Arts & Culture

Fool’s Gold

Panning Discovery Channel’s Klondike

Illustration by Michael Byers

One day last spring, I made a trek to the Klondike. I had a map with a pair of cartoon trees that marked Dawson City—the Paris of the North, Canada’s own El Dorado, the booming, brawling centre of the last great gold rush. I was driving a Volkswagen station wagon with my eight-year-old daughter in the back. I brought her along to see the Klondike and to provide cover for my visit, which was unauthorized. We drove west out of Calgary on the Trans-Canada Highway to Jumping Pound Road, turned south, briefly backtracked east, then through the gates of the CL Ranch—thankfully unbarred and thrown open—where dusty, zigzagging paths through the rolling Rocky Mountain foothills finally gave way to a broad expanse of dirt parking lot encircled by spruce trees, half-full of cars and pick-up trucks and trailers. At the far end, over a slight rise, the wood plank roofs of Dawson City came into view. We parked and strolled toward town as nonchalantly as we could. My daughter wondered if we would be arrested. I explained that the worst they’d do is escort us off the set.

It was the final day of shooting on Klondike, Discovery Channel’s first scripted drama, a six-hour miniseries based on historian Charlotte Gray’s book Gold Diggers: Striking It Rich in the Klondike. I had obtained a PDF of the map from an extra after Discovery representatives neglected to respond to requests for a set visit. Damn the permissions—the lure of the place was too strong to ignore. I wanted to see how this Dawson compared with the real one, where I had spent three months the previous winter. I wanted to know if the American-myth industrial complex had finally bothered to get the story right.

Dawson and the Klondike are rare Canadian historic landmarks, in that they loom as large in American mythology as in our own. The Klondike was the last great frenzy of the gold-mad nineteenth century, but because it unfolded amid the glitzy mass media culture that would dominate the twentieth, it also became an American fever dream, a final glimpse of the frontier.

In the summer of 1897, tugboats hurried out of the port of Seattle, carrying reporters to meet the first steamship that arrived with prospectors bearing sacks of gold nuggets. Almost overnight, all of America had Klondike fever. Dubious guides to striking it rich soon rolled off the presses in Chicago and Philadelphia, and by the spring of 1898 it seemed every ambitious dreamer and schemer was bound for Dawson. Photographers, in particular the enterprising Eric A. Hegg, documented every step of the trail in haunting black and white, from the lawless Alaskan port of Skagway up the punishing Chilkoot Trail to the Yukon River.

Fortunes were made and many more lost, with the diaries and memoirs of stampeders published for decades thereafter. Jack London found his muse in Dawson and scaled to literary fame on tales gleaned from the muddy creeks and smoky saloons. A bank clerk in Whitehorse invented a romantic Dawson in ballads based on yarns from previous gold rushes, and thus did international acclaim come to Robert Service as well. Charlie Chaplin and Mae West made Klondike movies, and Sergeant Preston of the Yukon dominated the postwar airwaves. One of the wildest, grimmest chapters in Canadian history was rewritten as an American legend about the lawless frontier and the steadfast Mounties who struggled to contain it. Overstated and under-examined, the stereotype of the dull, polite Canadian was born.

The drama, however distorted, still captivates. It will be Canada’s first appearance at centre stage in what is being called the golden age of long-form television drama, this era of ambitious, absorbing TV novels such as The Sopranos, The Wire, and Breaking Bad. The Yukon of myth returns to the screen, peopled by foreign actors in a wilderness that is only nominally Canadian. Will Klondike set the record straight? If not, isn’t it long past time for us to tell our own epic tales?

I’ll come back to Discovery’s Dawson, but let’s rewind first to the true story of the Canadian Klondike, before it became warped in the funhouse mirror of American pop culture.

