The infinite wilderness of Alaska and the colorful gold rush tales of James Michener, Jack London and Robert Service had long captivated my wife, Maiya, and me. We finally decided the best way to experience Alaska up close would be to accept the daunting challenge of hiking the historic Chilkoot trail, the mountain pass that links Alaska with Canada’s Yukon interior.
We knew it was not going to be easy. Both Alaskan and Canadian park officials had alerted us months before that the Chilkoot was a serious test of mind and body for the most experienced of hikers. Prior to our departure in summer 1999, we spent several weekends trekking up and down New Mexico trails while adjusting to carrying heavy packs. We also received expert guidance from Patty, a hiking friend who had successfully navigated the Chilkoot three years before. She and two others would join us on our Alaska expedition.
Our journey to Alaska made us acutely aware of how feeble words are in capturing our last frontier’s incomprehensible beauty. The connecting flight from Seattle to Juneau appeared to be a surreal retreat back into winter; below us lay a shimmering white blanket of endless majestic peaks. On the ferry the following day up the Lynn Canal to Skagway, Alaska, we watched seals, otters and whales frolic in the frigid glacial waters as we passed through a corridor of towering mountains.
In the late 1890s, Skagway was a Klondike boom town for thousands of dream seekers hoping to find the mother lode. Today it is the Alaskan version of Disney’s Frontierland, a small community totally dependent on the summer cruise ship tourist trade. The Tlingit Indians referred to the area appropriately as Sca wa (strong winds).
Much like our predecessors a century earlier, we were anxious to begin our five-day hiking odyssey. We were so excited to begin the Chilkoot that we did not allow ourselves much time to appreciate the lush rainforest or the swift-moving emerald Taiya River nearby. But we did take note of the bear scat, considerable evidence that we were not alone on the trail.
We arrived early at our first camp site a few hours later and had our choice of tent placements. The rush of the Taiya was hypnotic, the freeze-dried pasta tasted good. More importantly, we weren’t sore and felt validated that all the StairMaster exercises and hikes were paying off.
We adopted a more leisurely pace the second day, and our confidence grew with each hour on the trail. At our second camp site, Sheep Camp, we had time to attend the ranger’s talk after dinner. Ranger Adam Brown’s presentation tempered our enthusiasm. It was raining on Chilkoot Pass, he said, and we would need more time to reach the top, representing a vertical climb of more than 3,500 feet.
Given the sobering news, we awoke at 4 a.m. to begin the three-and-a-half-mile hike to the summit. The “Brown rain,” as we would come to call it, became an angry storm of driving sleet, howling winds and thick fog. The smooth trail of the previous two days deteriorated into a mass of boulders, loose shale and glacial snowfields. Gale-force winds threatened to blow us off the pass. We struggled to hold on to abandoned cable lines along the rocks.
The final half-mile, the famed Scales portion of the “Golden Stairs,” was nearly impossible. Drenched and drained, we fought for nearly three hours to claw up the 45 percent incline to the top. Our plight was further complicated by the fog that obliterated our view of the summit.
Somehow we reached Chilkoot Pass and the summit’s Canadian ranger station, where we left Alaska and entered British Columbia. Euphoric over our achievement, we headed downhill to a nearby shelter for warmth. As I was about to enter the shelter, I heard Maiya scream. I looked back to see her lying on her side. She was clutching her left leg in agony. I would learn later that a powerful Chilkoot gust had lifted her high into the air before slamming her to the ground.
No ranger was around, so our friend Patty, a nurse by profession, quickly assumed coordination for her care. It was clear the injury was severe, and we solicited some volunteers to form a human transport system. We carefully moved Maiya to the shelter in an effort to prevent hypothermia.
The 12-by-12-foot barren, unheated shelter would become our home for the next two agonizing days. When Christine, the Canadian park ranger, arrived at the shelter a few hours later, she told us a helicopter rescue would only be considered once the storm had cleared.
No one knew how long we would be kept hostage at Chilkoot pass, and I felt helpless as I tried to comfort my pain-wracked wife. The rangers kept Maiya warm with hot meals, and we were able to pack snow on her leg to prevent further swelling.
We both rejoiced when we saw blue skies appearing to the south two days later. In a few hours a recreational helicopter from Skagway landed, and we were able to carry her by stretcher to the chopper. Following X-rays in Skagway, Maiya was flown by bush plane to Bartlett Hospital in Juneau. The base of Maiya’s tibia had fractured, we learned, and the X-rays of her leg looked like a jigsaw puzzle. Concerned about the complexity of the injury and the probability that further surgeries would be necessary, doctors there decided Maiya should not be operated on until her return to Albuquerque.
Arranging a 2,000-mile flight back to New Mexico was a formidable task. Maiya’s injured leg required full extension, and it took five days to secure available special seating. After two layovers and a bumpy, stormy flight from Denver, we arrived home. It would be another three days before Maiya finally got her operation.
Over the last three years, Maiya has had two more surgeries, including a total knee replacement in 2001. Thanks to outstanding medical care and her strict commitment to daily exercises, Maiya now walks unaided.
We both realized that our emotional recovery would not be complete until we journeyed back to Alaska. This past summer we flew to Anchorage — giving Maiya an opportunity to explore her ancestral homeland (a Navajo, she is a descendant of the Athabaskans in Alaska and northwest Canada) while I returned to the Chilkoot trail. On June 21, 2002, I hiked up the pass and prayed at the scene of her accident.
Patrick Tyrrell is executive director of the National Association of Social Workers, New Mexico chapter, and a former regional board member of the Notre Dame Alumni Association. Maiya is school social worker on a Navajo Reservation at Canoncito, New Mexico.