Authors: Will Hobbs
Weeks before, any ship moving up the fjord north of Juneau would have been alone. Suddenly the narrow channel under the towering peaks was streaming with heavy traffic. Anything that could float had been thrown into the trade.
The destination was the dagger tip of the fjord, where the sea met a mountain wall. Two small rivers entered the ocean there within three miles of each otherâthe Dyea and the Skagway. At the mouth of the Dyea River, civilization consisted of a trading post that for eleven years had served the trickle of prospectors heading up the river canyon, over the Chilkoot Pass, and on to the headwaters of the Yukon River.
The Chilkoot was an ancient “grease trail,” a trading route long controlled by the Raven clan of Tlingit Indians from a nearby village. The Tlingits packed their prized fish oil and their blankets straight up over the
pass on their backs, then returned with pelts, hides, and copper from the interior. At the time the first prospectors started coming, in the 1870s, the clan still maintained a packing monopoly over the pass, but even before the Klondike erupted in '97, Indians from all up and down the coast had come to take advantage of the increasing demand for packers.
Several miles southeast of the Dyea trading post, at the mouth of the Skagway River, a retired steamboat captain and his family had been waiting ten years for the boom to arrive. The canny William Moore was convinced that it was only a matter of time before a gold rush would send tens of thousands streaming into the Yukon. And he was ready.
Moore believed that a second, less-used Indian trailâone he named White Passâwould offer a far more practical route to the goldfields than the rugged Chilkoot. At forty-five miles, the White Pass route was ten miles longer but six hundred feet lower. Most importantly, horses could be put to use over White Pass. Until horses learned to fly, one would never reach the summit of the stupendously steep Chilkoot. Moore had home-steaded the mouth of the Skagway River, banking on his vision that a town would rise there one dayâand he would own all the land.
The first gold-rush steamer arrived on Moore's doorstep July 26, 1897. Within a week, a flotilla plugged the bay. None of the ships could approach closer than a mile to either Skagway or Dyea. The last mile was all shallows and muddy tidal flats that were exposed or submerged, depending on the tides, which fluctuated thirty feet. Klondikers had to lower or throw down their outfits onto clumsy flat-bottomed scows, which ferried the supplies to the beach. There, everything was dumped onto
the muddy gravel, even if the tide was rising. Men by the hundreds labored to save their outfits from the sea.
It was into this pandemonium that eleven Indian canoes threaded their way shoreward among the steamers anchored off of Dyea. Jason recognized the
even before he saw its name. At close range he saw the unlucky horses from the hold being dropped one at a time, kicking and terrified, from a big wooden box into the sea. After all they'd endured, now they had to thrash their way onshore, and some of them were drowning right before his eyes.
Another ship that had just arrived was in the heat of unloading. Steamer trunks dropped onto the scows below were bursting open, men were cursing, dogs and goats were being thrown into the sea to swim for shore.
Even from a distance, Jason could see that the beach was swarming with people moving gear. Some of the goods were going onto horse-drawn freight wagons, but most Klondikers were shouldering their own supplies from the scows to the high-tide line. It reminded Jason of the frenzy inside an anthill busted open with a boot. But what looked like ants lugging their oval white eggs helter-skelter were Klondikers rescuing sacks of flour and beans.
It started raining.
Beyond the beach, the mouth of the narrow river valley was choked with canvas wall tents. Smoke from dozens of campfires met the lowering clouds.
The Indians paddled the eleven canoes into the mouth of the Dyea River. Beyond the tents, there was a single log cabinâa trading post. “Let's not stop,” Sloper shouted back from the lead canoe. “Let's see how far we can get up the river today.”
“I'm all for it!” Jack shouted back. “Hey, look at the salmon!”
The stream was thick with themâbright red, with greenish heads.
Up ahead, the river was shallowing. The packers got out of the canoes and started wading, pulling the canoes after them on ropes.
Jason was fretting. Which way had his brothers gone, Dyea and the Chilkoot Pass, or Skagway and White Pass? He was going to have to choose.
Jack climbed out of the canoe and started wading in his rubber boots. Jason's boots were leather. The water was ice-cold!
