Klondike Letters Project

Translating experience into memory through inspired creation.

Tag: gold rush stories

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.

ranger

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

Back to Day 1

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!

Zombies on the Radio

I’ll be on CBC radio with Dave White talking about the residency and the first animated postcard! Reposting the Postcard below for the benefit of radio listeners. You can listen to the interview on the CBC website here.

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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 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!

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

Research, Research

Soapy Smith's gang waiting to fleece the unsuspecting cheechako with the shell game.

I’ve been doing some reading. I got my hands on a fat, old book called Klondike! The Last Great Gold Rush 1896-1899, penned by Canadian historian Pierre Berton. It’s clear from the book that Berton has an almost fanatical fascination with the gold rush, perhaps because he grew up in Dawson City and worked in the Klondike mines as a youth. Berton found his own nuggets among the old-timers he met, and the book is bursting with entertaining incidents, accidents and characters from what was probably the shortests yet most lucrative gold rush in the history of the world!

I’m usually not one to wallow through 472 pages of dense non-fiction, but the book is more like sitting by the fire listening to grandpa spin some yarns of the good ol’ days. Soapy Smith, the self-proclaimed boss of Skagway, fleecing the naive argonauts with  shell game; the dollar-a-dance girls in Dawson City and their broken hearted suitors; the sourdoughs and cheechakos arguing over a few inches of adjoining claims; the Mounties (the way Berton reveres them you would think they were the demi-gods of the Klondike) camped out on top of Chilkoot Pass collecting customs fees for every ton of supplies each prospector had to haul into Canada. It’s amazing what people hauled over that pass! – crates of fresh eggs (maybe not so fresh by the time they reached Dawson, but they sold for a dollar an egg), pianos and bicycles, an entire steamboat dissasembled and packed over the pass to be reassembled on Lake Lindeman.

There were avalanches and fires, riverboats frozen mid-stream as winter pounced on unlucky travelers, starvation and scurvy. What is it about gold that causes men and women to voluntarily suffer so much? Over 100,000 people set out for the Klondike and only a handful found enough gold to be considered rich (and most of those lost it all soon after).  I don’t expect to find any gold on the far side of Chilkoot Pass but I will be adding my footsteps to the well trodden-path hoping to find some of the more undefined treasures of the Klondike. In the meantime, if you’re looking for a good book, pick up something by Berton.