American Heritage Book Selection: Off To The Klondike!

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Though the danger was past, discomfort was not. This was the worst of the mosquito country. Klondikers came to welcome rain as an insect repellent and invented stories about Yukon mosquitoes that carried off eagles as food for their young. But the truth was bad enough. At Stewart City, where there were some amenities, a man could relax in the knowledge that the goal was only eighty miles ahead, but the irritation of the mosquitoes was so great that more parties dissolved in dispute here than anywhere else on the river.

The Hegg party survived intact. At Stewart City they heard that lumber was in great demand at Dawson; an American there had a concession on timber for five miles along the Klondike and was subletting the right to cut wood at five dollars a cord. They stayed long enough for Anderson to make up two rafts of logs, which they towed the rest of the way north.

It was July, 1898, when, above a cluster of islands, they caught a glimpse of a few tents high up on a hillside, and beyond them the huge gray slide of rock and gravel called the Moosehide. They rode the swift, yellow-gray flood around a great bend, then fought their way over to the right bank and up into the dark waters of the Klondike.

So this was Dawson, the golden city; or, as others put it, a rectangle in a bog.

Only two years earlier this land at the juncture of the Yukon and the Klondike had been a moose pasture, true wilderness, back of beyond. Some twenty miles away stood the Dome, the highest mountain in the area, 4,250 feet above sea level, 3,050 feet above the confluence of the rivers.

In August of 1896 an American squaw man had stood on the heights and studied the watershed. “Below and far in the distance,” George Washington Carmack wrote later, “I saw the low hills rolling and undulating in great windrows of living colors; the tops of the bald hills seemed to be painted in bands and stripes of green, yellow and red, showing that they were highly mineralized. Far back in the blue distance, close to the sky, towered the huge battlements of the Rockies, as though acting as bulwark for the protection of their offspring.”

Carmack was a strange one, more moose hunter than prospector, more interested in salmon than in gold. Perhaps he had read a lesson in his father’s life: the elder Carmack had joined the rush to California in ’49 but died broke. His son had come north in 1885 to prospect but took to the Indian life and spent more time fishing than panning.

He had built a cabin near Five Finger Rapids, where he lived with his Indian wife and read the Scientific American and wrote occasional poetry. Such was his makeup that when, a few days before climbing the Dome, he dreamed of a salmon with goldpieces for eyes and nuggets for teeth, he took it as a sign that he should go fishing.

But Carmack’s lack of interest in gold was not total. He had come to the Klondike on a tip from Robert Henderson, a spare, dour Canadian who told of finding strong evidence of gold on a creek that drained off the Dome. After climbing down from the Dome, Carmack and two Indian companions paused to rest near the point where a stream known as Rabbit Creek ran into the Klondike. Looking down at the stream, Carmack saw a long, narrow strip of bedrock just under the water.

“I reached down and picked up a nugget about the size of a dime,” he recalled later. “I put it between my teeth and bit at it like a newsboy who had found a quarter in the street. Looking up at my two companions, I held up the nugget between thumb and forefinger and shouted ‘Hi yu, goldl Bring down the pan and shovel. Hi Yak.”

“I took the shovel and dug up some of the loose bedrock. In turning over some of the flat pieces I could see the raw gold laying thick between the flaky slabs like cheese sandwiches. Putting some of the broken bedrock into the pan I washed it down and got about a quarter of an ounce, mostly coarse gold.…

“We did a war dance around that pan... a combination war dance, composed of a Scotch hornpipe, Indian fox trot, syncopated Irish jig and a sort of Siwash hula-hula. Then we sat down to rest and smoke.”

The Indians claimed later that they had made the first discovery and that they had had to wake Carmack to tell him about it. No matter. This was the richest gold strike ever made. It was to change the history of Alaska, western Canada, and the Pacific Northwest.

Carmack says he renamed Rabbit Creek “Bonanza” then and there (others take the credit for this, too); measured out two claims for himself, the second being allowed by right of discovery, and a claim for each of his two Indian companions; then he started down the Yukon to Fortymile to record his claim at the police post. Somehow he neglected to tell Bob Henderson, who was camped not far away, that his tip had been a good one.