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A Trip to the Yukon, 1896: Part 1, The Chilkoot Trail

Klondike Gold Rush

The Pittsburg Daily Headlight (Pittsburg, Kansas) - December 21, 1896

A Trip to the Yukon

Some of the Experiences of Seekers
After Wealth in the Alaska Gold Fields

    Last spring the HEADLIGHT published a letter written by J. H. Jones, of Galena, Kas., who is making a trip to the Alaska gold fields. When he reached the region of ice and snow the letters ceased. He has since returned home poorer in purse probably but rich in experience gained from the trip, which others may read and profit thereby. These letters we now publish are taken from the Galena Post, in which paper he has taken up his trip where he left off. The next letter will be published Wednesday of this week.

    My letter to readers of the Post was dated at Dyea, March 22. In the three months that followed I saw considerable of Alaska - more than I ever care to see again. The only satisfaction that I ever realized from the trip to this far off frozen country is the satisfaction of having seen a country which comparatively few men have ever seen, witnessed sights the like of which can be seen nowhere else on earth, met with some thrilling adventures, and returned home alive and well, even though I was not successful in discovering fabulous deposits of yellow metal of which nearly all Alaska tourists are in search.

    Thinking that some account of the trip would be of interest to the readers of this paper, I will take up the journey at Dyea where I left off some months ago while I was on the trail.

    From Dyea we start on the long wearisome and toilsome march toward Circle City, the objective point of nearly all of the Alaska gold hunters. Before arriving at Dyea we were sailors; leaving this place we begin to play horse; that is we hitch ourselves to our sleds and commence moving our camp outfit and baggage over the trail toward the foot of Chilcoot Pass.

    The first nine miles of our journey is through a valley five miles wide with high mountains on each side, and brings us to the head of a grand canyon. For this part of the trip we carry about 300 pounds of baggage on the sled, this being a good load. Here we dump the load or "cache" it, to use a term familiar to the country, and return to Dyea to our camp. The next morning we begin the moving process again, taking our camping outfit and moving it to Sheep Camp, five miles beyond the canyon. Here we make camp again, and the following morning go back after the load "cached" two days previous and bring it up to the new camp.

    The last five miles before we reach Sheep Camp is all up hill through a narrow canyon from ten to fifty feet wide, with mountains on each side, which present a perpendicular face as much as 2,000 feet high in many places. On this five miles 150 pounds is a big load, but we finally got all the baggage to the camp and then commences the tramp to the foot of the summit, another five mile stretch.

    You will see we have been traveling for several days and have advanced about fourteen miles on our journey. This mode of moving may not suit some people but it is the way you will have to do it if you go to see Circle City. But this part of the trip is like gliding along on roller skates, or on a bicycle compared to the succeeding days before we reach the summit. We can sled 100 pounds at a load, and for the remaining mile we have to pack our effects. It is needless to say that travelers in Yukon don't carry any surplus "furniture."

    In Sheep's camp we met all kinds of people and outfits of every conceivable description. We found 137 tents. It somewhat resembled reunion times at Baxter only we had six feet of snow to make snow balls of instead of the customary six inches of dust at Baxter.

    There is one woman in the camp. Think of it and try to realize the situation if you can. A woman in such a place undergoing such hardships. She is alone and like men, is going to Circle City in search of a fortune. She has two dogs and an outfit weighing about 1,500 pounds, and included in the stuff is a sewing machine. She says that she is going to wash and sew for the miners. One man is taking through 1,600 gallons of whiskey and he says it will cost him $10 a gallon to land it in Circle City, but he will probably make a reasonable (?) profit on his adventure even then, as the stuff sells for fifty cents a drink at the mines.

    There is a custom house officer with him to see that he does not stop this side of the summit, for the liquor is being taken through in bond, and after reaching the summit we are in British territory.

    Well, we reach the summit and wait for a good day to cross over (and good days are rare in the spring). At 6 a.m. April 2, we broke camp and pulled out. On the starting side the thermometer registered 22 degrees below zero but on top it was blowing some and the mercury fell 36 degrees.