In the summer of 1898, the sprawling boom town of 30,000 was a magnet for Gilded Age dreamers the world over. More than half of the stampeders who arrived that summer were Americans—including such resonant characters as Swiftwater Bill Gates and Joe Ladue, Diamond Tooth Gertie and Calamity Jane—although several of the most vital were not. Belinda Mulrooney, the sharp-tongued saloon keeper who plays a central role in Klondike, was Irish. Flora Shaw, a Fleet Street journalist who was central to Gray’s book, was stridently English. Real estate baron Big Alex McDonald was from Nova Scotia. And the man most responsible for ensuring that the story unfolded as a rollicking adventure and not a wholly black tragedy, Superintendent Sam Steele of the North West Mounted Police, was so Canadian he became the template for the nation’s most pervasive caricature.

As stampeders crested the frigid Chilkoot Pass in late 1897 and early 1898, they encountered a makeshift border post. If they failed to present a grubstake of basic provisions, enough to last a year, they were turned back on Steele’s orders. Along the shores of Lake Bennett, below the pass, they built makeshift vessels to sail down the Yukon to Dawson after the thaw. Navigating the treacherous waters, they passed NWMP checkpoints set up to ensure their boats could complete the journey. When they assembled in town for the wild summer of 1898, they found that guns were prohibited and the gang violence, vigilante justice, and routine theft of Skagway unheard of.

What they discovered was Canada, assembled in haste along the Klondike trail under Steele’s stern, watchful eye. The grubstake rule averted a winter famine, the river checkpoints saved countless prospectors from a watery grave, and the lawful streets and saloons of Dawson ensured that even if they surrendered their money and their virtue, few lost their lives. If not for Steele and the NWMP, the gold rush might well be remembered as a catastrophe, as tens of thousands faced a climate and a landscape far harsher than that of any previous stampede.

Notwithstanding the peace, order, and good government he wrought, Steele had his own complications and contradictions. He had been known as a binge drinker in postings on the Prairies during the Northwest Rebellion and the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, and the grubstake order he instituted at the top of Chilkoot Pass was well outside the law. He wrote aching letters to his wife back in Montreal, and he dabbled just enough in claim speculation to be tainted by a corruption scandal and ousted in 1899 by the NWMP’s anxious brass.

Steele adored the force and believed in what it stood for as much as anyone who ever donned the red coat. A stern commander to his troops and a fearless adversary to the Klondike’s would-be anti-heroes, he all but single-handedly embodied the values and authority of a new nation governed from thousands of miles away. He did so amid a greedy, volatile crowd of 30,000, mostly footloose young men. Who, then, is the more striking figure: any of a thousand rogues and hustlers, or the resolute cop who kept at bay the entropy and chaos they brought with them?

No character named Sam Steele appears in Klondike. The Mountie superintendent depicted is too distant from the historical figure and too insignificant to bear Steele’s name. Flora Shaw, the society journalist whose reporting ignited the scandal in Ottawa that sank Steele, was also left out of the script. Instead, we have a mysterious figure called the Count, played by Tim Roth, and a tale of murder, greed, and dashed hope.

According to Dolores Gavin, an executive producer on the miniseries, “Dawson City was like Vegas, going 24-7.” It wasn’t, actually. Among Steele’s victories was a grudgingly observed Sabbath, generally free of booze, prostitution, and gambling. But never mind. Southern Alberta stands in just fine for the Klondike—Chilkoot recreated on Fortress Mountain, panning in the creeks of Kananaskis Country, Dawson in the low hills outside Calgary—and it seems the Klondike will once again represent the American frontier.

My daughter and I were struck by the verisimilitude of this faux Dawson. The white canvas tents, the wooden sidewalks and mucky streets, the false-fronted saloons and hand-painted signs—like one of Hegg’s old photos come to life. Hollywood excels at this; its set dressers take far more care with period detail than its screenwriters do. We walked along an alley behind the elaborate make-believe main street, marvelling at the props: whisky barrels, a cart laden with logs, a sign reading “Grand Forks Hotel & Saloon” (Belinda Mulrooney’s joint was in reality far outside the townsite, but never mind that either). The day’s shooting was done, and aside from the rumble of truck engines the place was as deserted as a ghost town.

One prop gave me particular pause, persuading me that whatever the merits of the miniseries, it won’t set the record straight about Steele and the story’s true Canadian nature. It was a big shipping crate, set behind a clutch of barrels. On the side, old-timey stencilled lettering read, “16 Winchester Repeating Rifles.” It could have been part of a museum diorama, every detail perfect except for its location. In 1898, Dawson had no regular shipments of rifles, no sheriffs or outlaws or reckless gunplay—not on Sam Steele’s watch. He is said to have boasted that he never once needed to fire his gun during his time in the Klondike.

