Ghosts of the gold rush

The Klondike still bears the scars of the ‘yel­low metal’ craze, says Felic­ity As­ton

BBC Earth (Asia) - - History -

While film­ing a se­ries on the Klondike gold rush for BBC Two (see be­low for de­tails), I fol­lowed in the foot­steps of the thou­sands of stam­ped­ers who un­der­took the odyssey from the Alaskan coast to the gold­fields of the Yukon.

Stand­ing on the sum­mit of the Chilkoot Trail – the cru­ellest part of that des­per­ate jour­ney – it is im­pos­si­ble not to sense ghosts. Sur­rounded by thick fog and buf­feted by strong winds in the heart of the Klondike Gold Rush In­ter­na­tional His­toric Park, a sec­ond glance at the dark shapes on the snow re­veal that these are not rocks, but rem­nants of the stam­pede. Rusty tin cans, wooden cases, even shov­els and leather shoes, lie aban­doned.

More than a cen­tury later, the hill­sides around the lakes Ben­nett and Lin­de­man still bear the scars of the mass de­for­esta­tion caused by the stam­ped­ers’ need for lum­ber. We found ma­te­rial else­where for our home-made wooden boat that we rowed 400 miles down the Yukon river to Daw­son City. The town works hard to re­call its riotous past but to­day there are only 1,000 in­hab­i­tants and the hordes that ar­rive ev­ery morn­ing are tourists rather than for­tune-seek­ers.

Ven­tur­ing into the creeks sur­round­ing

Daw­son, it is as­ton­ish­ing to see the vol­ume of earth that has been turned over in the con­tin­u­ing search for gold. The nuggets are long gone but any­one can still dip a pan into the Klondike and find a few flakes.

Many re­gard the story of the gold rush as a tale of greed but I be­lieve this is in­stead a story of hope. Peo­ple will go to great lengths to pro­tect their fam­ily and pro­vide them with a fu­ture. That is a mo­ti­va­tion I think we can all un­der­stand.

High and dry: A boat aban­doned by gold hun­ters in the Klondike

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