It was one of the strangest mass movements in history.
They came, in their tens of thousands, everywhere from Brooklyn in New York to Bermondsey in south London. They traversed Canada's endless flatlands, crossed the Rockies and on, into the frozen north. Others came by ship around Cape Horn where wrecks piled up against the cliffs of Tierra del Fuego. Most arrived with empty sacks and empty pockets, but they were filled with schemes and dreams of riches that rendered them blind to the sub-Arctic ordeal that lay ahead; all this to prospect for gold in a river which had already been staked and claimed before the first of these stampeders arrived.
When Canada's Gold Rush began in 1897, hardly anyone could pronounce the name of the river responsible for delivering such riches. Klondike, Clondyke or Thron-diuck; the spelling of the waterway, like its geography, wasn't universally understood. But when two ships laden with fist-sized nuggets arrived in Seattle from this distant northern Eldorado, half the Western world, it seemed, shut up shop to travel countless miles with only the vaguest idea of where they were headed. Some struck north out of Chicago; others arrived in Seattle and demanded direct train passage into the gold fields. Klondike fever had taken hold, and few of these migrants seemed aware that this part of Canada, fenced off from the world by a towering barricade of ice fields and frozen volcanic mountains, was one of the most God-forsaken places on the planet.
This was no California. But standing in the sun, with blond sand blowing around my boots, it's hard to imagine that countless people perished here in pursuit of gold. Some 3,000 horses alone were said to have died carrying packs and people across the mountains. The icy heights of this route, the Chilkoot Pass where I now stand, became known as "the 32 meanest miles in the world"; the only access into the interior granted by the powerful Tlingit First Nation which exerted brutal control over this land.
But for the complete lack of tourists, I could be standing in a Swiss Alpine lake resort. There's a little clapboard train station where the restaurant teases us with the smell of a hearty stew cooking, the only evidence that the daily trainload of visitors is due up from the coast. In the distance: snow-covered peaks, a small campsite, a wooden church on a proud pedestal of rock; all of it illuminated from the laser-like sun reflecting off Bennett Lake.
Back in the late 1800s, travelling five miles here could take a day. Each prospector hauled on average a ton of goods (enough to last a year) up crude steps carved into the ice. These days, the Chilkoot is a popular hiking trail, climbing from the deep-sea port of Skagway, on the Alaskan border, up 3,500ft and down again to the almost iridescent turquoise of lakes Bennett and Lindeman. I haven't hiked here. I passed up five days of trekking and basic camping in favour of a "flight-seeing" trip out of the Yukon capital, Whitehorse, on a 1952 de Havilland Beaver floatplane that rose gently over glacier-layered peaks to set me down on Bennett Lake.
From here, I pick up the Chilkoot's sandy trailhead littered with rusting cans and broken glass: "national historic" rubbish left over from the vast mining camps that sprang up on the lake shores over the winter of 1897. Thousands wintered here, waiting for the ice to break so they could follow the Yukon River's treacherous rapids to Whitehorse and on, by boat, 500 miles to Dawson City and the surrounding Klondike goldfields.
We return to Whitehorse in the comfort of our Beaver floatplane, a craft that would have been unimaginably futuristic to Klondike prospectors. This single-engined, prop-driven aircraft isn't manufactured any more but there's no lack of passenger demand for planes into the bush right now.
Last year, one Shawn Ryan, a miner working doggedly in the old Klondike fields in search of the original source of the deposits, made a discovery that created a record-setting staking rush, plus a multimillion-dollar deal and celebrity for Ryan.
Instantly people began talking about "the second Gold Rush", and floatplanes, helicopters and Cessnas were commissioned faster than they could be refuelled to take miners and investors into the remote Yukon. When I arrived this summer, the territory was buzzing with more than seasonal clouds of mosquitoes. Despite the hardships and tragedies of the 19th-century Gold Rush, the era is fabled by locals. And it's just too exquisite, too hair-raisingly romantic, to imagine it happening all over again, and in the very same spot.
And what a spot. Dawson City, the gold-rush boomtown that began in 1896 as a tented camp housing a handful of early prospectors. It grew to a settlement of 40,000 hopefuls in less than two years and it has barely changed since. Unlike the first Gold-Rushers, I don't ride the river from Whitehorse. I take an Air North scheduled flight – an hour towards the edge of the Arctic Circle – on a well-worn plane whose walls are cosily carpeted, woven with designs of the Yukon's peaks and glaciers. Idiosyncratic as this flight is, pitching up in such a modern way at Dawson, a "city" that still has wooden boardwalks, unpaved dirt streets and clapboard houses, felt a bit like cheating. For here, in Dawson, lie the ghosts of Gold Rush past. Theatres like Diamond Tooth Gerties and the Palace, where you can take tours of the premises led by lively costumed guides, and even kiss a can-can girl if you're lucky (as a requisite number of septuagenarian tourists always are, once a night at a programmed time).
