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As if it wasn't cold enough in the Klondike, the legendary Yukon poet Robert Service had to create a mythical creature that nested on glaciers. Iceworms in a cocktail was the poet's idea of a practical joke. But the worms weren't fanciful.

In 1909, Stroller White, a brash reporter with the Whitehorse Star, faked a newspaper interview with a one hundred-year-old Yukon native, who told him the life history of the iceworm.

The ancient native, said White, described a slithering worm one and a half meters long, with a head on both ends of its body. The creature appeared only when the temperature dropped below minus 7.

Not to be outdone, Robert Service, took up the ice worm challenge and penned a rakish poem called "the Ballad of the Ice Worm Cocktail".

Today, nearly one hundred years after Robert Service penned the parody, visitors travel to Alaska and the Yukon in great numbers to gaze at glaciers, marvel at the mountains and toast their trip with a cocktail named for a mythical worm.

Mythical, however, it is not!

They do exist. By the millions on some coastal glaciers of Alaska, British Columbia and the Yukon, and are possibly the least studied creature on the planet.

Dan Shain, a biologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey, is one of a handful of scientists in North America studying the remarkable life of the ice worm. A few years ago, he spent the summer trekking over coastal glaciers determined to find out everything he could about them.

He has jars of the critters in his lab in New Jersey where his DNA sampling has shown that the iceworm might be the most highly adapted multi-celled creature on the planet.

About one to two centimeters long, they look like pieces of dark thread in the ice. For tiny creatures, they have big mouths which is all the better to eat the single-celled red algae and bacteria that grow on glaciers.

Their ideal habitat temperature is about 0 Celsius. If the temperature drops below minus 7, they will die of the cold and at plus 10, they can live for about a week. At room temperature, they survive for about an hour.

Iceworms usually stay in small water pockets amidst the ice crystals at or near the glacial surface and spend their days tunneling up and down through the ice.

Luckily, Pacific coastal glaciers have a moderate climate. By burrowing into the ice, the worms can find a fairly constant temperate range.

They seem to have few predators and their only real threat may be from global warming. The coastal glaciers are about 0 degrees Celsius and most are retreating. If it gets any warmer, they will melt more quickly. If the glaciers disappear, so will the iceworms.

The iceworm might also reveal clues about life in the solar system such as on Europa, the icy moon of Jupiter, which may harbour an ocean of water where worm-like creatures may not be any more fanciful than they were in the poems of Robert Service.

Iceworm 1
A view of the St. Elias Mountains at Bear Creek en route to Kluane Lake. Date: April 1922.
Yukon Archives. Claude & Mary Tidd fonds, #7224.
Click for larger view.

Iceworm 2
Mammoth crevass in the Denver Glacier near Skagway.
Date: ca. 1898/1898
Yukon Archives. H.C. Barley fonds, #4721.
Click for larger view.

The biologist Shain is still haunted by the iceworm mythology created by the Klondike poet. At times he has trouble getting people to believe his stories. Even some park wardens in Alaska question his sincerity when he tells them about the massive worm populations on nearby glaciers.

Native legends may not help either, since they tell of giant iceworms that appear on the glaciers of the St. Elias Mountains of the southwestern Yukon.

When the Midnight Sun disappears from the northern sky, they terrorize humans who dare trespass inside their mountain lair, and woe begot any human caught. The giant worm attaches itself to exposed flesh and sucks the heat from the body, leaving behind a grey trail of dead skin.

But the real worms - tiny though they are - exist by the millions on the glaciers of the north.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin




July 1909. The dog days of summer were upon Yukon once more. Jeff didn't have much to do since his work was usually done in the winter. So, in the heat of the mid-July sun, Jeff was usually found lying in the grass beside the White Pass sheds. He loved basking in the sun while enjoying the cooling breeze from the nearby river.

There he could watch the men loading the river boats and listen as the steam whistle signaled another journey downstream to Dawson. He had tried to make friends with the few tourists who disembarked from the White Pass train from Skagway.

However, they seemed more interested in shopping at the local Taylor and Drury store, or getting a haircut and an ear full of local gossip from Joe the Barber in his tiny shop at the White Pass hotel. Some seemed interested in that poet fellow, Robert Service, but were told they'd have to take the boat to Dawson if they wanted to meet him.

Jeff wasn't interested in any of that stuff. He'd seen it all. He was here when they first started to make a fuss over Service a few years back. Now it was all old hat. Yes, summer was down time for a lifer like Jeff.

On July 2nd, Jeff decided he needed a change of go somewhere. The easiest thing to do was to jump on the train. Jeff was broke, but that didn't matter. When no one was looking, he hopped into the baggage car.

