Klondike Letters Project

Translating experience into memory through inspired creation.

Category: On the Trail

Day 5 – Bennett and the White Pass

9 July, 2016

There is no sleeping in with the boy scouts in camp. They are up at 6:20, breaking camp, worried about the last 4 miles to the 2pm train. We all have a deadline today and some are more hurried than others. Thom and I break camp, but we linger over breakfast, and I take my paints to the lake to catch up on the postcards. It is noon in Canada when we finally begin our walk. We poke our heads into a rustic log cabin at the end of Lindeman – a cozy hovel that would require a lot of shoveling if the 20 foot drifts came down this low. This time the long sandy hill is not so hot and endless because it is expected. The viewpoint beckons and Lake Bennett is just as impressive as I remember, the wide U-shaped basin with brilliant hues of reds, greens and purples flowing into the blue lake. There is not much time for lingering. The train pulls in and announces its 45-minute stopover with a echoing whistle, releasing its day passengers for a quick look around the old church and cabins. Thom and I have the last of our tortillas and peanut butter near the tracks as 82 packs are loaded into the baggage car.

Final Day
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At 2:15 AK time, the train departs and we feel like first class travelers, watching the scenery fly by without our feet pounding the rocks or our packs pulling at our shoulders. White Pass is beautiful, starkly alpine in its interconnected lakes and lumpy granite plateaus. This is no easy route. I would choose to haul my ton of goods over Chilkoot Pass as well.

The narrow gauge track clings to the cliff on the other side and I think about the tons of dynamite Mr. Heney used to make this route plausible. This is the one financial venture that outlasted the stampede. We glide into the station in Skagway and our good-byes are hurried as our trail buddies grab their packs and find their shuttles to Dyea or a local hotel. The trail has come to an end, here where we began.  Like many of the stampeders, our bid for the Klondike became a loop. Or perhaps it is a spiral, seemingly circular, but rising upwards until sometime in the future we find ourselves shouldering our packs (hopefully with a bag of Tostitos attached) and heading out from Dyea to the Golden Stairs…

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Day 4 – Bare Loon

Day 4 postcard

8 July, 2016

All obligations are over. We sleep in until almost 9am, then stare at the dozens of mosquitos waiting patiently on the screen door of our tent. We pack up with bug nets over our heads and cook breakfast in the same fashion, eating oatmeal as we move from rock to rock in hopes of eluding the pesky creatures.

DonBearAs we finish up, Don and Bear arrive from Sheep Camp. Bear is 7 years old with curly black hair, a round belly, pink tongue, and a satisfied whine when you rub his tummy. Don is a lightweight backpacker in true Ray Jardin style. He has hiked this trail every year for the last 34 years. We talk about the John Muir Trail, which he recently completed with his wife, and the morning dissolves into noon. Some of the hikers from Happy Camp start filtering through. Finally Don’s light trail shoes go back on, Bear eats a stick of salami, the Jetboil is packed away, signaling it is time for us all to move on. There are rumors that the boy scouts are coming!

mtcoralThom and I head out at a leisurely pace, stopping to take macro shots of the waist high wildflowers and crouching down to get a good view of what we have dubbed to be “mountain coral” – the tiny intricate lichen that grow slowly into spindly ruffles and lacy orbs. Walking along the roaring canyon, we marvel at the depth of the chasm and the energy contained in the churning water. Does this unstoppable force really freeze and become a snow-covered highway with easy passage for stampeder sleds.

Lindeman offers a welcome lunch break, some education at the interpretive tent, and a quick chilly dunk in the glacial green waters. Then we are on our way to Bare Loon. As we hike the now sandy trails, in between granite boulders and widely-spaced spruce, Thom comments, “This reminds me of hiking in Colorado.” Funny how we attach our reference points to our home places – for me it is quintessential Sierra Nevada; for him it is clearly Rocky Mountains. In truth, it is its own place, the start of the “Interior” – a word used often enough by the Canadians on this trail that I understand it as a political geography. It is beautiful and familiar at any rate.

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We arrive at Bare Loon, eager for a second swim, and most of the camp residents seem to agree as they are already in the water, splashing between the rocky islets near the shore. After our previous swimming adventures, the water is practically warm. It feels wonderful to sprint for the short distance to the rocks, hoping 4 days of trail dirt and sweat is loosening from our skin as goosebumps pop up. Finally, there is some time to brush hair, organize clothing, catch up on journalling, while the last few hikers arrive and hurriedly set up tents to the sound of approaching thunder. Everyone gathers under the cooking shelter as rain splats, then pours, from the sky. Dinner is a crowded, noisy affair, but full of more stories and conversation, shared chocolate and ginger and Jetboil magic shows. Eventually the crowd thins as the rain moves on. Across the lake we begin to hear the loons calling out the evening vespers. It is time for bed.

