Written for The Evening Star.
Bennett-on-the-Lake is the one absolutely cheerless station, the one inhospitable port, the one dreary, desolate, unsheltered, unshaded shore on the long trail from Chicago to the Klondike. It is here that the pilgrim, for the present, leaves the White Pass railway and boards a river steamer for Canyon City, at the head of Miles Canyon, where there is another change to "rail" around White Horse rapids, a hundred miles from Bennett.
The winds blow at Bennett without ceasing. In winter they wail up through the narrow neck of the lake, cry across the snow and sob and moan in the icy eaves of the iron freight houses. In summer they complain constantly, sighing over the sands along the lake front and powdering the faces of passing pedestrians with pulverized stone - the natural paving in the one street of the town.
The only cheerful spot here is the picturesque club house, standing high up on the shore, overlooking the beautiful lake. Oh! the scenery is all right. From the wide veranda of the quaint little club house you can look out over the clear water, sleeping peacefully between the grand old hills that rise abruptly on either hand. Far away the lake narrows to a river and is lost to view among the distant dim mountains. Now the wind seems to have sobbed itself to sleep. The sun is sinking behind the hill as we go down the steep bluff, board the steamer Australian and sail away. Our new-found friends, jolly good fellows, at the club house, are waving us adieu.
As we sit down to our first meal on the waters of the mighty Yukon we observe that beer has bounded from 75 cents to a dollar and a half a bottle. The lake has pinched out and we are now riding the swift waters of the majestic river. How they hit these river boats! This one has powerful engines and they are banging them for all they are worth. I think she is trying to shake us to sleep.
Jim has just come up from the engine room, and down from the pilot house, and he assures me that this boat is "dead safe." Built in Pittsburg, she is all steel, 115 feet long, 26 feet beam, with water-tight compartments, electric lights and two big searchlights that are constantly sweeping the shore on either side of the river. These are necessary, however, only for an hour or two at midnight, and then only in the shadow of the hills, for it is never very dark here in the summer.
The manager of the company proclaims to his patrons that "In addition to carrying a Canadian master, the company has two thoroughly experienced swift-water American pilots on each of its boats."
A Threefold Captaincy.
And it does. A Canadian captain sits at the head of the table, but a Yankee runs the boat. The former to satisfy the law, the latter presumably to satisfy the passengers. It is not that the Canadians lack intelligence or training, but they are sailors of the lakes, while the Yankees come from the ever-changing Missouri, the treacherous Mississippi or the swift Columbia. Naturally there is a good deal of friction. Both the Yankee pilots must have a captain's license and each must be called captain. The result is that there are three captains on each, and each feels that he is the captain, but he is not.
By and by, when the Canadians get used to the twist of the trail and the speed of the current, they may take charge in the pilot house, but, as Jim puts it, "You want a swift-water Willie at the wheel on these curves and rapids."
Now the winds begin to cry and moan. The ship lists and leans far to the leeward. We are passing the famous Windy Arm. It is well named.
Far away somewhere in a remote corner of the ship - perhaps up in the pilot house or down in the engine room, or in the stewardess' boudoir - I hear a woman's
voice singing without accompaniment, sweetly, plaintively, "Far away - Far away."
That was the last I knew until the sun came in at my little window and warmed my nose. The sleeping is glorious on the upper Yukon.
We have hurried through our breakfast so as to be out at the canon. We have slept through beautiful Lake Marsh, and are now in the kinks and curves of the Yukon, swift and deep. The current here runs three to four miles an hour, the boat makes fifteen; so we are gliding along between the softly shaded hills just fast enough to make it interesting. There is no snow to be seen, no mountains near; neither is there valley or bottom lands. Just the rolling hills, that seem to part to let the cool, green river slip through. Sometimes the hills are barren, save for the short grass, sometimes covered with a thick growth of low spruce. Here and there fires have destroyed the forests, and there is a field of flowers.
Wherever the forest fire sweeps the hills the beautiful fireweed grows and blooms. And thus nature hastens to hide her scars.
No Flotsam on the Stream.
The river is unlike any other river I have ever seen. There is nothing floating on the face of it, no drift along the shore. It impresses one as being brand new. It is easy to fancy that the channel was empty yesterday; that the water has just been turned on. This is because the river is "high" now, but there are none of the indications of a flood. The water is clear, and almost as green as the waters of the South Pacific. The trees and grass and moss grow right down to the water's edge. It is just like a big brook. Any other river in this condition would be "bank full," but, as I said before, there are no banks - there is no bottom land - only gentle, rolling hills ranged along the shore.
A deep, narrow trail lies over the hill. One end of it hangs in the water. The pilot says it is made by the cariboo coming down to drink. Early last night we passed a port called Cariboo Crossing.
Now we round a bend and enter a broad, comparatively quiet stretch of water, at the end of which we see a couple of river boats, like our own. Beyond the boats are long rows of low log houses, the homes of the northwest mounted police, of the people who operate the tram and offices of some of the steamboat companies. On the right bank are some Indians near a wood pile, making frantic signals to our boat. They want to sell their wood.
Like a Great Millrace.
At the far end of this open water the river turns sharply to the left. The current is becoming swifter. Suddenly the boat turns her tail down the river, the bells jingle, the wheel revolves furiously as we swing about just above the narrows, where the water sweeps through like a great millrace.
Now, if the engines should become disabled we would be sucked into the millrace, slammed through Miles canyon, and, if anything were left of the boat, pound to pieces on the hidden rocks in the rapids of White Horse. But the engines hold her until a line is made fast to a spruce tree, and we swing gently to the floating wharf, the wheel still working to relieve the tension of the head line.
Here we break bulk. The quaintest little railroad runs from here past Miles canyon and White Horse rapids to White Horse Station - five miles.
Passengers from the Victorian, outward bound, are tramping in over the trail, going aboard the Bailey and the Sifton. Some have come up "by rail" and are already aboard ship. A dark woman with a hard, happy, Irish face, wearing a red dressing sack, a black hat and a red plume, is weighing in at the purser's office. She has sundry sacks of gold dust and some beautiful nuggets. I asked about this bonanza queen and was told that this was "Jim Hall's walkin' boss."
I asked about Jim Hall and they told me that he was one of the new-made millionaires of the Klondike and owner of "seventeen" - something.
A miner sat smoking behind the dump one day. Maud, the walking boss, crept up, peeped over the dump and caught him, red-handed. She shied a pebble down and the man looked up. "Well," said the foreman, "you blank of a blank, you hittin' the pipe at $15 a day? Come to the cabin an' get yer dust."
That was the way she handled the men, and it is related that she saved many a nugget for Hall.
A Look at Miles Canyon.
While waiting for the wagons to return from White Horse I walked down to have a look at the famous Miles Canyon. At first glance I was disappointed. After standing on the walls and looking down into the Royal Gorge, after seeing the canyon of the Colorado, this is tame. But wait until a scow comes round the bend. There is only one man, the expert, who takes boats through here and over White Horse, a mile or so below, for twenty, fifty or a hundred dollars, according to the value of the cargo and the owner's ability to pay. He steadies her at the head, and then the current catches her and slams her through the narrow gorge at the speed of a train. It is thrilling, even to stand on the wall and see a boat go by.