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Jun 13, 2009 -

Countdown to the Chilkoot

This time and day next month, I will be camped out at the Chilkoot trailhead in Dyea, Alaska.

I have cranked up my training and am now hiking several hours a day. My job keeps me on my feet and moving all day, so the length of my shift determines the length of my hike and how strenuous it will be. Tonight was the first time I added a proper pack, weighing in at 25lbs, half of what I was told to prepare for on the Chilkoot. I spent two hours hiking about eight kilometres, including getting halfway up to Crocus Bluff, which is some pretty darn steep terrain!

An average day on the trail will be 10.6 kilometres, with the longest and most difficult day being that of the summit climb. My goal for the next four weeks is to keep climbing the dome with a progressively heavier pack. A few days before I’m set to leave for Whitehorse, the hiking group will be going all the way to the top and I was invited to do the climb with my full Chilkoot pack. The guide as well as a gal at the visitors’ centre who have done the Chilkoot before, say that if I can get to the top of the dome with my pack I will be able to deem myself ready.

Right now, my pack is filled with nonsense–sheets, towels, a 4L jug of water, and cans of food. When I increase to 30lbs, I will start to add my proper Chilkoot gear. My goal is to leave here with full supplies and a pack weighing no more than 20lbs seeing as I will need to add a tent, sleeping pad, cooking gear, and food when I meet up with the group in July. I won’t be able to control how heavy that stuff is, so the only way I can ensure myself a pack weighing less than 50lbs is to bring as little myself. We’ll see how realistic that 20lbs goal is. I backpacked around Scotland for a month in ’98 (um, the more recent ’98, not the ’98 of the Gold Rush! 😀 ) with a pack weighing 30lbs and I was ready for all weather.

Speaking of packs, I’ve gone back and forth over which one to bring with me and have decided that although it is a bit small, I’m going to aim for the same pack I took to Scotland. It’s moulded to my body by this point, sturdy, and lightweight. It was suggested we bring packs with an internal frame so that all our gear could be packed into the bag, but I cannot get used to the weight distribution of such a pack. So, a dry run at getting the pack filled is necessary in case I have to go emergency pack shopping in Whitehorse.

Looking at our itinerary tonight, it does not send shivers down my spine the way that it did back in February, so I’d say I’m making progress!

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Alaska, British Columbia, Canada, Travel, USA    4 Comments
May 30, 2009 -

Another Poem

I saw this poem on a poster on the wall in the ladies’ bathroom at Nugget City:

The Great Alcan Highway

Come drive the great Alcan Highway from one end to the other
Miles of splendor and adventure, become a vein of northern gold.
One time in the summer, let the Arctic sun steal your slumber.
Again in winter, challenged, by the frost and bitter cold.
What a great highway, with its very few by-ways,
Just think, you’re heading northwest to the Pole.
Don’t wait too long to drive it, prove you can survive it.
You should go now, before your dream grows too old.

Come drive the great Alcan, from one end to the other.
Give a thrill, bless your bones, far from home.
The people you meet, and the places you eat and sleep,
Make it worth all the miles, upon miles, you roam.

So come drive the great highway, give thanks for those By days,
Don’t complain, till it’s explained, how the whole thing was done.
Take the trip of your lifetime, celebrate the grand northern lifeline.
The great deed done under the spell, the midnight sun.

J. Hamilton Clarke – 1989

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May 11, 2009 -

The Alaska Highway

While being something of a WWII history buff, I’ve always focused on Europe with little attention paid to the conflict in the Pacific. So, a lot of what I’ve learned about the building of the Alaska highway surprised me. Of course, I take some of it with a grain of salt, recognizing the scent of American propaganda, but the facts are not in dispute.

First, let me comment on the various names this road has gone through, of them ‘AlaskaN highway’, ‘Alaska-Canada highway’, and ‘Alcan highway.’ The latter is my favourite as it seems more inclusive. But since the purpose of the exercise was to create an inland route to Alaska, I can accept the decision to go with ‘Alaska highway.’ 🙂

The Alaska highway was commissioned in 1942 a few months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. There was a very real fear that Japan would attack the west coast of North America. The Japanese even had an outpost just 700mi and change for the Aleutian Islands. The air route across Canada and into Alaska territory was unreliable as were the off shore sea routes. The Alaska highway would serve two goals: provide a secure overland route into the territory and reassure the American public that the Americans were doing everything possible to secure North America against the Japanese.

The building of this highway astounds me. It was done in eight months with very little planning by a team that had no experience in sub-arctic road construction, cold-weather survival, or heavy equipment handling. The American army engineers basically blasted their way through the wilderness and in doing so created a feat of engineering some say is only second to the building of the Panama Canal.

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Some 4,000 of the 11,000 men who built the highway were black, working in segregated troops under white commanders.

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These men worked against formidable prejudices–that they were too lazy, stupid, and unsuitable to cold climates to be of any use. Yet, they persevered in the hope that they would be rewarded with changed circumstances back home.

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Dawson Creek has a relatively new (2007) museum devoted to the building of the Alaska highway. It is located right behind the Mile 0 post that stands in the centre of the intersection of 10th Avenue and 102 Street. Admission is free. Plan an hour and a half to visit the museum in order to take in the 60 minute PBS movie about the building of the highway. This movie is peppered with commentary by actual engineers, both black and white, involved with the project. My favourite part of the museum was the showing of home movies by one of the engineers; they are in colour!

Today, the Alaska highway is shorter and straighter than it was back in 1942. It is paved and lined with all the comforts and trappings of civilization. And, yet, it is still synonymous with adventure.

A friend said to me, about being at Mile 0, that I must be ‘vibrating.’ Oh, yes. Very much so. 🙂

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