These days a lot of outdoor enthusiasts head to the nearest sports centre and order a Bayliner or a Chriscraft boat. Then comes the summer of fun on the many Yukon lakes and rivers. But when the first gold seekers came to the Yukon in 1897, boats weren’t store bought. They were built on the lake shore from logs hauled down the hillside and whipsawed into lumber.
An amazing number of boats were built this way and the Mounties kept track. By May of 1898, they counted almost 800 boats under construction at Lake Lindeman, 850 at Lake Bennett and nearly 200 at Caribou Crossing and Tagish Lake. By mid summer, that number exceeded twelve hundred boats.
Boat builders got lumber the old-fashioned way — by "whipsawing". It was terrible work. Logs were placed on stands and then sawed by a man standing on top holding one end of the saw and his partner standing below. It was a back breaking and often partnership- ending chore.
Thousands built boats this way and the result is still visible along the shores of the southern lakes. The forests were stripped of trees. Once the boats were built and the ice disappeared, the fun began. One Klondiker wrote of Lake Lindeman.
"The lake is a beautiful sheet of water, about six miles long and one mile wide. It empties into Lake Bennett through a very crooked and narrow stream, full of rocks and rapids, and dangerous for boats."
Bennett was worse. Winds whipped down the mountain passes and tipped boats and their passengers into the frigid water. Hundreds of boats were on the lakes each day. Mounties like Constable Edward Dixon were stationed at Miles Canyon. His job was to inspect every boat and make sure the boat owner was skilled enough to navigate the Whitehorse Rapids. Most weren’t and needed professional pilots to guide them through the raging rapids at a cost of twenty-five dollars.
Boats lined up, waiting to hire an available pilot. The Mounties often ordered women and children to get out of the boats and walk along the banks past the canyon and rapids, but not all obeyed.
Emma Kelly, a reporter for the Kansas City Star, rode the rapids twice. In a story for Lippincott's Monthly Magazine, she wrote, ‘I do not know when I ever enjoyed anything so much in my life. Wild waves rocked and rolled our boat and occasionally broke over us." But stampeders could avoid that thrill.
For twenty-five dollars, they could load their outfits onto Norman Macaulay’s tramway cars and take the easy way around to a townsite then called Closeleigh. Probably a better idea after expending so much energy building the boats in the first place.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin