Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

On Any Given Saturday

It’s amazing how quickly a crowd can become a mob.

Even in Vancouver, a relaxed, laid-back city,* it doesn’t take much to tip the scales from peaceful protest to riot.

This was something I apparently had to find out for myself last weekend.

Now, besides being chill, Vancouver also prides itself on being a progressive, multicultural city, where everyone is welcome regardless of their race, culture or religion.

This might be because pretty much everyone here is from elsewhere. Since arriving, I’ve met about a dozen people actually from Vancouver. Everyone else has immigrated here, drawn either by the job prospects (non-Canadians) or the fact that it doesn’t get covered in thirty meters of snow every winter (Canadians).

And for the most part, everyone gets along. It helps that Vancouver is a young city, settled by immigrants from all over the world that came to pan for gold, log trees or build the railway, so it never really developed its own identity. Instead Vancouver just borrows from everyone else’s, resulting in a melange of cultures, ethnicities, and – most importantly – great restaurants.

I went to a St Patrick’s Day celebration a few years ago that had Chinese dragon dancers, a kebab truck, and skateboarding demonstrations. Pretty much the only Irish component of the day was a couple of very confused looking Irish wolfhounds.

And that’s generally Vancouver’s approach to multiculturalism. If New York is a melting pot, then Vancouver is a mosaic, where the different cultures and religions steal each others recipes and then go skiing together on the weekend.

That’s not to say there aren’t problems – we have a long way to go to make up for all the things done to the First Nations over the years, and Chinese immigrants are shouldering the blame for the shit show that is our housing market – but overt racism is pretty minor here compared to other places I’ve lived.

Mostly, we’re happy to embrace different nationalities if it means a good taco truck within walking distance from the office.

So, it’s no wonder that, with everything that’s been happening south of the border recently, Vancouver’s felt a little smug.

This came to a head last week, when an alt-right hate group calling itself the “Worldwide Coalition Against Islam,” lead by a couple of muppets from Calgary and Manitoba, decided to come to Vancouver and hold a white supremacist rally at City Hall.

Local Vancouverites caught word of this, and decided it was Really Not Cool With That Shit Happening Here. So, a counter-protest was created, which also happened to be at City Hall, at pretty much exactly the same time as the WCAI protest.

Gosh, what a coincidence.

Since this was only a week after Charlottesville, I though that this was one protest I should probably head along to. Also, it was a nice day for a bike ride over the bridge.**

I arrived about half an hour after the rally had started. There was no sign of nazis or white supremacists at City Hall, just a sea of counter-protestors holding placards espousing love and inclusion. I felt a certain Vancouver-esque smugness at the sight – See! This is how we deal with nazis! We hug them to death! None of that violent left-wing militarism here, just handmade signs and tolerance!

A Vancouver sign at the edges of the rally

I spent a few hours wandering around the crowd. It was a beautiful sunny day, music was playing, and everyone was relaxed and having a good time. The police were studiously ignoring the faint smell of pot in the air.

A counter-protester holds a sign saying "love" at the Vancouver Stand Up To Racism Rally

A Vancouver protest sign

It felt like a typical Vancouver Saturday.

I worked my way around City Hall until I found myself on the north side, away from the main counter-protest. Here, the atmosphere abruptly changed, becoming charged with tension. I could see pushing and shoving from the steps.

Huh. This looked interesting.

I watched as two white supremacists, surrounded by a phalanx of police officers, made their way towards City Hall. Around them, a small knot of counter-protesters yelled and screamed.

The two protesters – an Asian man, who was apparently quite blind to the obvious, and an old white guy who believed that personal grooming was Something That Happened To Other People – started hollering about banning immigrants from Canada.

This did not go down well with the crowd. Probably because it was about 95% immigrant.

The crowd turned ugly, pushing and shoving at the two protesters, before breaking out in a chant. “GO HOME! GO HOME!”

I tried to join in, but I didn’t really have it in me to scream at complete strangers. It just felt weird.

I turned to the guy next to me, an older white man who was yelling at the top of his lungs. “Isn’t this normally what these guys yell at immigrants?” I asked, over the din of the baying crowd.

“Yeah. Good for them to hear it themselves,” he shouted back with a European accent.

Uh. I guess…?

The two protesters passed me. I could feel the hatred coming off the crowd like waves. For a brief moment, feeling myself be rocked back and forth by the tidal mass of the counter-protesters, I wondered if this rally might turn violent. I could taste the anger in the air, and realised how easily the mob mentality could flip a peaceful gathering into a bloodbath.

