I just finished reading A Cheechako goes to the Klondike by Charles W. Adams. Highly recommended if you are interested in Klondike, Yukon, or Alaskan history!

I had seen this book on the shelf before, but nothing really drew me to reading it, until I looked a bit deeper. I noticed the book was in the man’s own words. It wasn’t a book written in modern day about a Klondike adventurer, it was actually the adventurer’s own words!

There is something vastly more interesting to me to read the words of the person who was here in the Gold Rush, reading little snippets of their everyday life which may have seemed like every day journal entries when they made their original notes, but are treasured snippets of one of the most amazing times in history.

Unfortunately, C.W. Adams, the author, didn’t ever see his book published. Neither did his nephew who followed in his riverboat captain footsteps. It wasn’t published until 2002 by his great niece and nephew.

So what is it about already?

Adams was an American business college student when he heard about the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897 and joined with his brother-in-law and his friend, with backing from his brother, and headed for the Yukon in 1898.

As you may have heard, getting here was no small feat. You needed to bring a year’s worth of supplies, and travel hundreds of miles by foot and homemade boat, day after day, week after week, to get up here.

Adams was a farm boy and quickly adapted to life on the frontier. Whatever the need, he found a way, whether that was building a boat, or a cabin, learning how to hunt and process a moose, or trapping winter marten for fur. He even fulfilled the dream of Klondike adventurers everywhere and was a successful gold miner.

It is always fascinating to me how people who came up here really didn’t have much of a plan. Somehow they’d partner with this person and that person and end one partnership to move on to another opportunity, all seemingly without much forethought.

As Adams went into his first winter near Dawson City, he got lonely and decided to venture all the way back to see his family North Dakota… in the winter! He didn’t even have a sleeping bag, but he made one out of canvas, packed some food, and starting walking south, at -48F. He made it and his family was happy to seem him. He was restless again by spring and with a couple of other men, saw a business opportunity to bring fifteen tons of supplies back up to the Klondike for sale.

Time after time, Adams jumped on these opportunities. Soon he found himself one of the owners of a the Lavelle Young steamship, freighting passengers and cargo along the Yukon River. This led to him getting his captain papers. He had a real knack for reading and remembering the ever changing river conditions.

Over the years he captained many of the famous old steamship riverboats of the Yukon and Tanana River, like the Julia B, which is one of the old steamers lying in ruin in the riverboat graveyard across the river from us here in Dawson City, and the Nenana which is preserved in Fairbanks, Alaska. In fact, he is partially responsible for the location of the town of Fairbanks, having left the town’s founder, Captain E. T. Barnette, and all his goods on the river bank in 1901 when the Lavelle Young couldn’t get any further up Chena River. Barnette built a trading post right there on the site, which was the early beginnings of the city of Fairbanks.

His life is so fascinating to me. He traveled so far! Just traveling the 3,000 km length of the Yukon River back and forth is mind boggling, but he also regularly travelled to Seattle, wintered many years in Santa Monica, and Los Angeles, and another winter in New York, traveling back to his job up here in the north each spring. These were the days were travel was by foot, homemade scow boats, sleds, steamships, and further south, trains. He travelled many thousands of more miles than most people will ever in their lifetime, and now we can fly and drive!!

I can’t even count the number of cabins he mentioned building in the book. A riverboat get stuck in the ice or sinks? What to do? Well you build a cabin on the shore, leave a guy there with some winter supplies to watch the ship, and the rest of you travel on by foot. Can you imagine??

It makes me think of how much we over-plan things these days. Ever stumble into the world of “bushcrafting” where people spend days online obsessing over what little trendy hatchet they are going to buy to spend… gasp… an entire night in the woods? Or how people plan their entire lives for a log cabin they want to build some day, maybe when they retire.

Back then, you just went. You did. You built. If you didn’t have something you need, you built it out of something else. Or bartered for the materials you need. You’d take a job when it was offered, and move on to another when the work ran out.

What is your legacy?

Reading this book also really made me think again about our legacies. All this knowledge of life on the rivers, and how these boats were built and modified, and just the every day details of this man’s life, live on a couple generations later, all because he wrote it down.

What is our legacy? Who writes in a journal anymore? In a hundred years, who will know your story? Do you really think Facebook will be sharing your story in a hundred years? Or Instagram sharing your photos? I don’t. Even my blog – will any of these words live on? How will any of my digital photos even be accessed in the future?

My most treasured possessions are books, journals, and saved letters that were written by my family members, a couple generations, and more, in the past. I love the every day little details about their lives that were preserved, that help me see a bit more of the world through their eyes.

It just seems so ironic that we live in this digital age and I feel like we will likely leave less of ourselves behind than our ancestors did.

If you’re interested in reading this book, it is available for just $4.95 Canadian from Mac’s Fireweed Books in Whitehorse – click here. Not only do I highly recommend this book, I plan on reading it again!

Lisa

Lisa (Verkley) Schuyler is a blogger reporting live from her new home in Canada's Yukon Territory. Often found wearing a hoodie, covered in pet hair, Lisa is a mis-placed forester who now spends her days engineering happiness for WordPress users. Lisa loves nature, animals, and most importantly, her handsome husband Jeff.

2 Replies to “Memories of a riverboat captain

  1. Great book review. You are so right about our stories & pictures. We of a certain age have family albums to look back on. The kids of today have nothing to look at – so sad. So parents & families, start printing your pictures and put them in albums!!!

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