As the whistle filled the still, hot Yukon air and the train lurched forward, Jeff settled down between two large trunks. The clickety clack of the rail track was a soothing sound and soon he fell into a blissful sleep.

When the train stopped at Bennett, the trainman spotted Jeff as he peered out from the open door of the baggage car. Highly irregular, said the trainman, but having come this far without a ticket, Jeff was allowed to continue the journey to Skagway with only a warning that he'd better not pull this stunt again.

In Skagway, Jeff roamed the streets taking in the new sights and sounds. The buildings and the alleyways looked pretty much like they did in Whitehorse. After a week had passed, Jeff decided that Skagway - in the dead of summer - was no more exciting than Whitehorse.

So once again, when no one was looking, he headed for the open door of the White Pass baggage car. The whistle blew and the train lurched down Broadway, bound for the 110-mile day trip to Whitehorse. This time, when the train stopped at Bennett, Jeff stayed hidden behind the suitcases, boxes and trunks. It would do him no good to get thrown off the train now, when he was halfway home.

It was another hot July afternoon in the tiny town of Whitehorse as the train screeched to a stop in front of the station. When the baggage door opened, Jeff leapt out and hightailed it up Main Street. He scurried around the corner at Second Avenue and made a beeline for a small pine log cabin near the old log church.

Jack Phelps was standing at the door. "Where've you been, he yelled at Jeff? Haven't seen you for a week!"

Jeff wagged his tail and licked Jack's hand. He wanted to tell Jack of his great adventure. Of what he saw and did in Skagway. Of the spectacular scenery the train passed through. But he couldn't.

You see, Jeff was Jack's sled dog.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin


Jeff 1
Sled dogs. Date: 1926.
Yukon Archives. Claude & Mary Tidd fonds, #7851.
Click for larger view.

Jeff 2
An open WP&YR train as it approaches Bennett.
Date: August 22, 1899.
Yukon Archives. H.C. Barley fonds, #5343.
Click for larger view.

Jeff 3
WP&YR station at the summit of White Pass. Date: June 1900.
Yukon Archives. H.C. Barley fonds, #5477.
Click for larger view.


Isaac Stringer - The bishop who ate his boots

Isaac Stringer was born in Ontario in April, 1866. In 1888, he enrolled at Wycliffe College to study theology. In 1892, Stringer heard a speech about the need for missionaries in the Arctic. The idea appealed to young Stringer.

In May 1892, Reverend Stringer was ordained and the next day left for Fort McPherson in the Northwest Territories. The journey took a sixty days by train, ox cart, foot, scows, and steamers.

The long career of the famous Bishop began. Stringer's diocese was huge...covering thousands of miles. By the spring of 1909, in addition to his duties in the Yukon Diocese, he became head of the Mackenzie River Diocese.

In September 1909, returning from the Mackenzie Diocese to the Yukon, Bishop Stringer set out from Fort McPherson heading for Dawson City. He was accompanied by Charles Johnson. The 500-mile trek though muskeg, dense bush, and across a steep mountain divide wasn't easy. The two men, dressed in light clothing, carried provisions for eight days though they expected to complete the trip in five.

They were travelling a well known route via the Rat River through McDougall's Pass then to Rampart House on the Porcupine River and finally into Dawson City.

They navigated the Rat River in canoes, but progress was slow as the river began to freeze. Provisions were dwindling, snow was falling, and the weather was rapidly getting colder. After six days, they realized they were making just five miles a day. They then decided to return to Fort McPherson by trekking directly across the mountains, a distance of less than one hundred miles. It was September 24th.

The men desperately looked for a pass through the mountains, their progress hindered by partially frozen rivers, and heavy snows that blocked familiar landmarks. After many days above the tree-line, with no wood for fire, they were still on the west side of the mountains.

It was a nightmare of cold and hunger. Finally, their food supply ran out. But they did have seal skin boots and Bishop Isaac Stringer decided the time had come to eat them. The boots were cut into pieces, boiled and finally roasted. Stringer wrote:

"October 18 - Travelled all day. Ate more pieces of my sealskin boots, Used sole first."

"October 20 - Breakfast from top of boots. Not so good as sole. Very tired."

But on the pair trekked, heading due east. On October 20th, they reached a large river. It was the Peel.

Here they found sled tracks and fresh-cut poplar poles. It had been fifty days since they had left Fort McPherson and now, by some miracle, they had stumbled upon the campsite of three native people.

