By Corrie Parks Explorebigsky.com contributor
It was 6:45 a.m., and I had been hiking for two hours
through white mist on white snowfields. The summer
snow crunched beneath my feet as I steadily kicked
steps, heading toward a bright orange trail marker
barely visible 100 feet ahead. Beyond the marker, a
steep, talus-covered hillside emerged from the fog as
I came to the edge of the snowfield. I had reached the
In 1898, more than 30,000 people walked this same
path, lock-stepping up the snowy chute to the Chilkoot
Pass, which separates southeast Alaska from the Yukon.
They were the “stampeders,” racing to the Klondike
goldfields and hoping to strike it rich.
Back then, the area immediately below the Stairs was
a makeshift city called The Scales. Here, the native
Tlingit packers increased their rates from 14 cents to
$1 a pound for hauling goods up the pass. Packers and
stampeders alike would make dozens of trips up the
Golden Stairs, carrying between 50 and 100 pounds
Gold pans, cast iron skillets and tightly wrapped bags
of beans and flour were some of the usual supplies
needed for a year of prospecting in the bitter north. A
few creative entrepreneurs packed rolls of silk, cases of
fresh eggs, live cats and contraband bottles of whiskey
– all items that fetched premium prices in Dawson
City. At the pass, the men cached their goods, turned
around, and returned to the noisy collection of humanity
at The Scales to collect another load.
Now the valley was eerily quiet as I scrambled hand
and foot up the boulders. Not far ahead, I passed a
family from Fairbanks whom I met in camp the night
before. They were speaking quietly, as if trying not to
disturb the ghosts that might haunt this pass.
Twisted cables and rusty cogs lay on the boul –
ders around me, reminders of the tramway built
in 1898 to haul gear for those who could pay. By
1899, White Pass Railroad in the adjacent valley
had monopolized the route to the interior, and
the Chilkoot Trail was quickly abandoned.
Wading through the whiteout, I breached the
crest of the pass, the sound of a flag whipping in
the wind ahead of me. A few steps later, a shel –
ter materialized from the fog. A red maple leaf
on the flag indicated I was now in Canada.
Inside, I fired up my stove to melt snow for
drinking water, pulled out an array of colored
pens and pencils and a stack of postcards, and sat
down to wait.
My hike on the Chilkoot Trail was part of an
artist-in-residence program, a joint venture with
Parks Canada and the U.S. National Parks Service,
and I had plans for the backpackers adding their
footsteps to the thousands before them.
Hikers burst through the door in waves, steaming
up the windows as they shed sweaty layers and
devoured snacks. Stories and laughter bounced
around the tiny space.I offered hot tea and chocolate
as I passed around postcards.
“Write a postcard to yourself,” I instructed. “Write down one
thing you want to remember from your journey up the Chilkoot
“From knee deep water at the start, through beautiful forests and
then starting for the pass at 4 a.m. Best of all, I did it with my
“I just experienced the most frightening day of my life. Extreme
heights, horrible shoes and snowy hills have made me truly grateful
to be alive. I love my life.”
“I came north not to run away, but rather to prove something, to
awaken a revival. I came for redemption, to save my soul in some
“Behind us is civilization… before us, vastness, silence, grandeur
– stand alone on the summit… and realize what an atom in the
universe you are.”
“I want to remember that traveling solo is amazing and that I do
not need a partner to have a great time.”
“The look on Yanik’s face as he reached the summit and hearing the
excitement in his voice as he said this was his favorite day. I want to
remember to see the world like that; always fresh, always seeing.”
“Another day in the North. Embrace the good! Honour, challenge,
laughs, snow, friends and wool socks.”
In these handwritten scribbles, I saw the answer to a
question I’ve asked many times: Why do we seek out wild
places? What are we experiencing there that we can’t find
in our daily lives?
As the hikers packed up to continue their journeys, I
collected the postcards and tucked them away. I planned
to keep them for a year and then, when the memories of
this moment have lost their sharp edges, drop them in the
mail. My hope is that the act of creating these postcards and
receiving the physical artifact in the future will be vivid
catalysts for remembering wilderness.
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 found other
things: adventure, suffering, love and insight into human
nature at its best and worst. I see these same things written
on the postcards – ultimately, they’re what make these
wild places worth preserving.