The call of the Canadian wild

Canada’s remote Yukon Territory inspired Jack London’s famed 1903 Call of the Wild – and draws travellers today with wild landscapes and memories of rough-and-tumble adventures.

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.

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.

Once removed, 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.

The Klondike 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 into art.