Saturday, August 10, 2013
Yukon Adventure, Conclusion
So ... twenty years ago this month I hiked thirty-three miles over the Chilkoot Pass in southeastern Alaska into British Columbia and then on into the Yukon Territory. I did not finish the final seven miles of the trail (the portion from Lake Lindeman to Lake Bennett, across the sand) because of a knee injury. Instead, the wary wardens at Lindeman wrapped my knee and boated me across to Bennett, where I waited for the train, the same rail line my great-grandfather had taken back down the White Pass in 1899 when he was returning from his own Yukon adventure during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1896-1899.
Here's what cryptic A. C. Dyer wrote that day, 16 October 1899: We eat breakfast this morning and five of us took pasage in a box car for Skagway Alaska where we arrived at 1 p.m. I'm leaving his spelling and punctuation and usage: He'd once been sheriff of Braxton County, W. V., and you don't mess with lawman's grammar! The photo shows A. C. Dyer (bearded); my grandfather, Charles Dyer, stands at the far right of the photo--he died before I was born. I never knew anyone in that picture, though we carry genes that would recognize one another and, I trust, smile.
(FYI: There are two principal routes over the mountains from the sea: the White Pass from Skagway; the Chilkoot Pass from nearby defunct Dyea. Both end up at Lake Bennett. Both were horribly difficult passages for the gold-rushers.)
I've written here about my physical difficulties on the trail and the unexpected friendship with Joachim "Joe" Altvater, the young German man whom I met at the first sanctioned campsite, Finnegan's Point, about five miles from the trailhead. (The National Park Service restricts camping to its approved sites.) I've written about what we saw, whom we met, what I carried with me, what I thought and felt.
The trip fit within the larger boundaries of the obsessive research I'd been conducting into the life and writing of Jack London--specifically The Call of the Wild, which I'd been teaching to eighth graders since I returned to Harmon Middle School (Aurora, Ohio) at the beginning of the 1982-1983 school year. Wild was included in our literature anthology (Exploring Literature), and I'd become ensnared in the novel for a variety of reasons, perhaps most powerfully when I discovered, via my dad, that his grandfather had gone on the same gold rush as Jack London (did they meet? not likely)--and had kept a diary (see above), which now stands on a shelf in my study. The Chilkoot Trail figures prominently in The Call of the Wild (Buck, the dog, traverses it several times), and I had to see it, to know the detail. But I'd done lots beforehand, too ... as I'll get into below.
That hike greatly affected my teaching of the book, too. My experiences on the trail--my many photographs (from Joe, from other sources)--slowly transformed our study of London's novel into a nine-week orgy (can that really be the word?) of activities about the Klondike Gold Rush, Charlie Chaplin, Jack London's life. I had assembled four massive slide shows (the old-fashioned kind: 35mm slides and a Carousel projector), one on the Rush, one on Chaplin, one on London's live, and a final one on the geographical locations of the book, locations which, by that time, I had visited. All of them, from Santa Clara, Calif., to Dawson City, Yukon. As a result of all that travel and research, I could see the book--and I hoped all the hundreds of pictures helped my students do so, as well. For London was using his imagination, sure, as he wrote, but he was also using his memory: He had been there, walked the ground, felt the bite of the cold. And his novel is packed with references to specific places he'd been. Take a look at my course calendar my first year back after the hike ... weeks of Wild-related activity.
And what a research trail I'd been on, as well! In the summer of 1990, I'd participated in a National Endowment for the Humanities Seminar for teachers (six weeks in length) out at Sonoma State University, near the Jack London Ranch in Glen Ellen, an experience that introduced me to Prof. Earle Labor, the Jack London authority in the world (his biography of London will appear this fall--his life's work). Earle (he insisted on first names) wanted us each to develop a "project" for the seminar; I settled on the idea of doing annotations for The Call of the Wild, and Earle encouraged me tremendously, and all of it resulted in three publications with the University of Oklahoma Press--a full-meal-deal annotated edition of the novel (The Call of the Wild by Jack London, with an Illustrated Reader's Companion, 1995--cloth cover, now out of print), a paperback edition, with fewer annotations and photographs (The Call of the Wild: Annotated and Illustrated, 1997, still in print in an updated edition), and a guide to teaching the book (Jack London's The Call of the Wild for Teachers, 1997).
Also in 1997, Scholastic Press published my YA biography--Jack London: A Biography--which did well and won some awards but, sadly, is no longer in print, either. (Grrrrr.) (You can still find stray copies on Amazon, though.)
But by 1997 my London-mania was evanescing. I'd done little else for a dozen years, and my mind was now wandering elsewhere. Today, I still read London-related things, still keep in touch via the web with scholars--and with Earle. But I'm no longer a fanatic. You see, in the mid-1990s I'd gotten interested in Mary Shelley and Frankenstein, and by the time I retired from the Aurora Schools in January 1997, I was fully immersed in her story and would not come up for air for another decade. I grew impatient with dilatory YA publishers (I wasn't getting any younger) and put my biography of her--The Mother of the Monster: The Life and Times of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley--on Kindle Direct in 2012. By then, I'd abandoned her for Poe and then Shakespeare ... and on and on it goes, and where it stops, nobody knows ... Never, I hope.
But that 1993 hike? It was the hardest physical thing I've ever done--and ever will do. I'd hoped to climb Mt. Hood while my father was still alive (he'd done it in 1937, on a lark), but an injury ended my training, and then he died in November 1999, and my dream of sharing my experience with him ended, as well.
When I got back from the Chilkoot Trail, I was, I'm sure, insufferable for a while (even more than usual), every third word out of my mouth being "Chilkoot." I dropped a dozen more pounds when I was back and weighed about 150, the same as my weight in high school. More unwarranted arrogance flowered. And then the inevitable weight gain(s) since ... the health issues ... aging ... loss ... retirement (again!) in 2011 ... more health issues ... declining physical prowess ...
But that Chilkoot hike is something I will long remember, something I may even whisper about to my annoyed plot-mates in whatever cemetery will accept my poor bones. Are we going to hear about this again?! complains a weary skeleton to my north. Oh, yes! I cry. Oh, yes and yes and yes!