding heart and eyeglasses dripping with sweat.
I reached the base of the last snowfield, which seems to climb vertically over a rise and out of sight. I rest briefly, sip some water, start again. Five steps and rest. Panting. Aching calves, hips and shoulders. Don't stop too long. Keep going.
My climb is an afternoon outing compared with a century ago, when stampeders climbed this pass 10 times, 20 times, maybe more, all in the dead of winter, with 100-pound packs.
They must have known, I think to myself. How could they not have known, that this grand adventure was an exercise in futility, a fantastic P.R. scam? They must have known, by this point, that gold nuggets were not to be found lying on the ground. That the rich Klondike claims were taken long before the vessel Portland arrived in Seattle. How could a single stampeder have looked around at thousands of men, women and children, all struggling toward the same remote valley in the Yukon wilderness, and not reassess their odds?
But then, if they were so naive, what about old Mont, as worldly and practical a fellow as I've ever encountered? What about the Vancouver accountant and the California geologist and yours truly, all subjecting ourselves to four days of physical punishment to reach a place we could have driven to in a couple of hours?
I still don't understand, but whatever motivated Mont and 100,000 others a century ago is alive and well and stumbling up the Chilkoot Trail.
Twenty more steps carved in slushy snow. Then 10, then 5. One last step toward a slab of rock . . . the snow gives, dropping me, pack and all, into a damp six-foot chasm. Only my hat is left at the surface. Luckily, I land on flat rock. The only casualty is my dignity. Which I can handle.
I hoist my pack to the surface and look for a way out. There's that rusty cable snaking through a crevice. I test it. It holds. I'm out in a matter of seconds, saved by a 100-year-old tramway.
And now I'm at the summit. It's noon, and most of my friends have already arrived, scattered in the midday sun, eating lunch and drinking in the splendid views. I dump my pack and reach for a notebook. It's saturated with snow, little more than blotted ink.
No matter. I'll remember.
Klondike! -- Chilkoot Trail Park Is Truly International
CHILKOOT SUMMIT - Perched on a rocky promontory that straddles the U.S.-Canada boundary, two women in khaki and green shirts are engaged in high-level diplomacy - 3,500 feet high, to be exact.
Still recovering from my climb, your reporter intervenes.
Donna Hoitsma, a U.S. park ranger based at Sheep Camp, patrols 16 miles of the Chilkoot Trail between here and Dyea. Libby Gunn, a Parks Canada warden, is based here at the summit and patrols the 16 miles east to Bennett. Both are young and unspeakably fit. While your reporter has panted and struggled up the storied Chilkoot ascent, Hoitsma has virtually pranced up, whistling all the way. Her performance leaves me feeling grimly 50-ish.
Now they nibble at a light lunch while comparing notes on bear problems at Lindeman and the previous day's rescue of an injured hiker.
"We meet as frequently as we can," Hoitsma says. "It beats the heck out of trying to sort things out over the radio."
The Klondike Park, which extends, in a sense, from Seattle to Dawson City, is a truly international park. Rangers manage the American side, wardens the Canadian side. But they work closely together. "Our missions are the same, but there are differences in the way we handle things," Hoitsma says.
Their bosses in Ottawa and Washington, D.C., could learn from their example. These two nations continue to share some 4,000 miles of common border. But the relationship has always had its tensions over matters ranging from salmon to acid rain. And the Chilkoot summit, where one can gaze many miles into each nation's wilderness, is an appropriate place to ponder the differences.
A century ago, at the height of the Klondike Gold Rush, much of the world believed the gold fields lay in Alaska - U.S. territory. So it came as a surprise when Klondikers learned they were crossing uninvited onto Canadian soil, and that Canada was fully prepared to assert its authority. As thousands poured up and over the passes, they learned that the still ill-defined boundary between Alaska and British Columbia was a line of many demarcations.
Here the uphill trail turned downhill, the climate went from wet to dry, moderate to extreme. But for the stampeders, the fundamental difference was security. Skagway and Dyea, on the Alaska side, had sunk into cesspools of crime and rackets, ruled by "Soapy" Smith and his mob.
"The real trouble was in American territory," Mont Hawthorne, my historical companion, recalled later.
The few authorities in Skagway and Dyea were either toothless or on Smith's payroll, Mont said. "But the Mounties had men stationed here and there from the top of the passes clean on down the Yukon to where American territory started again."
The problems lay in that narrow strip of U.S. territory - Southeast Alaska. That strip was an accident of history, a windfall claimed by the U.S. on the basis of a couple of Russian ports established long before the Alaska Purchase. The effect was to cut much of British Columbia, and all of the Yukon Territory, off from the Pacific - a fact that continues to aggravate issues such as the U.S.-Canada Salmon Treaty.
As a result, stampeders moved from Alaska, through a corner of British Columbia and into the Yukon Territory, all in less than 100 miles. At the summit, the invading hordes promptly encountered contingents of Mounties who, concerned about the lack of supplies in Dawson, required each immigrant to show he carried a year's worth of food.
The Mounties' presence also changed the atmosphere of the event. Somehow, when folks reached the Chilkoot summit and headed down toward Bennett, the whole affair became more civil. "I think there's always been something about the Mounties," says Hoitsma, gazing down the Chilkoot. "Maybe they're held with more respect than the American equivalents."
Canadian law enforcement doesn't fool around. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, after all, represented no less than The Queen Herself. In Canada, there are fewer constraints on government, especially law enforcement. Even today, it is the Canadians who require a $35 permit and a reservation to hike the Chilkoot; the U.S. Park Service remains essentially laissez faire. "And it's the Americans, particularly the Alaskans, who try to come over without a permit," grumbles Gunn, the Canadian warden.
"It's that Alaskan attitude," agrees Hoitsma, herself an Alaskan who has earned her mukluks many times over. "Nobody's going to tell us what to do."
Yukoners deal with the same harsh environment, the same sub-zero temperatures, Gunn says. But there are no militias, no gun-toting tax resisters. To Canadians, government is a fact of life, not unlike the cold.
"Maybe it goes back to the way the two nations separated themselves from Great Britain," Hoitsma suggests.
Makes sense: The U.S. had an armed revolution, while the Canadians spent 200 years negotiating a mutually agreeable arrangement.
They think about that for a minute, nod their heads and decide they had better do something about that problem bear.
I don my backpack, bid farewell and trundle off to the north, bound once more for the gold fields.
And remind myself to touch base with Canadian Customs.
Klondike! -- Hundred-Year-Old `Treasures'
BENNETT, B.C. - "CAUTION: BEARS ON THE BENNETT TRAIL." The sign is clearly new and very official, highlighted with pink ribbons. It reiterates warnings from fellow hikers. And it gets my attention.
Four days I have been trodding northward from Dyea, Alaska, bound for Lake Bennett and, ultimately, the Klondike. I am hiking alone now, setting my own pace, which is to say ponderous, savoring the open terrain, the big sky and the alpine-like life of the interior.