I moved back, away from the pushing, the shouting, the red faces twisted in anger as the group rounded the corner of city hall. There, the main mass of people from the rally caught sight of them, and swarmed down the hill towards the mini-procession. It was unsettling, like watching a pack of animals sense weakened prey.

Well, shit.

The police, deciding that, yeah, this was probably going to end with way too much paperwork for a Saturday afternoon, swiftly made the call and removed the two WCAI protesters from the area.

The target of their rage gone, the crowd’s anger vanished, and within a few minutes, everyone had returned back up the hill, to instagram funny protest signs, and talk about inclusiveness.

Without the police presence, could this have turned ugly? Vancouver is one of the most relaxed places I’ve ever lived, but the hatred directed towards the neo-nazis was palpable. For all the “lets hug it out” signs, racists were definitely not welcome, and as soon as one showed up, the crowd became a rabble.

I can see how things get out of hand in other cities.

But overall, the Vancouver counter-protest is being hailed as a success, with Vancouverites patting themselves on the back that this is how to deal with racism. And, for the most part, they’re right. In total, four neo-nazis turned up, compared to four thousand not-nazis, giving white supremacists a pretty clear message about exactly where Vancouver stands on the whole racism thing. Similar protests and counter-protests across North America have turned violent, while the only casualty in Vancouver was a torn sign.

While it might not have been perfect, maybe this was the best we could hope for right now.

A protester holds a Death to Fascists sign at the Vancouver Stand Up to Racism Rally

Okay, so not all the protesters were up for hugging it out with neo-nazis.

*That may or may not be permanently semi-stoned

**Note to self: cycling to a left-wing peacenik rally is a terrible idea if you’re hoping to find somewhere to chain your bike up. You can guarantee about four thousand other locals have had exactly the same idea.


The Meanest 33 Miles of History: Part II

We continued on the second day, as the trail wended its way further north through coastal rainforest. We began to see the occasional artifact, left over from the gold rush, rusting by the side of the trail.

Chilkoot Trail tram boiler

The boiler from an old tram line. Those who could afford it, could have their ton of goods delivered to the summit.

We stopped for the night at Sheep Camp. This was the old prospector’s base as they hauled their goods over the pass; to carry one ton of goods, they made (on average) forty trips, carrying a fifty pound (22kg) pack each time.

I was planning on making one trip, carrying a 16kg pack. Not that I was going to let that stop me from complaining about how heavy my bag was. 

In the early evening, a US Park Ranger came to the camp and talked us through what to expect on our trail summit day.

“You will be cold. You will be wet. You will be miserable. There are many river crossings, and your socks will be soaked by the time you finish tomorrow. And to make things worse, your camp tomorrow night, Happy Camp, is cold, exposed, and doesn’t have a stove in the warming hut. It’s only called Happy Camp because you’ll be happy you get to stop hiking.”

US Park Rangers really know how to lift your spirits.

She continued with more good news. “The area past the summit is prone to rock falls in the afternoon. I recommend you leave by 6am to get past that section before lunch.”

Oh, good.

So, the following morning, we awoke at the irritatingly early hour of lets-not-get-killed-in-a-rock-slide-o’clock, packed up our tent, and hit the trail.

The hike started out with the aptly named “Long Hill”. Here the ground rose slowly but steadily, finally leaving behind the boreal forest (and its many, many mosquitoes) and entering alpine tundra.

Chilkoot trail river crossing on Long Hill

The US Park Ranger wasn’t kidding about the river crossings

No longer a well-worn path through the forest, the way forward was picked out with orange poles, and the silhouette of hikers cairns appearing through the fog. Even though it was mid-summer, stretches of snow still covered the route. We made our way forward with care, the snow icy and slick from the daily freezing and thawing cycles.

Chilkoot trail hiker's cairns showing the route

Cairns showing the route through the rocks


Across the snow

Eventually, we reached the Golden Scales. This marked the end of Long Hill, and the start of the Golden Stairs,* the most treacherous and difficult part of the trail.

Here, the North-West Mounted Police weighed the goods of every prospector heading to the Klondike, and anyone with less than the required ton was turned back. Some failed prospectors, not really wanting to carry almost-but-not-quite-a-ton of goods back down the mountain they had just carried them up, abandoned them at the scales.

