This is a work of creative non-fiction, it is a memoir of an adventure I had when I was 18. I am not posting the entire story here as it is fairly long. I am dividing it into three parts which is how it comes together anyway. This first part is background, and it flows into the second part; I include the first couple of sentences of the second part. I'll post the 2nd and 3rd parts soon
I look forward to constructive criticism.
Gold and War.
Both words arouse powerful emotions, greed and horror among them. Wars have been fought over gold because gold is extremely valuable. Or is it? If the apocalypse comes and you have a choice of a plate full of gold or a plate full of food, which is more valuable? Which is more important for survival? It depends on what one values, and values can change with circumstances.
Gold is rare on Earth because it’s also rare in the Universe. Unlike elements such as iron and carbon, gold cannot be created inside a star like our sun. Instead, gold must be born in a more cataclysmic event: a short gamma-ray burst that results from the collision of two neutron stars - the cores of stars that previously exploded as supernovas. Astronomers estimate these collisions happen once every 10,000 to 100,000 years in our galaxy, and only five double neutron star systems have been found so far.
A short gamma-ray burst is a flash of high-energy light from an extremely massive explosion. These cosmic events can create substantial amounts of heavy elements, including gold. It’s estimated that the amount of gold produced and ejected during the collision of two neutron stars may be as large as ten of our moon masses; to put that in perspective, the mass of our moon is 81 billion tons, so the amount of gold created from a collision of two neutron stars could be more than 800 billion tons. Of course, mining that gold would be challenging to say the least.
Gold is an alluring metal- it doesn’t tarnish or rust when exposed to air and water like other metals do. Gold dissolves in mercury, nitro-hydrochloric acid, and alkaline solutions of cyanide, the latter of which have been used in gold mining. In late 2010 an article in Forbes stated that about 192,000 tons of gold have been mined since humans first became mesmerized by it thousands of years ago. It may sound like a lot, but that’s only enough to fill 3-1/3 Olympic-size swimming pools. Sixty-six percent of that has been mined since the middle of the 20th century.
Geologists believe that most of Earth's gold lies at its core, because gold’s high density caused it to sink there during the planet's formation. All of the gold discovered and mined so far in Earth’s crust is believed to have been deposited by meteorites crashing into our planet. When gold is exposed in these areas due to erosion and is found, word usually travels fast, creating a “rush” for the gold.
One definition of “gold rush” is “a large scale and rapid movement of people to a region where gold has been discovered". However, the meaning of “large scale” and “rapid movement” are not well defined. Webster defines gold rush as “a rush to newly discovered goldfields in pursuit of riches”. Other sources identify four major gold rushes as the “biggest” ones; foremost is the California Gold Rush of 1848-1849, that began with the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill on January 24, 1948. Within a year roughly 80,000 prospectors had flocked to the gold fields and by 1853 there were 250,000. San Francisco was transformed from a tiny settlement of two hundred people in 1846 into a boomtown of 36,000 by 1852. California had already become a state in 1850 thanks to that gold rush.
The term “gold rush” was unknown during the years 1848-1849 and for several decades beyond. It wasn’t until 1876 that the first known use of the term “gold rush” came into the lexicon. The other three major gold rushes were in Australia (1851–53), South Africa (1884), and Canada’s Klondike (1897–99). Two of these major gold rushes became iconic symbols of Gold Fever: the California Gold Rush, where the miners were popularly called “Forty-Niners”; and the Klondike Gold Rush in the Yukon Territory of Canada.
The evidence of gold in human civilization goes far back in history, such as in Egypt where gold was mined as early as 3000 BC. And in Bulgaria, archaeologists have found decorative gold objects dating even further back in antiquity to about 4000 BC. Gold rushes of various sizes have occurred right up to modern times: in 2001 in Mongolia, 2006 in Brazil, and 2009 in Peru. Humans have had a love affair with gold for millennia.
The Klondike Gold Rush in Canada’s Yukon Territory at the end of the nineteenth century was the “Last Great Gold Rush" and was immortalized in two novels by Jack London- The Call of the Wild, about a sled dog named Buck; and its companion novel White Fang, a heartbreaking and heartwarming portrait of the title character, a wolf-dog mix. Then there is also Charlie Chaplin's 1925 comedic film The Gold Rush.
The primary Klondike gold field was along Bonanza Creek about a mile east of the confluence of the Klondike and Yukon Rivers, just south of what is now Dawson City in the Yukon Territory. The Klondike gold rush helped to open up access to the United States’ territory of Alaska for exploration, settlement, and some might say, exploitation.
