These past 5 days in skagway have been stunning – summer temperatures and clear skies. I have been enjoying all this little town has to offer with kayak excursions around the canal with the seals and bald eagles, hikes to epic panoramas, local culture like Solstice celebrations, competetive cornhole and backyard grilling of fish pulled fresh from the canal. It’s been some good times! A very special thanks to all the “parkies” who have made my visit so much
last meal before the trail: spruce tip beer and burgers at the brew co.
But now, the weather is changing and it’s time to move on. The Taiya River has been flooding due to all the snow melting so I think my first few days on the trail will be wet! I’ve been assured that despite Verizion’s claims, there really is no cell coverage on the trail so the next time you hear from me, I’ll be a seasoned sourdough writing home from the Kolondike!
Everyone heading to the Klondike had to haul a year’s worth of food and supplies (weighing about 1 ton!) over Chilkoot Pass and down the Yukon River. I took a look at their supply list. I think I might leave a few things home. Probably the ½ lb. evaporated vinegar and 8lbs of pitch… and maybe the whipsaw, though that might come in handy. Hmmmm….
Actually, packing for an on-the-trail artist residency poses a few challenges. I did several backcountry art-making forays into the New Zealand wilderness while making Conversing with Aotearoa, so I’m used to packing up my camera, tripod and sound recording equipment with a bunch of art supplies. Luckily for this two week trip, I have the support of the National Parks Service and Parks Canada. Lucky me, I will have my own cache waiting for me at Sheep Camp and Lindeman, with most of my food for the journey. That’s a good 20-30lbs I don’t need to pack in, so I’m very grateful to the park rangers keeping it safe. There’s no chocolate in there guys, really!
Here are a few of the non-camping items I’m bringing with me:
My fabulous Canon 60D along with a couple fancy filters that make life fun.
A trusty tripod for those timelapse and long-exposure shots
a portable watercolor set – this little guy has seen a lot of epic scenery!
I have been simultaneously reading two novels about the Klondike gold rush. “The Trail of ’98“, by Robert Service and “Smoke Bellew” by Jack London. Published only 2 years apart, in 1910 and 1912 respectively, I’m amazed how differently two authors can approach pretty much the same plot line: young dilettante heads north over Chilkoot Pass to try his luck in the gold feilds – along the way meets attractive young lady and various characters, encounters various hardships and adventures…etc. Service’s story has the melodramatic twists and turns of a silent movie (in fact it eventually became one). His damsel is in great distress under the oppression of a wicked uncle, while London’s headstrong young frontier lass beats the protagonist to in the claim gain even as she is starting to admire his cheerful cheechako fortitude. Service’s character has a remarkable uneventful trip over the pass and down to Dawson, while London details the physical trials of a greenhorn office boy from the city learning to eat raw bacon and pack 100lb loads with the native packers, not to mention the harrowing boat ride across icy lakes and through deadly rapids racing the winter freeze up. Probably you can tell I prefer London’s fast-paced action adventure to the sappy melodrama of Service, but it’s quite an educational contrast and worth reading both side by side.
Skagway today is still a gold rush town, only these days the local sourdoughs are mining the tidal flood of tourists that wash in from the Lynn Canal. If it’s a “four-ship day” as it was when I arrived, you can be sure that the boardwalks on Broadway will be shoulder to shoulder with people filling their bags with t-shirts, gold nuggets, coffee mugs and magnets.
When the cruise ship blows the all-aboard signal at 5pm, summoning their passengers to the all-you-can-eat buffets, the streets become a ghost town. Slowly the town’s more permanent residents venture out to the local watering holes or head out to enjoy the 6 hours of lingering daylight on the many trails that surround the town.
Yesterday, since the sun was shining for the first time in weeks, I ventured up one of these local trails to see what I could see. I figured it would be a good chance to test out some of my gear in the feild and start getting my body used to carrying a pack up steep terrain, so I packed up my camera, art supplies, a few snacks from the local bakery and a full sack of water and headed to the trailhead. The trail started out pleasant enough, with a gradual incline winding through mossy woods spotted with wildflowers and the occasional creek. I soon came to a viewpoint overlooking Skagway where I could see the bustling cruise ships unloading their passengers for the day. I was glad to be out of the hustle.
