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

_DSC1282

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.

_DSC1298

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.

_DSC1306

Hiking across alpine tundra in the fog

chilcoot_Pos_026

Refilling our water bottles by Lake Lindeman

_DSC1334

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.

_DSC1352

Best way to end a hike. Ever.

_DSC1404

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.

Advertisements

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?”

“August.”

“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.

_DSC1233

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.

The Geeks in the Basement

VFX artists tend to be seen by the rest of the film industry as the geeks in the basement.

Okay, so admittedly, we are all pretty nerdy and into computers. And, I guess our desks do tend to be covered with Lord of the Rings figurines and light sabres. And, sure, due to the light sensitive nature of our jobs, we do work in blacked out rooms… So the name isn’t all that inaccurate.

But it still says something about how the rest of the film crew sees the VFX artists.

And that comes down to how the films are made.

Okay, bear with me here as I go into a little bit more detail than anyone ever asked for on how a film gets crewed, but it is relevant.

You see, when a film is greenlit by a studio – say, Paramount – the producer doesn’t just go out onto the Paramount lot, grab the Paramount film crew, and start shooting.

Instead, the film will be crewed by freelance crew members, brought together by the production just for that one film.

The first person to join the film will be the director (often having a known director attached – along with some big name actors – is part of getting a movie greenlit). Once he or she is on board, the production will start to bring on the heads of departments, people such as the director of photography, the editor, the art director, and so on. These are the people responsible for the creative vision of the film, and they’ll often be people the director likes, has worked with before, or has heard good things about. This will be done in consultation with the studio and producer, who ultimately have final say, but generally want to keep the director happy.

Once the creative HoDs are in place, they’ll start filling in their departments, hiring assistant editors, camera assistants, gaffers, grips, chippies, sparkies and woofies.* As these will often be local talent, most of this round of crewing will happen after the production decides where to shoot the film. These people will be found through networks and friends – hire the 2nd Assistant Camera in Vancouver, and they’ll know someone who can come on as the focus puller. 98.75% of the time, this is someone they’ve worked with before that they like. The other 1.25% of the time, it’s someone they know from film school.**

And that’s it. We come together, spend 4-6 months making movie magic and getting heartily sick of each other in the process. Then, once the film is complete, we have a massive wrap party, grab our crew swag (which is useful, since we probably haven’t done laundry in the last month), and go our separate ways. Until the next film, where we’ll either know half the crew already, or figure out who we know in common.

So, that’s how the film crew works. VFX is a little different.

You see, our software is pretty complex. And, our software also doesn’t like to talk to other software. Even other VFX software. And since every department in VFX uses different software, this can make things tricky.

Say we’re doing a shot where a CG dinosaur runs through a CG river. On a high end film, each step in the pipeline – from building the dinosaur, to adding the CG water, to lighting the shot, before finally putting all the elements together to fit seamlessly within the plate – will be done by a different specialist.

Most of those highly specialised jobs also have highly specialised software packages, and none of them talk to each other. Because apparently that would make too much sense.

So, we have to write a lot of code to move shot information from one department to another. It’s expensive, time consuming, and constantly changing as software packages get updated. All VFX companies have a dedicated pipeline department whose job is to make sure information gets from one place to another.

Another thing that happens along the pipeline is something called rendering. The computer scenes that we work with are very complex, and require a large amount of computer power to process.

Take, for example, a lighter working on the scene with the dinosaur: the lighter will add light sources to mimic the on-set lighting, and then the computer has to go away and think about just what exactly that means. How hot is the kick off the water? Where are the shadows, and how long are they? How do the dinosaur’s scales react to this light? Is there anything causing a bounce light in the scene? These calculations can take hours per frame, so when you’re dealing with a 200 frame shot, that’s a lot of computing. Especially since it takes multiple (and I mean, in the hundreds of) versions to get a shot pixel-perfect.

If we were to just render on the machine we were working on, we’d basically get one render of one shot done every couple of weeks. Oh, and because it would take the entire computing power of that machine, we wouldn’t be able to work in that time. Which sounds like fun, until you have to pay rent.

