What's Your Winter Ride?

 Here in Southern California we look at those two days each winter that are cold enough to put on every bit of "winter weather gear" we have, and retell the tale for weeks afterward as we crowd into the local coffee joint seeking the warmth flowing from the nearest heating duct. Winter is hard, I tell ya.

Well perhaps not, but as hard as we might imagine those winter rides to be, few could compare to the winter ride of Robert Purves McClennan, tinsmith, businessman, politician and banker. McClennan was born on 7 December 1861 in Pictou, Nova Scotia, one of ten children born to James Purves McClennan and Bessie Archibald McKenzie. At the ripe old age of fifteen he began to learn the tinsmithing and hardware business trades, mostly in Nova Scotia and Winnipeg. By 1884 he had partnered with Edward John McFeely in a tinware and stove fabrication, and roofing business in Victoria, and two years later expanding to Vancouver. The business grew and prospered, though the partners closed the Victoria shop, to focus on their Vancouver interests. 

In 1898, a year after the Klondike Gold Rush began, McClennan took a load of merchandise to Dawson City in the Yukon, planning to spend a week there. The week turned into five years during which McClennan became a financial success story, also becoming the principal shareholder of the Ridge Cable company, president of the Dawson City Water and Power Company and, in 1903, was elected mayor of Dawson City.

Gold Rush wheelmen with the "wheels" behind a dog sled, c.1900 (photo likely by Arthur Pillsbury.

Photographer Arthur Pillsbury crossed White Pass above Skagway in 1899 with his bicycle dragging a 90-pound sled loaded with food, cameras and other supplies.

McClennan was in Chicago early in the year 1900 and talked to a reporter of the Chicago Inter-Ocean, about his 380 mile bicycle ride over the frozen Yukon River trail from Dawson City to White Horse rapids. At the time, only two others were known to have attempted the ride, one succeeded, the other was murdered along the way. Saying "I don't know that I care to undertake that feat again," McClennan detailed some of the hardships he faced: "On the fourth day out I had to make a detour around an open place in the Yukon river... I struck the break just at nightfall and for six hours carried my wheel and struggled through the snow covered trail to Minto. That in the Klondike, with the temperature colder than Chicago ever knew, is not an enjoyable experience."

Continuing with the story, McClennan said, "I had ridden my wheel over the ice before, and knew how to prepare for the trip. My shoes were of heavy felt, rather clumsy for pedals, but warm enough to keep my feet from freezing. Over my usual clothing I wore a pair of sheepskin trousers and a 'parkey,' a sort of smock frock made of bedticking, to break the wind... Around the tires of my bicycle I wound strips of flannel, to keep the wheel from slipping on the ice and also to prevent the sharp edges of the ice from cutting through the rubber."

"The trail over the ice for most of the distance is worn smooth as a billiard ball... but often the river ice was very rough and I had to pass over hillocks thirty feet high. At times I had to dismount and walk a mile or so over these furrows. Daylight only lasts about six hours at this season in the Klondike. I rode usually from 9 o'clock in the  morning until 3 o'clock in the afternoon, and made from forty-five to sixty miles a day." Fortunately, roadhouses spaced about ten to twenty miles apart along the route, meant that he had food and shelter when needed. Usually.

His roughest experience took place on the fourth day out, between Selkirk and Minto, with the temperature registering forty-degrees below zero. "I came to a place where the river had not frozen, and had to dismount and cut across a point of land. Darkness came on, and I dragged my wheel through the woods and over an Indian burial ground. It was the only time that I felt apprehensive of danger. I feared that I might meet a bear or wolf and suffered extremely from the cold. I fought my way through snow and over rough ice until 2 o'clock in the morning before I arrived at the road house at Minto. There I found the bunks and blankets all taken and shivered out the rest of the night over a small Klondike stove... In all, the trip from Dawson City to Skaguay [sic] took fourteen days."

Though acknowledging the hardships faced by riders on the Yukon River route, McClennan was sure that "bicycling will become much better as the winter advances, and I predict that it will soon be no uncommon thing for men to come out from Dawson on wheels over the ice."