California native Jack London had traveled around the United States as a hobo, returned to California to finish high school (he dropped out at age 14), and spent a year in college at Berkeley, when in 1897 he went to the Klondike by way of Alaska during the height of the Klondike Gold Rush. Later, he said of the experience: "It was in the Klondike I found myself."
He left California in July and traveled by boat to Dyea, Alaska, where he landed and went inland. To reach the gold fields, he and his party transported their gear over the Chilkoot Pass, often carrying loads as heavy as 100 pounds (45 kg) on their backs. They were successful in staking claims to eight gold mines along the Stewart River.
London stayed in the Klondike for almost a year, living temporarily in the frontier town of Dawson City, before moving to a nearby winter camp, where he spent the winter in a temporary shelter reading books he had brought: Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species and John Milton's Paradise Lost. In the winter of 1898, Dawson City was a city comprising about 30,000 miners, a saloon, an opera house, and a street of brothels.
In the spring, as the annual gold stampeders began to stream in, London left. He had contracted scurvy, common in the Arctic winters where fresh produce was unavailable. When his gums began to swell he decided to return to California. With his companions, he rafted 2,000 miles (3,200 km) down the Yukon River, through portions of the wildest territory in the region, until they reached St. Michael. There, he hired himself out on a boat to earn return passage to San Francisco.
In Alaska, London found the material that inspired him to write The Call of the Wild. Dyea Beach was the primary point of arrival for miners when London traveled through there, but because its access was treacherous Skagway soon became the new arrival point for prospectors. To reach the Klondike, miners had to navigate White Pass, known as "Dead Horse Pass", where horse carcasses littered the route because they could not survive the harsh and steep ascent. Horses were replaced with dogs as pack animals to transport material over the pass; particularly strong dogs with thick fur were "much desired, scarce and high in price".
London would have seen many dogs, especially prized Husky sled dogs, in Dawson City and in the winter camps situated close to the main sled route. He was friends with Marshall Latham Bond and his brother Louis Whitford Bond, the owners of a mixed St. Bernard-Scotch Collie dog about which London later wrote: "Yes, Buck is based on your dog at Dawson." Beinecke Library at Yale University holds a photograph of Bond's dog, taken during London's stay in the Klondike in 1897. The depiction of the California ranch at the beginning of the story was based on the Bond family ranch.