Thursday, July 19, 2012

Dawson City: Gold Rush Town and Life Redefined

Dawson City Yukon
Front Street
Our current and lingering recession has challenged many of us in ways similar, I think, to the folks back in 1898. Back then, the entire world had been plunged into economic depression through the Panic of 1893 and some of the more desperate (or adventuresome) gave it all up and headed for Alaska and the Canadian Yukon to see if they could get some of that gold everyone was talking about.
They came up over six major trails, the two cheapest and quickest being through Skagway and Dyea of SE Alaska. The two towns were a few miles apart, both busy trail heads to the grueling White and Chilkoot Passes. Each trail had its advantages and disadvantages. Both, however, were misery. One miner said it didn't matter which one you took, you wished you'd taken the other. Another said, "One's the road to damnation, the other to hell." They both ended up at the headwaters to the Yukon River, a serpentine river of some 2,400 miles, winding north and then east, then slithering south, and then east again to the Bering Sea. Along the way, 500 miles beyond the headwaters, was the miners' destination point--Dawson, where the richest gold the world has ever known was found. Here more gold per square inch was discovered than anywhere else on the planet. The stories of the "Klondikers" and the tourism industry are all that's left. Some of the stories are inspiring, some are exciting, many are tragic. All tell of human beings redefining themselves.

I'm headed up there myself tonight, flying out of Vancouver, BC, Canada. Unlike the miners of a century ago, though, my journey will not take me six months to a year, taxing every ounce of physical fortitude I might muster. You see, I've recently, metaphorically, hiked the Chilkoot Trail, taxed beyond my comprehension. Like the gold miners, new and old friendships kept me on track. Like the miners, my life is altered and awaiting redefinition. So the metaphorical journey behind me, my physical  journey to Dawson will take just two days.

I'll sleep tonight in Whitehorse, capital of the Yukon. Tomorrow afternoon I'll hop aboard what I assume will be a bush plane and wing my way over the Yukon River. I will not be required to risk my life by running a scow through its treacherous rapids, nor will I suffer the madness of being devoured alive by mosquitoes.  Even so, I can relate to the collective spirit of economics and adventure that caused over 100,000 men, women, and children to give it all up and head deep into the unknown.

Statistically, only 30,000 ever made it to Dawson. Only 4,000 ever struck it rich. And only a handful managed to hold onto it. Donald Trump's grandfather did. John Nordstrom did. A few others. As for myself, I have no illusions of "striking it rich" (though I hope the tips are good!); but here's the thing. Having lived in Skagway for two summers and being in the midst of writing a book on Skagway's role in the gold rush, I've read scores of journals written by the men and women who made the attempt. Their stories all begin with hope of financial relief. They all end with gratitude and wonder for the adventure itself. They found life redefined.

I'm going to Dawson, too, to experience my life redefined.

For family and friends who are curious as to what I'll be doing up there, I'll be driving motor coaches for HollandAmerican-Princess in Alaska and the Yukon (HAPAY), the same company I drove for last year. Only this time I'll be in the Yukon, not Alaska, drawing Canadian wages, all part of the plan to become Canadian again--at least part of the year.