George Tuxford left Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, for the Klondike on May 24, 1898. He was accompanied by his brother Alan, and his neighbour John Thomson and a herd of 70 cattle and oxen. They had no idea what lay before them on their 5,300 kilometre journey.
When they arrived in Pyramid Harbour, Alaska, near Haines, three weeks later, they still had 1,000 kilometres and months of toil before them. The Yukon River was still almost 500 kilometres away.
The three sturdy young farmers were used to the constant toil on their homesteads. They understood the hardships of pioneering on the Canadian Prairies, and if they didn’t know exactly what circumstances lay before them, they were not perturbed.
They planned to pack their supplies onto the oxen they had included in the herd, but they didn’t have a clue how to go about it. They didn’t know how to use the diamond hitch to tie down the 25-kilogram cotton sacks of supplies.
Fortunately, when they eventually reached the summit of the Chilkat Pass, one of the hands working with another herd showed them how to pack their oxen properly.
As the men moved the herd along the beach exposed by low tide, the oxen continued to buck at the slightest provocation, leaving an array of goods scattered behind them along the trail. By the end of the first day, however, the beasts had become accustomed to their loads and settled down.
Behind them were hundreds of other cattle, penned in corrals constructed by Jack Dalton at Pyramid Harbour, waiting to move out. Ahead were quicksand, mountain passes, bogs and fields of rock, raging streams, the vagaries of the northern climate, and the treacherous waters of the mighty Yukon River.
Their first night on the trail, a compact, muscular intruder with a reddish beard burst into their camp. It was the legendary Jack Dalton, and he needed help.
“Lend me a gun, boys,” he said, “an Indian has just shot at me from the brush and I want to get him.” Dalton was gone almost as quickly as he had appeared. The would-be assassin was later captured and taken to Juneau for trial, and Dalton sent a messenger to return their gun.
This was unsettling news for the farmer/cattlemen, but not a forecast of what was ahead of them.
They arrived at a toll station attended by one of Dalton’s heavily armed henchmen. For the privilege of using Dalton’s newly constructed wilderness road, they had to pay several hundred dollars.
Dalton had invested $50,000 in men and equipment to cut a trail, lay down a corduroy of logs over the boggy places, and build bridges along the first 80 kilometres of the trail.
Day after day, they moved the herd slowly along the trail, dealing with “…bad footing on pebbly river bottoms, lack of feed, mud swamps, with perhaps an abundance of feed, but impossible of access, heavy timber and scrub, where a beast could wander off the trail and lose itself almost instantly, poison weed, infected feet and backs.”
In the ensuing weeks, they often wasted days while they rounded up strays and returned them to the herd. Then, if they couldn’t find adequate feed, men and beasts, tired and hungry, kept moving until they did. “No feed no rest,” became their motto.
They entered Canada again at the Mounted Police post at Pleasant Camp, where the long climb up and over the Chilkat Pass began. By this time, Tuxford’s feet were raw and bleeding from the abrasion of his high boots. He bandaged them and they moved on.
Many of their animals were sickened from eating poisonous weeds, and it rained constantly for the next 30 kilometres. One of the oxen was too weak to continue, so they left it behind. They shot two cows, but they were lucky; along the way, they passed the corpses of many horses and cows, victims of the brutal trail conditions.
Every night, the men shared the camp duties. While one set up the tent, another gathered firewood, and Tuxford cooked the standard ample batch of pancakes. If time permitted, he prepared bannock or bread to satisfy their enormous appetites.
They had to shoot two more cows between Dalton House and Klukshu.
The packs wore heavily on the oxen until they became raw and flies attacked the sores, which were soon filled with maggots. Flies of every description attacked them, and the mosquitoes were ever present. Once, George’s brother Alan came too close to a wasp nest with painful consequences.
George Tuxford developed an infection in one finger, and the swelling had reached his elbow before he recovered.
Between Dezadeash Lake and Champlain’s Landing (Champagne), they set camp in an area with good grazing for their animals, and for 10 days, the herd fattened up and recovered from their travel sores.
North of Hutchi, it became hot and dry, and the air filled with forest fire smoke. The volcanic ash that blanketed the region was stirred up at every footstep.
They were nearing the Yukon River when tragedy struck. Tuxford’s horse stepped on the end of a deadfall and an errant branch impaled the poor creature in the stomach. It bled out within minutes, and Tuxford had to continue the journey on foot.
When he arrived at Carmacks Post, Tuxford summarized the loss as one horse, two steers, and two oxen. They decided to swim the herd across the river and move them farther downstream, below Five Finger Rapid, where they would set up camp, build corrals, construct rafts, and, when the fall weather turned cool enough, butcher the herd.
They found a good location on the bank of the Yukon River where there was an ample supply of water, good feed for their cattle, and plenty of timber with which to build their corrals and rafts.
It was at this point that the small size of their party proved to be a disadvantage. Tuxford returned to Five Finger Rapid, where cattleman Charlie Thebo had set up a small sawmill and was busy around the clock cutting lumber and building scows. Thebo was overbooked and refused to take an order from Tuxford.
The three farmers-turned-cattlemen would have to build their own rafts, slaughter and butcher their own cattle and float them to Dawson. The workload impeded the small party, and it was with great frustration that they watched other herds of cattle and scows filled with beef float past their camp everyday.
They wondered if they would ever reach Dawson City with their herd.
To be continued…
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His book, History Hunting in the Yukon, is now available.