Popular Science Monthly/Volume 72/January 1908/The Grayling at Caribou Crossing




SAINT AMBROSE, of blessed memory, a fisherman of old, likewise a fisher of men, "magnanimous, plaintive and intense," once declared in his town of Trêves in Gaul, Trêvirorum of the Black Gate, fifteen hundred years ago, that the grayling was "the flower of fishes." This it certainly is, the most choice, the most unhackneyed, of all the prizes of the angler.

The Latin name of the grayling, Thymallus, comes from the fact that, when fresh, the fish has the odor of wild thyme, a fragrant mint, common on the brooksides of Northern England. Shakespeare knew on the Avon in Stratford "a bank whereon the wild thyme grows," and I too have found in fragrant Warwickshire many a slope which well answers to Shakespeare's description. But though the grayling is a sweet fish, pleasant to smell as well as to see when it comes forth fresh from the ripple, yet I have never been able to detect the odor the ancients knew so well.

The grayling is cousin to the trout. Its mouth is smaller, its teeth are not so sharp and it has neither the strength nor the speed nor the voracity of the least of the trout. Its scales are larger than in any trout, and there are blue spots as well as black spots on them on a gray background. There is never any red, and from the prevailing gray comes the fine old English name of grayling, as well as the German name of æsch.

The shape of body and fins is like the trout. The little adipose fin is there just the same as in the trout. But the dorsal fin is different. It is much higher than in any trout, and it has more rays. It rises up like a sail and it is marked by sky-blue spots which give the fish a distinguished appearance when it is at home in its native waters.

The grayling lives in swift, clear streams—not often in lakes. It calls for colder water than the trout, and so its range is farther to the north. Indeed, it is comparatively a rare fish outside the Arctic circle.

The different species of grayling are all very much alike in looks as well as in habits. The common grayling of Europe is Thymallus thymallus. It ranges through northern England, Scotland, Scandinavia and Russia. There is, likewise, a species of grayling spread all over Siberia, but we know very little about this fish, and are not sure what species it is. Through the Yukon region of the great northwest, there is a grayling, very abundant in the right waters and bearing the name of the standard-bearer, Thymallus signifer. In the old days, after the great glacial ice, this fish extended to the eastward over a much larger area, but the ice has melted away, and there are left three isolated colonies to the southeast of the main band. One of these colonies is called Thymallus ontariensis or tricolor and lives in certain streams, notably the Jordan and the Au Sable, in the sandy woods of the southern peninsula of Lake Michigan. In both these streams the grayling is growing scarce through the combined evil influence of the lumberman and the trout-hog. In the northern peninsula, there is another isolated little colony. Let us call its stream the Nameless River, and if we leave it so the thyme-scented fish may increase to fill other rivers which are not nameless.

The remaining colony, a little changed from the other two through long isolation, is in Montana, at the head of the Missouri River. The Montana grayling is called Thymallus montanus. It is most plentiful in the Gallatin River, and if you look through the mountains till you find Horsethief Creek, you will be sure of at least one day's good sport. It will take all day to find the creek, no matter from where you start.

And this brings me to describe my best day's sport with the grayling. It so happened that in June, 1897, the present writer was in the city of Juneau, the metropolis of Alaska. That day, the Canadian surveyor, Ogilvie, since noted in Klondyke history, had reached Juneau from up the coast and across the mountains with a wonderful story of the happenings in the northwest territory of Canada, on the banks of the middle Yukon. It seems that the Indian Skookum Jim of Caribou Crossing, with his friend Tagish Charley, a squaw man Siwash George, and his wife, who was Skookum Jim's sister, were wandering across the country, supposed vaguely to be in the interest of one Anderson—looking for gold.

