16 October 2010

First Trip to the Klondike, Pt 4

It was the summer of 1978.  The three of us, Florence Dicob, Virgil Katchatag and I,  had proceded over ten miles up the Bonanza Creek Road. The hills are close and relatively steep as one follows the creek. It was mid-afternoon, but it would be easy to see how quickly the late afternoon shadows would overtake this narrow place with those rocky hills peering down upon us from all directions, throwing the small creek valley into dark and probably somewhat cold shadows. Around here when the sun went down, it could get very chilly indeed. In the steep valleys, sunlight did not have much of a chance to establish its presence before moving on.

It was fascinating. The creek was surprisingly small for such a world-famous place. It was readily fordable almost anywhere by the time we got this far up.  Mostly we had seen pile after enormous pile of tailings--large rocks nearly evenly distributed in a wave-like fashion extending sometimes hundreds of yards wide and going on it seemed for miles.  In an odd sort of way, though, the whole place seemed understated. It was as if a world event had happened right here--which it did--but nobody remembered or cared.

There was all that old iron--pieces of old mining machinery. Indeed, except for the occasional operating dozer, everything up this creek valley looked positively ancient but often still usable. There were old dredge buckets piled everywhere in places on both sides of this narrow hard pan road.  In fact, some of the historic claim markers were sprayed in white on these old buckets.  They usually appeared as a claim name like "Lowe's Fraction" and a number, Like "Bonanza 15."

Occasionally there would be a small log cabin. But these were relatively rare. Mining was still in progress, although apparently on a relatively small scale anymore--and this ongoing activity seemed to extend almost everywhere up and down Bonanza Creek. Imagine that! Eight decades later and  people were STILL mining around all these old tailings.

Somewhere along the north wall of the valley I had spotted carefully-placed lines of flat, sharp rocks reinforcing some kind of roadbed. I later figured out that this was part of an old railroad line.

Then there were those hills near the confluence of the creek with the Klondike River. Entire hills were still being taken down by these things called "giants"--hydraulic mining still in progress. One of these hills had been reduced to a fine white sand-like substance that seemed to cover everything while defying flora to grow on it. In fact, plant life was relatively sparse in this part of the creek for some reason, although there was an abundance of mostly small deciduous growth lining the small, clear creek that trickled through this strange and growing ever-stranger valley.

These hills strongly resembled the ones we had passed just east of Chicken on the way to Boundary. They were rounded with lots of almost uniform sharp rocks that seemed to fit together in some kind of gigantic puzzle. The round rocks were the ones in the tailings piles.  The only color seemed to be orangish to tan. There were no shades of green or anything else that I was used to seeing elsewhere, just variations on yellow--except for the bright white sandy hill that had been mostly pulled down by decades of hydraulic mining.

The trees which existed just beyond the main areas of mining activity appeared to be black spruce. They were uniformly small, obviously adapted to an extremely frigid environment. And they were often not all that close together, indicating that life here even for plant life really was an ongoing struggle.  They were dark but not exactly lush. If anything they  had a kind of spindly quality. They tended to be short--seldom reaching more than thirty feet.

Occasionally, especially along  the south wall, another smaller creek valley would intersect this one. These often deep valleys usually showed recent signs of mining activity. In places the rocks appeared to be piled up close to a hundred feet above the road. Bulldozers had obviously pushed through a number of access roads up these rock piles going back to the mining claims.

Then we rounded a turn and came upon a monstrous dredge that was partly buried in the muck in a wide spot on the creek bottom. Mostly it was dry there. The creek water around it had receded, leaving only that unpleasant wet mud interspersed with marsh grass.

In those days everything was open to the public. We stopped and checked it out. What a thrill that was! The machinery on board this mammoth dredge was itself gargantuan.  Everthing about that long-abandoned piece of machinery was enormous.  We would come back and explore it more. But right now, something seemed to be pushing me to continue on.  Beside, I wanted to avoid the late afternoon shadows that would soon be overtaking this valley.

