It’s the same across the border. Heading west from Dawson takes you on the Top of the World Highway to Chicken, Alaska, another gold-mining town. Settlers initially planned to name it after the many ptarmigan that lived in the area. However, none could agree how to spell ‘ptarmigan’, so ‘chicken’ was chosen to avoid embarrassment It now has a population of 50 in the summer, dropping to just four in the winter.
Susan Wiren owns and runs Downtown Chicken, a miniature high street consisting of a shop, a saloon and the Chicken Creek Cafe. She came here 28 years ago, and laughs at the RV drivers who pass through complaining about the road conditions and expecting to find phone signal, wi-fi or ATMs, ‘They have no idea what it’s like’, she says, ‘We have a generator that makes our electricity and we drive a 150-mile round-trip to get supplies. When you live out here, everything logistic ally is difficult.’ Nobody will claim that life here is easy, but it does offer the opportunity to live in a place still largely unchanged by human hands. Three-hundred and fifty miles south, of Chicken, following the Alaska Highway back into the Yukon, you’ll find Kluane National Park.
Its 8,500 square miles of protected land is home to black and grizzly bears, bald eagles, caribou and Brent Liddle, a naturalist and trail guide. The park has been Brent’s natural habitat since he was posted to the small town of Haines Junction in 1975 by Parks Canada and he has dedicated his life to exploring it. ‘When I first came here I really had the sense of being at the end of the world,’ he says, ‘but the more you live here, you lose that sense of isolation. You’re busier in a remote community than you would be in a city where everything is provided for you There are a lot of lonely people in cities.’
In Kluane, you get a sense o f how the whole of the Yukon would still be if nobody had ever struck gold here. The mountains that tower over the glacial lakes look as they must have done when the pioneers first made their way among them, Kluane is home to Canada’s highest peak, the snow-engulfed Mount Logan. It rises 19,525 feet in the midst of the largest non- polaricefield in the world, a glacial area where mankind still rarely treads. The only way to understand the vastness of this unforgiving land is from the air. There are peaks in Kluane that were never glimpsed by human eyes until the National Geographic Society’s first flight over the icefields in 1935, and many are still unnamed.
Occasionally the ice offers up preserved artefacts of the area’s earliest human inhabitants, such as throwing spears, stone tools and even human bones belonging to the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations. ‘People who think the Yukon is all about the Gold Rush are looking at it through a narrow lens,’ points out Brent, ‘It was an interesting period, but the First Nations history preceded it by 10,000 years,’ However, even in Kluane the Gold Rush left its mark. Unsignposted near the banks of Kluane Lake is Silver City, once a staging post for stampeders travelling north to Dawson. Now it’s a true ghost town, where rusty tin cans and broken glass litter the ground and trees twist through the tumbledown cabins as nature unhurriedly reclaims the land.
Silver City was just one stop on a journey that would have taken months in 1898. Most of those who joined the Gold Rush took steam ships from San Francisco and Seattle up to the port of Skagway, Alaska, now overrun by cruise-ship tourists. From there, they faced a treacherous hike to Bennett in British Columbia, They built boats for the 500-mile journey along the lakes, rivers and rapids that lead all the way to Dawson. There were plenty of opportunistic hoteliers and saloon keepers in Bennett who, like Joseph Ladue, set out to profit from the influx of people. Among them was a German immigrant named Fred Trump, grandfather of Donald, whose family had changed their surname from the rather less auspicious Drumpf.
He ran the Arctic Hotel, which according to most biographers (based on letters to the Yukon Sun newspaper and other sources) was rife with prostitution. Its popularity helped make Trump his fortune, ‘It’s a shame/ observes Brent, ‘that nobody robbed him back then.’ These days, the crowds that made Trump rich are long gone, Brent leads hikes through parts of Kluane where it is not humans but bears, scratching their backs on trees, who have left their mark. Along the way he stops to point out which mushrooms and berries can be eaten safely.
When the sun disappears behind the mountains the only light for miles around comes from his own solar-powered cabin in the woods. In the still evening it is easy to understand why Jack London named one of his Yukon novels The Call of the Wild More than gold, this is that call that still draws those who hear it to live here. ‘The Yukon’, as Brent puts it, ‘picks its own people’. As night draws in, the cabin is shrouded in the sort of perfect darkness impossible in towns or cities. There are no lights visible anywhere on the earth, but the sky above glitters with gold dust.