These days, the area is littered with artefacts from the gold rush. And, oddly, bones. Hopefully horse bones, but I’m not an expert.

Pick axe on the Chilkoot Trail

Abandoned pickaxe on the Chilkoot trail

This was also the site of one of the deadliest accidents on the Chilkoot. On Palm Sunday, 1898, several avalanches roared down the pass, killing between sixty-five and eighty people. All trips over the pass were cancelled for the next three days as prospectors, packers, and Mounties frantically dug to recover, at first, survivors, and then bodies.

There is a cemetery in Dyea where those victims whose family couldn’t be found, or those whose family couldn’t afford to ship the bodies home, are buried. It’s haunting to walk through and see every grave with the same date of death: April 3rd, 1898.

I began the Stairs with some trepidation. Unlike most hikes that like to spread their climb out over the entire length, the Chilkoot prefers to cram it all into one short half kilometre. The trail suddenly becomes almost vertical as it climbs up and over a rock field, filled with loose scree and boulders that you have to clamber up on all fours. It’s like an easy rock climb. Except, with no rope. On wet, slippery rocks. That move and occasionally like to fall half a kilometre down the cliff below you.

I began slowly making my way up, moving cautiously, making sure of my footing before shifting my weight. Mostly, I focussed on the few metres right in front of me, but at one point, apparently deciding to taunt gravity, I looked up to where the rocks vanished into the mist above. Unfortunately, this involved tilting my head back and straightening my back, pulling my centre of gravity backwards. Immediately, I felt my heavy backpack begin to pull me off the mountain. I threw myself forward, suddenly very fond of the boulder in front of me.

My boyfriend enjoyed this part of the hike. Because apparently my boyfriend is part mountain-goat.

The Stairs – because being steep and dangerous isn’t enough – also has two false summits, sections where you crest the rise thinking you’re done, only to see more rise ahead of you.

Then, finally it happened. The fluorescent orange hiking poles that the US Park Rangers use to mark the trail changed to silver poles with an orange flag – the markers used by Parks Canada. We were in Canada. The summit was mere metres ahead.

Thank god. We were back in the land of free health care.

Chilkoot trail summit

Arriving at the summit pass, rocking the dorkiest hat ever.

We stopped at the summit for a quick bite to eat before pushing onwards. We’d been hiking for five hours, and still had another three to cover before reaching camp.

Hiking down one snow-covered slope, too lazy to get my hiking poles off my backpack, I slipped and fell on my butt. I reached out a hand to stop myself from sliding to the bottom of the hill on the slick snow before deciding eh, what the heck and just went with it.

At the base of the hill, I picked myself up with nothing more than a wet behind, checked no one had seen my unique approach to descending, and continued on to Happy Camp.


My boyfriend, taking the boring “walk carefully” style of descending

Happy Camp was everything the Park Ranger had said it would be, but I didn’t care. I was cold, wet, and my feet were definitely not loving anything in life any more. I staggered into the warming hut, kicked my boots off, and made dinner.

Rehydrated pasta never tasted so good.


Hiking across alpine tundra in the fog


Refilling our water bottles by Lake Lindeman


Nearing Bennett Lake

From Happy Camp, we continued on to Bennett Lake, the end of the Chilkoot trail. Here, those prospectors who had made it over the pass spent the remainder of the winter building boats** while they waited for the ice to thaw. Once spring arrived, over seven thousand boats launched from Lindemann and Bennett Lakes, ready to undertake the remaining 800km trip to the Yukon by river.

But… if the prospectors thought it would be all plain sailing from there, they were wrong.  Between them and the Klondike goldfields lay several incredibly dangerous rapids. And, given that most of the prospectors were farmers, clerks, and factory workers, boat building and sailing were not exactly their strong points.

Several hundred people drowned before the North-West Mounted Police decided fine, they should probably do something about this as well, and introduced a number of safety rules, including vetting the boats before they could travel, and only allowing skilled captains to take boats through some of the most dangerous rapids. They also wrote a number on each boat, and carefully recorded the list of passengers in each, in order to more easily notify the next of kin if the boat sank.

Eventually, after almost a year of travel, the prospectors found themselves at Dawson City, ready to make their fortune from the rivers running with gold… only to find, by now, all of the good claims had been staked, and many of the reports of big strikes had been exaggerated.

The Klondike gold rush was over.

As news made its way back to Skagway, Bennett Lake and Dyea, prospectors abandoned the new towns overnight.

