Have you ever wanted to communicate with your future self? Tell yourself, don’t forget this part of your trip. Or remember how amazing this part was? The Klondike Letters Project is a program where hikers write post cards to themselves from atop Chilkoot Pass, and then receive that note a year later. Reader Corrie Francis Parks shares about the Klondike Letters Project.
Sharing the view from Chilkoot Pass
An artist on the trail discovers she’s not alone.
The night before I started hiking the Chilkoot Trail, I was at my sister’s house in Skagway, Alaska with all my gear spread out on the floor in front of me: 2 weeks of food, camping gear, camera and sound recording equipment, watercolor painting kit, bear spray, National Park Service radio with 2 extra heavy batteries, and over 100 blank postcards for my “artist-in- residence” project, the Klondike Letters Project.
My throat tightened and I felt despair wash through me and out my eyes in tears. My pack was pushing 50 pounds. There was no way I was going to be able to carry all this by myself over the Chilkoot Pass and into Canada. Despite the fact that my sister was in the next room with her friends, I felt suddenly and utterly alone and the physical burden of the equipment invaded my mental confidence as an artist, making my goals for the two-week residency seem impossibly out of reach.
I was supposedly an ambassador for the arts and the Klondike Goldrush International Historic Park. My project was to ask hikers to write a postcard to their future self, a postcard which would be mailed one year later as a reminder of the experience that person was having right at that moment in the wilderness.
Right at this moment, on the cusp of a great solo adventure, I was terrified.
As an introverted person, I’m fascinated by people, but not very good at striking up conversation. This project would force me to talk to everyone I met on the trail. The thought of interrupting people on their journey to contribute to a “silly” art project, seemed ridiculous and impossible.
The Chilkoot is not your typical hiking trail. Dubbed the longest museum in the world, the 33-mile trail follows the route of the gold-thirsty stampeders accessing the Klondike goldfields during 1897-1899. Rusted cans, collapsed wooden structures, worn soles of shoes and other debris from the stampeders is tucked away along the edge of the trail, slowly being consumed by the mosses and lichens of the Alaskan rain forest. Starting at sea level in Dyea, AK, the trail passes into Canada via the famous Golden Stairs, which lead to the top of the 3,501 foot Chilkoot Pass.
My first day on the trail, after wading through 100 yards of knee deep water, dropping my camera and breaking a filter, getting pulverized by mosquitoes, and generally feeling like this was a very bad idea, I met Gail, Terri, and Layne. These three women from Anchorage, Alaska, were hiking the trail together as only women do; determined and delighted, steadily pacing themselves, but confident that together they would make it to the end.
I passed them on a steep mossy rocky uphill and we stopped at the top and chatted a bit. Later, they passed me while I was having lunch and drawing in my sketchbook at Finnegan’s Point. I passed them again on the last hill before the first official campsite, Canyon City. Eventually, we ended up camping next to each other in the communal campsites there and cooking dinner in the shelter.
After the other hikers had disappeared into their tents, we were still up, talking about Layne’s years teaching in Jordan, Terri and Gail’s previous Chilkoot Trail adventures, and my travels as an artist at large.
The Chilkoot is a social trail. There are designated campsites and everyone camps in close proximity, sharing cooking shelters, trail stories, and chocolate bars at the end of the day. That first night I realized I did NOT bring enough chocolate on the hike, but I also realized that other hikers would likely make up for my lack of planning!
My evening with the three women set my heart at ease on the trail. I was still nervous about talking to people, but I remembered that it’s easy to make friends when you’re all sweaty and tired but happy you made it to your immediate goal and looking forward to the next hill.
The Klondike Letters Project ended up being a tremendous success, despite my initial fears.
During my residency, 174 people wrote postcards and participated in other parts of the project. Last summer, I had the opportunity to hike the Chilkoot Trail again, this time with my husband (who carried all the camera gear). We brought enough postcards to last the entire summer and with the extended timeline, 735 people participated in the project! It’s been a year and I am about to send those postcards off to their writers, some as far away as Japan, New Zealand, and Sweden! As the 2017 season starts, the rangers are placing more postcards at the top of the pass for hikers to find and record their memories of the journey.
I met a lot of inspiring women on the trail – a 6-year old girl who imagined a billy goat leading her up the Golden Stairs, two women hiking with their 80-year- old motorcycle-riding father, a group of high school girls who planned the entire trip without their parents help, boy scout moms backpacking for the first time with their sons. Everyone had a story to write on a postcard. As I read through many of the postcards written last summer, I came across many that describe the physical challenges of the trail being made light by the people they are with – or the experience of being alone and happy. To end this post, I’d like to share a few of those postcards with you, because it gives a glimpse of why we seek out wild places, not just for the views and the physical activity, but for the people who share our joy in those moments at the summit.
Read more postcards on klondikeletters.com.
Find the Klondike Letters Project on Instagram at @klondike_letters, and on twitter is @corriefrancis.