escape from famine

I have been watching the news with interest lately. The price of food is rising rapidly, and there is debate over the cause; some argue that the…

I have been watching the news with interest lately.

The price of food is rising rapidly, and there is debate over the cause; some argue that the rising demand for oil is at the centre of the debate, while others argue that they are two independent issues, and that oil and food do not mix.

Increase demand will of course drive up the price of other foods because after all, people have to eat, right?

Having enough food to eat is one of the fundamental requirements for survival, and one, which we take for granted until the supply falls short.

In the fall of 1897, there was a food shortage in the bustling new gold-rush centre of Dawson City. Barely a year old, and growing daily, Dawson was attracting people from all over the world, people eager to get there and get rich, regardless of the risk.

But the North was an isolated and remote place, unable to accommodate the requirements of the growing horde.

Many who came did not bring enough food.

In Dawson City, the food merchants were eyeing the supply situation with growing unease. Where were the steamers with the winter supply of food?

Several were supposedly on their way. Captain J.E. Hansen of the Alaska Commercial Company, one of the community’s most important suppliers, set off downstream to investigate and found the steamers were hopelessly marooned at Fort Yukon by low water.

Knowing that the food was not coming, he struggled upstream to Dawson against a strong current in an ice-clogged Yukon River to pass on the message.

“Men of Yukon!,” he announced, “There will be no boats until spring. I advise all who are out of provisions or who don’t have enough to carry you through the winter to make a dash for the Outside. There is no time to lose!”

Flour, that sold for $1 a sack Outside was selling for $2 a pound in Dawson that fall. Steaks that sold elsewhere for three cents a pound were selling for $2.50 each.

The Mounties instituted a policy to apply henceforth, that those coming into the Yukon should bring with them enough supplies to last them a year. This amounted to 1,000 pounds of goods for every person entering Canada.

But this did nothing to address the immediate problem.

What followed was a wild exodus from the gold-rush town. People desperate for food or fearful of starvation do desperate things.

The steamer Bella was chartered by the police and 200 men were reported to have accepted free passage downriver, comfortable in the knowledge that if they made it as far as Fort Yukon or Circle City, they would find stranded steamers with ample food to carry them through the winter.

Others wanted more than an escape from starvation; they had plans to make and things to do before the next summer. For them, the only choice was to head upriver with hope of making it to saltwater via the Dalton Trail.

On October 14th, the Thomas McGee party of four miner miners left Dawson City for Fort Selkirk poling upstream in a canoe. Four days out they encountered serious obstacles in crossing the river where the water was too deep to use their poles. It took them two hours, during which time they nearly foundered, to cross over to the other side of the river.

Daily, the ice grew worse until the ninth day when they found themselves beached in a slough, with a raging current, high banks and overhanging trees. It seemed as though they could go no further.

At this point, they had a stroke of good luck.

Jack Dalton and an unidentified First Nation companion in a four-metre shell caught up with them. Dalton was one of the most renowned outdoorsmen in the North.

They joined forces, and after another four days of struggle, they arrived at Fort Selkirk, where they rested for two days.

There weren’t any supplies at Fort Selkirk either, so, despite warnings from Dalton of the conditions before them, they forged on with the trailblazer and five horses along the Yukon riverbank for 90 kilometres to Carmack’s Post.

With more than 20 centimetres of snow on the ground when they started, and more falling daily, things didn’t look good for the horses, which had to paw through the snow to get to the nutritious grasses beneath.

They struggled into Carmack’s Post in 60 centimetres of snow, then turned south over Dalton’s trail. Six days later, they made it to the Southern Tutchone village of Hutchi.

McGee described the conditions they encountered there:

“On the summit of the surrounding mountains heavy gales and snow were prevailing. Bad water beyond Hootchy-Eye poisoned most of the party, causing severe and frequent cramps and hemorrhages. We got only two meals a day the entire trip, breakfast always in the dark between 4 and 6, and dinner between 4 and 5.”

Six days out of Hutchi, they arrived in Dalton Post, where they had a sumptuous and reviving meal consisting of canned corn beef and bread baked by Dalton, and a can of cold tomatoes.

By the time they had arrived at Dalton’s trading post, two of the horses had perished.

It was remarkable that any of the horses survived at all. Another party coming in from the coast, started out with a dozen animals. They shot the last of them when they got to Dalton Post.

