If you’ve been watching Operation Gold Rush, you’ve probably marvelled at Dan Snow’s dedication to his craft and felt a bit sorry for his travelling companions.
With a team of experts in tow, he’s attempting to re-enact the Klondike Gold Rush of the late 1890s, when 100,000 people embarked on a perilous 600-mile journey from the Alaskan coast to the gold fields in northernmost Canada hoping to find gold and get rich quick.
In the first episode, Snow forded an icy river in nothing but boxer shorts (for historical accuracy’s sake), then lost half his team while climbing a precipitous snow-clad peak in dense fog. Last week we saw him whitewater rafting in a flat-bottomed boat – a replica of the ones the gold hunters used.
Dan Snow on the Chilkoot Trail, the historic route used by the “stampeders” of the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush
As a polar explorer, his teammate Felicity Aston is used to roughing it, but her heart sank when she set eyes on their flimsy vessel. “It looked like an upturned packing crate! It didn’t look seaworthy and there’s Dan insisting he knew how to steer,” she says. “I remember looking him deep in the eyes and saying: ‘Dan, are you sure about this?’ He assured me he knew what he was doing and I trusted him.”
Amazingly, the boat didn’t capsize but they were thrown around like rag dolls. Snow came away with a bloody nose (and probably a bruised ego). “It didn’t go to plan, or maybe that was Dan’s plan!” says Aston. “I knew there was going to be an insistence on trying out historical things and I was up for that. But when Dan insisted that we strip down and wade across the river, I remember thinking, ‘I really hate you.’ I do challenging trips but I’m not into misery for the sake of it. I’m all for taking the more comfortable and – I would argue – sensible option.”
Felicity Aston, Kevin Fong, Dan Snow on board their replica boat “The Bloody Nose”, Bennett Lake
If Aston was less than enamoured with her travelling companion at times, the scenery provided ample distraction. She was blown away by the Chilkoot Trail, a 33-mile trek from the deserted Alaskan town of Dyea to Bennett Lake in British Columbia, through the Coast Mountains. “It’s one of the most spectacular long-distance hikes I’ve ever done. We did it in late May, so it was still very snowy. You have to be prepared for that, but the hike itself was really manageable and really varied – one minute you’re walking through flooded beaver ponds, the next you’re walking through pine forests and alpine scenery, then it’s through snow and past glaciers, and finally alongside a rushing river and deep emerald lakes.
“This place was totally destroyed by these tens of thousands of people streaming north to find gold and yet you wouldn’t know it. Nature has taken it back and it’s an absolute wilderness. It just stretches on and on. You still very much get the feeling that was described a hundred years ago: you feel if you stray too far off the path, this wilderness will swallow you up and you’ll never be seen again. There’s still that sense of menace and yet it’s beautiful at the same time.”
These days you need to apply for a permit to hike the Chilkoot Trail from the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, but any experienced walker can do all or a section of it. Alternatively, you could cheat – as Kevin Fong, the third member of Snow’s team does – and hop on the narrow-gauge White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad, which snakes through the mountains, past glaciers, gorges and waterfalls. Built in just 26 months and completed in 1900, it’s a mind-boggling feat of engineering that required tens of thousands of men and 450 tons of explosives.
Kevin Fong, Felicity Aston, Dan Snow getting into character in Dawson City
To get a taste of the hedonistic side of the Klondike Gold Rush, Aston recommends spending a few days in Dawson City in the Yukon. Most of the boom towns were abandoned, but its epicentre still feels like a frontier town. “It was known as the city that never slept,” she says.
“People paid in gold dust so prices were sky high. There were bars, dancehalls and women of ill repute, and it’s still got that sense of spit and sawdust and riotous high life in the middle of the wilderness. It’s very odd!”
Operation Gold Rush is on Sundays BBC2 9pm
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