Most of those that reached Dawson City never made a penny from gold mining. On average, they had spent $1000 – a small fortune in those days – on the trip, only to turn around and head straight back home.

But even though the gold rush only lasted two years, it changed the face of the north forever. It opened up routes into the interior, and painted Alaska and the Yukon as the land of daring and adventure, where the brave go to seek their fortune.

We reached Bennett Lake in the evening of our own adventure. Tired, footsore, and hungry, we lit a fire in the warming hut and watched the calm waters of the lake as the mid summer sun considered setting.*** It was hard to imagine this quiet, remote place as a bustling town, complete with saloons, hotels, and a population in the thousands.

Chilkoot trail bennet lake

Evening at Bennett Lake

Today, Bennett Lake is not connected to any road system – this is, after all, still the wild, untamed North. The White Pass train from Skagway comes through on some days, but not all, which left us with the interesting question: how do we get home from here?

Fortunately, being still the wild, untamed, mostly-roadless-North, they’re pretty used to getting people out into the middle of nowhere and back again: they use float planes.

As I stepped onto the pontoon of the plane, ready to say goodbye to the Chilkoot trail, I understood that call of the wild that had brought so many people north.


Best way to end a hike. Ever.


Bennett Lake from the air, looking back at the mountains we’d come through

*Prospectors may not have been terribly imaginative when it came to naming things.

**And completely deforesting the surrounding area. By the end of the gold rush, there were no trees left for kilometres around Bennett Lake. As these are northern, slow-growing trees, it’ll take approximately another hundred years for all the forest to grow back. Hiking through the area, the soil suddenly becomes sand, and you see first hand the results of deforestation on an environment.

*** It ultimately decided against it.

The Meanest 33 Miles of History

The Yukon.

A place on the edge of the world, where men and women flocked in the thousands to stake their fortune. Vast wealth could be made here, and lives lost in the pursuit of it. A land of -40C winters, endless sunlight, and instant riches, it called to the reckless, the daring, the brave, and the adventurous.

In 1898, over 100,000 people undertook the gruelling, often fatal, journey to the gold fields of the Klondike in the northern Yukon. It was a stampede like no other. Only one third of them* reached their destination; the rest either gave up, or died from starvation, suicide, murder, or avalanche.

It’s known as the Meanest 33 Miles of History.**

And now, we were going to hike that trail.

But, first: a little history about the gold rush, a two year frenzy that changed the face of the Yukon and Alaska forever.

In 1896, the US was in the grips of a great depression that had begun in 1893. Although there had been periods of economic uptick in the last five years, by 1896 much of America was broke, unemployed, and desperate.

Further north, three prospectors in the Yukon found gold, and, almost a year later, on July 14th 1897, the steamer Excelsior landed in San Francisco carrying their haul – three quarters of a million dollars of Klondike gold.

And just like that, the Klondike gold rush was on.

People swarmed in from all over the world – particularly from the cash-strapped US – drawn by the promise of rivers running yellow in the far north. The only problem was that back in 1898, Alaska and the Yukon were still wild, untamed places. There were no roads to the gold fields; those going there would have to make their own route.

Most prospectors began in Seattle, boarding ships bound for south-east Alaska. This worked out great for Seattle; the city quickly discovered its entrepreneurial side and made a lot of money selling mining packages to the throngs of people who passed through the city on their way north.

Once in Alaska, the prospectors faced their first challenge. Since the entire country is mostly mountains, with a few glaciers and some bears to keep things interesting, the prospectors had to find their way over the coast mountain range to get into the interior Yukon.

Fortunately, there were two already-established native trading routes that they could take through the mountains.

The first was the White Pass. Initially this was the more popular route. It was longer, but the pass wasn’t as high, and, critically, it was advertised as suitable for pack horses.

This was a big deal, as the Canadian government had taken one look at the thousands of prospectors coming from places like California and Australia, and realised that they probably had no clue what was in store for them in a northern Canadian winter.

Since the North-West Mounted Police didn’t really feel like spending October rescuing 100,000 freezing, starving prospectors, they stipulated that those wanting to enter the Klondike needed to bring a years worth of supplies with them. The total packing list weighed in at roughly one ton (900kg). That was one ton that the prospectors needed to carry up and down over those mountain passes.

Unless they could use a pack horse.

These days, the train from the Yukon down to Skagway runs along the old White Pass route. It passes by a place called “Dead Horse Gulch” where the bones of over 3,000 horses lie.

