Column No. 68

Jack’s Great Alaskan Adventure - I

Bob Ring, Al Ring, Tallia Pfrimmer Cahoon

In a slight departure from the life story of Ines Fraser, this is Part I of the account of her husband Jack Fraser’s great Alaskan adventure. Jack was one of over 100,000 optimistic “stampeders” participating in the Alaskan Klondike gold rush that started in 1897. We tell his tale as a composite of several of Jack’s letters to his brother Al and his sister Annie, written between the fall of 1897 and the spring of 1898.

Dear Al and Annie,

I took the most common route to the gold fields - by boat from Seattle to Skagway in Alaska, over the Chilkoot Pass to Lake Bennett and the Yukon River at Whitehorse, and then by boat 500 miles downstream to Dawson. The Chilkoot Pass trail was almost impossibly difficult and hazardous, rising about 1,000 feet in the last half mile to its peak at 3,740 feet altitude. Too steep for horses loaded with supplies, there were 1,500 steps carved out of the snow and ice to prevent us stampeders with backpacks from sliding down the pass. My plan was to buy my mining equipment and provisions in Dawson where I had been assured there was an ample supply.

Let me tell you of my trip down the Yukon River from Lake Bennett to Dawson. First of all, we were lucky in our timing, arriving at Lake Bennett in early September. The upper portions of the Yukon River are only navigable for approximately five months of the year; late May through mid October, because of ice or low water. Secondly, most of the stampeders, having “single-filed” over the steep pass, had to build their own boats for the trip downriver to Dawson. I was lucky again; I was able to hook up with someone and the two of us were able to buy a boat.

My young Canadian boating partner Cameron and I left Lake Bennett on September 7th in a small canvas boat, the frailest and I think the homeliest craft that ever went down the Yukon. When we were starting everyone near had his doubts about “that thing” ever getting across the lake, to say nothing about the river and some said that not all the gold in Klondike would bribe them to attempt going there in that “blamed thing.”

When we reached the famous White Horse Rapids, everyone said we would surely get drowned if we tried to shoot them in such a crazy craft and offered to pack it over the portage rather than see us go. These rapids are about three eighths of a mile in length and are the most dangerous on the river.

A great many large boats run through safely but all take in water. Sometimes the boats capsize and the owners are drowned. For a considerable distance the river in following through a canyon, becomes very swift and rough, a good preparative for the tumult at the end, where the banks suddenly close in, contracting the channel from two hundred yards to about thirty. It is here the danger lies, as there is also a drop of several feet and the maddened water, white with rage, rushes through at a tremendous rate, roaring and leaping, foaming and seething like a cataract of wild horses.

The rule in running through is to keep in the middle of the road and avoid swinging around as the danger of upsetting is great. If that happens the chances for escape are few, but, as the passage is made in less than three minutes, the matter is decided one way or another in mighty short order.

As we pushed out into the current, the crowd on the bank we started from bade us a sorrowful “good bye, boys!” - one man, he was from New York, took off his hat and bowed, and the spectators along the canyon held their breath - to see the little craft rushing as they thought to destruction. Cameron, seated in the stern, tried to steer with a paddle while I near the bow, manipulated the oars. I remember seeing the banks flying past at a furious rate and, as we went over the falls and struck the first White Horse wave the canoe for an instant stood almost on end, then as suddenly took a plunge that gave me a soaking.

In the next moment the craft was whirled around twice and about the time I expected it to upset, the rapids were behind us and danger past. The canoe was near half full of water so we quickly made for shore and unloaded our goods - while the crowd cheered. So rapidly was the program run off that the stuff did not have time to get wet.

It was all very delightful and exciting and I enjoyed the experience immensely, but I do not think I care to repeat it, at least in a canvas canoe. It is laughable, looking back upon it from this distance, to think that for a few days we considered the performance as rather remarkable.

The remainder of this trip, excepting the passage of Lake Laberge, was without any unusual incident. The weather was generally fine but grew colder as we traveled into the north. Flies bothered us greatly and in consequence of their attentions my face swelled about two sizes, but the cold weather put and end to the pests. I think I would have made a good picture as the “Don’t ride the White Horse.”

Of course there were times when it became rather monotonous, especially as I rowed for about ten hours every day, but on the whole the trip was a pleasant one and I enjoyed it. The scenery along the route is fine particularly on Lake Bennett, which has high rugged, snow-crowned mountains on either side and the lake being narrow, with several islands, beautiful views unfolded as we journeyed north. And where is now nothing but snow and ice, when we passed, the colors of autumn flamed in all their glory - against the background of old gray, granite mountains and the masses of light and dark green, red and brown, gleamed brilliant particles of crimson and gold.

The most uncomfortable part of this trip was crossing the lakes, on account of the high winds that seemed to blow almost incessantly, raising a heavy swell and keeping one in constant fear of swamping. In this respect Lake Laberge is particularly bad and we were lined up for two days on its west side waiting for the wind to subside.

We reached the Klondike River sixteen days after leaving Lake Bennett. For about two miles the shore was lined with boats, a great many of them having just arrived and more coming with every hour. At last we had reached the land of gold.

Klondike stampeders climbing up the “Golden Stairs” on the Chilkoot Pass Trail. (Courtesy of Library of Congress, 1898)
Stampeders running the Whitehorse Rapids in a small boat. (Courtesy Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries, 1898)

(Sources: Fraser family records, courtesy of Connie Fraser Kiely)

Next Time: Jack’s Great Alaskan Adventure - II

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