Back on the wet side, most of the gold-rush relics have long since been reclaimed by the dense, coastal rain forest. On this side, history is better exhibited in the sparse forests, better preserved by nature's refrigeration. Here, on a rock next to Deep Lake, is a four-foot sled, its rusted iron rails wrapped elegantly around solid hickory runners. There's the iron skeleton of a 12-foot portable boat, shreds of century-old canvas still dangling from its frames.
But the prospect of confronting a bear is a tad sobering - especially alone. I consult with Mont Hawthorne, my historical friend, and am quickly reminded that he, like most of the 1898 stampeders, crossed the mountains in the winter while the bears hibernated.
Now I trek the Lindeman to Bennett Trail, occasionally clapping or shouting my presence to the neighborhood bruin. A mile up the trail, I hear a tromp-tromp from behind. This is no bear; it's the Czechs. Ten mountaineers from Prague, aged 25-60, who are not so much hiking the Chilkoot as marching it. Twenty-five miles back, I learned the appropriate response is to smile and get out of the way.
The Czechs march past, nodding hello. Here's the bearded fellow with the guitar strapped to his pack, the 50ish fellow swinging his ski poles, and finally, Lida Prouza, about 5-foot-2 and 60-something, who carries a pack roughly her size and weight, and would carry mine, too, if I let her. She stops and chats merrily, then resumes the march. I feel much better. If there are bears ahead, they must contend with Lida and company. My money is on the Czechs.
Bennett has no bears, just mosquitoes of bear-like proportions, a smattering of ghosts and piles of century-old trash. A hundred years ago, the upper shores of Lake Bennett became what Klondike historian Pierre Berton calls "the greatest tent city in the world." By the spring of '98, more than 30,000 people had poured over the mountain passes to the shores of this magnificent lake. Here they would pound together their boats and rafts, and wait for the ice to break up so they could launch the next, and last, stage of their exodus 600 miles through the lakes and down the Yukon River to the City of Gold.
My friend, Mont, was one of them. As soon as he returned from his Chilkoot journey, he started looking for a place to build his boat. "I kept walking and walking," Mont recalls, "but I wasn't getting below the tents pitched thick along the shore. . . . Blamed if the lake wasn't as crowded as the passes."
Eventually, he found his spot in a cove sheltered from the wind, with good timber that wouldn't have too many knots. And there he went to work, felling trees, sawing them into planks and assembling them into a sturdy, flat-bottomed scow capable of hauling his 1 1/2-ton Yukon outfit. Unlike most of his fellow stampeders, Mont knew how to build a boat. So, on May 29, 1898, when the lake creaked and rumbled and the ice began to slither north, Mont was in the first wave of boats to follow it.
A city of 30,000 packed up its tents and moved on, leaving nothing but tree stumps, ghosts and garbage.
Today, Bennett sits silently at the top of the lake. There is no public road here, just a rustic church, a seldom-used railroad station and a campground for Chilkoot hikers like me and Mont. . . . And anything the Klondikers didn't need to haul downriver. There are piles of rusted tin cans and broken bottles extending from the lake far into the young forest, which is only now rebounding from the saws of '98. There are dozens of abandoned cookstoves, pots and pans and an enamel wringer-washer that looks like it might wash again.
To the modern environmentalist, Bennett is a morality lesson about waste and landfills, and fouling one's own nest. To the historian or archaeologist, it is a treasure, a modern-day midden that offers important evidence about how people lived their lives a century ago.
To Mont and me, Bennett represents history of another kind. We have our mission. The ice is long gone, and we're on our way downstream to the gold fields.
Klondike -- When Ice Breaks Up, It's All Downstream To The Goldfields
CARCROSS, Yukon Territory - "Some folks don't like water," observes Mont Hawthorne, my historical friend. "Now me, I do. Yes sir, there's a lot to see in the Yukon country, and it's a dang sight easier to see it from a boat than it is when you're all bent over with a pack on your back."
My sentiments exactly. The Chilkoot Trail was splendid, but punishing. So I had no qualms about climbing into the powerboat that would shuttle me and my fellow hikers down spectacular Lake Bennett to Carcross, where I would launch the next phase of my journey to the goldfields.
There is some dispute over which lake forms the headwaters of the Yukon River. For Klondikers a century ago, it was Lake Bennett. From here to Dawson City was 608 miles of lakes and river, Mother Nature's freeway to the Klondike. And it appeared to be all downhill.
Lake Bennett imposed some critical decisions over how to negotiate this last stage. The mountain passes favored loners; the lakes and river did not. Three or four men could build and sail a bigger, stronger boat - a significant economy of scale, plus a safety factor.
Mont knew this. He studied the people around him, identified two, who he recalled as Gander and Wilson from Vancouver, B.C. Gander was a plasterer, Wilson a railroad man, and both looked like serious workers. "They didn't know nothing about boat-building, so they asked me if I'd show them," Mont recalls. "We agreed to throw in together."
On May 29, 1898, the ice on Lake Bennett groaned and rumbled. Within two days, the way had been cleared through the upper lakes, which became the setting for one of the oddest flotillas in maritime history. Headed downstream were 7,124 boats laden with some 30,000 people and 30 million pounds of supplies. There were 20-ton scows loaded with oxen, Peterborough canoes that had been packed over the mountain passes, and everything in between.
"One was built square by a fellow who was going down alone," Mont says. "He had two sets of oarlocks, and he had put one in each side. When we passed him, he didn't seem to be making much headway frontwards. But the funniest boat I ever did see was one four fellows built up near us on Bennett. They had come up the Mississippi from New Orleans on an old side-wheeler, so they built their boat with two small side-wheels instead of using oars. Each wheel was on a crank, and they took turns playing engine."
Mont, meanwhile, had become the designated "captain" of a fleet of 10 men in five traditional scows and skiffs, all of which he had helped build. By the time they sailed past the Mountie station at Carcross, tradition had been vindicated: Mont's boats worked.
Carcross is a dusty native village and century-old roadhouse nestled in a spectacular northern setting. From here, one gazes across vast lakes to snow-capped mountains and a sky that seems twice the size of anything down south. For generations, it was a crossroads between Alaska, Whitehorse and the Outside World. The Caribou Hotel, three stories of weathered planking and tin roofing, was a must stop, home to a famous parrot known for its foul vocabulary.
But the village and its native population appears to have fallen on hard times. The grand riverboat that once graced its banks burned several years ago, leaving only a charred shell. The hotel reeks of beer and rot. At noon on a Sunday, the bar is filled with native youths drinking beer, shooting pool and mocking the tourists that climb off the tour buses for a cup of coffee. The old railroad station has been converted into a visitor center, but the rest of the village is in disrepair. Nobody stays anymore; everybody is on the way somewhere else.
I am scheduled to rendezvous here with two kayaks, rented from a Whitehorse outfitter, and with my longtime friend, Glen Sims. The kayak is my vessel of choice. For tradition, it is perhaps no match for Mont's hand-crafted scow, and it certainly won't haul a ton of grub to the goldfields. But in other respects, the kayak is an even older and more appropriate vehicle. Today's fiberglass boats differ only subtly in design from what the Eskimos and Aleuts constructed from driftwood, skins and seal guts.