In those days travel was very difficult in the western Canadian provinces as well as in Alaska. The tens of thousands of gold prospectors were required by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to each carry a year’s worth of food, and their gear and provisions weighed about one ton. The prospectors had to get their gear over the Chilkoot Pass, widely called the Golden Staircase: 1,500 steps cut in the snow and ice. They had to get through deep snow, on foot, by themselves, requiring many exhausting trips back and forth. Sled dogs helped only to a point and the trails were rough at best.
The twenty-six mile trail over the Chilkoot Pass was steep and hazardous. Most gold hunters who gave up did so trying to cross the mountains. In the winter, gold hunters struggled in blizzards, frigid temperatures, and avalanches. The trail shot up nearly 1,000 feet in the final half mile. Prospectors stacked outfits at the summit near the Canadian customs house where storms often raged. Travelers did not always fare better in the summer; even then the gold seekers struggled in rain, fog, and bogs. Without its covering of snow and ice, the trail to the summit led across giant boulders that prospectors actually had to crawl over.
To move one outfit over the pass, prospectors packed and cached their goods up to forty times and hiked up to 1,000 miles back and forth. The terrain on the last four miles of the trail was too rough for pack animals. Discarded supplies littered the trail as prospectors cast off unnecessary items. Many of them took three months to move their gear over the summit. Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush is available online for free and the first few minutes feature several film clips of the actual gold prospectors climbing the Chilkoot Pass. It’s an incredible sight to watch.
Another trail, nicknamed “Edmonton’s Back Door”, was nothing more than a cruel joke- the route was horrible every step of the way. No real trail existed, no timber was cleared, no bogs had been marked, and no dead ends had been mapped. One single mile of progress could mean 14 straight hours of axing, climbing, and crawling. Permafrost made digging all the more challenging, and scurvy was an ever present health risk. Of the 100,000 gold prospectors that originally set out to find gold in the Yukon, 30,000 actually made the journey, but only 4,000 found gold.
Eventually railroads were built into the interior, and a riverboat system developed. But river access was limited to just a few ports of entry. Concern over Canadian authority in the Yukon led the Canadian government to establish overland routes from the east and south. But even as late as 1942 no roads, other than a rough winter trail, had been created from Fort Nelson, British Columbia, up into the Yukon Territory. Small airplanes were plentiful but expensive, and could not carry large loads.
The Yukon Gold Rush of the 1890s doubled the population of Alaska from about 32,000 in 1890 to over 63,000 at the turn of the 20th century. But the population was going to increase rapidly again in the early 1940s as World War II began.
The devastating attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941 is permanently stamped into the history of the United States, yet many people might not know that Alaska was attacked by the Japanese six months later during World War II.
As the war started, the United States needed overland access to Alaska to supply the military bases that were being established there, such as Elmendorf Field just north of Anchorage and Big Delta Army Airfield in Fairbanks. Many of the trails through Canada and Alaska needed to become roads very quickly.
The new Alaska Highway, better known as the Alcan Highway, was built as a military supply route to Alaska where no trails or roads previously existed. Most of the Alcan route passed through Canada, so support of the Canadian government was crucial. But the Canadian government saw no value in putting up the funds to build the road, since the only part of Canada that would benefit were just a few thousand residents of the Yukon.
However, on February 6th, 1942, the construction of the Alcan Highway was approved by the United States Army and five days later the project received authorization to proceed from the U.S. Congress and President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Canada agreed to allow construction as long as the United States bore the full cost of the project, and it was agreed that the road and other facilities in Canada would be turned over to the Canadian government after the war ended.
The official start of construction was a month later on March 8th, 1942. Work accelerated through the spring as the winter weather faded and crews were able to work on multiple sections simultaneously.
Three months later, on June 3rd, 1942, bombers from Japanese aircraft carriers in the North Pacific attacked Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island in the Aleutian Island Chain of Alaska, home to a small US naval facility.
The Japanese planes returned the next day, and their bombs set oil tanks on fire and damaged the hospital and a barracks ship. There were 33 American military and 10 civilian dead, 64 wounded, and 11 U.S. planes from Umnak Island were destroyed. Two days later, on June 6th, the enemy occupied Kiska and the following day troops invaded Attu, islands located on the western end of the Aleutian Chain.
This was a tactic by the Japanese to divert American forces away from the main Japanese attack at Midway Atoll. But the US Navy had broken the Japanese codes, and knew this was only a diversion. Several dozen Alaskans were captured by the Japanese and held as prisoners of war.
