In 1914, when he published this memoir of the Klondike Gold Rush, Dietz was a “physical director” at the YMCA in Los Angeles, as well as being a “playground director” in the same city. (For some reason, I can’t get Village People out of my head at this point. But it’ll pass—it always does.)
I can still remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I first decided I needed to read this book. August 1989. Hamilton, Ontario. A sweltering day had blown up into a huge evening thunderstorm out over Lake Ontario, and I was sitting at the open window of our tiny rented apartment, dividing my attention between a glass of hopeless Canadian Chardonnay, the spectacular lightning over the lake, and Pierre Berton‘s splendid Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush.
Berton was describing how people made the epic journey to the Klondike gold field, which was inconveniently situated in Butt End Of Nowhere, Yukon Territory. There was the standard route, starting from the Alaskan coast and climbing over the Chilkoot Trail or White Pass. There was the “Rich Man’s Route”, which involved chartering a boat and trying to get up the Yukon River before it froze over. There were various “All-Canadian” routes, which involved very long forest treks starting in various Canadian towns. There was an “All-American” route, starting at Valdez, Alaska, and climbing over the Valdez Glacier. (It was “All-American” only to the extent it sneaked past the Canadian border formalities that were in place along the more popular Chilkoot/White Pass route.)
And then there was another “All-American” route, taken by very few, and recorded in Dietz’s book. If you drew a straight line from the Klondike goldfields to the Pacific coast, the shortest line would come out about where Dietz’s route started. Otherwise, it has absolutely nothing to commend it. And some features that make the unbiased onlooker shout, “What? Are you crazy!” The starting point, Yakutat Bay, was extremely remote and sparsely settled. The route then went straight over the high and heavily glaciated Wrangell-St Elias Range and then dropped down into the poorly mapped headwaters of the Tanana and Yukon rivers, still three hundred heavily forested and pretty much unexplored kilometres from the Klondike.
Berton tells the story from Dietz’s book over four-and-a-half gruelling pages, and that’s what hooked me in. It was a story of a completely mad endeavour going very badly wrong indeed over the course of two years, leaving four survivors from an original party of eighteen. And it had a bonkers, memorable title.
Now, a quarter century after first reading about it, and thanks to a generous retirement gift from my over-indulgent colleagues, I finally own a first edition of Mad Rush For Gold In Frozen North.
Dietz tells how his party of eighteen set off from New York on February 1st 1897, intent on reaching the Klondike. The story effectively ends on April 18th 1899, when he describes wakening up in the hospital in Sitka, Alaska, one of only four survivors.
Between those two events, the story involves a stormy voyage on a leaking, condemned brigantine with a drunken captain; the ascent of a glacier (Berton calls it the Malaspina, Dietz says only that their route started at Disenchantment Bay and passed between Mount Logan and Mount Hubbard, which places them at altitudes of 2000m on either the Hubbard Glacier or the Seward Icefield); the loss of three companions by falls into three separate crevasses; the dragging of an 800-pound generator up and over the icefield, only to abandon it in the forest beyond; a prolonged overwintering in a tiny cabin, during which men went mad with boredom, and three walked out into the snow never to return; the death of three more men in a landslide while prospecting for gold the next spring; the abandonment of efforts to reach the Klondike, and a starving retreat back across the icefields; the killing and eating of the sled dogs; deaths from scurvy and fever and frostbite-induced gangrene; the final arrival on a deserted beach, and subsistence on rotten fish until a passing revenue cutter rescues the survivors.
If you’re into astonishing tales of hardship and survival, then this is your sort of story. Otherwise, probably not. But now that I’ve read it, I have to declare that it seems to be a pretty obvious fabrication.
The Native Americans Dietz says he encountered at Yakutat are a fantasy hybrid of Tlingit and Inuit culture—living in igloos and raising totem poles, producing canoes that are a strange mixture of dug-out and kayak.
When overwintering, he says his party were subjected to months during which the sun did not rise—”at no time were the days well enough defined for us to have marked them off on a calendar had we had any.” That’s rather remarkable at 60°N, well below the Arctic Circle.
Not only did his party conveniently lose track of where they were (it’s pretty much impossible to make sense of his journey on a modern map) and what month it was, Dietz also managed to forget how many people were in his party. Three deaths in crevasses, one death from fever, and three departures leave eleven of his eighteen to overwinter—Dietz records that number, and all is consistent. But in the spring, four named individuals die … and according to Dietz eight now remain. Then one dies of gangrene on the return journey, and three die on the beach, leaving the four survivors with which the book ends. So an extra man seems to have turned up during the first winter.
It’s amazing that someone as knowledgeable as Berton’s didn’t spot these problems. And it’s worrying that this one book seems to have given rise to the historical record of a “Malaspina route” to the Klondike. Did Dietz embroider on someone else’s real journey, or was the whole Malaspina route just knocked together in his local Public Library?
Convinced I can’t possibly be the first to notice this, I’ve been searching around for confirmation from other people, which turns out to be difficult to find. However, I have turned up an article written by Terrence Cole, Professor of History at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. In 2008 he wrote a piece, mentioning Dietz’s book, for the Washington State Historical Society’s magazine Columbia, entitled “Klondike Literature” and with the tagline, These Alaska gold rush tales share a prominent characteristic with the region’s mountainous terrain—they are very tall.
Even as we speak a back-number of the relevant volume is winging its way to me. I’ll keep you posted. *
* My supplementary post concerning Cole’s article is here.