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After the gold rush

Several reality TV show contestants were poisoned earlier this week after eating a poisonous plant on the Chilkoot Trail, said Christine Aikens, Parks Canada's public safety specialist on the Chilkoot Trail.

Several reality TV show contestants were poisoned earlier this week after eating a poisonous plant on the Chilkoot Trail, said Christine Aikens, Parks Canada’s public safety specialist on the Chilkoot Trail.

After grazing some edible species, the group accidently ate the false hellebore, the “most toxic poisonous plant on the West Coast,” said Tim Steidel, chief ranger of Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park.

They suffered from severe vomiting and diarrhea and probably would have died from the lethal plant if a Parks Canada employee didn’t happen across their camp, said Steidel.

After a hospital visit, the hikers returned to the trail to continue filming the show, La Ruee vers l’or (The Gold Rush).

The contestants were among 10 French-Canadian hikers who are re-enacting the gold rush on the Chilkoot Trail for the reality show.

But unlike 19th-century prospectors, these adventure-seekers don’t strike it rich at the end.

There is no prize and no winners.

“It’s educational, it’s historical and a human experiment in terms of group dynamics,” said Marie-Josee Houle, the show’s co-ordinator.

The 10 candidates are recreating the Klondike Gold Rush as it would have been in 1898.

“They’re dressed in the same sort of period outfits as they would have worn back then, same type of equipment in terms of their sleighs, the equipment they use for their camp, the prospector tents, and they’ve got the same type of food.”

When they’re not dining on local flora, like the toxic hellebore, they’re surviving off corned beef, rice and flour.

On their backs they carry 500 pounds of food, clothing and equipment. The only modern supplies they have are bear spray and avalanche equipment for safety, said Houle.

“Everything we do, basically we try to make it true to the history of the Gold Rush. Back in the day you couldn’t hike over the Chilkoot Pass and pass through Canadian customs unless you had enough food and equipment to last the entire year ... so they have to do that as well.”

But the toughest part is nature itself.

“Everything from just dealing with the wilderness,” said Houle. “There are bears in that area. It’s not an easy trail. It’s rough, especially when you get to the scales,” adding that the contestants are travelling in cold, rain and snow without waterproof equipment. “It’s not a very forgiving challenge.”

Poisonous plants and watching for bears are only a few of the challenges they face.

The hikers have experienced back pain from the heavy packs and blisters and bloody feet from the old-fashioned shoes.

But what doesn’t kill them makes them stronger.

The challenge is about “giving yourself confidence by challenging yourself and seeing how far you can go and pushing those limits all the time,” said Houle.

She trusts they will endure. That’s how the contestants were chosen - the producers chose 10 people out of 1,200 who auditioned because they believed they could make it to the end.

“It’s putting 10 people together who have different interests, different characters and getting them to the end point,” said Houle. “It’s an experiment in group dynamics. None of them knew each other before the fact.”

The show is currently being filmed with Ottawa-based Slalom Productions and Winnipeg’s Les Productions Rivard.

Contestants began their trek in Skagway on June 5 and are expected to arrive in Dawson by the end of the summer where they’ll pan for gold. They’ll make a stop in Whitehorse on July 24.

But the schedule is flexible because of unpredictable conditions.

“It is documentary so we kind of go with the flow of events and see what happens. We don’t ever really control and they take most of the decisions and we follow them through the whole thing,” said Houle.

The challenge is scheduled to air in 2011 on TFO and TVA.

Contact Larissa Robyn Johnston at