Online Edition: Winter 2006/2007

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Sailor on Snowshoes

Tracking Jack London's Northern Trail

Dick North

Harbour Publishing ($19.95)

by Ryder W. Miller

In Sailor on Snowshoes, Canadian journalist and northern historian Dick North takes the reader on an expedition to The North to follow the travails of Jack London during the year he spent searching for gold in the Klondike. London, then a scrappy 21 year-old sailor and adventurer from California, joined the Klondike Goldrush from August 1897 to July 1898, but he only returned to California with a few dollars of gold dust. However, as North relays, The North had a profound influence on London and inspired some of his most famous work. As London said of his journey after he returned to the Bay Area, "I found myself. There nobody talks. Everybody thinks. You get your true perspective. I got mine." London quickly became famous around the world for evoking the experiences and harshness of The North in such blockbusters as The Call of the Wild, White Fang and "To Build a Fire."

Much of the book is taken up with North's travelogue of his personal expedition to search for London's cabin in the Klondike, though he makes references to London's life as well as the stories and books that were inspired by this wild and dangerous country. (London's cabin has since been found—an extensive investigation proved its authenticity—and was transplanted to Oakland, California.) London did not write much about the cabin, but he leave his mark on a wood panel: "Jack London, miner, author, Jan 27, 1898." Later removed, it was returned upon the cabin's discovery and found to fit in place.

North evokes the harsh setting for London's disappointing but inspiring adventure through personal reflection and quotes from London, embellished by stark black and white historical photographs. "We walked on. The darkness now enveloped us like a black shroud," North recounts. "The eerie howl of a timber wolf suddenly broke the silence and reverberated through the lonely forest. Then another sounded and still another. It was scary but better to hear them than suffer the incredible 'white silence' of the northern wilderness."

Sailor on Snowshoes certainly adds to the lore concerning Jack London, but it is lessened by not addressing, despite the clue in the title, that London was also considered "The Melville of the Pacific." London was more successful writing about The North, but he also wrote many adventures on oceanic themes. As this book shows, writers do not always wind up being remembered for everything they would like, but rather by how others find them.


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