Origins: The Gold of the Yukon - #114

Every place in the world has a series of things that give that spot a special character... and make it different from every other place.  When you look at the ORIGINS of these things, you often end up with a better appreciation of the territory -- and that makes it a lot more interesting to visit.  And sometimes, these ORIGINS help us understand why we live the way we do.

The northwest corner of Canada is known as the Yukon.  It contains some of the most beautiful landscape in North America.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The people of the first nations have been living in this area for tens of thousands of years.  The first Europeans to show up were the Russians.  They popped in in the 1830s and began trading with the tribes on the coast.  Right behind them were the English, they came in the form of the Hudson’s Bay Company and began doing business with the trappers in the interior.  At some point, the Hudson’s Bay Company decided that they owned the territory and were therefore able to sell it to the Canadian government which they did in 1870.  The whole territory was basically ignored even by the Canadian government until 1896.

That was they year that gold was discovered, and over a million people started making plans to rush off to the Yukon.  About 100,000 got started on the trip but only about 40,000 actually made it.  There had been gold rushes before -- California in 1849, then in South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand, but the Klondike gold rush was the first gold rush to be treated as a media event.  The Western nations were feeling the effects of a pronounced economic recession.  Many people in Europe looked to North America as a land of opportunity.  Many people in North America looked to the western frontier for the same reason.  Combine North America, the western frontier, and tales of getting rich quick, and you have an irresistible attraction.  Major newspapers around the world covered the ongoing stories every day.  The reports seemed to give people a reason to hope that there was still a place in the world for the independent entrepreneur, the rugged individualist, the fortune hunter.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  My favorite version of the Yukon gold rush story starts with Skookum Jim, Dawson Charlie, George Carmack and George’s’ wife Kate, fishing in the Yukon River.  A fellow prospector gives them a tip about a spot called Rabbit Creek and they head over to check it out.  Within hours of their arrival they find gold.  Carmack described it in his diary as “like seeing slabs of cheese on a bedrock sandwich.”  The next day, August 17th, 1896, he staked the claim, and changed the name of the area to “Bonanza Creek.”  And I want you to know, that was fifty years before anybody had heard of Hoss or Little Joe.  When he filed his claim in town a couple of weeks later, every prospector in the Yukon headed for the spot to stake their claim.  But as far as anyone outside the Yukon knowing what was going on, it was at least a year before they heard anything.

Then on July 14,1897, the steamer Excelsior docked in San Francisco with a ton of Klondike gold onboard.  The word was out.  Three days later the Portland landed in Seattle.  There were sixty-eight miners onboard carrying over a million dollars’ worth of gold.  And there were five thousand people on the docks trying to figure out how to get their piece of the action.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Suddenly, the Canadian government decided that they had to take control of the region... and for a number of good reasons.  Most immediate was that if there was no federal presence in the territory they might lose millions of dollars in tax revenue.  And second was the whole question of keeping the Yukon Territory part of Canada.  The border was in dispute, and ninety percent of the prospectors were U.S. citizens.  At any moment they might declare the area part of the United States.  After all, they had done just that with California in 1849 when gold was discovered there, and they might do it again.  Clearly, this was the moment to bring in the Northwest Mounted Police.

In 1898, two detachments of mounties arrived.  They were under the command of Superintendent Sam Steele, whose name was a pretty good description of his character.  Since ninety percent of the people showing up to search for gold were from the United States, his first job was to inform them as firmly as possible that they were now on Canadian soil.  It was also his task to make sure that no prospector entered the territory without enough supplies to last one full year.  He stationed his men at the top of the mountain passes leading into the Yukon.  Their orders were to turn back anyone who did not have the required amount of equipment.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  A year’s worth of supplies weighed about a thousand pounds, and would’ve looked pretty much like the stuff behind me; not a big deal to transport if you were barreling down a paved highway in a late model RV that you rented for the gold mining season.  But in those days the Klondike was a tough place, and getting to the gold was the toughest part of all.

