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The call of the Canadian wild

The call of the Canadian wild

Posted by Juan Gavasa on August 25, 2014

It was a hot afternoon in July when my shuttle bus stuttered to a halt on the dusty banks of the Yukon River. I squinted, bleary-eyed, at the Frontier-style houses of Canada’s Dawson City opposite.

Thanks to our slow progress along the scantily paved Top of the World Highway, my 10-hour, 620km journey from Fairbanks, Alaska had been long and uncomfortable. But as I was on a quest to discover the landscapes immortalised in the books of US writer, Jack London, a man who braved Canada’s sub-zero temperatures and wilderness before roads like the highway even existed. It seemed inappropriate to complain.

In October 1897, London had arrived in Dawson City on a hastily constructed boat in far more arduous circumstances than I, including a dangerous, 800km voyage downriver from the Yukon’s headwaters in British Columbia. An aspiring but still-unknown 21-year-old writer from the San Francisco Bay area, London was one of tens of thousands of “stampeders” lured north by the Klondike Gold Rush. He went on to spend a frigid winter working a claim on Henderson Creek, 120km south of Dawson, where he found very little gold, but did contract a bad case of scurvy. He also discovered a different kind of fortune: he later would turn his experiences as an adventurous devil-may-care prospector into a body of Klondike-inspired fiction – and into $1 million in book profits, making him the first US author to earn such an amount.

The Klondike Gold Rush ignited in 1896, when three US prospectors found significant gold deposits in a small tributary in Canada’s Yukon Territory. When the news filtered to Seattle and San Francisco the following summer, the effect on a US still reeling from severe economic recession was unprecedented. Thousands risked their lives to make the sometimes year-long journey to the subarctic gold fields. Of an estimated 100,000 people who set out for the Klondike over the following four years, less than half made it without turning around or dying en route; only around 4% struck gold.  

Dawson City, which sprang up on the banks of the Yukon in 1896 close to the original find, quickly became the gold rush’s hub. Today, its dirt streets and crusty clapboard buildings – all protected by Canada’s national park service – retain their distinct Klondike-era character. But as our bus crept along Front Street past bevies of tourists strolling along permafrost-warped boardwalks, I reflected how different London’s experience must have been. Contemporary Dawson City is a civilised grid of tourist-friendly restaurants and film set-worthy streets, with a permanent population of around 1,300. By contrast, in 1898 it was a bawdy boomtown of 30,000 hardy itinerants who tumbled out of rambunctious bars and crowded the river in makeshift rafts.

The roughshod living would not have intimidated London. Born into a working class family in San Francisco in 1876, his callow years were short on home comforts. As a teenager, he rode the rails, became an oyster pirate and was jailed briefly for vagrancy. He also acquired an unquenchable appetite for books. Passionate, determined and impatient, London was naturally drawn to the Klondike Gold Rush. In the summer of 1897, weeks after hearing news of the gold strike, he was on a ship to Dyea in Alaska with three partners, using money raised by mortgaging his sister’s house.

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