Today, we think of big game hunting as the pursuit of game for trophies, but a century ago during the chaos and pandemonium of the gold rush, big game hunting helped stave off starvation. Not only that, but the demand for meat at that time was so great, and the price offered for it was so high that hunting big game to supply the hungry miners of the Klondike could be very profitable.
Here are two different accounts that illustrate commercial hunting for meat from the early days.
The first account comes from Tappan Adney, an American journalist, who was writing for Harper’s Monthly Magazine.
During the winter of 1897/1898, with famine looming in Dawson, Adney accompanied Chief Isaac, leader of the Moosehide people, and a party of 40 or 50 on a hunt up the Klondike valley into the distant mountains.
On the third day out, they hunted for the first time and were able to secure four moose, which were divided up between the members of the band. They feasted upon their bounty and sent several sleds full of moose meat into Dawson.
They continued up the Klondike valley, setting a new camp every few miles, and hunting as they went along. By the time they had reached the forks of the Klondike River, a month had elapsed. Thus far they had managed to shoot 32 moose. They camped for a week at the forks, where they acquired another dozen moose.
Day after day, they went out in the dark and cold through the deep winter snows in search of moose and caribou. Though the rifle had only recently displaced the traditional tools of hunting, they had quickly become experts at its use.
By the end of their hunt, they had procured 80 moose and 65 caribou, which, after they had provided for their own needs, they sold to the miners at around $3 per kilogram ($1.25 to $1.50 per pound) In today’s terms, that would be nearly $75 per kilogram.
The demand for wild meat continued unabated for the next few years. When supply was short, the price skyrocketed. This was enough to attract a number of men to become commercial hunters.
There were a dozen of them, working in partnerships, who would go to the upper Klondike valley in September and hunt until the spring. The most well-known of the commercial hunters was an Irishman named Jack Lee. Lee first came to the Yukon in 1898, and “was one of the first to perceive that hunting big game for the Klondike market would not only be profitable,” but also “congenial in the extreme.”
According to Lee, an outfit for two men would cost between $800 and $1,000. This would cover the cost of a dog team (six dogs) and sled, hunting rifles and ammunition, a large canoe, snowshoes, tent and camping gear, and enough food to last for three months, when the freighters would come up the frozen river with more supplies.
The hunters poled up river in mid September. This was back-breaking work done all day in wet clothes, stumbling along the river bank hauling the canoe against the powerful current. When the water became too shallow to continue by boat, the hunters would transfer their goods to backpacks and ferry their supplies to a cabin another 20 kilometres above the point of navigation.
They would then prepare their camp, and when the first snow fell and it was cold enough to preserve the meat, they began moose hunting. At first, the wary animals could only be shot at great distance. Once the first moose was shot, the monotonous diet of bacon, bannock and beans was supplemented with fresh meat. It would take several trips, often 10 kilometres or more, to haul the meat back to camp; the remainder would be cached at the kill site.
Caribou hunting worked best when the animals were in small groups. It could take hours for the hunter to gain an advantageous position from which to shoot them. Once this point was reached, he opened fire, and as the animals scattered, he continued to pursue them until they were out of range.
The carcasses were then gutted and the limbs removed. The bodies were laid out straight and allowed to freeze so that they were easier to stack, four to a sled, for transport back to camp.
According to Lee, “It may be forty below zero and blowing a gale … and as the hunter is obliged to strip to the waist and bare his arms to the shoulder, it is anything but a picnic. While actually handling the entrails, one’s hands are warm, but when each carcass is finished it is always necessary to dive one’s hands into the snow … and hastily remove the greater part of the blood before pulling on a loose pair of double woolen mittens carried for such occasions.”
It would be dark when they were finished, and they still had to trek 15 kilometres to get back to camp. Typically, they took no food with them on the daily hunt as it quickly froze solid even in an inner pocket. They were hungry and exhausted from exertion by the time they returned to camp where a warm meal was a welcome treat. This routine was repeated numerous times over the course of the winter.
In this way a supply of meat was provided to the bustling mining community. In 1899, Lee estimated that 1,000 caribou were provided to the Dawson market. In 1900, it peaked at 1,250. This business continued for several more years, but the number declined.
By 1908, the beef market had stabilized at a price of 44 cents a kilogram (20 cents a pound). The cost of freighting the meat from the mountains became prohibitive, and the market for wild game vanished. Jack Lee hung up his snowshoes and rifle and became the timekeeper for the Yukon Gold Company.
The individual hunt for game continues to be a popular way for Yukoners to supplement the larder today. Big game hunting for trophies, rather than for meat, has become big business. Today, hunters have been known to pay more than $100,000 for the privilege of hunting in certain regions of the Yukon.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is now available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org