American Heritage Book Selection: Off To The Klondike!

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The run north was alternately a time of work, discomfort, and danger, or all three at once. Every boat was overloaded; thirty million pounds of food alone were floated down to Dawson in the first months of summer. The winds were strong, usually adverse, and often dangerous. There were long stretches of slack water through which the boats had to be rowed, sailed, poled, or dragged. Sometimes ice floes poured out from the tributaries. Where the river ran free, it was dangerously fast. There were snags and sand bars to steer around, and rapids that could be avoided only by backbreaking portages. And there were mosquitoes.

Even Lake Bennett was dangerous. It was twenty-five miles long, narrow at the upper end but about five miles wide to the north. The winds—prevailing from the north in the early summer—kicked up a chop that threatened boats that were loaded so heavily they had only inches of freeboard. In a following wind, when the blanket sails were spread on the crude masts, the man at the tiller oar had to fight every minute to keep the craft from veering ashore. “Cap’n” Snow, the old whaleman, rigged a canvas wave catcher at the bow of Hegg’s boat, and it proved helpful.

The lake narrowed into a stream, the stream opened onto Tagish Lake, a spangle of inlets down which winds rushed treacherously. There were said to be more drownings off one of these inlets—Big Windy Arm—than at Whitehorse Rapids. The Hegg party made it through without incident.

A slow, shallow stream about six miles long led to boglike Lake Marsh, so shallow that it was the last to break in the thaw, and here Hegg took a series of eerie pictures of boats maneuvering through the floes.

Twenty-three miles below Lake Marsh, after a run down swift water, they came to Miles Canyon, second only to Whitehorse in ill repute. The current strengthened and the voyageurs could begin to hear the dull roar of rapids. At one bend a flag of red cloth warned of danger, and a sign painted on a board said “CANNON.” The river constricted to about a hundred feet between sheer walls of black basalt. The water piled up in midstream. The trick was to ride the hogback about halfway through the canyon, then fight off toward the right to avoid an immense whirlpool on the port side, then to regain the center and stay in midstream almost to the foot of the canyon, where it was best to fight one’s way to starboard again to avoid the large rock that speared up dead center in the stream.

There were professional pilots at Miles, but a dour note in one guidebook suggested: “Select a man with references, if possible.” Hegg and his party went through on their own.

The best thing about Whitehorse Rapids, which lay just below, was that only an idiot could blunder into them by mistake. A blaze of pale rock striped the basalt cliff and marked the approach to the canyon. There was always an assortment of boats pulled onto the left bank, while their owners weighed the cost in time and dollars of portaging against the risk of trying to ride out the rapids.

“Go get a good view of the rapids and then decide whether you will portage,” a popular guidebook urged. Those who walked along the trail down the left bank encountered notes of triumph and encouragement tacked to blazes on trees or to broken oars: “Sept 8, 1897. Boat Cora and Meda 20 ft long 8 ft 3 in beam, 26 in. deep, safely shot the White Horse Rapids loded with 4000 pounds.” And, “Gudmond Jensen/G. G. Tripp/Tom/Mike went/threw all right.” But farther on, beyond the fang of the reef, they could see the waves, towering, white-crested, and so close together that any boat overloaded or poorly handled was still nose-down from the first wave when the second one swallowed it. During the first days of the 1898 rush, 150 boats were sunk or smashed. With more firmness than legal authority, Superintendent Samuel Benton Steele of the Northwest Mounted Police imposed rules for the rapids: no women were to try the river; all boats must be inspected; only experienced boatmen could try to go through.

The Hegg party portaged one of its boats along the tramway of wood rails that a young man named Norman Macaulay was building across the five-mile portage. The other they ran through. Below Whitehorse Rapids it was clear sailing until they reached Lake Laberge. This was a long, misleading body of water where the current lured unwary boatsmen to the east shore, which was lined with cliffs and offered no refuge from the lake’s sudden and frequent squalls.

Laberge emptied into the Thirtymile River, a stretch of the Yukon system noted for being swift, crooked, and full of rocks. Past the mouth of the Hootalinqua River they floated, past the Big Salmon and the Little Salmon, to Five Finger Rapids, a beautiful and dangerous barrier. This was only a little more than halfway to the Klondike—316 miles from the head of Lake Bennett, still 244 from Dawson—but beyond Five Finger Rapids there was just Rink Rapids and then the broad, open water of the main stem of the Yukon River.