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Yukon River: Cold Rush

Stampede up the frozen Chilkoot Trail

More on the Yukon River:
Yukon River:
Route of the Gold Rush

North to Alaska:
War brings a highway to the Yukon

Bonanza - The quest for Klondike gold

Staking a Claim:
A First Nation's right to the land

Cold Rush:
Stampede up the frozen Chilkoot Trail

Scaling Fish:
Salmon spawners get over a dam

Heal and Purify:
A First Nation recovers from cultural suppression

Spreading the Word:
Yukon storytelling tradition welcomes the world

Losing Track:
The White Pass and Yukon Route

More than 30,000 men, and a few hundred women, rushed to the Klondike region of the Yukon when word of a major gold discovery reached Seattle and San Francisco in 1897.

There were two practical routes to the Klondike for the thousands of Stampeders hoping to make their fortunes from the discovery of Yukon gold in 1896. The first leg of the journey was by ship from San Francisco, Seattle, or Vancouver to the coast of Alaska.

From Alaska, the easiest and most expensive route to the Yukon was by sternwheeler steamboat around the coast of Alaska and, from the Bering Sea, up the Yukon River to Dawson City. The cheapest, most common, and hardest route started further south on the coast of Alaska, near Skagway.

The gold seekers climbed over the steep and difficult Chilkoot Pass to the upper reaches of the Yukon River. Most of them travelled in mid-winter so they could drag their goods on sleds up the frozen Taiya River.

A small detachment of Mounties at the summit refused entry to Canada to anyone without food and enough equipment to survive for one year. The requirement also increased the amount of customs duties the Mounties could charge for goods purchased in the United States.

At the time, the location of the border between Canada and the United States was in dispute and some people feared there could be war over Canada's claim to the Chilkoot Pass. Today, the Parks Canada cabin at the summit is a welcome shelter for hikers climbing the steep and often windy pass.

To relay their supplies to the top, the poorly-dressed Stampeders had to climb the trail 40 times each, with 120 kg loads on their backs. Most of them made the climb in winter, up steps carved in the deep snow of the pass.

Winter also allowed the Stampeders to haul sleds up the Taiya River instead of carrying supplies to the foot of the pass. But winter was a curse as well as an aid. Seventy Stampeders were killed by a single snow slide; many of them are buried at Slide Cemetery at Dyea.

The poorest Stampeders hauled their own sleds and carried everything on their own backs over the pass. The better-off paid Native American packers, most of them coastal Tlingit, who had controlled trade through the pass for centuries. The wealthiest could pay to have their supplies lifted up the trail, over the summit, and down to the headwaters of the Yukon by means of pack horses and cable cars powered by steam-driven winches.

One of the steam boilers, still in good condition, sits today in the coastal rain forest, one day's hike from the coast. Century-old boots, shovel blades, sacks of oats, telegraph wires, and tramway cables decorate the 53km trail from its start on the Alaskan coast to Bennett Lake in British Columbia. Both Canada and the United States protect the trail as a historic site and it is unlawful to take or disturb gold rush artifacts.

After arriving at the waters of the Yukon, the gold seekers had to fashion boats to take them and their supplies down the river to Dawson City.

Some Stampeders and their supplies foundered in the high winds of Bennett Lake. Others - as many as 300 - drowned in the rough Whitehorse rapids, so named because the white water suggested the waving mane of a galloping horse. Entrepreneurs responded to fear of the Whitehorse rapids by building a light tramway to shuttle the prospectors and their goods the eight kilometres around the dangerous white water.

The Stampeders arrived at Dawson City only to discover that every river and creek had been claimed entirely by prospectors who had already been in the Yukon when the gold was discovered. Some of the Stampeders stayed on to work for claim holders. Most sold their supplies to get enough money to pay their way back home by riverboat down the Yukon.

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