To borrow from Dickens, it is the worst of times, it is the best of times. This current Corona pandemic is fraught with paradox. At the outset I want to acknowledge that the year 2020 has caused much suffering and hardship for countless souls. The repercussions of this event will undoubtedly be unfolding for much time to come. Meanwhile, many of us are seeing a silver lining in an otherwise dark cloud. I do think it is worthwhile to find the positive among the negative and focus on the gratitude that counters the regret.
To focus on and identify some of the positive outcomes of this pandemic paradox, we have found the following:
- Local citizens have the opportunity to experience their local parks and campgrounds, which are usually offered over to visitors and tourists.
- Locals finally have some time to go camping in their local parks and recreation sites
- We have had the time that allows us to explore our local lands. Here in Haines Alaska we are essentially cut off from the rest of the world via the road system as the Canadian border is closed to all non-essential travel. I might otherwise choose to travel greater distances to explore more distant roads and landscapes. This restriction has constrained us to a relatively small radius and focused our efforts at peeling back the layers of local opportunities to discover the treasures near at hand. A large part of this travel blog/pictorial will share some of the recent discoveries and share some local history.
- The towns of Skagway and Haines have chosen to eliminate all cruise ship docking this season. There are some serious financial hardships as a result of these cancellations. On the other hand, we are taking advantage of the opportunity to measure air quality and water quality in the region without the presence of 5-6 large cruise ships passing through the waters of the upper Lynn Canal every day of the week. Having some good baseline data for the first time will allow local communities to measure the cost of the economy that over 10,000 visitors per day provides. At what cost does the revenue flow? Paradox.
- We all have an opportunity to innovate, redefine, re-imagine and reinvent our relationship to our community both locally and globally.
A recent trip to Skagway has given me time and opportunity to identify and reflect on these considerations. Many of my fans have encouraged me to share our forays as this provides a chance to live vicariously and see lands they might otherwise never experience. As photography is my dharma and travel and history my passions, I am happy to share both in this pictorial.
With the Corona pandemic closing the Canadian border to U.S. citizens for all but essential travel we are forced to get creative about ways to spend all the free time we have gained through unemployment. (Okay, we are retired, but the problem with doing nothing is one cannot stop and take a break. I reinvent myself shortly after each retirement phase. Being retired and not dependent upon work-related income is one of the many blessings I must count.) Let’s take Homer (our little motor-home) and take the 14-mile ferry ride over to Skagway. (Border closures aside, if we could drive to Skagway, we would cover a distance of over 350 miles and make two border crossings.) The plan is to make base camp in the municipal campground on the Dyea Flats and explore around and see what there is to see. Initial plans include a hike up the Chilkoot Trail and International Falls. Beyond that, we shall see what we can see.
Skagway is a historical district. A boom town born of the Klondike gold rush at the turn of the 20th century that survived the inevitable bust and flourishes to this day. Its original purpose was to service people who “just got off the boat.” The town has largely stayed true to that mandate and recently entertains and caters to around and up to 10,000 people per day who might disembark from up to five cruise ships and mega-ships moored at local docks. In the year 2020 the town is all but deserted: a modern ghost town. A few local essential business remain open (including a great ice cream parlor, thankfully … Kone Kompany).
One of our brief side trips included a visit to the Gold Rush Cemetery. One of Skagway’s more notable historical citizens was a nefarious character known as Soapy Smith. Part ne’er-do-well, part patron of the city, Smith met his demise in a show down between the town committee and himself on the local docks. Frank Reid and Smith faced off and did each other in on that fateful day, and both are buried at the cemetery. Frank Reid’s monument is a reflection of his regard by the city. Smith’s marker is somewhat more modest, off to the side of things, and I suspect Soapy’s remains are in some measure incorporated into the tree that grows from the side of his grave.
Also interned is Ella Wilson, who died at the hands of a guest at the age of 28. In contrast to Frank Reid, who gave his life for the honor of Skagway, the local write-up on Ella is that “she gave her honor for the life of Skagway.” She undoubtedly had many friends but her standing in the community was probably not high.
On Day 1 upon our arrival we make our camp on the Dyea tidal flats at the local municipal campground (courtesy of the municipality of Skagway). The campground is well maintained with the best picnic tables I have ever seen. On our first night a local caretaker stopped by camp and asked us to register, even though there is currently no charge to use the campground (soon to change). He concurred that the pandemic paradox provides an opportunity for locals to take advantage of this great facility.