After a ravenous meal in the camp, dog teams were harnessed and Stringer and Johnson were on their way to Fort McPherson, about twenty miles away.

Bishop Stringer
Bishop Stringer

Stringer 1
Traditional Inuit clothing of caribou skins at Fort McPherson. Date: 1921.
Yukon Archives. Claude & Mary Tidd fonds, #7562.
Click for larger view.

Two years later, in 1911, Bishop Stringer gave a vivid description of their journey to a large crowd in Dawson City. At the same time, four members of the Royal North West Mounted Police lay dead in the snow in the same general area where he and Johnson had been lost two years before. It became known as "the Lost Patrol".

The Bishop had survived his ordeal largely because he ate his sealskin boots. His story was the inspiration for the celebrated scene in Charlie Chaplin's movie The Gold Rush .


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



Big Alex McDonald (King of the Klondike)

"Don't look so sad, I know it's over. But life goes on, and this old world will keep on turning." (Song - For the Good Times - Ray Price)

He was a huge, seemingly uncoordinated character who sported a preposterous mustache that, at times, hid half his face. His speech was slow, deliberate and exasperating to some who thought it meant that he was not too bright. They called him the Big Moose from Antigonish. Yes, he was big. Yes, he did hail from Nova Scotia, but the King of the Klondike was anything but dumb.

Alex McDonald lived his Klondike days by the Robert Service maxim: "taint just the gold that I'm wanting so much as just finding the gold." He had little regard for gold. To him it was trash.

McDonald was seasoned as a miner before he arrived in the Yukon. He had spent a few years working in the Colorado gold fields without much luck. Then, in the late 1880s, he headed north to Juneau, Alaska, where one of the first northern gold rushes was underway.

In 1896, he made the perilous journey over the Chilkoot Pass during the earliest days of the Klondike stampede. He was able to pick up some odd jobs as a labourer until one day in the winter of 1897, in one of the truly lucky breaks that came to the early gold seekers, he bought Claim 30 on Eldorado, from a Russian immigrant named Zarnosky, for sack of flour and a side of bacon.

McDonald leased the claim to two miners in a business arrangment known as "letting it out on the lay,". The men agreed to split any profits equally with McDonald. Claim 30 turned out to be one of the richest gold finds of the Klondike. In just over a month after working the claim, the men paid McDonald $16,000 though he did not lift a shovel.

This set the stage for his rise from a labourer to a millionaire almost overnight. As his Eldorado fortune rolled in, McDonald began a claim-buying binge. By the end of 1897, he owned twenty-eight claims on Eldorado, Bonanza, Hunker and Dominion creeks.

Though skilled in mining methods, Big Alex didn't bother working his claims, instead hiring others to do the work. He paid wages as a percentage of the profits and reinvested the rest in land, thus becoming the biggest single employer and land owner in the Klondike mining district. Such was his meteoric rise to riches that by the time most of the Cheechakos arrived in the Klondike in 1898, big Alex McDonald was an authentic Dawson "aristocrat".

At the height of his corporate career, it was estimated the Klondike King's fortune reached ten million dollars, a mind-boggling sum by any world standard. In a suite at his McDonald Hotel, Alex kept a box of gold nuggets that he would casually offer to visitors, often suggesting they take only the big ones.

McDonald had his hand in almost every business venture in the Klondike. On July 1, 1898, the Yukon Telegraph Company strung phone lines from the Dominion Hotel to its main office in Louse town. McDonald and the famed Belinda Mulroney were the company's most celebrated shareholders. Though he owned the building that housed Dawson's first bank, the Bank of North America, he was also one of the first customers at the newly arrived Bank of Commerce. When he registered his account with the Commerce, it took him endless, tedious hours to remember and list all the properties he owned.

His wealth seemed like a bottomless pit. His personal fifteen mule train was a familiar sight on the dirt roads between the Klondike diggings and Dawson, its heavy wagons filled with nuggets. Paper transactions between various companies, the banks and Alex McDonald usually recorded astounding sums. One personal payment by cheque made to the A.T. and T. Company was for one hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Today, that would translate into millions.

Dawson's genuine luminary also had a benevolent side. When Father Judge, who became known as the "Saint of Dawson", needed support to rebuild his Catholic Church after the original was levelled by fire, McDonald donated thirty thousand dollars, which more than covered the construction costs. And when Father Judge began building St. Mary's Hospital, the Big Moose from Antigonish was again the major benefactor.

