how the yukon made jack london

I travelled to Europe in 1993 on behalf of the Klondike Visitors Association to make the pitch for Dawson City to host the World Goldpanning Championship in 1996. I was also there to give a talk about early Klondike mining.

I travelled to Europe in 1993 on behalf of the Klondike Visitors Association to make the pitch for Dawson City to host the World Goldpanning Championship in 1996. I was also there to give a talk about early Klondike mining. I thought it would stimulate interest in the Yukon.

I was wrong. Everybody already seemed to know about the Klondike; most of the people I met were inspired by the writing of Jack London. I thought that Robert Service had been the main literary spokesperson for the gold rush, but London’s work was thrust upon the world a half decade before Service, and his work was widely dispersed and translated into many languages.

London’s writing has brought the Yukon to the attention of many Europeans. It was not difficult for me to talk about the subject as he had already paved the way. But did London make the Klondike, or did the Klondike make him?

London is a fascinating character. By the time he was 13, he had entered the workplace, and his work was hard, physical labour. Early on, he took to the water, purchasing his own small boat so that he could pirate the oyster beds in San Francisco Bay. At age 17, he was sailing to Japan.

When he returned to America, the country was engulfed by the financial panic of 1893. Work was hard to find, so Jack became a tramp and travelled across America until he was arrested for vagrancy in Niagara Falls, New York. Without due process, he was incarcerated for 30 days, during which he was exposed to the harsh brutality of penitentiary life. By that time he had experienced more of the world than most of his age, and had a taste of the hard life of a labourer.

Jack was 21 years old when the Klondike was announced to the world in July, 1897. He was one of the first to book passage, taking the route up the Inside Passage, and following the Chilkoot Trail over the mountains to Lake Lindeman, where he and his travel party constructed a boat they named the Yukon Belle. Sailing down Lindeman Lake, he successfully navigated the rapids in the short stretch of water connecting with Bennett Lake.

Further sailing took the party down Bennett Lake, past Caribou Crossing and by the treacherous Windy Arm. Using his experience with boats, he repeatedly negotiated waters that made others cringe. He sailed the wind-swept Tagish and Marsh Lakes, gaining an advantage over others who wilted before their unsettled waters. On September 25th, they successfully braved the torrents of Miles Canyon and the Whitehorse Rapids, and after a delay due to weather, they worked day and night to get across LaBerge before freeze-up. They continued down the ice-choked Yukon River in the front wave of stampeders, but hearing negative reports about the Klondike, and thinking the best chances to find gold lay elsewhere, they cast their lot with the Stewart River instead.

Establishing a base camp at the mouth of the Stewart at a place called Split-Up Island, he and several others set out to Henderson Creek to stake claims. He then headed to Dawson City in mid-October to file his claim. By early December, he was back at his camp at Split-Up Island, and then he spent “forty days in a refrigerator” at a cabin on Henderson Creek.

By May of 1898, London had developed a severe case of scurvy. He fled to Dawson for medical attention as soon as the ice broke on the Yukon in the spring, but within a month, he was gone from the Yukon.

After the Klondike, London became a determined, prolific and persistent author. “Expression,” he said, “is far easier than invention. He dipped into his personal store of Klondike experiences, and recalled the stories that were told to him by the sourdoughs during the long winter nights.

As an unknown author, he sent out countless manuscripts and received hundreds of rejections (more than 250 in 1899). Slowly, his stories started appearing in print, many of them based upon his Klondike experiences. His first effort, published in 1898, sold for a mere five dollars, his second for $40. By 1900, he earned $2,534.13, which, factoring inflation over the past hundred and 10 years, would be the equivalent to $65,000 or more in today’s currency. That was not a bad income for a starting writer, and much better than the $780 he would have earned if he had accepted a job he was considering with the post office.

At one point, his Klondike stories were so in demand, he feared being stuck in that groove. This continued for several years, and when he ran out of Yukon stories, he started writing his Klondike associates, asking them for more ideas.

But London did not have to fear being typecast as strictly a gold-rush writer. In his short writing career of 20 years, he produced 50 books and numerous short stories and articles that touched on economics, social issues, temperance, and the South Pacific. One book, The Star Rover, was about astral travel.

Which raises the question: did the Klondike make London famous, or was it the other way around? It’s clear that writing about the Klondike gave him his start as an author, and established his reputation as the best writer of his generation. His book Call of the Wild and the short story To Build a Fire, both based upon his Klondike experiences, are considered to be his best work. They are still in print today. If the gold rush had not supplied such a rich source of material for his writing, starting a career as a writer would have been a far greater challenge for the budding author.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His book History Hunting in the Yukon is now available. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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