Marg and Rolf visited Oakland, California in 2000 to see the Jack London Square. Oakland area was London’s home. Thanks to the dedication and hard work of Dick North, the Jack London cabin on a creek in the Klondike was carefully disassembled and some of the logs were transported to Dawson City and assembled as a complete cabin and others were donated to Oakland where the city created Jack London Square. His favourite bar has also been preserved. More than any other individual, London’s works has made the Yukon famous throughout the world.
JACK LONDON AUTHOR
He was a high school dropout who roamed the seas as a sailor, a hobo who – like others of his day - rode the rails in boxcars – and walked the land in search of ideas. He needed ideas because he was primarily a story teller like few others of his time. The Klondike Gold Rush saw to that. Though he became world famous for his stories crafted in the Klondike, he also wrote on subjects ranging from boxing to romance, from survival in the Arctic to the strange, exotic beauty of Hawaii.
Jack London was born John Griffith Chaney on Market Street in San Francisco, California, on January 12, 1876. As a lad he was a labourer, factory worker, oyster pirate sailor, and, mostly, a railroad hobo. During his cross-country travels, he came to know socialism, which became his holy grail. For a time, he was known as the “Boy Socialist of Oakland” because of his fiery street corner oratory. As a mere lad – 21 years old – he heeded the call of the wild – the Yukon wild.
Like others during the great depression, he caught “Klondike Fever.” London sailed from the San Francisco wharf on the SS Umatilla on July 25, 1897. In Skagway with a load of desperate men seeking wealth and escape, he teamed up with four other Klondikers and scaled the cruel Chilkoot Pass. Like others, they built a boat at Bennett and sailed down the river. Like others in 1897, they made it only to the mouth of the Stewart River. Then, freeze up. The long Yukon winter of Jack London had begun.
He moved into a cabin and staked a claim on Henderson Creek, a tributary of the Stewart River in early November of 1897. In the days and weeks to come, he became well known to his fellow prospectors for his storytelling ability. There was little else to do, but stay warm, stay healthy and tell stories.
However, he could not stay healthy. In May 1898, he developed a severe case of scurvy. Desperately needing medical attention and in pain, he watched the melting ice on the Yukon River. Then he headed for Dawson and a brief stay at St. Mary’s hospital. Here, they told young Jack to go home. On June 28, he arrived in St. Michael, after making his way in a hand-hewn raft down the river. From St. Michael, he sailed home. Jack London’s career in the Klondike lasted less than a year.
Back in Oakland, California, he could not find steady work. In desperation, he pawned his stuff and began writing. As with most authors, his first manuscripts were rejected. Nevertheless, he carried on and the Jack London the world knows today began to take shape.
The scenes in his stories of the Klondike were developed from what he saw and heard during his one winter in the Stewart River district. While he wintered there, gold seekers were still uncertain whether or not the Klondike valley was a better bet for the prospector. Partners argued endlessly while trying to decide where to head come break up in the spring of 1898.
Thus, London’s gold rush ideas came from rumours, barroom tales, and his personal experiences. It is left to the imagination what he might have accomplished if he had stayed a full year or a decade for that matter. But London’s brief exposure to the Yukon resulted in stories so captivating that they live today as though they were just printed. The classic tales Call of the Wild, White Fang and To Build a Fire represent storytelling at its brilliant best. Throughout his narratives, London never forgot the little guy. To him, Buck, the Yukon sled dog in Call of the Wild, represented the struggle of the working-class to maintain dignity.
Though Call of the Wild is steeped in seething adventure, London was even more masterful in describing the physical sensations experienced in the Yukon during that winter at the mouth of the Stewart River.
In “The White Silence” he wrote of winter:
“All movement ceases, the sky clears, the heavens are as brass; the slightest whisper seems sacrilege, and man becomes timid, affrighted at the sound of his own voice.”
In the Call of the Wild, the death-cry of the rabbit is described as “the cry of life plunging down from life’s apex in the grip of Death.”
There are some who say the dog Buck in Call of the Wild is modeled after Belinda Mulroney’s Dawson City sled dog. Perhaps. Whether or not that is true, Call of the Wild brought the image of remote Canada to the world. It has been published in more than 400 editions in eleven languages. And Jack London, that writer of dog stories who lived in the Yukon in a small log cabin in the bush became the highest paid and best known North American fiction writer of his day.
In 1905, he bought the first piece of what would become in 1914, a fifteen hundred-acre ranch in the Valley of the Moon near Glen Ellen, California. The ranch became the foundation of his life, and his passion. He raised prized cattle, operated modern barns, practiced soil reclamation and water conservation. Ahead of his time, many would say.
In 1907, with his second wife, Charmain, Jack sailed the Pacific to the South Seas in the sailing ship Snark, which became the basis for a book. He fell in love with the South Pacific.
During his final journey to Hawaii, in 1915, he came to know and admire the Hawaiian people, a part of his character that shows in the short story On the Makaloa Mat. When he died in 1916 at age forty, London’s admiration of the Hawaiians was recognized in a declaration from the Royal Family: “By the point of his pen his genius conquered all prejudice and gave out to the world at large true facts concerning the Hawaiian people.”
Conventional wisdom says that Jack London died of a combination of drug overdose and alcohol abuse, resulting in kidney failure. However others believe that he died of systemic lupus, a disease that resembles scurvy. In fact, he may have had the disease during his Yukon winter on the creeks. Still, in his short life, he produced 200 short stories, over 400 nonfiction articles and twenty novels. His life was far too short.
Whatever the cause, his early death did nothing to relinquish his place as a literary genius who was inspired by events around him – inspired as few others – by the last great gold rush.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin