The overland trail from Edmonton to the Klondike

On August 27, 1897, Commissioner L.W. Herchmer, the head of the North West Mounted Police, issued written orders to Inspector J.D. Moodie.

On August 27, 1897, Commissioner L.W. Herchmer, the head of the North West Mounted Police, issued written orders to Inspector J.D. Moodie. His instructions were to undertake an overland trek from Edmonton, Alberta, to the headwaters of the Pelly River. The purpose of the trip was to gather information about the conditions of the trail.

The government in Ottawa had been receiving reports from the remote Klondike district of the discovery of gold 13 months before. Only five weeks before Herchmer issued Moodie his orders, two vessels had arrived in San Francisco and Seattle from this remote district carrying rugged men and women dressed in tatters, who carried with them a Midas treasure in gold.

It is reasonable to expect that the businessmen of Edmonton were eager to cash in on the opportunity to become a supply point for the Klondike. In addition, the Canadian government was eager to establish a route to the Klondike that was all-Canadian.

On the way, Moodie was to collect details of the terrain, especially river crossings where bridges might have to be built. The information he gathered should be first-hand, not hearsay, and as detailed as he could about potential farmland, hayfields and sites for future settlement.

“On leaving [Fort] St. John,” wrote Herchmer, “the best route for you to travel with a view to reaching the Yukon is to follow up the Peace River to the vicinity of the mouth of the Halfway River, and to travel along that river to its upper waters…”

He added: “…with good men, plenty of provisions and fair luck, you should be able to get to the Klondyke during the winter.”

Herchmer added that Moodie should take 40 kilograms of pemmican with him as a last resort, should they run short of supplies.

As it turned out, it took Moodie and his party almost 14 months and strenuous effort and hardship to fulfill Herchmer’s instructions. By that time, the gold rush would be at its peak. Moodie would not have the privilege of seeing the gold rush city of Dawson, however, until he was given command of the district, more than a dozen years later.

Inspector Moodie left Edmonton Sept. 2, 1897, heading northwest toward Fort St. John, British Columbia, with six saddle horses and 24 pack horses. With him were four constables: Frances J. Fitzgerald would later be remembered for leading the ill-fated patrol from Fort MacPherson to Dawson City that perished in 1911. Richard Hardisty, son of the late Canadian senator Richard Charles Hardisty, joined the party, along with two recent graduates of the Royal Military College, Frank Lafferty, and H.S. Tobin. A Metis man by the name of Baptiste Pepin and a First Nation guide completed the party.

The journey that followed was a casebook study in survival under extreme conditions. Early on in their journey, a man named Edward Wilson was hired to serve as guide to the party. Wilson lost the trail in a fire burn, and went out to locate the trail. He became lost. Moodie and his party searched for Wilson for four days, but their guide was never seen again.

They followed the route as instructed, arriving at Fort St. John on November 1. By then, winter was descending upon the party so Moodie purchased sleighs and dog teams, and commissioned the fabrication of snowshoes and moccasins for them. They proceeded as instructed, up the Halfway River, but after three weeks, the guide hired in Fort St. John abandoned them, and the party became bogged down a few days later.

The party could go no farther, and were forced to kill seven of the horses to provide food for the dogs. They eventually reached Fort Grahame on Jan. 18, 1898, out of supplies, and spent the winter in that vicinity, foraging for food.

In mid-April, on the Parsnip River, with the ice breaking up, Moodie had what he described as the “tightest place” he was ever in. He almost drowned while saving a sled dog that couldn’t climb out of the icy water.

The 14-month long journey was harsh and demanding. The Mounties endured deep snow and cold temperatures during the winter, wind and rain in the summer. They suffered hordes of mosquitoes and black flies that would drive the men and animals to the brink of insanity. They fought their way with axes through dense brush and deadfalls. They mucked their way through muskeg, mud holes and quicksand.

The men were injured, or became ill, without any chance of receiving medical treatment. They were afflicted by snow-blindness. They had to find food for their dogs during the winter, and their horses during the summer. If the horses strayed, they would have to go back to find them, which could delay them for days. They were constantly looking for decent pastures in order to keep the horses fit for packing supplies.

They had to ford numerous rivers and streams, which under bad conditions became raging, swollen torrents. Where they travelled by river, they had to navigate dangerous rapids, or make tedious portages around them. Equipment broke and had to be abandoned. Caches were broken into and supplies stolen.

Despite all of these circumstances, the party slowly made its way toward the Yukon. By August 29, almost a year to the day after their departure from Edmonton, they reached the Liard River. A month later, they were at the upper end of Frances Lake. A week after that, they reached the Pelly River, where they sent their horses back to Liard Post. They switched to a canvas boat purchased from a prospector they met and on October 4, set off down the Pelly River. Along the ice-choked Pelly they continued, and when it became too clogged with ice, they trekked for 50 kilometres through the snow to reach Fort Selkirk on October 23.

Moodie’s route to the Yukon did not turn out to be the overland trail to the Klondike that everyone had hoped for. Many stampeders who followed their trail perished, and herds of horses and cattle sent to the Klondike by this route never made it. Even the Alaska Highway, when it was eventually built, followed a different route. Yet Moodie and his men must be recognized for their exploration of this region under trying conditions, and the completion of their amazing journey.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. He is currently writing a book on the Yukon in World War I. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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