Away down the river beyond Lake Labarge, one of the men took sick. He had eaten too much blubber of some sort, and the wife of Siwash George went down to a brook to get him a basin of water. In the bottom of the basin was a streak of fine gold. They went down to the stream and bailed out more. Then Skookum Jim, as his name would indicate, started out swiftly at the top of his speed, "touching only the high places," to record with the Dominion authorities the claim of himself and his associates. Skookum in Chinook means swift, hence Skookum Chuck—a waterfall. Bonanza Creek, Klondyke, Dawson then at once became names and then realities, and all the world knows their story. Skookum Jim, a millionaire, built himself a large house of pine lumber at Caribou Crossing. He went to Seattle to buy a Brussels carpet for its floor. When the carpet came it was too broad by nearly a yard for Skookum Jim's best room. So he had the house cut apart and spread until the room was large enough for the carpet. How Tagish Charley became one of the generous rich, beloved of all men, and how Siwash George deserted the woman who made his fortune for a San Francisco actress, all this, with the spectacular career of Swiftwater Bill, are known to every one in touch with the gossip of the smart set of Caribou Crossing, Seattle, and San Francisco.

When Ogilvie told all this in Juneau, the whole town responded. Juneau itself lay on the very frontier of adventure, and here was something newer and greater and only two thousand miles or so beyond.

So the gamblers and gold seekers, the clerks and lawyers resigned their positions, threw up their jobs, in some way or another made their way to the head of navigation, Dyea or Skagway, and then struck the White Pass Trail. The Bright Eyes Opera Company broke its engagement at Juneau and men and women started over the mountains to Bonanza Creek. And after them came a most wonderful migration—one of those movements which, if anything could, lend "to the sober twilight of the present, the color of romance."

All the way southward, the word went from Juneau. Cigarette young men, who had never done a man's day's work in their lives, crowded the smoking rooms in the Pullman cars, and pampered dogs—St. Bernard, Great Dane, Mastiff, brought up in luxury, and bought or stolen to do the work of a husky or Siberian wolf dog—rode in the baggage cars. Along with the rest came young women and old women, dainty Mercedes, silly, pretty and whimsical, demanding the impossible, elderly graduates of cheap boarding houses with iron hand and iron jaw, capable of making some sort of a way anywhere. All were loaded down with clothing and provisions needed for an Arctic winter. Most knew nothing of hardships, nothing of dogs, nothing of trails over glacial mountains and through endless chains of rock-bound lakes, each hidden in its-cleft of rocks. They knew nothing of boats or rafts, or the breaking up of the ice, nothing of gold or men or Alaska. And the dogs were just as ignorant, and had not even seen a map of Alaska, and did not know beforehand that they were going there.

From Skagway—a wild bedlam of incongruous elements, with its hero mayor, chief of the Vigilantes—the trail goes up the boisterous river, through the fir woods, past the mouth of glaciers, into a great amphitheater like that at the foot of the Splügen Pass, then in long zigzags and windings past reckless splashing waterfalls and unbridged chasms to the foot of the moss-covered White Pass. Then up the pass to its gusty Summit Lake and the long ravine-like chain of lakes at the head of the Yukon which may keep one guessing for miles as to the way past or around them.

