Tag Archive > klondike

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

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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?

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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!

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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

 

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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