The story of Klondike Kate Carmack and the (modern day) sisters who moil for gold

During the summer, when by fate of their unpredictable schedules the five Bjorkman sisters actually find themselves together at their parents’ log home on Whiskey Jack Lake, Ont., the conversation inevitably turns to rocks.

Jessica Bjorkman, the eldest sister at 38, might, for example, start talking about what she found or didn’t find, or the bear she had to run off, or the view from a B.C. mountain ridge that was so perfect she couldn’t quite believe it was real.

Karla, the youngest at 22, might take it up from there, and speak of the moonscape of Nunavut near Hudson Bay, and of walking that ground with her sampling hammer, trying to figure out what rocks to crack into, and which ones to ignore, while feeling as though the rocks she was treading upon were from the very beginning of time.

At this point, perhaps, Ruth, now with a four-month-old daughter, Julie, might say something about the baby, interrupting the rhythm of the rock talk for a group of sisters who, in the realm of siblings — and in the overwhelmingly male-skewed world of mining — are an extraordinary anomaly.

Jessica, Veronique and Karla Bjorkman are prospectors; Katarina and Ruth are geologists. They are modern day pioneers — and industry role models — linked to a colourful prospecting past where male gold hunters made newspaper headlines, took credit for lucky strikes and cheated women out of their rightful fortunes.

Jessica Bjorkman, at work near Denali National Park, Alaska.

Jessica Bjorkman

“As sisters, we talk more about rocks in the summer because we almost don’t see one another in the summer, because we will all be out on separate projects — although sometimes two of us will be working together,” Jessica said. “My mom calls us the boomerang family, because we always come back.”

The sisters reside either with their prospecting father, Karl, and bookkeeping mom, Nikki, or with their significant others in log homes they have built nearby on the lake northeast of Atikokan, Ont., a place hailed today as the “Canoeing Capital of Canada,” though originally founded in 1899 by a prospector.

Left to right: Karla Bjorkman, Jessica Bjorkman, Bjorn Bjorkman, Veronique Bjorkman, Katarina Bjorkman, Ruth Huber (Bjorkman).

Courtesy Bjorkman Family

It wasn’t always thus. The Bjorkmans are originally from Windsor, Ont., but Karl and Nikki uprooted the family in 1984 for a cabin in the woods. Karl worked construction, though what really interested him were rocks.

He spent a decade buried in geology textbooks before declaring himself a prospector, a calling that became the family enterprise as each child reached high school age and needed a summer job — one that paid a lot better and was more interesting than working checkout at the local grocery store. (Bjorn, the lone brother among the Bjorkman girls, prospected for more than a decade before taking a job with the railway. He, too, lives nearby).

“My parents are adventurous people,” Jessica said. “They passed that spirit on to all of us.”

Beyond the Bjorkmans, women remain woefully underrepresented in mining, comprising just 17 per cent of the Canadian industry’s workforce in a labour market where 47 per cent of workers are women. On the bright side, the gender divide isn’t quite as gaping as it once was.

Ruth Huber (Bjorkman), prospecting in Ontario.

Jessica Bjorkman

The sisters have been doing their bit to boost the percentages: giving seminars, speaking to university students, mentoring young women (and men), teaching prospecting courses in the Yukon and making it evident that other young women can do what they do, too.

It helps that their audiences appear to be listening, which hasn’t historically been the case for women who moil for gold, including perhaps the most famous of all, Kate Carmack.

Kate’s husband was George Carmack, a drifter from California. Before meeting his Tagish First Nation wife, Carmack bounced around the Yukon, eking out a living cutting logs, hauling packs over mountain passes and trying not to freeze come wintertime. Survival was never a certainty for the Californian until Kate came along.

She was raised on the land and viewed herself as the equal of any man. She sewed moccasins, mukluks and mittens, selling them to prospectors. She built shelters, fished and foraged for food, was competent and tough and, in the 1880s, or so the story goes, found a sick, half-frozen, waiting-to-croak Carmack by a river, clothed in ragged furs. She nursed him back to health and married him.

George Carmack

George Carmack in 1883.

Yukon Archives

“Kate is what kept old George alive,” said Zena McLean, Kate’s great-great niece in Calgary. “My mom used to tell me how Kate would bring nuggets of gold to George. George would remark how his little wife, Kate, was going to make him a rich man someday, from all the gold she found washing dishes in the creek.”

Carmack did get rich, eventually, mostly because Kate kept him alive long enough for him to be present at Rabbit Creek, near modern-day Dawson City, Yukon, when Kate’s brother, Skookum Jim Mason, fished a dime-sized gold nugget from the waters in August 1896, triggering the Klondike gold rush. (Kate was back at camp, fishing.)

Dawson Charlie was also witness to the Klondike strike, which did not prevent Carmack, known to some as Lying George, from tweaking the details of the find so he could claim credit for it in the history books.

Carmack’s version of events was later endorsed by the Vancouver chapter of the Yukon Order of Pioneers in 1922, just days before his death — and decades after he abandoned Kate for a prostitute named Marguerite Saftig Laimee. Kate was left penniless and, for posterity, more or less written out of one of the greatest stories ever told in Canadian mining history.

