Klondike Letters Project

Translating experience into memory through inspired creation.

Category: Research

Conversing with Aotearoa/New Zealand

Several people have been asking where they can see more of my animation, particularly the animated documentary about New Zealand. Well, here it is!

The blending of reality and imagination in animated documentaries is so powerful because viewers can easily insert themselves into another experience. Think of how you look at a photograph of someone compared to how you might look at a painting of the same person. Our minds tell us that photo is the real thing and we don’t question it. With a painting, the artist becomes an interpretive intermediary. I am always going to put a piece of myself into my work, it’s impossible not to! And because I’m there, then the viewer feels welcome to enter into another’s experience too and can may it his or her own.

And for the very enthusiastic, more animation on my website.

Same story, twice told

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.

Another difference between Canadians and Americans

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.

Arthur Irwin

I think some Alaskans might take issue with this one…

The Chilkoot Pass

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…

Pierre Burton
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

Research, Research

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.

The difference between Canadians and Americans

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.

Pierre Burton
Preface to Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush

Opinions?  Let’s hear from some Canadians.

Chilkoot Trail on Pinterest

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.