The Klondike Quest
A Photographic Essay: 1897 - 1899
Pierre Berton
(Boston Mills Press)
A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute saloon;
The kid that handles the music-box was hitting a jag-time tune;
Back of the bar, in a solo game, sat Dangerous Dan McGrew,
And watching his luck was his light-o'-love, the lady that's known as Lou.
When out of the night, which was fifty below, and into the din and glare,
There stumbled a miner fresh from the creeks, dog-dirty, and loaded for bear.
There were three ways to get to Dawson in 1898: up the White Pass Trail, up the Chilkoot Trail, or down the Yukon River from Alaska. It is estimated that 80% of the stampeders went via the passes, the other 20% by way of Alaska.

The impetus, according to Berton, was not so much gold fever as the fact that the United States was --- in the midst of the so-called "Gay 90's" --- engulfed by a panic. That was the word in those days for what we now name "economic depression."

There was nothing gay --- in the older sense of the word --- about the journey. The White Pass was called "The Trail of Dead Horses" because 3,000 horses died en route. Chilkoot Pass was scarcely better. But the worst impediment to the stampeders was not so much the weather, which was dreadful, nor the passes, which were almost impassable --- but the Canadian government.

The route north to Dawson was in the hands of Canada, although uneasily so. The U. S. claimed part of the Klondike, but was busy fighting the "white man's burden" at other venues ... namely Cuba and the Philippines. It was not free to make war on our neighbor to the north.

There was a rule, a sensible rule if you think about it, enforced to the hilt by the Northwest Mounted Police. The rule was that if the stampeders were going into a place of ice, snow, trees, and nothing else, that they could not enter "without a year's supply of provisions."

§     §     §

He looked like a man with a foot in the grave and scarcely the strength of a louse,
Yet he tilted a poke of dust on the bar, and he called for drinks for the house.
There was none could place the stranger's face, though we searched ourselves for a clue;
But we drank his health, and the last to drink was Dangerous Dan McGrew.

To get a year's worth of provisions to the mountain top --- assuming fifty pounds per trip --- required forty trips.

    Exhausted by the climb --- filthy, stinking, red-eyed, and bone-weary --- each knew that this was but the beginning, that he must go down again and up again, again and again, and again, until he had checked it all through the Mounted Police post at the border: bacon and tea, flour and beans, clothing, tents, stove, sledge. There were no hardware stores on the far side.

So up they went, again and again, doing what came to be called the Chilkoot Lockstep, "an odd rhythmic motion" that, according to Berton, none would ever forget. Nor would they forget another weird experience, the moan:

    In the years to come one sound would continue to echo in their memories --- the single all-encompassing groan which, as one the White Pass trail, rose from the bowl of the mountains, like the hum of a thousand insects.

Once you made it to the other side, there was another omigod problem. Water. Cold, icy water, in Lakes Lindemann, Bennett, and Tagish. The only way to make it to Dawson was by water, no more mountain climbing.

The stampeders did what few of them imagined they would be doing when they set out on the golden path: they became builders of boats. They cut down trees, clearing a small forest, built boats, sculls, skiffs, hulks, canoes, barges --- anything to get them the 500 miles to Dawson. The Canadian police, as always, kept good records. Every bark was numbered. The final total: 7,124 hand-hewn boats.

And once they got to Dawson ... ah, the strangest of them all. Berton tells of a passiveness that came over many of the gold-seekers, one that eerily echoes the "Chilkoot Lockstep." The stampeders, seeing the thousands who had come before them plodding back and forth like sleepwalkers, became part of an aimless crowd, "curious, listless, dazed, dragging its slow lagging step along the main street."

    Of all the bizarre spectacles conjured up by the Klondike phenomena, this is the strangest. These men had clawed their way north in the face of appalling hazards. Most had been on the trail for the best part of a year, overcoming every natural obstacle in order to reach their goal.

But once there, "Thousands did not even trouble to visit the fabled creeks or stake a claim. Others did so perfunctorily ... and did not bother to sink a shovel into their property."

There's men that somehow just grip your eyes, and hold them hard like a spell;
And such was he, and he looked to me like a man who had lived in hell;
With a face most hair, and the dreary stare of a dog whose day is done,
As he watered the green stuff in his glass, and the drops fell one by one.
Then I got to figgering who he was, and wondering what he'd do,
And I turned my head --- and there watching him was the lady that's known as Lou.

As we noted in our review of Avalanche, one historian called the Klondike March "one of the weirdest and most useless mass movements in history." Lemmings, weighed down with foodstuffs, bedding, clothing, and, of course, pans for the gold. As a true story of real men looking for a phantom, it's a tale that can't be beat. Boston Mills Press has included here more than 200 photographs, some of them breathtaking, some funny, some wistful, some horrifying ... and some downright sad: The faces at the bar in the Monte Carlo Saloon [above] do not look to be happy campers.

It was the end of many dreams. Friends of many years went unflaggingly over the "Golden Steps;" camped on the edge of Lake Bennett with its swarms of black flies, fleas, and mosquitoes; finally made it up river (and up the rapids) to Dawson.

It was then that the madness took them over. A madness that made them split with lifetime friends, relatives, fellow-travelers. In some cases, they cut the supplies in half, split sleighs down the middle, tore bags of flour in half, and, in one case, cut a frying-pan into two equal but useless pieces.

"100,000 left for the Klondike," they say, "40,000 made it to Dawson City, and 4,000 found gold." And, probably, 40 came away rich. If that many.

Then I ducked my head and the lights went out, and two guns blazed in the dark;
And a woman screamed, and the lights went up, and two men lay stiff and stark.
Pitched on his head, and pumped full of lead, was Dangerous Dan McGrew,
While the man from the creeks lay clutched to the breast of the lady that's known as Lou.

These are the simple facts of the case, and I guess I ought to know.
They say that the stranger was crazed with "hooch," and I'm not denying it's so.
I'm not so wise as the lawyer guys, but strictly between us two ---
The woman that kissed him --- and pinched his poke --- was the lady known as Lou.

--- Ignacio Schwartz
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