Isaac Yuen - My Best Skagway Adventure
Author: Isaac Yuen
Theme: My Best Skagway Adventure
A Zaandam tender ferries me to shore. I chat with Teresa and Kathy from yesterday’s hike in Juneau. Our guide today for the Chilkoot hike is also named Matt. To distinguish the two in my head I name him Oliver for my friend in Williams Lake. When one gets old the mind begins to print existing faces onto new ones.
On the drive to Dyea the road curves around a tidal flat. The sun is out and the tide is high. Bald eagles perch on drowned trees rising out of the shallows. Atop the crowns and trunks washed down from last week’s storm. Canopies like bared lungs twisting out of the water for breath. Five thousand people once lived in Dyea during the Klondike Gold Rush. Nine still reside here year-round. Oliver mentions that he met one of them the other day. I want to ask if he asked what it’s like to live in a world with nine souls. Amid the silence and the ghosts and winter’s dark heart.
At the trailhead Oliver stands by a sign. Six hunched silhouettes shown in sequence like a poster depicting the ascent of man. Except their backs remain bent under the burden they bore up this pass curving into a cliff face. I try to envision what a year’s supply of food would look like. I try to imagine hauling it up a trail too steep for wagons or horses. All the dreams turned nightmares for those who took this Tlingit route to reach Dawson City five hundred miles away. I leave my pack in the van because we are coming back.
We hike into a forest that seems so familiar yet different. Instead of my beloved cedars the prickle spines of spruce. I lag behind the others to snap macro shots of this space, of that space. Of the lichen and moss that carpet every inch and surface. To capture the beauty of these miniature forests residing within another.
Oliver spouts mushroom facts as we spot them left and right. He points out one that looks like a white Christmas tree. He recites its Latin name but it slips straight out of my head. The part where he says it’s edible because he tried some this morning and hasn’t keeled over stays and sticks. There are more mushrooms and more stories. Mushrooms that can make one person hallucinate and another dead. Mushrooms a Facebook friend later notes resembles the ruffles of a petticoat or a tutu. Soon there are more mushrooms than there are stories. I snap pictures of them so that I can fit them with new tales, another day.
We walk on. The forest changes from spruce and hemlock to cottonwoods and alders. I forgot my old Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast guide in the van, but under Oliver’s advice I pop a red orb into my mouth. Tart juice bursts like a balloon with a pit at its center. I spit the seed out and look around. Suddenly there are highbush cranberries everywhere.
By the river we watch for the last of the pinks to return. The turquoise water shields their living and dying from our gaze. On branches along the bank hang the spent frames of fish that fulfilled their quest and fish that failed. I think I see the soft wimple of a fin breaking out of the water but it’s just a twig stirring in the current. I think of the final salmon that comes up this river. Striving against nature and time with all its life’s purpose. Alone with its weary dignity.
Oliver preps the raft while we throw our gear into a dry bag. Sit and swivel is the best way to board. “Floating down the Taiya is your reward for finishing the hike.” Oliver says this while spinning us around a gravel bar. Unlike him I can only focus on one thing at a time. A harlequin duck nonplussed by our yellow boat. An eagle’s nest up a tree the size of a small car. A stand of alders gold against an evergreen backdrop. A faraway peak keen and free of glacial scars. We watch a raven do a barrel roll in the air. Photos are not enough. I put my phone away and try to focus on the thing happening right now. How the wind carves around my face. Now. The quality of the light.
On our drive back after shoreline coffee and home-baked cookies, Oliver tells us how he met his wife in Seoul while teaching English, how they had decided to get married here last summer. He points out to the Dyea flats and the spot where they spoke their vows. The late afternoon sun is low and the tide is out. I think of how the soft marsh grass would yield to the footsteps taken of a new beginning. How my promise was made in this very hour beside this very ocean. Far away and a lifetime ago.
Oliver drops me off in town near the Alaskan Fudge Company. I take a picture of the first RadioShack sign I’ve seen in god knows how long. The day dims as the sun falls behind a mountain. In Pullen Creek piles of pinks rest. By the grass mounds of mushrooms grow. As I walk towards my cruise ship I look back at the town and the day. In the harbor two salmon swim with one trailing the other. Seemingly lost but journeying together. I hope they find their way and also hope they don’t. That they follow their dreams but never reach the end.