I white-knuckle the steering wheel of my ’83 Ford, Escort at the Banff border crossing—Alberta side—watching the minutes close in on an hour. There was no doubt my father would be late delivering my son, but I let him go, anyway. Bart wanted to see his grandfather and he was coming to the age where he wouldn’t ask permission. “Okay,” I agreed, “It’s a long trip—we’ll meet your grandfather halfway.” My father met us on time on the front end, but I knew he’d make me squirm getting Bart back.
That’s the kind of man my father is.
Ahead, a border patrolman pins me at regular intervals as he scans the area. His eyes are masked behind reflective sunglasses, but the I’m-watching-you message is clear. It chafes me when power is used to intimidate. Finally, Bart and my father arrive in a sporty, black BMW—no name—just a number. Fitting.
I wonder what I’m going to have to undo as my son strides across the pavement. What lies will my father have told, and what will my son believe? Who will my son believe? The man whose family made millions on the last wave of the greatest gold rush in North America, when prospector’s shovels could no longer dig deep enough—or me, the man who let it slip through his fingers, but kept wife and son in hand? It wasn’t the wealth itself that estranged me from my father. It was the lust for it, ripping person from person just as his machinery ripped rock from rock.
I start the car as Bart slides into the seat and buckles up, barely saying hello. His tired eyes follow the rumble of my father’s car as it passes in front of us. Bart reclines the seat and closes his eyes. His way of saying he doesn’t want to talk.
“Son,” I say, once we’ve crossed the border. “I want to tell you a story. You don’t have to say anything. Just listen for a minute. This is a story of Canadian mystery. Who discovered the Klondike gold in the Northwest Territory in August 1896? You’d think it’d be easy to answer, but it isn’t. Four people made that claim.
“The first was a Canadian named Henderson, who wasn’t even at Bonanza Creek—that’s where the first nuggets were found, near where the Yukon and the Klondike Rivers meet. Henderson said he should get the credit because he directed the Carmacks to the area, and the Canadian government agreed. Most called it a lie. If it were true, then Henderson would have staked it himself. They thought the Canadian government credited him with the find because of his nationality.
“George Washington Carmack, an American prospector, was another contender. In spite of his name, though, he was considered a liar and an exaggerator. He said he was exploring the Bonanza River of his own volition when he found gold and staked it—his signature is on the official documents.
“But Carmack’s wife, Kate, a First Nation—that’s a Canadian Native Indian—insisted she’s the one who discovered it while the men hunted for moose, and she retrieved water. She was fording the stream and said, ‘There it was—thick as cheese.' Being a woman, she let her husband stake the first claim.
“But Kate’s brother, Shookum Jim, alleged he was the one who found it. He said he was sick and delirious and the ‘Shining Woman’ came to him in a dream and pointed him to the gold. He said George Carmack lied to him, telling him an Indian couldn’t stake a claim, and offered to do it for him.
“Four people swore the greatest discovery was theirs. A Canadian—Henderson, an American— Jim Carmack, a woman—Kate Carmack, and a First Native—Shookum Jim, though the latter two fell into several categories. The point is how do you know what to believe? Who to believe? I myself would look at the evidence, pray, study the character and motivations of the players and ask how each version jives with reality.”
I continue driving along a winding stretch of road, suspicious Bart’s fallen asleep. Some minutes later, without opening his eyes, he says, “So, who do you think discovered it?”
“Yeah, me too.”
More minutes pass. Bart says, “He has money, but when I look at him I think, you poor man. You can stop worrying.”
An hour later, Bart flips his seat back up.
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