And, for the record, Glen is not historical. He is quite contemporary. Like Mont, I know the value of company on the water. On the mighty Yukon, solitude is nice, but unwise. Glen is ideal company. Over the years, we've had our share of adventures, from Puget Sound to Prince William Sound. He's a strong paddler, an instinctive problem-solver, an Irish musician and a teller of stories. At 46, Glen's biography is not unlike Mont's. He was raised in North Carolina, headed West to escape the rigidity of the South, studied environmental management. Now he markets cedar fencing to home-improvement stores - all to finance his habit, which is an endless fascination with the nature of the universe. He also happens to be an outstanding cook who works wonders with a one-pound, backpacker's MSR stove.
So now we are three: Me and Mont and Glen, all headed North, trying to answer one question: Why are we doing this?
Klondike! -- Yukon Starts Slowly, Tugging At Klondikers
MARSH LAKE, Yukon Territory - With a warm northern sun and a fresh breeze at our backs, we are well under way on the final leg of our journey to the goldfields. Life is good, and so are our prospects. We paddle downwind along a wilderness - passing not so much as a tent or a cabin on 20 miles of lakeshore.
Never mind the dark clouds and steeply slanted gray bands forming on the broad horizon. They must be 30 or 40 miles off. Not our problem.
I quit paddling for a few minutes, drifting on that tail wind and pull my tattered copy of Mont Hawthorne out of his waterproof bag. One hundred years ago, he felt the same way. "We could look up at the sun shining on the snow-covered mountains and knowed we didn't have to climb no more of them. We was just as excited and just as hopeful as when we started from home."
But he added, rather ominously, "In the Yukon country, when the weather changes, she changes fast." At the north end of the lake, we begin to feel the tug of the river - not a real current but a gentle gravitational pull. We round a bend and know we are finally on the fabled Yukon River. It's 30 miles downriver to Miles Canyon and Whitehorse. We hope to ride the river current, portage around the dam at Whitehorse and continue on to Lake Laberge.
Five miles downstream, we encounter a low dam, beach our boats and examine the aging, self-service lock at one end. Our choices are to carry our boats around, or operate that lock. "Or, then again . . ." offers Glen Sims, my fellow kayaker. He is studying that dam and its one-foot-high spillway. He has a mischievous gleam in his eye.
No way, I say.
"Piece of cake," he says.
So we climb back into our boats and shoot the spillway. No problem. That's what Mont would have done.
A century ago, this stretch of river was a tad too downhill for many of the Klondike stampeders. Miles Canyon and Whitehorse Rapids, whose froth reminded pioneers of the wind-whipped mane of a white horse, claimed dozens of boats, tons of gear - and some lives. Mont and and his faithful dog, Pedro, walked the edge of the canyon, studying the river. "Them rapids was the prettiest sight I ever seen," he said. "But there wasn't no stopping from the head of Miles Canyon to the place below Whitehorse Rapids where the cemetery was filling up with the boys who hadn't made it."
Mont calculated his course and shot the white water with no problem. Then he stopped to steer some fellow stampeders through the course.
Today, the rapids have been transformed into a docile lake, backed up by a dam that feeds hydropower to 24,000 people in Whitehorse. All that's left of the notorious white water is a few hundred yards of foam and spray beneath the dam. But the engineers have yet to tame the Yukon weather. As we paddle northward through the snake-like bends of the upper river, those brooding storm clouds have moved closer. Now they're firing bolts of lightning and rolling thunder first from the west, then the east, and from dead ahead.
Brief northern squall, we figure. Paddle on. Klondike ho. Ten miles above Whitehorse, it hits us - first a drizzle, then a downpour, then a cloudburst with lightning and thunder and dime-sized drops that sting. It's as if Mother Nature had scooped up part of Marsh Lake and dumped it on us - a stern reminder that the North is not to be taken lightly. Already drenched, we slide into our rain gear and paddle on.
The torrent takes on a beauty of its own. Each droplet triggers an explosion on the water surface; millions of mini-splashes create a foot-deep mist across the river's surface. Occasionally, we seem to paddle out of the worst of it, only to ride the current around a sweeping bend and back into the downpour. My rain gear immediately becomes drenched, and I resolve to have a chat with the salesman who insisted it was waterproof. He could have sold it as a sponge. I quit paddling every minute or so to drain the water from my sleeves.
We press on through Miles Canyon, whose frothy, 4-foot crest struck terror in the hearts of the Klondikers. Today, it's a nice ride, if it isn't raining.
The river takes us into disappointingly docile Lake Schwatka, where we hug the shoreline to avoid being easy targets for lightning bolts. It is still raining when we beach our boats next to the Whitehorse Dam and examine our options.
The biggest problem is yet to come. The combination of spring runoff and the cloudburst has turned the spillway into a torrent. To relaunch our boats, we have to carry them a half mile down a service road, then a narrow trail to a rocky ledge - all in a persistent rain.
We go to work, moving the heaviest gear by hand, then the boats. Weary and soaked to the skin, with 100 pounds of boat on my shoulder, I find myself wondering if I wouldn't have preferred the white water.
Mont did. "Lots of men like to gamble with cards," he observed. "I like to run white water. Shooting down them five miles kept a man on his toes. . . . Just about the time a fellow would figger he was safe and could take it easy and look around a little, there was another blind channel."
Finally, the rain lets up and a patch of sun peeks through the back edge of the storm. With our outfits moved to that rocky ledge downstream, we contemplate the 100 yards of rapids below us and decide to save it for another day. We set up camp beneath power lines and a few feet from a substation - hardly a wilderness experience. We hang our wet gear on tree limbs and crawl into our sleeping bags.
My mind journeys on, riding a stiff current and a fresh breeze downstream to the Klondike country.
Klondike! -- The Only Race Is With Yourself
WHITEHORSE, Yukon Territory - Joe Bishop is no iron man. He does not pump iron or run marathons. He does not aspire to the Olympics. Instead, Bishop aspires to a certain lifestyle. He makes a living cutting firewood and shepherding Japanese businessmen in canoes down wilderness rivers. His life is his contest. And this summer he proved, mostly to himself, that a true Yukon sourdough can hike and paddle with Olympic-class competition.
The test was the Dyea-to-Dawson Race, a grueling affair where two-person teams with 50-pound packs race over rugged, 33-mile Chilkoot Pass, then paddle 600 miles through the Yukon headwaters and down the river to Dawson. The winner-take-all prize: $5,000 in gold.
At 36, Bishop had never entered a race before. It's not his style. With his reddish beard, wiry frame and granny glasses, he looks like he should be teaching biology or crooning ballads in an Irish pub.
