By Tom Clynes
Author’s Note: The Yukon, with its brawling, big-mountain physicality, is one of those places that tugs on adventurous imaginations. It’s also one of those places that tends to draw passionate people with passionate opinions. The debates that have overtaken Canada’s Far North are emblematic of the tension that runs through many of the world’s still-unspoiled places—between those who would keep it wild, and those whose success depends on digging it up.
As it turned out, this National Geographic feature would be one of the most rugged and most fun assignments I’ve ever experienced. Over three weeks I explored high ridges with gold prospectors, paddled through impossibly beautiful Arctic valleys with conservationists, and hunted caribou with some of the last hunter-gatherers on the continent. I came back with mountains of material—enough notes and photographs to fortify four magazine stories (including this one) and enliven plenty of keynote talks. As for the debate over the future of the northern wildlands, it is still far from settled.
Shawn Ryan recalls the hungry years, before his first big strike.
The prospector and his family were living in a metal shack on the outskirts of Dawson, the Klondike boomtown that had declined to a ghostly remnant of its glory days. They had less
than $300 and no running water or electricity. One night, as wind sneaked through gaps in the cladding, Ryan’s wife, Cathy Wood, worried aloud that their two children might even freeze to death.
Today the couple could buy—and heat—just about any house on Earth. Ryan’s discovery of what would eventually amount to billions of dollars’ worth of buried treasure has helped reinfect the Yukon with gold fever, and fortune seekers have stormed the Canadian territory in numbers not seen since the 1890s.
The minerals rush has reanimated Dawson’s weather-tilted bars and bunkhouses, whose facades glow in pastel hues during midsummer’s late-night sunset. The scene could be from more than a century ago, with bearded men bustling along wooden sidewalks and muddy streets, hooting and trading rumors of the latest strikes and price spikes. Inside Diamond Tooth Gerties casino, miners mingle with tourists and cancan girls, thronging four deep around beer taps and poker tables.
Author, photojournalist and adventure speaker Tom Clynes travels the world covering the adventurous sides of science, the environment and education. His work appears in publications such as National Geographic, The New York Times, Nature, Popular Science and The Atlantic. As a keynote speaker, Tom inspires audiences and brings them along on assignment to fascinating locations around the globe. Whether your group or organization is in search of adventure speakers, environmental speakers or your own in-house “National Geographic speaker series,” Tom’s presentations will earn high praise. To contact Tom and find out more about his memorable and inspiring programs, email firstname.lastname@example.org.