Soon after, the trail began to steepen and my pack began to feel inexplicitly heavier. It wasn’t long before the trail turned into an intermittent creek and I was ducking through thick brush and pulling myself up by roots and rocks in some places. For a good while this is what I was going up (and down): no kidding.
I wasn’t too phased – from what I have been told, this is what most trails in Alaska are like. Why cut a bunch of switchbacks when you can just go striaght up the hill? I was regretting bringing all my gear though, and as drinking as much water as I could to lighten my load. Eventually, I got above the bush line and the trail opened up onto a long ridge. It was still steep and in places quite snowy, but at least the views were distracting. I continued on for another hour over what seemed to be an endless number of false summits. Over my shoulder, I could see some darkening clouds down the Lynn Canal. I figured I only had about an hour before they were over me, so I decided to leave the summit for some more hard-core hikers and stop where I was to take some photos. It was a good decision:
The troublesome thing about landscape photography is that the most interesting photos happen when the conditions are getting sketchy. Photographers are alway right on the edge of storm and I am no exception. After lasting as long as I dared, I headed down, stopping a few more times to capture a bit more of the moment. Here’s a short video of what it was like on the top with the clouds creeping over the ridge. I was a bit too rushed to pull out the tripod and mic for this so my apologies for the wind noise and slight camera shake – but you get the idea.
The rain started as I got to back to the bushline and after that it was just a matter of scrambling down the waterfall aka trail back to town. So in addition to testing my camera gear I got to test my new rain shell and quick-dry pants, both of which I can say are working brilliantly! After going up and down 3500ft with a fairly loaded pack, I was about ready to collapse when I got back to town. But I made it, and everyone tells me that the Chilkoot Trail is 10 times easier (imagine that!). I have a new appreciation for the stampeders shuttling their one-ton of gear over Chilkoot Pass, 50lbs at a time. I have to admit, I’m very happy that I will only have to do it once!
Here I am, en route to the Chilkoot Trail! My journey will take a bit less time than those of the stampeders, some of whom didn’t reach the gold fields of the Klondike until over a year after they set out! I am following the classic route, however: heading to Seattle, then on to Juneau where I will catch a ferry up to Skagway where I will prepare my “kit” and head out on the trail. From my vantage point above the clouds, I could see that there is still quite a bit of snow covering the Cascade Range. I have a feeling that might be the case farther north as well…
With 3 days to go before I head North, the packing has begun! I think my pack will be quite a bit different than most travelers on the Chilkoot Trail. More on that later. At the moment, I’m sorting through art supplies and trying to decide how much of my studio to bring.
my arsenal of color
Since a big part of this project will be letting other people create artistic memories on the KLP postcards, either through writing or drawing, I want to have a nice array of options. This afternoon I sat down on the back porch and made my first KLP postcards. the recycled kraft paper takes prismacolor pencils really well, and the sharpies and felt pens look brilliant, but I was also surprised how nicely the watercolor sat on the paper.
And interesting bit of personal history: My grandmother is a watercolor painter and as I was growing up, we often would hike out to some beautiful lake or meadow around Lake Tahoe and as the energetic kids scrambled up granite and swam in snow melt, Omi would be painting wildflowers and mountains. A great traveler, she would send us painted postcards from her trips around the world. When I went off to college, Omi gave me a little Windsor-Newton watercolor kit and a set of watercolor postcards, and I have carried on the tradition. This little trusty set of paints has seen a lot of the world and I think it will be happy to help me capture the road to the Klondike.
I interviewed Omi about painting outdoors when she turned 89 and turned the interview into an animated mini-documentary. You can watch En Plein Air on my website and see some of Omi’s paintings on her website. She is such a tech-savvy granny!
I’ve got 250 of these babies, so I will certainly be making more along the way, perhaps even using them as my own personal journal. And, of course, I can’t wait to see what other people will put in that blank space!