But his story is quintessential Northwest. Raised in Ontario, he began migrating westward, ran into the Pacific Ocean and turned north toward the Yukon. He stopped here in Whitehorse, a frontier town that is home to 24,000 - two-thirds of the Yukon's 32,000 people. It's not a particularly charming place. There are pickups with dogs sleeping in the beds, too many seedy bars and at least one trendy pub with microbrews and hors d'oeuvres. The economy is mostly government and what's left of the mining industry, plus a seasonal trade in outdoor adventure. Whitehorse has more wilderness outfitters than barber shops.
"I guess I've been longer here than anywhere," Bishop says. "So it must be home."
He worked for a while as a wildlife technologist, studying lynx and arctic hare. But government work did not suit him. "You feel like a cog," he says. Now he lives in a pickup camper on his wooded lot near Whitehorse, wrestling 8-foot spruce and pine logs onto his 3/4-ton truck. Summers he goes to work for Kanoe People, the folks who rented us our kayaks. For three or four months of the year, Bishop guides tourists on canoe expeditions before returning to his wood lot.
Last fall, Bishop heard of the Dyea-to-Dawson Race, a novel marathon designed to commemorate the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897-98. The race would follow the path of the stampeders, only at breakneck speed. Bishop decided to go for it, and Kanoe People sponsored him. He teamed up with 23-year-old Thane Phillips, a fellow canoist.
The key would be endurance. "I cut wood until the snow got too deep. Then I started going to the gym, which I'd never done before." By race time - June 13 - he figured he was ready. There were 50 teams, including Olympic-class cross-country skiers, marathon runners and "aerobic machines."
Bishop and Phillips covered the Chilkoot Trail in a bit more than a day, but still trailed the marathoners. "We knew this wouldn't be our strongest leg," he says. "We were staggering."
At Bennett Lake, they threw their gear in a canoe and started paddling. The race continued around the clock through the dusky, northern nights. "We took turns sleeping in the boat, a half-hour at a time. We were making up ground on the leaders, but the pressure was pretty ridiculous." There were no meals - just high-energy food bars and powdered drinks. "Five days of PowerBars, and we grumbled about the time it took to stop and unwrap them."
When Bishop and Phillips paddled onto the shore at Dawson City, they had covered 600-plus miles in 5 1/2 days. That was good for fourth place. The winners, both Olympic skiers, did it in 4 1/2 days.
I hope to do it in about three weeks.
"We didn't expect to win," Bishop shrugs.
Winning is not what this place is about. Like most of the people in these parts, he came, in part, to escape the competition of The Outside. Bishop's only race is with himself. “The North attracts people who are individuals," he says. "Here I feel I'm in control of my life. It's not always easy. There's no security. If I break my arm tomorrow, I have to find another way to make a living. But I think people expect more out of life in the North. It's adventure, exhilaration, whatever. . . . You aren't willing to get up in the morning and dread going to work. You overcome obstacles."
We have our own challenge - 450 more miles of river. It is not a race, and it will not make us rich. But we're going to Dawson City.
As we push off the beach, back into the gurgling river current, Bishop watches wistfully from the beach.
C'mon, Joe. Throw in with us. We're headed for the goldfields.
Bishop shakes his head. "Not this time," he says. "Be careful out there."
"And don't rush things. It isn't worth it."
Klondike! -- The Mighty Yukon, A River Of Gold
ON THE YUKON RIVER - My boat drifts effortlessly on the strong, silent current of the river, easing into a long, sweeping bend to the east, then another to the west, then back again. It is a slow but powerful rhythm, shaped by eons of natural forces.
I am supposed to paddle to quicken our journey downstream. But even the stroke of a paddle blade seems an irreverent interruption of a profound act of nature.
For Mont Hawthorne and thousands more Klondike stampeders of another century, the Yukon River was transportation, a means to an end, a one-way ticket to the City of Gold. "Seemed like the Yukon knowed I was in a hurry to get down to Dawson City," Mont recalled years after his adventure. "She just kept going right along, cutting away at them high, sandy banks . . ."
Today, the river is the roundabout route from Whitehorse to Dawson. It takes most travelers 10 days or more to make their way across this northern landscape on the river, while the Klondike Highway will get them there in half a day. So the road is how most folks get from here to there these days.
Yet, the Yukon flows on, alive and well. It has a voice, a pulse and a soul. As fellow kayaker Glen Sims and I drift along, it speaks with murmuring whirlpools and burps unexpected upwellings. Invisible grains of silt, washed off distant mountains by a heavy spring runoff, hiss past the hull of my boat. Here and there, a submerged rock or fallen tree creates a mini-rapid that warns river runners that the Yukon is untamed, something to be reckoned with.
The great river begins modestly, draining vast mountain lakes just 30 miles from the Pacific Ocean. But the glacier-topped peaks of the St. Elias Range direct those waters northward, away from the ocean. Just north of Whitehorse, the river is transformed into another spectacular lake before gathering itself one last time for its long journey to the Bering Sea. Along the way, it collects the waters of lesser rivers: the Takhini and Teslin, the Big Salmon and Little Salmon, and others.
At Whitehorse, the average flow is 433 cubic meters per second. By the time it reaches Dawson City, 450 miles downstream, it is carrying nearly 10 times that volume. When it reaches the ocean, it will have doubled itself twice more, to 16,000 cubic meters per second - three Niagara Falls. Eventually, it will drain much of the northwest corner of the continent - most of the Yukon Territory and the Alaska interior.
Depending on where one begins to measure, it is roughly 2,000 miles long, the fourth-longest in North America. It is home to the world's longest salmon runs.
The silt that hisses past my boat is a constant reminder that the river has a job to do: whittle away at mountains and move them somewhere else. Scientists estimate that just one day's sediment during the spring runoff would amount to 300 tons - 24 truckloads. Prospectors will tell you that mixed in that gray silt is a fortune in gold: tiny dust-like particles that have gradually sifted down from the Klondike and Stewart and a hundred more rivers and creeks.
For more than a century, men have tried to invent ways to extract those riches. The river is littered with the relics of their mostly futile efforts. Long before Europeans arrived, natives traveled up and down the Yukon, living on, and fishing from, its banks. For decades, white men came looking for gold. There were minor discoveries here and there, but the Klondike discovery in 1896 brought hordes of invaders - including my friend Mont - and changed this place forever.
Within a few years, the rush was over. Prospectors continued to come and go, but the Klondike was taken over by industrial mining. For 50 years, the Yukon remained the region's highway, served by a fleet of shallow-draft stern-wheelers that sustained towns, wood-cutting yards and native villages. Then, in the 1950s, a road was punched through the wilderness to Dawson. The riverboats became white elephants, beached for good. The wood camps closed down. The natives moved to town.
Today, abandoned villages at places like Upper Laberge, Hootalinqua and Big Salmon are left for mosquitoes and to rot. We stop here and there, beach our boats and explore, peering through the cracked glass of "spirit houses," burial sites that blend the trappings of native theology and Christian missionaries. We visit collapsed log cabins where Mounties once tracked river traffic and explore a makeshift dredge that dug $2,000 in gold from the river bottom in 21 days, but still never paid for itself.
And the river flows on, hissing and gurgling and murmuring, oblivious to the restored silence around it.
