Sailing Down the Yukon River

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

By this time the Yukon was quite safe; so we loaded our boats and sailed all day. We did not have to work and could enjoy the scenery. Every turn and curve on the beautiful Yukon was a delight. We sang the old songs--"On the BAnks of the Wabash" and the songs of '98. Our little stove was set on slats that reached across the boat, so we could cook our meals without losing any time by stopping. Poie [Pa Berry] liked to cook, but his cooking consisted of making coffee (which Ethel and I did not drink) and opening a few cans. As we emptied the little milk cans, we threw them in the river; whichever channel they took before sinking, we took it, as it would be the deepest and safest from rocks. At each bend in the river, we noted more trees; things looked greener, and the days were somewhat warmer; however, we were still wearing the blue flannels.

We had time to now to talk. We knew very little of the Berry family, and as I liked family history I asked Poie many questions, and led him to relate the story of his trip from Missouri to California. He told me that his father, a teacher, was one of thirteen children. As he liked to write letters, he kept in touch with his family wherever they were. I read a letter that he wrote from Acton, Hood County, Texas, in 1877. I couldn't hear enough, and each day I had him tell me more. He told me how he met Ann Coats, and all about the Coats family. Some of the Coats boys made history in Mendocino County by a feud with the Frosts.

Then Ethel told us of some odd experiences of her first trip. C.J. said that, no matter what had come up on the trail, Ethel was equal to it. She was never cross or complaining, and there were many hardships to overcome; they were young, with no experience, very little money, and in a country strange to them. But they had grit and courage.

When we reached the White Horse Rapids, Clarence insisted on all of us leaving the boat and walking on the bank to the end of the rapids. Taking the boats through was considered very dangerous, but almost everybody going in had to do it. I begged C.J. to let me ride with our boat or let me go with some Indians who intended to shoot the rapids in a small boat. But he would not listen to either request, saying: "I promised your folks to bring you back, and I'll try to keep my word."

At this point the Yukon was very narrow and was walled in by high rock banks on both sides. The water raced through this narrow channel at an alarming rate, hence the term "shooting the rapids." During the very short time it took to shoot the rapids, you didn't dare take your eyes off the course and you had to be sure of every move. We stood at the highest peak above the gorge to watch the boats come through. Such a thrilling sight it was as the water went by with a roar.

A Mr. Leeds was traveling alone in a small and rather light boat. He took the chance with the rapids, but did not make it. He lost his boat and entire outfit, but he himself was washed up on a rocky sandbar. That was a plight to be in. Now how was he to get to the diggings? There was no place to buy more supplies. Everybody was traveling light, carrying only the necessary things, but they all helped him out. One gave him a spoon, another a cup, and so on, and he managed to beg his way all along the route. As the Indians were there to help the timid through the rapids, he made a bargain with them for a small boat, and that made him happy again. Just as he arrived in sight of Dawson--at the very last turn of the river, in fact--his boat was capsized by the swift current of the Klondyke River where it empties into the Yukon. This time he made a small island, minus everything but his shirt. But he must have carried a "horseshoe" with him, for he made one of the richest strikes of the year in a claim on Gold Hill, just above the forks. The ore from Gold Hill assayed much higher than that on El Dorado.

The Northwest Mounted Police had their barracks in several places along the river, and we stopped in to say "Howdy" to some, but we did not need their services.

Late one afternoon I noticed that Ethel was very quiet and that C.J. appeared to be worried, as she looked so white. He asked her if she felt all right. She said she had a pain in her side, had had most of the day, and now in the late afternoon it was getting unbearable. She finally told C.J. that he would have to go ashore and make camp for the night. Before we could find a suitable place to make camp, she was much worse and big tears were in her eyes. Before taking her ashore, we opened the medicine kit and gave her a tablet to ease the pain. As soon as we landed, she was put to bed. C.J. wanted to go down the river in search of a doctor, but she asked him not to go. She just moaned and asked for water. Here we were on the banks of the Yukon, not knowing how far we were from the Canadian post or a doctor! We heated a pan of water and put hot towels on her side. Later we learned that we should have used cold towels. She took one morphine pill after another, until the case was empty, without getting any relief. They didn't even put her to sleep.

The next morning she said: "I am no better, but I just can't stay here. Put me on the boat, and let's go on." It was another day and night before we reached the Post, and even then she wouldn't stop; she just said: "Go on. I"ll be all right." She was a mighty sick girl, but her grit and fortitude carried her through. It reminded me of the days on the ranch. When Ethel was sick, she would act in the same way. She would say: "I'm so sick!" and then go to bed; but she didn't want anybody to do a thing for her or even talk to her. After a while she would get up and pitch into her work where she had left off. I have known her to go to a dance the same evening.

I could write about this river and that mountain, and of the distances and heights of glaciers. But as these descriptions have been given by others in many different ways and everyone views things from a different angle, and as this is not a history of the country but rather of two families whose paths have crossed and recrossed in the course of a century, I feel that my readers will not care if I do not indulge in this feature.

The Yukon thrilled me more and more. How warm the days were growing! We began to burn from the sun's rays on the water. The mosquitoes were coming out of their winter homes in the moss. They were large and thin and very transparent after being without food for so long. Every time they lit they drew blood; so we had to put netting over our heads for protection.

So many small rivers branched into the Yukon that it was a puzzle at times to know which fork to take. Sometimes we had to test the depth, in fear of sandbars, and one day we hit one; but as there was very little current at this spot, we managed to shove our boat free without any damage. Each bend in the river offered a mystery as to what would confront us.

Quite a number of Indians in canoes came up the river and we waved them friendly greetings, which they returned. As it was early in the season very few Indians, animals, or anything else were out yet.

As we neared our destination, Poie became impatient; he didn't want to stop for meals or anything. He was the first one up in the morning and called us to get up as it was time to go. In about ten minutes he would be pulling the tent pegs, and we would have to get out or have the tent fall on us. We would land in the boat about half dressed and say to him: "Wait a minute. Let's eat breakfast before we start." But he would reply: "I have breakfast almost ready, and we might as well be sailing." Things went on like that every day.

Henry and Frank Berry were camped at El Dorado Creek all this time, though Frank made a good many trips to Dawson, walking the nineteen miles both ways. George Byrne and Henry had staked a claim on Bonanza Creek, each taking half, and Henry spent a good deal of his time with George.

Louse Hill is close to Dawson on one side, the Klondyke River coming down on the other side of it. To reach the creeks we had to cross it.