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The Klondike Gold Rush is often viewed as the closing act of the American West, even though it happened partly on Canadian soil, and long after the rest of the American frontier had ceased to be. However, the gold rush opened up the “last frontier” of Alaska, and in doing so, turned Seattle into an important seaport, settled boundary issues between the US and Canada, and drove massive infrastructure development from the Puget Sound to the Klondike. Along the way, gold rushers learned new lessons in survival based on new technology in the late 19th century, and very old problems of distance, terrain, and weather.
We might think the survival lessons of the Klondike Gold Rush are meaningless today. After all, we are firmly ensconced in the closing year of the second decade of the 21st century, and the Gay 90’s are long behind us. However, the Klondike Gold Rush has some valuable lessons to suss out, if we stop and listen for a minute.
Survival Lessons of the Klondike Gold Rush
Technology Changes How We Interact With the World Around Us
If you can, pick up a copy of The Nature of Gold by Kathryn Morse. Morse shows us how technology reshaped the world and the way miners interacted with the world. When you consider these were men and women who left home only with what supplies they could transport and were ultimately required to bring a two thousand pound load of supplies with them, each chosen item could have a very real impact on their survival in an untamed wilderness.
Today, when prepping for an emergency, or long term off the grid living, we are forced to make those same choices. Each item we purchase and put aside reflects our choices, tastes and what is available to us. Then, as now, we are bombarded with ads for the latest and greatest survival gimmicks, and schemes to separate the unknowing from their money.
The kinds of supplies that ultimately carried the day in the Klondike were tried and proven ones. Winchester rifles, canned pork, and beans, sacks of flour, jars of preserves, rugged tools. Rarely did elaborate schemes like collapsible canvas canoes, or even bicycles “pan out” for the miners. In each case, technology dictated what miners purchased. New science in food preservation put healthy, ready to prepare food in great variety within the hands of miners. Today, we are blessed by an abundance of freeze-dried foods that simply weren’t available in our grandparent’s time.
Railroads, telegraphs, and steamships shaped the concept of space for Klondike miners, and today, the internet, cellular phones, automobiles, and airplanes shape our concept of space. By 1900, a person could board a train in New York, ride it to Seattle, take a steamboat to Skagway, and take another train to the goldfields of the Klondike all in a few short days. This replaced a grueling trip that had to be done by foot and boat which took months. The lesson is, no matter how isolated you are, technology will bring determined people to you.
Today, we must account for the digital world and rapid transportation, and also enjoy the benefits of modern medicine, food storage, and computer technology when making our survival plans. While early miners might have started out on a fairly primitive standing as they slogged over mountain passes and nearly impassable trails, they quickly brought modern civilization with them. So too, does the modern prepper. We might choose to dial back time to a certain point when we start out, but we’ll always be bringing those elements of modern society with us that we value.
Food is Important
Until regular and rapid transportation could be established with the Klondike, miners had what supplies they could haul in, or what was hauled in by wealthy merchants able to afford to bring in goods. Modern-day preppers might fantasize about living off the land, hunting game, and gathering wild plants to survive, but the brutal reality is that a hunter-gatherer lifestyle requires large amounts of land and small populations. Klondike miners destroyed the ecosystem around them with their mining, hunting, and foraging. The lesson is that you can only count on the supplies you have with you.
I already mentioned what miners mostly had to make do with, and they really aren’t all that different from what might be filling your pantry right now. Canned and dried foods, dry staples like flour and beans, various preserved fruits and vegetables in jars. Other than changing brands and recipes, there isn’t that much difference in common commercial foodstuffs.
Ask yourself if you had to acquire food for one year, with no assurance of any resupply, and had to survive in a harsh climatic condition that would require heavy caloric content for a portion of the year, what would you stockpile, and how would you do it? In any survival situation, you can only be guaranteed what you have on hand.
The Klondike prospector knew this and was required to bring a sufficient supply with them before entering Canada. If they could do it, so can you, and with the benefit of well over a century more of knowledge and improvement in food storage technology.
You Probably Don’t Need The Firepower
Here’s the thing. Folks traveled to the Yukon with almost every sort of firearm that could be commercially had at the time. It only made sense, they had legitimate concerns for safety from wild animals, frontier criminals, and a belief they could hunt their food. A lot of advertising from Winchester and Marlin touted the advantages of their various high powered lever action rifles, and it’s safe to assume that plenty of shotguns and pistols made it up there too.
