Written by Jo Woolf, RSGS Writer-in-Residence

A two-part blog post, telling the story of the Klondike Gold Rush and a Scottish plant collector who followed the prospectors’ trail...


On a midsummer evening in 1933, Isobel Wylie Hutchison stood on the deck of the paddle steamer Casca and watched as the little Canadian town of Whitehorse faded into the twilight. Ahead of her, the Yukon River coiled its lazy way through a vast wilderness of spruce and poplar. She wrote: “There it rolled before me! A broad golden flood stretching between level forest-fringed banks - two thousand odd miles of it before it emptied itself into the Bering Sea…” 


Isobel Wylie Hutchison (IWH): Striking botanical gold on the banks of the Yukon (c) RSGS    

Flicking through the pages of a travel booklet, Isobel learned more about the Klondike Gold Rush. It was a time of dramatic fortunes, both good and bad, and it was still well within living memory. In 1897 and 1898, tens of thousands of hopeful prospectors had spilled off ships in Skagway and Dyea and toiled over high snow-bound passes as they raced towards the glittering waters of the Yukon. Isobel could readily identify with them, because she was a kind of prospector herself. Her quest, however, was not for gold but for flowers:   the rare and exquisite blooms of the Arctic, which had haunted her imagination all the way across the Atlantic, through the Panama Canal, and up the western seaboard of North America. She had been dreaming of this adventure for years, and now, finally, it was unfolding.


Paddle steamer ‘Casca’ on the Yukon  (IWH)

Isobel had followed the old prospectors’ route from Skagway, except that now there was a comfortable railroad over the treacherous White Pass. She was now heading for Dawson, which lay 460 miles downstream. The Five Finger Rapids, which had tested the nerve of more than one boat-builder, were navigated with relative ease by Casca’s experienced captain, whose trick involved heading straight for a central island before turning the vessel at the last minute, skirting the rocks by a few feet. 

Although the stampede for gold was over, the industry was by no means finished. Among the passengers, Isobel couldn’t help but notice three gold-diggers in the old tradition, one of whom was especially silent, with strange blue eyes and a tall-crowned ‘cow-puncher’ hat. Perhaps they were ghosts of former times; instead of disembarking with the rest at Dawson, she heard that they were set ashore at 3 am, and disappeared into the country upriver while everybody else was asleep. 


 Sunset over the Yukon flats (IWH)

With a week to spend at Dawson before she caught the next boat, Isobel booked herself into the Royal Alexandra Hotel, where she was the only guest. She was struck by its faded grandeur: “The hotel was a relic of the great days with a capacious lounge, gilded mirrors, and rows of empty bedrooms.” Somewhat apologetically, the proprietor explained that he no longer offered meals, but there were a number of good restaurants in town. Undaunted, Isobel sallied forth to explore. 

As she gradually got to know the inhabitants of Dawson - and it was easier than she imagined, because she was an object of friendly curiosity - Isobel realised that she wasn’t by any means the only Scot in this far-flung community. Mrs Allard, the wife of the Chief of Police, was a Macleod from Skye, and she was eager to offer Isobel a trip by automobile up into the Klondike Valley “to see where the gold comes from.” They motored off up a dusty track, past mechanical dredgers that were still extracting the precious mineral in surprising quantities: “Beside the road stretched long lines of thick iron pipes, bringing water from the hills to thaw out the frozen valley. In certain sections ‘hydraulicking’ was going on, a stream of water being directed upon the gravels through a nozzle, in order to wash them to the head of the sluice boxes.”

At Bear Creek, Isobel was permitted a privileged glimpse inside the ‘Gold Room’, where the sifted metal was melted down into solid bars of bullion. Inside a two-pound coffee can, she “beheld a heap of gold dust and nuggets which would have made a tidy little fortune.” While Isobel was understandably dazzled, she was far more attracted to the plants that were already starting to colonise the old tailing-heaps. One of her favourite finds was the rare twin-flower, Linnaea borealis, whose delicate lavender-tinted blossoms dangled on thread-like stems.


As the summer heat intensified, Isobel set out to climb the Dome, a well-known hill with far-reaching views towards the Rockies. She enchanted by the flowers she encountered along the way: “Saxifrages, cerastium, lycopodium, crowberry and such-like residents of the high tops took the place of lupin and bluebell, and it was not long before I had filled my press to overflowing with species known to me and unknown. Is there any thrill to equal that which stirs the heart of the botanist when he first sets eyes upon a new flower?”

