Canada 150, Yukon

Moving west across the territories, here are some excerpts from the chapter in Roaming the Big Land,” entitled, “Trekking for Gold”:

Late into the flight to Whitehorse…I struggle to catch a glimpse of Lake Bennett and Lake Lindeman, headwaters of the Yukon River…They are at the northern end of the famous Chilkoot and White Pass trails, which thousands of stampeders…attempted to cross in the winter of 1897, desperate to reach the unassuming creeks that tumble into the Klondike River, where gold had been discovered in the summer of 1896. Unless you were wealthy and able to reach the Klondike up river, by steamboat from the Bering Sea, these were the “easy” routes to an uncertain fate a thousand miles from anywhere…Altogether of the roughly 100,000 souls who started out, less than half that number finished the journey. The rest turned back, or else died en route of exposure, exhaustion, starvation, scurvy, accident, suicide, or murder…

For us the route in is easy: a two-hour flight from Edmonton, pampered by the solicitous staff of Air North. But our goal is the same. We’ve come to pan the creeks of the Klondike, although Dot, for one, has no illusions about finding a stake that has been overlooked for a hundred years and flying out with a fortune…

Whitehorse…takes its name from the churning rapids that used to bubble and froth along the Yukon River like the manes of charging horses. This was the last great hurdle facing the stampeders as they made their way to Dawson City. When the ice started to go out on Lakes Lindeman and Bennett at the end of May 1898, they pushed their handmade crafts into the water

and headed for the raging gorge known as Miles Canyon and the rapids beyond. There were over 7,000 boats in all, and their occupants had only a vague notion of the peril still in front of them. At least 150 of the boats and their gear were lost after smashing into rocks and capsizing in the turbulent water. Ten people drowned here, twenty-three along the full course of the river…


Apart from the SS Klondike at Whitehorse and the Keno at Dawson City,both now museums, the steamboats are all gone from the river. Altogether, more than 250 sternwheelers plied the Yukon between 1896 and the 1950s, as many as seventy of them at a time…Now there’s not a single vessel to carry passengers and their supplies in and out…When I realize this I feel rather anxious. If we make a big strike, how are we going to get our gold “out”?…

To get to Dawson City we have to take the tour bus, which travels the Klondike Highway once a week…it’s an eight-hour trip…There are only three of us on the big bus this day, so we sit up front next to Stuart, the driver, while a young Irish woman stretches out halfway down the coach, alternately dozing and reading…

“So how far is it from Whitehorse to Dawson anyway?” I ask.

“536 kilometres. You know, until ’82 you could drink in public in the Yukon. You could even drink and drive. Someone would ask, ‘How far is it to Dawson?’ and you’d answer, ‘Oh, about a six-pack’.”…

Lulled by the hum of the bus and the river of road running in

Yukon River at the turn off for Inuvik

front of me virtually to the horizon, I drift into reverie–back to the stampeders , as they closed in on Dawson…for most of them there was no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow–and those who did find it as often as not squandered everything on gambling, drinking, and whoring. If we hit paydirt, I promise myself, no drinks all around at Diamond Tooth Gertie’s. We’ll just slip quietly out of town…

Walking along Front Street, we find that Dawson still looks very much as it did in its heyday in 1898 and 1899, when a swamp by the river suddenly mushroomed into a city of thirty to forty thousand people…

On the back streets, colourfully painted reconstructions of some of the famous edifices of the gold rush era are open to visitors…There’s the Palace Grand Theatre, for instance, a beautiful restoration of the original, which was built in 1899 by the notorious “Arizona Charlie” Meadows, who, the preceding year, had cleverly operated a portable bar and casino on the Chilkoot Pass. In the days when Dawson sparkled like an imitation Paris, you could see anything at the Palace Grand from opera to wild-west shows. You could even see Charlie himself in fringed buckskin, at one end of the stage, shooting glass balls from his wife’s hand…

It’s a rough drive along Hunker Creek Road to Goldbottom Mine, some twenty-five kilometres from Dawson. We’re in the beat-up van of Deb Millar, a member of a local family of prospectors…

On a bench near Hunker Creek we put on rubber boots and roll up our sleeves. Deb hands us shovels and pans and we walk down to the bank, where there’s a small pile of pay dirt that’s never been worked. We load the shovels with several pounds of muck. “Make sure you include some rocks,” Deb instructs us. “Sometimes there are flakes of gold clinging to them.” We walk into the centre of the creek, where the frigid, ankle-deep water is flowing fast. “You have to keep shaking the pan all the time…”

Looking towards the site that started the rush to the Klondike

I encourage Dot to take her pan over to Goldbottom Creek, several metres away, so that I can take her picture with the narrow valley rising gently behind her where Robert Henderson made his strike.

When I return to my chair, Deb Millar comes over again to lend a hand. Suddenly, unmistakably, three dark yellow flakes appear at the edge of my pan.

“Gold!” I shout, and thrust out my hand.

“No! Don’t touch it. It’ll cling to the oil on your fingers and you’ll lose it…”

I carry my pan back to the bench, where I’m instructed to wet my index finger and touch it to the flakes one by one to transfer them to a small glass vial full of water. I hold the vial up to the light and everyone gathers around to count the flakes. You can see them unmistakably floating near the lid: seven flakes of genuine Hunker Creek placer gold!…

I’m not leaving empty-handed. I have my poke of gold!

The recipe for this chapter is for Stuffed Lake Trout. There are also cooking tips that Stu offered on the bus trip from Whitehorse to Dawson City.

To travel vicariously through more of Canada, order a copy of Roaming The Big Land at: Autographed copies with a personal message are also available from the author by emailing:


About t. a. keenleyside

author of travel/food books and popular fiction
This entry was posted in Canada 150, Canadian travel, contemporary culture, Dawson City, family literature, food literature, Klondike Gold Rush, travel books, Whitehorse, Yukon and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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