An artist’s journey

Story and images by Corrie Francis Parks Explorebigsky.com Contributor

The last five days of sun on the upper glaciers caused the Taiya River to encroach onto the trail in knee deep pools that seeped through my gaiters and collected in the toes of my boots. I sloshed in my own private puddle with each step as a steady drizzle filtered through the trees. Wet from above and wet from below, I was already missing the Montana sunshine that saturates the mountains around my home in Big Sky. Not the most promising way to start a 13 day hike over the most famous pass in gold rush history.

The Chilkoot Trail starts a few miles west of Skagway, Alaska. Only 33 miles long, it was the fastest, cheapest route to the Klondike. From 1897 – 1898, more than 30,000 people used the route, dreaming of fist-sized gold nuggets paving the creeks in the interior. Most of these “Stampeders” carried at least one ton of supplies to keep them alive for the first year until they turned “sourdough,” or turned for home. Hauling their gear on their backs over the 3,525-foot pass one heavy load at a time, their goal was Lake Bennett, where they could build a boat and float the remaining 600 miles to Dawson City.

Now I was leaving my own footprints as the first artist-in-residence to officially walk the entire trail.

Today the Chilkoot is a through-hike, part of Klondike Goldrush International Historic Park. As many as 50 hikers a day cross over Chilkoot Pass, retracing the steps of the prospectors and native Tlingit traders before them. Ecologically stunning, the trail rises from Alaskan coastal rainforest through alpine tundra and into the subalpine boreal forest of British Columbia. An unusual addition to the natural wonders of the trail is the “sacred trash”—rusty tins and frying pans, moss-covered boards and bits of heavy machinery abandoned by the prospectors in their rush to get to the gold fields. These castaways are now an archaeologist’s road map to the past so the trail wardens and park rangers make sure they are carefully preserved as found.

As with any residency, the most precious gift for an artist is time. While most hikers are on the trail for three to five days, I’ll be around to see the weather change, talk to new people as they pass by, and watch myself grow as an artist.

I was hiking alone, but my first evening reminded me that this is a social trail. All the hikers stopped at the same campgrounds, shared the same cooking tents and bear-proof storage, struggled up the same 1,000-foot ascent of slippery boulders on the Golden Stairs, and basked in the same sunshine once they reached Canada. It was hard not make new friends, and I chatted with people from ages 7 to 82, locals from Skagway and Whitehorse and travelers from Spain and Poland.

This is a trail of stories and memories, and that’s why I was there. As a documentary animator I was unearthing stories on this trail and mixing them with my own experiences to bring new art into the world.

The things I remember most from my trips into the wilderness are the moments I’ve recorded in my sketchbook. The creative act solidifies my memory of a place, perhaps because I take the time to translate it into something physical. When I look back at the drawings years later, I feel the mosquito bite on my knee, hear the sounds of my companions setting up camp, catch the scent of the forest on the breeze.

My goal with this residency was to bring this vibrancy to my fellow travelers and pool our memories into a collective portrait of the trail. At the top the Chilkoot Pass, I asked them to write or draw one memory on a self-addressed postcard. One year from now, I will drop all those postcards in the mail as an unexpected trigger to a vibrant memory of their authors’ adventures. In the meantime, some of those postcards will become part of an animated documentary about the trail.

Though the Stampeders were seeking gold in the Klondike wilderness, the vast majority didn’t find their fortune. From their letters and diaries, we can see they did find other things: adventure, suffering, love, and insight into human nature at its best and worst. At the end of my own journey, as I read through some of the postcards people wrote to themselves, I saw these same things. Ultimately, this is what makes these places worth preserving.

Corrie Francis Parks is an animator and photographer living in Big Sky. You can read her detailed trail journal and see more artwork from the residency at klondikeletters.com, and see some of her animation and photography work at corriefrancis.com.