a yukon classic

Frozen in time, and maybe just plain frozen as well, the figures still seem to be moving up the snow-covered, 45-degree slope, a skein of antlike…

Frozen in time, and maybe just plain frozen as well, the figures still seem to be moving up the snow-covered, 45-degree slope, a skein of antlike forms against a background of all-encompassing white.

Some of them, bent low under their burdens, appear to have slowed to a crawl, while others seem to have a jauntiness in their step, as if they can already smell the gold.

Ask anyone for an image of the Klondike Gold Rush, and this scene of would-be miners ascending Alaska’s Chilkoot Pass to the Yukon River basin is probably the first one they’ll mention.

They may even say that one of their ancestors was among the thousands who trekked the Chilkoot in 1897-98. Or they might have seen the scene in an old photograph or Hollywood movie.

But what they may not know was that there were other, considerably less-popular routes to the Klondike.

Some gold pilgrims started out at a muddy little hamlet in Alberta called Edmonton.

From here, they would have their choice of several routes, each with its own hazards.  

For instance, one route meandered through Dog-Eating Prairie, so named because eating one’s dogs seemed to be the only way to survive it.

Another boasted such uninviting features as The Rapids of the Drowned and The Devil’s Portage.

Yet another, the Mackenzie River route, brought the aforesaid pilgrim nearly to the Arctic Ocean, then obliged him to paddle down a relatively unknown river such as the Rat or the Porcupine … and as if that wasn’t enough, he would later need to find a mountain pass that might or might not deliver him to the Klondike.

Both those who reached the goldfields and those who didn’t kept journals, often with increasingly terse entries; in one such journal, the last few lines were written with the writer’s own blood, as — in a forlorn attempt to find sustenance — the fellow had already drunk the last of his ink.

Desperate conditions require desperate measures.

There’s a famous scene in Charlie Chaplin’s 1925 film The Gold Rush where Charlie, as The Lone Prospector, eats his boot, then the boot’s laces, and then its nails, upon which he chews contentedly. This may be an exaggeration, but it’s not much of one.

You may wonder why a person of apparently sound mind would be willing to endure such hardship, even court death, without knowing for sure whether he’d find any of the precious dust.

Why, indeed? Because many of the gold-seekers relished the idea of adventure in the Great White North at least as much as they wanted to strike it rich.

To quote Yukon bard Robert Service: “Yet it isn’t the gold that I’m wanting, / So much as just finding the gold.”

Service himself did not experience the gold rush, but he did experience the country where it took place, and he composed the poem in which those lines appear (The Spell of the Yukon) as he was standing on the heights above Miles Canyon and gazing down on the majestic flow of the Yukon River.

Consider George M. Mitchell, an insurance broker in his early thirties and a resident of the not particularly exciting city of Toronto.

Except for hunting or fishing forays into the local countryside, he pursued a more or less sedentary life. Inside this seemingly unexceptional man, however, there was another George Mitchell clambering to get out.

The Klondike Gold Rush provided this second Mitchell with a much-needed spark, and clamber out he did. But rather than join the hordes on the Chilkoot Pass, he chose arguably the most obscure, arduous, and downright implausible route to the goldfields.

It’s as if he’d said to himself: No one, not even me, would ever think of insuring a person so incautious as to try to reach the Klondike via the Peel River system and, specifically, the Wind River.

The surveyor William Ogilvie, for whom the Ogilvie Mountains were named, had indicated to Mitchell that this route was practicable, although he, Ogilvie, had not investigated it himself. But what might be practicable for a man with Ogilvie’s years of hard travel in the North might be an invitation to disaster for someone else.

In fact, the Peel River region included some of the least explored country in North America … least explored, that is, by white outsiders. The region’s inhabitants, the Tetlit Gwich’in, knew it perhaps as well as Mitchell knew Toronto, and if it hadn’t been for their knowledge, Mitchell probably wouldn’t have seen his stolid office at 36 Victoria Street in Toronto again.

After his return, Mitchell dined out on his Yukon adventures, retelling them, refining them, maybe even embellishing them a bit. He was a natural storyteller, but he wasn’t a writer.

In the early 1920s, he moved to Quebec City, where he met a peripatetic Scotsman named Angus Graham.

