I’ve just published a Kindle sequel to my book about the 2CV Alaska Challenge (the Alaska Challenge book can be found here). The sequel is called Down and out in Duncan and Port Hardy and it’s an account of what happened to me after I’d successfully completed that record-breaking drive up to the Arctic Ocean in Alaska. Here’s part of the book blurb…
It’s a dramatic story that starts on the wilderness roads of Alaska and the Yukon and ends in Paris. Inbetween there are mad business schemes on Vancouver Island, a drive half way across Canada in winter road conditions and a reckless gamble in Montreal.
It’s no exaggeration to say that those months I lived through were rather dramatic. Now, almost 13 years later, I’m not seeing it through rose tinted glasses: I went through some very tough times after the 2CV Alaska Challenge, and a lot of it is still very vivid for me; in particular, when I had to sell the Yukon Queen on a freezing winter’s day in Winnipeg.
Anyhows, if interested you can find the book here…
And here’s an excerpt from it…
The northbound ferry arrived right on schedule after its three day journey up from Bellingham. Most of the passengers got off at Haines, the shortest route to interior Alaska. Those who remained on the ferry were bound for Skagway, the shortest route to the Yukon. Dawn began to break as the ferry slipped her moorings and headed up the Lynn Canal. The Canal is about half a mile wide. It has steep sloping walls of black rock. At the top of the walls are forests leading up the slopes of the surrounding mountains. The waters of the Canal were crystal clear. The silence magical.
At the head of the Lynn Canal lay Skagway, nestling at the foot of a steep glaciated valley. A few miles further up the inlet lay the smaller settlement of Dyea, which is now a ghost town. Skagway is derived from a Tlingit Indian name, “Skagua”, which means “the place where the north wind blows”.
Wisps of mist rose from the Canal waters. On the right I could see the mouth of the Skagway river, where there was a small dock and oil storage tanks. Directly ahead lay the small ferry terminal, and on the left a black sand beach. The chill morning air resonated with history. A hundred years ago stampeders poured from the steamships. They would have dragged their belongings up that black sand beach and found themselves in a place that was often described as “hell on earth”. Back in 1897, Skagway grew from one cabin to a town of twenty thousand in the space of three months. It boasted over seventy bars and hundreds of prostitutes, and was controlled by organized criminals.
That single cabin belonged to William Moore, a former steamboat captain who arrived in Skagway ten years before the gold rush. Moore was a smart chap. He believed that gold lay in the Klondike because it had been found in similar mountain ranges in South America, Mexico and California. Skagway lay on the most direct route to the Klondike. Moore and his son built a log cabin, a wharf and a saw mill in anticipation of future gold prospectors passing through on their way to the Klondike. They were going to mine the miners.
And come they did, a decade later, at first just a trickle making their way up the Chilkoot Pass and White Pass, then in the summer of 1897 a torrent of prospectors as news of the Klondike discovery spread across the world. William Moore was overwhelmed and suddenly found himself in the middle of a boom town, where self-appointed officials forced Moore and his family on to a five acre tract of land and turned his log cabin into a hotel; which goes to show that sometimes you can be just a bit too smart.
It was just after 6am on a Sunday morning. Skagway slumbered. Only a lone intrepid adventurer in a 2CV roamed the streets. Skagway has retained much of the Victorian buildings from the old days. I drove past William Moore’s log cabin, which is now a tourist trap. Skagway is a small town that lives on its past. As I drove along the deserted streets the ghosts of the gold rush seemed to hang in the air. This place had once been the archetypal wild west. Bandits and bad men ruled supreme, including of course the notorious Jefferson “Soapy” Smith, who was the first successful gangster in the west. Years before Al Capone had made a name for himself in Chicago, Soapy was running Denver with gambling dens, sly scams and corrupt officials. The gold rush brought Soapy to Skagway, which he ruled with an iron hand. He ran crooked gambling halls, freight companies that hauled nothing, telegraph offices that had no telegraph link, even an “army enlistment” tent where the victim’s clothes and possessions were stolen while a “doctor” gave an examination. Eventually the citizens of Skagway bandied together and put an end to Soapy’s rule. He was shot dead in a gunfight in July 1898 at the age of 37.
The lawlessness and gun slinging didn’t last long, though. In 1898 the 14th Infantry arrived in Skagway to maintain order. They remained in Alaska for 15 months. In May of 1899, they were relieved by Company L of the 24th Infantry, one of the US Army’s four black units. Aside from peacekeeping, Company L’s principal duty in Skagway was to “show the flag,” to maintain a government presence near a border that was still in dispute. The black soldiers spent three years in the area and made a favorable impression on all with whom they came in contact.
Skagway may have become a safer place when the soldiers arrived, but this town was just a staging post for the stampeders. Ahead of them lay a 500 mile ordeal to reach the Klondike gold fields. There were two routes from Skagway and Dyea across the mountains to the interior: the Chilkoot Pass in the west and the White Pass in the east.