From Dawson, the paddle-steamer Yukon transported Isobel downstream to Nenana, where she faced a tricky decision: should she continue by river all the way to St Michael, or fly from Fairbanks to Nome, in order to catch the boat that was going northwards to Barrow? Time was of the essence, because she wanted to cross the Beaufort Sea before the winter freeze began. Within hours, her ample luggage was being squeezed into the cabin of a tiny seaplane and she was gazing out of the window as a vast panorama of forests and winding river valleys opened out beneath her. The plane skimmed down Nome’s Snake River in a plume of spray, and shortly afterwards a taxi dropped her off at the Golden Gate Hotel.    


The Golden Gate Hotel during the Gold Rush. It may have been partly re-built before Isobel’s arrival. 

The Golden Gate had definitely seen better days. Isobel’s room was decorated with “gilded mirrors and a wallpaper which - owing to the shifting of the retaining wall - hung in folds from the cornice.” Luckily she cared little for such things, and set about finding something to eat: like the hotel in Dawson, the Golden Gate no longer offered meals. The proprietor recommended the Maple Leaf Restaurant, just along the street. Isobel tentatively pushed open the door and went inside.

The long room was furnished with a serving bar on one side, and tables arranged down the other. Only a few of them were taken. Conversation stopped at Isobel’s entry, and she was aware of being scrutinised in curious silence. Solitary travellers, especially female ones, didn’t often turn up in Nome, after all. With more confidence than she felt, Isobel strode to the counter and ordered her breakfast. A friendly smile from the owner, Mr White, eased her nervousness. Was Isobel a Scottish lady, by any chance? She’d be interested to know that his own mother had been born in Whithorn on the Solway. And meanwhile he heartily recommended his wife’s lemon, rhubarb and apple pie. 

The Maple Leaf Restaurant became one of Isobel’s daily haunts during her stay in Nome. Over a steaming cup of coffee, she perused the local paper, the Nome Nugget, and read about her own arrival, which was obviously noteworthy enough to make the news. She got to know the customers, and listened with interest to their exchanges. They moaned about the state of the roads and the laziness of workmen compared to the ‘good old days’. High transport prices, the mechanisation of farming… things just weren’t the same. One of them remembered seeing 50,000 prospectors camping on the beach. “They got 1,000 dollars a day down at Bluff in the fall of ’99, and bust it in the saloons eating and drinking. Eggs then was seventy-five dollars a crate.” Meanwhile surprises could still turn up anywhere:  an old-timer who rejoiced in the name of Shootem Jim had just discovered a pocket of gold beneath his house, because the ground had never been mined. “Took out 500 dollars, they do say.”

Eager to support Isobel’s quest, the regulars of The Maple Leaf urged her to contact Nome’s commissioner, Charlie Thornton, who was an expert botanist. In the company of Mr Thornton, Isobel enjoyed several days exploring the valleys and hillsides around Nome, adding another 200 species to her bulging collection. Beneath a clear blue sky, she sat on the summit of Anvil Mountain and watched the gold dredgers toiling far below, as the Bering Sea sparkled in the distance.


In Dawson and again in Nome, Isobel had lifted gold ingots and staggered under their weight, but still she was only mildly impressed. Her heart was stirred by more transient things: a shimmering field of lupins, the scent of a delicate primula, or the gossamer strands of a seed-head blowing in the wind. Soon she would have to race northwards, ahead of the freezing sea; but for now, she had all the riches that her heart desired.


I did not seek this golden Yukon river

To find the wealth that men may buy and sell,

I came to take - fresh handed from the Giver -

The flowers of this fair dell.


Blue lupin, pearl-white pinedrop, crimson firespike,

The spotted orchis and the shooting-star -

Oh!  Lovelier far than all the gold of Klondike

Her precious blossoms are!


Here through these woods all summer-time I’d wander

(The happy birds to bear me company),

And all the wealth of Bear Creek I would squander

For silver Fir and gold Anemone.


Poem and quotes: Isobel Wylie Hutchison, ‘North to the Rime-ringed Sun’ (1934)

Isobel Wylie Hutchison was awarded the RSGS Mungo Park Medal in 1934, and was for many years the Society’s Vice-President and Honorary Editor of the Scottish Geographical Magazine.