Thursday, June 12, 2014

Alaska Shorts: A Time Machine Called the Chilkoot Trail, 
by Dana Stabenow

Dana Stabenow

What the HELL was I thinking? — entry from Happy Camp log, Chilkoot Trail

I had a plan.

I wasn’t going to let anyone rush me. I wasn’t going to let ME rush me. I was going to take it one foot at a time, one boulder at a time. I was going slow, I was going careful, I was not going to slip or fall, there would be no Stabenow blood shed in the Chilkoot Pass that day.

That was my plan. I slithered across the snow field to the foot of the Scales and got chest to chest with a boulder taller than I was. Slowly, carefully, one fingernail at a time, I thought my way over it.

One boulder behind me. A thousand to go. I stretched out a toe that was suddenly and inexplicably prehensile for the next.

What the hell was I thinking, saying I’d hike the Chilkoot Pass with my friends Rhonda Sleighter and Sharyn Wilson? I didn’t even know what the Sheep Camp ranger meant when she told us the pass was a class three rock scramble. Who was I, overweight, out of shape, someone who voluntarily quit camping when she was twelve, who was I to think I could hoist myself over a mountain pass which Henry De Windt had described in 1897 as, “difficult, even dangerous, to those not possessed of steady nerve”?

Plus, I was carrying half a tent, and at the end of every day of the five-day hike, I had to help pitch it. Adding insult to serious injury, I then had to sleep in it, because there are no cabins on the Chilkoot Trail, a situation I felt should be remedied. Preferably before I started.

I was an unhappy camper.


At least I wasn’t one of the women of 1897, who wore an average forty pounds of clothes each. The prospect of getting over the pass with a full pack was intimidating enough, never mind getting over the pass with a full pack and a bustle.

One image, according to Pierre Berton in The Klondike Fever, tells the entire story of the Klondike gold rush. It is a black-and-white photograph of “a solid line of men, forming a human chain, hanging across the white face of a mountain rampart.” Alaskans are as familiar with this image as we are our own faces, it is part and parcel of our history, it has been transmuted into legend, it’s even reproduced on the Alaska license plate.

In the winter of 1897-98, twenty-two thousand people crossed the Chilkoot Pass in a reckless quest for their share of the gold discovered by George Washington Carmack in the Klondike the year before. At some point, each one of the twenty-two thousand had stood in that solid line of men. Jack London lived it, Robert Service wrote verse about it, and now Rhonda and Sharyn and I were taking our place in that same line.

This time, it was all Rhonda’s fault. Ever since we were college roommates, I’ve known her to be hooked on old photographs. “Don’t have to know a soul in them,” she admits cheerfully. She has wanted to hike the Chilkoot Trail, to cross from Alaska to Canada in the footsteps of the stampeders ever since she went to Dawson City and saw the old photographs of the gold rush days there. In a weak moment I agreed to accompany her, and when Sharyn heard about it she foolishly said she wanted to come, too. So we three flew into Skagway on a Saturday and committed the cardinal error that evening of going to the National Park Service exhibit to watch their slide show on the Chilkoot. Most of my comments were unprintable, and we returned at once to the hotel to re-evaluate what was in our packs. “I don’t really need to change my underwear every day,” I said. “We don’t need bowls,” Sharyn said, “we can eat out of our mugs.” “I don’t need camp shoes,” Rhonda said, dumping her sneakers. At the Trail Center when we picked up our permits that afternoon, Ranger Jim Wessel had told us, deadpan, “The rangers are happy to haul your packs over the pass.” Pause. “For a hundred bucks.” I immediately said, “Is that a hundred bucks for all three of us?” Still deadpan, he said, “No, that’s each.” I barely stopped myself from asking if they took Visa.

Dana Stabenow was born in Anchorage and raised on a 75-foot fish tender in the Gulf of Alaska. She knew there was a warmer, drier job out there somewhere. She is the author of 30 novels, many essays and short stories and anything else anyone will pay her for. This excerpt comes from “A Time Machine Called the Chilkoot Trail," featured in Alaska Traveler: Dispatches from the Last Frontier and also in the Alaska Sampler 2014, a free eBook.

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Lynn Lovegreen said...

Great post, Dana. My characters went over the Pass but I never have. :-P

Anonymous said...

Liked the piece, but the assertion that every woman wore an average of 40 pounds of clothing apiece seems exaggerated. Barbara E. Kelcey, who wrote "What to Wear to the Klondike, Outfitting Women for the Gold Rush," quotes an 1897 New York Times article describing women's Klondike clothing and what everything weighed. Attiring a woman in the stoutest clothing possible: heavy boots and socks, heavy wool underwear, bloomers, a corduroy or wool dress, heavy gloves, and a waterproof coat and hat - all that only adds up to about 25 pounds. Where would the other 15 come from??