If I went there a second time

If I went there a second time, I would be seated in the last carriage by the east windows of the train. Poised. Ready. On the lookout, through every gap of the entangled trees and greenery racing by, to capture a snapshot of the place where the charlatans and evildoing top-­- dogs were laid to rest, around the verges of the revered and the loved. The fleeting and eerie, indelible mise en scène was a small, dark, over-­-brimming and overgrown cemetery. The gravestones marked the beginning of a railroad built by a man, who claimed that if he were ‘given enough dynamite and snoose,’ he would ‘build a railroad to hell’. It was the start of a journey where thousands had left for the Last Great Gold Rush and where I was taken by surprise into one of the twenty-­-first century’s last great wildernesses of the world.

Summer’s end, the Alaskan early morning air was damp with a drizzly mist and the maroon carriage sat on the narrow gauge track. As I stepped inside I noticed a stack of complimentary water bottles at the front and a small vintage wood burning stove inviting me towards the back. Being seated in the last parlor car was a good choice, as the passengers in front, along with the tour guide, prompted what was ahead, and where to look. During the journey of rising altitude over the pass, I alternated standing outside between the train cars to see the stunning vista and stepping back inside to warm my hands over the stovetop and to listen.

The train set in motion and before long I could see the isolated system rising forwards into the spectacular mountains, like twenty eight miles of molehills in the sky. I looked backwards and could just make out a miniature train line hugging the undulating mountainsides and the track disappearing in and out of sight. The masses of tall fir trees purified the air so sharply, it dulled my senses to the rumbling sounds and the moody skies.

Passing Rocky Point and climbing into the spectacular beauty of waterfalls, gorges and glaciers, from the comfort and warmth of the carriage, I saw Thunder Mountain. It was so called because the deadly avalanches sound like cracking thunder. I imagined the pioneering prospectors on foot, carrying their mandatory supply packs of a year’s provision of food, weighing 75 lbs, as they trudged the tortuous, rough and rugged track on this same route to Inspiration Point and a section known as Dead Horse Gulch. My heart stirred at the thought of the 3000 packhorses, victims of overloading and neglect by the gold stampeders. I wondered if this was the place where the prospectors longed to turn around for the human comforts of Skagway; to clean themselves up with some hot soapy water, and for some home-made apple pie from Mrs. Harriet Pullen at Pullen House.

With the lulling motion of the train and the soft voice of the guide in the background, I pictured the gravestones we had passed too quickly to see; the raised stone centerpiece of the cemetery in honour of Frank H. Reid, who died July 20, 1898, with an inscription, ‘He gave his life for the honor of Skagway.’ And to the wooden markers tucked into the overgrown root system of the trees along the perimeter, the almost unmarked final resting place of the most famous swindler of those times: Jefferson Randolph ‘Soapy’ Smith.

Notorious in more than one State, Soapy was a con man, a ‘businessman’, who was able to pay people to join his cohort. It was said that he would stand with great fanfare to ceremoniously auction bars of soap wrapped in brown paper to a large crowd of workers with their hard-­-earned cash. And that some of the bars would have hidden dollar bills within the soap wrappings; the odd bar would contain a substantial dollar bill, maybe fifty or one hundred dollar notes. Each bar went to the highest bidder, and this became part of the town’s entertainment. Within the crowd, Soapy’s supporters would be tipped off, to ensure they had the highest bid, to retrieve the substantial dollar bills. The bars in between would have honest bidders, hard-workers, and those who had successfully returned from the goldfields quickly losing their cash with their losing bids. Meanwhile Soapy became scandalously wealthy.

So it became that Soapy was a problem for the township; he even had an insider within the law office. A vigilante committee formed, with a view to stop Soapy and his gang. They decided to meet on a wharf, half a mile out in the water, where they could not be overheard. What happened is not clear, but Soapy allegedly approached the wharf with his shotgun resting backwards over his shoulder, saying, ‘I’ll put a stop to this.’ Of the four vigilante’s, stationed at the beginning of the wharf, Frank H. Reid: soldier, teacher, city engineer and vigilante, called a halt which resulted in an argument and exchange of profanities with Soapy. There was gunfire and at one point, Soapy yelled out ’My God, don’t shoot!’

Frank was severely wounded in his groin and abdomen and he fell face down; one shot grazed Soapy’s left arm, another went straight through his left thigh and with a final shot in the heart, Soapy died instantly. Frank died an agonizing twelve days later – it was said he lost his golden nuggets that day.

 

Emerging from the darkness of a tunnel and scooting across a trestle, there were extreme changes in the terrain. Across on a parallel mountainside, a patchwork radiated, it was a glimpse of golden trees clustered and sparkling in the fall.

The railroad was built during the gold rush as a means of reaching the Klondike region of the Yukon goldfields. Some railroad workers started in the north and some in the south and after twenty-­-six months, four hundred and fifty tons of explosives, they met in the middle, to complete it in the year 1900. The Klondike Gold Rush ended in 1899 after gold was discovered lying in the beach sand at Nome, Alaska, the landing place by those arriving by sea.

Reaching the summit, we were at the top of The White Pass and Yukon Route. The misty atmosphere hung high enough to see it wasn’t barren in the way that I had previously imagined permafrost. There were boulders and stony ridges with short vegetation and miniature trees. Invitingly covering the rock was a delicate lace of pale green lichen. Elegant and bold reflections rested quietly on the perfectly still pools of water.

Lichen affirms an environment is healthy. It was a deceptive sight, lichen eats rock at a rate of 5mm per year. I was looking at the Tundra, and this savage landscape proved too hard for many of the prospectors, even those who were in fine fettle. As our journey continued passing through several temperate zones, the trees became marginally taller. Clear to the eye, where the wind ripped through the mountains, the trees had no branches on the north sides. It was a vision of survival, in a cruel climate, against all odds, on the one side heavy boughs and on the other, a staggeringly haggard and jagged rawness.

Upon arriving at the depot in Canada, everything looked calmer and more civilized surrounded again by familiar, if muted, greens, greys and blue elements. We disembarked and transferred to a comfortable tour vehicle to pass through customs and immigration and onwards to the Klondike Highway. I had almost reached the place where the travellers by foot must have been feeling utter relief.

Here in the summertime, in the land of the midnight sun, there is twenty-four hours of daylight around the solstice. Conversely in the winter, the opposite, darkness pervades and there is no sun. I wondered, from the thousands of stampeders who set out on the journey of their life and arrived at the Klondike goldfields - did they ever have a chance to stop and breathe, to see this landscape, this foliage and to suck into their weary souls the scintillating beauty of the golden Yukon Territory.

In the afternoon sunlight, against a clean blue backdrop, I purveyed the masses of glistening, golden and orange foliage around me, the deep emerald and blue waters of the lakes, surrounded by the red fireweed topped with white cotton fluff.

Louise Shipway