Gold prospectors Faced a Death-defying Journey down the Yukon River

In the early Klondike gold rush years, 1897-1900, thousands of prospectors risked their lives traveling by boat from Alaska to the gold fields near Dawson City, Yukon.

The Klondike prospectors’ first hurdle—hauling a ton of provisions from Alaska across the Chilkoot Pass Trail or White Pass Trail 30 miles (50 km) to two Canadian lakes feeding into the Yukon River—was an enormous struggle but less likely to be lethal than the river journey to come. Early Klondike gold prospectors had no choice but to float down the Yukon River for 400 miles (600 km) to stake a claim.

Gold Prospectors Built Boats for Yukon River Journey to Dawson City

On the shores of Bennett Lake and Taglish Lake, an army of men razed the local forests and built boats and rafts of green wood for the journey down the Yukon River. Typically, the men constructed their crafts in winter and rode the wild, meltwater-swollen river downstream. An estimated 2000 watercraft hit the water in the spring of 1898.

Many gold prospectors were city dwellers with no experience at building anything, let alone boats, and no experience traveling a wilderness river. Many set out in floating coffins and disappeared into the Yukon River’s opaque depths.

All prospectors on Bennett Lake went through Carcross (named for where the caribou cross). Like many former gold rush towns, it is far smaller now than in its heyday, but still retains some old buildings and charm. (Prospectors passing through might have caught a glimpse a stretch of sand dunes that the locals bill it as the worlds smallest desert.)

Writer Jack London Guided Boats Through Miles Canyon

Any prospector approaching Whitehorse, Yukon, in those days had to pass through Miles Canyon, a frothing, narrow sluice lined with jagged basalt pillars, and down the nasty White Horse rapids.

After this deadly duo claimed their first batch of fatalities, the Canadian Mounties would not let boats go through unless guided by an experienced river pilot. One of the pilots in 1898 was 22-year-old Jack London. He turned his one year in the Yukon into a long career writing best selling books and short stories about the North.

The Yukon River was so dangerous here that miners unloaded their boats and shipped their goods around Miles Canyon and the White Horse rapids on a horse-drawn tram. The empty boats then went through the canyon and rapids. So many miners queued up for the tram that a town of 5,000, called Canyon City, sprung up above Miles Canyon.

Once past the town of Whitehorse, the biggest hurdle in the prospectors’ path was the Five Fingers rapids half way to Dawson City. With its rocky pillars rising from mid-river, it was a rough spot in the high water of spring.

By the early 1900s, a railroad to Whitehorse and steamboats to Dawson City made the trip easier and safer.

Drive, Paddle, or Hike the Gold Rush Trail Today

The White Horse rapids are gone now, a victim of a hydro dam, and the dam reservoir has raised the water in Miles Canyon, muting some of its fury. All that remains of Canyon City today is a plaque, piles of rusting cans, and the tram road beds.

Today, a modern highway runs from Carcross to Dawson City with easy stops at Miles Canyon, Whitehorse, and the Five Fingers rapids. Adventure tourists can arrange for hikes from Skagway to Carcross or Whitehorse, or river expeditions by raft, kayak, or canoe.


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