The Call of the North
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.