Most of the people rushing to the gold took a steamship from Seattle, Washington to Skagway, Alaska and then headed over the mountain passes into the Canadian Yukon.  The passes were difficult and dangerous.  Pack animals couldn’t make it.  And neither could most of the prospectors.  The Chilkoot Trail to Lake Lindeman was only a distance of twenty miles, but much of it was on a forty-degree angle and reached up to a pass that was almost 4,000 feet high.  Many people died trying to get up it.

The White Pass was also available.  It was not as steep, or as high, but it was fifteen miles longer than the Chilkoot.  And if you were lucky enough to make it to the top, you would be greeted by the mounties who were there to make sure you had the full year’s worth of supplies.  The average prospector had to make the climb twenty times in order to get his or her supplies to the top of the pass.  And no one wanted to stop and take a rest.  If you got out of line it could take hours before someone would let you get back in.  Over seventy feet of snow fell on the passes that year.

Those who got through headed for the shores of Lake Lindeman or Lake Bennett and waited for the ice to break up.  The area surrounding Lake Bennett was denuded of trees, which were used to build 7,000 rafts, barges and plank ships.  As soon as the spring thaw arrived, they headed off -- a 500-mile ride down the Yukon River to Dawson City and the gold creeks.

That’s the last bend in the river just before Dawson.  The point where it narrows was a favorite fishing spot for the First Nations people.  They called it throndike, which means “water hammer.”  It was the place where they hammered poles into the river bottom to trap fish.  Eventually the settlers ended up pronouncing the word... ”Klondike.”

That’s the town of Dawson, on the same slab of frozen earth where it was founded over a hundred years ago.  And that’s the turn-up into Bonanza Creek, where the gold was discovered -- the spot that was holding the world’s attention.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The people who were rushing for the gold eventually became known as stampeders.  And when they stampeded into Dawson, one of the things they found out was that the claims with real potential for good gold had been staked out over two years before.  Many of them just gave up and headed home.  Some of them figured they’d stick around, try and beat the odds and find gold anyway.  And some of them decided if they couldn’t actually take the gold out of the creeks, maybe they could take the gold out of the pockets of the people who took the gold out of the creeks.  As a matter of fact, more people became wealthy from selling things to the prospectors than actually prospecting.  But by 1899, just three years after the first strike, the gold rush in the Klondike was over.  Gold had been discovered in Alaska and people were rushing over there.  I guess that’s the way it is when you go for the gold... rush, rush, rush.

The Klondike gold rush produced considerable material wealth, but it also generated another form of prize -- a prize to be found in the writings of Robert Service.  Service was born in 1874 near Liverpool, England, but he grew up in Glasgow, Scotland.  His first job was as a bank clerk, but he grew restless and headed off to the west coast of Canada.  In 1904 he ended up as a bank clerk again, but now he was working in the Yukon.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  By the time Service settled into this little cabin on the edge of Dawson, the gold rush was over.  But the people who had been part of it were still here, and they told their stories to Service.  He took that material, and turned it into some of the most memorized poems in the English language.  I think my favorite is about Sam McGee:

There are strange things done in the midnight sun

By the men who moil for gold...

The Arctic trails have their secret tales

That would make your blood run cold;

The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,

But the queerest they ever did see

Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge

I cremated Sam McGee.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  His poems paint an extraordinary and vivid picture of what life was like during the Klondike gold rush.  When they were published, he became a reporter for the Toronto Star and traveled to the South Pacific, and then to the South of France were he died in 1958.

In the hundred years or so since gold was discovered in the Yukon, over one billion dollars’ worth has been taken out of the ground.  The area continues to yield gold -- over fifty million dollars’ worth each year.  Most of it is taken out by large commercial mining operations, but there are still a few hardy individuals who work their own claims.