So, instead, we send all of these scene off to the render farm. This is a stack of computers dedicated to rendering. They have no keyboards or monitors, and their only job, all day, every day, is to render shots. Companies can have hundreds, or even thousands of these dedicated, high-spec computers on a render farm (although still never enough come crunch time). And of course, once you put hundreds of processing computers in a small, enclosed space, putting out a massive amount of heat, you also need to add some heavy duty air conditioners to make sure they don’t do something silly like catch fire.

All of this adds up to one big, expensive nightmare that film studios don’t want to deal with.

Fortunately, they don’t have to. Instead, they can outsource it to a VFX studio that is  already set up with a pipeline, render farm, and artists, and have them make the whole VFX problem go away.

This does, however, create an interesting situation. It means that when I sign on to a film, I’m actually signing on to work for the VFX company, rather than the film production. And this leads to a couple of problems.

The first – and the one that often rankles VFX artists the most – is film credits.

The film studios determine how many credits each VFX company will get. Because credits add to run time, and run time in the cinema costs money, the film studio wants to keep the number of credits to a minimum.

Everyone on set is guaranteed a credit.

No one in VFX is.

I’ve worked on shows with almost one hundred artists, only to be told that we get twelve credits. I know everyone thinks that credits are already waaaay too long, but they mean a lot to people that worked on the film.

But that’s not the worst problem that the division between VFX and the production can cause.

Because VFX and the film making process have become so separated, the director often has no exposure to the process of VFX. After all, it’s not like building a film set where you can walk on the stage day after day and see it take shape. VFX often happens in a different country, and the director only sees a few select stages along the way.

This means that when the directors asks for a change, they don’t always know what they’re asking for. If the director walks on to set and says “yeah, I know I asked for a library, but what I’m actually thinking would work well is a bedroom. Can we change this to a bedroom?” they know just how much of that set is salvageable, and how much is going to be torn down and thrown away. They can see a tangible cost in terms of materials and time.

A lot of directors don’t know that in VFX. Is the change something as simple as loading in a prebuilt bedroom, or is it something much harder? (Hint: it’s something much harder). And, unlike on a sound stage, where the director would arrive at set the following morning to see the haggard, sleep-deprived faces of the set department who had worked through the night to change the set around glaring at him, with VFX, the director often won’t know what the human cost of their changes will be.

(A side note: sometimes, if the revision is large enough, the VFX studio will issue the production with a change order. This is basically something that says “So, you paid us to build a library. We built a library. Then you decided you wanted a bedroom. Now you need to pay us to build a bedroom.” This can also cause problems, as the director, without having a real library to touch and feel, doesn’t understand why a second virtual set costs more money. It’s hard to argue the value of something that – to many people – isn’t real because it only exists in a computer.

Also, this isn’t applicable to all directors. Some, like Peter Jackson, George Lucas, and James Cameron are very VFX-savvy, having owned their own VFX houses, while others, like Neill Blomkamp used to be VFX artists themselves.)

It’s hard to say how this ignorance of the biggest department on most films has come about. I suspect it’s a combination of the directors not being able to be a part of the process, and the VFX houses wanting to shield the director from the daily crazy that is VFX.

I would like this to change, but it will be tough. Ideally, the director would be embedded with a VFX studio for post so they could see the daily rhythm of visual effects, but the director is already spoken for by editorial, sound and music in that time. Besides, with multiple VFX studios in different countries working on the same film, which studio would the director go to?

Maybe over time, as more directors come of age in a time where VFX is as common on a film is as sound, things will start to change; directors and film crews will see us more as equal contributors to the film, and less as anonymous geeks in the basement.

I’d like that. I really would.

Just as long as we don’t have to give up our lightsabers.

*Okay, that last one isn’t really a job, but the others actually all are.

**Which leads to the big catch-22 of the film industry – how do I get a job in the industry without knowing someone, and how do I get to know someone in the industry without working in it? I have no idea, sorry.

%d bloggers like this: