Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Lessons of the Chilkoot Trail #1

Before I left for the Chilkoot Trail, friends described it to me as four days of hiking and one arduous day for the ascent of the Golden Stairs. At the end of the trip, Lee said in order to understand arduous, you’d have to re-think hard as if it were easy. Personally, I prefer grueling, but because it also involved fear, I’d add harrowing.

You can tell this whole experience is going to require some processing as I write about it. The lessons I took away – things I learned about myself – are multi-layered.

We were six women ages 60 to 70, and every one of us made it through safely and without mishap. I shared a tent with another Barbara, who regaled me with her summations of each day. At the end of the trip, Barbara said that when people will congratulate her for finishing, she’ll say, “It was the trip of a lifetime. Let me tell you all about it so you won’t have to do it.” The bottom line: if I were to advise visitors to Alaska, I would NOT send them on the Chilkoot Trail. I wouldn’t send myself.
Around this point, Cheryl would shout at our tent, “Stop introspecting! It was a great hike! I’ll come back in a couple of years and do it again.” And if you’re Cheryl – the only one of us who’d done it before – TWICE before – you’d be an energetic spark plug who simply loves the movement, the activity, the effort, the terrain, the rocks, the creeks, the sheer adventure of it all. There is no doubt that Cheryl thrives on this, and it was a pleasure and inspiration to hike with her.

What I love about backpacking:

  • I love being in air that has not sat inside walls. I love the freshness and openness.
  • I love having all that I need contained on my back.
  • I love the simplicity of living minimally, wearing the same clothes for five days, not brushing my hair, having no chores outside of the ones on the trail.
  • I love not being reachable by the outside world.
  • I love sleeping in a tent where I am protected from mosquitoes and rain and feel utterly and completely safe.
  • I love wildflowers, leafy foliage, babbling brooks, pretty rocks, the hugeness and awesomeness of Nature.
  • I love feeling my own strength and fitness.

The Chilkoot Trail had all this plus history. Blueberries littered the bushes till it looked like blue jewels had been flung around. On one path, there were so many blue and green stones it looked like a blue Yellow Brick Road. Creeks and waterfalls and lakes just sparkled. Forests were magical, with rock punctuating every landscape. Dubbed the longest museum, rusty artifacts from the Klondike stampeders littered the path. The terrain was varied, shifting from rock to water to spruce to snow and back again, and it was exciting to follow a trail with cairns, steps cut into stone, and an improvised “jungle gym” (more about that later).
Before the trip, I was worried about my physical stamina. I didn’t know if I could DO IT – travel the 33 miles uphill with a 37-pound pack on my back. Within five minutes, I knew that was no problem. I literally scampered along the trail.

Lesson Learned #1: I am fit, powerful, and strong. I have physical strength and stamina as a product of the way I live and exercise. I can lay that question to rest. I don’t need to test myself on that anymore.

Before the trip, I prepared. I measured what I ate on camping trips, registering what amounts left me full and satisfied. I figured out how to package things so they’d be easy to pull out meal by meal. Because all trash has to be packed out on the Chilkoot, I minimized waste and packaging. I experimented and figured out how to keep my Wheat Thins unbroken and unsoggy! I took Tim’s sleeping bag to save 10 ounces, borrowed Mary’s tent and Thermarest because they were lighter.
I could do all this because Joan handled all the paperwork: registration for the Trail, permits for our campgrounds, hotel reservations before and after, train tickets for the return – even lunch on the train! She is a logistical wonder.

Lesson Learned #2: I am a diligent preparer. Not overly familiar with backpacking, I asked advice, aimed for minimizing weight, maximizing convenience and taste, and it worked! I came back with only eight ounces of a spare meal.

Lesson Learned #3: I have steely resolve. At the end of the Trail, when Joan described our state as being “depleted,” we realized that if we suddenly had to hike five more miles, we’d do it. We do what has to be done. Period. We six women are six tough cookies. On the trail – in life – we do what has to be done. Period. We may have known this before, but the Chilkoot Trail reaffirmed it.

All these valuable lessons, with beautiful Nature – what wasn’t pleasant? What lesson did I learn that means I don’t need any more Chilkoot Trails in my life?

That’s tomorrow.


  1. Congratulations! I look forward to hearing more stories tomorrow!

  2. This sounds incredible! I'm looking forward to hearing more. Animal encounters? Weather?

  3. looking forward to tomorrow's followup


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