We float northward, paddling for a while, then stopping to listen to the silence, to look across a seemingly endless boreal forest of dark-green spruce and pine on the mountain slopes, aspen and birch in the damper valleys. The banks, left and right, are festooned with summer color - miniature dogwood, blueberry, kinnikinnick, lupine and wild rose. Farther downriver, recent lightning fires have charred the hills for miles. But the blackened landscape is lit by dazzling fields of purple fireweed, the first stage in nature's comeback. Gulls and terns swoop over the river. Ravens squawk their cranky complaints. Eagles perch atop stunted spruce trees, waiting for a trout or grayling to venture too close to the surface.
There is a sameness to the landscape. Much of this region was missed by the glaciers - too dry and too cold. So the hills and horizon are softer, less dramatic than the coastal side of the mountains. There are few jagged edges, just gentle curves.
But that sameness gives a grandeur to the wilderness. Each sweeping bend offers a subtle change of perspective, a shift in light, a reminder that the river does not know, or care, what people are doing in Ottawa or Washington, D.C., on Wall Street or at Microsoft.
At the end of the day, we begin looking for a campsite, a grassy sandbar exposed to the breeze to minimize the bugs. We watch the day turn to sub-arctic twilight, where you can still read a book at midnight. We talk about gold, about fortunes made and lost, about Dawson City and Bonanza Creek. But mostly we talk about the grand river that is taking us there.
In the morning, we launch again, resuming a rhythm defined by the river. Yes, the Yukon is transportation, but it is also our guide and, in a very real sense, our destination. The means becomes the end.
There is still gold drifting with the silt in the Yukon River.
Klondike! -- In The North, Even 'Shrooms Pay Off
CARMACKS, Yukon Territory - Here in the North, Yukon gold takes many forms. For some, it's the tourists - Canadian and American, Japanese and German - who flock here prepared to pay for a wilderness experience. For others, it is a good government job to support their northern lifestyle.
For Ervin Cork, it is mushrooms. "Corky," as he is known among Northwest mushroomers, travels God's Country in search of 'shrooms.
Not just any 'shrooms, and certainly not those tasteless wonders grown in hothouses and marketed in shrink-wrap. Corky buys and sells only the best morels, matsutakes, boletes, pines and chanterelles that can be found in Northwest forests.
In a village like this one, where recent fires have devastated huge tracts of boreal forest, folks have come to expect Corky to show up in his blue, four-wheel-drive Blazer, towing the plywood trailer that announces "Corky's Shroom Shrinker."
When he does arrive, usually a year after a major forest fire, word spreads fast and folks take to the woods to find mushrooms and sell them to Corky for as much as $250 a pound. He once paid $300 a pound for dried pines. But "that's because I was mad."
"He may not be the biggest buyer around, but he's the best known," says his wife, Barbara, who is accompanying Corky on this summer's expedition along with their teenaged daughter, Vanessa. "I know, because the phone starts ringing about February 1."
Adds Vanessa: "I tell people, `My god, there's still snow on the ground.' "
Corky started out on the Canadian Prairies, working in the oilfields. He has the thick arms and hands to show for years of work in the Midwest cold. About 10 years ago, he hurt his back, moved to Salmon Arm, B.C., and switched professions.
"A friend was into pine mushrooms, and I figured that was something I could do without heavy lifting."
He built a portable dryer, which slowly sucks the moisture from the mushrooms. Once dried, he boxes them up and ships them to a Toronto distribution center. Then they go to the finest restaurants in New York, Paris, Geneva and Tokyo.
It's a solitary trade - even a hobby - says Corky. The entire world market is about 2,000 kilograms per year, he says.
All this begins with a good forest fire, which makes the Pacific Northwest, from Oregon to the Yukon, prime mushroom country. "Last year's fires are always best," he says. "During the winter, you learn where the fires have been, and you try to figure out which ones will make the best mushrooms. It's always a gamble."
This summer, the Corks headed north for Carmacks. When we met them, they had just walked 27 miles into a major burn, picked 200 pounds of morels and summoned a helicopter to take them back out.
Other varieties, especially the prized pine mushrooms, or Armillaria ponderosa, grow in much older fire areas, where the pine regrowth is about 100 years old.
"Either way, it's fire that makes the difference," he says. "In Korea, they were burning whole forests just to get 'shrooms. They had to pass a law against that."
Corky and friends don't have to burn forests. Nature takes care of that. Fire is an ancient part of the forest cycle, and gourmet mushrooms are part of the natural succession by which they regenerate.
Corky, meanwhile, pursues a vintage Northwest lifestyle, hunting and gathering on vast public lands, paying the pickers, but not the owners. The public gains nothing, but loses nothing.
"They grow back, eh?" Corky observes. "Pick that morel today and it starts growing back within two or three days. Another mushroom in the making. It's not a big business, but it's a bit of a livin'. Fact is, it's a lot like panning for gold. You do it mostly because you want to be out here instead of sittin' home feeling sorry for yourself."
The Corks will be moving on now. They've done what they can do here, and the chanterelles should be ready out in Saskatchewan country, where word will get out that the Blue Blazer is in town.
As for us, we'll be returning to the river, heading for Dawson City, where word has it the 'shrooms are truly golden.
Klondike! -- Yukon Can Take A Toll On Lives, Friendships
CARMACKS, Yukon Territory - Even from a distance, the little red canoe looks to be in distress. Limping down Lake Laberge, the boat zigs and zags and re-zigs. Paddles flail and exclamation marks flutter overhead.
We change course and paddle over to say hello to two skinny youths with their backpacks stacked between them. We offer to help.
Travis Dolan, 22, is a sometime-student from suburban Vancouver, B.C. He had family problems, so he packed his bag and climbed aboard a northbound bus for the Yukon Country. Matt Murphy, 25, is a student from Ireland traveling across Canada. He arrived in Toronto but decided it was too big, so he headed west for Vancouver and reached the same conclusion. He has read volumes of Jack London and Louis L'Amour and yearned to see the Klondike country. He bought a ticket on the same bus.
So Matt and Travis teamed up, strolled the streets of Whitehorse and heard the river beckoning. Between them, they scraped together $300 for a rental canoe. And here they are, 50 miles downstream from anywhere, with little experience in the outdoors and none in canoes.
Old Mont, my historical pal, shakes his head sympathetically. It was a typical scene a century ago, he says. The wilderness can make great friendships or destroy them. Back in '98, he watched 10 longtime partners stand on the beach, splitting up their outfits. "They was putting little dried apples here, dried peaches there, a pinch of raisins over yonder. They was all watching each other close so they split up even. They'd had a bad falling-out, and none of them would go down to Dawson with each other. It looked terrible foolish, when all they had to do was float on down to Dawson together. But I could see it in their faces, they'd begun to hate each other."
Matt and Travis, however, seem good-tempered about their plight. We offered a quick canoe lesson: Pack your gear in the bottom to lower the center of gravity. The rear paddler steers and commands the canoe; the bow man paddles hard and switches sides only on command.