Leo Twordik’s claim is a good example of what I mean.  It’s on Bonanza Creek, just a few miles from where the original discovery claim was staked in 1896.  I was assured by a mutual friend that Leo would be glad to see me and that he was a very hospitable fellow.  All I had to do was drive up the creek road and make a right at the skull-and-crossbones.  Sure.  Right at the skull-and-crossbones.  What kind of a nut do you think I am?  Clearly the kind that would make the right.

BURT WOLF:  Hi... Leo?  My name is Burt Wolf.  I’m making a television program about the history of the Yukon and Rob Toohey said that if I came by you might show me around your claim...?

LEO TWORDIK:  Yes, come on in Burt.

BURT WOLF:  Thanks.

LEO TWORDIK:  Welcome to the Yukon.

BURT WOLF:  Nice to meet you.  So, what do you actually do when you’re out there looking for the gold?

LEO TWORDIK:  Ah!  Heck!  You just, like a real farmer got to follow his nose, and I’ll always go back to a saying by my dad, because that’s who trained me... and if you’re a real good farmer, you just feel it, and gold is sort of a feeling.  You got to feel where the gold is, you got to back your memory banks up 50,000 years ago or whatever it is, and try and visualize how this earth was formed and where the gold is.  And you’ve got to feel it, you’ve to smell it, you’ve got to almost taste it, you know...

BURT WOLF:  What’s the most fun about this work?

LEO TWORDIK:  The challenge!  The challenge is what the fun thing is and, I mean, there’s nothing else in life if you don’t have no challenge in life, what is life really?  You think about it sometime.  Sit down and really think about it... what’s fun?

BURT WOLF:  Challenge.

LEO TWORDIK:  Challenge.  If you don’t have a challenge, there’s so many people that work for money and they’re just miserable.  Walk into work and complain about the boss, they’ll complain about anything, I mean, they got nothing to complain about.  They still complain.  They don’t know what to complain about.

BURT WOLF:  You’re right.  Why work for money when you can work for gold?

LEO TWORDIK:  Well, that’s not really... yeah, okay... there’s... it has its benefits, there’s no doubt about that... but I mean, if you enjoy what you do, you know, then it’s not work, is it?

The price of gold varies from hour to hour, but since 1990 its value has been well over three hundred dollars per ounce.  And it is the only metal that is accepted by all the nations of the world as a form of payment for international debts.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  My question is why?  What is the origin of this ancient passion for gold?  Well, nobody knows when we first discovered the metal we call gold, but we do know that ancient tribes living on the Black Sea six thousand years ago were making gold jewelry.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Gold was one of the first metals to be discovered and from the very beginning it was used to make jewelry and as a form of currency, but it was very rarely used in its pure form.  It was almost always mixed with some other metal to form an alloy.  Gold alloy is divided into 24 parts, each called a karat.  If you see a piece of gold and it’s marked 24 karat, that means that it is pure gold.  If it’s marked 14-karat that means then it is 14 parts gold and 10 parts some other metal.  Usually copper.

Gold is found in just about every form of rock and soil.  And the oceans are filled with it.  Problem is, the gold is so widely distributed that it costs more to recover than it’s worth.  Folks only go after gold when they find that it has been concentrated by nature.  And nature does that in two ways.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The first is called a lode deposit.  Scientists believe that volcanic activity deep inside the earth heats surrounding water, brings it to a boil and forces it towards the surface of the earth.  As it comes up, it dissolves minerals and eventually develops the ability to dissolve gold.  As it gets closer to the surface of the earth, it cools down and the gold comes out of solution forming solids, actually veins of gold that run through the rock.  The way you get to those veins is with hard-rock mining.  Drilling.  Blasting.  And moving lots of rocks.

The other way that nature offers up its gold is called a placer deposit.  A gold vein near the earth’s surface is worn away by wind, rain and snow.  The gold-bearing ore is washed downhill and into a stream.  The gold sinks to the bottom of the stream while the current carries other lighter materials away.  To mine a placer deposit, you scoop up the ore and let water pass over it to take away the lighter stuff and sift out the gold nuggets.  You can do that with an elaborate series of sluice boxes, or you can do it in a pan.