They plodded on, day after day through snow, which earlier in the fall had already reached a metre in depth, and to which daily accumulations had been added.

The McGee party finally arrived at Haines after 42 days of arduous travel.

Another party, consisting of “Klondike” Joe Boyle and “Swiftwater” Bill Gates and a number of others also successfully made it to Haines Mission, but much of the credit for their surviving the trip was given to the heroic efforts of Boyle, who kept them going when they felt like giving up.

Ironically, nobody starved in Dawson City that winter, but the early autumn reports painted a bleak picture.

The United States government decided to take action and sponsor a relief expedition to save the starving miners, a process that was too advanced to halt even when they knew that famine had been averted.

Only a shortage of food and a foolhardy obsession to escape to civilization could motivate travellers to risk the hazards of the Chilkat Pass and snowbound Yukon trails in the deepest, coldest part of the winter.

I wonder what First Nations observers, who were familiar with, and lived in harmony with, the cycle of the seasons, thought of the crazy antics of these newcomers.

Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse.

Just Posted

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley announced 29 new COVID-19 cases on June 19 and community transmission among unvaccinated individuals. (Yukon News file)
Yukon logs record-high 29 new COVID-19 cases

F.H. Collins prom attendees and some Porter Creek Grade 9 students are instructed to self-isolate as community transmission sweeps through unvaccinated populations

Crystal Schick/ Yukon News A former residential school in the Kaska Dena community of Lower Post will be demolished on June 21. Crystal Schick/ Yukon News
Lower Post residential school demolition postponed

On June 21, the old residential school in Lower Post will be demolished and new ground on a multi-cultural centre will be broken

Willow Brewster, a paramedic helping in the COVID-19 drive-thru testing centre, holds a swab used for the COVID-19 test moments before using it on Nov. 24. The Yukon government is reopening the drive-thru option on June 18. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Drive-up COVID-19 testing opening June 18 in Whitehorse

The drive-up testing will be open from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. everyday and increase testing capacity by 33 spots

A draft plan has been released by the Dawson Regional Use Planning commission on June 15. Julien Gignac/Yukon News
Draft plan released by the Dawson Regional Land Use Planning Commission

Dawson Regional Land Use Commission releases draft plan, Government of Yukon withdraws additional lands from mineral staking in the planning region

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: Let them live in trailers

“I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city… Continue reading

Whitehorse City Hall (Yukon News file)
City news, briefly

A look at decisions made by Whitehorse city council at its June 14 meeting

Murray Arsenault sits in the drivers seat of his 1975 Bricklin SV1 in Whitehorse on June 16. (Stephanie Waddell/Yukon News)
Bringing the 1975 Bricklin north

Murray Arsenault remembers his dad’s Bricklin, while now driving his own

A presumptive COVID case was found at Seabridge Gold’s 3 Aces project. (file photo)
Presumptive COVID-19 case reported at mine in southeast Yukon

A rapid antigen rest found a presumptive COVID case on an incoming individual arriving at the 3Aces project

Jonathan Antoine/Cabin Radio
Flooding in Fort Simpson on May 8.
Fort Simpson asked for military help. Two people showed up.

FORT SIMPSON—Residents of a flooded Northwest Territories village expected a helping hand… Continue reading

A woman was rescued from the Pioneer Ridge Trail in Alaska on June 16. (Photo courtesy/AllTrails)
Alaska hiker chased off trail by bears flags down help

ANCHORAGE (AP)—An Alaska hiker who reported needing help following bear encounters on… Continue reading

Two participants cross the finish line at the City of Whitehorse Kids Triathlon on June 12 with Mayor Dan Curtis on hand to present medals. (Stephanie Waddell/Yukon News)
2021 Kids’ Triathlon draws 76 young athletes

Youth ages five to 14 swim, run and bike their way to finish line

NDP MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq rises in the House of Commons, in Ottawa on May 13, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
‘Unacceptable’ that Inuk MP felt unsafe in House of Commons, Miller says

OTTAWA—It’s a “sad reflection” on Canada that an Inuk MP feels she’s… Continue reading

Lily Witten performs her Canadian Nationals beam routine on June 14. John Tonin/Yukon News
Three Yukon gymnasts break 20-year Nationals absence

Bianca Berko-Malvasio, Maude Molgat and Lily Witten competed at the Canadian Nationals – the first time in 20 years the Yukon’s been represented at the meet

Most Read