Meanderings in Canada’s North

Published in The Swedish Press on May 14th 2009.
A bit cheesy maybe, but okay.

In June of 2008 I got a drive to Bellingham from my home in Vancouver BC and boarded the Columbia, of the Alaska Marine Highway. The ferry follows the inside passage to Skagway AK, the first pit-stop of the gold-sick men and women who, a century ago, established this tiny inlet town on the gameboard of history. I’m on my way to hike the Chilkoot Trail, a scar left from turbulent days in the coast mountains of Alaska/Canada.
All winter I’ve been taken in by stories of the Yukon gold-rush. I would sit behind the counter of the little second-hand sports shop where work had found me, and devour Jack London, Robert Service and Pierre Burton. I knew it was that time again, to leave the city and leap at the designs fate had in store for me.
It turns out that I’m not the first Swede to waver for an a-typical desire to go North. On the ferry I sit watching the gray waves and mountains plunging from the sea and think of a man in my readings named Eric A. Hegg. Out of many Swedes who played significant roles among the Klondikers, his was a high calling. Born in Sweden, Mr. Hegg immigrated to the U.S.A. and settled in the region of Puget Sound in 1888. A photographer by vocation, and owner of two studios, Hegg knew exactly what to do in 1897 when news of a gold strike reached Washington. He hoisted his camera and joined the thousands of hopefuls on this same route, his heart not set on riches, but the unfolding of history.
Hegg would become known as an important contributor in the documentation of the gold-rush, the most photographed event in 19th century North America. From the town of Dyea near Skagway, to the Golden Stairs where 30,000 people would cross the mountains into British Columbia, down the Yukon on rafts to Dawson City, the place of the find that had set the human tide in motion. Through this, Hegg lugged his equipment and came away with a different kind of gold.
The hike to Lake Bennett from the townsite of Dyea is 53 km [or 33 miles] and I make a leisurely gait for three nights. Artifacts are everywhere – there are the sundered remains of the cargo tram built in vain at the Golden Stairs – when it was finished everyone had gone over. Wagon wheels, and old food tins, wood stoves and saw blades. The skeleton of a boat… some stoic had dragged it over the pass before leaving it .
At Bennett, the trail’s end, I am swept away by the desolation. A boat builders shanty-town sprang up here and promptly died, a hiccup in time. Nothing is here now except the train station and I sit down with some hikers I’ve aquainted, groups of three and four, and two families, to wait for the great behemoth of the White Pass & Yukon Route that will take me back to the world.
Back in Skagway, I get a ride to Whitehorse with a family of adventurers, whose friendship was found on the trail. Jill, Bruce and their son Caelon, take me in like family and after three days to discover Whitehorse, in the stead of continuing on to Dawson by way of thumb I throw sense to the wind and do something I haven’t planned on. A canoe is rented and I, blissfully inexperienced, set off alone down the mighty Yukon to pursue again the specters of the Rush. Everywhere I stop, and many places where I can’t, I see remnants of last century. Abandoned settlements and RCMP outposts. The hulk of Steamship Evelyn abandoned in her dry-dock at Shipyard Island. Half-way finished I run the gauntlet of standing waves at Five Finger Rapids. After twelve days that would fill a book, I slip around the last bend before Dawson City with 750 km of new-found canoe skills behind my weaving paddle. I had read from Robert Service about the Spell of the Yukon, and now it’s got me. At the end of summer I return to Vancouver with many glances back. Because my spirit remains in the Klondike. As soon as I can, I will go home again.

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