The rain came harder. Men were pulling out their rain slickers. Jason didn't have one. You've been wet before, he told himself. Captain Shepard was coughing, and looking even older than his sixty years.
Jason didn't like the sound of this Chilkoot Passâstraight up at the end. “How much do the packers charge over the Chilkoot?” he asked Jack.
“Thirty cents a pound. We're just sticking with them as far as they can get the canoes up the river. Maybe Thompson can pay, but the rest of us can't. That'd be $600 for one man's outfit!”
“You're going to hump it over yourself?”
“That's my plan.”
It made Jason wonder what his brothers had done with their $600 of packing money. “Any idea what horse packing costs over on White Pass?”
He couldn't be asking Jack to guess which way his brothers had gone.
His brothers wouldn't have liked the sound of this straight-up Chilkoot any more than he did. Horses could
go faster. He'd done some cowboying last fall in Wyomingâhelped an old man pack a sheep camp out of the mountains. A packhorse carrying two hundred pounds could cover forty miles in a couple of days. That's what would make sense to his brothers. Maybe they were still over in Skagway, trying to hire horses!
Jason reached into the canoe and pulled out his pack. “I'm going to try White Pass,” he told Jack.
Jack stopped wading and clapped him on the shoulder. “Good luck to you, Jason! Hope you find your Golden Fleece!”
Jason laughed. “I wouldn't be disappointed if my gold was the hard, shiny kind instead of a gold sheepskin.”
They shook hands. “Thank you,” Jason said. “You really helped me out. Hope we meet againâmaybe in Dawson City, when both of us have struck it rich. What's your last name, so I can ask after you?”
Jason turned and waded downstream, back to the confusion at the beach. More Indian canoes were starting up the river. He heard someone say that the Dyea River was navigable for five miles upstream. He was happy about that for Jack Londonâfewer miles to have to lug his ton of gear on his own back.
It was three miles over to Skagway, and it couldn't be walked. Fortunately there were scows plying back and forth, and he was able to pile onto one without forking over a dollar he didn't have. The walrus-mustached operator wasn't paying any attention. In the chaos of all these shouting people, the mud and the rain and the dogs shaking themselves in his face, the scow pilot looked like Alaska's version of Charon, sentenced to ferry people across the river to hell.
Skagway's beach was like Dyea's, only worse: piles of gear, stacks of hay and lumber, horses by the hundreds wandering untethered and knocking things over, dogs being whipped, men setting up tents and cooking meals on their Klondike stoves. A hundred yards out on the naked tidal flats, a strange contraption was mired in the mud amid heaps of provisions that had been lost to salt water. It was the two tandem bicycles spanned by the iron bars he'd seen in the
's hold. The bicycles hadn't even made it onto the beach.
Jason hopped and stepped through the black muck of Skagway's main streetâ
, a flimsy sign proclaimed. The town was another anthill of activity, with saws and hammers going on all sides and a slowly moving stream of rushers and freight wagons choking the muddy street. Some Klondikers were leading packed horses and some were dragging dogs harnessed to sleds heaped high with gear. The procession passed through a line of thrown-together shacks and the frames of two-and even three-story hotels under construction. Jason counted four saloons, a drugstore in a tent, a blacksmith advertising five dollars a shoe, a restaurant with
â$3 written across the seat of a hanging pair of ragged trousers. Tent sites were being offered at ten dollars apiece.
Jason waited in front of two different packing offices, hoping to ask if and when his brothers had hired their services. But there were so many men trying to get inside, he finally gave up and kept walking. Another two blocks and Broadway ran smack into someone's house, a tidy two-story frame structure that had obviously been there for a number of years.
There was a huge commotion under way. One old man armed with a crowbar was trying to stand off a hun
dred. They'd come to move his house out of the way of the street, and he'd already ripped a leg off a fellow's trousers while defending his property. The old man kept claiming that every bit of the town was being illegally erected on his property, but he was met by nothing but jeers.
