How many times do we have casual encounters with a stranger? We may exchange pleasantries in line at the grocery checkout, or acknowledge a stranger walking by on the opposite sidewalk. We presume that these brief encounters are not meaningful. However, two people who have had a profound influence on my life were strangers who I only met for a few minutes, several years ago.. I don’t even know their names, but I think of them often. If I could speak to them today, I would thank each of them for changing my life and motivating me to continue my pursuit of discovering far away special places in the world. If we only knew the power of such encounters to influence a person’s life, how might we interact differently with each other?
The “PLACE” where these encounters take place is integral to this power to influence. Anthropologists and Geographers have written tomes relating to this subject. Geographers refer to the Five Themes of Geography; Location, Place, Human-Environment Interaction; Movement; and Region. LOCATION simply refers to x,y coordinates on a map and describes where something is, either in latitude/longitude coordinates or in relation to some know feature (Bend, OR is East of the Cascade Mtn. Range). PLACE is different; it refers to the Physical and Human Aspects of a said location. Humans MOVE into an environment and adapt to it, but they also INTERACT with that environment and change it. Cultural Anthropologists describe how humans attach cultural meanings to specific locations. Therefore, it is no coincidence that the two life changing encounters both happened within a few days of each other, while hiking the Chilkoot Trail from Alaska to Canada, the same route that gold rush miners took to the Klondike in 1898.
One old man inspired me to emulate him; the other profoundly influenced me to do the opposite, and avoid the mistakes that he had made with his life. I suspect that neither of these men would remember even meeting me…..or would they? Was there something memorable for them in our brief rendezvous, or did the lasting impressions only go one way?
It was the summer of 1988 and my friends and I flew from Atlanta, GA to Juneau, Alaska as we prepared to retrace the Klondiker’s steps over the Chilkoot Pass trail from Skagway, AK to Lake Bennett in Canada. The 33 mile long trail was the shortest route overland to gain access to the Yukon gold fields. Fortune seeking pioneers would sail all the way from San Francisco or Seattle to Skagway, which was as far as they could go on salt water. Then the perilous and arduous journey began. The trail starts overland from the Ghost town of Dyea, about nine miles west of Skagway. Miners would have to pack one year’s provisions up a steep mountain pass, where Canadian Mounties awaited to make sure that anyone entering their country would have the required 1,150 pounds of food per person before they would be allowed to enter Canada. The border was at the top of the Chilkoot Pass, where one had to navigate a steep mountain wall. Most miners did the pass in the Winter, as it was easier to drag the heavy gear over snow than carry it. After clearing customs, they would continue to Bennett Lake and build boats and wait for Spring snow melt to make the 560 mile trip to Dawson City, Yukon.
We began the hike at Dyea, which is now a ghost town. We had an eerie feeling as we walked through the cemetery. All of the headstones showed the same day of death; April 3rd, 1898. The avalanche that wiped out this community was a factor of the geography of the area. The steep mountains behind Dyea forces the moist marine winds upslope, where it cools and condenses. In the summer, it rains a lot. In the winter, the precipitation comes in the form of snow. When the winds change from the north, cold arctic air freezes the snow pack, causing a layer of ice. Subsequent heavy wet snows on top of the ice, compounded with warming temperatures in April are a recipe for avalanche. If only the miners had taken a Physical Geography class ahead of time!
Our journey would be quite different from that of the miners. We would travel in the summer, whereas many of the miners would hike in the snow during late Winter and early Spring to be able to drag their heavy loads over snow, rather than hauling everything on their backs. We only had 4 days of provisions in our pack. They had to make multiple trips to carry the 1,150 pounds of food per person, which was the minimum they needed to show the Mounties before they were allowed to cross the border into Canada.
We saw lots of hikers on the American side of the border the first few days. Most were German or Canadian. Blueberries were abundant along the trail. We raked the bushes as we hiked, constantly stuffing the succulent berries in our mouths as we moved ever uphill. When we reached the cabin shelter to camp for the evening, our faces resembled a bunch of two-year old children given grape popsicles at a birthday party. Our hands were also stained. The three of us could pass for the original blue man group.
