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.
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.
My bus dropped
me outside the Triple J Hotel, which
like all buildings in Dawson looks like a throwback to the 1890s – televisions and
wi-fi aside. Too tired to watch the midnight sun, I fell asleep early to prepare
for the next day’s visit to the Jack London
Interpretive Center. Dawson City’s premiere Jack London attraction, it is a
small museum whose prime exhibit – a small wooden cabin, roof covered in grass
and moss – sits outside in a small garden surrounded by a white fence. On first
impressions, it looks painfully austere. But the story of how the cabin got
here is a tale worthy of London’s own fiction.
In the late
1960s, Dick North, the centre’s former curator, heard of an old log emblazoned
with the handwritten words “Jack London, Miner, Author, Jan 27 1898”. According
to two backcountry settlers, it had been cut out of a cabin wall by a dog-musher
named Jack MacKenzie in the early 1940s.
Excited by the
find, North got hand-writing experts to authenticate that the scrawl on the so-called
signature slab was London’s before setting out to find the long forgotten cabin
from which MacKenzie had plucked it. North wandered with a dog mushing team for
nearly 200km until he located the humble abode where London had spent the
inclement winter of 1897-8 searching for gold. So remote was the location that
when a team of observers arrived to aid North in April 1969, they became stuck
in slushy snow and had to be rescued.
the cabin was split in two. Half of the wood (along with the reinserted
signature slab) was used to build a cabin in Jack London Square in Oakland,
California, near where the author grew up. The other half was reassembled next
to the Interpretive Centre in Dawson City.
London left the
Klondike Gold Rush in July 1898 virtually penniless, having earned less than
$10 from panned gold. But he had unwittingly stumbled upon another gold mine:
stories. During the rush, his cabin had been located at an unofficial meeting
point of various mining routes; other stampeders regularly dropped by to share
their tales and adventures. Mixed with London’s own experiences and imagination,
these anecdotes laid the foundations for his subsequent writing career, spearheaded
by the best-selling 1903 novel The Call of the Wild.
Gold Rush finished by 1900. Despite its brevity – and its disappointment for
thousands who staked everything on its get-rich-quick promises – it is a key
part of US folklore and fiction thanks, in large part, to the tales of Jack
London. Later, on a bus heading south to Whitehorse, I looked out at the brawny
wilderness of scraggy spruce trees and bear-infested forest where the young,
resolute London had once toiled in temperatures as low as -50C. I felt new
admiration for the writer – and for his swaggering desire to turn adversity