“I'm Captain William Moore,” he cried, “and all of you are trespassing! All this ground you're standing on belongs to
Jason kept moving, following the Klondikers who were streaming around the old man's house and out of town. He didn't care if he never laid eyes on Skagway again.
It would be dark in a couple of hours. He had to find something to eat and somewhere to sleep. He passed a dozen “restaurants” along the wagon road leading out of townâstampeders cooking at their Klondike stoves and selling meals. Ahead, the wagon road was about to make its first crossing of the Skagway River. He was hoping there'd be salmon running in that river.
And there were.
Jason wasn't the only one with the idea. Like bears, men were standing in the river and fishing out salmonâsome with their hands, some with spears whittled from the alders along the shore.
In a little while Jason had a salmon. He had a salmon and a jackknife and he had matches in a waterproof match safe. The night before, he'd watched how the Indians spread their salmon open with whittled sticks and roasted them upright beside the campfire. He did the same and ate his fill, then went looking for berries. They were plentiful. Salmon and berries: For the time being, he was living the life of an Alaskan bear.
It was drizzling again. Jason got back on the wagon
road and started walking. He was going to find a stand of spruces thick enough to keep the rain off while he was sleeping. He needed to keep his bedroll dry.
There was a wall tent ahead that had been erected beside the road. He saw a sign and thought it might be advertising another restaurant. But there was a bad stink in the air, like carrion. As he drew closer, he realized to his horror that the sign had been placed at the foot of a pole where a man had been tied up, then shot repeatedly. The sign by the corpse said
All the while the people went streaming by. Like the rest, he kept on going.
In the morning Jason rejoined the river of humanity streaming along the wagon road. He made good time as the road stayed to the valley floor, but after three miles the valley pinched to a close against the rising mountains and the wagon road came to an abrupt end. At the river crossing, freight wagons were unloading and Klondikers by the hundreds were transferring their gear to horseback.
As it began to rain again, Jason stopped for a minute and surveyed the confusion. A few of the horses looked all right, but most were in deplorable condition. From his own horse-packing experience in Wyoming, it was apparent that most of the stampeders had never worked with a horse in their lives. It pained him to see men putting pack saddles on backward, some not even using saddle blankets. Worse than that, some men were so angry, they were terrifying the horses with curses and even whips.
Suddenly it occurred to Jason that he was looking at his meal ticket, his big opportunity. These
, he thought. These horses can feed me until I catch up to my brothers!
He watched for a while longer, then picked out a pair of men struggling in frustration. At least these two weren't taking it out on the horses.
Jason stepped up, introduced himself, then told the men he'd packed horses. He offered to wrangle their horses for meals and ten dollars a day, paid daily. It was an outrageous amount, but prices were beyond belief up here. Without hesitation, the two men accepted his offer. One joked that when they'd bought these animals in Seattle, they hadn't known one end of a horse from the other. Their names were Robinson and Bailey. They were clerks from Philadelphia who'd left jobs and families behind to go for broke on the rush.
Jason found the men good-natured. His own spirits soared now that he knew he'd get fed and be earning good money. Together they led the horses across the river and joined the slow line of stampeders climbing the first hill.
The mood soon turned grim as forward progress slowed to a crawl. It was walk a minute, wait a minute. Jason and Bailey were leading six packhorses apiece while Robinson dragged their sled, which couldn't handle much weight on the dirt and mud. Everyone in line was half-frantic to be on the other side of the pass and building boats. People were worrying about winter catching them before they could make it to Dawson City. “Must be some bottleneck up ahead.” Bailey fretted. “Once we're past it we'll be okay.”
It kept raining. When wasn't it raining in Alaska? One of the many times the line stopped altogether. Jason
found himself standing right next to a dead horse that lay by the side of the trail. He tried not to look into the empty eye sockets and struggled to block out the stench from its belly, ripped open by the birds. He was afraid he was going to be sick.
Jason felt his earlier optimism draining away. He was never going to catch his brothers at this rate. Progress had become so agonizingly slow, it was close to midnight before they put the trail's first obstacle, Devil's Hill, behind them. They set up the canvas wall tent in the lingering twilight. Robinson and Bailey unlashed the fat little sheet-iron stove from the sled, set up a few sections of flue, and cooked supper. Jason went out in the woods and cut spruce boughs for bedding. It was raining hard, and rivulets poured through the tent.