Read Trail Journal Day 5

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Day 3 – Summit in the sun

Day 3

7 July, 2016
Up and over the pass…

We are awake and heading out of camp before the big groups (mainly the 14 boy scouts) have organized their breakfast. Somehow the hike goes faster this time. Perhaps because it is a bluebird day and we see clear skies and sunshine at the pass. A rare day. We revel in it, finding the sun at the first push and stripping down to our base layer once we reach the shelter.

As hikers come over, they too are inclined to linger. There is no urgency to get to safety – safety is here in the sunshine, napping on a warm rock, eating lunch with a long view of Canada spread out before you. T-shirts and bare feet are the rule. There is no need for hot drinks and extra layers today. We wait for everyone to pass over, chatting with Annie about working in New Zealand and Big Sky, sharing our extra fuel with Andrea, the girl with the broken arm. New friends on the trail.

Jim and Charlie crossing the snowfield
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Eventually, the boy scouts (Troop 82) and their entourage arrive. Satrina has so much to record she fills 3 postcards. Her friends and family in Miami will never believe she is up here. Her daughter Mackenzie vows to never do it again (but she is glad she did). An emotional moment for Tom, a heart-attack survivor, hiking with a pacemaker, two knee braces and his grandson. The postcards solidify the moment.


We have a quick lunch and then hit the trail ahead of the boy scouts. Crater Lake entices us for a 10-second swim at the edge of a snowfield (mostly for the sake of the pictures), then we cruise through the high alpine valley, soaking in the sun and water everywhere. Canadian warden Kim, who we meet on the other side, tells us she can’t remember a day so gloriously clear and warm since May 26 of last year! Such a beautiful day.

Late dinner at Deep Lake. Mosquitos join us, as does Andrea, and we discuss politics (Canadian and American) while eating pasta (us) and viking stew (Andrea). The bugs don’t seem like they plan to abate as the sun dips behind the mountains, so Thom and I dive into the tent.

Read Trail Journal Day 4

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Day 2 – Summit in the cloud


Postcard from the trail

Postcard from the trail

6 July, 2016

To the summit and back with light packs. On the trail at 6:30 – a later start this time but we seem to be on track with the rest of the camp, passing a few groups and making it to the top ahead of nearly everyone in just shy of 3 hours. The white cloud is here to welcome us, ebbing and flowing with the 39 hikers and day runners (this must be a new fad) coming up the Golden Stairs and through the pass.

After our arrival a familiar face comes through the door. It is warden Stephanie with thermoses of hot water for the coming hikers! Canadian hospitality abounds. We hang out and talk to hikers. Hot cocoa and tea is welcomed and postcards are written in return. Thom and I learn about bear bangers and the recent rogue bear issues at Lindeman. Soon the last group of hikers has hurried off into the mist, but we linger, hoping for a break in the weather.

Golden Stairs
Golden Stairs
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At 2:30 the cloud breaks and Canada apprears. Lo! There is a lake below! Blue and extending in long fingers with little rock islands and secluded swimming spots – if you can brave the icebergs! We linger a while longer, enjoying what the hikers did not have the luxury to wait for. Then down the golden stairs. How many people in modern times have walked down these stairs. A handful of rangers and trail crew. The occasional runner or hiker going salmon-like against the flow. A bear, heading to the coast. Not too many see these views of waterfalls and hanging glaciers on both sides of this steep valley. The way up is always looking forward to the top of the stairs. But going down, the valley expands on all sides.

Back at camp at 6pm to meet Annie, the ranger, and a flurry of preparation and activity from those who are going into the unknown. We get lots of questions and try to set at bay the worst fears with fresh information from the trail ahead.


Over dinner, Thom and I peruse the journal of a 19-year young man from Chicago who joined the stampede in 1898. Travelled by rail through the great state of Montana ending in Seattle where he and his buddy bought their kit and booked first class passage to Skagway for $50 (“avoid steerage at all costs”). Gear hauled by wagon and tram to the Scales, then packed over to the lakes… rugged work for a city boy. They arrive at Dawson City on July 26 to find “no employment of any kind, no claims to be had, nothing can be done without a permit, not even cutting a tree to build a cabin.” With no prospect of surviving the winter, much less make his fortune, by August 14th he was working his way home as a cook on a steamboat down the Yukon and back in Seattle safe and sound by September. Smart cheechako. It is nice to have the luxury to go home, even if you end up in steerage on the way back.

Read Trail Journal Day 3

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Day 1 – Dyea to Sheep Camp

Day 1 - Dyea to Sheep Camp

Postcard from the trail

5 July, 2016

14+ miles! The trail is drier his time around. No wet feet and dive bombing bugs either. The little green things still grow but seem a little crispier and many of the flowers I remember from last time have already faded. In their place are ripening berries, oblong ones that hang under leaves and turn from white to deep burgundy, tasting like watermelon. And sour blueberries, that tempt only the bears. Judging from the fresh scat in the middle of the trail, they have been feasting.

