By Russ Kingman
It was a long way from Green Acres to Jack London’s cabin in the Klondike but Eddie Albert was anxious to go with me. An interview with a reporter from the Los Angeles Times indicated that he was even more anxious to get back.
"You remember London’s story, ‘To Build a Fire’?" asked Eddie. "He wrote it in that cabin. Another man and I started to walk the twenty miles from the cabin to Henderson Creek. It was about 32 below, but it began growing colder. I remembered how London wrote about testing the temperature--if your spit exploded on the ice, it was 50 below; if it exploded in mid-air, it was 75 below."
"That story haunted me as we walked. It was about a miner who stepped in an alkaline stream and got his foot wet and desperately tried to build a fire before the foot froze."
"Well, we were wet; the temperature was dropping. I began to feel the fear that London put in that story."
Jack London staked his claim October 6, 1897, and filed Placer Mining Claim Number 54 “ascending the left fork of Henderson Creek” on November 5, 1897 in Dawson City, Yukon Territory, Canada. While working this claim London made his headquarters in a cabin owned by his friend, Charles Taylor on Claim Number 151. During the winter Jack wrote on a log in the back of the cabin--”Jack London, Miner, Author, Jan. 27, 1898.”
In the early forties Jack MacKenzie (last man to deliver mail by dogsled in the Yukon) carved the signature out of the cabin and gave it to his friend, Sam Wood in Mayo. The “signature slab” was forgotten for nearly twenty-five years until Rudy and Yvonne Burian (sole inhabitants, with their two sons, of Stewart River) told Dick North the story.
Dick North, Museum Consultant on Jack London Memorabilia for Alaska and the Yukon Territory, went to Dawson City, and hired a dog team owned by Joe Henry and his son Victor. They were joined by two other dog teams driven by Rudy Burian and his son Robin.
Armed with a picture of the slab and a vivid description of the area where MacKenzie had blazed it, North’s party hunted over 105 miles of barren Yukon wilderness until Robin let out a wild yell.
“Is that it?”, North asked Robin.
“Come look for yourself,” he answered.
No doubt about it! There on the back wall was the blaze made by Jack MacKenzie and there was the knot that would surely match the knot hole shown in the picture of the slab.
The above signature was found on a log above the upper bunk on the back wall of the Henderson Creek cabin. It says, "Jack London. Miner, author, Jan 27, 1898."
Three years later Joan London told me the story and suggested we bring her father’s cabin to Jack London Square in Oakland, California. The Port of Oakland decided that it would be a logical addition to the Square and authorized me to request permission of the Yukon Territory to bring it out of Canada.
In December of 1968 the Territorial Historic Sites and Monument Board recommended that my request be approved, and Commissioner Smith notified the Port of Oakland that he had directed the Regional Director of Resources to lift the Territorial Government’s reservation of the land on which the cabin stood.
Since the cabin was of historical interest to both the Canadian and U.S. Governments we proposed a plan which was acceptable to both countries. Two identical cabins would be constructed, each having half of the original logs; one to be erected at Jack London Square in Oakland, California and the other in Dawson City, Yukon Territory. It would be necessary to photograph the cabin in its natural setting, and it must be measured accurately and marked so the replicas would be identical with the original.
So, on April 7, 1969, I led an expedition of five men--myself; Eddie Albert; Sgt. Ralph Godfrey, handwriting expert with the Oakland Police Department; Fred Reicker, Public Relations man for the Port of Oakland; and Jack Williamson, motion picture producer--to the site of the cabin. View larger image
Bush pilot Barry Watson flew us from Whitehorse to Stewart Island. We landed on the snow-covered Yukon River in front of the island. Three dog teams came flying across the Yukon to pick up our gear and deliver snowshoes to the group.
At 4:00 the following morning we started the twenty mile hike through the rugged frozen Yukon wilderness. We were dressed for 20 degrees below zero weather, and the day promised plenty of cold, but instead it grew warmer and warmer.
By noon we reached the cabin. We were elated. Cheechakos, desk jockeys and out-of-condition adventurers had made it. Now for a relaxing afternoon, a big meal of moose, a night’s sleep and then a leisurely twenty mile hike back to Stewart River.
Our illusions were soon shattered. By this time it was quite warm and the snow crust was crumbling. North informed us that we were victims of a Chinook--a dry, unseasonably warm wind. After a quick pow-wow with our old Indian guide, we voted to finish our work on the cabin and start back.
We expected the trip back to Stewart Island would be a challenge, but none of us realized the extent of it. Even old timer sourdoughs would have hesitated--but they would have known better.
There was no sun and as far as the eye could see it was unbroken white except for a dark hairline trail that curved and twisted into the distance. The trail that had been so easy to follow in the morning was now a nightmare. No longer could we walk on the frozen crust. The Chinook winds had ruined the trail, and now every other step went through a foot or more into the wet slush.
Rudy Burian was emphatic about the dogs--they were too tired and the trail was too soft. They would wait until the evening freeze. Luckily we had mistakenly thought Eddie was doing commercials for Gaines and had brought along a huge box of Gaines Dog Meal, so the dogs were given extra rations for strength. Going would be very rough for the toboggans since the wet snow would cling to the sleds and freeze. They could carry our equipment but could not carry the weight of the men.
The first few miles were fun until the wet slush had worked through our boots. Gradually the trail was freezing and so were our feet. Each step was a question--would the crust hold or would we go through to our knees? Finally we decided that a new trail was easier. No fun now. Warm winds gave way to cold and the cold became colder. The water in our boots began to thicken, and we had to keep on the move or our feet would freeze.