    Lashing our loads tp our sleds we start down the mountain toward Lake Linderman, nine miles distant. This side of the mountain is as straight down as the other side is straight up. We turn our sleds loose and they keep the trail till the bottom is reached where they plunge in the snow out of sight After lots of digging and pulling and giving vent to some language that would not look well in print, we finally land our sleds on the top of the snow and start out for the lake.

    On the way to Lake Linderman we encountered one of these terrible blizzards, so frequent to the summit. All but six of the party left their sleds and broke for Lake camp, some having friends there, while others trusted to luck to find some kind of shelter against the storm. We had to desert all our baggage except the sled containing our tent and camping outfit, which we were compelled to take, and it alone was a big load for us and the dogs.

    The wind was blowing so hard that we could not see ten feet ahead of us, and with the themometer registering 46 degrees below zero, our faces and hands covered with ice, the race for the camp was anything but a pleasant one. The trail would drift full of snow so we would loose it and when we would get off, we would sink in snow to our waists.

    After four hours of the hardest kind of work we reached Lake camp and those four hours seemed as long as so many weeks. What a pleasant sight camp was when we reached it at 9 o'clock that night. After thawing out some of the boys in camp prepared supper for the crowd after which we spread our blankets on six feet of snow in lieu of the feather beds we had left at home and went to sleep. Several others who left the summit a few hours later than our party had to camp out in the blizzard. Some came into camp the next day with ears, feet and hands frozen. If you think it didn't take nerve to resume the journey after such an experience, just try it once.

    While we were at Sheep camp some thirty or forty who had been with us on the trip, looked up the summit of snow and ice and turned back.

    From Lake Linderman we can take all our freight at one load, providing the wind favors us as we have masts on our sleds nine feet high and sails 7x8 feet.

    On April 16 we crossed Lake Linderman, which is six miles long and one of the many lakes which empties its waters into the Yukon river. At the foot of this lake is a mile of land which seperates it from Lake Bennett, the two lakes being connected by a small stream. We cross Lake Bennett which is twenty miles wide and come to a narrow strip of land, called Cariboo crossing; so called by the Cariboo using it to cross the lakes.

    After passing the Cariboo crossing we arrive at Lake Tagish, which is about nineteen miles long. The general character of the country along these lakes is mountainous, with narrow benches now and then along the shores. At the foot of Tagish lake is Tagish river connecting the above named lake with Marsh and Mud lake. Tagish river is six miles long and on its banks are located Tagish houses, the only Indian houses that we find between the summit and Fort Selkirk. These are the houses the Chilcat and Chilcoot Indians meet in and hold their councils of war. Here also is where they meet the Indians from the interior, not allowing the latter to pass without paying toll. Up to 1888 Chief Chilcoot levied a toll of $2.00 to the man to cross on the trail, this explaining why the summit is called Chilcoot Pass.

    The banks of the Tagish river are bordered with low slopes covered with white spruce and cottonwood trees.

    It is now April 20, and we are camping on Lake Marsh, we are building our boats. In former letters I mentioned taking an Alaska saw mill as a part of our outfit, and now we have a chance to see how the machine works. First we build a scaffold four feet wide and five feet high and 24 feet long. This is called the pit. We fell a tree which suits us and drag it to the camp where we roll it onto the scaffold. After drawing a line top and bottom to saw to, we start up the mill. One man stands on top of the log and another in the pit, and the mill is in full operation, this being what is termed a whip-saw, seven feet long with a handle on each end.

    Right here is where the best of friends fall out, and it is an exceptional boat if every inch of it hasn't been the means of a cuss-word let loose while the lumber was being cut out. If one saws out of line he always blames the other one for it, and so it goes. It does not take so very much lumber to build a boat, but long before you get it cut out on an Alaska saw mill you think it requires a whole lumberyard. We build a boat 24 feet long, with a three foot bottom and five foot beam. This boat will carry a ton burden easily.

    Not every man who makes the attempt can whip saw or make a boat as was proven by two men, who after working several days, sold their outfit and turned back. California was good enough for them, and I confess I thought the same of old Kansas before we got the last board sawed for our boat but we are going to Yukon if we have to float down on a log.

[To be continued Wednesday.]

A Trip to the Yukon, 1896: Part 2, Through Miles Canyon