Word spread about the fortunes being won and lost, and the stalwart Mountie who kept Dawson from falling apart became a leading figure in the drama. In April 1899, when a fire ripped through the town, it was mainly saved from ruin by the quick-thinking Steele, who ordered a row of buildings demolished to create a firebreak. Within weeks, a newspaper in Chicago described him as “a whole army unto himself.” The Klondike was passing into American myth, with Steele along for the ride.

The adventures of Jack London and the poems of Robert Service soon codified the Klondike in the collective psyche of the English-speaking world, initiating the transformation of a Canadian outpost into an American frontier town. Service’s larger-than-life characters were among its first fictitious residents. As Pierre Berton wrote more than half a century later, “If there had been a Dan McGrew in Dawson, and a Malemute Saloon, as Service’s fictional verse suggests, there could never have been a shooting because a Mountie would have been on the spot to confiscate the guns before the duel began.”

Dan McGrew and London’s heroic sled dog were just the start. In 1925, Charlie Chaplin brought The Gold Rush to the silver screen in his greatest box-office success. Inspired by Hegg’s haunting photos, he had his crew round up hundreds of vagrants from Sacramento to meticulously recreate the march over the Chilkoot Pass in California’s Sierra Nevada. For a 1920s audience, the vivid depictions must have seemed breathtaking. The setting, though, is never named (a title card identifies it only as “One of the Many Cities in the Far North”), and the film is best remembered for its legendary Chaplin set pieces. Who recalls that when the Little Tramp stuck two forks into a pair of dinner rolls and danced them as miniature legs, he was performing for charmed showgirls on New Year’s Eve in a Dawson cabin? (Mae West’s 1936 film Klondike Annie blurs the borders even more dramatically. The heroine never sets foot in Yukon, and the film takes place primarily in Nome, Alaska.)

By the 1940s, the Klondike was mostly deracinated, a frozen American stand-in. Scrooge McDuck made his fortune there and evidently brought it home without clearing customs. In 1959’s Bonanza Bunny, Bugs went to Dawson, introduced by the narrator as “a roistering, lawless, gold-mad boom town,” where he encounters Blacque Jacque Shellacque, the “roughest, toughest, mukluk-est Canuck in ze Klondike”—so much so that he is American in all but accent, firing twin pistols at the floorboards of the Malibu Saloon to propel himself skyward in frustration at Bugs’ hijinks. When Canada did show up, it was as pure caricature, and nowhere more broadly, nor more famously, than in Sergeant Preston of the Yukon.

Legions of cardboard Mounties have populated American culture, heroes in such B movies as O’Malley of the Mounted, Mounted Fury, and Death Goes North , along with the cartoon Dudley Do-Right in Rocky and Bullwinkle, but Sergeant Preston was the prime disseminator of the stereotype. The series was a hit throughout the ’40s and ’50s, first on radio and then on TV, and it followed a formula as crisp and wrinkle-free as Preston’s tunic. Each episode, another crime would be solved, another villain vanquished, while the dutiful Mountie remained sober and unflappable throughout. He was assisted by his loyal dog, Yukon King, the show’s true star, which says much about the caricature: the archetypal Canadian is less interesting than his dog.

Sergeant Preston captured young minds by the millions at the giddy peak of ’50s youth culture, and so Canada entered the American consciousness primarily by way of a tidy lawman who was the least exciting element of his own narrative. The scenery was amazing, Yukon King brave and adorable, and the Mountie merely there—reliable, dutiful, dull. When Quaker Oats, the show’s main sponsor and a manufacturer of cereals as bland and wholesome as the Mountie himself, launched what would become one of the most successful marketing campaigns of its time, it chose not Sergeant Preston but the Klondike itself as the enticement. In 1955, the company purchased nineteen acres of wilderness on the Yukon River and set up the Klondike Big Inch Land Co. to parcel it out. For the price of one mailed-in box top, American kids received an official-looking deed overflowing with flowery legalese, attesting to their ownership of a full square inch of land in “the wildest country on earth and the most savage of climates.” Quaker eventually gave the titles away directly, one per box, distributing 21 million in all. Well into the 1980s, it continued to receive queries from grown-up fans, wondering if the keepsake still entitled them to their postage stamp pieces of real estate. Alas, the Big Inch Land Co. had gone belly up in 1965 over failure to pay $37.20 in Canadian taxes. Like the titleholders themselves, Quaker had never thought of Yukon as a physical territory in a foreign land; it was primarily a rich landscape on the map of American myth.