Yet Dawson is no mere museum piece. The West Coast boho set that can't abide the artsy scrum of Vancouver Island heads north to this minuscule metropolis for its literary festivals, arts scene and cheap digs that often amount to no more than a shack on the city limits. But for the "cave man", a fifty-something dropout who lives in the rocky recesses carved into the valley walls by deluded prospectors, there's not much evidence of Dawson's alternative culture on the streets when I arrive.
"Usually lots more people show up for the solstice," says my guide, Niall Fink. Land of the midnight sun, Dawson celebrates midsummer with a pagan-style party on a suburban hill known as the Dome. But today the weather's closed in, and cloud is hovering low over deserted, dirt streets. "Everyone's got work out in the fields," says Niall, himself a recent beneficiary of the new gold rush. Students in the Yukon currently have the best holiday jobs in the world. If, like Niall, they demonstrate good bush sense, they can spend the summer being helicoptered into remote parts of the Yukon to stake out gold claims and earn hundreds of dollars a day in the process. This is the kind of wild trekking that tourists to the region pay serious money for, coming as it does with rich wildlife spotting: both grizzly and black bear thrive here.
"The Yukon is still the virgin country it's always been for exploration," says celebrity miner Shawn Ryan over a crackly phone from his tented base south of Dawson. "And we have better techniques now." If Shawn's new soil sampling system proves accurate – and the high price of gold holds – there is some $3bn-worth of hard-rock gold here. Allegedly, this is the deep source of the surface or "placer" gold that started the 19th-century scramble. "The whole Yukon caught fire last year in staking terms," says Ryan. Staking – literally putting a stake in the ground to claim prospecting territory – ran to 15,000 stakes in 2009. Last year, this jumped to 80,000, with 140 companies flying in to try their luck.
The boom has yet to bring gold dust to the bars and ballrooms of Dawson, but evidence is there in its industrial estates and hardware stores. This winter, local suppliers ran out of the metal used for the ID plates on stakes, and locals love to tell you how city shops are selling out of supplies within an hour of delivery.
Just like old times, it's all about supply and demand. Back in 1897, Klondike miners were paying for rough-cut timber what New Yorkers were paying for mahogany. The fine gold dust that made Dawson's saloon floors sparkle was said to be worth a couple of hundred dollars when sifted from the sawdust every few days. But cut off from the rest of the world, if a $20 bill showed up in Dawson it could be sold for $25, just for its novelty value.
Today, housing is the supply/demand issue. The Yukon's population is 35,000, of whom 25,000 live in Whitehorse, a city with a dearth of affordable or adequate housing largely thanks to construction restrictions that limit buildings to four storeys. Hotel rooms and rental apartments are rarer, literally, than gold dust. Property speculation and a building boom, zoning laws permitting, must surely be imminent.
Boom and bust are in the region's DNA. The 19th-century mining boom went as quickly as it came. Just three years after the first stake was claimed on a no-name Klondike tributary, Dawson had ascended and crashed, leaving a population of just 8,000. But these days it's not just the economy that people are worried about.
Placer goldmining is comparatively easy on the land, hard rock less so. There are huge concerns about mining messing with the Yukon's other prime asset: its pristine landscape and delicate boreal ecosystem, not to mention its First Nations communities. Some 500 miles away, in the Peel Watershed, a spectacular confluence of three rivers that crown the northern end of the Rockies, a conservation war is raging to keep mining out. But with some $250m being spent in the province this year alone by mining companies in their exploration efforts, money certainly talks. And mining and tourism have long co-existed in the territory.
I bump out of Dawson, along dirt trails to Goldbottom mine, where tourists can pan for the mineral in the eponymous creek. I come away with a couple of flecks of yellow in a vial and an arm full of mosquito bites, but I'm pretty chuffed. I've panned where 19th-century legends such as Skook-hum Jim and George Carmack made history with their lucky finds. Their wildly compelling frontier tales inspired novelists such as Jack London, whose sod-roof shack is now a Dawson City museum. It's little wonder the town has a disproportionate number of creative writers. When not studying, gold staking or showing tourists around, my guide, Niall, writes books. His last literary effort won first prize in the annual Author's on Eighth festival. The prize was not a book deal, of course, but a $100 pouch of corn kernel-sized gold nuggets.
How to get there
Air Canada (020-8750 8495; aircanada.com) flies to Whitehorse (via Vancouver or Calgary) in July and August from £1,243 per person, including taxes. Frontier Canada (020-8776 8709; frontier-canada. co.uk) has the 13-day Klondike Explorer fly-drive, from £1,519 per person, including hotel and car hire. Flights extra.
Sarah Barrell travelled as a guest of Yukon Tourism (travelyukon.com) and the Canadian Tourism Commission (canada.travel).
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