Last week, a large weight was lifted from my shoulders; I sent the manuscript for my next book of Yukon history to the publisher. It will be titled The Forgotten Klondike Trail. This one had consumed my life for the last year, and much longer than that, if I’m really honest. My wife Kathy is probably sick of my obsession with it by now.
I was hunched over the keyboard in my little basement office for most of the summer, in fact for most of the last year. If I wasn’t hidden away hunting for the correct word, writing, revising, and over- polishing the apple, I was on one more field trip to locate the trail or an interesting historical feature somewhere along its length.
I dithered over details and fussed over phrases; I wrote and revised repeatedly until, like the corpse in the Cremation of Sam McGee, I came to loathe the thing. But I couldn’t let go of it.
Finally, the deadline arrived, and up to the moment when I hit the send button and dispatched the text into the ether, I was looking for one more mistake and seeking to spruce up one more sentence. Since the day was the last of the work week, I even asked my editor if I could keep it over the weekend and have one more go at it. She wisely told me to send it and enjoy the weekend. That was good advice.
This book was a labour of love. It is an account of one of the fascinating but overlooked events of the early days. It is the untold stories that I find most appealing, and this one has been sadly neglected. Pierre Berton’s classic work Klondike, which immortalizes the story of the gold rush, mentions the Dalton Trail in a few short paragraphs. The trail was not even marked on any of the numerous maps that accompanied his story.
But let’s not pick on Berton; almost every modern account, map or museum exhibit has neglected this trail to the Klondike, and it was pretty much ignored during the centennial celebrations of a dozen years ago. For all of these oversights, I felt obliged to render the story for my readers.
There was, however, more to the story than a collection of facts. From my earliest visits to the Yukon, I had learned about the Dalton Trail. I was, like Alan Innes-Taylor, my first Yukon mentor, outraged by the thoughtless and wanton destruction of the log buildings at Dalton House. I even campaigned, unsuccessfully, to have the site declared nationally significant.
Despite this setback, I toiled on, assembling the story of the trail, of those who used it, and the route it followed. I trekked its length, often alone, under the burden of an overweight backpack, and located features, long forgotten and overgrown, that are mentioned in the early day accounts. People mentioned more points of interest along the trail, and I followed them up, with satisfying results.
During one phase of my younger days, I was so obsessed with returning to the southwest Yukon to explore, that I lived in Ottawa for several years in an apartment furnished entirely with plastic milk cartons. That was about all I could afford after I paid for my trips to the Yukon. When I moved to Dawson City to work for Parks Canada, I never completely forgot about the Dalton Trail, and took the opportunity during business trips, to various parts of the country over the years, to explore collections of old photographs or examine old documents.
In the end, I decided that my story would be about the experience of searching for the trail, as well as the tale of the trail itself.
The Dalton Trail has all of the ingredients of a great story. Its namesake, Jack Dalton, was about as colourful an individual as any that ever lived in the Wild West, or in this case, the Wild North. Dalton had worked with cattle during his youth, before moving north, where he slowly became known as one of the premier wilderness guides in the Yukon or Alaska. It is said that once he explored a piece of terrain, he never forgot it.
Dalton was a survivor who could improvise under any circumstance, and he did. He was a successful entrepreneur, who, among other things, charged a toll for the use of the First Nation trade trail upon which he had spent a pile of money making improvements. He also had a flaming temper. On two occasions that we know about, he killed men who got in his way. Had he not been so short of stature, he might have been a prototype for the John Wayne hero of Hollywood westerns.
The story of the Dalton Trail has many of the ingredients of a good adventure story or western yarn. There is conflict between nations, men, and with the forces of nature. There is hardship and survival. There is a gun fight, though a rather one-sided affair. There are “cowboys and Indians,” though they don’t fit the mould typical of the Wild West.
Dalton once stared down a dozen cattlemen single-handed, and forced them to detour around his trail over some of the most challenging terrain that any cattle herd ever had to deal with. It was for driving cattle to Dawson that the Dalton Trail was most important, but today most people don’t know that. For three years, if it had not been for the cattle brought in over the Dalton Trail, the people of Dawson City would have starved during the winters. These cattle drives were the longest and the most challenging ever undertaken on the continent.
Some of the colourful characters of the gold rush used the Dalton Trail, like Joe Boyle, who later ran one of the big dredge companies in the Klondike, and the Englishman, Arthur Newton Christian Treadgold, who ran another one. Swiftwater Bill Gates (no relation to me incidentally), the Klondike’s most notorious lothario, just about froze to death while racing winter to the coast over the Dalton Trail the fall of 1897.
The Dalton Trail captured the interest of a president and a prime minister, first because of the threat of starvation in Dawson City, and then as their nations argued over where the dividing line should be drawn between them.
And finally, there were the Mounted Police, who were sent in to guard the border, who kept people safe on the trail, and who, at one point, even prepared to do battle with dark forces that threatened to overthrow the government of the Yukon.
All of these people and events, and many more, make the ingredients of a great story, and you will be able to read the entire story when it comes out next spring. So stay tuned.
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 email@example.com