Sunday, August 23, 2009

Trials of the Weather, Pleasures of the Trail - End

The final leg of the hike is scenic and pleasant. We hear bear stories from other travellers, relax beside Bare Loon Lake for a snack and enjoy our lunch at a spectacular lookout over the ghost town of Bennett. We catch the train back to Skagway, drive the three blocks to the Thai restaurant where we enjoy tasty, hot curries. The rain begins again to make the world wet and cold. We don't care, our hike is over.

For almost 40 years, Parks Canada and the United States National Park Service have operated the Chilkoot Trail as an international historic park. The success of the trail depends on the diligence and passion of the staff and volunteers that make the Chilkoot both a safe backcountry experience and an engaging historic landscape. Wardens and Rangers, archeologists and curators, trail crew and managers, support staff in urban offices all contribute to the pleasures of the trail. Thanks to them all.

Trials of the Weather, Pleasures of the Trail - Sunshine

The morning shows bits of blue sky, "sucker holes" according to our rainforest companions from Juneau. However, the rain has stopped and there is a chance we can dry out at Lindeman. Lindeman has cabins with wood stoves, the very idea is wonderful. Each group slowly gets organized and heads out towards the sunshine.

The hike today is easy, the trail is good and as the clouds fade we have warm sunshine on our faces. By the time we reach Lindeman in mid afternoon our packs are wind dried. We hang up tents, clothes, sleeping bags. Soon all is dry and everyone's temper is restored. The others continue down the trail but we overnight in Lindeman. The interpretive tent has a Klondike board game, the lack of any rules only makes the play more furious and gold-rush like.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Trials of the Weather, Pleasures of the Trail - Waterfalls and Wild Flowers

We are the first at the Summit shelter. Quickly we make hot soup and eat our lunch, sausage, cheese and expedition bread, our staples. By now the others have arrived and we gird our loins with gortex once again. The walk to Happy Camp is relaxed. More rocks to cross and more streams to ford, but there is no climb over the summit ahead. As we drop out of the fog we appreciate the waterfalls. dozens of streams of water, some feathery wisps, others raucous and noisy, marking out the crevaces and fault lines in the black rock of the mountains towering over us. Further along, the wild flowers are in riotous bloom, red dwarf fireweed, deep purple monkshood, bright blue harebells, frilly creamy white blossoms of grass of parnassus and dozens of others in yellow, white, red and blue. We walk alongside a rocky wall the flowers cascading down past us like the waterfalls.

The tent platforms at Happy Camp are soaked, the water held by surface tension in reverse puddles. I try to wipe the water off the platform for the tent but it is hopeless. The tent and fly are completely soaked, the sleeping pads are soaked. The tent floor glues itself to the wood and only reluctantly allows me to stretch it out. Thankfully the sleeping bags are still dry.

The shelter is soon filled with with wet, cold people. Soon stoves are blazing under bubbling suppers, the walls and ceiling lines festooned with wet clothing in faint hope of drying. One woman has broken her finger in a fall at the summit and is trembling with hypothermia. First aid, some hot food and she is bundled into a double sleeping bag for the night. Otherwise we've come through without major problems. If we have another wet day though there will be more serious problems tomorrow.

Trials of the Weather, Pleasures of the Trail - Summit

I was pleased to see the familiar blue walls of the tent and Andrew in his sleeping bag beside me in the morning. This bright spot was followed by the sadder realization that we were hiking through the pass in a gale. A good breakfast, oatmeal with landjager sausage, my Ibeprofan with lots of water and some good stretches got us on to the trail, the last of our group to leave Sheep Camp.

There was no rain at first. We wound upwards, scrambling over the rocks of Long Hill and gradually escaping the forest shrinking first to stunted alpine fir and then just scattered willows, and into the rain. We could feel the wind pushing us onward and upwards. We caught up to the others and worked together to cross the many fords in the barren rockscape and made our way to the Scales at the base of the final climb. By now our feet were liberated from dryness, the first ford had filled our boots, and our load heavier as the rain soaked both clothes and packs.

