Fields Of Gold

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Last summer I flew from Whitehorse, in Canada’s Yukon Territory, to Dawson City, center of the gold-rush Klondike. The plane was a bright yellow DC-3, the Lucky Lou , presumably named for a character in Robert W. Service’s ballad “The Shooting of Dan McGrew.” It was early August, nearly ninety-nine years to the day since the huge find at nearby Bonanza Creek that, a year later, triggered history’s last and most frenzied gold-seeking stampede. The rigorous 1897 trek to the sub-Arctic reaches of these goldfields, made mostly by unprepared young Americans, was a drama that Service mined frequently:

Gold! We leapt from our benches Gold! We sprang from our stools. Gold! We wheeled in the furrow, fired with the faith of fools.

It began on August 17, 1896, at Discovery Claim, on Bonanza Creek. There the American prospector George Carmack and his Tagish friends (members of the native population) Skookum Jim and Dawson Charlie, following a tip from a fellow prospector, found the first nuggets. No one knows for sure whether Charlie, George, or his wife, Kate Carmack, discovered the gold that, as the Canadian historian Pierre Berton writes, lay “thick between the flaky slabs of rock like cheese in a sandwich.”

The strike, the world’s richest, gave rise to an odd community. As word spread, prospectors, known as “insiders,” who had been working these hills for years without much luck, rushed to Dawson, then a sparsely populated mud flat on the Yukon River. A letter one miner sent “outside” (as the rest of the world was called) on August 17, 1897, describes the town as a “collection of odds and ends of houses and habitations … a row of barrooms called Front Street; the side streets deep in mud; the river-bank a mass of miner’s boats, Indian canoes, and logs.”

The tent camp that letter portrays would soon burgeon into a gaudy metropolis of about thirty thousand. Eggs sold at two dollars each, fortunes were made from the ground and lost at the gambling table in the space of a day, and dance-hall girls sold themselves for their weight in gold. That party lasted little more than a year—from 1898 to 1899—until the newcomers found all the best claims staked and followed rumors of gold to Nome.

Dawson, named the territorial capital in 1898, started to calm down. Those who remained worked to carve out more respectable lives, building churches and concert halls, holding afternoon teas and formal dinner parties. But slowly most of the vigor leaked out of the town, as each year more and more people left for “outside” on the season’s last steamer. Inevitably Dawson descended into the realm of ghost town, and by early 1950, when its great chronicler, Pierre Berton, came back to his childhood home, the population numbered just five hundred. Wrote Berton: “The weeds grow rankly along the rotting wooden sidewalks … [and] there are great ragged gaps in the town now where buildings have been burned down or been torn down, or simply fallen down.”

Today’s visitor finds neither the first ragged tent site nor the circus of glittering excess. Time hasn’t stopped at those sad, later days of decay either. Even in the usual tourist allotment of a day or two, you’ll see Dawson through all these lenses, simultaneously and separately, and always among these multiple images, the present-day town asserts itself.

Though the commercial buildings here look as if they have stood for a century, almost none of them date from gold-rush days; over the years fires destroyed much of early Dawson. Everywhere, shops aimed at tourists alternate with those that still outfit fishermen, campers, hunters, and the slightly dazed-looking youth who, as spiritual descendants of those first gold seekers, plan to head out to test themselves in the dark, icy seasons of the wild.

History is built into the natural foundations of the place: the gold-bearing streams and mountains and the moody khaki-colored river that pushes north from here to the Bering Sea. But much of Dawson’s present-day appearance results from the excellent work of Parks Canada and local preservationists, who have found numerous creative ways to show the visitor what was here, what was lost, and what must still be saved.

All over town, fronting both abandoned buildings and those still in use, green wooden signs explain the roles these structures played in Dawson’s great days. Down by the river the former Canadian Bank of Commerce manages to radiate a sort of imperial pride, despite its blind-eyed windows and peeling paint. This tin-clad Dawson version of the Renaissance Revival style (so says the sign) is where Robert Service worked as a clerk in 1908, weighing out gold dust. Despite his ability to summon up all the drama and madness of the 1897 stampede in Kiplingesque cadence, the English-born and Scottish-raised Service arrived in the Yukon when the rush was over. Nevertheless his log cabin is a major shrine in town, and on summer weekends the performer Tom Byrne reads out Service’s verse on the front lawn with a fine Scottish burr.

