Death and Disappearance on the Yukon River
Over the past 100 years in particular, hundreds of people from around the world have left their homes, bound for adventure and riches in
the Yukon or Alaska, and have then vanished without a trace. Police records and personal diaries explain a few of these disappearances, but most remain mysteries.
This chilling tale explains what may have happened to the Sinclair party, which left Dawson City in late October 1905, heading down the Yukon
River on a scow.
George H. Finnegan, a woodman on the lower river, is in Dawson on business, and brings a detailed description of the ice trap which
probably carried to death and destruction the entire Sinclair party of Dawsonites on the 26th day of last October.
Mr. Finnegans' description of conditions at the jam, of the jam half broken, narrowing the current into a torrent, ending in a vast
maelstrom which sucked down vast cakes of ice, is vivid and striking. He said:
"Had the devil and all his imps enlisted all the powers of nature to construct and maintain an absolutely invincible deathtrap, they
could not have done better than at Cliff creek just prior to the arrival there of the Dawson party in their scow.
I and a party of choppers camped on the scene the night of the 27th, and so diabolically perfect was the natural trap, we explored
it thoroughly by daylight.
Let me describe it to you if I can, for I and my companions at that time remarked that never had we seen anything so deathlike, so
invincible, so certain. Nothing made by man could have survived had it been caught anywhere within three miles of the last end of the trap.
Let me explain then that at Cliff creek the Yukon narrows. Along about the 20th I should judge there had been a terrible jam just
below the narrows. The ice had been caught and piled further and further up the river reaching finally to a point three miles above the narrows I speak of. Then this
collision of ice had given way but not the real jam, the accumulated water and ice finding an outlet under the center of the jam.
The result was diabolical. We explored every inch. Here is what any boat would find in passing down the river. Three miles above the
jam it would be observed that the river commenced to rapidly narrow; sheer walls of ice, fifteen to twenty feet high, had appeared , the current flowing steadily between.
Not a thing to indicate that the death trap had been entered and that death was now as certain as if the axe had fallen. Gradually, without a break, the walls pinched
together, in the form of an elongated V, like Miles Canyon, only infinitely worse, for men have been known to climb out of the canyon, but nothing could land in that V
trap and climb out. Nor would there be any indication of the terrible danger ahead - none whatever, for the appearance was as if some jam had given way and gone down river,
leaving a lane of open water. The bend at the narrows concealed everything, and even diverted the ominous sounds. Gradually the water grew swifter and the V got narrower.
Evidently the towering ice walls were grounded, and absolutely confined the water. When I stood on top of that chasm and looked down at the foaming waters, it was like
looking down a well.
The last mile of the trap rushed like a millrace. Natural canyons are nothing in comparison. The V ended at the jam proper, in a
whirlpool 60 feet across. Into this whirlpool the crazy current dashed and went down. Vast cakes of ice ran into it with the speed of a railway train, upended in an instant,
and passed beneath the jam, to reappear in three-quarters of a mile all churned and ground into the finest of mush. The whole river dashed beneath the jam at that point, and
nothing afloat could have hesitated an instant in taking the inevitable plunge.
Not a thing struck the jam, for the whirlpool could not be crossed. In fact, it was not a whirlpool, but a hole in the river, down which
everything rushed with a frightful velocity. Even the water, when it reappeared just beyond the jam, was just foam.
I don't know that the Sinclair party met its fate there - nobody knows. This I know. If that scow entered that gorge three miles above the
pool, it went down that hole in the water with every soul aboard. Not a dog could have escaped. The party left Dawson the 25th. I was at the jam on the 27th, and the indications
were that the conditions I say had been the same for several days. I knew of no wreck when I was there, but myself and companions were struck with the infernal ingenuity with
which nature had fashioned that death trap, and remarked it and explored it. A steamer would have gone down that hole in the water just as certainly. Nothing could have bucked
the current, made fast to the icy sides of the gorge or have made a landing on the top of it."
Dawson Daily News, February 16, 1906
Doesn't that put a shiver up your spine? For those of you who would like to see how
Jack London handled death in a Yukon River ice jam, pick up
one of the collections of his work that includes The God of His Fathers, and read "At the Rainbow's End" (the text isn't on-line yet).