Klondike Letters Project

Translating experience into memory through inspired creation.

Category: Goldrush History

Sourdough

The last few months I’ve been working hard on getting the Kickstarter rewards out to all people supporting the 2017 season! One of my favorite rewards for backers is passing on our sourdough starter. During the various gold rushes in the 1800s, sourdough was a staple for prospectors. With just flour, water, salt, and a bit of starter you could have a hearty loaf of bread to fill your belly. In the cold northern winters, stampeders kept their starter in a pouch around their neck to keep it warm and alive (though actually, freezing starter only makes it go dormant and it can be revived!). Prospectors who made it through an entire winter season was dubbed a “sourdoughs” because they had managed to keep their starter (and themselves) alive.

Sourdough baking is sort of like a long-term scientific experiment. When we first started making bread, our loaves came out dense, kind of flat and a bit… well, under-baked in the center. But we kept trying, testing different water to flour ratios. We read blog posts and books on kneading vs autolysing, gluten development, steam bathing etc. etc. etc.

Now, several years in, we have a pretty consistent loaf coming out of our oven. So we decided to document the process, which is by no means perfect, but hopefully will give you a head start into the sourdough experiment. Below is the recipe and some tips:

No-knead sourdough

1000g (7.5 cups) flour

650g (3 cups) water

20g (1 Tb) salt

100g (1/3 cup) sourdough starter

Mix flour and water together and let sit for at least 30 min and up to 3 hours. This autolyses the flour and lets the glutens start developing early.

Add salt and sourdough. Incorporate fully. Then let rest in a warm spot until doubled in size and bubbles develop on the surface (this can take 8-24 hours depending on how active your starter is and how warm it is. Our dough rises much faster int he summer than in winter.)

Preheat oven to 500 degrees. If you are baking in a Dutch oven, preheat the pot thoroughly as well (we let ours sit in there for a good 45 minutes). In the meantime, turn out risen dough onto a floured board and gently stretch and fold over into a loaf shape, trying to preserve as many of the bubbles as possible. Let rest while the oven is heating

Sprinkle sesame seeds or rolled oat on the bottom of pot (optional) then slide in the loaf. With a sharp knife, make 3 cuts on the top of the loaf. Cover, and place in oven.

Bake at 500 for 15 min, then turn oven down to 400 and bake an additional hour.

Remove from oven and place on cooling rack. Let cool as long as possible! It is still cooking inside and will steam out. A good plan is to bake before you go to bed and let cool overnight. then you will have fresh crusty bread in the morning!

Sourdough

Wow, what a great start to our Kickstarter Campaign! I’m gonna take the opportunity to tell you about one of our weirder rewards – The Sourdough Zombie!

Sourdough starter is amazing – it’s a live culture that can transform a bit of flour water and salt into the most delicious loaf of bread. It can be frozen and stored for months and then brought back to life with a bit of gentle thawing and feeding. You can divide it and share it with friends (or Kickstarter backers). Thom and I got our sourdough starter from my dad, who got his in Skagway, Alaska! After 5 years, and 3 moves, it’s still going strong and makes a wicked loaf of bread! We had a little fun doing a Facebook live video the other day of the baking process:

The Stampeders were required to pack a literal tons of goods and equipment over Chilkoot Pass and into Klondike. Their piles of gear were dutifully checked my Canadian Mounties stationed at the pass to keep an eye on the gold-hungry crowds rushing for the goldfield. On the recommended list of goods is 400lbs of flour for that daily sourdough bread. Once a stampeder had survived a winter in the Klondike they were dubbed a “sourdough”, ostensibly because they had managed to keep their sourdough starter alive and consequently been able to feed themselves through the lean months of the year. When I first hiked the trail I met a family from Fairbanks who were carrying their sourdough with them, so they could say their sourdough had come over the Chilkoot Pass! I made a little animation of my conversation with them because I just loved the idea of a sourdough zombie!

Sponsor a Klondike Letters Postcard on Kickstarter

Klondike Mike and the Unfortunate Piano

In February, 1898 Mike Mahoney aka “Klondike Mike” made a deal with Hal Henry. He would escort the Sunny Samson Sister Sextette and their luggage over the Chilkoot Pass and down to Dawson city for $3000 plus a share of the musical group’s proceeds once they started performing in the Dawson Saloons. The six blonde and virtuous sisters were sure to be a huge smash in the rough Klondike frontier, where feminine charms were worth their weight in gold.

There was just one problem – the sisters insisted on bringing their accompaniment piano. Klondike Mike, a strapping Canadian farm boy and champion boxer turned stampeder, duly hoisted the entire piano onto his back and went step-by step up the Golden Stairs and into Klondike fame. Fortune eluded him, however, because the Canadian customs officer at the top of the pass, seeing the piano, asked what he was about. When he heard that 6 delicate, ill-equipt showgirls were coming his way, he was aghast (this was only his second day on duty – he had yet to see the sort of folks trying to get to Dawson). Certain they would die on the trail! He refused to let the party continue any further.

