Two rectangular towers rise at the edge of Douglas’ Sandy Beach. Islands during high tide, these silent campaniles once provided air for men working the long tunnels of gold that ran beneath Gasteneau Channel. That was before April 1917, when a big spring tide broke through and flooded the mine.
Two thousand men worked the mine, owned by John Treadwell. None of them died in the collapse. The mine once fed 900 stamp mines that ran 24 hours of day, reducing gold bearing ore to useable rubble. What wasn’t smelted was spread to form Sandy Beach.
Stamp mill noise filled the air of Treadwell town where his 2000 miners lived. Today the house lined streets of Douglas and an alder forest have all but erased Treadwell. Aki and I are wandering the ruins.
We expect to find these cast iron ruins — this ore car marooned in an alder grove and a large electric motor emerging from snow. The thick timber walls of the old stamp mill are a surprise. Even today they resist their still living cousins’ attempts to colonize.
Aki finds little of interest but I indulge a fascination, made worse by imagination, with well made machinery. What giant dropped this ore car so far from a place it could be used? Did this huge iron gear fall from his watch when he smashed it on Mt. Jumbo?
There are no giants here or even rabbits to grab Aki’s interest. We only find birds singing in an alder forest scattered with ruins.
Sometimes it is better not to know where the trail leads for ignorance increases the chance of adventure. This sunny morning we drive to Wolf Creek and start down what we thought was a 3 kilometer nature trail. Shoot, we’ll be back to the Whitehorse flesh pots in an hour.
Two and a half hours later we are skiing on the edge of a Yukon River bluff not having seen another person since we left town. The hard packed track made an easy passage as we skied through a mixed pine aspen forest. We followed a widening Wolf Creek Valley, stopping often to check out wolf and moose tracks or aspen trees savaged by now sleeping beavers.
Suddenly we break out of the forest and onto a narrow path that runs along the edge of a sixty foot bluff. The still frozen Yukon makes a sweeping turn toward a nearby mountain range. This world class stream passed by those mountains on its trip from the headwaters near Lake Bennett.
Here we could have watched an endless parade of gold seekers on their way to the Dawson gold fields in 1898. Settling for a single snow machine track on the river’s ice, we turn down river for a long slog back to the car.
Tomorrow we drive back to Skagway, making in a few hours, a trip that would have almost been impossible for the stampeders of ’98. Even taking advantage of the river, they would have taken months to make it this far from Skagway.
In Canadian Tire we find a rack of thermometers and wonder at the number that also measure relative humidity. Why would anyone want one when they live in a shower stall. You wouldn’t find these dual meters in Juneau or Ketchikan. Then we look at one and find out how dry it is here in Whitehorse.
Just 100 miles from our Southeast rainforest, these people live in a semi-desert. It shows in the quality of their snow and the trees that line the Mt. MacInytyre Nordic ski trails. That’s one of the reasons we make this spring pilgrimage to Whitehorse. That and the chance to eat Indian food, shop at Canadian Tire, and explore Canadian fiction at Mac’s Fireweed Bookstore.
On Mount MacIntyre, groomed trails roll through lodge pole forests carpeted with snow crisscrossed by animal tracks. Most were left by large red squirrels but once or twice we passed lonely moose tracks. The uniformity of pines lead to day dreams that shatter when the trail drops into a knot of aspens. Even as dormant winter trees, the aspens’ black triangles on light gray bark add needed spice to this rigid green forest.
Aki is spending the weekend with friend Zoe so the human couple in her life grabed an early ferry for Skagway, Juneau’s closest portal on to the North American road system. From there we drive up the dramatic White Pass and stop for a ski near the Yukon/British Columbia border.
The road took us past avalanche zones that recently deposited great amounts of snow on the highway. The “Do Not Stop Avalanche Zone” signs confirm that it may soon happen again.
It’s above freezing and sunny when we climb into the skis and cross the White Pass Railway right of way to a ski trail undulating through a Lodgepole Pine forest. Plaster white mountain domes appear above the forest on every horizon.
We turn back after reaching a long flat valley seasoned with scattered pines. It reminds me of Juneau’s own high pine meadows, framed as they are with rugged white mountains.
Skiing farther would take us to the ruins of the winter community formed by the thosands of men that rushed to the Klondike gold fields over one hundred years ago. After hauling thousands of pounds over the Chilcoot Pass they spent the winter of 1898 here sawing Ponderosa Pines like these into rough lumber for rafts or boats. When the ice broke on nearby Lake Bennett they loaded a year’s worth of gear into makeshift vessels and floated down to the Yukon River and then on to the Dawson.
From this meadow’s edge in 98 we could have heard these anxious men struggle with axe and whip saw. Today it is all a sun drenched snowy silence
would find beauty in this clump of simple flowers
these dull yellow crocuses reaching four inches
above dead brown ground
Lovers of winter snow
stop to smile
when crocuses lay open
their petals to the harsh spring light
It is the way we are wired
we lucky enough to witness
winter give way to spring
and small flowers thrive on water
from melting snow
Wind blows hard into our faces here at sea level. We start climbing anyway to reach some open muskeg meadows. A passing dog walker warns that it will be whippy “up top.” Last month we might have turned around but it looks like winter has packed up for the year, leaving behind this sunny warmish day. Wind no longer delivers pain.
Several feet of snow still cover the land but it is slowly collapsing from within. It has no chance against the lengthening days to come. Yesterday’s thaw followed by last night’s freeze set up the meadow’s surface nicely for us. Aki dashes in zig zags through the shore pines until she fines fresh deer tracks. I join her and look at the sharp edged gashes made this morning by a large deer’s hooves. Spring can’t come soon enough for him. Later we find older tracks of a wolf who might be searching for the deer.