Even though many of the buildings Dawson preserves are empty and locked, they hold window displays that are remarkably vivid, be it at the mortuary or the men’s haberdashery. One store-front at the corner of Third Avenue and King Street is filled with women’s clothing of another era; here Mme. Tremblay sold goods for more than thirty years. When Pierre Berton visited Dawson in the 1970s, he noticed nascent signs of restoration: “Who would have thought of Mme. Tremblay’s store as a monument? To us it was a place where … you could look in the lighted windows and see the mechanical toys you hoped somebody would give you for Christmas. Now the store is to be preserved and its owner, long deceased, to be immortalized. She was, it turns out, the first [white] woman to cross the Chilkoot Pass, years before the goldrush. I had never known that …”

There are no better guides to Dawson than the books of Pierre Berton ( The Klondike Fever and Drifting Home ) and of his mother, Laura Berton, who, in I Married the Klondike , tells why she ventured there in 1907 and why she remained for the next thirty-five years. The Dawson City Museum, housed in the old Territorial Administration Building, provides a fine introduction to both Pierre Berton and Dawson; it’s a sprawling wooden structure built in 1901 and is still infused with its original dignity. Here you can view a documentary film about Dawson, City of Gold , written and narrated by Berton, whose father, a failed gold seeker, stayed on as a clerk working in the mine recorder’s office, in this very building. Born in 1920, long after the town’s great year, Berton evokes the lace at its peak, “a weird, demented city … feeding on gold … an American town on Canadian soil, populated almost entirely by strangers.” In the oddest twist, he explains, “Many never bothered to look for gold at all. In a strange way it was as if many had already found what they were seeking.”

Several local companies offer tours of the goldfields just outside town. You travel out on a gravel road, climbing hills scarred by snakelike piles of rock and gravel, called tailings, that are the unsightly leavings of several dozen dredges that once worked this territory. Thanks to current environmental concerns, this machinery is mostly gone.

A dramatic, though nonfunctioning, exception is Dredge No. 4, now a National Historic Site. Two-thirds the length of a football field and eight stories high, the hydraulic dredge operated from 1912 to 1959, the latter date a tip-off that mining went on here long after the initial gold rush. Early in the century large concessions began to push out independent miners, but even now some work small claims, and hundreds continue to maintain claims that go back decades. They can’t forget the fact that here, alone among the world’s gold strikes, no one has yet struck the mother lode, the richest find of all, and though many experts doubt the existence o the lode, gold still washes out of these hills—thirty-six million dollars’ worth in 1995 alone.

Many of the goldfield tours end up at Discovery Claim, on Bonanza Creek, site of the original strike, and when you walk along the stream’s pebbled bank to what is thought to be the precise spot, you find that—as with so many places that are flash points in history—its very ordinariness makes it remarkable.

Wandering the strangely uncrowded wooden sidewalks of Dawson, past shuttered buildings that are reminders of so many once-thriving enterprises, I thought of Pierre Berton’s comment, “The more enterprising of the new arrivals quickly realized that there were easier ways to garner Klondike gold than to mine it, and that there were business opportunities everywhere for a man of imagination.”

Then I met Bill Hakonson, a true inheritor of that spirit and the founder of what one might imagine Dawson, with its extremely brief, if light-filled, summer needs least: a nine-hole golf course. Successful in many Yukon ventures, including mining, the Norwegian-born Hakonson first came here in 1943 to help build the Alcan Highway. Several years ago a friend persuaded Bill, who had just retired and never swung a golf club in his life, to take on this quixotic mission. When I asked him why, he responded simply, “The Yukon’s been good to me.” He laid out the course on 125 acres across the river and up a mountain road in a flattish, open space where once the gold rushers grew vegetables. Now in its third year, the Top of the World Golf Course is almost always open twenty-four hours a day, with a season that lasts from mid-May to mid-September or as long as the tiny car ferry that plies the river runs.

It’s not your classic course. For one thing, it isn’t very green, thanks to the rugged climate. Then there are the moose and bears that regularly roam the links and the wily ravens that make off with golf balls. On a bumpy ride around the greens, Bill bellows, “Stella!,” as powerfully as Stanley Kowalski did in A Streetcar Named Desire , in the hope of summoning his favorite moose. Alas, Stella doesn’t appear, but even without her the course is unusually picturesque, with antique dredge buckets, which first saw duty at one of the original strikes on Dominion Creek and now serve as 150-yard markers, and old steam boilers that divide the fairway. Glimpsed in the distance, past a screen of trees, the Yukon River flows.

Bill plans soon to add another nine holes to Canada’s northernmost golf course. “If you’re a dreamer,” he says, “you can see the whole thing.”

—Carla Davidson TO PLAN A TRIP