Golden Stairs
Golden Stairs
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Without an overnight at Canyon City, Sheep Camp is far away. My joints are a bit more worn and unconditioned for such a pounding, but my pack it lighter and i have company! Thom makes me sit on a rock step in the middle of the trail and take off my boots for a 5 minute foot rub that is heavenly – and gets me the last 4 miles of up and down. Plus he brought Tostitos! We arrive late after most of the camp is in bed and find our cozy spot in the thick undergrowth. Erica has left me some tastily items in her food box at the ranger station so we have our own feast on Indian curry before sleep overtakes us.

Read Trail Journal Day 2

Photo Essay!

The winter edition of Mountain Outlaw Magazine just hit the stands here in Montana. If you manage to get your hands on a copy, turn to page 52. You might see someone you recognize – me! I’ve contributed a photo essay about my 2 weeks as Artist-in Residence on the Chilkoot Trail. It’s full of interesting historical facts and some of the artwork I created on the trail.

If you aren’t passing through Montana anytime soon, you can read the full article online here: Postcard from Chilkoot Pass  And you can flip through the entire magazine, an excellent read, at  explorebigsky.com

Day 13 smooth(ie) sailing home

7 July

trailart020Car(ibou)Cross(ing) – a boom town turned small town. More of a locals place, locals who make room for the train-scheduled tourists. That shore-hugging train ride along Lake Bennett brought me and my fellow smelly trampers out of the wilds and into this civilization. The Caribou Cafe feels new and modern in a comforting IKEA sort of way – i.e. functional minimalism in wood. Open, airy with lots of art on the walls. I understand why Steph recommended this place to me. 3 ladies in matching green sweatshirts chatter in German with the owner, Heike. They are guides of some sort but where are their tourists? Having an ice cream in on Main Street no doubt. I am pleased with my purple smoothie. This is clearly the place just enough off the beaten path that the interesting people rejoice in discovering, as I have.

bestofchilkoot070And so the trail is over. A hotel and shower await me in Whitehorse. And hopefully a beer and something not cooked over a pocket rocket. I don’t think I will do any reflecting. That’s what the trail is for. And the art. We shall see what comes…

Read all the post from the Trail Journal.

Day 12 – a day of 3 lakes

Day 12
6 July
Beautiful Bennett

I will never forget my first view of Lake Bennett. After a hot, buggy 4 miles with a heavy pack, I duck down a spur trail to a rocky overlook and there she is – the perfect picture of Canadian mountains lining a shining lake graces with sun. All the colors of wildness – purples, blues and greens with accents of rust and ochre. Such an inviting place.


I am done drawing for the day. I had my fill of artmaking in the morning exploration down a secret trail from Bare Loon to Lake Lindeman. In the perfect stillness of Bare Loon, all the hikers having hurried off to catch a train and a bowl of stew, I read and lunched and had a nap until it felt like time to go. I realize I am emotionally drained from this journey. It is time for a sabbath. There is always more art to make- always another page to fill in the sketchbook. Always one more person to talk to on the record.


However, Bennett is a beautiful place to end. The lake erases my hot and sweaty journey in an instant. I chase a canoe up the river for a “magic hour” photo. I share my sketchbook with Dane and my watercolors with Maria, the girl allergic to everything but art. Father and daughter play hide and seek around the shelter. We talk about movies and fairies and spirit dogs and horses. I keep my peanut butter in the bag, but sneak some chocolate (how can an 11 year-old girl be allergic to chocolate?) And still the lake is massively beautiful. 2 gulls harass a bald eagle perched on a pine. The best defence is a good offence. And now, bed!

Read More: Trail Journal Day 13

Day 11 – Alohas and reflections at Bare Loon Lake

Day 11
5 July
Bare Loon Lake
A perfectly calm and magical evening.


I spent the morning around Lindeman catching up on my journal and painting the sunny lakeshore. Then the Parks Canada crowd showed up – three rangers with a crew of forestry guys ready for chainsaw safety workshop. Time for me to head out, but not before Rene showed me his map. It’s a passion project, meticulous research to find the exact route of the historic Dead Horse Trail over White Pass. He unrolls a large sheet of vellum with careful pencil lines marking the topography, possible routes and certain artifacts he’s found while wandering in the 1 mile stretch or Porcupine Hill. Hand draw from memory by candlelight – the way it was done back in the days when they piled corduroy road over the bodies of horses that dropped dead from exhaustion on the trail. It is a work of art.

A quick lunch and then I pick up my pack – my HEAVY pack! Having shared the load with my sister from Sheep Camp to Lindeman, I’m once again the sole pack horse for camera and camping gear and my remaining food. But it’s the home stretch.