After the first news broke about the attacks on Alaska, the US Military High Command enforced an immediate blackout on any news of the developing war in Alaska. After the war, news reporters agreed that Americans would definitely have panicked if they knew that the Japanese attacked mainland American soil and would have been terrified at the possibility of the enemy spreading down the West Coast attacking major cities.
But construction of the Alcan Highway continued non-stop, and considering the tortuous, twisting character of the highway’s route, the speed and resolve with which it was built defied common sense. 10,000 US army engineers and 6,000 civilians had orders to push a 1,700 mile pioneer road through the north in the space of one season – from thaw to freeze-up. This tight time frame required a "quick and dirty" approach to road-building that was unheard of during peacetime. The planning stage was extremely short, little was known about the route, and there was hardly any opportunity to learn. Once the President and Congress approved the project and funds were allocated, troops had barely over one month to mobilize. The construction was full of difficulties and challenges, from getting supplies to surveying the northern terrain to dealing with permafrost. Another challenge was that the project plans went through several changes during the eight months of construction.
The first step in building a road is determining its route. For the Alcan Highway project, much of this was done by "sight" surveying – climbing a tree or standing on a bulldozer, picking a point in the distance and working toward it while at the same time attempting to avoid marshes and bogs, rock outcroppings and steep grades. The road was built in five sections: in Fort St. John and Fort Nelson in British Columbia, Whitehorse and Carcross in the Yukon, and Big Delta in Alaska, working in different directions simultaneously toward a middle meeting point. Native guides were hired to help surveyors navigate the difficult terrain. Also, the dregs of road building left their mark- during construction the Alcan Highway was nicknamed the "Oilcan Highway" by the work crews because of the large number of cast-off oil cans and fuel drums that marked the road's progress.
One ongoing challenge faced by the regiments was obtaining the materials required to do the work. Bottlenecks also occurred along the highway due to washed out roads and bridges. Sometimes regiments had to wait for days or weeks until their equipment and supplies caught up with them.
Finally, the largest unit would follow as much as 30 to 40 miles behind the bulldozers, widening and straightening the road, eliminating some steep grades, and covering muddy surfaces with gravel. The result was a passable military road 18 to 24 feet wide, but far below the standards required for a safe civilian highway. Much work still needed to be done to take the bulldozed path and mold it into a road the public could use, and that process took several more years.
On September 24, 1942 crews from both directions met at Mile 590, which was subsequently named Contact Creek, on the British Columbia-Yukon border at the 60th Parallel. The entire 1,700 mile route, from Delta Junction in Alaska to Dawson Creek in British Columbia, was completed on October 28, 1942, just 235 days after the March 8th groundbreaking. For perspective, 1,700 miles is about 40 miles longer than driving from San Francisco to Omaha. The official opening ceremony of the Alcan Highway was held a few weeks later on November 20th, 1942 at Soldier’s Summit beside Kluane Lake in the Yukon Territory.
Between 1942 and 1944, the Public Roads Administration contracted more than eighty privately owned companies to upgrade the roughed-out highway, and to build permanent bridges. There were approximately 8,000 civilian contractors working in 1942 and 14,000 in 1943.
After World War II ended, the military need for the Alcan Highway diminished. The U.S. Army handed over responsibility for the Canadian portion of the Alcan Highway to the Canadian Department of National Defense, Royal Canadian Engineers, in an official ceremony on April 1, 1946. The Canadian Army continued to call it a “military highway” to lower public expectations and keep maintenance costs down, and the Royal Canadian Air Force continued to use the road to supply units and airports along the highway. However, the conditions of the highway were still far from meeting civilian standards and there were virtually no civilian accommodations along the route. In the years immediately following its completion, special permits were required for those wanting to travel the Alcan Highway. In 1948, civilians were finally granted use of the Alcan Highway without a permit. The Alaskan section was paved during the 1960s, but even in 1981 the Canadian portion was mostly gravel; today the Canadian portion of the Alcan Highway is completely paved. Tourists who in the past proudly displayed their bumper stickers - "I Survived the Alcan Highway" - could not claim that today.
It is estimated that only 20% of the existing Alcan Highway follows the original route and grades, and the original 1,700 miles has been cut to less than 1,400 by realignment of the road over the years.
Today the Alcan Highway is promoted as a scenic drive that offers a way to enjoy the Yukon’s beauty, culture, and history including the role of gold in the growth of the territory.
Thirty-one years after the Alcan Highway was opened to the public in 1948…
It’s the late spring of 1979 and I’m pulled over to the side of the Alcan Highway, about a half mile past the border post, inside Canada’s Yukon Territory.