Sunlight reflecting off the field of snow makes me lazy so I close my eyes to listen. This is a dessert for birds and therefore quiet so Aki’s footfalls sound like those of a trotting horse on the snow crust. When she settles beside me there is only the wind blowing over my ears and the trees. It makes sound but no music. Sometimes it mimics rushing water and other times, a jet engine. Each tree is a cello’s string and the wind the bow. Ironically wind only produces music when moving over man made things like power lines.
Aki likes this kind of day with a sun delivering enough warmth for spring. We walk along a riverside trail, passing a sun flooded meadow. Its stream curves sensuously towards us with banks made feminine by a rounded blanket of snow.
Springs in the rocks lining part of the trail have weeped water all winter that froze into translucent walls of ice. At two places seeping water makes the trail impassable with slick ice. We leave the trail for the river bank below with its snow load now covered with a thin crust of brackish ice left by last night’s equinox high tide. It feels like spongy vinyl under foot until we break through to the heavy wet snow below.
With now wet feet I stand in the sun and watch a wall of mountains rise into blue across the river. They hide the Herbert Glacier now but we will see it when we reach the beach.
We hear new bird songs and the indistinct sound of distance surf when emerging from the forest to a dormant wildflower meadow. Here is the river delta revealed at low tide, a disturbed Lynn Canal and the Chilkoot mountains beyond. (brown, green/blue, white, then azure). Here, also, is a strong gusting wind that makes Aki stop and start like a counter punched fighter. Once again we lean into the wind and find a wide sand beach littered with clear ice sculptures. One sports a round hole in its middle that frames the promised glacier when used from one side and the Benjamin Island Lighthouse in a whipped sea from the other.
I feel sorry for exposing Aki to the wind until she gives me the, “where is my flying toy” look. She longs to dash down the packed sand chasing her frisbee. The toy is back home so I toss a stick which she retrieves like a labrador until exhausted.
This beach and the other wild places we visit formed Aki. She remembers summer trips here chasing her frisbee. She will be the first to find the trail through the sand berm that leads home. I long to be formed by this place too.
We leave the trailhead in a light snow that adheres to my ski bottoms, slowing progress. Luckily for Aki the snow doesn’t ball up on her fur so she runs unimpeded down the partially packed track.
The trail takes us over glacier moraine. Fog and low clouds obscure the glacier and surrounding mountains but with the new snow highlighting the sharp lines of bare alders lining the trail, there is no reason to look away.
Around a corner we encounter two beautiful young women and their three well groomed dogs. The women chat with each other while watching Aki dash between my legs when their dogs close on her. Suddenly I’m a basque shepherd with a diminutive sheep dog providing entertainment for these wealthy girls from Paris. They having just stopped in this Pyrenees backwater to exercise their dogs, don’t expect me to speak French. Why should they? The idea makes me smile until I notice them trampling the set ski track as they walk away.
We push on through the woods, crossing small lakes and sloughs to reach Mendenhall Lake. I planned on skiing over to Nugget Falls for a look at its frozen cascades but warm weather is softening the snow crust. Aki could dance across it but chooses to slog behind me as I break through with each step. We turn around after reaching an iceberg locked in the lake ice. Its calm blue color drew me like a beacon on this foggy morning. We have been on this lake, summer and winter, many times. Today’s fog renders strange and foreign the glacier and the other familiar landmarks surrounding the lake. With relief, we return to the well packed moraine trail and ski to the car.
After the storm played out this morning Aki and I climbed to a wide muskeg meadow dotted with hard scrabble bull (shore) pines. Aki finds little of interest on the open ground between the trees. She doesn’t look up at the mountains with wide white shoulders rimming all sides of the meadow. In this flat light it’s easy for her to ignore the stubby pines with their twisted limbs buried in last night’s snow.
We should honor the pines for surviving on this windswept swampy ground. Spruce, hemlock, and even the fast growing alder couldn’t colonize it. This meadow supports some monster bull pines that have 8 inch trunks and reach 20 feet in height.
The meadow is desert quiet this calm morning. I have to strain to hear a distant raven. We only find the half buried tracks of a passing wolf. Leaving the meadow we cross into a healthy spruce forest rich in bird song and animal sign. Aki tears ahead on the trail as I turn to consider returning to the pine desert. She doesn’t stop until deep in the woods. Aki hasn’t learned to honor perseverance or the aging beauty of windswept survivors. Probably, the brat never will.
Global warming and a bumper spruce cone crop have made a mess of this trail. Blame global warming for the dead spruce needles that darken the snow until it looks like cold cajun dirty rice. Recent warm winters encourage spruce bud worm survival and this is the result. Squirrels and cross bills then decorated this giant’s cajun side dish with short spruce branches, each with several empty cones attached. I look up expecting to see squirrels picnicking in the high branches, mother squirrels handing short cone laden branches to their children while warning them not to waste a bite. With the thoughtlessness of youth they toss the empties to the forest below. Wind scattered clumps of tree moss add the final garnish. Chow down Monsieur Giant, the snow’s not much use for skiing.
Heavy traffic has packed the trail, leaving a well scented highway for Aki to explore. She doesn’t notice when my skis stick on spruce pitch or moss.
Leaving the forest in hopes of better snow we find the meadows covered with fine spruce seed chaff as if thousands of cross bill birds had shucked millions of spruce seeds along the meadow’s edge.
We cross the road and find a track set trail to carry us back to the car. It winds past the partially frozen river and then through woods that must have been thick with animal action last night. Aki reads the history of their passing in tracks that cross our trails every few feet. Blue skis break through the flat gray ski overcast allowing shafts of sun to reach the forest floor. Full sun illuminates the surrounding mountains by the time we head for home.