All this philanthropy did not go unnoticed in the higher echelons of the Catholic church. Since visiting Europe was trendy for many of Dawson's Klondike millionaires, big Alex too made the long journey in late 1898 and spent the winter of '98-'99 touring Europe's capitals. While in Rome, he was granted an audience with Pope Leo XIII and was made a Knight of the Order of Saint Gregory, in recognition of his donations to Father Judge's church and hospital. In London, he met and married Margaret Chisholm, the daughter of the Superintendent of the Thames River Police. The couple returned to Dawson in the spring of 1899.

So quickly and successfully had McDonald made his mark in the Yukon that he was by now Dawson's leading citizen and likely its most respected. Of him, in the summer of 1899, the Dawson Daily News waxed eloquently: "His business keeps him busy from morning til night, and though he is called the King of the Klondike", he is approachable in all affairs socially and financially as the humblest miner in the Yukon." Financial affairs notwithstanding, his social graces may have needed a little work.

One of the endearing anecdotes about the King of the Klondike occurred in 1900 when the Governor General of Canada, the Earl of Minto, and his wife paid a stately visit to the Yukon. The vice-regal couple wanted to see first-hand the country where unbelievable fortunes were being made. Class-counscious Dawson spared no expense for this official visit of Queen Victoria's representatives. The highlight of the tour was to be a presentation to Lady Minto.

Alex 1
No. 61 Below, Hunker Creek. Date: ca. 1902.
Yukon Archives. Adams & Larkin fonds, #9109.
Click for larger view.

Alex 2
Cleaning bed Rock. One pan contained $1348.00 McDonalds Bonanza (Klondyke) Co. Ltd. #2 above Bonanza creek No. 680.
Yukon Archives. Finnie family fonds, #64.
Click for larger view.

Alex 3
Hotel McDonald - 2nd Ave.
Yukon Archives. Dawson City Museum & Historical Society collection, #2.
Click for larger view.

A Dawson jeweller created a handsome gold-laden brooch, featuring a miner hoisting a bucket, out of a piece of ivory filled with gold nuggets. Who better but the King of the Klondike himself to make the presentation? Tour organizers spent endless, worried hours rehearsing McDonald's formal speech. It had to be perfect. After all, those were the days when the Governor General was lord and master of all he surveyed in the British colony called Canada.

At the appointed hour, McDonald paraded up the podium to address the regal couple in a fashion that would hail their noble virtues. McDonald, turning to her Ladyship, handed her the brooch, and said:

"Here, take it. It's trash."

Of the fiasco, the Dawson Daily Newspaper wrote:
"The presentation was made in simple but eloquent language."

It was this casual approach to gold that eventually led to McDonald's downfall. He continued to buy up claims that by now were regularly proving to be worthless. Many ended up costing much more than they were worth. At one time he owned and tried to operate up to forty claims on far-off Henderson Creek in the Stewart River mining district. None paid much though they helped to drain his bank account.

He attempted to bolster his dwindling fortunes in 1903 by acquiring an expensive, state of the art water system to divert and sell water to miners. But the easy gold was becoming harder to find and the big companies were taking over. The water system mostly diverted cash from McDonald's rapidly dwindling bank account.

By 1909, twelve years after buying his first claim for a sack of flour and a side of bacon, the one-time millionaire was living in a small cabin near Clearwater Creek, obliged by the cruel fates of the Klondike to work his claims himself.

One frigid winter morning, the Big Moose from Antigonish, awoke to find his wood box empty. While wielding an axe on a block of wood just outside the front door, he keeled over. Days later, a nearby prospector found the lifeless body. Alex McDonald, the King of the Klondike, had died of a heart attack.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



First Elected Territorial Council

In the summer of 1909, the Yukon was in the midst of an election campaign for what would become the first wholly elected territorial council. Ten men, eight from Dawson city and two from Whitehorse, were elected. But political power still remained with the commissioner.

On the afternoon of July 15th, 1909, 11 men posed on the steps of the Administration building in Dawson. Ten were members of the first all-elected Yukon Council. The eleventh was C.B. Burns, the clerk of the council. In the previous election, only five of 11 councillors were elected. The other five, plus the commissioner, were appointed by the federal government.

Back in 1898, the entire council of six members was appointed. In 1899, two elected members were added. Then in 1902, three more elected members were added, bringing the council to 11, including the commissioner. Now in 1909, the Yukon was making political gains with its wholly elected council. But the commissioner would still introduce legislation and retained the power of veto over any bills introduced by the elected councillors.

Still this council was taking on the trappings of a real legislative assembly. Willard L. Phelps, councillor and businessman from Whitehorse, was elected government leader. Robert Lowe, councillor and businessman from Whitehorse was elected speaker of the House. They both had arrived the previous day on the riverboat Selkirk, and were staying in local hotels.

