Wilbert-Roy, the bag of bones in the Florida swamp, is no more. Meet Rusty, his transformed self, and his new person Gwen. They look like they were made for each other, don’t they? The picture of the happy couple was snapped on the day Gwen and Mom picked him up at the shelter. The big-dog-little-chair image is a recent snap of an obviously content canine.
What strikes me about the image with Gwen is how she is able to cuddle up next him, and he seems pretty happy about it. Many of us tried out in the swamp with no success. The only way we ever got close was with a trap and a huge can of odiferous dog food.
This is one of the few times in my life when words fail. Happy. Happy.
Big thunder. Fantastic crackling lightning. Great big, cold drops of just-melted ice making loud splats on the soft forest floor. After weeks and weeks of traveling through 100 plus degree heat — Charleston, Savannah, St. Augustine, Key West, Fort Meyers, Pensacola, Ft. Worth, Albuquerque — we couldn’t find a cool spot to save our soul
So when those thunder drops splotched and soaked right through my old T-shirt, it was like stepping into God’s own air-conditioning and a reconnection with something that crowds, traffic, bright lights, noise and heat had pushed far below the surface. And the drops fell — each one a reminder that other places in the universe existed as yet uncontaminated by civilization’s noise. Take a slow, deep breath.
To be back in the cool, high country with green meadows, grazing buffalo, wild flowers run amok and fragrant tall pines truly justified the long uphill grind to the North Rim Campground — perched on a high lip of the Grand Canyon.
And it is a grind — up some pretty steep grades (9% in a couple of places). But once on top, it’s a 40-mile run down and through the Kaibab Plateau and some of the most beautiful high-mountain meadows on the planet. Spring comes late in this country, so flowers bloom alongside the road and out in the meadows. What a contrast with the parched desert we left behind in Albuquerque and the dusty plains of West Texas.
A case of chronic-heat angst pressed us into a search for cool, and as luck would have it, one spot in this high-mountain campground was available for two nights. The camp is generally filled with tent campers, hikers and folks with smaller rigs — folks who appreciate peace, quiet, a day-long hike and star filled nights. We arrived there by guess and by golly, but most of the campers booked their sites months earlier. If you’re interested in visiting, I recommend looking for reservations several months in advance.
While the campground is isolated — and this is what makes it worthwhile in my book — North Rim features a store with groceries, sundries and most of the items folks leave sitting on the garage floor as they drive off in a hurry to be on vacation. A visitor center, cafes, lodges and a saloon are also within easy reach.
For the purist, North Rim Campground is not exactly on the main part of the Grand Canyon through which the Colorado River flows — the part you can see from the traffic jam on the South Rim. North Rim Camp sits on the east lip of The Trancept, a short canyon that — as the name implies — runs roughly perpendicular to the general Grand Canyon direction. A few steps from camp, you can look down nearly to the canyon bottom 3,000 feet below. Across the canyon, Oza Butte, a mighty mesa of hard red and pale yellow rock dotted with green patches of cedar and pine, rises from canyon floor, one worry line at a time. Time for a few more deep breaths.
For the adventuresome — and those who are fairly fit — miles of day-hike trails meander along the rims and through the Kaibab Plateau. The North Rim Trail will take you about 15 miles down the worry lines, to Silver Bridge on the Colorado River. You’ll descend about 5,700 feet in the process. This is not a day hike!
For the adventuresome in spirit, Cape Royal Road follows along the high plateaus for 23 miles, looping first north and then south where it terminates at Cape Royal, elevation 7,865. This will be an excursion for our next trip to the North Rim.
And, we will certainly return. Perhaps in the fall, when summer vacations have ended and tranquility reigns on the North Rim.
I first met Wilbert-Roy out in the swamps of Florida. He was starving way out on highway 41, in the Big Cypress National Preserve — a huge swamp in the southern part of the state. We met — if you could call it that — after I had driven several miles from where we camped, looking for the little bars on my cell phone to reappear.
Mosquitos plagued our camp — trapping us inside our coach day and night. Someone who had never been there named it Midway Campground presumably since it lay about half-way between Naples and Miami. Mosquito Camp would have been more descriptive. Finding a cell signal — after days of solitaire and Rumikube — meant a generous dousing of DEET and a dash of about 10 steps from coach to Jeep.
