The Life of Jack London — #7: Into the Klondike

In 1905, Jack London set off to the Yukon gold fields in search of riches. He lived a life that was full of adventure and excitement until his death at age forty-six years old on November 22nd 1906.

Jack London’s journey into the Klondike was a life-changing experience. The author did not find much gold in Alaska, but what he gained was a new perspective on life.

This article is part of a series on Jack London’s life, particularly his use of the Ancient Greek idea of thumos.

In 1897, the ship Excelsior arrived in San Francisco with news that would save Jack London from his meaningless work in a steam laundry: gold had been found in the Klondike.

Gold fever swiftly gripped the whole nation, and Jack was no exception. The North spoke to him as an opportunity for adventure as well as a chance to generate enough money to enable his family to live comfortably and allow him to pursue a career as a writer without having to worry about bills and hunger.

Taking a trip to the far north

Yukon gold Alaska map routes to Canada.

London received funding for his endeavor from his stepsister in exchange for agreeing to accompany him with her ill 60-year-old husband. Jack spent the money on a roughly 2,000-pound supply pack for the two guys, then boarded a boat for the 8-day trip up to Seattle and then on to Juneau. After landing, he and his brother-in-law stepped into 17-foot canoes and were transported 100 miles by the indigenous to the Dyea beachhead, which was in full turmoil. Three thousand “cheechakos” flooded the area, referring to tenderfeet from the lower 48 as “cheechakos.” Many passengers were unaware that the Klondike was located more than 500 miles north of where their ship would land, in the heart of the Canadian Yukon. When confronted with an exhausting journey by foot and boat, several men, including Jack’s brother-in-law, turned around and returned home.

Jack was more prepared than most, having studied the land’s topography and a previous miner’s story before going out. He was prepared for what lay ahead, knowing that the first stage of the expedition would be a 28-mile ascent to Lake Lindeman. Most of the newcomers had assumed that they would be able to hire the indigenous to carry their belongings for them along the trip. The indigenous porters, on the other hand, were charging a hefty thirty cents a pound, taking advantage of the tremendous demand for their services. With the Canadian Mounties requiring anybody wishing to cross the border to have a year’s worth of food and equipment, the aid may cost a man’s whole annual pay. Another huge group of would-be prospectors was thwarted before they had started because they lacked the requisite cash and physical power to transport their own supplies.

Jack is not one of them. He’d already made up his mind on the physically taxing way he’d take to carry his goods. He broke down his half-ton equipment into a dozen smaller loads, driving each one a mile, caching it, and returning for another. This meant that every mile forward took approximately 25 kilometers of trekking, half of which had to be done while carrying 75-100 pounds of supplies. Jack, on the other hand, enjoyed the physical challenge and took satisfaction in his ability to outrun several of the local porters.

 

Vintage Jack London Sheep Camp.

London is supposed to be the young guy in charge of the right-wing gang. The soldiers are resting in Sheep’s Camp, only a few kilometers from the treacherous Chilkoot Pass.

For the first six miles, London and several companions he’d met along the route were fortunate enough to be able to tow their provisions down a river in a boat. For the following eight kilometers, Jack used his double-back hiking approach, hauling load after load up an incline, through mud and rain, and past stones. The soldiers arrived at the first rest camp in three weeks, when they regained strength for the most difficult phase of the journey, a single-file climb of the Chilkoot Pass.

Vintage Chilkoot illustration.

The Chilkoot Pass, which is three-quarters of a mile long and at a 45-degree inclination, was dubbed “the hardest path this side of hell” by sourdoughs.

With a length of three quarters of a mile and a 45-degree incline, sourdoughs dubbed it “the toughest route this side of hell.” The weakest of the would-be prospectors went bankrupt. Hordes retreated in defeat to Dyea, while others went insane and even shot themselves. As he carried a half-ton of supplies to the peak, 100 pounds at a time, Jack merely placed one foot in front of the other and ignored the burn in his legs and back.

Vintage single chilkoot illustration.

Jack took approximately a dozen trips up and back to bring his half-ton of goods to the top of the pass.