In a sheltered depression on the summit is a place which should be historic. Here every band of pilgrims has camped for the night. Here it has cast away its luggage, discarded its horses, abandoned its dogs. Into the springy heather-grown basin, sheltered from the wind, we may find trodden into the muck harnesses, sleds, bottles, cups, plates, hats, trousers, neckties, bones of dogs, bones of horses, ravens, newspapers, playing cards, cigarette papers, shirts, collars—every evidence of a failing civilization. The dead ravens tell the story of their premature attacks on dogs and horses, for the men have pistols, and they are the last to go. Near this place, some later humorist has built a house of empty beer bottles, set together with mortar—a house big enough to shelter you and me from the storm. Bones of men are strewn along the way—you can trace the trail by the soiled and dislocated heather—but all these, so far as I know, have had a decent burial. Some of them, to be sure, were buried under avalanches, but that was on the south side of the pass, near the foot of the great unnamed waterfall, over which unheeded flows the Nameless River. We have passed the waterfall and the river, and are now well down on the Yukon side. The little ice-cold Summit Lake, where more than one loaded team and its teamsters went through the breaking ice, is said to be well stocked with trout. Men described these to us as Dolly Varden trout (Salvelinus malma). As the lake flows into the Yukon, and as the Dolly Varden is not found in the Yukon, which has only the Great Lake trout or Mackinaw trout (Cristivomer namaycush), we developed a geological theory that the Yukon had stolen this lake from the Skagway. The theory looked not unreasonable. Rivers do such things. At the head of the lake was a little dam of glacial drift. Cut through this dam, and the head of the Yukon would flow down into the Skagway. Perhaps it did so in the days before this dam was made. But facts are facts. Let us see what kind of trout lives in the lake, and we will tell you its glacial history. My companion, Professor Harold Heath, borrowed a fly and cast into the lake. We had one rise, and landed the fish. It was the Great Lake trout and not the Dolly Varden. So we laid our theory on the shelf and allowed the Summit Lake to remain in the past as it is in the present, a head-spring of the Yukon. I said that rivers do such things. At the head of the Roanoke River, near Allegheny Springs, in Virginia, is a valley which the Roanoke has stolen—fishes and all—from the Holston River, on the other side of the ridge. To steal a valley is to undermine it gradually from the other side, until the water in the first valley turns and flows the other way. But the Yukon has stolen nothing from the Skagway, and on second thought it deserves no credit for its reticence.

It looks cold to the north of the White Pass, even in mid-summer. Down the long rock-ridges between the lakes goes the trail—on and on through reindeer moss and heather, all the way above timber line, down to Lake Linderman, long and narrow, like a gigantic rock-bound ditch of the giants. Down the long shore of Lake Bennett, through scrub and swamp, birch and brambles. No wonder so many took to the ice, rotten though it be in early summer. No wonder so many tried to make rafts of logs, when the wind blew in the right direction. On and on down the straight shore of gusty Lake Bennett, two days' march it may be. Then you come to Caribou Crossing. The caribou is the native reindeer, and here in the interval between Lake Bennett and Lake Tagish, with Lake Marsh beyond, is the only place for 500 miles where a herd of caribou can cross the Yukon River. Let us cross it quickly, too, for the water is very cold, and deeper than a man or a caribou likes to wade. Here at Caribou Crossing lived and worked for a generation Father Bumpus, of blessed memory, bishop of the Yukon. And here still lives his charming wife, born to the soft skies of England and the gentle ways of English society, but here a power for good in the wilderness to which she gave her life. It seems to me that if the Church of England were all-wise, it would some time send his grace, the archbishop of Canterbury, to exchange places for a year with the bishop of Yukon. The bishop of the boundless hills would learn something in Canterbury, no doubt, but consider what the archbishop of Canterbury would learn were the seat of his diocese for a year at Caribou Crossing.

From the Caribou Crossing the river curves through the fir woods to the right—for we are below timber line again. Then it sways forward, running through a couple of lakes into a swift gorge—the famed and fated White Horse Rapids—below which it widens out into the immense Lake Labarge, which runs to the northward as far as the eye can see, and a good deal farther. Some men—about one in ten, perhaps—preferred to take their chances in running the White Horse Rapids, rather than to carry their belongings over the Caribou Hills. Some of these—one in two, perhaps—got through safely. The rest went to swell the romance, the terror, the tragedy of the gold of the Klondyke and the White Pass of the Yukon.

But the Caribou Crossing is full of fish, and some of these—lake trout, cisco, pike, ling, sculpin—take the hook when it is properly baited. You can stand on the little wharf in front of the Bishop's House, or on the bank in Skookum Jim's dooryard and cast for grayling and the grayling will respond. Better than this, you can cross the river and go a couple of miles across the field and around a bayou where the wood begins. In the little forest you will find a roaring brook and at the foot of a cascade you will find the grayling as eager as you are, and, if you are contented with a reasonable basket, you will fish awhile, then lie down on the heather and take for yourself something better than many fishes—that which Wordsworth called the "harvest of the quiet eye."