When the cell tower appeared — rising out of the dense growth along the highway — I heard Frankie Laine singing Cool Water….
Dan can you see that big green tree
Where the water’s runnin’ free
And it’s waiting there for you and me.
Except this big green tree was a cell tower reaching high up into the sky and making a reconnection with the world after several days out of touch.
On the way out, I saw roadside canals and ditches filled with clusters of gators — big ones — driven by drought into fewer and fewer water holes. Signs along the roadside warned of panthers crossing. Panthers?
The heat was oppressive, and mosquitos in ravenous black clouds swarmed upon anything warm-blooded. What was the risk of some hemorrhagic sickness? Ebola, yellow fever? My idea was to stay in the car with the A/C running, catch up on email correspondence, get the news and go back to camp. The universe had other plans.
When I turned into the side road, a reddish-brown bag of bones that might have been a dog at one time, crossed the road and ducked into the brush. His tongue lolled out to one side and I could see most of his bones through tightly stretched skin. It was like looking at an X-ray. A cloud of mosquitos followed him into the brush. This dog would not last much longer out here.
He’d used up everything he had — all his fat stores, all the water his cells and organs could furnish. Everything but his spirit, visible through bright brown eyes.
How long does it take for a dog to starve into that condition? Weeks perhaps. What sort of person abandons a dog 50 miles from anywhere? Why not a rescue organization, there are so many these days? The word “cruel” misses by a wide mile what someone did to this dog. Remember Michael Vick?
Marilee and Segal, a mother and daughter — and Good Samaritans of the first order — had stopped a few minutes before me. It turns out Wilbert-Roy had a companion — a female — who lay happily in their back seat. Wilbert-Roy’s imperative, however, kept him away from all human beings, a lesson he must have learned from sad experience. This was an imperative that forced him to choose starvation over salvation. No manner of entreaties or bits of food could entice him any closer than a few feet to a human being.
With only a vague promise of a response from Animal Services, the two samaritans and their new companion departed for Miami. Wilbert-Roy looked out at me from his hidey-hole. I had rushed back to camp for a couple of dog dishes, a gallon of water and a bag of dog food while the samaritans waited. Now it was me, the dog, and the godawful heat.
Let me try to describe the heat. Getting out of the cool car is a dive into an overheated hot tub. Getting even the smallest breath takes effort. Once inhaled, the air — mostly water — weighs heavy in your lungs. In seconds, sweat shoots from every pore, and none of it evaporates as the air is already saturated. Then mosquitos and biting flies attack.
Wilbert-Roy did his own imitation of Dan in the desert, lapping up as much water as I put out. I worried about giving him too much. Putting on my best dog persona, I tried numerous times to coax him out of his safe place. No amount of cajoling, treats, whistles or whining dog imitations worked. And no one showed up from Animal Services either. At dark, I went back to camp. I had burned up half the Jeep’s fuel supply trying to stay cool. Wilbert-Roy panted in the heat and tried vainly to nip the flies that hovered around his posterior.
That night it thundered and rained like it can only in a Florida thunderstorm. The next morning — Sunday, after driving 20 miles down the road for more fuel — I discovered he was still there. Bowls of food and water disappeared as quickly as the day before. Still that dog would not let me get close. Lynda came with me this time for moral support.
Lynda made calls to Animal Services in Naples, 50 miles away. As the afternoon dragged on, we realized that the likelihood of someone showing up dimmed by the minute. Who wants to drive 50 miles into the hot swamp to corral a wild dog when there are plenty of safer and more sure calls right close to home? It felt hotter outside than the day before. By this time we had spoken to the Sheriff’s department, Animal Services, and U.S. Park Service rangers who came out, told us to get back in our vehicle, and departed. I looked at Lynda and we shook our heads. This is what powerless feels like.
Late in the afternoon, Lynda’s phone rang. A guy named Billy called from Animal Services and said he was on his way. By then — after hearing so many promises of help —we felt dubious, but waited anyway. The Jeep’s fuel was down to half a tank once again, but Wilbert-Roy’s tank was nearing empty. About an hour after the call, an animal services van turned off the highway and onto the road where we waited.