Exhausted as he was, Jason couldn't sleep. His bedding was soaked and the cut end of a spruce branch was jabbing him in the back.
After only three or four hours, they were up and moving again in the long twilight preceding dawn. The trail was already choked with stampeders. Clouds shrouded the mountainsides, making it impossible to see the chalk-white peaks. It rained or it drizzled. The weight of all the horses ahead had churned the soggy trail into a quagmire.
The three of them almost never spoke now. They had become like the horses, struggling in the muck, spouting vapor jets in the rain, reduced to the brute essentials of breathing and moving forward when possible. Delays were frequent and endless. Mostly they waited, with no more consciousness than the tail end of a snake, not knowing what the front of the line was seeing or doing or when it might advance again, and them with it.
Part of the problem, Jason realized, was traffic mov
ing down the trail, back toward Skagway. Some were retreating stampeders, who'd lost too many horses and too much gear, or the will to keep going. Some were professional packers returning on horseback from Lake Bennett at the end of the trail. “I'm looking for my brothers, Abe and Ethan Hawthorn,” Jason told wranglers heading back to Skagway. “Did you pack them over the pass?”
“Nope,” came the reply every time, “not us.”
As the days ran together, the waiting grew worse. All along the line, the gaunt horses stood in the trail, nose-to-tail under their crushing two- and three-hundred-pound loads. No one could afford the mercy of unpacking them during the delays. The serpent might start to move again.
Some Klondikers weren't even bothering to unpack their horses at night. Jason could imagine all too well the agony of the mute animals all around him. Most were half-starved to begin with, and there was virtually no grass under the dense forest. Rare was the party that was packing any hay. His wasn't.
Every mile there were more dead horses along the trail, and from all sides came the croaking of ravens.
The ravens always took the eyes first.
Half an hour rarely went by without a pistol shot from ahead or behind. The third morning, Bailey brought out his own pistol when one of their horses couldn't rise. The blast tore a hole in Jason's sense of fair play. He was part of this, he knew, coaxing and dragging these poor creatures to their death. He felt like an accomplice in a crime.
“That's Porcupine Hill,” he heard somebody say. He looked up to see a jumble of boulders above, gigantic boulders, with horses squeezing between. It took an
excruciatingly slow hour to reach those boulders. When they did, a horse was down in the trail not far ahead and neighing in torment. “Broken leg,” came the report down the line. “Turned its leg in a crevice.” Jason saw the butt end of an ax raised high in the air. He turned away, numb and shivering in the drizzle. The dull, bone-crushing thud came like a pronouncement of doom.
It would have taken time and effort to remove the carcass from that spot between the boulders. Men, women, and animals resumed the march right over the horse's body.
Jason had lost all sense of time. As best he could recall, they'd been under way for six days. It had all run together, connected by shouts and curses and the cloying stench of death. Far below, under the cliffs, the dead horses lay in heaps. They lay everywhere along the sides of the trail, hundreds and hundreds of them. White Pass had gotten a new nameâeveryone was calling it the Dead Horse Trail.
Jason was ashamed and sick at heart. Still, the nightmare went on. More and more people were retreating down the trail in the muck. A man sat along the side of the trail stone-cold dead, shot through the back. Another man, enraged with his ox, which had become mired in the mud, was burning its belly with a torch. Still the ox couldn't free itself, only bellow in pain. Jason watched a packhorse walk right off the edge of a cliffâa suicide? Grown men sobbed their hearts out in despair.
And now they were looking at a thousand-foot climb in the rain up streaming rivers of mud. For two hours they waited for their turn to start up it. “Couldn't we camp right here?” Bailey asked.
Robinson coughed and spat. “No level ground.”
All around them people were retreating. Some were admitting they were beaten. Others were going to try the Chilkoot.
With so many trying to move in opposite directions, it was chaos. “We've covered only fourteen miles,” Bailey said to his partner. “Fourteen miles in a week.”