By this time driving rain and thick fog canceled our plans for a hot drink before tackling the summit. We found a sheltered niche, hurriedly ate chocolate, nuts and swallowed some water while pulling on our rain pants to cut the wind - we were already soaked. We started again as the chill began seeping into my bones, must keep moving to stay warm. The barren stones of the Scales slanted ahead in a dark watery soup, the dense fog cramping our view even more than thoroughly than the forest we'd left behind. We'd moved from the Brothers' Grimm to the darkest parts of the Lord of the Rings.

We moved across a field of rippled ice, every foot step sliding in a different direction, the water in our boots sloshing with the sudden jerky movements. The wind blasted us forward. I was grateful for the heavy pack which kept my back warm and dry. And then the orange trail poles guiding us through the weather began to rise one above another on a crazy cascade of smashed boulders - we were at the Golden Stairs. We scrambled over the broken surface, each of us finding our own way amongst the carnage of rock, old timbers, and abandoned cables of the gold rush tramways, the wind howling and streaming rain plastering our hoods and legs. The base of the Stairs disappeared in the fog and we push on, certain only that we are going upwards, hoping soon to see the crest.

Trials of the Weather, Pleasures of the Trail - Dreaming

"No light, but rather darkness visible" Milton, Paradise Lost

I awoke from dreaming to the noise of crashing trees and sluicing rain. I lay there with my eyes closed, then opened them - nothing. I closed them again and re-opened them. There was no difference, everything was black. I squinted and tried to see the outline of my hand, nothing. I looked for the bright white band of the tent zipper, nothing. I was blind! Curiously I didn't panic. I began to think, well, I can't go over the pass tomorrow, but how will we get back down the trail? I pondered the various projects I was working on, thinking about the blind PhD student I knew from Clare Hall working on software to summarize and read text aloud. I hoped he was finished. Then it occurred to me that it might be an opportunity to improve my German. Finally I decided it might just be really, really dark and I just couldn't see anything. I put off further thinking and went back to sleep.

Trials of the Weather, Pleasures of the Trail - Deluge

In the morning the rain had stopped. Better, the puddles on the raincoats were gone, the tent seams just needed to swell up to become waterproof after a hot dry Yukon summer. A good shake of the fly and it was almost dry. We packed up and started out at a steady pace. The woods, a Brothers Grimm type of forest, started to bug me. Dark, damp, unable to see anything but 10 metres of broken stumps, bent and shattered tree trunks, prickly devil's club and lush, thick all absorbing green.

Along the way we heard, but in the deep woods never felt, the wind rising. The large cottonwoods swaying, branches and leaves ocassionally cascading down to our level. At Sheep Camp it was noticeably cooler and the rain held until off until supper was finished. Then we dragged in what wet wood we could find to make a fire in the shelter. The cabin was hung with damp clothes and equipment, and we had a quiet evening preparing for the big climb over the summit next morning. Jeremy, the park ranger, arrived with news of an early fall gale blowing up the Taiya Inlet, heavy rain with winds up to 90 kilometres an hour were now buffetting the pass. The parks service had closed the trail behind us as the rising waters had flooded much of the trail. He also warned we would be fording several streams and the water would be cold, fast and deep.

We went to bed, our tents calm but the trees towering above us swayed violently in the noise of the freight trains flying past us on the way north - our trail tomorrow.

Trials of the Weather, Pleasures of the Trail - Shelter

We're dropped at the Trailhead, heave on our packs and start the climb. An overcast day, the gloom of the coastal rainforest lowered around us but we scarcely notice - we are dry and there are no bugs. A couple of hours and we're in Canyon City. Nothing hurts. I am pleased.

The shelter cabin here is being renovated. A large wall tent however gives shelter from the light shower that started just after we got our tents up. Three other pairs are travelling with us - a Juneau mum and her 15 year old son, a German couple and, late that night, a couple from southern Alberta. Over the course of the next four days we shared the trials of the weather and the pleasures of the trail.

It was great to see work being done on the cabin. Especially auspicious was the presence of Parks Canada crew member, John. There are four of these cabins on the trail - one each at Canyon City and Sheep Camp on the American side and a pair at Lindeman in Canada. All were built by inmates from the Juneau and Whitehorse correctional institutes in the 1960s. In what may be among the earliest "community corrections" projects in North America, far sighted corrections officials committed to programs allowing low risk inmates to volunteer to reopen the Chilkoot Trail for hikers. This fulfilled a strong community interest to have a historic trail attract tourists. Over the course of almost ten years inmates cleared the trail, built bridges and the four shelter cabins to make the present trail a reality. The park services showed up later to run the trail the inmates recreated. Today there are few reminders of the dedicated and arduous work accomplished by these men. Congratulations to them! For more on the corrections work on the trail see Chilkoot Trail Cabins.