About halfway back to camp Sgt. Godfrey was the first to become thoroughly exhausted. He is a big powerful man but his size was his undoing. He sank deeper with every step and the trail became impossible. We walked a hundred yards and rested. Then it was a hundred feet. Then a few feet and rest. When it appeared that we could go no further, the sound of dogs could be heard in the distance. It was like a last-minute reprieve to a dying man.
“You mean there’s a chance I don’t have to walk the rest of the way?” Godfrey said.
“I doubt that they can put you on the sled,” responded Dick North. “You are pretty heavy, the trail is bad, and the dogs are very tired.”
When the teams arrived Rudy said no, it was impossible. But he soon saw that it was life or death, so he dumped his load and put Godfrey aboard.
The sound of the dogs ahead was a sad song to the rest of us. No longer could we look behind for possible help. The closest teams were a hundred miles away and the Stewart River teams would be completely worn out. There was no other way--keep going or freeze to death on the trail.
In less than thirty minutes we rounded a turn in the trail and there sat Godfrey and Jack Williamson. When the team caught up with Williamson and Albert, they found that Eddie’s feet were freezing and Godfrey insisted they change places.
Unless you have been on the trail and knew his condition, you could never realize how heroic this decision was. He was thoroughly exhausted and faced a frozen trail of nearly ten miles through the unbearably cold Yukon night, and no hope of help--yet he would not have it otherwise. The Yukon trail brings out the very best in men. They finally forced Albert onto the sled and off they went to Stewart Island. Eddie did not realize Godfrey’s condition and thought he had ridden all the way from camp.
Now we were all together on the trail, but not for long. It soon became apparent that Godfrey could not go another step, so another conference was held. We turned to North. He was the only sourdough.
“There is only one thing to do,” he said. “Russ, you go ahead and get help. If the dogs can’t make it, radio Whitehorse for helicopters. They can get to us in time. We will go as far as we can and then build a fire and make camp.”
So off I went. About half a mile along I heard shouting behind me. It was Jack Williamson. North had decided that nobody should be on the trail alone, especially since I did not know the trail and it was getting darker and colder every minute. There was no moon, but the Aurora Borealis was just strong enough to barely light the trail and give us a bearing.
For about three miles all was well, and then I realized that Jack had been running on heart alone for the past two miles. Every step was agony for him. We stopped and tried to build a fire. We were out of the cedars and in the willows. There simply was no fuel, but by sheer determination and necessity we managed to build a fire and keep it going till we had a small bed of coals that we could stand in to warm our feet.
Jack was the humorist of our trip and even when desperate he still kept his sense of humor. In one of the many, many rest stops he lay on the bank of snow in utter exhaustion and said, “You know, Russ, I wish I had a cup of boiling hot tea in each hand.” I said, “Wish for four Jack, and I would love to join you.” His reply said volumes. “Yes, a cup of boiling hot tea in each hand. I would pour one in this boot and the second one in the other boot.” I knew exactly how he felt. I could almost feel that beautiful warmth creeping down my foot.
It was not a very comforting time for either of us--on a trail that we did not know, miles from camp, and not too sure that we were even on the right trail. We didn’t know any of the landmarks. As long as we kept between the ranges of hills we would at least hit the Yukon River, and then we would have a 50-50 chance of going in the right direction to find Stewart River. Our only comfort was that if we did not show up the next morning the Burians would radio for help and they could spot us fairly easily on the Yukon.
Freezing to death didn’t worry us too much as it did not seem that cold. If we had known that Wayne Wagner, a young Canadian, had frozen to death that same night on a trail a few miles away, we would have been much more worried.
It became more difficult each time to get Jack on his feet and back on the trail. At first we just had to rest and then he no longer wanted to stop for rest. Now he wanted to sleep.
“But, Jack,” I would say, “you have got to get up. We will freeze to death and we are only a few miles away.”
“Who cares?” was the reply. “I am warm and comfortable so forget about me and go on alone.” And he would throw himself back down on the snow and go to sleep.
After what seemed like several million episodes like this, we finally came to the island and knew where we were and that we only had about a mile and a half to go.
“Mother Kingman,” said Jack, “I’ll never say another bad thing about you as long as I live.”
I never did admit to Jack that on many of those occasions I had wanted to go to sleep, too. We were thoroughly exhausted, hungry, thirsty, and everything seemed so hopeless.
In another hour we staggered into camp at Stewart River and were revived by Yvonne Burian’s moose sandwiches and hot tea laced with rum.
In a matter of minutes John Semple and Robin Burian harnessed their worn out dogs and were on the trail to rescue the rest of the party.
By early morning the whole expedition was in camp. Godfrey, Reicker, and North had kept plodding along. They were moving on sheer will power alone. They could hear voices on the trail and were sure that they could hear dogs coming. The cold white silence of the Yukon Wilderness plays savage tricks on the minds of cheechako and sourdough alike. You reason that nothing could possibly be alive, so your mind conjures up company for you. It’s a strange and terrible feeling.
When Godfrey saw two searchlights in the distance, it was the most beautiful sight he had ever seen. It was almost more than they could stand when they realized that the dog yelping was real. To men with visions of freezing on the trail this was a heavenly vision. The cup really ran over when Robin brought forth his mother’s steaming hot rum and tea. Nothing had ever tasted so good or been so welcome. Even the moose meat sandwiches that followed were an anti-climax.
The expedition is over. The cabin was photographed in its natural setting, numbered and every detail recorded so that the duplicate cabins are authentic in every detail. Jack London’s cabin is now at Jack London Square in Oakland where London buffs can see it.
The trip is over except for the memories, but Jack London’s stories will never be the same again. I never could believe that anything would improve his Klondike stories, but now I know that Jack had also gone through experiences like this in order to write To Build a Fire, White Silence, White Fang, The Call of the Wild and dozens of others that have never been equaled.
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