A Few Days in the Gold Fields

Excerpts from "Two Women in the Klondike"
by Mary E. Hitchcock

Wednesday, August 10th.

This morning my poor blistered heel was so inflamed and bleeding that I dared not put on a boot, so slipped into a wrapper, made my toilet, and decided, to my intense disappointment that there was nothing for it but to give that foot at least a day's rest. So Edith went alone to M----'s where we had been asked to breakfast. No sooner than news of my crippled state reached them than our host and Mr. Jones immediately appeared at the door and agreed that it would be folly for me to move. M---- had already visited one of his claims and had a big bag of gold on his shoulder almost too heavy for even so large a man as he to stagger under. He was about to go back on business to the Forks when he met his men coming in search of him. Jones and Edith went on to see a "clean-up" at No.--, and were then going to No.--, where the gold ran from two to three hundred dollars to the pan. This is so marvellous that they did not wish us to take it on faith, but to see for ourselves. How I groaned as they started off without me, and felt indignant that so small a thing as a pebble in the boot could have caused such damage. . .

. . . Shortly came a visit from Mr. and Mrs. M----, who both urged me to move to their house, where it would be more comfortable and cool, but although the heat was almost unsufferable as the sun's rays poured down on the canvas roof, yet, as they had but one room in which to sleep, eat, and receive their guests, such a sacrifice was too great to accept. Good, kind-hearted Jones offered to get a harness and strap me on his back, to be carried thus down the mountain-side. M---- said that it could easily be done, as he often packed more than one hundred and fifty pounds when on the trail. As Edith and I both refused to ride the horse we had brought with us, and for which we are paying thirty dollars for the first two days, and ten dollars for each succeeding day, they also offered to send him back and themselves to carry all of the pack which Isaacs might not be able to manage-another offer which we could not allow ourselves to accept, preferring the expense to the imposition.

Jones explained to us his position with M----, saying, "He's known me since I was a kid and he don't like to go to London without me. You see he knows more about mining than me, but he thinks I can help him some in society. You see I spent seven thousand dollars in getting into society in New York and Boston, an' ' got into some pretty good clubs, although I ain't had much schoolin' coz I was kidnapped from school as a child; still that don't make no difference, oz them that 'as met Jones once at any o' the clubs allus asks him to come again, an' that's a pretty good sign, ain't it? an' I can help M---- a good deal, coz he's got a heart o' gold; the only trouble is that there's so many a-tryin' to oust me out o' my place with him just to get in themselves; here he's a big man, an' wherever he goes everybody knows him an' tries to buttonhole him." At lunch-time Mrs. M---- sent me by Isaacs some delicious beef, new (human) potatoes, bread, butter, and two slices of raw onion, which those who live here the year round say is quite necessary for health. Isaacs ate the onion with avidity upon hearing that I did not care for it, and I reluctantly left him half of the luncheon, as he led me to believe that he had had no breakfast. . .

. . . . Edith returned enthusiastic over her day's trip though with lame and aching feet. "We went first to No.--, El Dorado," said she; "Mr. M---- met us there and we watched the end of the clean-up of half a day's work, two men, and out came five thousand dollars, all washed through sluice-boxes, then raked and spaded. From there to No.-and thirty feet down a perpendicular ladder; another clean-up, twelve thousand dollars in two days, seven men at work. Gold fell out wherever I poked my umbrella, and, at the last moment, Jones knocked out a stone and right behind it shone a nugget weighing between seven and eight ounces. In the cabins were great pans of gold which I tried to photograph, one pan with six hundred and seventy-eight dollars. Next we went to M----'s pet, No. --, but I did not care so much for that, as the gold was finer and not so easily seen. Then back to No.--, to see them sifting and drying gold, taking the black sand out with a common magnet such as children use."