Andrew and I returned to the tent after supper to find rain dripping onto our mats. Bad news! We rolled out our sleeping bags and arranged our raincoats to divert the water to the floor. Resigned to the leaks we fall asleep to the roar of the rising river beside the tent.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Trials of the Weather, Pleasures of the Trail

I relaxed, sipped the latte and flipped open my Manchester Guardian. A soothing half hour spent before beginning the earnest work of hiking the Chilkoot Trail. The first task was to wake up the crew and meet for a big breakfast at the Sweet Tooth Cafe. Then a slow trundle down to the Trail Centre where Dyea Dave met us for the shuttle over to Dyea. Dave also picked up a bear view client and, on the road, we met a German couple Dave had toured last summer. Hearty greetings and they parked their car and joined us for the drive. A grizzly was seen across the valley and the van careened down the road, across the bridge over the heads of a half dozen fly fishers, through the dark woods and out onto the ocean flats. Dave brought his van within 40 metres of the bear as it munched down on a salmon in a sidestream of the Taiya River.

While we watched Dave told us his modern day Soapy Smith story. A couple of years ago a fellow set up a dog mushing attraction in Dyea. For $30 he'd tour you through the kennel and you'd get a dog team cart ride. Local advertizing netted him a couple of dozen rides a day, mostly from cruise ship passengers. It didn't take one of the cruise ship companies long to drop by and ask for the "exclusive" right to his offering. He accepted and still gets $30 a ride, but now the company runs out busloads of passengers several times a day when they're in port and keeps him plenty busy. They market the excursion on ths ship as $119 cruise ship passenger special! I guess that's how cruise fares are cheap, not much different from the casinos in Las Vegas.

Meanwhile the bear finished his salmon. He hunched up and looked upstream, then, he jumped and started to hop forward, then sideways and once backwards and he was back on the bank with another salmon. He wasn't worried about us.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Hiking Above Aishihik Lake

Over the weekend I went hiking with my God sons and their Dad. Colin planned a 2 day 20 kilometre round trip to an old crashed fighter plane. After a two hour drive and paddle across the narrows of a lake we began a steep slog uphill. After scrambling for several hours we reached a ridge top with splendid views of the surrounding lakes. During our late lunch the map showed we'd advanced a total of 1500 metres towards our 10 K goal. Things sped up a bit when we followed an old horse trail heading off in about the right direction. After a good spell of walking the trail ended up at lake with a pleasant camp site. We were now tired, the boys wanted to read their books and we'd made just short of 4 kilometres. Colin was outvoted and we camped.

Next morning, after a good solid porridge feed, we struck out along the horse trail, wound our way back to the canoe and made it home in time for a shower and glass of wine before dinner.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Hot Dry Summer

Sunshine every day, we button down the house in the morning, closing the blinds and cranking the windows shut. Temperatures approach 30'C almost every day. Trying to work upstairs in the afternoons is like being in a sauna. Still, the sun shines every day, we haven't had a summer like this in years. At the other end of the country Ottawa claims only 3 weekends without rain since early May (fortunately that included one when I was there). Yukoners are pretty happy about camping this summer.

It is cool in the mornings, today it was only 4'C at 8 am so I enjoy my morning coffee out on the front porch looking out to the sun as it slants its way upwards. For weeks the skies have been clear and blue. However, the lack of rain means an extreme fire hazard rating - all open fires are banned. In the late afternoon the heat of the sun reaches its peak, the air is still and the forest fires, slowed by the cool night air find their pace and roar in the afternoon. On Thursday afternoon last week fire 29 2009 XY011, straddling the Teslin River near O'Brien's Bar just 60 km NE of Whitehorse, explodes. A mushroom cloud erupts above the mountains in front of our house - 5,000 hectares of forest spews forth smoke and flame. I watch as it rises before me.