Friday, December 20, 2013

Klondike Friday. Juba, South Sudan:

Gold Web is now available, so this will be the last Klondike Friday for this go-round. I hope you've all enjoyed it.  This week I'm reprinting a piece I wrote on my first visit to South Sudan back in 2011. The situation has suddenly become dire in Juba, and I am very concerned. So here is my small wish for hope and peace in a very troubled land.  (Yes, I was writing Gold Web when I was there!)

Kayaking the Nile, outside Juba, South Sudan
Juba, South Sudan: 2011; Dawson City, Yukon: 1898
While I’ve been spending the last few weeks visiting my daughter in Juba, South Sudan, I’ve been working on Gold Web, the fourth Klondike Gold Rush mystery novel.

Seems like Juba would hardly be an inspiration, doesn’t it?

But the two places are surprisingly similar.

Take the streets. In Dawson the town flooded so much in the spring of 1897 that the Mounties needed a canoe to get from one building to another across the parade square. The town was built on a flood plain at the joining to two rivers. When it rained the streets turned into muddy passages so deep that the mud might come up to the top of a waggon wheel or to a horse’s knees. In Juba, the streets are mostly unpaved, and unmaintained. Potholes the size of a small car, open manholes, rocks and garbage and debris. I haven’t been here in the rainy season, but I shudder to contemplate.

The people. People from all over the world poured into the Klondike in search of fortune. Most of them were ill-equipped, to say the least, to live in an arctic mining town. The only ones who really made money were those who ‘mined the miners’: dance hall owners, shop owners, etc.

People from all over the world are here in Juba: aid workers from NGOs and foreign governments; people from other African countries setting up business large and small. Kenyans seem to have a monopoly on the car rental and taxi businesses, Eritreans on water delivery; Turks are building the new road to Umulei; Ugandan and Kenyan women staff restaurants and bars. White 4*4s stamped UN fill the streets along with most of the major NGOs. I have met people from Canada, UK, US, Holland, Botswana, Kenya, Germany, Ethiopia, France, South Africa, Sweden, Australia. Most of whom seem to get along in a joyous muddle.
The City. The Klondike was a rough and tumble mining town carved out of the sub-arctic wilderness. People lived in shacks made out of green wood or in canvas tents (in the winter!) and what buildings there were, were constructed with more speed than skill. This city isn’t much different. It was just a garrison town for the Northern forces for the years of the civil war. Only with the CPA in 2005 and the subsequent independence did the city start to grow. And growing it is. Construction is everywhere. Housing is a problem as people are pouring in, not only from other countries as mentioned above to take advantage of the new economic opportunities, but from the countryside. Most housing is still in tin shacks or traditional mud huts.

Environment. Cough. Hack. In Dawson sawdust covered everything, all the time. They were cutting down the forest as fast as possible and turning all that wood into boats and buildings and firewood. In Juba at this time of year not only is dust everywhere, but the farmers are burning their fields and smoke is thick in town. Neither were places for people with breathing difficulties. In Dawson there was one or two public toilets (depending on my sources) for a city of 30,000. No plumbing, no electricity, no telephone (They got electricity and telephone in 1899). In Juba, I don’t know how many public toilets there are but I’ve learned not to leave home without using one. The ‘western’ style houses have private garbage disposal and sanitation removal: the shanties, nope. What do you do without garbage collection or running water? Think about it.

The Wildlife: Zip. Nada. What else happens when the wilderness is destroyed and the people move in.

The future. There was no future for Dawson City. The gold rush ended abruptly in the summer of 1899 and everyone fled for other prospects. The era of the great gold rushes was over: most mining would be done by companies now, with industrial equipment and scientific innovations. By the early 20th century the city was pretty much a ghost town. It’s revived today, but the population is about 8,000 (it had been 30,000 in summer 1898) and it’s mostly a tourist town, reliving its glory days.

For Juba? There are difficulties to be sure: Crime is on the increase; war with the North still threatens; there are ethic and regional disputes. But everyone is optimistic and the energy is fantastic. I’m looking forward to coming back in a year or two and seeing how it’s progressed.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Klondike Friday – An Armada

It’s well known that the route to the Klondike in 1897-98 was nothing if not difficult. The photographs of a line of men and sometimes women climbing steadily up the Chilkoot trail, carrying a portion of their one ton of goods on their backs, is iconic. So iconic it’s featured on Alaska licence plates. (I’ve always thought it a bit ironic that the Alaska licence plate proudly features people LEAVING Alaska).

But lesser known perhaps is what those would-be prospectors faced once they reached the summit. Could they take a rest and congratulate themselves on making it? Was it smooth sailing the rest of the way? A gentle stroll down the mountainside followed by a leisurely cruise?

