As I wrote the other day, it was twenty years ago--exactly--that I left from home (Aurora, Ohio, at the time) and flew to Alaska, where I hiked the Chilkoot Trail from the old DEA townsite, over the Chilkoot Pass to Lake Bennett, Yukon Territory, where a train would take me back to Skagway, thirty-three miles away. I kept a journal along the way ...
2 August: I got up at 5, and it took me an hour to pack and eat and prepare for the Chilkoot ascent. I was grateful for the weather. The pass is often foggy, and I'd read about many hikers who had climbed it and had seen little but the rocks they were standing on and clinging to. But the sun was out with only a light haze at the summit. I was thrilled--not just for myself (and Joe) but because I knew I'd have some pictures to show the kids back at school when we were reading The Call of the Wild.
In honor of my roots (!) I wore a Tribe T-shirt underneath my windbreaker. And here's one of the oddities of the day: I perspired heavily, the entire four-hour ascent, but when I got to the top and unzipped my windbreaker, I saw the shirt was frozen. Go figure. Here's some of what I wrote, later that day:
"... reached the summit about 10:15. Without question, the most difficult stretch of what has been a phenomenally difficult enterprise. Hand-over-hand climbing over enormous rocks ..." Once, resting, my face against a boulder about halfway up, I noticed, inches away, a couple of ants on their busy business. What are you little dickenses doing up here? I asked. Got no reply--though they were surely wondering the same of me.
Along the way I could see pieces of the cable, still lying there from 1898-99, when entrepreneurs strung it along the final portion of the pass and charged miners $1 a pound to haul their supplies to the top. Not many could afford it for a simple reason: The average miner carried about a ton of goods to the top (that's right, a ton) because waiting at the top were the North-west Mounted Police (at the top is Canada), who would not let you proceed if you did not have with you a year's supplies. Death was certain without them.
The miners hacked stairs into the ice all the way to the summit--The Golden Stairs, they called them--then simply scooted back to the bottom on their butts after securing their goods at the top--returning in mere seconds over terrain that had taken them hours to ascend.
But for Joe and me? Not much snow. Just boulders. Piles of them, looking as if they'd been flung there, the residue of some rock fight among the gods.
Joe--younger, more agile, in better shape, smarter, etc.--got to the summit well ahead of me, where he dutifully (patiently?) waited until I arrived. He took the picture at the left that shows me, far below on a snowfield (not yet melted from the previous winter), looking very much like the insect into which that trail was transforming me.
At the top, Joe and I embraced and then walked over to a nice log cabin, where we were greeted with warm lemonade by the Canadian Warden (Ranger), who lived there (in rotation with others) with his daughter and Native American wife. We were the second group over that day; a little ways off we saw evidence of the first, a pair of French brothers--TMI WARNING!--a pile of vomitus. I could relate.
An ominous sign: I'd awakened that morning with a soreness in my left knee, a soreness that had sharpened as the day progressed. I told Joe we probably ought to try to make it all the way to Lake Bennett; I wasn't sure my knee could take another night. But that was a foolish idea, and we both knew it.
And here is where Joe tried like mad to remember the words magnifying glass: He needed one to remove a splinter from his thumb--and I, oddly, had what he needed. I'd brought along some things of emotional significance--a sweatshirt from Phillips University (where my grandfather had taught, where my parents had met), the aforementioned Tribe T-shirt, and a small magnifying glass that had belonged to Thomas Coyne, Joyce's father, who had died in 1990, just three years earlier. Joe used the glass, removed the splinter, and off we went into a landscape that was virtually lunar: rocky, absent vegetation (well, much of it), and arid (it's officially a desert). See below ...
The scariest post-summit portion of the trail was almost immediately afterwards (see picture below). We had to creep down that snowfield to hit the trail again, and any slip would have sent us into Crater Lake and an icy death--no way, burdened with that pack, dealing with the frigid waters, could I have escaped. I kept telling myself: Don't imagine slipping! Don't imagine slipping! I was terrified that if I pictured it, I would execute it.
TO BE CONTINUED ...