FOOL’S GOLD: Panning Discovery Channel’s Klondike – by Chris Turner (Walrus Magazine – Jan/Feb 2014)

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ONE DAY last spring, I made a trek to the Klondike. I had a map with a pair of cartoon trees that marked Dawson City—the Paris of the North, Canada’s own El Dorado, the booming, brawling centre of the last great gold rush. I was driving a Volkswagen station wagon with my eight-year-old daughter in the back. I brought her along to see the Klondike and to provide cover for my visit, which was unauthorized.

We drove west out of Calgary on the Trans-Canada Highway to Jumping Pound Road, turned south, briefly backtracked east, then through the gates of the CL Ranch—thankfully unbarred and thrown open—where dusty, zigzagging paths through the rolling Rocky Mountain foothills finally gave way to a broad expanse of dirt parking lot encircled by spruce trees, half-full of cars and pick-up trucks and trailers. At the far end, over a slight rise, the wood plank roofs of Dawson City came into view. We parked and strolled toward town as nonchalantly as we could. My daughter wondered if we would be arrested.

I explained that the worst they’d do is escort us off the set. It was the final day of shooting on Klondike, Discovery Channel’s first scripted drama, a six-hour miniseries based on historian Charlotte Gray’s book Gold Diggers: Striking It Rich in the Klondike. I had obtained a PDF of the map from an extra after Discovery representatives neglected to respond to requests for a set visit. Damn the permissions—the lure of the place was too strong to ignore. I wanted to see how this Dawson compared with the real one, where I had spent three months the previous winter. I wanted to know if the American-myth industrial complex had finally bothered to get the story right.

Dawson and the Klondike are rare Canadian historic landmarks, in that they loom as large in American mythology as in our own. The Klondike was the last great frenzy of the gold-mad nineteenth century, but because it unfolded amid the glitzy mass media culture that would dominate the twentieth, it also became an American fever dream, a final glimpse of the frontier.

In the summer of 1897, tugboats hurried out of the port of Seattle, carrying reporters to meet the first steamship that arrived with prospectors bearing sacks of gold nuggets. Almost overnight, all of America had Klondike fever. Dubious guides to striking it rich soon rolled off the presses in Chicago and Philadelphia, and by the spring of 1898 it seemed every ambitious dreamer and schemer was bound for Dawson. Photographers, in particular the enterprising Eric A. Hegg, documented every step of the trail in haunting black and white, from the lawless Alaskan port of Skagway up the punishing Chilkoot Trail to the Yukon River.

Fortunes were made and many more lost, with the diaries and memoirs of stampeders published for decades thereafter. Jack London found his muse in Dawson and scaled to literary fame on tales gleaned from the muddy creeks and smoky saloons. A bank clerk in Whitehorse invented a romantic Dawson in ballads based on yarns from previous gold rushes, and thus did international acclaim come to Robert Service as well. Charlie Chaplin and Mae West made Klondike movies, and Sergeant Preston of the Yukon dominated the postwar airwaves. One of the wildest, grimmest chapters in Canadian history was rewritten as an American legend about the lawless frontier and the steadfast Mounties who struggled to contain it. Overstated and under-examined, the stereotype of the dull, polite Canadian was born.

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