Now don’t get me wrong. I like guns. I write about them a lot in other places and collect them. I like my AR-15, and I’m probably going to build another one for giggles. But I don’t have this unrealistic fantasy of needing raw firepower to defend my survival retreat or to engage in a running war with whatever post-apocalyptic doom fantasy is in vogue this week. I’m a firm believer in the 2nd Amendment, I’m not going to say don’t buy a gun, or even call for banning certain styles. I am going to say that you need to be realistic.
Your average prospector spent more time over a pick and shovel than he did totin’ a gun. If you choose to have one or more, that is your call. Just keep in mind you probably aren’t going to be fighting a war with it, and are far more likely to use that AR on a coyote killing your chickens, than an armed horde of foreign invaders.
Plan For The Weather
This is really a no brainer, but easy to forget. Modern home construction and modern synthetic materials can isolate people from the finer rhythms of nature and weather, while our gold hunting ancestors lived and breathed the weather.
When Klondike prospectors headed north, they carried a fantastic array of clothing with them, ranging from heavy coats to various forms of raingear. While most of us aren’t living in poorly heated cabins and tents in subarctic conditions, (ok, I’d hope none of us are) we still need to equip ourselves for all the ranges of weather where we are living. With ready access to material like Gore-Tex, modern preppers have access to the finest foul weather clothing ever invented, but none of it will do you any good without having it on hand.
Take a careful inventory of what you own, study weather records for your area, and note the once every few years or couple decades extremes you might be subject to, and plan accordingly. This goes for your heating, air conditioning and grid down emergency supplies as well. Disaster rarely strikes on a pleasant, mild late spring day. You’ll be glad you planned for the worst weather circumstances when they hit, and everyone else is running around panicked or confused. Or worse – dead.
You Get What You Pay For
Imagine you made it to the Klondike, after months of grueling travel through the unimproved wilderness, along trails flanked with the carcasses of dead horses, dangerous river travel, brutal mountain passes, and bitterly cold temperatures. The important thing is you got there, and you’ve started unpacking your gear and putting it to good use.
Didn’t it suck that you lugged cheap garbage along that broke shortly after you started using it?
While we live in a world where you can get reliable 1-3 day delivery on all manner of consumer goods in most parts of the United States, it might seem that buying cheap isn’t such a big deal. If it breaks, just replace it, right?
Wrong. I’ve got a box of cheap gear laying around. Some of it is good, some of it is hilariously awful, and some of it is criminally bad. Now it’s true we don’t need to run around with high-end tools and gear all the time. But we do need to buy stuff that holds up to the use we expect to put it through, with something of a margin for tough use.
What that gear, and what that margin is, is something only you know for yourself and your prepping plans. But sometimes saving a few bucks now will cost you greatly in the long run. Is it really worth it to save a few dollars on something you will rely on in an emergency, only to have it be inadequate to the task, or break at a critical moment?
Remember the old saying “buy once, cry once”, and get the best survival equipment you can – the first time. You might not get a second chance.
A lot has been written about the Klondike Gold Rush from all manner of perspectives. Men like Jack London recorded first-hand narratives of the people struggling to survive up there, and many prospectors kept diaries or later recounted their stories. From these first-hand accounts, we know that life was brutal, hard and miserable for many people, and they struggled to survive on their epic journey to the gold fields, and again when they got there.
The simple fact is, these men and women went off the grid in the most spectacular sort of way. They only had what they could carry with them, and were heading to a place where there were none of the comforts of industrial civilization. For a couple years, these people lived at the very edge of nature, one foot in the civilizing triumphs of the late 19th century, and the other in the rough, brutal world of untouched nature. Their survival represents the strength of human nature and the power of human will.
Today, we sit in our comfortable homes, and even those living off grid likely didn’t just up and haul two thousand pounds of goods thousands of miles into the howling wilderness and cast off all the benefits of modern technology. We are living in the peak of human civilization and are frankly spoiled. Our ancestors struggled through things we can only imagine (and romanticize), but we can learn lessons from what they did and how they did it.
It is unlikely any of us will be called upon to live cut off from civilization, and with minimal chance for resupply or contact with the outside world. And besides, the outside world has a nasty habit of forcing itself on even the most isolated areas. But we can look at the practical lessons of those Klondike prospectors, and see how we can apply them to our present day lifestyles and situations.
Remember, the first step is to have a plan. Then to have the supplies and will to carry it out. Once you have accomplished that, then you have a better chance than most people. Plan ahead now, and even when the worst happens, you’ll ride it out. Just like our ancestors who planned and prepared.
Steve Coffman is a freelance writer and consulting historian. He has a BA in US history from The Evergreen State College and lives near Tacoma, Washington. He collects antique telephone insulators and is presently researching labor union relations in Washington State during WWI.