Note: There is a more common
version of this story that was pubished The Century Magazine.
travel or seafaring, a companion is usually considered desirable. In the
Klondike, as Tom Vincent found out, such a companion is absolutely essential.
But he found it out, not by precept, but through bitter experience.
"Never travel alone," is a precept of
the north. He had heard it many times and laughed; for he was a strapping young
fellow, big-boned and big-muscled, with faith in himself and in the strength of
his head and hands.
It was on a bleak January day when the experience
came that taught him respect for the frost, and for the wisdom of the men who
had battled with it.
He had left Calumet Camp on the Yukon with a
light pack on his back, to go up Paul Creek to the divide between it and Cherry
Creek, where his party was prospecting and hunting moose.
The frost was sixty degrees below zero, and he
had thirty miles of lonely trail to cover, but he did not mind. In fact, he
enjoyed it, swinging along through the silence, his blood pounding warmly
through his veins, and his mind carefree and happy. For he and his comrades
were certain they had struck "pay" up there on the Cherry Creek
Divide; and, further, he was returning to them from Dawson with cheery home
letters from the States.
At seven o'clock, when he turned the heels of his
moccasins toward Calumet Camp, it was still black night. And when day broke at
half past nine he had made the four-mile cut-off across the flats and was six
miles up Paul Creek. The trail, which had seen little travel, followed the bed
of the creek, and there was no possibility of his getting lost. He had gone to
Dawson by way of Cherry Creek and Indian River, so Paul Creek was new and
strange. By half past eleven he was at the forks, which had been described to
him, and he knew he had covered fifteen miles, half the distance.
He knew that in the nature of things the trail
was bound to grow worse from there on, and thought that, considering the good
time he had made, he merited lunch. Casting off his pack and taking a seat on a
fallen tree, he unmittened his right hand, reaching inside his shirt next to
the skin, and fished out a couple of biscuits sandwiched with sliced bacon and
wrapped in a handkerchief—the only way they could be carried without
He had barely chewed his first mouthful when his
numbing fingers warned him to put his mitten on again. This he did, not without
surprise at the bitter swiftness with which the frost bit in. Undoubtedly it
was the coldest snap he had ever experienced, he thought.
He spat upon the snow,—a favorite northland
trick,—and the sharp crackle of the instantly congealed spittle startled
him. The spirit thermometer at Calumet had registered sixty below when he left,
but he was certain it had grown much colder, how much colder he could not
Half of the first biscuit was yet untouched, but
he could feel himself beginning to chill—a thing most unnatural for him.
This would never do, he decided, and slipping the pack-straps across his
shoulders, he leaped to his feet and ran briskly up the trail.
A few minutes of this made him warm again, and he
settled down to a steady stride, munching the biscuits as he went along. The
moisture that exhaled with his breath crusted his lips and mustache with
pendent ice and formed a miniature glacier on his chin. Now and again sensation
forsook his nose and cheeks, and he rubbed them till they burned with the
Most men wore nose-straps; his partners did, but
he had scorned such "feminine contraptions," and till now had never
felt the need for them. Now he did feel the need, for he was rubbing
Nevertheless, he was aware of a thrill of joy, of
exultation. He was doing something, achieving something, mastering the
elements. Once he laughed aloud in sheer strength of life, and with his
clenched fist defied the frost. He was its master. What he did he did in spite
of it. It could not stop him. He was going on to the Cherry Creek Divide.
Strong as were the elements, he was stronger. At
such times animals crawled away into their holes and remained in hiding. But he
did not hide. He was out in it, facing it, fighting it. He was a man, a master
In such fashion, rejoicing proudly, he tramped
on. After half an hour he rounded a bend, where the creek ran close to the
mountainside, and came upon one of the most insignificant-appearing but most
formidable dangers in northern travel.
The creek itself was frozen solid to its rocky
bottom, but from the mountain came the outflow of several springs. These
springs never froze, and the only effect of the severest cold snaps was to
lessen their discharge. Protected from the frost by a blanket of snow, the
water of these springs seeped down into the creek, and, on top of the creek
ice, formed shallow pools.
