A few summers ago I came out of the Sixtymile Goldfields here in the Yukon as broke as I could be. I'd been working for some gold miners on a percentage basis. The company didn't turn up any gold in the sluice box and all our work was in vain. Ten percent of nothing is nothing.
So, in Dawson City one hot afternoon in August, I bumped into Tony Fritz, the oldest cabdriver in Canada.
"Zam!" he says, "I bane looking all ovah fa you! Two Englishmen, they vant to go goltpannink--undt Zam, they are rich!"
I met up with the Englishmen in the Downtown Hotel. Right out of Charles Dickens they were: old, baby-faced, pearshaped, excited.
"Well," I said, "I'll take you down along the Stewart River and we'll camp overnight. You're guaranteed some gold; depends on how hard you work. Have you got some gold pans? And how about a gun?"
"Gun!! Whatever for?"
"Bears. Maybe a mad moose. Or a pack of hungry wolves".
They looked at each other like delighted children.
"How much do you charge?"
"A fill-up of gas each way; a full-course meal everytime we go past the Klondike River Lodge; and one hundred dollars." We shook hands on the deal. Next morning, I picked them up at the hotel with their stuff. I was not impressed with their equipment. They had two little gold pans ( the type sold in souvenir shops), two pairs of thin, white cotton gloves, two paper bags of bread and cookies, and a big thermos of tea. Turtleneck sweaters, funny little caps, and nonstop gabbing about their extensive experience in the tough spots of the world--yes, I knew I was in for a couple of rough days.
I threw everything into my old Fargo van and we headed south on the Klondike Highway. Rain drizzled down from a dark sky; a thick layer of mud greased the road; and we just kind of slithered along, taking our time . We stopped for steak and eggs at the Klondike River Lodge and then, some eighty miles out, I pulled off the highway onto a trail leading down to the Stewart River. Within twenty minutes we were far from the madding crowds. Now there was just the river, the trees, the rain drops, and us.
My favorite river, the Stewart. It just oils along through the big valley it dredged for itself, and there are good spirits in that valley.
I let the old fellows out, loaned them my gold pans, and showed them what to do. I could raise some 60 colors in every pan and they were coming up with about ten. They picked out the gold with tweezers and dropped these ever-so-tiny specks into a pickle jar they had brought along. The river being low, we could get right out to the sand bars. There, in some mud, fairly fresh grizzly tracks spraddled along for a ways. I called the Englishmen over for a look.
It dawned on them slowly that these tracks were for real! They fairly quivered with excitement and dread. They measured the tracks and the size of the griz's claws and took a lot of pictures. I got my old 30:06 out of the van and then we panned some more, cuddled up there on the riverbank like three conspirators.
Enough gold for now, they figured. I guess they each had about a dollar's worth. I built a big fire, heated up some water for tea and made some Spam sandwiches. It became quite dark--not real dark, just kind of dusky and gloomy like it does here in the Yukon in summer.
We stood around the fire and the old fellows weren't sleepy at all. I got my fold-up lawn chair out of the van; they sat on a log, and I commenced to tell them about the country:
How, right here on the Stewart River, men made their first decent gold finds in the Yukon, and how they went from here to discover the Klondike in 1896. What Dawson was like in those days, how Swiftwater Bill could look over a piece of ground and tell if it was rich. How the whole country was full of crazy men, rich crazy men, and how the women came up from the south to take it all away from them.
And then I got telling them about bears and how to keep them away from your camp; and how not to get lost and about the Indians up here, how tough they were; and then I told them some of my own experiences of searching for gold all over the Yukon, and how the oldtimers lived...
"Why don't you write this all down?" they cried!
I took the old fellows back to town in the morning and they left, never to be seen in Dawson since. I thought about writing down some of the stuff I'd told them. I had to check up on a lot of things in the library and in the Archives at Whitehorse. Some of the stories have been told a thousand times but here they are again. And if you two Englishmen, I forget your names, should come across one of my stories, thank you for the idea.
Sam Holloway, September, 1985.