In August of 1940, John Rowland, a young man visiting the Yukon for the second time selling magazine subscriptions, had an argument with York Wilson, the White Pass ticket agent in Mayo. Rowland had written an article in Canadian Comment magazine.
“The absence of large scale activities in the Mayo District,” he wrote, “is due to two things, transportation and the old timers who have staked rich claims and who now sit and wait for a Corporation to buy them out.… Transportation is much the greater of the two evils.… This monopoly enables them [White Pass] to dictate to corporations and charge any rate they see fit…”
Rowland elaborated in his autobiography, Slipping the Lines, about this confrontation: “He [Wilson] took umbrage at the fact that I had written that Jesse James could have learned a few tricks from the White Pass people. We didn’t come to fisticuffs, but I have a temper too. I told him to stick his steamboats up where the sun don’t shine.”
With that impulsive action, he had to consider his options for getting out of Mayo. So he found a four metre-long, half-built, flat–bottomed boat lying in the weeds, in a vacant lot and purchased it for five dollars.
He got it down to the float plane ramp on the waterfront, where he set about to complete the construction, fully aware that another peddler turned paddler had recently drowned in the river. Heedless of the potential danger, he set about adding new planks, thwarts, oar locks, seats and ribs with some borrowed tools.
Rowland had an audience: three trappers living in identical log cabins whiling away the summer, sitting on their respective porches, watching the progress of his work. For some unexplained reason, these three neighbours never exchanged a single word between themselves, but each in turn had lent Rowland a hand to complete the job.
When the construction was finished, he painted the little tub with two coats of brilliant yellow paint, reasoning that if the boat should capsize, it would be easier for rescuers to find his remains. As a final measure, he took three planks upon which he painted the name “Newsweek Inc.” in black letters, and attached them to the sides and stern of his boat.
The trappers had warned him of the hazards of the river: the log jams, sweepers, and four sets of rapids called “The Ice Chest,” “Sterling Bend,” “Wildcat Slough,” and worst of all, “The Devil’s Elbow.” Keep to the right or left limit of each of these, they told him, and he would be fine. That advice was almost his undoing as they didn’t tell him what the right or left limit of a river meant.
Not everyone shared his confidence in the seaworthiness of his little boat. Sam Wood, the mining recorder in Mayo, looked at it and said, “John, all you need for that thing is a lid and you have a perfect coffin!”
Finally, loaded down with three weeks of food, he pushed off and began his river odyssey down the Stewart and Yukon rivers, with the final destination being Circle City, Alaska. At every bend in the river, it seemed that logs had piled up from the flooding of the previous spring, as much as 10 metres high. “The rush of water under the pile makes a frightening sound.” He wrote in a letter to his family back in Ontario, “Sometimes I had to row like hell to keep from being sucked under them.”
Quietly and steadily, he floated and rowed down the Stewart River, thrilling in the absolute silence and stunning beauty of the land. At night he would pull up on the shore and sleep under a jury-rigged canvas tent that straddled the sides of the little boat. Snuggled in his sleeping bag in the flat bottom, he would howl like a dog and the wolves would answer from the surrounding hills.
Slowly the 10-kilometre current swept him along through the beautiful emptiness. At one point, a logjam loomed in the distance, spanning half the width of the river, and only by the most desperate rowing, was he able to make it past this obstacle by a mere whisker.
The trappers had told him to stop at Maisy Mae Creek when he passed. There he found a farm on a flat stretch of some of the most fertile land in the Yukon, but the strange behaviour of Mr. Gilbert, the farmer, his son, and the hired hand (who had worked for nine years without pay, and was threatening to quit), convinced him not to stay long.
He left Maisy Mae and continued his journey downstream, safely passing through “The Devil’s Elbow.” One evening, he encountered a couple of German prospectors who had spent the summer panning the bars of the Stewart. An evening of conversation, and Newsweek Inc. was again on its way, reaching the mouth of the Stewart a short time later.
Thankful to again be in the outreaches of civilization, Rowland borrowed a wash tub from the manager of the Hudson’s Bay Store located there so that he could have a wholesome bath, and then he continued his journey, floating along in the waters of the mighty Yukon.
Along the way, he picked up Don McKay, a young fellow from Trail, British Columbia, who had been stranded after his raft had capsized in a log jam, and the two of them floated along together until the tiny Newsweek Inc. brought them ashore in Dawson City. Rowland’s cruise down the Stewart and the Yukon had taken him nearly three weeks.
Once in Dawson, Rowland set about renewing old acquaintances — and subscriptions — and when he had finished in Dawson City, he went out into the goldfields to make more sales. When he was ready to leave Dawson, he was carrying with him nearly $1,600, after expenses, for a few weeks work. Factoring inflation into the figure that was roughly $25,000 in today’s money. And that figure didn’t include the gold that he had hidden in the heels of his shoes.
As he floated down into Alaska in the early days of September, the nights were closing in earlier and the ice was reaching farther out into the river each morning, so it was with great relief that he arrived safely at Circle City, the end of his river cruise. There he sold Newsweek Inc., at a profit, for $17, and gave away the camping supplies that he would no longer be needing.
Not only did John Rowland leave the Yukon a little richer, but also filled with experiences and encounters that he would write about more than 50 years later. Next time, I will tell you about the remarkable friends he made during his trips through the Yukon.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, From the Klondike to Berlin, is now available in stores everywhere. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org