The council would now sit twice a year instead of just once for 10 days, as it had in previous years. On that first sitting in July of 1909, the council received a short statement from Commissioner Henderson which said that an ordinance for the revision of statutes, and a few other matters would be presented. He also informed council that the Yukon budget was being prepared and would soon be ready for study.

R. Lowe
R. Lowe and Company office (and Commercial Hotel) in Whitehorse. Date: ca. 1922.
Yukon Archives. Claude & Mary Tidd fonds, #7544.
Click for larger view.

Council 2
Bob Lowe on steps of Assay Office, Whitehorse. 1922.
Yukon Archives. Finnie Family fonds, #217.
Click for larger view.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



Streets of Whitehorse - 4

The streets of Whitehorse are paved with stories...stories which go back long before the streets were paved. Those dusty, sometimes muddy, often frozen streets today yield nuggets about Lowe, Hoge, Jeckell, Taylor and Drury.

Last time, we walked the White Pass streets of Whitehorse, mostly located south of Main. Robert Lowe's Street is just two blocks long facing, as it does, on fourth avenue, the site of the last old ball diamond in the downtown core. The ball diamond where kids of the 50s held their annual spring track meet, and where the boys of summer knew George Kolkind would have the grounds scraped, the stands clean and lines chalked before each and every ball game during the endless summer. Robert Lowe was a businessman and politician at the turn of the century, and the Speaker of the first wholly elected territorial council in 1909.

To the south, Hoge Street honours an American general who was the first to command the building of the Alaska Highway. Brigadier General William Hoge soon discovered, in 1942, that this vital highway project was too big for one man, and later became commander of the Northern section out of Whitehorse. In an interview in the 70s, I asked General Hoge for his version of why the highway was so crooked. "Because we didn't have a lot of time for surveying", he told me, "so I'd just order one of my men to walk through the bush, find the tallest tree and give it a good shake. Then I'd tell the bulldozer operators to head for that tree."

George Jeckell came to the Yukon in 1902, to teach in Dawson City. He must have liked the country a lot because he stayed on for 50 years. He was chief executive officer for the Yukon government from 1932 until 1947, and held about as much political power during that time as any unelected public servant ever could. With his teaching background, he oversaw the rapid growth of the Yukon's education system. Jeckell Street, south of Hoge, is named for George, the teacher.

The final two streets downtown fittingly join together at fifth avenue. Isaac Taylor and William Drury met in Atlin in 1898, when both were heading north to see what kind of business opportunities were available in this bustling land. Before they finished, the pair operated 13 department stores throughout the Yukon, supplied many of them with their own riverboats, and left the Taylor and Drury mark forever stamped on the face of the Yukon.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



H.C. Barley, White Pass Photographer

Yukon history owes a lot to Harry C. Barley, a man most people have probably never heard of. Like other photographers who made their living when the Yukon was young, Barley toiled in the shadows of greatness. In this case, a great project. And toil he did.

The thousands of images showing the amazing construction project called the White Pass Railway were, for the most part, taken by Harry Barley. Originally from Colorado, Barley made Skagway his home after coming north from Denver.

With foresight about a project which would become one of the wonders of the world, the President of the White Pass Railway, Samuel Graves, hired Barley as the company photographer in the spring of 1898. Graves instructed Barley to illustrate the nature of the pass, the difficulties the builders faced and their high standard of work. Graves needed this documentation to satisfy his financial bankers in London, England.

During the next two years from his studio in Skagway, Barley documented the incredible construction job and chronicled the early operation of the 110-mile narrow-gauge railway. Barley was an adventuresome soul. He had to be to get the stunning photos of the work being done in the mountains of the White Pass. He was known for his daring and often risked his life to get the perfect photograph.

His huge box camera, tripod, and heavy case of glass plate negatives were a familiar site along the grade. But his demand that all work freeze while he peered through the camera lens sometimes infuriated the foreman.

Yukon History Hougen Group
Click for larger view.

There were times when crews refused to work when Barley was taking photographs because of the risks he took. Barley once said: "Put me close enough to the blast and I'll stuff the echo." In one of the first accidents at the Rocky Point blasting site, Barley was struck by a small flying rock from a dynamite blast and couldn’t walk for a week. His camera was shattered by a larger boulder.

But he kept working from his photography studio on Fourth Avenue in Skagway. Active in civic politics, he was elected to the Skagway Town Council and was a member of the Skagway Elks Lodge. He then moved to California where he died of tuberculosis in San Francisco on November 22, 1909. He was survived by a wife and a daughter.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin