Across the Chilkoot Pass

Excerpts from "The Bushes and the Berrys"
by Edna "Tot" Berry

Clarence had spent much of his time scouting around the country looking for dogs to be used on the sleds. The main thing was to have them large and strong. He picked up some especially good ones. The front had a leader and eight dogs in double harness. Clarence manned this sled, which carried the provisions, dried fish for the dogs, the chuck box, and so forth. On the second sled were the tent, the bedding, and bags and coats. If there was a stiff breeze blowing, we used the sail and could ride on the sled ourselves; but we could not add our weight if the dogs were pulling.

A great many lakes were grouped together, and we wove about, taking the one that looked safest for travel. There was Lake Atlas, Lake Tagish, and Lake Marsh, with small streams that carried the same names. We were up at dawn, cooked our breakfast, and were on our way, trudging mile after mile and resting only when it became too dark to travel. It was bitterly cold. The lakes were frozen to a depth of six or eight feet, and snow was everywhere. Even with all of our running and our heavy stockings, our feet would get so cold at times that we could go no further. All the dogs wore shoes made of several thicknesses of burlap tied around the ankle, but it would be only a short time until the sharp ice cut through the shoe to the foot. Then the dog would whine, and C.J. would say: "All right, old boy; I'll have you fixed up in no time." Then we would stop and put new shoes on any of them that needed it.

Whenever we pitched camp, each fellow had his share of the work; while one brought the tent, another took up the chuck box. Supper was to be cooked, boughs were to be cut for the beds, and the dogs were to be fed and bedded. If the lakes were too wide, we had no boughs for our beds. We traveled this way for several days, excepting to reach open water on the Yukon, where we could sail our boat.

After one of our longest and most tiring days, when we were dead tired from running and walking for miles, of course an accident would happen. We had pitched camp on the ice, our stove was set up, and supper was on the fire. Ethel had made corn bread and put it in the oven. I had fried the bacon and made a big pan of gravy. The boys had finished their work and were waiting for food, so that they could turn in for the night. Without warning the stove pitched over on its side, upsetting corn bread, gravy, and everything else in the snow. The stove was so thin that the heat had melted the ice from under it, causing it to tip. There was nothing we could do but cook another dinner. I thought Charlie had a grand disposition, but that night he just went to pieces; he swore and refused to do his part. He said he wouldn't cook another meal if he never ate again, then left, and went to bed. His action was such a complete surprise to us that we looked at each other and couldn't speak. Then it struck us as funny, and we all began to laugh, telling each other that we didn't know he was like that. But Pa Berry made excuses for him, saying that the day had been long, and that he would be all right in the morning, and asking us not to give his bad temper any more thought. Poie (as we called Pa Berry) then offered to do Charlie's share. Poie was a dear, with the sweetest nature of anyone I ever knew. If ever you are in doubt about a friend, take him on a camping trip and you will never again have to wonder what your friend is like, for in three weeks you will know more about him than you learn in years.

Frank and Henry Berry were at the mines, as they had gone in the year before. I wish I could write about their trip, as they were such an odd pair. Both were lazy, but Frank was droll and full of wit. Henry could always get out of work in some manner. The last news we had heard of them was from a man who had met them on the trail. They had tied a few tins to their coat buttons by strings, and were struggling with a great big cheese. They had sold or discarded one thing after another to lighten their load, but they hung onto the cheese. It was to be their fortune. They knew nobody would have cheese, and they were planning to sell it at a dollar a pound.

As we neared the Yukon, the weather turned warmer and the ice got softer. We noticed little trees set up, and when we came nearer we saw a sign reading: "Thin ice; follow trees." Several times, while on Lake LaBarge, C.J. scouted ahead of us to test the ice and look for danger. In one place a little island or rock was sticking up through the ice, and the question was whether we should go on this or the other side of the rock. We hugged the shore more closely each day. As there was constant danger of the ice breaking, we carried long poles; in case we should fine thin ice the poles would prevent us from going through.

The boys were mushing the dogs; as they had been going fast, Ethel and I were quite a distance back. When C.J. halted the sleds to wait for us, he noticed that the runner was in water. Oh, boy! They used the whip on the dogs and worked like mad to keep the sleds moving. When Ethel felt the ice waving, she stopped, which was the worst thing she could do. Clarence looked back to see if we had noticed what was wrong with the sleds, and then Ethel called out: "Oh, Patty!" He couldn't leave the dogs and the sleds to come to her aid, and so he yelled: "For God's sake, Ethel, RUN!" When I heard that, I grabbed Ethel by the hand, and we ran! It was like being on the ocean, but the ice did not open. We thanked our stars when we got through with our outfits, but C.J. had been frightened for all of us. Had he left the sleds for a minute, the would all have been lost as, when the ice is in that condition and a dead weight rests on it, the ice gently opens, everything goes through, and the gap closes. That very afternoon a man with his dogs and his loaded sled went through in another place, but we did not hear of his misfortune until the next day. The ice was breaking up and beginning to move. We fought the mud and cakes of ice, sometimes in it to our waists. Then we had to leave the lake and trudge around and through melted snow and wet moss. Swiftwater Bill, a Klondyke character, was just ahead of us. His lady, dressed in fine furs, had to be carried, but we did not wait to be helped and made our way as best we could.

We were at last on the Yukon River, with great ice cakes rushing by. Ever so often we could hear a resounding crash as the huge cakes came together, piled in tall pyramids, and then went floating away.

For the first time on our journey we were going to sleep in a roadhouse. We should not have to cut boughs for our beds, nor should we have to cook supper! What fun and what a relief! Now I should be able to see the people who lived in Alaska and the ones who were hired for the entertainment of the chuchacos [newcomers].

When we pulled in we found plenty of travelers ahead of us. Dogs and sleds cluttered the outside. The place was alive with people, and we could hear tinpan music and many voices inside. I was terribly excited as it all looked so gay, but C.J. rushed us across the floor to the stairs and right up to our rooms. We didn't see a thing! It was maddening, and for the first time since leaving home, I wanted to cry.

Our rooms were very small, with the barest of furniture: the usual pitcher and bowl on a stand, a bed, and a chair. The partitions were so thin that we had to speak in whispers so as not to be heard in the next room. That suited me, as I could hear more if everybody kept still. C.J. told me to stay in my room and not to talk to anyone. I pleaded with him to let me go down and see everything, but he said I should have to wait until he looked the place over, as there were a lot of tough hombres on the trail. I consoled myself with the thought that he would have to take us down to eat, as we had no food in the rooms. I could hear the glasses clinking on the bar, the roulette whizzing, and the poker chips rolling on the smooth tables, and I thought: "Will C.J. ever come and take us out of here?"

As soon as he did come I said: "Oh, I'm so hungry, C.J. Can't we go downstairs now and eat?"

"No," he said; "the crowd down there is too rough and the men are all drinking. I have had them send our dinner up here."

So they brought beans and bacon upstairs to us, and we ate on a ricketty little table. After an hour or so we went to bed.