After dinner Edith and Jones sat in the door of the tent entertaining me, while Isaacs sat outside smoking his pipe and waiting orders from us. "Well Isaacs, did you go up the hill and write our names on the stakes?" said Edith. "I went up to top o' the hill and down to the Gulch, and there were only eighteen claims and they were all staked out to the very end; cabins there and people prospecting, and they said as how they had n't found nothink. Went down oen fellow's hole and he'd put a fire in it. No, an' I did n't stake in the other stream neither. You just bet yer life, Jones, if there'd been anythink in it I'd a' been in it myself, cause that's what I come up 'ere for." "Just think of No.--," said Edith, turning to me; "every time I put my umbrella in, the great pieces of gold fell out; I could have sat there for ever." At eleven, as M---- did not materialize we said good-night and dropped the tent flap."

Thursday, August 11th

We awakened at eight . . . Finally our guide, Mr. M----, appeared, to know if I should be able to go on, and said, "As Miss Van Dorn panned out some nuggets yesterday, I thought it would be only fair to fetch a few for you." And he handed me four beauties. Isaacs admired them so loudly that he was handed a small one by M---- for a scarf pin. "Now," said the latter, "if you feel equal to the walk, we'll go down to Skookum Gulch and you shall have your turn at panning out." "That is great inducement," said I, "and rather than keep the party back I'll go if the foot has to be amputated after." "By Josh! You're plucky," said M----; "but we'll take it slowly and you can stop whenever you feel like it." Isaacs rolled up our tent, fur robes, etc., and said, "You see, marm, I've never boasted much as to what I could do, but when you take a trip like this you're not long in finding out what an 'andy fellow I am. . . .

. . . . Our first stopping place after bidding farewell to the hospital M----s and inviting them to visit us in West Dawson, was at the Berry's comfortable cabin with its carpet, rocking-chairs and homelike appearance. We were welcomed by Mr. and Mrs. Berry and Mrs. Berry's sister. Mrs. Berry showed us a tin box filled with hundreds of nuggets from their mine. She was able to tell them all apart, their weight, and when and where found. Her sister also had a fine collection, but said that panning was such hard work that she did not do it very often, even though it meant extra nuggets.

We next went on to Bonanza No.--, where Mr. M---- told us we might have all the gold we could pan out; but as they had just had a clean-up and my first efforts were not successful, M---- finished his business with the overseer and said, "Let us go over to Skookum gulch and there we'll find some nuggets." So, leaving Edith and Jones digging, surrounded by the honest miners who were helping them in their search, we went over sluice-boxes and crossed narrow ledges down into Skookum Gulch, No.--, where F---- welcomed us and said, "Had you only come yesterday I could have helped you to find some beauties." However we crawled under the sluice-boxes, and on hands and knees we chipped away until two big nuggets fell into my hands; then we filled a pan, took it over to the water-box, and the excitement began as the stones and gravel washed out and the colours began to show. More shaking of the pan, and the colours became clearer, until at length the small stones fell out and only nuggets remained. These were dropped into my handkerchief in accordance with the custom here, that the best the mine affords is scarcely sufficient to do honour to a woman, so highly is she appreciated where she so rarely appears. Edith and Jones soon joined us and Edith washed out a pan, after which, as M---- was obligated to return to the Forks and visit the clean-ups from his other mines, we parted company, thanking him again and again for his kindness and for the wonderful experiences he had given us. He recommended us to the care of honest John Jones, and well did he fulfil the charge.

We had sent Isaacs ahead with the horse and pack, telling him to meet us at the Half-way House, but, as that was eight miles distant and Edith had not much confidence in her ability to walk it, Isaacs was told to listen for our yodel and not to keep too far ahead of us, on the horse trail opposite. How the trail changed! Sometimes the ground was hard and dry, then suddenly would appear a marsh in which our feet would sink beyond the ankle, and so extensive that, peer as we would, not a sign could be seen of the trail beyond; we would wade through the marsh, carefully picking our steps for fear of disappearing entirely from view; then we would suddenly come upon one of those beautiful mossy, spongy carpets of such glorious colours of pale grey, green, and red that it looked asthough prepared for a dance of the fairies. How we longed to get an adequate photograph of such exquisite beauty that no pen can picture! On we tramped over this most delicate of carpets, on which the foot rests but leaves no impress, and, just as we were in despair at the thought of having lost the trail, it would loom plainly and clearly before us again, well trodden and unmistakable.