There was a cold stream beside the cabin, so we picked some more blueberries and made some cherry jello and placed the pot in the stream for it to congeal. We then went back to the cabin and proceeded to cook dinner on our camp stoves. Other people were staying at the cabin too. They were all surprised when I said, “Now, it’s time to go outside and get dessert.” Covetous and wistful eyes watched us as we enjoyed our fruit filled jello. We didn’t have enough to share with everyone. I thought we might have to fight WWII with the Germans over it. A pretty, Canadian girl from Whitehorse offered to barter some dried moose meat for some jello, so we agreed to share with her. We both felt like we got the better of the deal: she longing for a dessert in the wilderness, and ourselves trying a new type of food.
From Sheep Camp shelter, we had a little more than a three mile hike uphill to reach “The Scales”, the beginning of the steep ascent up to the top of Chilkoot Pass. The climb up “Long Hill” to the top was much steeper. In summer, there would be no snow to smooth out the incline. A cable had been bolted into the rocks, which we used to assist ourselves up the rocks. The cable was a remnant of an old tramway which hauled up goods to the top for a hefty fee. Most miners were too poor to afford it, so they made multiple trips up Long Hill from the Scales to the summit with heavy loads on their backs. We were glad to only have to make the climb once. Finally reaching the top, we took a lunch break in a small snow bank just across the international boundary line. No Canadian Mounties were there to meet us, so we felt like illegal aliens sneaking across the border undocumented.
Once inside Canada, the terrain, vegetation and scenery drastically changed. We were now above tree line in alpine tundra. We still had quite a few patches of snow to negotiate, even though it was late August. We started down the trail, with beautiful Crater Lake coming into view beneath the cloud ceiling on the left side of the trail. The route was so steep downhill at this point, that we stopped at a warming A-frame hut to cut our toenails shorter to keep them from being jammed into the front of our boots.
After warming in the hut, we continued hiking north. Far off in the distance, we could look across the tundra and see a couple of hikers headed in our direction. Just before we reached Long Lake, they came more closely into view. They would be the only people we encountered walking the trail in the opposite direction. As they approached, I could see that these were elderly backpackers, who looked to be in their mid to late seventies. I admired them for being able to still hike in this terrain at their age. I lingered with them for a few minutes and we chatted. Those few minutes would stay with me for a lifetime.
The old man wore a ratty looking, well worn white wool sweater. His long white beard looked like it could have been knitted from the same wool. He was wearing a kilt, which revealed a pair of stocky, sturdy legs which disappeared into knee-high wool socks covered by black gaiters. His enormous pack dwarfed his stocky frame. He had a twinkle in his eye as he talked to me. Had he been dressed in a red suit and carrying a bag over his shoulder instead of a backpack, he could have passed for Santa Claus.
I could have spent hours talking to him and picking his brain about a lifetime of adventure. However, I didn’t want to get too far behind my hiking companions, so our chat was brief. Just before we parted, he shared a few secrets with me. Before doing so, he looked around and scanned the horizon, as if to make sure any ghosts in the area would not overhear us and steal these precious words of wisdom. Even though nobody else was in earshot, he whispered “I’ve been hiking this North Country for 50 years boy. There’s two places you’ve just got to see before you die. One is Mt. Edziza in Northern British Columbia. Then, after that, you’ve got to see the Mackenzie Mountains in the Northwest Territories.”
I thanked him for his advice and hurried up the trail to catch up with my friends. That night, I fell asleep dreaming of what these places would be like and planned on when I would go there. I ended up experiencing both places within the next four years, and both were in the middle of “Nowhere.” What good advice that chat ended up being!
I often think of the old man, at least a couple of times per year. Back then, I aspired to be as active as he was into my seventies, if and when I ever reach them. Would I still be able to hoist a heavy pack and go discover wild places when I reach his age? Will I remain diligent and keep exploring, or will I get caught up in the rat race of modern life and trade the dreams of my youth for a sedentary life of comfort? Could I someday be the old man that inspires others by sharing my stories of adventure and discovery? Finally, with the rate of habitat loss occurring in the late 20th century, will there be any wild places left by the time I reach his age?
That was half of my lifetime ago. I’m sure he has passed on by now. I am now no longer a young man, and am approaching the age that he was when I met him. Taking inventory of my life since then, I have experienced a lot of amazing places on this planet. Many of them are suffering the expansion of modernity into previously pristine places. The Chilkoot Pass is now highly regulated due to its popularity. You would need a permit to hike it today. That’s why I don’t feel guilty about writing about it. Other places, which are still pristine, I may disguise a bit when I write about them. Also, comparing my life to his, I think I am a little softer than he was, but what activities I still do are more than that of many people my age. I am grateful to him for that. I wish I could tell him just how much…..