To make this long story short, Billy Willis knew what he was about. In about half an hour he had Wilbert-Roy in a cage, and we were hoisting him out of the ditch. In a few more minutes, Billy had him perched on the front seat of his dog-catcher van, ears flopping in the breeze from the air conditioning. Wilbert-Roy never flinched, I guess Billy has that thing with dogs.
Right now, Wilbert-Roy is in an adoption kennel at Animal Services in Naples, Florida. They think he’s around three-years old. No heart worm issues. He’s put on a few pounds, and I’d like to think he’s happy. He’s still a little shy around people — but this is a good dog with a great heart. After all, he survived swamp, alligators, panthers, biting flies, hordes of mosquitos, starvation and thirst most likely for weeks.
We’ve moved on now, but I continue to feel connected to that dog and his outcome. His female companion went home with Segal. But when you save a life… it becomes your responsibility; isn’t that the ancient rule? So if anyone who reads this knows anyone in Florida or anywhere for that matter, who wants a great dog, Wilbert-Roy is waiting. Click the link below into your browser… please!
Most folks can conjure up a meaning when they hear the word “funky.” Like a lot of patois, the word is so loose that a unique definition probably exists for every single human being who has heard the term. “Funky, man.” To get to the true meaning of the word, you’ve gotta travel about as far south as you can go in the Continental United States; down to the Conch Republic. Key West, in layman’s terms. And it’s pronounced Conk — as in a conk on the head.
Natives of Key West are conchs. Anyone who lives there without passing the five-year-in-residence mark is a fresh water conch. It is not good to be a fresh water conch. Animal kingdom conchs (real ones) are very ugly, giant snails that live in beautiful shells. Human conchs say they are good to eat — well then… OK… we’ll take your word for it.
In modern terms, funky refers to a particular rhythm in music. But it later spread from there to reflect a manner of dress and finally came to connote a style of living. You can find it down, way down, in The Conch Republic .
Driving the Overseas Highway from Miami, passing through the little islands that mark the boundary between the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, a traveler can feel rhythm in the humps and heaves of the road, hear it as the tires pass over joints in the concrete pavement, and see it in the boats bumping up and down in harbor and cuts.
If funky has a color, then it would be aquamarine to match the varying hues of the shallow waters in this mini-archipelago. So there you are… driving down the Overseas Highway and your RV is undulating gently up and down, in a conga-line of autos, trucks and Rvs; tires boompa-boompa-boom… uuh, boompa-boompa-boom… uuh on the concrete; boats dance on the waves and the color of the sea blends from one shade to the next. It’s a rhythm. It’s funky.
Like zooming in on a map to get more and more detail about a specific place, making the journey to The Conch Republic serves as preparation for understanding the final and true meaning of the word. Funky. Stop half way and you won’t get it, because funky makes initial contact on a subliminal level — preparing cells, nerves and digestive apparatus to dance, eat and embrace life in The Conch Republic. Without this preparation, you doom yourself to an unenlightened existence. Cold. Dull. Pragmatic. Unaware. Worse than a fresh-water conch.
Vibrations now in tune, cross the last bridge over Cow Key Channel and drop into Key West — divided by old and new. Turn right at the light and drive along the gulf shore where all the modern conveniences — Verizon, Walgreens, Publix, Mattress Discounters — line one side of the road. Turn left at the light following the Atlantic shoreline and swing into Old Key West.
Stay in the conga line until you reach Duval Street. This is the essence, the true heart of funky. You are now down-way-down. Soak it in. Gay bars, a Gentlemen’s Club, a clothing-optional bar, shops, wild roosters, restaurants, and houses dating back to the 19th century mingle on the narrow street. Tennessee Williams wrote “A Street Car Named Desire” here. Ernest Hemingway lived a few blocks from Duval Street. In those days, the island was known only as Key West, and its inhabitants were mostly conchs.
The Conch Republic came about much later — 1982. According to legend, federal agents closed the highway and checked each mainland-bound car to see if it transported illegal aliens. The funky conga line transformed into a burning fuse, miles and miles long. Officials in Key West asked the agents to desist. The agents refused. In that moment, The Conch Republic sprang into being. Key West seceded from the United States and declared war.
