It was on this day in 1897 that 21-year-old novelist Jack London (books by this author) sailed from San Francisco, on his way to the Klondike to search for gold. He was on board the SS Umatilla with his brother-in-law, James Shepard, who was close to 70 years old. Shepard and his wife, Eliza, who was London’s sister, mortgaged their house to afford the passage and gear for the two men. They had a smooth eight-day trip from San Francisco to Juneau, Alaska, and then took boats to Dyea Beach, the start of the Chilkoot Trail. The Chilkoot Trail was a difficult 33-mile journey through the Chilkoot Pass, but it was the most direct route from the coast of Alaska to the Yukon. When Shepard saw the Chilkoot Pass, he realized that there was no way he would make it. He gave all his gear to London and went home to California.
The Chilkoot Trail was brutal. The trail rose a thousand feet in the last half mile, and men had to carry all their gear on their backs because it was too steep for animals. Prospectors climbed in one single-file line. If anyone faltered and got out of line, they were not let back in. So many men were unable to survive in the Klondike that the Canadian Mounted Police mandated that all prospectors bring one ton of supplies, the minimum for a year there. So London had to climb up the Chilkoot Pass over and over, with 100-pound loads each time.
Once London made it over Chilkoot Pass, he was in Canada. From there, it was 500 miles to Dawson City, the outpost of the gold rush. After hiking through a frigid marsh up to his knees, London arrived at Lake Lindemann, the beginning of a web of rivers and lakes that would eventually lead to Dawson City. London reached Dawson City just as the Arctic winter was setting in. London came down with scurvy due to the lack of fresh vegetables, and was forced to head back to the ocean. He was not alone in turning back. Of the 100,000 potential prospectors who set out for Dawson, only about 30 percent made it, and of those, about 4,000 actually found gold.
London returned to San Francisco sick and depressed, but he started writing about his adventures in the Yukon. The Atlantic Monthly accepted his story “An Odyssey of the North,” in which he wrote: “On the bottom there was a cabin, built by some man, of logs which he had cast down from above. It was a very old cabin, for men had died there alone at different times, and on pieces of birch bark which were there we read their last words and their curses. One had died of scurvy; another’s partner had robbed him of his last grub and powder and stolen away; a third had been mauled by a baldface grizzly; a fourth had hunted for game and starved – and so it went, and they had been loath to leave the gold, and had died by the side of it in one way or another. And the worthless gold they had gathered yellowed the floor of the cabin like in a dream.” In the year 1899, London published more than 50 pieces – poems, essays, and stories. Early in 1900, he published his first book, Son of the Wolf, a collection of short stories based on his adventures in the Klondike, and that led to his book The Call of the Wild (1903), which made his career.
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