Nearly every Canadian at some time in his life has felt a shiver of awe and loneliness which comes to a man when he stands alone in the face of untamed nature; and that is why we are a sober and essentially religious people.
I think some Alaskans might take issue with this one…
It could be reached only after a thousand foot climb up a thirty-five degree slope strewn with immense boulders and caked, for eight months out of twelve, with solid ice. Glaciers of bottle green overhung it like prodigious icicles ready to burst at summer’s end; avalanches thundered from the mountain in the spring; and in the winter the snow fell so thickly that it could reach a depth of seventy feet. This forbidding gap was called the Chilkoot Pass…
Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush
My sister recently started working for Klondike Goldrush National Historic Park as a ranger. She just got back from her first trip on the trail. She says: “It’s snowy. Didn’t get over the pass…but it is doable. Avalanche gear & snowshoes for the next 2 weeks are a must.”
Being a backcountry skier, I have a healthy respect for avalanche terrain. Back in 1898, on Palm Sunday, stampeders began to evacuate the Scales as several snow slides and a heavy spring storm hinted at greater instability in the snow pack. As they were retreating down Long Hill, the snow on the upper mountain gave way and thundered down the mountains. The roar of the avalanche was heard several miles away in Sheep Camp and 1,500 stampeders dropped everything for the next four days to assist in the rescue and recovery. An estimated 70 people died that day, some buried up to 50ft beneath the snow.
I have just over 3 weeks before I start my journey. The trail officially opens this week, despite the snow. To all my fellow Chilkoot travelers, stay safe out there on the trail as that midnight sun starts doing it’s work.
A bit more about the tragedy along with some video images are on the park website:
Palm Sunday Avalanche – 1898
Soapy Smith's gang waiting to fleece the unsuspecting cheechako with the shell game.
I’ve been doing some reading. I got my hands on a fat, old book called Klondike! The Last Great Gold Rush 1896-1899, penned by Canadian historian Pierre Berton. It’s clear from the book that Berton has an almost fanatical fascination with the gold rush, perhaps because he grew up in Dawson City and worked in the Klondike mines as a youth. Berton found his own nuggets among the old-timers he met, and the book is bursting with entertaining incidents, accidents and characters from what was probably the shortests yet most lucrative gold rush in the history of the world!
I’m usually not one to wallow through 472 pages of dense non-fiction, but the book is more like sitting by the fire listening to grandpa spin some yarns of the good ol’ days. Soapy Smith, the self-proclaimed boss of Skagway, fleecing the naive argonauts with shell game; the dollar-a-dance girls in Dawson City and their broken hearted suitors; the sourdoughs and cheechakos arguing over a few inches of adjoining claims; the Mounties (the way Berton reveres them you would think they were the demi-gods of the Klondike) camped out on top of Chilkoot Pass collecting customs fees for every ton of supplies each prospector had to haul into Canada. It’s amazing what people hauled over that pass! – crates of fresh eggs (maybe not so fresh by the time they reached Dawson, but they sold for a dollar an egg), pianos and bicycles, an entire steamboat dissasembled and packed over the pass to be reassembled on Lake Lindeman.
There were avalanches and fires, riverboats frozen mid-stream as winter pounced on unlucky travelers, starvation and scurvy. What is it about gold that causes men and women to voluntarily suffer so much? Over 100,000 people set out for the Klondike and only a handful found enough gold to be considered rich (and most of those lost it all soon after). I don’t expect to find any gold on the far side of Chilkoot Pass but I will be adding my footsteps to the well trodden-path hoping to find some of the more undefined treasures of the Klondike. In the meantime, if you’re looking for a good book, pick up something by Berton.
In all the Americas ours is the only country that did not separate violently from its European parents… If this lack of revolutionary passion has given us a reasonably tranquil history, it has also, no doubt, contributed to our well-know lack of daring. It is almost a Canadian axiom that we would rather be safe than sorry; alas, we are sometimes sorry that we are so safe.
Preface to Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush
Opinions? Let’s hear from some Canadians.
Two Climbers heading up Chilkoot Pass, 1897
I’ve started pinning some images of the trail. A few intrepid photographers joined the stampede, lugging their heavy cameras, glass plates and chemicals up to the gold fields and documenting the adventure along the way. University of Washington and the Yukon Archive Images Database have excellent collections of these photos. I’ve pinned a few of my favorites here.
The Scales and the Golden Stairs on the trail to the Klondike.
This summer I will be an Artist-in-Residence on the Chilkoot Trail in the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park and Chilkoot Trail National Historic Site! Following the footsteps of goldrush prospectors, I’ll be hiking from Dyea, AK over the Golden Stairs (aka Chilkoot Pass) to Bennet, BC. During the 2 week residency, I’ll be collecting stories, images and impressions for an animated short. This trail has seen millions of footsteps from centuries of traders, miners and modern “pilgrims” wanting to relieve the historical journey. As a dual ambassador for the park and the arts, I plan to involve not only the people who will be walking the trail this upcoming summer, but those who have done it in the past, and in so doing, add layers of history to the story of the film. If you have hiked the Chilkoot at any point in your life, I would LOVE to talk to you. Please send me a note!!
The residency is an international creative journey generously sponsored by The Yukon Arts Center, The Skagway Arts Council, US National Park Service and Parks Canada. Their logistical and financial support will get me on the trail to start the project. If you are a goldrush fan and patron of the arts, please consider making a donation, large or small, to help cover the cost of postage, printing, and animation to make the Klondike Letters Project far-reaching and long-lasting!