Not exactly.

Because once they reached the summit, and were inspected by the Mounties posted there and allowed to go forward, there was, of course, nothing until they got to Dawson City. Eight Hundred kilometres of nothing.
The only way to get to Dawson from here was by water, up the Yukon River. As there wasn’t exactly a port at the lakes, they had to build their own boats – and then navigate a river full of rapids through the wilderness.

And build boats they did, out of green wood they hacked out of the wilderness forest themselves. And not a canoe, but something that would transport all of their party and everyone’s ton of goods. While they waited the winter out on the shores of Lake Bennett for the river ice to break up. One day ice clogged the waterway, the next day it did not. And the armada set off. Just imagine a wilderness river, barely disturbed by so much as a paddle in all the years of its existence. Suddenly tens, then hundreds, of craft arrive. Canoes and rowboats, scows and barges, rafts that were living trees a few days before. Billowing with sails made out of the sides of tents or tarpaulins.

As this was Canada, and not the ‘wild west’ the Mounties kept an eye on the proceedings, they inspected the boats for some minimal degree of seaworthiness, and those they feared not capable of operating their craft were ordered to learn water skills first. At various points where the rapids were strong the police ordered women and children out of the boats to walk around.

Many boats and many possessions and even some lives were lost on the river. Imagine carrying all that stuff up the Chilkoot trail and over the summit only to watch it sink to the bottom of the mighty river.

GOLD WEB, the fourth book in the Klondike Gold Rush series, is now available for pre-order for both paper and ebook versions.  Click for,, Kobo, or remember your favourite independent bookstore.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Klondike Friday: The Beginning of the NWMP

In my research on the North-West Mounted Police for the Klondike Gold Rush series, I recently bought an out of print book titled Dickens of the Mounted by Eric Nicol (who sadly passed away recently at the age of 91). The book is fiction, but based on fact. Francis Dickens, son of Charles, was an Inspector in the NWMP for twelve years. Francis himself died in 1886 just a short while after leaving the police.

The book is very Flashman-esque. It takes what little is known about the real life of Dickens and proposes to be a book of letters he wrote back to England during his time in the NWMP.

His career was, shall we say, less than stellar and apparently his lasting contribution to Canadian history was that from then on the officer corps of the NWMP showed a ‘growing antipathy… towards Englishmen.’

The book is hilarious in places, poignant in others (Francis lived in his father’s shadow his entire life) and most importantly, in my opinion, a darn good historical read.

Francis Dickens joined the NWMP in 1874 (he secured his position as a Sub-Inspector through family connections while still in England – he had never been a police officer). He was slightly too late to take part in the Great March West which left in July. Dickens followed by train. There being at the time no Canadian train route, he had to go through the U.S. to St. Paul and then by stagecoach to Winnipeg.

The March West of the NWMP is one of the key pivotal points in the creation of Canada west of Winnipeg and in the creation of the Canadian identity (the police were sent to bring law and government to Indian lands, not the Army.) It is, naturally, almost completely unknown to any but the keenest follower of Canadian history.

Although Francis Dickens was too late for the March, he soon caught up and spent the remainder of his career in such outposts as Fort Pitt, Fort Walsh, and Fort MacLeod. (In Alberta, where I visited the historical NWMP fort ). He was there for treaty negotiations with the Blackfoot, dealings with Sitting Bull after he and his people came to Canada following the Little Big Horn, met Louis Riel, and fought the rebels in the North West Rebellion.

In the book, he meets and comments on Sam Steele, James Walsh, Sitting Bull, Louis Riel and many other historic characters. Sam Steele, incidentally, was an important player in the Klondike Gold Rush being the NWMP commissioner at that time. One of the towering figures of Canadian history, he is (of course) almost completely unknown.

A laugh out loud incident happens in the book when Dickens meets the Governor General (and son-in-law of Queen Victoria) and the GG wants to speak to him privately once he realizes Francis is the son of Charles Dickens.
“I wonder, Inspector Dickens, whether you can recommend a good publisher back home?”
“A publisher, Your Excellency?”
“Yes. You see, I do a bit of writing myself.”

I have long believed that the best way of teaching history is through historical fiction. Most writers of historical fiction work hard to keep the facts accurate and the setting and tone of the times dead on. But they present the history in a lively, exciting fashion, rather than the boring recitation of facts as it’s presented in most schools. If you want to learn more about the beginnings of the NWMP you could do a lot worse than look for a copy of Dickens of the Mounted.

The book cover shown above is an actual photo of Francis Dickens from the Public Archives of Canada. The Indian is Sitting Bull.

P.S. I am a huge Flashman fan, and the cad himself makes a brief appearance in Dickens of the Mounted, shortly after his adventures with Custer.