Graham, a forester by trade, immediately sensed a book in Mitchell’s tales. Thus the two men began meeting in Quebec’s prestigious Garrison Club, with Mitchell talking a proverbial blue streak and his Scottish amanuensis scribbling away furiously.

Graham had only one previous book to his credit, a plodding tome about timber management written at the behest of the Quebec Forest Industries Association.

But the meetings with Mitchell obviously inspired him, and the resulting book, The Golden Grindstone, is not only what’s commonly called a page-turner, but it’s also one of the best books ever written about the gold rush.

Graham later wrote novels, and as an amateur archeologist, articles about various Scottish ruins, but none of his subsequent work can hold a candle to The Golden Grindstone.

Even the book’s throwaway lines stick in the mind, such as when Mitchell is describing the tribulations caused by a certain insect, and he says: “I have known a man [to] walk 80 miles to ask the priest to say special prayers against the mosquitoes.”

The entire book seems to have stuck in James A. Michener’s mind, because he used it as a model for his novel Journey.

Like Mitchell, Michener’s main character, an English adventurer named Lord Luton, attempts to reach the Klondike via the Peel River system; and like Mitchell, he suffers numerous setbacks along the way. But I dare say The Golden Grindstone, first published in 1935, is the far better book.

Actually, Graham’s book has certain novel-like qualities itself. Consider its cast of characters. Here is Mitchell, alternately opinionated, blustery, egocentric, and beguiling, a performer whom Graham marshals now to the centre of the stage, now to the wings.

Here are the gold-miners, a motley crew some of whom are immensely cultivated (one man gives lectures on astronomy at Mitchell’s Wind River encampment), while others are brutes of the sort that enthralled Jack London.

And here are the Gwich’in, with their arcane surgical procedures, their evil eyes, their obsession with tobacco, their 100-year-old elders and their subsistence culture.

To this reader, the book’s most interesting feature is in fact its portrayal of the  Gwich’in.

Stuck for a winter in a ni-vya-zeh, the skin-covered lodge, Mitchell had an excellent opportunity to study his Athabascan-speaking hosts at close quarters; and the chapters of the book that describe his enforced overwintering have a genuine ethnographic value, certainly as much so as Cornelius Osgood’s then contemporaneous monograph on the Gwich’in.

But whereas Osgood regards his subjects as, well, subjects, Mitchell — in Graham’s rendering — sees the Gwich’in as fellow human beings, albeit idiosyncratic ones.

If they are not always sympathetically-inclined toward their pale-skinned charge, it’s because they still defer to the time-honoured belief that the weak, regardless of their skin colour, are at once a burden and a threat to the strong.

Thus if you’re moving camp in the dead of winter, and someone can’t walk, you either  abandon that person or dispose of him.  Mitchell couldn’t walk.

The hero of The Golden Grindstone, insofar as there is one, is Francis Tsik, who became chief of the Tetlit band in 1891 upon the death of his grandfather, Small Nipples (he’d acquired this curious name because his mother died in childbirth, and he tried to suckle her shriveled breast).

Chief Francis is that rare entity, a good leader, so it’s not surprising that Mitchell made him promise to stay away from Dawson City, the Klondike’s raucous epicentre and the downfall — via alcohol, prostitution, gambling, etc. — of many a Native person.

True to his word, Francis did remain in  his backwoods home, but in 1903 a number of his constituents relocated to Dawson, where — for better or worse — they joined the 20th century.

As Francis now lived too far away to handle their affairs, they appointed a new chief, his nephew Julius.

One imagines that Francis himself was none the worse for not having seen the bright lights of Dawson.

George Mitchell did not see those bright lights, either. Indeed, he never got closer to the goldfields than the Wind River country. Its distance from the Klondike would have been measured not by miles but by weeks of travel.

And while his two best friends on the expedition, Cecil Merritt and Jack Patterson, returned to Toronto quite a bit richer than they’d set out, Mitchell’s only keepsake from the trip was a stiff leg, which he had for the rest of his life.

But he did discover something more valuable than any precious metal: a still-traditional group of people who did not need gold in order to be rich.

Traveler Lawrence Millman is the author of many books including Last Places: A Journey in the North.