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.