I’d like you to meet Donald. He’ll be travelling with me on the Chilkoot Trail. He’s very friendly and LOVES to listen. If you see him on the trail, feel free to tell him your thoughts, dreams, rants, or just sing him a nice little tune.
In all seriousness, this lightweight recorder is going to be a lot of fun on the trail. I’ll be asking some folks to read aloud their postcards and use that as the soundtrack for each mini-animation. It’s also really fun to record the natural sounds inthe environment – water trickling, bird calls, interesting sounds made by moving rocks, breaking sticks, sand trickling through fingers. And of course campfire stories.
For starters, here’s a little poetic sound clip Donald and I collaborated on during one of our wild Montana thunderstorms. Click on the photo to listen. We’ll see you on the trail!
Some of my favorite flowers are starting to pop out in the woods behind my house. There brazenly blue gaze has always charmed me, but this summer they are especially pleasing because they have become the floral mascot for the Klondike Letters Project. The postcard project is an artistic experiment in the things we remember and the things we forget as we experience a wild place.
The box of postcards just arrived from the printer today and I’m incredibly curious to see how what words and images will appear on them in the coming weeks! I hope the people I rope into writing a postcard to themselves won’t feel like they have to pull some deep wisdom from the depths of the glacial past to write on these guys. I think taking a moment to observe what they are thinking and feeling right then, and “Quick! Write it down before it evaporates into the alpine atmosphere!” can elicit the best memories, years down the road. It’s the details we don’t consider important at the time that bring the most delight to our remembering.
Speaking of memories, the forget-me-not also happens to be the Alaska State flower, a fact I learned when I took my first trip to that grand state on a Girl Scout Wider Ops trip when I was 15. (Incidentally, that trip made suffering through middle school as a girl scout totally worth while!). Some things I remember from that trip:
visiting the Anchorage Airport traffic control tower (how many of you can say you’ve actually been inside an air trafic control tower??)
learning to skin a stoat from a Chugach National Forest Ranger
sleeping on a bed of moss thicker than my mattress at home
staying up all night at a salmon farm hoping to see the northern lights (no aurora but lots of stars)
hanging out with girls who lived in strange, far off places like Minnesota and Florida and the Bronx
eating Eskimo ice cream, which I think is sort of like eating poi in Hawaii – they give it to you so they can snigger at the expression on your face when it goes in your mouth.
We didn’t make it to southeast Alaska on that wonderful trip, so I am very excited to see what Juneau and Skagway have to offer, as well as all the fun with those Canadians on the other side of the pass. I’m looking forward to making some memories!
There are strange things done in the midnight sun By the men who moil for gold; The Arctic trails have their secret tales That would make your blood run cold; The Northern Lights have seen queer sights, But the queerest they ever did see Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge I cremated Sam McGee.
When I was growing up, my family always took an annual summer backpacking trip in the Sierra Nevada. We swam in dozens of cold alpine lakes, baked ourselves brown on warm granite slabs, scrambled over giant talus on our way to high passes, encountered a few persistent black bears, and generally had an all-around good time. Part of the fun was we went with 2 other families that had kids around our age so there was plenty of chatting and story swapping on the trail and in camp. One particular tradition that developed was the reading of Robert Service. Our friend Andy would bring along his favorite volume of poems. Once the trout were cooked and eaten and the dishes rinsed, the bear bag hung carefully off a high limb we would all settle around the campfire and Andy, in his booming bass voice, would read The Cremation of Sam McGee.
And that very night, as we lay packed tight in our robes beneath the snow,
And the dogs were fed, and the stars o’erhead were dancing heel and toe,
He turned to me, and “Cap,” says he, “I’ll cash in this trip, I guess;
And if I do, I’m asking that you won’t refuse my last request.”
There’s something about the ballad-like meter of Service that draws me into the poems and conjours up outlandish, tall-tales that could only occur in a far-away place surrounded by whirling clouds of snow. After reading Berton’s history of the Klondike, these poems take on new life. The frozen riverboats on the Yukon, the green Southerners making the death-march through mid-winter cold and darkness, a partner’s last request when he knows he won’t survive this grand adventure; all these things were a part of gold rush history. Perhaps Sam’s fate is not so far-fetched as I thought.