Klondike Letters Project

Translating experience into memory through inspired creation.

Category: Backpacking

Day 4 – Art-making on Long Hill

Day 4

28 June
A Day of No Obligations

trailart006Only 6 people going over the pass, 4 from the Czech Republic and not much English in their repertoire so I slept in until 6:45. After morning call-in and bfast with Kyle at the Ranger Station I head up the pass for a day of “art making”. Above the mosquito zone there is nothing for me to do but paint, photograph, draw and sit. The sun is out in the morning turning the lush valley brilliantly green. Waterfalls and flowers. Today is a flower day.

Read More: Trail Journal Day 5

Day 3 – Summit and Back

Day 3

27 June
Sheep Camp

bestofchilkoot014I roll out of the tent to find most of Sheep Camp vacated. I guess they all took Ranger Matt’s admonition to be on the trail no later than 5am very seriously.

I hoist a light(er) pack on my shoulder. The mosquitoes seem to know I am the only warm-blooded creature left in camp and they flock around me. I stride out of camp quickly. I have people to beat to the summit!

Soon I begin passing hikers (much to my relief) with a cheery “Good Morning!” Everyone seems awake and in good spirits. Getting up at 4am is not so bad when it’s been daylight for an hour already. We quickly leave the trees behind and walk through scrubby boulders, water gushing from every crevasse, rock and snow patch. Water everywhere! Waterfalls on all sides tumbling down sheer cliffs in white ribbons. It is a Dolby 5.1 waterfall soundtrack!

The snow begins. I traverse across snowfields, over patches of rocks and back onto the snow, passing a few more groups. We all follow the orange stakes marking the safe path across the snow bridges, occasionally hearing the hidden rivers rushing under our feet. The mist closes in as I climb higher, obscuring the cairns and stakes ahead so I my only guide at certain times is the steadily rising terrain of Long Hill…

I pass bits of rusty iron, mechanical parts, an old tea kettle, rusted, twisted cables poking out of the snow. What else is buried underneath there?


The Golden Stairs – I catch up with the family from Fairbanks. The stairs have shed their snow faster than the rest of the trail and it is pure scrambling from here. Big boulders and smaller rock piles intermingle. The rocks are wet from the mist and soon my gloves are soaked. I love scrambling, so this is no big deal for me. Still, I test each foothold carefully. A loose rock could mean a nasty bruise or worse. Up, up, up! Soon I’m at the top where a rock monument lauds the brave souls that inspired all of us to come on this trail.

I find the summit shelter through thick fog and let myself in, a couple from Spokane on my heels. The empty warden’s cabin, 50 ft away, is barely visible, but there is no wind so the whiteout is more eerie than threatening. After morning report on my radio, I begin boiling water for the coming crowd. Soon the flood begins and in a matter of minute the hut is full of bodies still steaming from the exertion of the climb. Glasses and camera lenses fog immediately and become useless. Happily, people reach for postcards and pens, eager to put down their thoughts before the feelings of being “at the top” fade. The steady stream of people continues – hot drinks, snacks are shared. Worried wonderings about the slower members that haven’t shown up yet (Miles lost his gloves, Ben fell through a snow bridge) turn into adrenaline-pumped stories when their smiling faces come through the door. The trail crew breaks out a Nalgene full of “black tea” which looks suspiciously like whiskey. There is more snow melting over cookstoves. Others begin to head off downhill with a happy song.

bestofchilkoot019The hut is empty and I wait for the last 3 hikers – the 3 ladies from my first night at Canyon City. The clouds lift their skirts like a Dawson dance hall girl and I get a peek at Canada. I walk back with the camera and see my lady friends breaching the stairs with cheerful smiles. “A good attitude and lots of prayer,” gets them to the top. More hot water, chili chocolate and postcards!

Alone again – the snapping flag and vibrato notes of some unseen twisted metal singing in the wind on the crags above me are the only sounds. I am dragging my feet, finding excuses to stay in this forlorn landscape, which is opening up before me in a private beauty. Another warm meal, more photos and recording, eventually it is time to go down… it is sunny below the Golden Stairs.

As with any residency, what this provides is the gift of time – time to wait for the clouds to clear, time to experience change, time to sit still…
My understanding of the trail is utterly unique because of this.

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

Read More: Trail Journal Day 4

Day 2 – Canyon City to Sheep Camp

Day 2

26 June
Sheep Camp

A pleasant pack to Sheep Camp. A leisurley pace and my pack was not feeling quite as heavy as I expected it to. Day two is usually when your body realizes that yesterdays’s ordeal with a ridiculously heavy pack wasn’t just a one time thing and it either starts an open rebellion of aches and pains or reluctantly settles into a quiet groan for the long haul. My body luckily seemed to be opting for the latter.