The conch army assembled outside the Navy Base, dressed in full uniform: flip-flops, shorts, T-shirts and a can of beer. They lobbed a few eggs and other debris at bewildered sailors and immediately surrendered, then made a request for foreign aide. Later, the new country — which has never rejoined the Union — adopted the motto
“We seceded where others failed.”
Often, a cool breeze zephyrs in from the Atlantic. It blows down Duval Street and dips under hurricane shutters and then through the tall windows of 19th Century Key West. Perspiration evaporates leaving a sensual salty residue over most of the body. Older folks sit under their tiki-huts with a cocktail and remember the warm, zephyr filled afternoons of youth and the sensual residue lingering on another’s body as fingers drift
slowly all the way down the long indentation of a lover’s back. Sigh. Getting old is not funky.
Imagine stepping out your back door and digging money out of the ground. Imagine sifting through a shovel-full of dirt and gravel and gleaning enough to buy groceries for the week. Imagine you haven’t eaten for a couple of days when you learn that boat carrying a “ton of gold” from the Klondike has just landed on the docks in Seattle.
Every decade has a name and, in an amazing feat of double speak, someone dubbed the decade of 1890 – 1899, the “Gay Nineties.” Gaiety had nothing to do with it. Bank failures and inflation threw the U.S. economy into a Panic. Today we’d call it a depression or deep recession. More double speak.
Starting in 1893, banks failed, unemployment skyrocketed, soup kitchens proliferated and street corners saw mothers trading sex for food. Life was hard. Food scarce. Money worthless. Jobs nonexistent. Farms and railroads failed. Mortgages foreclosed. People worldwide were homeless and hungry.
So, when someone picked a newspaper out of the gutter and read about a ton of gold that had just docked in Seattle, the effect was instantaneous. It flashed out at the speed of light over telegraph wires, reaching the far corners of country and the world. Thousands of people saw salvation in an easy shovel full of nuggets.
In the Gay Nineties, money jingled; tangible in a pocket or purse. Heavy coins filled the cookie jar one or two at a time over years and years. Today we use credit cards, and our money is a line of credit or just a number printed on a 401k statement, a series of electronic ones and zeros stored in a computer somewhere. Hard to touch, feel or spend directly —— an intangible derivative of the real thing: gold.
A high wage earner in that decade would bring home a couple of dollars for a 10-hour work day. Gold’s value remained steady at around $20 per troy ounce. How many 10-hour days in a ton of gold? How many in one shovel full of pay dirt? Go, or die trying.
Worldwide, more than 100,000 people dropped what they were doing and lit out for Seattle. This bonanza was their personal Deus-ex-machina. But shovels full of nuggets would happen for just a few. Most would return home, owing all the money they begged or borrowed from family and friends. Wiser perhaps, but poorer for sure.
Those that risked all for the Klondike believed riches were there for the taking. The reality, however was much different and the gold for the most part lay on top of bedrock deep under layers of frozen Yukon gravel and muck. How do you get down to bedrock in the 1890s?
Assume for a moment that you’ve mucked around some Klondike stream and enough color has appeared in your pan so that you want to stake a claim. That’s the first step. Drive a stake in the ground, write your name and date on the stake and whether your claim runs upstream from the stake or down.
Once registered, your claim gives you mining rights on 500 feet of stream up or down, and stretching from ridgetop to ridgetop on opposite sides of the stream. If you’re the first, then you have the discovery claim and that entitles you to a double claim, or 1000 feet. What’s next?
Just below your feet, the ground under your claim is frozen hard and it stays frozen all year. Bedrock could be tens or hundreds of feet below. All winter, you build fires, melting the frozen earth a few inches at a time, and slowly dig your way down, down, down to bedrock. You work in a cylindrical shaft barely big enough to stand and wield a shovel. You choke on the smoke from the fire. In your spare time, you chop wood to keep the fire burning.
Your partner uses a windlass to pull up buckets you’ve filled with semi-thawed muck. Then he dumps it in a pile. Done? Down to bedrock? Start another shaft then and keep burning, digging and chopping. Worry about scurvy and frostbite when you’re rich.