It was nine miles from the top of the pass to the shores of Lake Lindeman, the Yukon River’s sources, across a steep canyon. Three weeks had passed since Jack had left Dyea, but the voyage had only just begun. He’d now have to float, sail, and make his way across 500 miles of lakes and rivers to Dawson, which was 50 miles from the goldfields.

If Jack’s physical strength and tenacity had previously been an asset, his technical abilities and sailing expertise had now become a significant asset. He and his companions cut down some trees and built two boats to transport them on their journey. Jack’s confidence and talent made him a natural leader, and the older men trusted him to guide them safely across the perilous seas despite his youth. Jack opted to fire the boat over six-foot ridges of water and violent rapids, over jagged reefs and towering cliff walls, and through two tremendous whirlpools, putting his confidence to the test. The men had seen numerous boats ahead of theirs shattered, their occupants drowning directly in front of their eyes, and the majority of the other prospectors had chosen to portage past these man-killing hazards. When given the option of portaging for many days or running the shoots for two minutes, Jack selected the latter. They had left in the middle of summer, and the early Arctic winter was soon approaching, and they wanted to get to Dawson before the rivers froze over.

Charmian describes Jack’s frantic sprint against the clock:

 

“By maintaining their unwavering passion, the lads stayed just ahead of the daunting freeze-up that stymied the less forehanded’s progress. The margin was so thin that lakes froze on their flying heels. Jack discovered what it meant to put one’s furious powerlessness against nature’s unflappability. They didn’t waste a single waking minute, and they only slept when it was absolutely necessary…

Their most difficult struggle was across Lake Laberge, which threatened to freeze over in the gale. They had been forced back three days by cresting waves that had fallen onboard in tinkling ice. ‘Today we’ve got to make it—or we’ll camp here all winter with the rest,’ Jack stated on the fourth. They were nearly killed at the oars, yet they ‘died to live again’ and continued to battle. They pushed all night like driven automatons, and at daylight they joined the river, leaving behind a rapidly frozen lake. And, based on what I know of their pilot, I’m sure he didn’t recognize half of his exhaustion, so delighted must he have been to be so forward—one of the very few who had made it through.”

London and his companions chose to stay in the cabins of an abandoned mining camp after barely making it across Lake Laberge. Although they were just 75 miles from Dawson, the Yukon River was rapidly freezing. The guys felt they’d give it a go where they were; on their way back, they’d met several disappointed Klondikers who told them that supplies for weathering the winter in town were non-existent, and that the best claims farther up the Yukon had already been staked. In neighboring Henderson Creek, Jack discovered a speck of gold dust and claimed a claim. He brought his boat to Dawson to register it a few days later.

Winter had set in by the time Jack returned to camp after a difficult journey through the snow (an event he would later rely on to create his finest short tale, “To Build a Fire”), and there was nothing left to do except ride it out. Jack would go down to the stream when the weather was nicer, huddle in an old dugout, and spend the time panning for gold and pondering about life. The sheer quiet and silence of his surroundings, which he dubbed “nature’s White Silence,” was astounding:

“There was no movement. The Yukon slept beneath a three-foot thick layer of ice. There was no breeze at all. The sap didn’t move in the hearts of the spruce trees that lined both sides of the river. “The trees stood in perfect petrifaction, loaded with the last tiny pennyweight of snow their limbs could retain.”

Jack’s profound, humbling contemplation was sparked by such an empty, lonely landscape:

“Nature has many tricks up her sleeve to persuade man of his infinity, such as the never-ending flow of the tides, the ferocity of the storm, the shock of the earthquake, the lengthy roll of heaven’s cannon, but the most enormous, stupefying of all is the passive phase of the White Silence.” All movement comes to a halt, the sky clears, and the skies become as brass; even the tiniest whisper becomes sacrilege, and man becomes fearful of his own voice. He trembles at his arrogance, realizing that his is a maggot’s existence, nothing more, as he travels across the ghostly wastelands of a dead planet. Strange ideas appear out of nowhere, and the mystery of all things yearns to be spoken. And the terror of death, of God, of the cosmos comes over him, — the hope of the Resurrection and Life, the desire for immortality, the futile struggling of the imprisoned essence, — it is then, if ever, that man walks alone with God.”