The twenty-six mile trail over Chilkoot Pass was steep and hazardous. Most stampeders who gave up did so attempting to cross these mountains. In the winter they struggled through blizzards and snow and had to contend with avalanches. The trail rose steeply in the final half mile, where stampeders used a guide rope for support and climbed the “golden staircase”, 1,500 steps cut in the snow and ice.
To compound the misery the North West Mounted Police set up a border crossing into Canada at the summit of the Chilkoot Pass. They ordered every stampeder to carry a year’s worth of supplies, which amounted to a ton of goods. No stampeder was allowed to pass into Canada without the requisite amount of supplies. The Mounted Police were trying to control a situation that was growing increasingly chaotic. Many of the stampeders came from cities and were completely naive about the wilderness. They expected to be able to purchase food and supplies along the trail. The Mounties hoped that the ‘years worth of supplies’ would deter people from attempting to reach the Klondike gold fields. Amazingly it didn’t.
It was sheer bloody hell. To move their ton of supplies over the pass they had to make up to forty round trips, which involved hiking hundreds of miles back and forth along the cruel trail. One stampeder wrote home about the ardours of the Chilkoot Pass. It took him two long weeks to haul his gear up the pass: “Imagine pulling a sled loaded with three to six hundred pounds over a stretch of ice up a steep grade, strewn with boulders and logs, then crossing over a river bed on a couple of trees laid side by side and you get a picture of our labors. My feet are sore, my heels are blistered, my legs sore and lame, my hands, neck, shoulders, sore and chafed from rope. But boys, don’t think I’m discouraged…there is a golden glimmer in the distance”.
There is an incredible photograph, taken in 1898. It shows a chain of men, women and children making their way up the Chilkoot Pass. It is winter and heavy snow covers the bare mountainside. The line of figures struggling up the steep incline are bent over. You can almost feel the weight of their packs and the biting wind. This photograph captures perfectly what is meant by the term ‘gold fever’.
In April 1898 a major avalanche occurred in the Chilkoot Pass. Hundreds of stampeders were buried alive under tons of wet snow. Volunteers dug for days to rescue the living and retrieve the dead. Things were little better on the adjacent White Pass route, where that same winter three thousand horses perished on the trail. Jack London, who was a witness, renamed it the “Dead Horse Trail”. Stampeders had little concern for their pack animals. Exhausted horses starved, were hurt on rough ground and fell over cliffs. The stench of rotting horse flesh filled the canyons during the winter of 1898.
Things weren’t much better in the summer. Without a covering of snow and ice the trails to the summit led across giant boulders, over which people literally crawled. Entrepreneurs saw an opportunity here. Three aerial tramways and several surface hoists were built to take those who could afford it over the Chilkoot Pass. These tramways and hoists made the Chilkoot Pass the most popular route to the interior. But not for long, as other entrepreneurs got in on the act as well: in May of 1898 work began on the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway, which ran from Skagway to Whitehorse. The construction employed 2000 workers and took 26 months to complete. From sea level at Skagway, the railway climbs 2,885 feet to White Pass summit in only 20 miles of track, one of the steepest railways in the world. As soon as the railway was opened the Chillkoot Trail and its aerial tramways became obsolete. Now, thousands of prospectors were carried towards the Klondike gold fields in relative comfort, although by the time the railway had been completed the great stampede was already over.
I pulled up by the railway station in Skagway. The coaching stock of the gold rush days has been restored and now the trains carry tourists up the White Pass Trail, following the route of the gushing Skagway River upstream, past waterfalls and ice-packed gorges and over a 1000ft high wooden trestle bridge to the Canadian border. The railway station was closed so I drove across to the small airstrip, trying to discover if there was a petrol station open this early on a Sunday morning. A group were waiting for their pilot, who was going to take them on a tour of a glacier. I was told that a nearby gas station always left one of its pumps switched on. You could get petrol by inserting a credit card.
I’d kept a careful record of all my spending on the plastic. My credit card was nearing its limit but the account contained more than enough for a tank of fuel. I headed out of Skagway on the Klondike Highway, which follows the railway line up the old White Pass Trail. A few miles north of Skagway I passed the Gold Rush Cemetery, which is the final resting place of many stampeders. Among them are Soapy Smith and Frank Reid, the man who shot Soapy dead, who, according to his gravestone “gave his life for the honor of Skagway”; a local prostitute, on the other hand, is remembered for “giving her honor for the life of Skagway”.
The White Pass route across the mountains is rather spectacular and now has a modern road. I gazed at the steep gorges and plunging river and sheer rock faces. How on earth did they haul one ton of supplies up here?! Fourteen miles up from Skagway, and still not quite at the summit of the pass, I came upon the border post. Light snow was falling and at this altitude it felt bitterly cold. The customs lady remained in the comfort of her glass booth and waved me through. There was no one else around. I hadn’t seen a single other vehicle on the highway. This had to be one of the loneliest customs posts in the world, with only the whistling wind and gold rush ghosts for company.