The surface of these pools, in turn, took on a
skin of ice which grew thicker and thicker, until the water overran, and so
formed a second ice-skinned pool above the first.
Thus at the bottom was the solid creek ice, then
probably six to eight inches of water, then a thin ice-skin, then another six
inches of water and another ice-skin. And on top of this last skin was about an
inch of recent snow to make the trap complete.
To Tom Vincent's eye the unbroken snow surface
gave no warning of the lurking danger. As the crust was thicker at the edge, he
was well toward the middle before he broke through.
In itself it was a very insignificant
mishap,—a man does not drown in twelve inches of water,—but in its
consequences as serious an accident as could possibly befall him.
At the instant he broke through he felt the cold
water strike his feet and ankles, and with half a dozen lunges he made the
bank. He was quite cool and collected. The thing to do, and the only thing to
do, was to build a fire. For another precept of the north runs: Travel with
wet socks down to twenty below zero; after that build a fire. And it was
three times twenty below and colder, and he knew it.
He knew, further, that great care must be
exercised; that with failure at the first attempt, the chance was made greater
for failure at the second attempt. In short, he knew that there must be no
failure. The moment before a strong, exulting man, boastful of his master of
the elements, he was now fighting for his life against those same
elements—such was the difference caused by the injection of a quart of
water into a northland traveller's calculations.
In a clump of pines on the rim of the bank the
spring high-water had lodged many twigs and small branches. Thoroughly dried by
the summer sun, they now waited the match.
It is impossible to build a fire with heavy
Alaskan mittens on one's hands, so Vincent bared his, gathered a sufficient
number of twigs, and knocking the snow from them, knelt down to kindle his
fire. From an inside pocket he drew out his matches and a strip of thin birch
bark. The matches were of the Klondike kind, sulphur matches, one hundred to a
He noticed how quickly his fingers had chilled as
he separated one match from the bunch and scratched it on his trousers. The
birch bark, like the driest of paper, burst into bright flame. This he
carefully fed with the smallest twigs and finest débris, cherishing the
flame with the utmost care. It did not do to hurry things, as he well knew, and
although his fingers were now quite stiff, he did not hurry.
After the first quick, biting sensation of cold,
his feet had ached with a heavy, dull ache and were rapidly growing numb. But
the fire, although a very young one, was now a success, and he knew that a
little snow, briskly rubbed, would speedily cure his feet.
But at the moment he was adding the first thick
twigs to the fire a grievous thing happened. The pine boughs above his head
were burdened with a four months' snowfall, and so finely adjusted were the
burdens that his slight movements in collecting the twigs had been sufficient
to disturb the balance.
The snow from the topmost bough was the first to
fall, striking and dislodging the snow on the boughs beneath. And all this
snow, accumulating as it fell, smote Tom Vincent's head and shoulders and
blotted out his fire.
He still kept his presence of mind, for he knew
how great his danger was. He started at once to rebuild the fire, but his
fingers were now so cold that he could not bend them, and he was forced to pick
up each twig and splinter between the tips of the fingers of either hand.
When he came to the match he encountered great
difficulty in separating one from the bunch. This he succeeded in managing,
however, and also, by a great effort, in clutching the match between his thumb
and forefinger. But in scratching it, he dropped it in the snow and could not
pick it up again.
He stood up, desperate, he could not feel even
his weight on his feet, although the ankles were aching painfully. Putting on
his mittens, he stepped to one side, so that the snow would not fall upon the
new fire he was to build, and beat his hands violently against a
This enabled him to separate and strike a second
match and to set fire to the remaining fragment of birch bark. But his body had
now begun to chill and he was shivering, so that when he tried to add the first
twigs his hand shook and the tiny flame was quenched.
The frost has beaten him. His hands were
worthless. But he had the foresight to drop the bunch of matches into his
wide-mouthed outside pocket before he slipped on his mittens in despair, and
started to run up the trail. One cannot run the frost out of wet feet at sixty
below and colder, however, as he quickly discovered.