ROB TOOHEY:  So you can see this gold pan is fairly rusted and it’s got a lot of texture in the bottom.

BURT WOLF:  So those new shiny ones are no good?

ROB TOOHEY:  That’s right.

BURT WOLF:  How do you get it like that?

ROB TOOHEY:  Throw it in a fire.

BURT WOLF:  In the oven or just in like a fire?

ROB TOOHEY:  No, in a fire outside.  Burn it, burn the oil off it and the finish and then it’ll go rusty and it’ll get pitted and this will trap the fine gold easier than a smooth one.

BURT WOLF:  It’ll also be easier to see against a darker surface.

ROB TOOHEY:  That’s... that’s right.

BURT WOLF:  All right, what do I do?

ROB TOOHEY:  Okay, get some creek gravel... okay, so you’ve got your gravel...

BURT WOLF:  You swirl...

ROB TOOHEY:  Yeah, what you’re trying to do is concentrate the heavy, the heavier material down to the bottom, and you can pick out these obviously ungold rocks... so you take out some of the bigger material...

BURT WOLF:  How heavy is gold?

ROB TOOHEY:  Gold is nineteen times heavier than water, so in the process that’s mixed with water, it’ll most certainly go right to the bottom.  This is the same technology that a sluice box uses.  It’s all exactly the same.  It’s the relationship of the weight of gold to the weight of water and the lighter materials.  So you just keep gently floating off the lighter stuff.  You very carefully drain off your water.  You spread it around your pan and then you look for color...

BURT WOLF:  What is that?

ROB TOOHEY: That’s gold...

BURT WOLF:  It’s gold?

ROB TOOHEY:  It’s gold, yeah, and I’ve got some...there’s some more over here too.  Very fine colors.  So if we had about three million of those...

BURT WOLF:  I’m outta here man, I got gold... Where’d you say we were?

And in keeping with the tradition of a prospector who just struck it rich, I’m off to spend it!  Back to Dawson and into a cafe run by Josie Simon called Klondike Kate’s.  But who was Klondike Kate?

JOSIE SIMON:  Klondike Kate was a famous dancehall girl during the gold rush.  She was a singer and dancer, and performed at the Palace Grand Theater, where her ghost is still said to be roaming.

BURT WOLF:  I’ll bear that in mind.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  All of the food here is pretty good, but the one dish that none of us could resist was the Klondike Tin Roof Pie.  Now, normally I would go back in the kitchen and the chef would teach me how it’s made, but the restaurant’s still pretty busy and everybody in the kitchen is jumping around; there’s no way I can get in there.  So I asked Wade, who’s Josie’s husband and the head chef, to just come on out to the table and show me how it’s done.

WADE SIMON:  First we start with two cups of corn flakes...

BURT WOLF:  A little crushed up?

WADE SIMON:  A little crushed up.  Then we have a quarter cup of peanut butter, just regular smooth peanut butter will do, and then we have a quarter cup of corn syrup...

BURT WOLF:  All right, so two cups of corn flakes, that have been crushed up, a quarter cup of peanut butter, and a quarter cup of corn syrup.

WADE SIMON:  Exactly...

BURT WOLF:  Great...Now what?

WADE SIMON:  Now, you could use a spoon, but it’s better if you just use your hands.

BURT WOLF:  You know the Klondike is a hands-on kind of place...

WADE SIMON:  Yeah, actually you could use two hands, but it’ll take a lot longer if you use a spoon.  It’s a sticky process...

BURT WOLF:  It’s great for kids.  Kids can do this.

WADE SIMON:  Kids love it.

BURT WOLF:  You just work it until it’s all together...

WADE SIMON:  That’s all.  Once all of it is together, we’re just gonna make a pie crust out of it.  I’m ready now...


WADE SIMON:  Put that in there...

BURT WOLF:  Right.

WADE SIMON:  Okay, you just pat it down.  You need a little bit of an edge so that the ice cream will sit in there.