“I've seen enough,” Robinson said. “I'm done. Let's go home.”
Jason helped them turn their horses around, then watched them go. He shouldered his packsack. His brothers were in front of him, not behind. He had sixty dollars in his pocket; he could buy meals from stampeders now if only he could keep moving forward.
A few minutes later he tried to skirt a bad bottleneck in the trail. A man with crazed bloodshot eyes drew his pistol. “You do that and I'll shoot you dead.”
It was obvious he would.
Jason stayed put. What was he going to do?
Immobilized, he sat along the trail in the drizzle, coughed and shivered. He didn't know how much more cold and wet and misery he could stand. Two men on horseback were picking their way down the trail. These two didn't have the stamp of defeat on them. Professional packers, he guessed.
“Did you pack for the Hawthorn brothers, by any chance?”
The first man nodded. “Abe and Ethan Hawthorn.”
Jason was thunderstruck. “When did they get to Lake Bennett?”
“Four days ago.”
“Can I catch them before they get a boat built?”
“Doubtful. It's like this all the way. Your brothers were lucky to be on the front end, before all this happened.”
“What if I try the Chilkoot?”
“If you travel light, you might catch them. The Chilkoot's mostly rock, not slime like this.”
“Thanks. Thanks a lot.”
With no hesitation. Jason shouldered his pack and started downhill. People were letting him around, as long as he was retreating. Finally he could fly, put this nightmare behind him.
Descending Porcupine Hill, he passed through a slot between two boulders. On one side of the trail was a horse's head, on the other its hind legs. This, he realized, was the horse he'd seen killed with the ax blow to the head. This was all that remained: the rest had been ground into the mud.
A few minutes later, where a stream plunged across the trail, he came across a man in an utter rage, a burly man with red suspenders who seemed to be holding one of his dogs underwater. That's exactly what he was doingâhe was drowning the dog!
Jason's eyes went to the bodies of three dead dogs among the rocks downstream. In the cursing, roaring height of passion, the man was drowning every one of his dogs!
The human serpent, meanwhile, was passing by with only mild curiosity.
Jason couldn't pass by. Mouth agape, he stepped away from the line. The dog in the madman's huge hands was dead now; it floated downstream toward the others. With a bearlike roar, the man turned to unbuckle his fifth and last dog from the tug line. It was a black-and-white husky, a big male, big enough that it should have been trying to resist.
Jason was trembling. His face was flushing hot, his fists clenching and unclenching helplessly.
Like the horses on the trail, the dog seemed to recognize its fate, and had accepted it. The husky simply lay on its side and rolled its eyes away from the spectacle of the man who'd lost his reason. The man with the red suspenders grabbed up the dog by its harness and plunged its head and shoulders under the water, pinning the husky with his knee.
Jason could stand no more. He'd seen too much cruelty, had played his part in it. No matter the consequences, he had to do something. He threw his pack to the ground and waded into the creek hollering, all out of control. Seizing the man by his collar and an elbow, Jason spun him around and screamed “No! No!” into his face.
The huge man rose menacingly over Jason, and as he rose he released the dog. Eyes blazing like burning coals, he pulled out a pistol, put it to the side of Jason's head, and cocked it.
“If you don't want him,” Jason pleaded, “leave him be. I'll take him!”
The man pushed him away, then looked at him crazily. A weird smile began to play at his cracked lips. “Take him, then. He's yours!”
The dog drowner started laughing maniacally. “He won't pull! Two hundred dollars and he won't pull. Take him!”
Jason tugged at the dog's harness. “Let's go,” he said to the animal.
His eyes met the eyes of the dog, and Jason recognized a flicker of hope in their amber depths. “Come with me,” Jason said. The husky got to its feet and waded tentatively out of the stream, keeping a wary eye on its tormenter. Jason grabbed up his packsack and started walking down the trail. “Come on,” he encour
aged, beckoning. The husky came with him, and neither looked back.
A few moments later there came an explosive pistol shot. Jason jerked his head around, wondering if he was being shot at. The big man had blown his brains out.