Monday, July 2, 2007
DAWSON CITY, YK — The ingenuity of human beings who are bent upon bettering their lot in life has shone through our visits today. Gold, and the promise of the good life that went along with it, inspired men to leave the comforts of their southern homes, travel thousands of miles, endure hardship, bitter cold and backbreaking work, subsist on beans and sourdough bread for months and devote weeks of cutting wood for fires that would melt the permafrost, a foot or two at a time, down to the bedrock so they could hack away in search of a few nuggets.
Before long they realized that this method was far too labour intensive, and their inventive minds came up with dredges that would scrape buckets full of rocks at the front, pull them up to spill into giant sifters, separate the pebbles and stones from the nuggets and gold dust (known as plasser gold) and spit the useless stuff out the back.
We toured Dredge #4 this morning, and marveled at the complexity and size of the machinery that made it operate, and the time and effort it took, first to build it, and then to operate it. A huge steel gear, 14 feet in diameter, had to be made in the United States, shipped up the west coast and all the way around the Alaska panhandle, floated on stern-wheelers up the Yukon River to Dawson, and transported by train to the goldfields before it could be assembled in the dredge. All the other pieces had to be similarly fashioned and shipped. The huge beams that made the framework of the dredge were Douglas firs, shipped from British Columbia. Thousands of trees, cut into logs, were required to heat the boilers that made the machinery work.
Finer and finer screens sifted the rubble to harvest every last speck of gold, including a final layer of woven cocoa mats that, in the end, were burned, so they could sift the ashes for the minutest crumbs that might have been caught in their fibres. This entire process was repeated, every 10 feet, along a promising valley. It took 18 years to move from one end to the other!
More information about the people of the north awaited us after lunch, when we toured the residence of the Commissioner of the Yukon, George Black, and his tough-as-nails wife, Martha, who left her first husband and toiled up the Chilkoot Pass with her brother in search of adventure and started a sawmill to serve the prospectors. While all this was going on she gave birth to a baby boy, a parting remembrance of Husband #1. The little one charmed the entire community of homesick men, who would visit and bring toys and gifts. When Martha met and married George, the new couple ensured that the gracious residence would be enjoyed by everyone, not just the well-heeled.
Our next stop was the SS Keno, one of the last stern-wheelers to ply the waters of the Yukon River. Our guide, in her period long skirt, mutton-sleeved blouse and veiled bonnet, described the duties of the crew and the workings of the vessel which, despite its large size, only drew two feet of water, making it ideal for navigating the sandbars and other hazards of the river. It was mainly designed for shipping freight, but there was also space for a few passengers. The whole town would come out to greet her on her first run in the spring, and it was a sad day when she took her last voyage before freeze-up every winter.
We also visited the Aboriginal cultural centre that described the residents of this area, known as the Hän, before the white man came in their thousands and changed everything. Currently there are about 300 Aboriginal residents in Dawson, and much effort has been made to keep the culture alive.
Time was running short for our visit to the Dawson Museum, so we only scratched the surface there, but they had lovely displays of prospectors’ campsites, honky-tonk hotel bars, Victorian parlours, Aboriginal artifacts, old telephone exchanges and the like. Dawson is definitely a place to visit more than once!
Mother Nature smiled on us once again today, providing warm temperatures and dry weather until we were safely back at the trailer, after which she cracked a few thunderbolts and washed our dusty truck clean once again.