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.
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…
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!