They listen and appreciate, and fellow kayaker Glen Sims and I paddle on downstream.
This wilderness is not empty. We can paddle for hours and never see a soul, then round a bend and encounter fellow travelers, all headed downriver. Along the way, we encounter six government workers from B.C.'s Okanogan Country, on a two-week canoe trip. We paddle past a middle-aged Japanese man traveling with his black dog at the bow of his canoe. We drift for an hour or so with Frank James and Bob Compton, semi-retired friends from North Pole, Alaska. Compton paddles a collapsible kayak, his bulging belly occupying most of its oversized cockpit. James sits in a chair high atop his new inflatable, a cross between a kayak and a rubber raft. His fishing pole dangles over the stern; a heavy rifle is ready at his feet. There is a gray-haired couple from Germany who wave from their campsite, then signal us to please paddle on to another one.
The Yukon River has become an increasingly popular destination for low-risk adventurers, amateur historians and curiosity seekers. It's easy. Whitehorse has plenty of outfitters who, for the right price, will put you in a canoe or kayak, shove you off the beach and fetch the boat two weeks later in Dawson. It has become a staple of the local economy.
But, as Mont attests, it is not always as easy as it looks. There are no serious rapids below Whitehorse. But there is 33-mile-long Lake Laberge, where a stiff northerly wind can stop or swamp a canoe like a brick wall. There are campsites where the air is thick with bloodthirsty mosquitoes and black flies. And the river itself is not as serene as it appears. It gurgles and swirls. Every year, it claims more lives. And friendships.
Carmacks, where the river intersects with the highway, is our halfway point. We interrupt our journey for a day to hook into telephone lines and transmit these words back to the city. For a few hours, life becomes complicated again, aggravated by telephones and fax machines, credit cards and restaurant bills. We yearn to be back on the river, where we will be safe again.
And I wonder about Matt and Travis and their grand, spontaneous adventure. They seem solid, self-assured. But I wonder, all the same.
We wander into the local tavern for a cold beer. And there they are, the Canadian and the Irishman, halfway through a pitcher of pale ale and shooting a round of pool. We meet again. Their adventure goes well, they say. They dumped their boat once, but dried out and pressed on for Dawson.
And what are they learning? Travis seems to have forgotten his family matter. Matt is living his L'Amour novel. "Maybe I'm proving something, maybe not," Matt says. "But I'm having a great time - except when Travis steers the boat."
"Me?! When you're in front, you're supposed to be doing those long strokes, but you do those short, quick ones that don't get us anywhere."
They laugh and hoist a beer.
The next morning, I hear the rest of the story. Matt and Travis closed the bar last night, then wandered down to the river with some locals. One of their new friends is stone drunk and falls into the river. The current tugs him away from shore.
Travis plunges into the Yukon, grabs the fellow and pulls him back to shore, saving a life.
I don't worry anymore. The kid's a sourdough.
Klondike! -- Dawson City Still Gets A Rush From Gold
DAWSON CITY, Yukon Territory - The streets here are not paved with gold. Fact is, they're not paved at all. The City of Gold that, 100 years ago today, lured thousands of otherwise rational people to do very irrational things, now fiercely resists any suggestion of concrete or asphalt.
Instead, folks here take pride in streets composed of Yukon River silt that turns to mud with every passing squall. Mud, they figure, is an important facet of their civic identity.
For my traveling partner Glen Sims and I, though, the mud comes as something of a surprise - just as it did a century ago to Mont Hawthorne, my historical companion.
"Dawson wasn't a bit like I figured it would be," Mont recalled. "I ain't sure what I was expecting, but this wasn't it."
In a few months, a city of 30,000, with hotels, saloons, whorehouses and barber shops had risen from a swampy ledge between Midnight Dome and the Yukon River. "Dawson was terrible crowded," Mont recollected, "with mountains on three sides and the river on the other. Folks didn't have no place to spread out. There was buildings and camps on every speck of level ground. We spread out over town looking for room to pitch our tents. On account of the spring thaw, the streets was all mud."
This week, Glen and I did much the same thing, pulling our boats onto the muddy bank, gathering our outfits, then setting off to see the gold-rush city that has been the object of our monthlong expedition. At first glimpse, Dawson City presents itself as another frontier outpost, like Skagway, Alaska, or Winthrop, Wash., yearning to cash in on its colorful past. The city maintains wood-planked sidewalks along streets of teetering frame buildings and recent additions carefully designed to match.
It has all the obligatory tourist attractions: T-shirt shops and souvenir stands, store clerks in period costume, even a red-coated Mountie who happily lets kids pat the muzzle of his shiny black steed. You can wander into Diamond Tooth Gertie's or the Gaslight Follies, where tourists park their Winnebagos to spend a few bucks on honky-tonk music and can-can dancers. But Dawson is no Skagway. The Alaska counterpart is a one-industry town, wholly dependent on the huge cruise ships that drop anchor, disgorging thousands of tourists.
Dawson, 600 miles inland at the opposite end of the Klondike Trail, has another industry - the same one that has sustained it for a century.
The Klondike Gold Rush, as depicted by the likes of Jack London and Robert Service, was dramatic, romantic and extremely short-lived. It began with the discovery of gold on Bonanza Creek in 1896, became a stampede with the arrival of the storied Ton of Gold in Seattle a year ago today, lured 100,000 people from around the world, and was essentially over by 1900. By the time Mont and friends made it here, the richest placers had been claimed by a few hundred early prospectors who became fabulously wealthy. By 1899, most of the discouraged latecomers had moved on to golder pastures in Nome or had limped home.
The Klondike, meanwhile, was quickly being taken over by the Yukon Consolidated Gold Corp., which had attacked these famous placers with a fleet of enormous dredges. The City of Gold was essentially owned and operated by the Guggenheim conglomerate, known locally and not-so-affectionately as The Company. Gold production peaked in 1900 with volumes at just over 1 million ounces worth $22.3 million. It declined gradually to a low of 4,000 ounces worth a meager $250,000 in 1972, the 75th anniversary of the gold rush. The Company gave up and left town. Dawson was in danger of turning into another ghost town.
But it didn't. Spurred by the U.S. decision to allow gold prices to float on the free market, the Klondike has been brought back to life by scores of small-time miners - schoolteachers, civic servants and grocery clerks looking for a new life - and perhaps a fortune - in the far North.
Gold prices in the $800-per-ounce range drove people back into the old tailings. By the late 1980s, production exceeded 100,000 ounces per year, peaking with 132,000 ounces worth $58 million in 1989. Dawson's comeback has been remarkable. The year-round population is about 2,000, swelling to 5,000 in the summer.
The centennials - one or two per year, it seems - have helped to attract money to repair those teetering wood fronts and to build new ones. There are new hotels with turn-of-the century motifs. There is a new library, where visitors leave their muddy boots at the door and stroll barefoot. While tourists flock to Gertie's, the locals hang out at the Midnight Sun or The Pit, where men take breaks from the gold tailings and women wear cocktail dresses with knee-high rubber boots.