Fuming, Mike stormed back to Skagway and left the piano atop the pass, where eventually someone hauled it back down and sold it for a tidy profit.

Animation: Corrie Francis Parks
Banjo Pickin’ : Ranger Kyle Kaiser
“Saloon Piano Gem No. 1” by Black Keys Bob Stevenson
References: The Hougen Group – Yukon Nuggets and Klondike Mike: An Alaskan Odyssey By Merrill Denison

Interviews recorded at the top of Chilkoot Pass.

This is part of a series of animated postcards from Chilkoot Pass. Read more about the project here.  These mini-documentaries are rooted in reality, with live interviews and photos from the Chilkoot Trail providing a catalyst for my personal memories and playful reinterpretations of history. As an artist, this is about as fun as it gets!

Sourdough Zombies

Back in 1898, thousands of men and women arrived in Skagway with gold fever. They were headed for the Klondike goldfields over the Chilkoot Pass. Around their necks, they carried packets of fermented dough to make bread on their long, cold journey. If they made it through their first year in the bitter North, they were dubbed “sourdoughs”, after the bread that kept them alive during the endless night of winter.

Animation: Corrie Francis Parks
Banjo Pickin’ : Ranger Kyle Kaiser
Interviews recorded at the top of Chilkoot Pass.

This is the first in a series of animated postcards from Chilkoot Pass. Read more about the project here.  These mini-documentaries are rooted in reality, with live interviews  and photos from the Chilkoot Trail as providing a catalyst for my personal memories and playful reinterpretations. As an artist, this is about as fun as it gets!

Chilkoot Pass – Then and Now

when I stood on top of Chilkoot Pass, the vast, empty stretch of Canadian wilderness before me, it was hard to imagine a bustling, fluctuation community of thousands occupying the small saddle. Having a pencil in my hand, makes imagining easier! Here’s a look at some scenes from the first animated postcard from Chilkoot Pass. Soon I’ll have the entire animation up, but for now, scroll down and read some of the postcards travelers wrote on the top of the pass.

Chilkoot Pass then

Top of the Pass on a busy day in 1898.

Chilkoot Pass now

A wild, lonely day on top of Chilkoot Pass, 2012.

 

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 9 – 2 Frères au Klondike

Day 9
3 July
Deep Lake

Today I met an unusual pair of hikers. Mario and Jean, two brothers from Montreal, one a real estate broker, the other a civil engineer. Don’t they look like it?

bestofchilkoot053

These 2 Frères au Klondike are retracing the footsteps of one of their ancestors. As children they heard stories from their parents and grandparents about the relative that went off in search of gold in the Klondike, carrying his supplies wrapped in canvas on his back over the Chilkoot Pass. Now they are walking the trail in wool jackets, and leather boots, sleeping on folded blankets under a canvas shelter, cooking tinned beans and potted meat in a cast iron skillet. And I thought my pack was heavy!

bestofchilkoot055

Just like the gold miners, they have had no word from their families in weeks, but as we go our separate ways, Mario hands me a slip of paper and asks me to send a ‘telegram’ to his wife with any pictures and a greeting. Deb has been posting these ‘telegrams’ on the facebook page so the rest of us on the Outside can keep track of them.

bestofchilkoot054By train, ferry, foot and soon, a hand-made raft floating down the Yukon, they will eventually arrive at Dawson City, gold pans in hand, but it seems they have already struck it rich along the way. Mario tells me his pockets are full of golden views, friendly strangers who want them to succeed. And to share such an adventure with a brother – sleeping close for warmth, lifting heavy packs off each other’s shoulders, retelling the stories they heard as boys of the man who went off to the Klondike in search of riches… I think of my own sister, who hiked out today to return to work, and am so grateful I got to spend part of this time on the trail with her.

 

later

bestofchilkoot059A night of solitude at Deep Lake. I hiked back up the trail to do some more artistic exploring and I am amazed by how much extra time I have when I am alone. With no one to talk to, no compromises to make, my efficiency doubles, my afternoon expands. I am also reminded that I personally do not go to the wilderness for solitude. Why do I go? I think it is for the landscapes – the grandeur, the bigness. For the crystal clear streams and the cold winds off snowfields. For the warm, sun-baked granite. For the physical exercise – climbing, swimming, scrambling, glissading down soft snowfields. For the way food tastes after a day of all that. But mostly for the views… and quite often the company. As CS Lewis observes somehwere in some book I read years ago, when we encounter the beautiful our natural instinct is to grab the nearest person and share it with them with our “Woah!”s and “Look!”s and “Cool!”s. I suppose that’s just what any of us artistic types are doing out here with our paintings and photographs. We’ve found a bit of beauty or truth (or both together, if you like Keats) and are saying to the rest of the world, “Wow! Would ya look at that!”

P.S. If anyone knows the location of that CS Lewis quote, please let me know in the comments!

Read More: Trail Journal Day 10

 

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.

The Cremation of Sam McGee

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.

Robert Service
The Cremation of 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.

Read the full poem here. 

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