Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Klondike Gold Rush

In the summer of 2003 Annette, myself, a cousin and husband, decided to leave Vancouver and head for Alaska. We flew to Whitehorse and hired a car for the drive up through the Yukon. The road, sometimes metalled, sometimes gravelled, was open and empty, and whiplashed lazily across unchanging country until we reached Dawson City at the confluence of the Klondike and Yukon Rivers. Dawson is of course the town that leapt to its feet during the gold rush of 1898/9. Stories of the prospectors and the peace-keeping mounties led by Sergeant Sam Steele, are legendary. Sam acted as policeman, jailer and judge, a fair but tough man who wanted none of the violence of miners' courts and lynchings that had beleagered the California gold rush: he was ruthless with those who looked on the gun to settle their disputes and was not above jailing a man for hanging out his washing on a Sunday. Skagway, one of the gateway towns to the Klondike had decended into wild lawlessness, a barbarian enclave, and Sam was not a man to allow such a deterioration occur in his territory, despite the fact that thousands of 'gold stampeders' were thundering into Dawson's streets.

I believe the present town looks much the same as it did in 1898. The houses are clapboard, with wooden facias and fronted with boardwalks. The roads are dust in the summer and frozen mud in the winter. We were there during the long sun - darkness banished - and there was no time of the day or night when people did not walk the streets. There were shops selling the tusks and bones of mammoths, presumably found locally, and gold nuggets, and the collected works of the Klondike poet Robert Service of 'The Shooting of Dan McGraw' fame. I could not afford bits of mammoth or gold, so purchased one of the latter and have never stopped delving in its fascinating pages. I also bought Pierre Berton's 'The Last Great Gold Rush' into which I fell headfirst on the first page and did not surface until I broke through the ice at the end. A truly superb work of pen.

Why am I writing about Dawson, when there were three thousand miles of Alaska ahead of me, with bears and whales, and towns like Chicken with two dozen inhabitants, named when the founders got confused by seeing ptarmigan? Perhaps it's because it intrigued me to find there were people who lived in Dawson City all year round - through winters of subterranean darkness and summers of unrelenting light - still working gold claims. These 'sour doughs' as they are called (after the bread dough that kept the early prospectors alive) are not seeking to make themselves millionaires, but simply to make enough money to enable them to live in a place where the temperature drops to below minus sixty degrees and the only light comes from electric bulbs. Why do they do it? Who knows? They live on a different world to the other ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the human race: where days last months and nights are seemingly endless. Time must take on a different quality, work in a different way, when the clocks cannot differentiate between noons and midnights. Surely the minds of the women and men who live there are lost somewhere along scaleless ribbons of dark or light, in that place where sun and moon are barefaced liars? I am intrigued because my feelings while writing a novel take me to a similar place: to a realm and time where I see no end in sight: just an endless flow of thoughts turned into words.

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