Dog-mushing has become a local wintertime obsession. Sled dogs doze on the boardwalks, in mud puddles and pickup beds. Barroom chatter revolves around breeds and feed and racing strategies.
In the summer, Dawson is once again terrible crowded with authentic miners, not-so-authentic hobbyists, music fans, summer workers, tourists and miscellaneous dropouts and passers-by from the Outside. Dawson lives and tourists help, but it is still gold that drives the local economy. The recent drop in gold prices is a major topic of conversation and worry. Even a few dollars per ounce makes a dent in this town's collective pocketbook.
Tourism is off a bit, too, they say - perhaps due to Canadians postponing their long-awaited trips north until the "real centennial" in '98. Either way, this place emits a sense of permanent pioneer spirit that will weather the inevitable downturns in either gold or tourism.
In fact, by this time of year, true Dawsonites become weary of the long days, frequently working two jobs or more. Summers evoke images of the gold rush, of something temporary and less than authentic. It is the time of year when people make money to get through the long, cold, dark winter when there are no tourists or gold to mine.
"I look forward to the end of August," says one longtime Dawsonite, "when you can sit on the boardwalk, smoke a cigarette and listen to the birds sing three blocks away. . . .
"And you know things are going to get normal again real soon."
Klondike! -- Miners Move Mountains In Search Of Gold
GOLDBOTTOM, Yukon Territory - If there is gold in them there hills, then the hills will have to go.
"Gold mining is about moving ground," explains Deborah Millar, a second-generation miner on this historic creek near Dawson City. "And we have a lot of ground to move."
Millar stands on a crude road cut into a hillside overlooking Goldbottom Creek - or, at least, what used to be Goldbottom Creek. Today the creek is a muddy lake, dammed somewhere above us so the Millar family can scour its valley in search of golden flakes and pebbles. "We keep moving the creek bed," Millar says. "You can't mine in water, so we move it to this side so we can work that side, and then back again to work this side."
The result is not a pretty sight. The valley is a confused mass of dirt and gravel piles, with muddy trickles flowing between them.
But gold mining isn't about aesthetics. To reach the Millar family operation, we drive up the Klondike River Valley through a macabre moonscape of massive gravel tailings left by a half-century of industrial gold-dredging. We stop and explore an abandoned dredge, five stories tall and 200 feet long. This gargantuan machine spent decades grinding through the creek bed, floating on a mobile pond of its own making, inching forward as it scooped up tons of river rock, spun and shook and sifted it, separated the potential paydirt, then dumped the tailings behind it.
In the 1950s and '60s, the corporate miners gave up and went home, leaving their mess for Mother Nature to deal with. Now the miners are back - not the Wall Street behemoths, but 150 or more small, mom-'n-pop operations like the Millars'.
"We've been working this creek for 20 years," says Deborah. "It's what we do."
Deborah Millar is schooled in computers, but comes honestly by her Klondike fever. Len and Rona Millar, her parents, came north on their honeymoon in 1957 and stayed. Len worked as an administrator for the mining company, Rona as a nurse. They raised four kids in Dawson, dabbling on summer weekends in recreational gold panning. Twenty years ago, after the industrial miners moved out, the Millars stepped into the vacuum, eventually accumulating 70 claims along four-plus miles of this valley.
It's a historic site. In 1896, the valley was being worked by Robert Henderson, the pioneer prospector who steered others toward the nearby creek and made them wealthy men. Goldbottom itself became a town of 3,000 people, a base for the prospectors who mined the valley. Goldbottom seemed to hold great promise. It flows at the foot of King Solomon's Dome, the weathered peak that some locals still believe conceals the legendary mother lode.
Len Millar died several years ago, but Rona and her grown children continue his work, spending their summers in an 80-year-old roadhouse, methodically sifting through a river valley that has been worked for a century. "These days, most people are mining the tailings," Deborah explains. "What's left is mostly the fine stuff that got through the dredges."
The Klondike placer is composed of flakes and tiny pebbles broken down by millions of years of weathering, deposited in streams and working their way down to bedrock. "The paydirt is in that band five or six feet above bedrock," Deborah says, pointing to a 40-foot-high earthen wall bulldozed out of the hillside. "It's about 40 feet beneath the permafrost."
A million or so years ago, this was the creek bed, and now it contains bits of placer gold. To reach it, the Millars use high-pressure hoses to wash away the surface permafrost, then bulldoze the middle layers aside. Then they use a front-end loader to scoop up the gravelly paydirt and dump it into a mechanical sluicebox. The sluicebox is a scaled-down version of that huge dredge down the road. It spins and sifts the rock, dumps the large stones and sluices the paydirt down a spillway carpeted with Astroturf. The gold is supposed to sink into the Astroturf. The Millars collect the gold, melt it into bars and deliver it to an agent. The agent assays it and writes a check for its value - "minus assay charges, refining charges, freight charges, bank charges, royalty charges . . ."
There have been good years. But this one has been rough. Too much muck, higher costs to meet new environmental rules, lower gold prices. And the ground they're working has not been producing. To make ends meet, Deborah's sister-in-law works in Dawson, and the family now runs tours for outsiders who want to see a working gold mine. Deborah is an excellent tour guide.
"This is actually virgin ground. It's unlikely the early prospectors worked it," Deborah says. "We figure we need to get 3 ounces per hour just to meet expenses, and we're not getting it . . . "So we're going to move further into the hillside."
I cringe a little. It seems like an awful lot of destruction to extract a few ounces of glitter to be melted down and stored in some government vault. But it's difficult to see this family as pillagers of the very environment they choose to live in.
"This is bare-bones mining," Deborah says. "No mercury, no cyanide, no chemicals. Just lots of water and bulldozers. We turn the ground upside down, take out the gold we can, and then we put it back."
"I went Outside for several years, became a computer geek," Deborah says, gazing up from the tailings to forested slopes of Solomon's Dome. "But now I've come back to stay, and I can't remember why I wanted to leave."
Even after 40 years, her mom feels the same way.
"It's a way of life up here," says Rona. "It's what we do. You're your own boss. For five months, we work long, hard days, and then we talk about it the rest of the time. Gold allows us to do that."
She follows Deborah's gaze up the slopes of Solomon's Dome.
"And besides," she adds, "there's a mother lode up there. And we haven't found it yet."
Klondike! -- For Me And Mont, Trip North Was Worth The Cost
HOMEWARD BOUND - The plane lifts off Dawson's gravel runway, gains some altitude, then banks southward over the Klondike goldfields.
Mont Hawthorne, my historical companion and guide, presses his handlebar moustache to the glass for one last glimpse of the Klondike River and Bonanza Creek below. Even from the air, those valleys appear deeply scarred by a century of relentless digging - by pickax and shovel, bulldozer and industrial dredge. Mont is absorbed in memories of his last departure in 1899, second thoughts, perhaps, about his two-year adventure, about what he accomplished here and why.