Now the wait. All winter you toiled, starved and froze and you have no idea if you’ve struck it. You wait for spring when your hard-fought heap of muck – now frozen again – would thaw enough to be shoveled once more into a sluice where the gravel would be washed from your gold.
Thus, a full year of freezing, back-breaking labor could transpire before a miner would know if his claim was any good. So, for those lucky enough to find something in a pan, knowing if they were rich or poor required a year at hard labor. Not a small number died in the effort.
Yes, it was possible to dig money up in your back yard, and a few – like George Carmack, Skookum Jim, Tagish Charlie and others – actually did. Theirs was the gold on the Seattle docks that started the rush of 1898. The great rush of 1898 lifted almost no one out of panic and poverty.
The Panic faded on its own, yet the image of shovels loaded with gold nuggets did not. Almost 120 years after gold was discovered, the Klondike continues to produce gold. Spend a few days in Dawson City and you’ll see and hear the sights and sounds of gold: trucks, dozers, loaders, excavators, trommels, moving, running, sluicing; gleaning that last bit of dust left by those who came before. And always, always hopeful of finding another Bonanza.
There’s more than one way to cash in on a gold strike – mining it from the hard frozen ground is one way. Mining the miners is another.
Just days after George Carmack, Skookum Jim, and Tagish Charlie made the big strike on Rabbit Creek, Joseph Ladue – knowing a rush was on – staked out lots on a bit of swampy ground close by the junction of the Klondike and Yukon Rivers.
Only a few people inhabited the territory in those days, most of them wandering the creeks and tributary rivers of the Yukon, looking for something more than ten cents worth of gold in a pan. When the big discovery happened, the news floated up and down the Yukon – carried on the wind like fireweed seeds.
In those days, rivers made the best roads. In summer people traveled by canoe, raft or stern wheeler; in winter via dog sled. River junctions were logical places to camp, meet up with other inhabitants and trade news and gossip about gold prospects up and down the river. Occasionally, these meet-ups grew into settlements.
The junction of the Fortymile River and the Yukon, about 50 miles downstream from where the Klondike and Yukon rivers meet, was one such place. Not surprisingly, the settlement came to be known as Fortymile and at the time of Carmack’s find, nearly 600 people called the town home.
After staking his lots, Ladue headed down river to Fortymile, the only settlement in the Yukon where he could register his new township. At the time of the Big Discovery, he operated a sawmill located about 60 miles upstream from the mouth of the Klondike. Halfway to Fortymile it dawned on him that a great need for lumber was about to blossom, along with the need for a town.
Sending someone else to pursue his application in Fortymile, he spun around and headed back upstream to retrieve his mill and all the finished lumber he had in store. In a very short time after floating everything downstream to his new town site, Ladue had built a warehouse and opened a saloon. Mining the miners had begun.
This was the beginning of the town of Dawson City, Yukon Territory. And at its peak, lots on the main street would sell for $5,000 per front foot. In 1898, about 30,000 hopeful prospectors would descend on the riverside hamlet – but by then most of the gold had been pulled out. Of the newcomers, many would sell their outfit (one ton of food, plus implements and tools required for a year’s life in the Klondike) at a discount to pay for passage on the next boat out.
Only a few would file claims, and of those just one or two would find any gold. Most never bothered to look, but hunkered down, ate their ton of food and waited for spring so they could leave.
The Yukon is a unique place. During the long winters, you are either in… or out. Mail required a year to transit in and out. The Yukon River – the main highway – runs about 1,200 miles from Dawson city to the Yukon Delta. Paddle wheelers were lucky to log one trip up and back in a season. Many got caught in the river’s fall freeze-up, and spent a cold 8 months locked in the ice, passengers and all. Until spring, options for travel were limited.
So being “in was most likely a year-long endeavor as once the river froze there was no practical way out. Fifty below temperatures kept everyone who was “in” hunkered next to a red hot sheet-iron stove. Once the last stern wheeler headed out, folks were sentenced to one winter in the Klondike with absolutely no contact with the outside world. Thus, 30,000 people spent the winter in Dawson city, in a region where the largest settlement heretofore housed about 600 folks. Imagine the chaos.
