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Getting There

Men traveled by every imaginable means: dog sled, oxcart, bicycle, horse, mule, goat cart, tame caribou, and by foot.  Many of the schemes were wildly impractical.  Blacksmiths made a fortune along the way, often setting up their forges at convenient stopping places to administer to the needs of the horses and mules.

While the Chilkoot and White passes are the most famous routes, there were many others.  These included the "back-door" route, overland from Edmonton, Alberta, following the Athabasca River to Great Slave lake, and then taking the MacKenzie River north; or, the "All Canadian" route via Ashcroft, British Columbia, and traveling overland hundreds of miles until reaching the headwaters of the Yukon.  Most were completely impractical, arduous, and very long.  No one will ever know how many men died in their van attempt to find the Eldorado.

There were a few more trails established during 1898 from Southeast Alaska to the Yukon River. One was the Dalton trail: starting from Pyramid Harbor, close to Dyea, it went across the Chilkat Pass some miles west of Chilkoot and turned north to the Yukon River, a distance of about 350 miles. This was created by Jack Dalton as a summer route, intended for cattle and horses, and Dalton charged a toll of $250 ($6,800) for its use. The Takou route started from Juneau and went northeast to Teslin Lake. From here, it followed the river to the Yukon, where it met the Dyea and Skagway route at a point halfway to the Klondike. It meant dragging and poling canoes up-river and through mud together with crossing a 5,000 feet high mountain along a narrow trail. Finally, there was the Stikine route starting from the port of Wrangell further south-east of Skagway. This route went up the uneasy Stikine River to Glenora, the head of navigation. From Glenora, prospectors would have to carry their supplies 150 miles to Teslin Lake, a part of the Yukon River system.

The Chilkat trail leads over the Chilkat Pass and is about 125 miles in length from the head of Chilkat Inlet to where it strikes the waters of Tahkeena River. This was the old trail used by the Indians to and from the interior, and leads all the way through to old Fort Selkirk by land. "Jack" Dalton has used this trail at times in taking horses and live stock to the mines, portaging to the Tahkeena, then by raft down that river to the Lewis, thus proving that the Tahkeena is navigable for a small stern wheel steamer for a distance of some seventy miles.

The easiest way to the Klondike was the all-water route.  The would-be prospector in the Lower 48 could board a steamer somewhere on the West Coast - San Francisco, Seattle, Vancouver, or Victoria - and sail north through the Aleutians to the mouth of the Yukon River, which empties into the Bering Sea.  The prospector then could take a river steamer up the Yukon many hundreds of miles to Dawson and the gold fields.  While this was not a difficult route north, it was very expensive and very time consuming.  Few would use this.

Many routes to the Klondike were suggested, some motivated purely by nationalistic pride, others by transportation companies wanting to make money on the rush to the gold fields.  Most of the companies formed were short-lived and unsuccessful.  Two routes though, sticks in the minds of most.

In the 1890s the quickest and cheapest (though not the easiest) way to get from the Lower 48 to the Klondike was to take a steamer to Skagway and then march over one of two passes - a trail from Dyea led up and over the Chilkoot Pass, while from Skagway a trail led to White Pass - to the headwaters of the Yukon River.  From there, one could build a boat and float the 500 miles downstream to Dawson City and the gold fields.  Skagway and Dyea, as "gateways" to the Yukon, were swarming with thousands of gold-crazed fortune hunters soon after word of the Klondike strike reached the outside world. About 40,000 to 50,000 people tried these two trails, the Chilkoot and White Pass trails, in 1897-98. 

Crossing White Pass, prospectors sometimes they used horses.  The White Pass Trail was the animal-killer, as anxious prospectors overloaded and beat their pack animals and forced them over the rocky terrain until they dropped. More than 3,000 animals died on this trail; many of their bones still lie at the bottom on Dead Horse Gulch.

The reality of how difficult it was to get to the gold fields probably first became evident to most miners when they arrived at the foot of the Chilkoot Pass and realized that somehow they had to carry 1,500 pounds of gear and provisions up over the 3,739 foot summit.

The trip over the passes was a logistical nightmare for the stampeders, who were required by the Canadian government to carry at least 1,500 pounds of supplies per man.  Upwards of thirty trips carrying small loads on his back up a 45-degree slope, the average prospector took at least three months to haul his supplies from Dyea over Chilkoot Pass.  No man could stop to rest.  If he did it might take several hours to get back into line because the men were so determined not to let anyone beat them to the summit. 

In single file we swing along and soon we strike the stride.
That climbs the trail that stands on end against the mountain side.
Stampeder poem, 1898

At the summit, the Northwest Mounted Police checked each person for the required supplies and collected custom duties.  Mountains of supplies lay cached in the pass as the stampeders went back for more of their gear.  It was common to have gear stockpiled at ten or twelve different levels.  The savvy ones marked their caches with long poles, otherwise the frequent blizzards would soon cover them without a trace.  The weather was brutal at the top at any time of the year, and in winter it amassed snow many feet deep that could slide onto the prospectors at any moment.  Over 60 were killed in the avalanche in April 1898.

Despite the hardships to both man and beast, the stampeders climbed the passes by the thousands.  Chilkoot Pass alone was climbed by an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 people in 1897-98.  While they had chosen the "quickest" route to the gold fields, about 10,000 of then had to spend that winter at either Lake Bennett or Lake Lindeman waiting for the ice to break up on the Yukon River.

The trails were short, but the were tough.  Stretching only 33 miles from Dyea to Lake Bennett, the Chilkoot trail was very rocky and steep.  Starvation, snow-blindness, capsizing and being lost were standard risks one had to assume. In addition, the annoyance of the ubiquitous mosquito, a rapidly changing climate, and a monotonous diet made the trek even more miserable. It took a special kind of man to keep pushing on.  And thing weren't any better yet...

More work faced our stampeders.  After spending months climbing the trails, next came boat building.  If one were affluent, an excellent boat could be purchased at Lakes Linderman or Bennett, but most men preferred to build their own.  Plans were available and when one arrived at the site - one simply cut down trees, hauled them to a site near the water, constructed a pit, whip-sawed the lumber, assembled the boat, applied oakum to it, erected a sail and sailed off to Dawson.  Only "greenhorns" could have contemplated such tasks; yet thousands of men built their own boats.  By spring, they had denuded the forest far back from the lakes, and had built over 7,000 boats. 

The Northwest Mounted police number and registered each boat and each passenger, and set up checkpoints along the river to help the stampeders reach Dawson safely.  In late May, when the ice melted off the lakes, the flotilla pushed off for the Klondike.

The stampeder's trip from Lake Bennett to Dawson was mainly on a flat-water float, but wind-blown lakes and rapids lay ahead as dangers.  Miles Canyon, Squaw Rapids, and Whitehorse Rapids, all in a brief stretch of the river, formed the biggest obstacle.  A number of stampeders wrecked in the rapids or in the winds on the headwater lakes, and a few drowned.

More partnerships split up on the way due to the tensions built up over the long winter.  At the Big Salmon River, ten men ended their partnership by ripping apart their boat, dividing it ten ways, and building the new boats for themselves.

At least four weeks on the trail, part of the winter camping and building boats at one of the frozen lakes, and two to three weeks on the river after the ice melted in May lay ahead for the would-be prospectors.  After all that, they would reach the new town of Dawson, where the Klondike River met the Yukon, and gold lay waiting for the taking.



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