Dyea was another local boom town which supported the “Stampeders” landing from points south on their way to the Klondike gold fields. While Skagway was a jumping off point for gold-seekers to access the Yukon through the White Pass, Dyea gave access to the interior lakes via the Chilkoot Pass. The townsite of Dyea did not fare as well as Skagway through the years. A poor harbor required a two-mile wharf for supplies to be delivered to town. The construction of the White Pass & Yukon Route railroad out of Skagway combined with the dangers and challenges of the Chilkoot Pass and the waning gold rush itself saw Dyea wane in population of humans in favor of cows and farmland. Local buildings were scavenged for building materials elsewhere and little to nothing remains of the town’s buildings.
To its credit, the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park has established a very wonderful and well documented interpretive trail through the original townsite. Little remains, but the forest is lovely and gives us a peaceful and restive opportunity to reflect upon the history and days gone by on our last day.
A few relics remain in the modern day:
The Chilkoot Trail extends 33 miles from the townsite of Dyea, across the Canadian border to Lake Bennett. Here the Stampeders would build boats to carry them and their supplies north to Dawson City and the Klondike Gold Rush. Carolyn and I backpacked this trail in 1997. This trip introduced us to Southeastern Alaska and eventually led us to call Haines our home. The pandemic paradox has given us the time to finally revisit the trail 23 years later. While the length of the trail is closed due to the border closure, the American side of the trail is available to the locals, and no registration is needed for day hikes. We are looking forward to a jaunt up the trail without the 50-pound packs we originally managed. We are also anticipating a relatively easy 10-mile round trip hike to Finnigan’s Point and back. Though 50-pounds less cargo, there are 23 added years to the frames of these humans and regret to admit we do not cover the same ground anymore. I hear what does not kill you makes you stronger, but we do not want to skirt the boundary, thank you.
The first stretch of trail is a bit challenging right from the start. This came as quite a surprise back in 1997. While the trail profile looked benign on paper, under the weight of full packs on the first day it was a major wake-up call as to what was to come. Thankfully after the initial HELLO the trail mellowed and flattened, though we would get our socks knocked off soon enough.
There have been some big improvements along the trail, perhaps out of necessity. When we hiked the trail in 1997 we were warned that the beavers had backed up a stream and that part of the trail was flooded. At the time, upon our arrival to the flooded trail, we removed our shoes and proceeded barefoot until we hit dry land again. (One fellow who had come up on the ferry with us from Bellingham Washington to hike the trail (with a pack the size of a barn) turned around and went home on the first day after getting his shoes wet). Apparently the beavers had arrived in the area only a few years prior to our original hike, and they have been busy ever since creating a rather large network of dammed ponds. The Park Service has been busy in turn providing an elevated boardwalk across the flooded terrain making for a much easier experience. It was interesting to see how much had changed across a few decades.
Happily arriving at our day’s destination of Finnegan Point we encountered a park maintenance crew who were busy building tent platforms. We were told we were the first hikers they had seen in the week since they had arrived for their shift. The pandemic paradox provided us a clear trail, which normally permits 50 people per day plus day hikers. We were also invited to be the first to use the brand new outhouse they had built for the camp. I could not pass up the opportunity to acquire that claim to fame. I applauded the crew with the admiration that their privy had that “new outhouse smell.” Yes, they concurred: cedar chips and linseed oil. Good thing I did not have a sharpie or I might have adorned the walls with my place in history. You will have to take my work for it, but my place in history is …. To be obscure.
A few more recollections from 1997
Our hike in 1997 was the culmination of a three-stage honeymoon for Carolyn and I, who had been married the previous year. (A Wedding at Cerro Gordo). The second stage of our honeymoon prior to departing for Alaska was a 21-day river run through the Grand Canyon. This river run was not our first run down the Colorado in the Canyon, but it was my first time captaining my own boat. After a harrowing and wet run down the river, hiking in grizzly bear country with my feet planted firmly on solid ground felt like a walk in the park. (Which is was, by definition alone.)
In 2020 we found a wooden walking stick at the trail head. I recall in 1997 we either found or made some walking sticks along the way. Upon our arrival at Lake Bennett (the end of the trail or the other beginning, depending on where you start) we left the sticks at the trailhead. I imagined these sticks migrating to and fro across the border having a different but similar adventure with each patron they served. Though doubtful the stick we found this year was one we had left, I have often thought the anthropomorphic telling of these stick experiences would make a tale worthy of a book by Tom Robbins.