It is a wrong that American author Deb Vanasse began to right with Wealth Woman, a 2016 book about Kate Carmack’s life. The Canadian Mining Hall of Fame is now following suit — 98 years after Carmack’s death — by inducting her as part of its class of 2019 along with, in the words of CMHF president Jon Baird, four “white guys.”

Carmack will become the first indigenous woman and just the third woman among the hall’s 170-plus members, joining her former husband, Skookum Jim Mason, Dawson Charlie and Robert Henderson, previously inducted as the “Klondike Discoverers” in 1999. The ceremony takes place in Toronto Jan. 10.

“We are trying to right history — to correct the record,” Baird said. “That party was at the right place at the right time. They were at the scene of the crime, so to speak, because Kate Carmack brought them there.”

Studio portrait of George Carmack, Kate Carmack and their daughter Graphie Grace Carmack in California, 1898.

Yukon Archives

George and Kate got fantastically rich: a fortune, never entirely accounted for, that numbered in the millions in an age when the average U.S. worker earned about $500 a year. For a time, the couple worked the creek, living royally away from it. In September 1899, they sparked a riot in Seattle after tossing handfuls of money from the roof of their hotel to the streets below.

“As the merry jingle of coins resounded and the pieces bounded from the pavements into the streets, men dived from the walks of passing streetcars,” reported the Seattle Post Intelligencer. “The street became a struggling mass of humanity.”

George tried to make (Kate) out to be an evil woman, and to bury her connection to the Klondike fortune

Deb Vanasse

The Carmacks eventually settled in Hollister, Calif., which is where George abandoned Kate without saying goodbye. Local newspapers reported on the desertion, describing Kate as a solitary figure, riding a bicycle through the surrounding hills and eventually suing her husband for her share of the fortune. Carmack, meanwhile, tried to buy her off for $500.

“The people in town basically sided with Kate,” Deb Vanasse said from Oregon. “George tried to make her out to be an evil woman, and to bury her connection to the Klondike fortune.

“But people commented on how Kate carried herself. What she said when she was asked was, if George didn’t want her anymore then all he had to do was tell it to her face.”

George never did. And Kate never got a nickel. Skookum Jim Mason paid her way back home, and she lived in a modest cabin thereafter, sewing clothes and, it is said, giving away most of what she earned to young people.

Kate Carmack, Carcross, 1919.

Yukon Archives, Anglican Church of Canada

Kate died in 1920 during an influenza epidemic. George died two years later, having drained away a good chunk of the Klondike riches through a host of bad investments, including a cure for baldness. He is remembered today for his sense of humour and his willingness to fabricate a story.

Back at Whiskey Jack Lake, the Bjorkman sisters are still searching for their Klondike.

“Most people who prospect have the gold fever,” Jessica Bjorkman said.

Only about one-in-10,000 mining claims ever becomes an actual mine. It is the thrill of the hunt, and the belief that the next rocky outcrop might be the one to reveal itself awash in beautiful visible gold, that keeps the sisters slogging through the bush and up and down mountain steeps with reinforced knapsacks loaded full of rocks.

Most people who prospect have the gold fever

Jessica Bjorkman

In recent years, they have mostly worked as prospectors for hire: contracting themselves out to junior mining companies that fly them all over Canada to check out remote access claims. They go armed with a map, sampling hammer, bear spray, compass, notebook, pen, flagging tape and, in Jessica’s case, a .357 Smith and Wesson Magnum revolver with a 4.2-inch barrel.

The eldest Bjorkman sister has been stalked by bears, and has used the bear spray at least twice. The first time it worked. The second time it didn’t, a failure rate that encouraged her to get a firearm’s licence.

Karla Bjorkman at work in B.C.

Veronique Bjorkman

“A lot of people don’t understand there are no hiking trails where we are going — it is rough country,” she said. “Once I started carrying a gun, the bears stopped bothering me. It’s almost like they knew.”

Collectively, the Bjorkmans, including Karl and Bjorn, have found several visible gold showings. Among the highlights: a strike by Ruth in 2016 — the so-called Bjorkman showing — which a junior mining company had assayed at a whopping 378 ounces per ton.

The “Bjorkman Showing” has been assayed at 378 ounces per ton.

Jessica Bjorkman and Tom Setterfield

They have also found platinum group elements and copper. All thrilling stuff for rock nerds, but the road from a visible showing to a working mine is long. So when not working for others, they work their own claims, optioning them to mining companies for further investigation for an undisclosed fee. They haven’t gotten rich yet, but they haven’t given up yet either.

Away from the rocks, four of the five sisters ride horses. Karla, the youngest, funnels her prospecting wages into competing in equestrian events, most recently in Dickerson, Md.

Among the horsey-crowd, she is simply another rider, at least she is until somebody asks what she does for a living.

“When I say I’m a prospector, they give me this look, and then I will tell them about the job, and they will tell me that what I do sounds crazy,” Karla said, and then laughs. “Then I will tell them that I have four sisters and we all do it together.”

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