Obligatory stop at the old boiler, crossing a fabulous swing bridge and following a winding path through ferns and flowers devouring rusting remnants of the boom town of Canyon City. If carnivorous is to meat, then what is to metal? Ferrivorous? The boiler was much bigger than I had gathered from the pictures on the web. I guess this one wasn’t worth hauling out. How much of these ghost towns were dismantled and packed out to be reused and resold in the newly booming rail town of Skagway, and how much is buried under these thick blankets of moss waiting for an archeologist 1,000 years in the future to carefully excavate them, speculating on the ancient days when their tropical beach town was a cold and icy canyon?


A pleasant view from Pleasant Camp

See the entire album on Flikr: The Chilkoot Trail – an artist’s journey

Read More: Trail Journal Day 3

Day 1 – Dyea to Canyon City

Day 1

25 June

The morning report on the radio warns of temps in the 50s and rain showers. Gray skies confirm the reports. Gone are the summer Skagway days and it is time to suffer through the trail.

Things I am nervous about:

  • a heavy pack full of camera and sound gear, stacks of unwritten postcards, radio and bear spray, art supplies
  • talking to people, getting them to talk to me, convincing them to talk to Donald.
  • getting wet – I mean really wet!
  • my problematic big toe and the muscles and joints that haven’t had to carry a pack for a long time.

But mostly it’s the pack and all the gear – there’s just so much more when I am A) solo hiking B) going for 13 days C) supposed to make art. The weight of my pack makes me feel very unorganized and unprepared for this trek compared to the time when I could throw a few things together and be on the trail in minutes. Last night I even contemplated leaving my camera here and just painting and drawing my way through the trail, but I knew I would regret it almost immediately. One day all these photos I’m stockpiling will find their place in my artistic repertoire so I continue to lug that heavy thing into wild places. So, then, let this rainy day unfold…

Canyon City

Hanging out with a bunch of Alaskans at Canyon City. We are a cozy little group – a family from Fairbanks and 3 women from the outskirts of Anchorage. This was my trip in:


From the picture you might note the drawing of a cracked UV filter. Yes, about an hour into the trek, as I was unbuckling my pack, I discovered I had failed to secure my camera properly to its strap because it fell and bounced onto the boardwalk. I thought it was probably fine, but opened it up just to check and aaaaack! There was broken glass all over! After a moment of panic, I saw that it was only the UV filter that had shattered* and the lens appeared to be fine, apart from some scary-looking glass dust sitting on the front element. I very, very carefully brushed and blew away the fragments, breathing a prayer of thanks as I snapped a picture to check the functionality. I promised the camera I would take much better care of it from now on and proceeded to baby it for the rest of the trip. And from what I can tell, it didn’t hold a grudge.

bestofchilkoot003And yes, there was water. The 5 days of sunshine did a number on the snowfields and the Taiya river overflowed its banks onto the trail. Yesterday hikers were going through thigh-deep water but by the time I got there it was just below my knees. So, wet boots for a few days. Things could be worse.


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

Read more: Trail Journal Day 2

*Photography note: There is a heated debate in photography forums about whether or not to use a UV filter to “protect” your very expensive lens. Many if not most pros walk around with their glass as bare as a baby’s bottom. You would think this incident would have convinced me that my filter saved my lens, but I have to wonder… is that cheap metal ring and glass more susceptible to impact than a well-constructed, sturdy lens? The camera fell about 3.5 feet onto wood in a soft case that has about 1 cm of cushion. I was pretty surprised when I saw all that broken glass – it didn’t seem like much of an impact. When I’m shooting I almost always have a lens hood on, which is a great shock absorber for those accidental knocks and bangs. However, the hood has to come off to fit the camera into the soft case, so had I not had the filter on it would have been the lens cap and the soft case absorbing the fall. My theory is that the lens would have survived where the filter did not. But I am NOT planning on testing that theory! However, if you have tested it, by all means comment below and let us know!

On the Trail…


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!

Packing List


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!
  • 200 postcards, pens and colored pencils for my fellow travellers to have fun with.
  • Donald, my handy little recorder.

I’ve been getting familiar with my equipment in the field during my stay in Skagway and am excited to start making art on the trail. Now the real question is if I’ll be able to fit it all in my pack!

Getting in Shape in Skagway

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!