About 8 p.m. we reached the junction of the two roads and gladly seated ourselves on the bench under the tent for supper. Two men stopped to have lemonade, and were charged fifty cents a glass. Before starting again Isaacs took off Edith's muck-a-lucks and filled them once more with fresh straw to protect the soles of her feet from being cut by the sharp stones which we sometimes encountered. . . . Finally, it became almost too dark to see the way, as, at this time of year, one has really a few hours without sun or moon. Now came the bridges; not wide ones with a railing, but a log of wood, which sometimes rolled over as we stepped upon it, laid across a dashing torrent without any support. Poor John Jones was obliged to cross it first with Edith, then return for me, and how we did cling to his hand! At last we were really off the trail, and, search as we would, no trace of it could be discovered. We wer almost ready to weep with fatigue, but knew that we must keep our spirits and not depress or discourage the man who, although so ill and fait himself that he could scarcely walk, still bravely led on. Finally we sat down to restwhile honest John went on a voyage of discovery, but when he returned he had found no sign of a trail. Suddenly we heard a sound in the distance and walked towards it until we reached a mine where men were still working. They told us that we must either retrace our steps for a mile, or try the perilous task of climbing the rocks and stones that had been thrown up from the mine, leaving the deep cavern beneath. We decided upon the latter course, rather than go back. In fear and trembling we began to crawl over the pointed mass of rolling stones, carefully testing each step before daring to trust it. Slipping, sliding, clutching for Jones's ever-ready hand, it seemed hours before we reached the bridge and tried the dashing water with our sticks to probe the depth before we dared put foot upon the log. During the entire trip we had said to each obstacle, "So long as we do not sink about the knee it doesn't matter," but here, although Jones did all in his power to steady us, the log rolled and the water rushed into our boots as we went up to the hips and were pulled out on shore. Poor John was in great distress at the accident, but we assured him that it had cooled our burning feet deliciously, and that, as no one ever takes cold in this country, there was no harm done. But still he worried, feeling himself to blame, and all we could say did not restore his spirits.

Then came a long stretch of woods and bog, and as there was nothing to light us on our way, I began to sing, "Lead Kindly Light, lead Thou me on." Just then we stumbled over a sleeping man. As he sat up I began to apologise, whereupon he said, "Don't make no excuses, lady; I'd be willing to be woke up every night to hear 'Lead Kindly Light' sung by a lady." We next passed a cabin, and a voice called out, "What time is it? How good it is to hear a lady sing;" but Edith said she was so weary that song made her nervous, and so we continued our tramp in silence. Soon we saw bright lights ahead and rejoyced that the hotel was so near. With quickened step we approached, only to find an enormous bonfire around which were seated about twenty men. At home we should have thought of tramps, and have made an enormous detour, at sight of the big slouch hats and unknown faces at so late an hour; but, being in Alaska among men whose hearts seem to rejoice at sight of a woman, we merely passed the time of night and inquired "How far to the Half-way House?" "Only a mile," they replied, and Edith groaned, saying that her feet felt as though they had been bastinadoed, and that each step was agony. Another mile of marsh brought us, thoroughly exhausted, to the small hotel. All were sleeping, but the "mine host" was soon aroused. There was accommodation for Jones in an eight-bunk hall. The proprietor placed his room at our disposal, while Isaacs had to put up the tent and sleep outside. We quickly turned in to beds almost as narrow as coffins, but we were thankful enough even for such accommodations.