We remain boxed in by those old frames, overeager in some attention-starved, self-deprecating way to play Sergeant Preston to the wild sled dogs and Little Tramps of our brash southern neighbour. One of the more popular Canadian TV dramas of the ’90s was Due South, a buddy cop series built on the fish-out-of-water tensions between an overly polite Mountie and a tough-talking American detective on Chicago’s mean streets. Every Canadian comedian worth a two-drink minimum has a stable of polite, boring Canuck jokes: How do you get a hundred Canadians out of a pool? You say, “Please get out of the pool.” We have co-opted our own stereotype, not to subvert it but to amplify it. In the process, we shrug off great Canadian exploits, too darn polite to insist that the true tale of Sam Steele is among the Klondike’s most compelling yarns.

Another golden age of television is upon us, and it presents a golden opportunity for Canadian storytelling. American mythmakers have set the pace and still dominate the medium, reiterating frontier legends through the lens of New Jersey mobsters (The Sopranos), and drug pushers from Baltimore (The Wire) to Albuquerque (Breaking Bad). They have also lavished loving detail on the Black Hills gold rush of the 1870s (Deadwood) and stylish mid-century Madison Avenue (Mad Men), and they have dug deep into the rituals of death and mourning (Six Feet Under) and the social lives of twentysomething New Yorkers (Girls), serial killers (Dexter), and CIA agents (Homeland).

But this boom in long-form TV has not been limited to the United States. We have grand re-examinations of the English class system (Downton Abbey), gripping New Zealand crime dramas (Top of the Lake, co-written and directed by Jane Campion), and Danish political intrigue (Borgen, a hit throughout Europe that inspires fan pilgrimages to Copenhagen). As for Canadian storytellers, our latest high-profile drama was a rehash of 500-year-old British history (The Tudors, which aired on BBC Two in the UK and on Showtime in the US, as well as on CBC). Canada has barely begun to clear its collective throat in this room, an error of omission akin to not bothering to publish novels by and about Canadians.

In one of those binges endemic to novelistic TV, I watched all three seasons of Deadwood while living in Pierre Berton’s childhood home in Dawson. It was the dead of winter, pitch black for more than eighteen hours a day, a time and place inhabited by many ghosts. Berton was there, of course, his library lining an old bookshelf, each volume containing another dozen or a hundred vibrant Canadian characters waiting to be reborn. But when I finally turned off the TV after two or three (or six) episodes, the spectre of the lawless Dakota Territory crept in. It wasn’t hard to imagine American prospectors and saloon keepers emerging out of the ice fog with hands poised over their side arms. The wood plank sidewalks of Dawson myth were not terribly crowded with local spirits.

I would inevitably wind up staring out the window at Robert Service’s cabin, now a National Historic Site, where the poet lived for a spell after telling the world about Sam McGee and Dan McGrew. Service was likely inspired by the tall tales of the California forty-niners he read about in his youth. Even our historic sites are dedicated to someone else’s second-hand versions.

Frontier towns and nations alike are defined in large part by the tales we tell about them. If we don’t do a better job of sharing Canadian stories, we’ll have them told to us instead by stiff-lipped Mounties on the periphery of the action. We need to reclaim these histories, not just because they are Canadian, but also because they are so much better than the ones we’re being told.

This appeared in the January/February 2014 issue.

Chris Turner (@theturner) published How to Breathe Underwater: Field Reports from an Age of Radical Change in 2014.

Michael Byers (michaelcbyers.com) has contributed to Variety, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal.