People & Culture

Klondicitis: Still potent after more than a century

  • Jul 26, 2012
  • 584 words
  • 3 minutes
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The year was 1962. The sickness struck shortly after my mother bought me a book on the Klondike gold rush. I was 10 years old. The symptoms were subtle, but persistent and long-lasting. At first, my mother thought it comical, then refused to call a doctor and finally said, “You’ll get over it.”

She was wrong.

My disease? “Klondicitis.”

In 1897-8 it swept the world, infecting up to a million people. The effects proved immediate. People started digging holes everywhere, even in city streets. (I can empathize; I shared these symptoms.) Then, like lemmings hit by an insistent urge to travel, up to 100,000 people from all over the world headed toward Canada’s Yukon Territory at full speed. They included an Australian mayor, an Irish peer, honeymooners from Chicago, British aristrocrats — even a nameless American vagrant who had spent time in jail. His mother called him John. Shortly after the gold rush began, the rest of the world knew him as Jack London — one of the world’s greatest adventure writers.

Thirty thousand eventually landed at the foot of the Chilkoot and White Passes and made to the headwaters of the Yukon River. Here they built boats and floated down to the gold fields.

Suffering from Klondicitis themselves, both inventors and con men went wild dreaming up creative ways to dig for gold — both in the ground and in the pockets of naïve miners. Ballooning was the darling of the age, so one man formed a corporation to establish regular balloon air service to the Klondike Valley. Another inventor designed a bicycle with a ski on the front and a complex snowshoe apparatus behind to propel it forward. Both enterprises failed.

These romantic thoughts captured my young mind too, fueling irrational excitement.

Another man sold shares in a company that promised to train gophers that would dig for gold nuggets while the owners sat nearby in chairs sipping tea. The gophers ran away, as did the partner selling shares.
As a boy smitten by the Klondicitis bug I would have believed anything — just as they did during the gold rush. But most of all, I wanted to go — go to the Klondike and see the fabled valley where gold could be picked from the ground like candies from a spilled jar.
Alas, it didn’t happen for some time. But lately, Klondicitis has bit hard again. This time, I’ve headed north with my canoe and gold pan. I’m testing every gravel bar and creek north of Whitehorse. But mostly, I’m just enjoying the scenery.

That’s one thing those 30,000 gold stampeders missed — peace and quiet. It’s what any doctor would have ordered for a sickness.
Carried along in the current of crowd mentality and the elusive promise of quick riches, Klondicitis blinded them to more balanced wisdom — wisdom anchored in silence and thoughtful reflection. They exchanged the Yukon’s spectacular beauty and tranquility, for the noisy, clamoring chaos of an extravagant (though empty) promise. A month before miners had even started their arduous journey, all gold-bearing Klondike ground had been staked.

It reminds me a bit of the 21st century. Plenty of noise and rush and fever, but not much satisfaction.

Allen Macartney is completing a solo trip on the Yukon River to retrace the route of prospectors in the days of the Klondike gold rush. Read more of his blog posts and learn about his Royal Canadian Geographical Society-funded expedition.

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