The adventures of a knitting grandmother

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She spins, she knits, she blogs about it all.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Y is for...(Part 2)

Yukon, in this case the White Pass and Yukon Railway. Our bus took us from Carcross (which in it's day was a major stop on the rail line) to Fraser, B.C., where we boarded our train for the 27 mile ride back to Skagway.

Although the rain showers had returned, the trip was spectacular for scenery. The bus trip up the pass had been amazing, but now, on the other side of the gorge, it was even better.

Both our bus driver and our rail hostess were very knowledgeable about the history of the White Pass. In late 1897, Skagway was inundated by tens of thousands of gold seekers. Many of the men flocking to the gold fields had abandoned homes and families in their quest for riches. Many of them were already lawless and became more so when they reached Skagway. Gangs of ruthless individuals preyed on the newly arrived travelers and extortion and crime were rampant. The gold seekers had a choice of two routes to the Yukon. One was over the extremely steep but shorter Chilkoot Pass, and the other was the White Pass, the one we were following. Both trails met in a broad meadow up in British Columbia. We passed through this meadow; everyone entering Canada had to bring a ton of supplies or they were denied entrance by the Canadian Mounties. All of this gear had to be carried on foot up the passes. It would take an individual thirty to forty trips to get all of their gear up to the meadow. It is hard to imagine the human endurance involved in getting a ton of supplies such a long distance. And even after they reached the meadow, all that gear had to then be transported to the lakes seen in the last post, so that boats could be built to carry the supplies and the gold seekers through the lakes and down the Yukon river, 550 miles to the gold fields. What an unbelievable journey!

But any admiration for these hardy travelers soon faded away in a sense of grim reality and horror. These people, many of whom had abandoned their families in the U.S. to manage as best they could, were often involved in shootings, murders, and unbelievable cruelty. Because the White Pass was not overly steep, it was believed that horses could be used as pack animals, making it easier to get the ton of materials up the mountains. But most of those who purchased horses had never owned the animals before, and had no idea how to care for them. The animals were overloaded and expected to make the climb without any food or water. There was no grass in the mountain pass for them to graze. The horses would make it only so far and then would simply die of exhaustion and neglect. The bodies of more than 3,000 horses are still in the bottom of Dead Horse Gulch (picture below). At the time, the stench of the rotting bodies could be smelled in Skagway, more than 17 miles away. In spots it is still impossible to walk on the ground itself because of all the bones piled in the bottom of the gulch. And to think that when these prospectors finally got to the Yukon gold fields, it was only to find that all the good claims had long been taken and the gold rush was essentially over. What an exercise in futility!

There were a few times on the Alaska trip that I was literally stopped in my tracks by things I saw. Once was seeing all the whales so close; another was my first view of Mendenhall glacier. I was absolutely stunned at Hubbard Glacier when I saw - and heard - a large iceberg calve off the front of the iceflow. Now I was once more stunned, this time when the train passed the actual foot trail used by the gold rushers. This narrow path was still clearly visible even after a hundred years had passed, so many billions of footprints had been on it. It was chilling to imagine so many people trudging up this trail, carrying so many burdens on their backs, returning back down it only to head back up again with even more supplies. Forty miles from Skagway to the meadow above the pass! Forty miles back to Skagway, and then starting again! It would take each person 30 to 40 trips up and down this trail to get the ton of supplies to the meadow, and then there was still 550 miles of waterway to go! And there were so many people on this trail that if one stepped off the path for a moment, it would take up to ten hours to find a break in the line when one could get back onto the trail!

How could people be so driven by a lust for gold, to endure so much? To abandon their wives and children, to kill and steal and cheat, to heartlessly drive innocent animals to a cruel death? And all, in the end, for nothing.

Did they ever stop, for just a moment, to see the beauty that was around them? Did they ever stop the madness long enough to miss what they had left behind, their homes, their families, their humanity? Did anyone ever see the madness of it all, and step off the trail for the last time, perhaps to find a quiet life of beauty in the great wilderness?

It seems to me that if we are not careful, we can find ourselves on a narrow path like this in our lives as well. We can get into a way of life that can find us trudging along a narrow, bitter path, carrying heavy burdens that we place on ourselves, seeking something that in the end will never be truly fulfilling.

I decided then and there that I will never follow such a path myself. If I ever find myself on a path that leads to nowhere despite all effort or stress, then I need to get off. I need to walk away from the mindless following of any path; we all need to walk away and look at the beauty around us, to appreciate what we already have and not keep reaching for more and more and more. To decide what is truly important; to be content with home, family, simple things, craft.

It was a beautiful day trip. The changes may be subtle, but are there none the less. I was a different person who returned to Skagway that day. I have not looked at life quite the same way since.

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Blogger Roxie said...

Wow! Thoughtful, thought-provoking and beautiful! Thank you!

7:11 AM  
Blogger Mr Puffy's Knitting Blog: said...

What a gritty and well written post.

I'm loving your travel log - I hope you have lots more pictures and stories to share.

I bet those gold miners wished they had a pair of Dashings with them!

11:09 AM  
Anonymous Jan said...

What a beautiful essay you've written!

I think I see myself on a path like that, which I why I am insisting on retiring as soon as I am eligible. Now, what to do to earn a living after that, I haven't identified. I like WHAT I do, I like most of the people I do it with, there is just too much to get done in the timeframe allowed.

Stepping off the path will feel really good!

12:20 PM  

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