Hougen Group

The Klondike reindeer saga

Many schemes came to not much during the Klondike gold rush. Bunco artists, whose only goal was to fleece the hard-working miner, dreamed up many of them. One wacky scheme was the product of the United States government. It failed, but at least the planners had good intentions.

In the fall of 1897, gold seekers were trickling into the Klondike, but very little was known about local conditions. When the trickle became a bit of a flood, Dawson police inspector Charles Constantine realized the newcomers were ill-prepared for a Klondike winter. They had come with few supplies and now faced the real prospect of starvation.

The Canadian government barely knew the gold rush was about to begin. But American officials realized something big was happening because most of the miners were Yankees.

When news of the threatening famine reached the Outside, it led to one of the most remarkable relief expeditions ever undertaken, one that would qualify for Ripley's "Believe it or Not" even today. Deliver reindeer from Lappland on the hoof and supply the new town with a supply of fresh meat. That was the plan.

But how to carry it out? First they had to find reindeer herders and eventually contracted seventy-four Lapps, ten Finns, and twenty-four Norwegians to deliver 538 reindeer to the Klondike. The bizarre expedition left Norway in February 1898. They carried the reindeer in a cargo ship that they had leased and refitted in a hurry.

The journey took the crew and cargo across the stormy North Atlantic, a dreadful crossing with reindeer and their herders jammed together in small quarters.

On February 27, they finally arrived in New York City and they transferred the whole expedition to railroad cars bound for Seattle. Once in Seattle they received news that the expected famine may not come after all. The herders also discovered that the reindeers' lichen they carried from Norway was almost gone. They released the reindeer in a Seattle park to eat grass. This city food did not sit well with the animals. Many got sick.

From Seattle the expedition continued by boat to Haines, Alaska. Most of the sick reindeer died. The herders moved the remaining animals to the highlands where there was good grazing. But by now, summer and fall had come and gone. When they finally reached Dawson in January of 1899, they were one year too late. The expected starvation had not happened. A good thing because of the more than 500 animals that left Norway, only about 100 survived.

A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin