American Heritage Book Selection: Off To The Klondike!

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The opening of the White Pass as a summer trail was not a blunder, it was a crime [said one of those who had tried to cross it]. When the British Yukon Company was advertising the White Pass Trail and booming its townsite proposition, the trail was not cut out beyond the summit of the pass. There was no trail and there has been since no trail but only something that they have called a trail.

By July, 1899, a railway was completed between Skagway and Lake Bennett—a seemingly impossible feat; unfortunately, it came too late to help most of the stampeders.

While still in Dyea, Hegg had been joined by his brother Pete and by W.B. Anderson, another Scandinavian from New Whatcom. Anderson, a tall man with a drooping mustache, was expert with tools; he had worked as a logger, a carpenter, and a butcher. The men entered an agreement to pool their resources: while Anderson and Pete Hegg crossed the mountains to Lake Bennett and built boats for the run down the Yukon, Eric Hegg stayed behind and earned money making pictures.

A few Klondikers carried prefabricated boats over the passes. Others lugged boards, though packers charged grievous rates for lumber. There was a small sawmill at Lake Bennett—”a steam-driven gold-mine,” some called it—but it could not meet the demand for lumber. Young Hegg and Anderson had to cut their own.

They started by selecting suitable trees. Two logs were sufficient if they were of large enough diameter to yield nine-inch boards, but Lake Lindeman and Lake Bennett were near the timber line and most trees were too small. Once trees were located and logs cut, the boatbuilders erected a saw pit, a simple but sturdy frame of logs on which to rest the saw log. Putting one up required more sweat than artistry.

When the saw pit was ready, skids were leaned against it and the saw log was rolled up the skids. Its ends were settled in notches on the top, the bark and sapwood were skinned off, and slabs were marked out with a chalk line. Then the men went to work with a whipsaw—a long, coarse-toothed instrument tapering at one end, with handles fixed to each end at right angles. The whipsaw was part of the Klondike experience. Sourdoughs claimed it ended more good friendships than any institution except marriage. “It should be suppressed,” said one. “No character is strong enough to withstand it. Two angels could not saw their first log with one of these things without getting into a fight. It is more trying than the Chilkoot pass.”

As the stampeders worked, members of the Northwest Mounted Police moved through the chaos of improvisation, advising the builders to make their boats long and strong. Similar advice was found in the December 15 edition of the Dawson City News, which circulated in the camps. “Boats should be about 18 to 22 feet long. Make them strong. Take your time. Alaska and the Klondike are big and gold has no legs.” The paper, which was read to tatters, also described “the ten greatest dangers of the trip to the Klondike,” a compendium of risks climaxed by the rapids at Whitehorse. Voyagers memorized the description like a catechism:

The rapids are about a half-mile long and the only dangerous point is at the very foot, where there is a reef of rock that makes out from the left shore. It narrows the stream from 160 feet to less than half that distance. The waters boil considerable at this reef and the waves run from two to five feet high. A short boat bobs about at the mercy of these waves. Here a long boat, 18 to 22 feet, comes in handy. The landing to the left is below the reef and over to the right opposite this landing are graves of those who drowned in the attempt to shoot White Horse Rapids.

At Lake Bennett, Anderson and Pete Hegg teamed up with a former whaler named Snow, another able practitioner with saw and axe. They whipsawed boards and built two good boats, one with a small cabin forward that could be used as a darkroom.

There were ten thousand men at Bennett, ten thousand at Lindeman, and twenty thousand shuttling their goods up the trails from Dyea and Skagway when Hegg joined the party sometime in May. He operated a studio in the tent town, but when the ice broke on the lake on May 29, he turned the studio over to Edward J. Hamacher (who was to become one of the leading photographers of the Yukon Territory) and joined the fantastic flotilla headed north.

Seven thousand one hundred and twenty-four boats, by Mounted Police count, started down the river: skiffs and scows and canoes and barges and kayaks, boats of canvas and boats of balsa, boats that had been screwed together and boats that had been glued together, boats that looked like packing boxes and boats that looked like coffins—which some of them turned out to be.