Then we came upon it.  Whatever it was, I knew we had reached the turn-around point. It did not really look like anything where we had stopped. There was a wide spot on the road and a panoramic photo that Parks Canada had placed on a sign that overlooked the creek. Directly across the creek, which was right there, was an open area, then a gradual hill hidden by heavier growth I had not seen down the creek. We had reached a point where one small and undistinguished creek flowed into the other.  These creeks were quickly separated by a hill.  Behind us the hill was steep. It seemed that the thing was peering down upon us. This was a strange spot indeed.

There wasn't much to see, but I sensed something really big here.  I waded into the clear creek. It was colder than I had thought, but I made my way across it. I found myself not wanting to go any further, and re-crossed the creek.  Over in the distance where I had crossed I could see some kind of road, a couple of old deserted cabins and more of those carefully placed rocks that helped keep the road in place. Upstream was yet another small cabin that appeared to be in use.  It looked dark and forbidding even though it was small. I would not be going in that direction. It was at the base of the hill which divided the two small creeks.

All was remarkably quiet here except for the clear creek gurgling through as it wound its way  to the Klondike and thence to the mighty Yukon River.  I kept sensing something peculiar at this spot.   Something was definitely here, but I could not see it. I climbed back up the creek bank to the parking lot and took a good look at that picture. There it was. I was looking at a very impressive historic photo of the  town of Grand Forks. The sign said that 10,000 people had once lived here. But where? I had spotted only three very small cabins--nothing more.

There was so much more in that panoramic photo, including some impressive two-story structures that were obviously commercial buildings.  But what really stood out were the three churches. These frame buildings faced each other--each one taking a corner of the town except for the approach side on the western end. Upon closer examination it seemed to me that one of those church buildings might  have stood directly behind me.  There was, in fact, a kind of natural bench to my rear that looked like it might have been in about the right spot.  I climbed up there and looked around: nothing. There was nothing there. It was a sad and disappointing feeling. I felt that something really valuable and even irreplaceable had been lost here.

I kept looking around not quite believing what I was seeing. What I was looking at was nothing--absolutely nothing at all. What had happened here? The Parks Canada sign clearly indicated that this was the correct spot. I could see from the hills in the background that it probably was, although the exact positioning of the town in the photo was somewhat difficult to determine because something about the angle was wrong.

A Part of Grand Forks: Eldorado Creek in the foreground. (Click for larger image)

Then I began to get this creeping sense of spirits everywhere around this place. They were there, all right. Their town was gone but some of these people evidently had never left. This had become their final destination.  That feeling of eyes looking down on me was becoming more real.

It was not all that pleasant a feeling--not a sense of peace at all underlying whatever was still here.   I began to distinctly feel like an intruder. Whatever had happened here was absolutely fascinating to the point of being consuming.   I wanted to see more. Before leaving I needed to  cross that  creek one more time. We headed out of there and  doubled back to find the bridge that crossed Bonanza Creek about half a mile down the creek. Following that narrow road we soon returned to where we had been, but facing the other side. It sure looked like there was room on this side for a town of the size I had seen in that historic panoramic, but once again I could see nothing.

We checked out the remains of those two cabins. Not much there, but they sure felt like they were still alive in an odd sort of way.  But that was all there was. I was once again disappointed to find no signs of any of the other buildings that once dominated the creek at this very spot.

It was only later that I learned that the bulk of the old town was just up the creek another hundred yards or so. The town had been built along Eldorado Creek with a small part of it along Bonanza Creek which had split off to the south. The main part of town was built to the north side of the hill which separated the two streams.  Those two fallen-in cabins actually marked the entry point for the town and were thus only the beginning part of Grand Forks. But there was no more town, no more buildings, no more of anything. It really was all gone. I keep repeating this because I had a hard time absorbing this obvious fact back then and to a certain extent even now. This was an experience that would haunt me years later. Even as I write this that experience comes back as a kind of shock. To me it was as if someone or something had taken my own home town away from me in the dead of the night--leaving nothing behind but bare ground.

Then I thought about that dredge we had passed about a mile downstream and I began to suspect I knew exactly what had happened here.

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