He came round a sharp turn of the creek to where
he could look ahead for a mile. But there was no help, no sign of help, only
the white trees and the white hills, the quiet cold and the brazen silence! If
only he had a comrade whose feet were not freezing, he thought, only such a
comrade to start the fire that could save him!
Then his eyes chanced upon another high-water
lodgment of twigs and leaves and branches. If he could strike a match, all
might be well. With stiff fingers which he could not bend, he got out a bunch
of matches, but found it impossible to separate them.
He sat down and awkwardly shuffled the bunch
about on his knees, until he got it resting on his palm with the sulphur ends
projecting, somewhat in the manner the blade of a hunting-knife would project
when clutched in the fist.
But his fingers stood straight out. They could
not clutch. This he overcame by pressing the wrist of the other hand against
them, and so forcing them down upon the bunch. Time and again, holding thus by
both hands, he scratched the bunch on his leg and finally ignited it. But the
flame burned into the flesh of his hand, and he involuntarily relaxed his hold.
The bunch fell into the snow, and while he tried vainly to pick it up, sizzled
and went out.
Again he ran, by this time badly frightened. His
feet were utterly devoid of sensation. He stubbed his toes once on a buried
log, but beyond pitching him into the snow and wrenching his back, it gave him
His fingers were helpless and his wrists were
beginning to grow numb. His nose and cheeks, he knew were freezing, but they
did not count. It was his feet and hands that were to save him, if he was to be
He recollected being told of a camp of
moose-hunters somewhere above the forks of Paul Creek. He must be somewhere
near it, he thought, and if he could find it he yet might be saved. Five
minutes later he came upon it, lone and deserted, with drifted snow sprinkled
inside the pine-bough shelter in which the hunters had slept. He sank down,
sobbing. All was over. In an hour at best, in that terrific temperature, he
would be an icy corpse.
But the love of life was strong in him, and he
sprang again to his feet. He was thinking quickly. What if the matches did burn
his hands? Burned hands were better than dead hands. No hands at all were
better than death. He floundered along the trail till he came upon another
high-water lodgment. There were twigs and branches, leaves and grasses, all
waiting the fire.
Again he sat down and shuffled the bunch of
matches on his knees, got it into place on his palm, with the wrist of his
other hand forced the nerveless fingers down against the bunch, and with the
wrist kept them there. At the second scratch the bunch caught fire, and he knew
that if he could stand the pain he was saved. He choked with the sulphur fumes,
and the blue flame licked the flesh of his hands.
At first he could not feel it, but it burned
quickly in through the frosted surface. The odor of the burning
flesth—his flesh—was srong in his nostrils. He writhed about in his
torment, yet held on. He set his teeth and swayed back and forth, until the
clear white flame of the burning match shot up, and he had applied that flame
to the leaves and grasses.
An anxious five minutes followed, but the fire
gained steadily. Then he set to work to save himself. Heroic measures were
necessity, such was his extremity, and he took them.
Alternately rubbing his hands with snow and
thrusting them into the flames, and now and again beating them against the hard
trees, he restored their circulation sufficiently for them to be of use to him.
With his hunting-knife he slashed the straps from his pack, unrolled his
blanket, and got out dry socks and foot-gear.
Then he cut away his moccasins and bared his
feet. But while he had taken liberties with his hands, he kept his feet fairly
away from the fire and rubbed them with the snow. He rubbed till his hands grew
numb, when he would cover his feet with the blanket, warm his hands by the
fire, and return to the rubbing.
For three hours he worked, till the worst effects
of the freezing had been counteracted. All that night he stayed by the fire,
and it was late the next day when he limped pitifully into the camp on the
Cherry Creek Divide.
In a month's time he was able to be about on his
feet, although his toes were destined always after that to be very sensitive to
frost. But the scars on his hands he knows he will carry to the grave.
And—"Never travel alone!" he now lays down the precept
of the north.
From the May 29, 1902 issue of The Youth's Companion magazine.
See also the more common version of
this story published in The Century Magazine.
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