 

When weekly blizzards raged and the temperature plummeted to 60 degrees below zero, Jack dug down in his cabin, covered himself in heavy blankets, and passed the time with his buddies swapping tales and discussing life’s major issues. The men’s huts were a popular hangout for locals, fellow prospectors, and hardy trappers looking to break up the monotony of winter. W.B. Hargrave, who met and tested his wits with London around this period, presents a portrayal of London worth quoting at length (we even put it in the Manvotionals book), since it actually offers a snapshot of Jack in the peak of his manhood:

Vintage a man black and white illustration.

“No other person has made such an indelible mark on my mind as Jack London.” He was just a little lad at the time… But he had the mental capacity of an adult, and I’ve never thought of him as a child save in his heart… the pure, cheerful, delicate, untroubled heart of childhood. His demeanor would draw notice whenever he went. Not just in his physical appearance, because he was a gorgeous young man, but there was something intangible about him that distinguished brilliance from mediocrity. He was an idealist who went for the achievable; a dreamer who was a man among strong men; a guy who confronted life with remarkable certainty and who could face death serenely imperturbable, despite his youth. These were my first thoughts, which months of friendship further reinforced.

I recall the first time I walked inside [his cabin]… Goodman, one of his companions, was cooking a supper, while Sloper, the other, was working on carpentry. I deduced from the few words I overheard as I walked in that Jack had questioned some of Goodman’s conventional beliefs, and that the latter was tenaciously defending himself in an unequal fight of wits. I felt the rapier stab of London’s many times later, and I understood how to empathize with Goodman.

Jack stopped the discussion to greet me, and his hospitality was so warm, his smile so kind, and his genuine friendship so genuine that it immediately removed any apprehension. I was requested to engage in the conversation, which I gladly accepted, much to my chagrin.

That day, the beginning of our relationship, is forever etched in my mind. It’s tough for me to write about Jack without risking being accused of adoration. I’ve met persons who were worthwhile throughout my life, but Jack was the one man with whom I’ve had intimate touch who had the heart and intellect attributes that made him one of the world’s overshadowing geniuses.

With an inner refinement, a tenderness that had withstood the harshest of connections, he was innately compassionate and unreasonably giving. He might become quiet and introspective at times, but he was never depressed or gloomy. His was a quiet, thoughtful quietness. When his indiscreet opponent had tangled himself in the web of his own illogic, and had maybe fallen back on invective to bolster his position, Jack would calmly roll another cigarette, throw his head back, and let forth infectious laughter—infectious because it was never bitter or derisive. He was always pleasant; more than that, he was beautifully joyful. If he was suffering from melancholy at the time, he kept it hidden from his associates.

 

Because Louis Savard’s cabin was the biggest and most luxurious, it became a favorite gathering spot for the camp’s residents. Louis had built a huge fireplace, and the countless hours we spent together in front of its cheery light are linked with my memories of London. He and I sat in front of the flaming spruce logs many a night, outlasting the others’ vigil, and chatted the hours away. He was a courageous figure of a guy, sitting by the rickety fireplace, the light reflecting off his attractive features—a face that would make anybody look twice even in a busy city street. In appearance older than his years; a lithe and strong body; a tangled cluster of brown hair that fell low over his brow and which he was prone to brushing back impatiently when engaged in animated conversation; a sensitive mouth, but lips that could set in serious and masterful lines; a radiant smile, marred by two missing teeth (lost, he told me, in a fight on shipboard); eyes that often carried an introspective expression; A true guy, a man’s man—in short, an outdoor man.

He had an insatiable need to know the truth. He used the same standard for religion, economics, and everything else. “Can you tell me the truth?” “What does it mean to be just?” He tackled the perplexing conundrum of existence with these questions. He has the ability to ponder big things. It was impossible to meet him without being struck by his exceptional intelligence.

The topics we talked were many and varied, and we frequently had Louis as our only listener. Louis glanced up from his game of solitaire (which I believe he played since it needed no talking) and became veritably verbose on one occasion when the dispute had become lengthy and heated and London had finally deserted us, leaving only the memory of his lovely grin to console my loss. ‘You make ver’ fine talk, but zat London guy’s too damn clever for you,’ he added.

Weak in body, yet powerful in spirit

Vintage men sitting in the front of house.

