On the Gold Rush Trail
THE MYTHIC CITY of Dawson, at the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike rivers, was founded during the great Klondike gold rush, which spawned the legends of White Fang and The Call of the Wild. You can still visit Jack London’s cabin there, and the bars still accept gold dust in payment for whiskey. All the buildings are made of wood, and adventure calls on every street corner. This city under the midnight sun has a big soul and enormous charm, to which we willingly fell victim. Our plan was to make camp a short way upstream from the city, build a raft a carbon copy of the ones used by nineteenth-century gold rushers and float down the Yukon River to its confluence with the Tanana. We thought it would take about two weeks to build our raft, but we hadn’t reckoned on the way things work in Dawson. We ended up staying there more than a month. Hut at least we remained true to our motto, which had always been “Time wasted on the trail is time well spent.”
Later we made up for lost time by rafting downriver around the clock, traveling 120 miles per day, stopping only once in a while to take on firewood and clean water or to go exploring on a mountain. The crew of the raft was divided into ship’s watches, with two men taking turns at the helm while the other three slept, ate, fished, or daydreamed on deck. Occasionally we would all have to row together to bring the raft back to the middle of the current or avoid shallows or a rock. We did this with the help of large oars placed at either end of the Coulapic, as we had baptized our raft in Dawson (it means “Sinks-like-a-stone” in French). This was an easy passage, different in every way from the one that lay ahead.
For two weeks we floated with the current, but now we would have to fight against it to cross from the Yukon watershed into the Kuskokwim’s. To do this, we crossed the border and set off in canoes into the no-man’s-Iand of Alaska. For more than a month we saw no sign of a human only bear, caribou, moose, beaver, and other wildlife. Wolves stood on the banks and watched us pass, and we in turn watched them in the long evenings chase young geese in the swamps. It took us six weeks to paddle, line, and portage our canoes mile by mile against the current to our goal.
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