Jack London was one of the prospectors to travel to the Klondike. He wrote about the treatment of the horses along the White Pass:

The horses died like mosquitoes in the first frost and from Skagway to Bennett they rotted in heaps; they died at the rocks, they were poisoned at the summit, and they starved at the lakes; they fell off the trail, what there was of it, and they went through it, in the river they drowned under their loads or were smashed to pieces against the boulders; they snapped their legs in the crevices and broke their backs falling backwards with their packs; in the sloughs they sank from sight and were smothered in the slime; and they were disemboweled in the bogs where corduroy logs turned end up in the mud—men shot them, worked them to death and when they were gone went back to the beach and bought more. Some did not bother to shoot them, stripping the saddles off and the shoes and leaving them where they fell. Their hearts turned to stone—those that did not break—and they became beasts, the men on the Dead Horse Trail.

The White Pass trail soon became known as the Dead Horse Trail, and by late 1897, had deteriorated so much it became impassable, and was closed down.

This left the other option, the Chilkoot Trail.

This route left from Dyea, a town a few miles to the west of Skagway that had sprung up almost overnight as a stepping off point for the trail. The Chilkoot was shorter – only 33 miles compared to 40 miles – but higher and steeper, with a final climb so steep it is impossible for pack animals to make it.

This was the trail we had decided would be fun to spend our summer vacation hiking.

Fortunately for us though, the Chilkoot is now a well-maintained historical trail, co-managed by the US and Canada, with camp-grounds, bear lockers and warming shelters. It’s actually now (hopefully) pretty hard to die on the Chilkoot.

From Whitehorse, we caught the White Pass train down to Skagway. Even though it was apparently the middle of summer, rain and fog haunted our trip through the pass, turning the high mountain landscapes into eerie alien wastelands.

White Pass Route

The view from the train near the summit of the White Pass route

Once in Skagway, we headed into the US Parks Service to pick up our trail passes and register. The ranger gave us a rundown on the trail.

“This is a challenging hike. It is not for beginners. If you get into trouble, we can helicopter you off the mountain, however that will cost $2,500.” Okay, that wasn’t too bad. A little pricey, but it wouldn’t bankrupt me.

“The helicopter will bring you back to Skagway. Now, we don’t have a hospital in Skagway, so if you need one, you will be airlifted to Juneau. That will cost $20,000.”

I made a mental note not to get hurt until we reached the Canadian part of the trail.

Once we were done being terrified by the US parks service, we caught a shuttle to Dyea. At the height of the gold rush, this was a bustling town of 9,000 people. Now, there are only a few rotting planks and a graveyard left to show where the town used to be. Everything else was abandoned as soon as the gold rush ended.

I was worried about our schedule; our train had been delayed, meaning it was already 3pm, and we still needed to hike twelve kilometres to our first campsite.

“Do you think we should make camp earlier along the trail?” I asked my boyfriend.

“I don’t know. What time does it get dark here?”


“Yeah, we should be fine.”

On that note, we started the hike. The trail wound north through coastal rainforest, crossing streams and beaver ponds on suspension bridges and wooden planks; low-lying fog continued to hug the rivers and hills around us, giving the trail a quiet, preternatural feel.

Chilkoot trail fog along the river

Low-lying fog along the hills and rivers of the Chilkoot trail. In the distance, river rafters braved the cold waters.


Crossing one sketchy looking suspension bridge. In fact, it wasn’t just sketchy looking… US Parks had a notice saying it was sketchy and to cross with care.

Our first night we camped at Canyon City campground; I had expected the campground to be full, but we were the only ones there. It’s a little unsettling trying to sleep inside a tent when you’re alone in bear country; you realise very quickly just how thin the fabric of the tent wall that’s keeping you separated from the bears is. Especially compared to how sharp the bear’s claws are.

Instead, we unrolled our sleeping mats inside the warming hut, lit a fire in the pot-bellied stove, and went to sleep. This is frowned upon by the Park Rangers, but I was a little less scared of them than I was of a grizzly.

We had completed the first day of our hike in good shape, but our hardest day, the push over the summit, was still to come.

To be continued… 

*ish. There are no exact numbers, so I went off the population size of Dawson City, which was estimated at 30,000. Either way, a lot of folks didn’t make it.

** Okay, I’m pretty sure that things like the Trail of Tears, and the Road of Bones were meaner, but this is probably one of the most fatal 33 mile treks that anyone voluntarily undertook.

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