We were quite fortunate in 1997 to be informed upon our trail registration that if we extended our time on the trail by one day, we could ride the train from Lake Bennett back to Skagway. A new company had recently bought the railway line in hopes of establishing a tourist experience out of Skagway (oh brother did it ever) and upon the date of our arrival in Lake Bennett the train would make one of only a handful of runs to the Lake that year. In addition, the engine would be an old steam locomotive instead of the usual diesel locomotive. The company was doing a promotional video of the train run from helicopters that day. All the backpackers were corralled onto the very last car where we crusty and smelly types could not possibly offend any of the higher paying upper crusts. Quite alright, happy to have the ride, and got great video (High-8 back in those days) myself of the length of the train winding through mountain passes and over historic trestles.
Dinner each night was easy to choose. What packet of Mountain House has more ounces than any other package of wonder dust? Our first night in camp at Canyon City (7.5 miles from the trailhead) provided the premiere of what would come to be the nightly entertainment I called Campeteria. This consisted of watching everyone’s new variety of new-fangled backpacking stoves blow up or otherwise malfunction. I had a relic of my early days from decades earlier: the Svea 123. Simplicity and reliability. Prior to leaving for Alaska I had taken my old CampTrails backpack (Astral Cruiser frame) off the shop wall and dug the stove out of the nest of billies (pots) for a test run. It had not been fired up in 20 years and still had gas from my last backpack excursion into the Havasupai Reservation of the Grand Canyon. Well whatyaknow it fired right up. And it worked its magic without a hiccup every night and morning along the Chilkoot. I still have it.
Finally, we were surprised to find every day along the trail some member of our trekking community had dropped out, given up, and returned for home, unable to meet the challenge. I contend the trail is not all that challenging physically. It may be challenging mentally or spiritually, in some measure a product of history and legend. As we crossed the border above the Golden Stairs on our way to Happy Camp I had to keep looking behind me to locate the voice I heard. I never saw another person, and had a feeling that an historic soul was still wandering the trail.
Perhaps the greatest reward of the pandemic paradox is the uncovering of local treasures that often get otherwise overlooked. International Falls is such a treasure. I had never been aware of this great trail that straddles the US and Canadian border at the top of White Pass. Neither US nor Canadian customs is located at the border. The trail-head is very briefly across the Canadian border, while most of the Falls trail is located in the U.S. A few local citizens who shall not be named made their way to the trail-head and found many Canadians enjoying the American side of the border. Easy to practice international social distancing in this very remote country.
The air in this sub-alpine tundra was absolutely fragrant. Heather, lupine, paintbrush, wild pea, columbine, reindeer lichen, daisy … all in great profusion. I sit here realizing I have forgotten half of what I saw along the trail.
When you reach the upper falls you are about half way to the lakes in the high country. The extra distance is well worth the effort. The sub-alpine high country here rivals any I have ever seen. If we had gotten a slightly earlier start we could have traveled a little further to the final lake and an overview of the valley that held the stampeder’s route to the Chilkoot Pass, directly above Pleasant Camp and Sheep Camp.
Be advised if you are interested in accessing the trail, the initial stretch of trail involves a steep descent aided by ropes and a stream crossing that might be facilitated with water shoes or sandals. Beyond that first crossing the trail is high and dry. For those interested in locating the trail I have provided the following files that will load up GPS tracks on Gaia and other GPS software, and Google Maps.
Lower Dewey Lake
After two days of hiking, on our final full day in Skagway we decided to have a leisurely day and a relatively short hike to Lower Dewey Lake above town. Marvelous trail and a wonderful spot for locals who were taking advantage of the time offered by the pandemic paradox on a hot summer day.
A grand trip it was. We spent four nights and only scratched the surface. On the way out of town I was compelled to sit before a photo mural in downtown Skagway that showed the condition of town and main street at the turn of the earlier century. Yes, the pandemic paradox allows us an opportunity to re-imagine our lives and the way we live them. And on any other year, there would likely have been a long queue to get this photo taken. Is it the worst of times, or the best of times? I leave you to ponder the quandary.
Happy trails partners! If you don’t like reality, make some of your own.
Pandemic paradox perspectives
Yes there is fear.
