©Bert Gildart: When the chips are down, really down — that’s when you learn about your friends.
Two days ago, Adam and Sue Maffei and I were seven miles along on our trip to the top of the Chilkoot Pass, when my back went out. Years ago, when I began having lower back problems, doctors provided me with a series of exercises to prevent such occurrences.
When I practiced them faithfully, I’d have no problems, but these past few months we’ve been driving, driving, driving, covering assignments for various magazines, and I’ve not complied with doctor’s orders. I believe the combination set me up for the problems I experienced.
LIFE STYLE — NOT A LARK
I also want to say that climbing the Chilkoot was not some lark, rather part of an active lifestyle in which I’ve always engaged. When younger, I worked in Glacier National Park as a backcountry ranger, and just two years ago, I climbed Mount Rainier.
Sandwiched in between have been literally hundreds of active adventures, most with Janie. Once, she and I hiked for one month across the entire length of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The outdoors is our life, so circumstances had to be extreme before I’d consider turning back.
CLICK ON EACH IMAGE TO SEE IT LARGER. L to R: Cabin at Canyon City built in the ’60s now being restored; one of 100-plus graves resulting from 1898 avalanche; Adam and Sue along Chilkoot trail; Adam hamming it up at one of many Chilkoot artifacts, in this case a huge boiler.
At any rate, I slipped on a rock and then jerked backward, and something seemed to snap. Pain in my lower back was excruciating, leaving me with little choice other than to examine my alternatives. I could, of course, attempt to continue, hoping the pain from the pinched nerve and the strained muscles would work itself out. I knew that a helicopter rescue from the Chilkoot could run as much as $2,000, so that was also a factor I had to consider.
We had made it to Canyon City, but the most rugged part of the trip was ahead. From Sheep Camp to the top of the Chilkoot is all boulder strewn, and that meant that the type of foot placement required to eliminate strain on my back would have been difficult. In part, that’s why the Chilkoot has been called the world’s “meanest 33 miles.”
I wanted Adam and Sue to continue with the hike but they absolutely refused.
“We started this adventure together, and we’ll finish it together!” they said — and were most emphatic about it.
But that resolve didn’t explain how we’d get my gear back out, for there was no way I could reshoulder a 40 pound pack. God bless ‘em, for they said they’d split my load — and that they would not leave me alone.
BUT MY GEAR; WHAT ABOUT MY GEAR?
Splitting most of my gear is exactly what they were about to do, but as it worked out a park service trail crew was working on the restoration of a cabin built by a prison group in the 1960s, and when they heard of my dilemma, Stimee Boggs offered to carry out a portion of my gear on his off day.
Amazing how helpful people can be when the chips are down, even those whom you don’t know.
So the question: Did I want to continue and then find that I just simple could go no further… Once I was laid up for over a week, literally unable to move.
SONGS FOR THE BEARS
We overnighted at Canyon City, but next morning I was no better, and so we started our seven mile return, and once again, the country was anything but easy. I gimped along, using trekking poles for support. Adam and Sue, realizing I was experiencing much discomfort, attempted to divert my attention by singing songs from the Beatles’ Sergeant Peppers Lonely Heart Club Band, and before long I was joining in.
Picture yourself in a boat on a river,
With tangerine trees and marmalade skies.
Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly,
A girl with kaleidoscope eyes.
Lucy in the sky with diamonds,
Lucy in the sky with diamonds…
I was particularly loud with the “Ah, Ah,” and when we passed a number of hikers going in they all laughed when we said that we were trying to warn the bears of our presence.
BEARS A CONCERN
Actually, bears were a concern, for salmon were running adjacent to the trail in the Taiya River and the dying fish were making for easy pickings. As well, we heard that several people had encountered a bear in the fog on top of the Chilkoot Pass. That story had been transmitted all the way down the trail by the “moccasin telegraph,” so bears were much on everyone’s mind.
Obviously our return was successful, else I would not be posting this blog. But climbing the Chilkoot is still much on our minds, and we have resolved to try it again next summer. Stimee told me that two years ago a 72-year-old lady had climbed the trail about as far as we’d gone. Just past Canyon City she broke her leg, but returned last summer and successfully completed the climb. Now there’s inspiration.
But so, too, is the story of the Chilkoot. As scholars remind us, the Chilkoot is one of America’s — and Canada’s — most historic trails. The Chilkoot, they say “changed the history of America.”
Certainly it did that; but it also taught me a little more about humanity and the value of real friends.
TWO YEARS AGO AT THIS TIME
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