Klondike Letters Project

Translating experience into memory through inspired creation.

Tag: on the trail

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 4 – Art-making on Long Hill

Day 4

28 June
A Day of No Obligations

trailart006Only 6 people going over the pass, 4 from the Czech Republic and not much English in their repertoire so I slept in until 6:45. After morning call-in and bfast with Kyle at the Ranger Station I head up the pass for a day of “art making”. Above the mosquito zone there is nothing for me to do but paint, photograph, draw and sit. The sun is out in the morning turning the lush valley brilliantly green. Waterfalls and flowers. Today is a flower day.

Read More: Trail Journal Day 5

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

Day 2 – Canyon City to Sheep Camp

Day 2

26 June
Sheep Camp

A pleasant pack to Sheep Camp. A leisurley pace and my pack was not feeling quite as heavy as I expected it to. Day two is usually when your body realizes that yesterdays’s ordeal with a ridiculously heavy pack wasn’t just a one time thing and it either starts an open rebellion of aches and pains or reluctantly settles into a quiet groan for the long haul. My body luckily seemed to be opting for the latter.

Obligatory stop at the old boiler, crossing a fabulous swing bridge and following a winding path through ferns and flowers devouring rusting remnants of the boom town of Canyon City. If carnivorous is to meat, then what is to metal? Ferrivorous? The boiler was much bigger than I had gathered from the pictures on the web. I guess this one wasn’t worth hauling out. How much of these ghost towns were dismantled and packed out to be reused and resold in the newly booming rail town of Skagway, and how much is buried under these thick blankets of moss waiting for an archeologist 1,000 years in the future to carefully excavate them, speculating on the ancient days when their tropical beach town was a cold and icy canyon?


A pleasant view from Pleasant Camp

See the entire album on Flikr: The Chilkoot Trail – an artist’s journey

Read More: Trail Journal Day 3

Day 1 – Dyea to Canyon City

Day 1

25 June

The morning report on the radio warns of temps in the 50s and rain showers. Gray skies confirm the reports. Gone are the summer Skagway days and it is time to suffer through the trail.

Things I am nervous about:

  • a heavy pack full of camera and sound gear, stacks of unwritten postcards, radio and bear spray, art supplies
  • talking to people, getting them to talk to me, convincing them to talk to Donald.
  • getting wet – I mean really wet!
  • my problematic big toe and the muscles and joints that haven’t had to carry a pack for a long time.

But mostly it’s the pack and all the gear – there’s just so much more when I am A) solo hiking B) going for 13 days C) supposed to make art. The weight of my pack makes me feel very unorganized and unprepared for this trek compared to the time when I could throw a few things together and be on the trail in minutes. Last night I even contemplated leaving my camera here and just painting and drawing my way through the trail, but I knew I would regret it almost immediately. One day all these photos I’m stockpiling will find their place in my artistic repertoire so I continue to lug that heavy thing into wild places. So, then, let this rainy day unfold…

Canyon City

Hanging out with a bunch of Alaskans at Canyon City. We are a cozy little group – a family from Fairbanks and 3 women from the outskirts of Anchorage. This was my trip in:


From the picture you might note the drawing of a cracked UV filter. Yes, about an hour into the trek, as I was unbuckling my pack, I discovered I had failed to secure my camera properly to its strap because it fell and bounced onto the boardwalk. I thought it was probably fine, but opened it up just to check and aaaaack! There was broken glass all over! After a moment of panic, I saw that it was only the UV filter that had shattered* and the lens appeared to be fine, apart from some scary-looking glass dust sitting on the front element. I very, very carefully brushed and blew away the fragments, breathing a prayer of thanks as I snapped a picture to check the functionality. I promised the camera I would take much better care of it from now on and proceeded to baby it for the rest of the trip. And from what I can tell, it didn’t hold a grudge.

bestofchilkoot003And yes, there was water. The 5 days of sunshine did a number on the snowfields and the Taiya river overflowed its banks onto the trail. Yesterday hikers were going through thigh-deep water but by the time I got there it was just below my knees. So, wet boots for a few days. Things could be worse.


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

Read more: Trail Journal Day 2

*Photography note: There is a heated debate in photography forums about whether or not to use a UV filter to “protect” your very expensive lens. Many if not most pros walk around with their glass as bare as a baby’s bottom. You would think this incident would have convinced me that my filter saved my lens, but I have to wonder… is that cheap metal ring and glass more susceptible to impact than a well-constructed, sturdy lens? The camera fell about 3.5 feet onto wood in a soft case that has about 1 cm of cushion. I was pretty surprised when I saw all that broken glass – it didn’t seem like much of an impact. When I’m shooting I almost always have a lens hood on, which is a great shock absorber for those accidental knocks and bangs. However, the hood has to come off to fit the camera into the soft case, so had I not had the filter on it would have been the lens cap and the soft case absorbing the fall. My theory is that the lens would have survived where the filter did not. But I am NOT planning on testing that theory! However, if you have tested it, by all means comment below and let us know!

On the Trail…


These past 5 days in skagway have been stunning – summer temperatures and clear skies. I have been enjoying all this little town has to offer with kayak excursions around the canal with the seals and bald eagles, hikes to epic panoramas, local culture like Solstice celebrations, competetive cornhole and backyard grilling of fish pulled fresh from the canal. It’s been some good times! A very special thanks to all the “parkies” who have made my visit so much


last meal before the trail: spruce tip beer and burgers at the brew co.

But now, the weather is changing and it’s time to move on. The Taiya River has been flooding due to all the snow melting so I think my first few days on the trail will be wet! I’ve been assured that despite Verizion’s claims, there really is no cell coverage on the trail so the next time you hear from me, I’ll be a seasoned sourdough writing home from the Kolondike!