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The golden touch

Yukon a wealth of historical riches

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At first glance, the wooden stake erected in the nondescript patch of dirt does not appear to be particularly remarkable in any way.

But, if a wooden stake could tell its story, the original claim post at Bonanza Creek, where the first pieces of gold that ignited the Yukon Territory's Klondike Gold Rush were discovered, would surely tell a whopper.

Planted in the ground on Aug. 17, 1896, today the Discovery Claim National Historic Site preserves the spot on Bonanza Creek, 15 kilometres from its confluence with the Klondike River, where George Carmack and his fishing buddies, Skookum Jim and Tagish Charlie, established the first of their four claims.

According to the oral-history traditions of the Tagish First Nations peoples, Jim, Charlie and Patsy Henderson were fishing with Jim's sister, Shaaw Tla, and her husband, George Carmack, when they were approached by a seasoned gold-hunter, Robert Henderson. Following the unwritten code of the miner that any knowledge of potential finds must be shared, Henderson told Carmack of some promising prospects he'd discovered in the Klondike River Valley.

Not long afterward, Carmack, Jim and Charlie made their way up Rabbit Creek, a short way from Henderson's camp on Gold Bottom Creek. After panning yielded a few encouraging traces of gold, they inspected a place where the bedrock was exposed, and quickly unearthed a dime-sized nugget. Flipping over loose stones, they discovered layers of gold wedged between flakes of rock. The following day they staked their claim and renamed the creek Bonanza.

News of their find spread as fast as news did in those days -- by ship -- when wealthy Klondikers docked at San Francisco and Seattle many months later. Since few hungry prospectors could afford to travel by steamer from the Alaska Coast up the Yukon River to Dawson City, most sailed as far as Skagway, then continued on foot via the Chilkoot or White Pass trails. Those who survived the gruelling wilderness trek and ensuing long winter layover at Lake Lindeman and Bennett Lake spent that time building boats for the 800-kilometre voyage to Dawson City.

In May 1898, an astounding 4,700 vessels of various shapes, sizes and degrees of seaworthiness ferried some 28,000 eager fortune-seekers past a North West Mounted Police (NWMP) checkpoint at Tagish Post, en route to Dawson and the Klondike.

While prospectors tended smoky fires in an attempt to thaw frozen ground to unearth their destiny, steamships stocked Dawson City with the finest French champagnes, oysters, linens and Parisian fashions. In two short years, the population of the Yukon Territory exploded from 5,000 of the hardiest fur-traders, prospectors, missionaries and NWMP members to 30,000 determined and optimistic fortune-seekers.

For a time, Dawson City was the largest city west of Winnipeg and north of Seattle.

While the Gold Rush ended abruptly after two years, during that time more than $500 million in gold was recovered.

Today, the lure of the Klondike Gold Rush shimmers as brightly as ever. Enticed by tales describing glittering gold nuggets lining gravel stream beds, the Discovery Claim National Historic Site attracts 8,500 visitors annually. Following a self-guided trail that winds past the site where hundreds of men tore up creek beds and hand-turned windlasses, visitors learn about the evolution of mining techniques and how the discovery of gold impacted the land and the peoples of the Yukon.

At Dawson City, folks enthusiastically immerse themselves in the grit of the enduring gold rush ambience. Running May 18 to 19, the Dawson City Annual Gold Show is a thoroughly modern industry and consumer trade show displaying the region's interconnected economical sectors, with mining at its hub.

Celebrating Canada Day with a Klondike theme, the Yukon Gold Panning Championships happen on July 1, with competitors from around the world racing to extract gold flakes from a bucket of dirt.

And while many other parts of Canada celebrate a civic holiday on the first Monday of August, Yukoners celebrate their own Discovery Day with a uniquely northern -- and gold-tinted -- flair on the third Monday of the month, complete with historical street theatre.

Thanks to efforts by Parks Canada as well as non-profit groups and private individuals, much of Dawson's physical history is preserved in its dirt streets, wooden sidewalks and the distinctive turn of the 20th century architecture showcased in its Courthouse, heritage churches and even the homes of Pierre Berton and Robert Service.

The colourful wild-north ambience is joyously preserved in the kicks of cancan dancers at Diamond Tooth Gerties, where some rounds are still occasionally purchased by modern-day miners celebrating a lucky strike.

"The Gold Rush -- it's still happening!" exclaims Paul Robitaille, of the Klondike Visitors Association. "Gold will always hold a mystical power over people; we still have the amazing potential to find a gold nugget. Gold is still at people's fingertips."

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 5, 2013 E1

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