National Geographic : 2014 Feb
yukon 117 the ticket offices of the steamboat companies that were heavily promoting the Klondike’s get- rich-quick possibilities and struck out toward a wilderness for which few were prepared. “My father said they came like mosquitoes,” says Percy Henry, 86, an elder in the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation. “Isaac, our chief, said that they would destroy our land—and that there was nothing we could do to stop them.” The newcomers converged on a soggy flood- plain that the Tr’ondëk Hwech’in had used as a fishing and hunting camp. Within months the nearby forests had been cut down, and tens of thousands of stampeders were digging in nearby creeks. By the summer of 1898 Dawson City was a rough-hewn metropolis of 30,000, with tele- phones, running water, and electric lights. And then, even more quickly than it had be- gun, it was over. In 1899, a year after Dawson was declared the capital of the newly founded Yukon Territory, word of a new strike in Nome, Alaska, drew many miners downstream on the Yukon River. Others, bent by scurvy and drained by the realization that their dreams had come to nothing, sold what they could and headed home. Over the next decades a few men found work on the gold dredges that began to work the rivers and dammed-up creeks, creating the snaking tailings piles that are Dawson’s defining landscape feature. Much of the territory had emptied out by 1953, when the capital was moved south to Whitehorse. But Yukon’s brawling, big-mountain physicality has continued to tug on adventurous imaginations. “You could definitely say I heard the call of the wild,” says Scott Fleming, 42, a soft-spoken carpenter from Ontario who arrived in Dawson in 1992, chasing the promise of a life that could be both hardscrabble and good. I get to know Fleming during a 13-day ca- noe expedition on the Snake River, which twists through the Bonnet Plume Range, eventually emptying into the Peel River. The Peel watershed is one of the largest still pristine river systems on Earth. Long insulated from development by its remoteness, the watershed in recent years has drawn the mining industry’s attention. As First Nations and conservation groups push for pro- tection, the Peel has become the subject of na- tionwide petition drives, election-year debates, and competing proposals to protect or develop the wilderness area. Fleming ran into Ryan, also from Ontario, shortly after arriving in Dawson. Ryan had come to the Yukon in his 20s to do some fur trap- ping but quickly turned to mushroom hunting, supplying wild fungi to the lucrative interna- tional restaurant trade. Then he got hooked on gold prospecting. In the Yukon, much of which was never glaci- ated, gold deposits come in two forms. So-called lode ore is held solidly in rocky veins where it was borne up through the Earth’s crust. Placer gold is created when lode ore is loosened by ero- sion and carried away from the main ore body by water and gravity, concentrating as flecks and nuggets in streambeds and buried under gravel and sand. “Shawn was convinced that the mother lode was still out there,” Fleming tells me one night as we cook dinner by the last rays of sun. “He said that for the past hundred years people were seeing the tracks and not the beast.” Ryan hired Fleming as his first employee, and for the next six years the two men used bicycles, a beat-up wooden boat, and mostly their own feet to access promising-looking wilderness. Refining their rigorously scientific system of collecting and analyzing data, the two men began to home in on what would eventually prove to be millions of ounces of gold. But just when Ryan had per- suaded his first major investors to come on board, Fleming departed to pursue a career in carpentry. On day five of our Snake River expedition The yukon’s brawling, big-mountain physicality has continued to tug on adventurous imaginations.