Klondike Letters Project

Translating experience into memory through inspired creation.

Tag: chilkoot pass

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

Capturing the footsteps of the past

I’ve begun editing and selecting photos for an upcoming photo essay in Mountain Outlaw magazine. Beyond documenting the beautiful landscapes of the Chilkoot Trail, I am also attempting to capture the undercurrents of history that have settled into the trail over the centuries.  Below is an excerpt from my artist’s statement on how I approach photography:

Landscapes, both internal and external, affect me. The emotional experience of a place is a human mystery which fluctuates with each visitation. While geology and architecture do not get up and run away from the camera, a moment can be just as reticent to be photographed as a shy child. I bring the eye of an animator to the stillness of the page with the hope of entering into an alternate perspective: What would it be like to see as the mountains do, with eyes that span the seasons for centuries? In photography, time is a tangible substance for artistic manipulation and when time stops and continues simultaneously we find ourselves in a new dimension.

More photos to come.

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

Day 7 – Canada Day!

Day 71 July – Happy Canada Day!
Deep Lake

42 people, mostly Canadians spending their national holiday with family and friends, pass through the warming shelter. Finally, the last family group filters through. 7-year-old Lucas’ favorite part was scrambling up the Golden Stair though the older girls in the group “almost died, but not really!” I find the hubbub of people moving in and out of the shelters confusing. The elements are against me this time – people arrive tired and chilled, not inclined to think deep thoughts or talk to strangers with fuzzy microphones named Donald. They only want to get something hot inside them and hurry down out of the cloud. If only we had cake to offer them, it might differ… but rumor is, in Canada it is sunny…


…and rumors are true! After a lunch of candied salmon and Havarti (yum!) we glissade down the snow. Snow, snow and more snow! Snow canyons 15 feet deep, carved by the river; cracks and fissures of glacial blue opening up. When the rangers came up at the end of May to open the trail they had to probe to find the warden’s hut and had 5 people digging for over an hour to reach the door! We walk on snow for most of the 4 miles to Happy Camp, where finally the sun comes out. Tired hikers are basking on the tent platforms, despite a chilly breeze. They revel in the first warm rays of the entire trail and moods rise with the barometer.
bestofchilkoot048Not tired, we decide to carry on to Deep Lake. The canyon trail is covered with dangerous collapsing ice blocks, which means we are rerouted over the top of the bluffs. A 10min walk becomes an hour of scrambling and bush bashing up 1,000ft of brush and snow, following little orange ribbons tied to trees. But at the top we are rewarded with an expansive view that few Chilkoot travelers get to see – a string of deep blue lakes shimmering in the afternoon sun, mist clinging to the upper peaks surrounding us. Well worth the extra effort (though we are glad we didn’t start the day at Sheep Camp like everyone else!). We pass another energetic group of Canadians and their dogs and glissade down some snowfields towards Long Lake. The trail picks up again, finally clear of snow, and it ambles along above the lake to an old wooden bridge. We have arrived at Deep Lake. Camp is full of hungry, happy hikers, thrilled to have made it this far. Dinner is a very social affair.

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

Read More: Trail Journal Day 8

Day 6 – The Ebb and Flow

Day 630 June

bestofchilkoot037Typical summit weather: 3०C and white, winds from the SW. Warden Steph says it’s like this 90% of the time up here. The stampede starts soon after breakfast. A shivering group of Spaniards are the first to arrive. We bring over thermoses of hot water and wine gums (a Canadian thing) from the warden’s hut to cheer them up. It’s much more inhospitable up here with the strong wind howling over the pass. The Canadian flag whips and snaps loudly as I talk to people. Over 40 hikers filter over, most staying just long enough to get warm and eat a snack before getting down out of this frozen cloud. 2 families from Juneau and 1 from Whitehorse are the last to arrive. 8 year-old Elin pulls pink gloves off her hands, revealing fingernails painted an array of blue, pink, green and black. Apparently a family trail tradition, the rest of them have similar decoration. With colorful bugs crawling up her purple fleece vest she chatters about Billy the Goat who takes kids packs and carries them up the Golden Stairs. Her mother corrects her, “It’s not a-bout, it’s a-booooout. We’re in Canada now!” Two teenage boys practice their penguin slides on the snowbanks outside.

It’s Day 6 and the halfway mark… I’m trying to decide what to do. Tomorrow 42 people cross over the summit, 20-something the next day. Should I stay here and try to collect all their stories and postcards, or is it time to move on down the trail? Erica is getting ancy here in this white cloud. This is why it’s hard for artists to hike with other people – we linger where others move on.


The Chilkoot is a very social trail. A high volume of hikers all travelling to the same place, camping at the same campgrounds, cooking in the same shelters. It is acceptable, in fact even expected, to strike up a conversation. We look out for each other, wonder how everyone is handling the stairs, ask each other about our experiences of the trail. This one was scared, that one thought it was adventurous… Finding a thread to bind all these mini-stories together will be quite a feat. Somehow, all this material will fold into itself and open up into a recognizable “something”, like oragami magic. It’s a strange place to be at the beginning of a project with no defined direction. Not entirely unfamiliar – too familiar perhaps. More planning might have been beneficial. I wonder where all these people will be in a year and who they will be when they receive their postcards. Judging from some of the handwriting, some of them may never get their postcards!

I am happy about the socialness though. Turns out I like seeing people in the wilderness, when they experience it authentically and respectfully.

I feel a cold coming on and hope I can kill it with extensive eating and sleeping before tomorrow’s big day.

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

Read More: Trail Journal Day 7

Day 5 – Summit to Stay (or surprised by bacon)

Day 5

29 June

bestofchilkoot033Last night was a slumber party at Sheep Camp with Erica and Nicole hiking in from Dyea. I’m not sure if the public is supposed to know about the delightful outdoor shower near the ranger station, that’s probably privileged information. But I’m officially a park service volunteer so I didn’t feel even a twinge of guilt as I washed away sweat and mud from the first 5 days. We had a warm dinner of Lebanese Peanut Bulgar from the Bozeman Co-op bulk bins, hot drinks and ranger stories. After the best night’s sleep in the cozy loft on a real mattress, we awake to the smell of bacon! A cast iron breakfast of bacon, eggs and pancakes to send us up the pass today! I never expected to find such luxury on the Chilkoot Trail. It pays to have friends in the park service. We leave Sheep Camp for the last time, with heavy stomachs but warm hearts.


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

Read More: Trail Journal Day 6

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

The Chilkoot Trail, an artist’s journey


Photos and drawings from 13 days on the Chilkoot Trail in Klondike-Goldrush National Historic Park

Off the Trail

Greetings from Canada! I’ve made it Whitehorse after 13 days on the trail and a gorgeous train ride along Lake Bennett. There is so much to tell I don’t really know where to start. I’ll be consolidating all the artwork, postcards, interviews and inspiration I found on the trail in the coming weeks, but for now, if you happen to be in Whitehorse, you can get a head start on all the stories and see some of my artwork in person. I’ll be giving an artist’s talk tonight, so come by if you are in town.

7:30 pm

Sunday, July 8, 2012

at the S.S. Klondike tent by the Yukon River

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.