Smoke Bellew

Jack London at age nine with his dog Rollo
Jack London at age nine with his dog Rollo

I’m having enormous fun with a book by Jack London called Smoke Bellew. It’s about a guy in San Francisco who has become a society journalist — how effete can you be? — who goes to the Klondike and gets into top physical shape and has amazing adventures.

He starts out packing in supplies with his uncle for two of his cousins who are headed for Dawson. They had to pack in several hundred pounds for every man, and they would move the camps along a little bit at a time, packing a 100-pound load to the next camp and then coming back for more.

Over time he gets in shape and can almost keep up with the Indians. Then he partners up with a guy named Shorty and starts having some serious adventures.

Some of them seem a little preposterous, but it’s all fun in a Paul Bunyan kind of way.

Ultimately Kit Bellew, newly christened “Smoke,” takes off on his own and discovers, or I guess I should say rediscovers, Lost Lake, which is full of enormous gold nuggets.

Here’s a description of his wanderings around the McQuestion River:

“He loved the life, the deep arctic winter, the stilent wilderness, the unending snow surface unpressed by the foot of man. About him towered icy peaks unnamed and uncharted.

“No hunter’s camp smoke, rising in the still air of the valleys, ever caught his eye. He, alone, moved through the brooding quiet of the untraveled wastes.”

[It does sound like he’s getting paid by the word, here.]

“Nor was he oppressed by the solitude. He loved it all, the day’s toil, the bickering wolf-dogs, the making of the camp in the long twilight, the leaping stars overhead, and the flaming pageant of the aurora borealis.

“Especially he loved his camp at the end of the day, and in it he saw a picture which he ever yearned to paint and which he knew he would never forget — a beaten place in the snow, where burned his fire; his bed a couple of rabbit-skin robes spread on fresh-chopped spruce boughs; his shelter a stretched strip of canvas that caught and threw back the heat of the fire.

“The blackened coffee pot and pail resting on a length of┬álog, the moccasins propped up on sticks to dry, the snowshoes up-ended in the snow; and across the fire the wolf-dogs snuggling to it for the warmth, [not just “for warmth” — got to get that extra word in] wistful and eager, furry and frost-rimed, with bushy tails curled protectingly over their feet; and all about, pressed backward but a space, the wall of encircling darkness.”

Ironically, Jack London actually got scurvy in the Klondike, and it wrecked his health for life. And a remarkable life it was.

His mother attempted suicide while she was pregnant, and he was raised by a former slave. Still, he held many deplorable views about non-Teutonic races, and was the author of “The Yellow Peril.”

That said, he did help introduce to California a sport he learned about sailing the South Pacific: surfing.

That’s kind of funny. Arthur Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling brought skiing to Vermont and Jack London brought surfing to California.