the fortymile river makes for challenging history1

The drone of the motorboat was muffled by the roar of the rapids as it negotiated the Cleghorn Riffle on the Fortymile River.

The drone of the motorboat was muffled by the roar of the rapids as it negotiated the Cleghorn Riffle on the Fortymile River.

This was a deceptive piece of water —churned into metre-high waves by the boulder-strewn channel through which it coursed.

Our guide, Alaskan Larry Taylor, a veteran resident of the Fortymile, and an able guide, put us ashore to walk around this stretch of the river while he navigated the 150-metres of boiling, angry water.

The pamphlet provided by the US Bureau of Land Management hadn’t prepared us for this section of the river, nor had they placed the riffle accurately on the map.

Woe to the unsuspecting canoeist who would come around the bend in the river to confront this piece of nasty water.

It was 1998, and as a centennial project, my friends Bill Berry, a retired California banker, John Gould a friend and  historian from Dawson City and I had secured Larry’s expertise, to take us on a journey through time and space.

Larry’s intimate knowledge of the Fortymile River, which spans the Yukon-Alaska boundary down the Yukon River  (north) from Dawson City, ensured our safety.

Larry should know about the dangers: on his first Fortymile trip many years before, he had lost everything going through a section of the Fortymile known as The Falls.

Bill was retracing the route his ancestor, Clarence J. Berry, who laboured up the Fortymile River to Franklin Gulch before the Klondike Gold Rush.

I was curious to travel the route that I had described in my book Gold at Fortymile Creek, which had been published just a few years before. John was there because of his natural curiosity and his voluminous knowledge of gold mining history.

While never yielding the spectacular gold production of the Klondike, the Fortymile was one of the most productive gold-bearing creeks discovered before the Klondike rush.

The prospectors had given colourful names to every sandbar and tributary: Troublesome Point, Dogtown, Bonanza Bar, Wildcat Riffles, Deadman’s Riffles, and the Cleghorn. Every name had a story.

The adventure we were on was, for Bill, I think, the most profound.

His great uncle Clarence unsuccessfully eked out a living mucking for gold on Franklin Gulch before the Klondike.

To make ends meet, Clarence was reduced to tending bar for Bill McPhee in his saloon in the small cluster of log buildings where the Fortymile River meets the Yukon.

McPhee grubstaked him, and he struck it rich on Eldorado Creek in the Klondike.

Berry repeated his luck at Fairbanks a few years later, then trebled his good fortune when he invested in California oil.

But at the moment, the Cleghorn Riffle was on our mind. The early prospectors travelled this route by tracking or lining their goods upstream in boats.

This demanding technique required at least two men, one to drag the supply laden craft upstream with a rope, while a partner kept the stern out in the current with a long pole.

This work was both tedious, and exhausting, taking days to haul the cargo from the trading posts at the town of Forty Mile to Franklin Gulch, about 140 kilometres upriver.

We were laden with guilt: where the oldtimers struggled for days against the current, often immersed in frigid water to their hips, we were making the same trip in a few hours in a motorboat.

Where the early day miners bivouacked on the banks of the river, battling weather and mosquitoes as they fought their way upstream, we were transported back to the Taylor’s tidy and comfortable home at O’Brien Creek, a tributary of the Fortymile, for a delicious home-cooked meal prepared by Larry’s wife, June.

After that, we could relax in the comfort of a sauna before retiring to one of the tidy cabins for a good night’s sleep.

The pioneer miners lived and laboured in extreme isolation: a round trip exchange of correspondence could take up to 18 months, and the miners were so starved for news from the outside world that the newspaper wrapping in a parcel from Outside was literally worth its weight in gold.

The prospecting and mining work was all done by hand in those days.

Three miners hand sawed 15,000 metres of lumber for a flume to divert water a kilometre and a half from Franklin Gulch to their claim on Troublesome Point.

Another partnership did the same and was earning $75 per day for their efforts, which, for that time was excellent return on their investment.

It was on the Fortymile that they perfected the technique of drift mining, which enabled a miner to thaw and dig his way down to bedrock through frozen ground in the winter. This technique was an improvement over remaining idle all winter while waiting for summer to return; it was later was employed extensively in the Klondike.

In 2003, I took a second trip down the Fortymile, in large inflatable with a team of cultural resource specialists. The water was so low in the upper portion of our journey that I waded across the main channel in rubber boots.

We dragged our craft over numerous shallows and floated slowly along.

At The Falls, where the river drops almost three metres in a short distance, we floated gently through.

In my previous journey, when the water was higher, this section was dangerous; we had walked around it while Larry Taylor navigated it at full throttle.

We never negotiated the most dangerous portion of all: the Grand Canyon on the Canadian side of the border.

The Fortymile flows gently past a cabin at Long Bar.

If you come ashore here, you will find a small memorial for two people who died in the Grand Canyon around 1980.

Two couples tried to make it through the canyon during high spring run-off. Two of the four lost their lives, and the lovely log cabin at Long Bar, now abandoned, became a spoiled dream.

Until the prospectors learned the stern code of the Fortymile, the river and its canyon took many lives.

The year after gold was discovered was particularly deadly.

The first to drown was a prospector named Tom Jones, who was stranded on a boulder in the canyon, only six metres from shore, and thinking that he could reach it safely, tried to swim.

He was caught in the deadly undertow and sucked under.

After Jones, the toll quickly mounted and the names Lamont, Saffron, Johnson, Holmes and Wells were quickly added to the death roll, but most tragic was the account of a Gwitch’in man who, after capsizing in the canyon, and mistakenly thinking that his entire family had perished, cut his own throat.

As a history hunter, encounters with the past are my primary goal, but safety is the prime concern.

After all, I’d like to be around to do it again.

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