The walk to Bare Loon reminded me so much of hiking in the Sierra. Pines widely spaced dropping their needles between granite boulders, views of blue lakes through the trees, sunshine and warmth! Maybe that was the trigger. The first day of legitimate sun-basking! I arrive at camp sweaty and seek out a private bay to dunk myself. Not as cold as Lower Dewey – still I was happy to get out of the water and tingle my way to warmth while the animals stared at me…


36 people! A full camp and I’m glad I met them all yesterday. After dinner I read them postcards and show off my paintings. Everyone seems so excited about the postcards. Maybe it’s the infectious enthusiasm of the high school girls (who shared their no-bake chocolate-PB cookies with me!), or maybe it’s because a shower and a beer are just a day away, but the mood in camp is buoyant. The wind dies down, cooperating for once, so I pull out Donald and we chat on the record. It is tiring work, being on the record, but I am excited to see how all these puzzle pieces will fit together into film language in the coming year.

One man came up to me after my little presentation and asked if he could write a postcard to someone else, because he knew he would not be alive in a year. I didn’t ask for details, but just took his postcard and placed it with the others. I have become a keeper of secrets, I hold in my hands a stack of confessions, fears, joys and sorrows. Such lovely people, even the grumpy family on their first ever backpacking trip, suffering together.


After everyone has gone to bed I climb up to the helipad and am rewarded with something like a sunset – pink clouds high in the sky at 11:30pm. I had worried that doing this residency might be a bad career move. I am stepping away from my nearly finished film and potential commercial projects knocking at my studio door to chase a vague new project that will probably consume a lot of my time with sorting, blogging and creating. But talking to everyone tonight, I do know that for the handful of postcard writers and talkers, the world is now a slightly more vibrant place. Their trek is a tad more meaningful, their lives a wee bit enriched. So, I guess that makes it all worth it? I’m still a poor artist who doesn’t make enough money to support myself. But there is something new and good in the world because of my existence on the trail. I think I’m glad that whatever it is, it doesn’t entirely belong to me.

Read More: Trail Journal Day 12

Day 10 – an O’Keefe of Blue

Day 10

4th of July!
Lindeman City

bestofchilkoot062The days are getting fuller as my residency is approaching its end. Today was a day for a long stroll. The canyon between Deep Lake and Happy Camp is open now, the trail skirting the river still choked with massive snow-bergs. Oh my! The snow! Deep does not describe it. Arctic might come close. It is not quite glacial, but the fissures penetrating into the mysteriously blue interior whisper with unseen currents and aspire to that ponderous word. Blocks of snow collapse into the water, moving slowly down river, dragging their toes against the bottom until they bump into the downstream traffic jam.

And then the people. Today is a 46-er: that is how many people will cross the summit today. I will pass them all as I backtrack to the pass, but first I run into the late risers from Happy Camp. A group from the Hawaiian Hiking Club greet me with “Aloha” and I chat with them a bit about the difference between hiking in Hawaii and Alaska (there are many differences).

The nice thing about hiking against the stream of traffic is that people notice you! I talked to nearly everyone coming down from the pass – the group of high school girls with red white and blue fireworks and star spangled banners tattooed on each cheek; 75 year old Frank hiking the trail for the 5th time with his daughter; two dudes from Spokane; a slightly grumpy family from back East. And it gave me great joy to hear that many of them had written postcards at the summit, despite me not being there to cajole them. By the time I pass the rearguard of the entourage, I could see the pass and I figured “Why not?”

bestofchilkoot061Headwinds and a barren landscape make me very aware that I am now alone. It is cold, but I sweat in my down vest, striding over snow churned to a buttery consistency by many feet. The pass seems to stretch away over each rise. Finally, I reach the bottom of the last steep pitch. This hill that we slid down in 30 seconds seems to last an eternity. At last, the shelter! And food and postcards! I flip through the stack as I munch tortilla and peanut butter, once again astounded at the range of thoughts filtering through my hands. But it is a long walk home and I don’t linger long. I slide down the steep snow hill, thinking how perfect it would be to have a toboggan and glide out across Crater Lake at breakneck speeds. And then more snow. I’ve been walking on snow forever! Eventually I start looking for detours on the rocky outcrops just to give my muscles a break. But the whipping wind is in my favor now and the sun hits the slopes farther down the valley drawing me on. I stop only briefly for a few photos, breezing through Happy Camp with its 46 tired residents, through the ice-choked canyon, up, over, down again to Deep Lake and break camp. Only 3 miles to go, thoughts of dinner and that double sleeping bag at Lindeman arguing with my sore feet and tired legs. After a 20 mile day, I finally feel some solidarity with those tired people at Happy Camp.

More pictures and drawings on Flikr: The Chilkoot Trail – an artist’s journey

Read More: Trail Journal Day 11