The story of Dick North’s valiant effort to find and preserve a piece of literary London—as in Jack—begins one afternoon in California, where North attended university after serving in Italy during World War 11, when he walked into Jack London’s old hangout, the First and Last Chance Saloon in Oakland. As he listened to the bartender’s tales of Jack London, North wondered if the shack that sheltered Jack London and his party during their winter in the Klondike could still exist.
As North explains in Sailor on Snowshoes: Jack London’s Klondike Caper (Harbour $19.95), Jack London has a toe-hold in Canadian Literature because he spent eleven months (August 1897 to July 1898) prospecting for gold in the Klondike. In his autobiography, London writes, “I brought nothing back from the Klondike but my scurvy,” yet his works based on his Yukon adventure have achieved the status of classics. These include The Call of the Wild (1903), The White Fang (1906) and the popular anthology piece “To Build a Fire,” about a man who freezes to death on the Yukon trail.
Dick North decided that London’s Yukon cabin, a recurring image in his stories, seemed to embody the spirit of the writer:
"It was his refuge, his sanctuary, the place where he could obtain a maximum of warmth with a minimum of fuel. And it played a focal part in many of his stories. It is a symbol of a more simplistic era but not so far removed from us that we can ignore the fact that some day we may be forced to return to the same kind of humble dwelling in order to survive."
North was unconvinced by Irving Stone’s assertion in his popular biography Sailor on Horseback that London and a friend dismantled the cabin and made a raft out of it on which they floated downriver to Dawson City. When North was hired by the Daily Alaska Empire in Juneau in the early Sixties, the cabin occupied his thoughts night and day.
North soon learned that “money and jobs are the bane of dreamers.” His editor didn’t believe a quest for the cabin would make good copy, and when North rustled up financial support from the White Pass and Yukon railroad, the editor refused to give him time off. North promptly quit his job, and set off on the first of many journeys by bus, snowshoe and dog-sled.
Not only did North establish the cabin’s location on Henderson Creek, 75 miles south of Dawson City, but he made the triumphant discovery that remnants still existed not far from Stewart Island. It then became necessary to prove that this was, in fact, the cabin that London and his companions had built.
Establishing the authenticity of the cabin was complicated; it involved arranging for tree-ring experts to cut cones from the cabin’s logs and those of nearby trees in order to date it exactly. Then North had to trace the owner of a slab bearing Jack London’s signature that had been cut from the cabin wall leaving a slash. Once that was done, handwriting experts had to confirm that the handwritten inscription that read “Jack London, miner, author, Jan 27, 1898” was actually London’s.
Fortunately, the Port Authority of Oakland, California, on whose premises the Jack London Square Merchant’s Association was housed, became enthusiastic. They contributed $17,000 to the project, of which $500 went to purchase the crucial slab. In 1969, when the slab was ready to be matched with the slash on the wall, they scheduled an expedition that included the actor Eddie Albert to bring it to the cabin.
The California group flew to Stewart Island and traveled 18 miles in three dogsleds to Henderson Creek. There they witnessed the exact match between the slab and the slash, and relished the atmosphere of the cabin and the creek described in London’s stories. Since a journey by dogsled was not easy in the melting snow of April, they also experienced on their return journey hazards similar to those experienced by London’s characters.
The project did not end there. That would have meant leaving the cabin to molder away in a spot inaccessible by most means of transportation. A unique solution was devised, whereby the Canadian and American elements in London’s legacy could be honoured. By using logs from the original cabin and adding others, duplicate structures were created to the same scale as the original. One of these was transported to Oakland, and its twin was rebuilt in Dawson City.
Having already written about two mysteries of the Canadian North, The Mad Trapper of Rat River (1972) and The Lost Patrol (1978), North proves himself an old hand at creating a suspenseful narrative. But the richest part of the present book—which is an innovative blend of quest-motif, mystery and travelogue—is his evocation of the Gold Rush era, the characters, animals and the landscape that provide the stuff of Jack London’s fiction.
Unraveling the life and times of Jack London, (who died of a morphine overdose at the age of forty) is complicated by the fact that London was plagued throughout his short life by frauds and imposters. One of these, claiming to have traveled with him across North America, wrote a book on the putative journey. Another man impersonating London journeyed throughout Alaska, giving birth to the enduring belief that London lived in Nome when he never actually visited that city.
--- Joan Givner is a novelist, critic and biographer who lives in Mill Bay.