Dawson city has waxed and waned over the years since 1898. Fires and mass desertions for new gold fields have reshaped the town so that little of the original chaos remains. Yet somehow, Dawson City manages to maintain an allure that has kept it alive. Today’s visitor – who can make the trip “in” on paved roads — will find a small town with streets of white quartz sand and a few remnants of the glory days tucked away here and there.
More than a century ago, miners carried tons of food, supplies and equipment over the Chilkoot Pass and then floated it 560 miles down the Yukon to the Klondike. After the spring break up, steam boats hauled supplies up and down the Yukon — at great expense. Once someone decided to leave, the cheapest way out was to abandon everything; buildings, furniture, toiletries, shovels, pans, extraneous clothes, sheet iron stoves —— everything!
Consequently, today the area is rich in artifacts, even though many of the original buildings have long since turned to ash. The Dawson City Museum has an excellent showing of life and times in 1898.
The gold fields in the Klondike continue to produce, and the area is busy with excavators and trommels sifting through piles of gravel left over from dredging operations. Prospectors continue to seek new finds on various creeks and tributaries in the region.
And speaking of mining the miners, the process has taken on a new twist lately as Holland America busses carry tourists up from Skagway and other ports on the coast for a few day’s visit. Yes, brightly painted buildings and facades line a couple of blocks on Fifth Street and remind one of the plastic mess in Skagway. Fortunately, inaccessibility has kept things in check, and by stepping over one block, one can still feel the allure that pulled Joe Ladue from his sawmill all those years ago.
The North. The far far North. Go there. Of middle ground… the North will give you none. Forty below cold, months of daylight and darkness, open landscapes, wild creatures, survival ruled by tooth and claw, rivers flowing north for thousands of miles, extremes that defy logic or imagination.
Stand in the middle of it all and understand that your tiny spark of life pales once placed amidst the mightiness of all creation. Because here you not only see it, but feel it creeping into blood and psyche. This is the siren call of the North, singing sweetly and deeply into your soul. And once implanted, the song will continue to call softly and at times barely audible, but always there. Calling.
So leave the exhaust of civilization behind and head north. Go as far as you can go. Some will miss the call and happily return to civilization and a morning latté from a shop just around the corner. This North exists thousands of miles beyond a morning latté – as far away in miles as it is in consciousness. Go there. Trade congestion for open vistas, convenience for freedom, safety for risk.
Human beings have made similar trades for millennia, trekking over from Siberia, settling, traveling the rivers and surviving in the Land of No Middle Ground. The prospect for a better life – a universal and timeless human imperative – made the journey worthwhile. We can speculate on the causes of this migration; food and game in greater supply or flight from conflict could have motivated the migration. However, if any archaeology remains chronicling their journey, it now exists under the Bering Sea.
These First People migrated over a land bridge today named Beringia that once linked Siberia to Alaska, and Canada’s Yukon and Northwest Territories. The last glaciation – starting 112,000 years ago – took up so much sea water that at some point, human beings and animals could walk from Siberia to North America.
For the next 100 millennia, glaciers expanded and melted, sawing back and forth across the landscape, grinding rocks, shaving mountains, gouging out valleys and leaving blue white traces high on shaded mountain peaks. Human history – if it existed here during the last glacial epoch – left little trace.
By 12,000 years ago the glaciers had mostly melted, submerging the land bridge under today’s Bering Sea, making the migration a one-way trip so to speak. A small sliver of this bridge remains above sea level in the Yukon and Northwest Territories. This is the Far Far North.
Now, history reveals more about the life and times of the Far North and its human denizens. Once again, the prospect for a better life – actually profits – brought a new batch of people into the territory. This time, furs lured them in and in 1849 the Hudson Bay Company established a fort on the Peel River in the Northwest Territory. After the great California and Colorado gold rushes, some prospectors journeyed north seeking what they had missed in the lower 48.
One of the heaviest elements, gold always flows downhill. Each vibration, each jiggle, each grind from a glacier and every spring flood works to move gold lower and lower into the earth. These prospectors followed the gold bearing mountains of the lower 48 to their northern extremities, believing that the very same geological processes would be at work there.
They were correct. For years, the prospectors traveled the length of the Yukon River – more than 2,000 miles – panning its creeks and tributaries, gaining a bit of placer gold here and there — enough to scrape by during the winter with some left over for next summer’s stake.
Finding gold, trapping furs… these are given reasons for spending a lifetime in the Far North. Jack London called it the Call of the Wild, but by any given name it remains the siren’s call you either hear or don’t hear. Those that stayed must have heard. They weren’t finding much gold. What else could have kept them there? Robert Service explained what it was,
“Who that knows the North can ever deny its lure? Wherever you be, it will call and call to you. In the sluggish South you will hear it, will long for the keen tingle of its silver days, the vaster glory of its star-strewn nights. In the city’s heart it will come to you till you hunger for its big, clean spaces, its racing rivers, its purple tundras.”
So, a small population of hardy folks, and of course First Nation People lived in what is now called the Klondike, forever seeking out the next bonanza – and underneath it all, minding the Call of the North. Most would never dig into a glory hole, or scoop nuggets by the shovel-full from pristine Klondike streams. But they stayed.
George Washington Carmack was one of those who lingered. A man who had visions, he had married a First Nation woman named Kate, and his life dream was to become a Tagish chief, with finding gold almost an afterthought. In his book, Klondike Fever, Pierre Burton describes one incident:
“That night he had an extravagant and vivid dream in which he saw himself seated on the banks of a stream watching grayling shoot the rapids. Suddenly the fish scattered in fright and two enormous king salmon shot upstream and came to a dead stop in front of him. In place of scales they were armored in gold nuggets and their eyes were twenty-dollar gold pieces. It reveals a great deal about Carmack that he took this as a sign that should go fishing; prospecting never entered his head.”
After his dream, Carmack traveled to the banks of the Thron-diuck River to catch salmon for dog food. Within a few days, Carmack and his companions, Skookum Jim and Tagish Charlie would make the discovery claim on Rabbit Creek and become rich beyond all measure.
TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN
“I do, this day, locate and claim, by right of discovery, five hundred feet, running upstream from this notice, Located this 17th day of August, 1896.”
This notice, written in pencil by Carmack on a spruce a few days later, laid claim to millions of dollars in gold, which lay just below their feet. For Carmack, this marked the end of his dreams of becoming a Tagish chief. From that moment, George was white.
Gold scorched the tapestry that made up George Carmack’s life. In an instant it turned him from wannabe Tagish to rich white man. In all probability, the subliminal call of the North also succumbed to the fire of new-found wealth. And his visions of giant salmon and life in the North were burned away forever.
He died wealthy, and respected in Seattle in 1922. He never stopped seeking another great Discovery, searching in vain in the Cascade and Sierra mountains. Perhaps this was his way of rebuilding that tapestry and recapturing his ability to hear the call of the Far Far North.
The North called to Robert Service. It spoke to Jack London. But that was then and all of the original players in that great Klondike drama are dead by now. One might wonder if the Call died with them.
It did not. This writer first heard the call as a teenager reading Jack London’s tales of the North. The still, small voice oozed out of London’s books and into blood and psyche. Go North, it demanded, Go North.
Years later, traveling the Alaska Highway, I spent cold Yukon evenings with Pierre Burton’s history of the Klondike and the poems of Robert Service while shivering in my sleeping bag. And the voice grew louder.
This year, nearly five decades after my first encounter with Service’s works, my partner, wife, critic, navigator and editor and I traveled to the Yukon – a journey we had not exactly planned to make. Once we crossed the border into Canada, I could think of little else. Go North. Go North.
My wife claims she has been cold ever since moving from Texas to California in 1980. After a week or so in Dawson city she remarked, “We should spend the winter here.”
“What? We’re talking about 40 below zero!” I replied.
“Yes, I know. We should spend the winter here.”
I think she had just finished reading Pierre Burton’s book on the Klondike. We had just finished a side trip of 500 miles to Inuvik above the Arctic Circle.
Some people hear it and some don’t.
Travel Stories, Full-Time RV Life, and Opinion from the road