BURT WOLF:  Then the ice cream goes in?

WADE SIMON:  Ice cream goes in...I think that might be a little more ice cream than we need...

BURT WOLF:  I’ll eat the whatever it is you don’t use...

WADE SIMON:  Alright.  You’ve done this before.

BURT WOLF:  No this is my first time.  Just fill it in all around.

WADE SIMON:  That’s all you need.  It’s a great summer dessert.

BURT WOLF:  You got a spoon?  Okay, so now I get all of the ice cream in it, you wrap it in plastic, and you freeze it.

WADE SIMON:  Exactly.

BURT WOLF:  Okay, now I’m going to take this and put it in the freezer and bring a fresh one out.  You can just relax.  Two hours in the freezer, comes out, the plastic wrap comes off, you take out your slice, and you garnish.  What do you garnish with?

WADE SIMON:  I got some hot chocolate fudge...

BURT WOLF:  Artfully arranged...

WADE SIMON:  I’ve got some whipped cream here, and chopped nuts.

BURT WOLF:  It’s a treasure!

WADE SIMON:  I’d love to hang around, but you know how it is in the Yukon, Burt, rush, rush, rush.

BURT WOLF:  Well, don’t hang around on my account.

Before I leave the gold country there’s one more thing I need to do -- and that’s file my claim.

MARION DEJEAN:  Well, I see that you’ve got a staking guide and a map there.  Is there somewhere in particular you’re interested in?

BURT WOLF:  Well, I talked to my friend Leo, and Leo said I should look on Leroy Creek and he said that 540786 was open and that that’s where I should stake my claim.



MARION DEJEAN:  We’ll just check the office copy for you to make sure nobody’s beat you to it, okay?

BURT WOLF:  You have a master copy where you keep a record of everything that’s claimed?



MARION DEJEAN:  This has the latest claim information on it so that we know as of this minute no one has come in to record that ground...



BURT WOLF:  How many feet do I get?

MARION DEJEAN:  Well, you’ll get five hundred feet along the creek because it’s not the first claim, and you can’t get the discovery claim at fifteen hundred feet.  So it’s a two-post staking as you can see by your guide...

BURT WOLF:  Right...

MARION DEJEAN:  And you’ll have five hundred feet here and a thousand feet on the other side of the creek.

BURT WOLF:  Good size...


BURT WOLF:  Okay, what do I do?

MARION DEJEAN:  Okay, you will take out two posts or you’ll cut a tree on the ground, if you look behind you there’s a post there that gives you an idea.

BURT WOLF:  Okay, so that’s what it’s gonna look like.

MARION DEJEAN:  That’s what it should look like, just like that one.

BURT WOLF:  Like these, and I write my stuff on it.  So I should go and do that now...

MARION DEJEAN:  Yes, that’s right...

BURT WOLF:  And then I come back and you will give me two tags...

MARION DEJEAN:  Yeah, that you will affix on the claim and that will keep it unique to yourself.

BURT WOLF:  And then during the next year I have to do two hundred dollars worth of work...

MARION DEJEAN:  That’s right...

BURT WOLF:  Canadian dollars...

MARION DEJEAN:  That’s right.


MARION DEJEAN:  And the cost is ten dollars.

BURT WOLF:  Boy, this is gonna be the best investment of my life.

MARION DEJEAN:  If there’s gold on it, it could be.

BURT WOLF:  Thanks a lot.

MARION DEJEAN:  You’re welcome.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Well, that’s it -- I’m ready to stake my claim.  I got a boneless Sirloin and a New York Strip -- that ought to do it.  You gotta stop staring at my steaks -- you’re making me nervous.  But I want you to know, that even if I find gold and I become wealthy beyond my wildest dreams, I’m never gonna stop making my reports.  As long as I am physically able, I will be here.  And I hope you will be here, too, and join me as I travel around the world looking at the ORIGINS of the things that surround us.  I’m Burt Wolf.  Don’t whine.