In the company of those who went before 

click to enlarge WWW.SHUTTERSTOCK.COM - Yukon River around Dawson City, Klondike, Canada

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

I was in the third or fourth grade the first time I heard Robert Service's poem, The Cremation of Sam McGee. I thought it was about the coolest thing any teacher had ever read to any classroom of tiny human sponges and I sucked up every word of it. I had no idea what "moil" meant, was dumbfounded at the thought someone who'd frozen to death could be brought back to life by tossing his stiff body in a furnace and wondered what the heck a "marge" was.

And now I find myself on the marge of Lake Laberge about to launch a canoe into its cold water for a long-awaited paddle down the Yukon River to Dawson City. Blame Pierre Berton. Robert Service wasn't the first person to get the name of the lake wrong. Poetic licence being what it is, Lebarge rhymed more neatly with marge. Those of a colonial mindset named it Laberge after French-Canadian Michel LaBerge who explored the area in 1866. Of course, the folks who had been living in the area long before that had names for the lake but the Tlingit, Tagish and Tutchone names were either too hard to pronounce or were just the ramblings of local savages so why pay any attention. Nothing really mattered until someone from outside "discovered" what had long been known.

Berton didn't name anything except his children, as far as I know. But in 1958 he did write The Klondike Fever: The Life and Death of the Last Great Gold Rush. I didn't read it but a lot of people did and a lot of them had a lot to say about it. Being a historian and, shall we say, prone to thoroughness, Berton took what they had to say to heart and dug even deeper into the story of the Klondike gold rush.

Having been born in Whitehorse to a father who'd caught gold fever and moved there to find his fortune in the fabled gold fields, and since he worked in Klondike mining camps himself in his younger years, Berton's fascination with the sweep of gold rush lore came naturally.

So in 1972, his research, extensive interviews and dogged determination resulted in Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush, 1896-1899. The book was a reworking of his earlier tome and in hard cover will count as exercise for your wrists should you read it in that format. Big.

I did read it. It sparked my imagination and my desire to follow at least some of the path of the crazy dreamers who came north in search of riches. And, it's probably one of the reasons I've lived in Canada most of my life. Blame Pierre.

The story of the Klondike gold rush is the story of humanity every bit as much as the story of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt. Except it happened.

The match that lit the Klondike gold rush was fired in August of 1896 when George Carmack, Skookum Jim and Tagish Charley followed a tip they'd received from Robert Henderson and looked for the magic stuff on a tributary of the Klondike River. It proved to be a bonanza and that's what Rabbit Creek was later renamed. The wealth coming out of the ground on that creek was eclipsed when miners who'd gotten wind of the strike started digging on Eldorado. Within a year, virtually every inch of the gold-bearing creeks in the area were staked and claimed.

It wasn't until the next year, in July 1897, that word spread to the rest of the world. "A Ton of Gold!" screamed the headline in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper when a steamship carrying emaciated miners landed with their wealth loaded in satchels, trunks and anything else that would hold the dust and nuggets they'd pulled out of the Klondike.

Immediately, sane men lost their minds. It's estimated more than 100,000 set out for the Klondike that year. Many left homes, families, farms, jobs and everything else behind, blinded by the thought of a ton of gold and wealth beyond their wildest dreams.

Virtually none of them realized those dreams. The ones who grew wealthy were already there or were smart enough to find gold in the dreams of others and sold them the goods they needed to follow their Quixotic quests or soothe their bruised egos when they came up empty-handed.

But the story Berton told of their struggles, especially the stories of those who chose the overland route up and down the Chilkoot Pass, is riveting. Canada being Canada, all good government and sensible administration, the RCMP required those crossing the pass from Alaska to Canada to bring with them a ton of goods, the amount it was decided they needed to survive the first year.

The small percentage who managed this feat ended up at Bennett Lake where they spent the rest of the winter cutting down spruce, hand-sawing planking, building boats or rafts and waiting for the ice to break so they could, in many cases, lose it all in the rapids downstream. Those who managed that stretch of water faced Marsh Lake, Lake Laberge and 320 kilometres of the Yukon River.

Their story, and others I've read about canoeing the Yukon, is why I'm on the marge of Lake Lebarge (sic) about to slip a beat-up old Grumman canoe into the cold water and paddle those kilometres. It's something I've wanted to do since the first time I read about it and it's only taken me a little more than four decades to finally get around to it.

My Wonderful Wife and I have far less than a ton of goods but we do have a canoe full, a good map and compass and the riches of time to enjoy the paddle. A few people have offered sage advice along the lines of, "You're crazy to do that alone." But we're not alone. We have the spirits of those who came before us. And I thank them for the adventure.


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