We continued on the trail and saw the remnants of old boots, boat frames, and mining equipment; things that the miners abandoned nearly 100 years prior. We also saw abandoned cast iron cook stoves, and runners from sleds, all of which were buried by snow most of the year and were well preserved. The Chilkoot Trail is often referred to as “the Longest Museum in the World.”
We reached Lake Lindemann, where many of the miners stopped the hike and attempted to build boats where they could travel the last several hundred miles to Dawson City, Yukon and the gold fields of the Klondike. A bunch of cabins remained and the tree stumps were about 6 feet tall, marking the height of the snow line when the miners cut them down during the Winter of 1897-98. Parks Canada built a present-day cabin for hikers, complete with a sod roof in the construction style of the old days. The remains of several other decrepit buildings, along with an old cemetery, showed us that Lindemann City was once a large community at the end of the 19th century.
Unlike the Klondikers, we would not be floating to Dawson City. Instead, we would hike a side trail back towards the main highway which led back to Skagway, via White Pass. The trail followed the old railroad tracks of the White Pass and Yukon Railroad for seven miles. We thought that the easy grade of the railroad would make for an easy hike out, but quickly convinced ourselves otherwise. With each step, our blistered feet pounded on the cross ties of the railroad tracks. The bottoms of our feet felt worse than those of a convict in a Turkish prison, where the guards club the prisoner’s feet to keep them from escaping. By the time we got to the road to catch a ride back to Skagway, our feet felt like raw hamburger patties, with the railroad ties akin to being the hot griddle!
After no luck hitch-hiking on a lonely road, the once daily Sourdough Shuttle Bus stopped and picked us up and shuttled us back to Skagway. An hour and a half later, we were in downtown Skagway, bustling with tourists, most of whom were from cruise ships.
Having dreamed of bacon cheeseburgers for the last few days, we ducked into the Sourdough Cafe on Main Street and grabbed a booth. The coffee was hot and rich; a welcome change from instant on the trail. Copious quantities of golden French Fries accompanied our bacon cheeseburgers. We relived the past few days in a crowded restaurant full of people. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted an old gentleman shuffling over toward our table.
“I couldn’t help by overhear your conversation, but could you please tell me a little more about your hike on the Chilkoot Trail?”, he asked. “I’ve always wanted to go and experience it, and it’s one of the biggest regrets that I have in my life that I never got to do it”, he said ruefully.
He stayed at our table for a few minutes while we recounted the highlights of what we had seen, smelled and heard. I tried to convince him not to give up on his dream and that he was not too old to try it.
” We ran into a fellow that was older than you on the trail and he was backpacking, so you could too”, I told him.
I will never forget the mournful, broken-hearted look in that man’s eyes. He looked sadly down at the floor as he muttered, “I have a heart condition now. I’ll never be able to do it.” With that, he slowly shuffled away towards the door, shaking his head the whole time.
I waited until he was gone. “I don’t EVER want to be THAT GUY”, I told my friends. “I know that I will someday be either too old or too sick to do some things I love to do. But when that happens, I want to be able to look back on the things that I DID do. I’m sure that when I’m on my deathbed, there will be unfulfilled goals, but instead of being filled with regrets on what I didn’t do, I want to look back on all of the opportunities for travel and adventure that I DID take advantage of.”
Since that time more than three decades ago, I have had many reasons not to go somewhere, whether that be a function of time or money or lack of someone to go with. Then, I think of the old man in the cafe, full of regrets at the end of his life. Because of him, I learned that it is more important to spend time making a life than it is spending all of your time making a living. I then have to find a way to make a memorable journey happen.
I spend a lot of time in my office looking through my Atlas or searching google earth, seeking “nowhere” places to make new discoveries; discoveries about the earth, and/or myself. Each time I think of the two men I had concise, casual encounters with, and the consequences of those encounters. The man on the trail inspires me to keep exploring as long as I can. The man in the cafe reminds me that my time is limited, and not to let opportunity pass you by. Both of them remind me never to take any brief encounter with another human being lightly.