"Us prospectors hadn't done much after all by spending our time digging those blamed holes and burrowing through those tunnels," he observes wistfully. "And I sure didn't know then that the government was going to take that gold and bury it all over again at Fort Knox."
Beneath all the romance of the Klondike, beyond the dramatic photographs by Hegg and Kinsey, there is something fundamentally preposterous and tragic about the human stampede launched in Seattle 100 years ago this week. From the outset, it was a bizarre exercise in futility. By the time the steamship Portland pulled into Seattle with its much-ballyhooed "Ton of Gold," most of the Klondike gold fortunes had already been staked. From a practical standpoint, the gold rush was over before it began.
Yet, thousands of people - from streetcar conductors to governors - flocked northward like so many sheep, each determined to find his fortune in the chilled waters of Bonanza Creek.
Unlike most of the stampeders, Mont Hawthorne knew what he was doing. He was an experienced outdoorsman who crossed the plains in a covered wagon and sailed up the Inside Passage. He set out well-equipped. Still, it took him six months to reach the goldfields and a winter of backbreaking work in sub-zero temperatures to barely recoup what it cost him to get there.
For others, it was worse. They set out ill-informed and ill-equipped and paid dearly for their errors. Of the roughly 100,000 who tried to reach Dawson, about 60,000 never made it. Hundreds died en route, or fell to typhoid or scurvy in the goldfields.
Still, for Mont and thousands more, there were few regrets. The pay dirt was measured in terms of memories, a grand, shared adventure that has long since become woven into the fabric of Pacific Northwest life and culture.
Commercially, Seattle mined the Klondike for 10 times its value in gold. In the first six months alone, local merchants sold $25 million worth of food and gear. The value of the gold taken from the Klondike during the same period was about $2.5 million. Those profits, however, came at the expense not only of the stampeders, but of the Yukon natives, for whom the gold rush was an enormous tragedy. Entire tribes and villages were decimated by diseases to which they had no immunity. The invaders were oblivious to native rights to land that had been theirs for thousands of years.
Fortune and famine, adventure and tragedy. Even a century later, none of it makes much sense. Gold does that. For at least 5,000 years, the yellow metal has driven human beings to insane, inhumane and frequently self-destructive behavior. From the Sumarians and Egyptians to the Aztecs and Incas, gold has driven people crazy. The Egyptians enslaved whole populations to mine gold to decorate the Pharaohs' tombs. Gold drove the politics of the Roman Empire; the man with the gold controlled the army and therefore the empire.
This for a scarce element, most of which remains entombed deep in the earth - a glittery metal with many unique qualities but few practical uses. Gold is extremely dense, heavier than granite and 19 times heavier than water, which explains why it is found in creek bottoms. A ton of pure gold, worth more than $10 million at today's price, would melt down to a cube not much greater in size than a cubic foot. Yet, it is also extremely malleable, easy to craft into rings and goblets and crowns.
When found, it is in relatively pure form, requiring little or no processing. It is virtually indestructible, so people are constantly melting it down and reworking it into something else. Today's shiny, new wedding ring could contain gold from a long-lost crown of Cleopatra or a Spanish treasure chest.
Gold has been treasured primarily for its appearance, which it owes largely to its unique color and the fact it does not oxidize. To the ancients, the yellow glitter conjured up images of the sun and of immortality, thereby lending it religious significance. For these reasons and more, gold became the unit of exchange from ancient Babylon to modern-day Dawson City. It was easily turned into coins, and later to paper certificates backed by gold deposits.
Today, more than 90 percent of the world's gold lies in government vaults, theoretically backing up money systems, lending stability to national economies.
But that began to change a century ago, and is still changing. Today, gold has been largely replaced by the U.S. dollar, judged to be more stable and far less scarce. And these days, kings and nations are far more likely to go to war over oil.
That fundamental change had begun to take place even as Mont Hawthorne and the others stampeded north, lending yet another element of futility to their obsession.
But if Mont and friends set out on a preposterous and futile mission 100 years ago, then what about our return? Over the past month, we have steamed together up the Inside Passage to Skagway, there to fend with hordes of tourists unleashed by the cruise ships. We have hauled 60-pound packs 35 miles up the Chilkoot Trail and down the other side of the pass. We have paddled kayaks through a stormy Upper Yukon, portaged the Whitehorse Dam in a driving rain, and paddled the river 500 miles through the sub-arctic Yukon wilderness.
There are far easier, faster ways to reach the Klondike. Our flight home will cover that monthlong journey in about four hours. But that would have missed the point.
If this was yet another journey of futility, then we had plenty of company. Along the way, we encountered scores of sensible people undertaking similar journeys. I think of Chris Syrjala, the Seattle mom camped with her four kids on the stern of the Alaska ferry, all off on a thoroughly impulsive jaunt to the North country.
I think of Matt and Travis, 20-somethings who met on the bus to Whitehorse, rented a canoe they did not know how to paddle, and launched themselves on a 450-mile expedition down the Yukon. Along the way, they saved a man's life - and lived an experience neither will ever forget.
I think of Lou Johnson of Fort Selkirk and the Millar family of Goldbottom, hard-working and intelligent people who have escaped The Outside and made new lives in the supposedly inhospitable Yukon wilderness.
The impulse that triggered the stampede of 1897-98 lives on a century later in these Northern woods. Sure, we have our Microsoft and Boeing, Starbucks and Nordstrom, big-league baseball and first-quality theater. But those institutions lure people here with ease because of the promise of something else.
People who migrate here still come in large part for those things that cannot be found or experienced in Des Moines or Dallas or Burbank. They are lured to the Northwest by a sense of adventure, by proximity to nature - be it Puget Sound, the North Cascades, the Inside Passage or the Yukon River. Most will never paddle down that wild river, but it is important to know they could if they decided to.
For the past month, Mont and I have journeyed northward to that drum, to the quiet rhythm of Mother Nature, where we arrived as strangers and parted as friends reacquainted. Maybe we needed to simplify our lives, to briefly escape the fluorescent lights, traffic jams and elevator music back home. Maybe a month in the North gave us the chance to take a fresh look at how we live our lives, how we relate to the world around us, and to assess what we might want to do differently.
After his return to Oregon in late 1899, Mont Hawthorne never went prospecting again. He bought a small farm next to his brother's in the Hood River Valley and raised nursery stock and apples.
"I'm keeping my pack straps handy," he told his mother. "If I ever get the gold fever again and try to head off for the ends of the Earth, you just tell me to strap 150 pounds on my back and walk up around Smith's Point until I get it out of my system."
But rest assured that Mont never quit looking North. He made several trips to Southeast Alaska, helping to build and operate salmon canneries. He hiked old Indian trails up and down the Washington coast, scouting for cannery sites.
His niece, Martha McKeown, grew up listening to Mont in the evenings, sitting in his favorite chair, retelling his stories about the Chilkoot Pass, Whitehorse Rapids, Soapy Smith and Bonanza Creek. Eventually, she wrote them down and published them, providing me with my Klondike companion. Those stories are the real Klondike gold.
Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company,