Two brothers London met in Dawson, and their canine friend would play a significant role in Jack’s destiny. Buck, the protagonist of Call of the Wild, was inspired by Louis and Marshall Bond’s dog, a big half collie, half St. Bernard mix (seen on the left).

The vibrancy Hargrave adored about London started to wane as the long winter progressed. His complexion became sallow, his teeth were loose, his gums bled, and his joints hurt. Jack had acquired a serious case of scurvy after months of surviving on a diet of bacon, beans, and biscuits. He partly disassembled his hut and constructed a raft to float to Dawson to get himself evaluated as soon as the river ice started to break up. A priest who provided medical assistance treated him with raw potatoes, but he recommended Jack to return home as soon as possible if he valued his life — fresh food was rare and very costly in Dawson. Jack, being Jack, stuck around for a few weeks to take up the colorful life of a distant boomtown before embarking on his return voyage to the United States. He might have gone back the way he came, but “he seldom retraced a path,” as Charmian phrased it. Rather, he and a companion decided to sail a tiny boat 1,800 kilometers down the Yukon River and out to the Bering Sea. Jack landed in the port of St. Michael, Alaska, and boarded a boat back to San Francisco after passing through various native towns, taking in gorgeous landscapes, almost being eaten alive by swarms of mosquitos, and having a whole new set of experiences. He paid for his voyage by stoking coal until his frail body gave out and the sympathetic crew let him to take a break and rest.

 

London returned home crippled and destitute after almost a year gone; his adventure to the Klondike had brought him just $4.50 in gold dust. But the experience had given him something much more valuable: seeds that would yield stunning fruit in the near future. Obviously, the journey left him with a store of rich material that he would mine time and time again, turning his views of the cold North into popular books that would propel him to the pinnacle of fame. But it was also in the Yukon that I gained the courage to try to turn those tales into literary gold. “I discovered myself in the Klondike,” Jack said. His tenacity and resolve had been tested, and his technical skills had been put to the test, straining his mental and physical powers to their maximum. It had sharpened his will to succeed as a writer and fortified the core of an already strong thumic confidence. He could fight with words until he became their master if he could climb Chilkoot Pass, navigate hundreds of miles of river, and survive an Arctic winter. London was ready to battle for his future, and he had already decided how it would end. He carved the following on a beam before leaving his Klondike cabin:

Vintage ins Crip Jack London, Miner, Author, Jan 27, 1898.

27 January 1898, Jack London, Miner, Author

Read the Jack London Series in Its Entirety:

1st Section: Introduction Part 3: Oyster Pirate Part 2: Boyhood Pacific Voyage (Part 4) Part 5: Back to School Part 6: On the Road Part 7: Klondike Gold Rush Part 8: Finally, Success Part 9: The Long Illness Ashes (Part 10) Conclusion (Part 11)

1st Section: Introduction Part 3: Oyster Pirate Part 2: Boyhood Pacific Voyage (Part 4) Part 5: Back to School Part 6: On the Road Part 7: Klondike Gold Rush Part 8: Finally, Success Part 9: The Long Illness Ashes (Part 10) Conclusion (Part 11)

Sources:

James L. Haley’s Wolf: The Lives of Jack London 

Alex Kershaw’s Jack London: A Life

Charmian London’s The Book of Jack London, Volumes 1 & 2 (free in the public domain)

Jack London’s Complete Works (You can download London’s hundreds of papers all in one spot for $3, which is just plain great)

 

 

 

 

Jack London was a famous author and journalist who wrote about the life of an adventurer. He gained many things in his adventures, but most notably he found gold on the Klondike river. Reference: what did jack london gain in alaska.

Frequently Asked Questions

What did Jack London do in the Klondike?

A: Jack London led a gold rush in the Klondike during 1898. He rushed to Dawson City, Canada and found riches with the help of his dog, Chunee.

How long did Jack London live in the Klondike?

A: Jack London spent only a year and three-quarters in the Klondike, from September 1897 to July 1898. He died at his cabin on November 22, 1916

What was life like in the Klondike?

A: Life in the Klondike was rough. The winter weather conditions made it difficult to survive, and people often died of malnutrition or cold; this led to a high death rate during that time.

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