Yes there is isolation.
Yes there is panic buying.
Yes there is sickness.
Yes there is even death.
They say that in Wuhan after so many years of noise
You can hear the birds again.
They say that after just a few weeks of quiet
The sky is no longer thick with fumes
But blue and grey and clear.
They say that in the streets of Assisi
People are singing to each other
across the empty squares,
keeping their windows open
so that those who are alone
may hear the sounds of family around them.
They say that a hotel in the West of Ireland
Is offering free meals and delivery to the housebound.
Today a young woman I know
is busy spreading fliers with her number
through the neighbourhood
So that the elders may have someone to call on.
Today Churches, Synagogues, Mosques and Temples
are preparing to welcome
and shelter the homeless, the sick, the weary.
All over the world people are slowing down and reflecting
All over the world people are looking at their neighbours in a new way
All over the world people are waking up to a new reality
To how big we really are.
To how little control we really have.
To what really matters.
So we pray and we remember that
Yes there is fear.
But there does not have to be hate.
Yes there is isolation.
But there does not have to be loneliness.
Yes there is panic buying.
But there does not have to be meanness.
Yes there is sickness.
But there does not have to be disease of the soul
Yes there is even death.
But there can always be a rebirth of love.
Wake to the choices you make as to how to live now.
Listen, behind the factory noises of your panic
The birds are singing again
The sky is clearing,
Spring is coming,
And we are always encompassed by Love.
Open the windows of your soul
And though you may not be able
to touch across the empty square,
by Fr. Richard Hendrick, OFM
13 March 2020
Another Pandemic Paradox : An Imagined Letter from Covid-19 to Humans
Stop. Just stop.
It is no longer a request. It is a mandate.
We will help you.
We will bring the supersonic, high speed merry-go-round to a halt
We will stop
the frenetic, furied rush of illusions and “obligations” that keep you from hearing our
single and shared beating heart,
the way we breathe together, in unison.
Our obligation is to each other,
As it has always been, even if, even though, you have forgotten.
We will interrupt this broadcast, the endless cacophonous broadcast of divisions and distractions,
to bring you this long-breaking news:
We are not well.
None of us; all of us are suffering.
Last year, the firestorms that scorched the lungs of the earth
did not give you pause.
Nor the typhoons in Africa,China, Japan.
Nor the fevered climates in Japan and India.
You have not been listening.
It is hard to listen when you are so busy all the time, hustling to uphold the comforts and conveniences that scaffold your lives.
But the foundation is giving way,
buckling under the weight of your needs and desires.
We will help you.
We will bring the firestorms to your body
We will bring the fever to your body
We will bring the burning, searing, and flooding to your lungs
that you might hear:
We are not well.
Despite what you might think or feel, we are not the enemy.
We are Messenger. We are Ally. We are a balancing force.
We are asking you:
To stop, to be still, to listen;
To move beyond your individual concerns and consider the concerns of all;
To be with your ignorance, to find your humility, to relinquish your thinking minds and travel deep into the mind of the heart;
To look up into the sky, streaked with fewer planes, and see it, to notice its condition: clear, smoky, smoggy, rainy? How much do you need it to be healthy so that you may also be healthy?
To look at a tree, and see it, to notice its condition: how does its health contribute to the health of the sky, to the air you need to be healthy?
To visit a river, and see it, to notice its condition: clear, clean, murky, polluted? How much do you need it to be healthy so that you may also be healthy? How does its health contribute to the health of the tree, who contributes to the health of the sky, so that you may also be healthy?
Many are afraid now.
Do not demonize your fear, and also, do not let it rule you. Instead, let it speak to you—in your stillness,
listen for its wisdom.
What might it be telling you about what is at work, at issue, at risk, beyond the threats of personal inconvenience and illness?
As the health of a tree, a river, the sky tells you about quality of your own health, what might the quality of your health tell you about the health of the rivers, the trees, the sky, and all of us who share this planet with you?
Notice if you are resisting.
Notice what you are resisting.
Stop. Just stop.
Ask us what we might teach you about illness and healing, about what might be required so that all may be well.
We will help you, if you listen.
Fantastic read Tom! Thanks so much. We still have our Svea stove too!! LOL. Definitely the best backpacking stove ever! All the best. -Marty
Excellent article. Fascinating and informative. Thank you!
Just amazing article! Very informative and enriching. A wonderful read. Thank you