'55 Ways,' Chilkoot guide offer plenty of information

Posted: Friday, June 21, 2002

The snow's gone, the sun's high in the sky and it's the perfect time to go hiking. Half days, full days or days on end. Snacks shoved in a pocket, backpacks stuffed with everything needed for a day or larger packs with sleeping bags and packets of freeze-dried food. From beach to mountain top and river bank to lake. The options are endless.

Here are two books that share information on hiking trails. While the formats are different, both are equally interesting.

"55 Ways to the Wilderness in Southcentral Alaska", Fifth Edition, By Helen D. Nienhueser and John Wolfe Jr.

The Mountaineers Books

Don't be misled by the title or the separate sections of this wonderfully informative guide book. Avenues for accessing southcentral Alaska far exceed 55. As the introduction confesses, "When all are tallied, this book might be more accurately titled '160 Ways to the Wilderness in Southcentral Alaska.'" But for all the routes, whether long, short, approached by foot, air or water, Nien-hueser and Wolfe are the connecting link.

Before foc- using on the trails, there are tips for protecting Alaska's backcountry and suggestions for hiking with children. Clothing, footwear and weather-appropriate gear are discussed. And before you drink from that clear-running stream, go over the section on drinking water. Dealing with pesky mosquitoes is addressed in a few paragraphs and several pages are dedicated to moose and bears.

Trips into Alaska's backcountry shouldn't be undertaken without thought to hypothermia, frostbite, avalanches and searches. Nienhueser and Wolfe drive that point home with their dedication of the book to Hans van der Laan, who completed the maps for the first edition of "55 Ways," but died in an avalanche before the book was published.

Scattered throughout the book, black-and-white photos and maps give visual references. Scenes of waterfalls, mountain peaks, glaciers, wildlife and even pictures of the authors offer an invitation to come into the wilderness.

There are sections dedicated to the Kenai Peninsula; the Portage to Potter area; the Anchorage bowl; north of Anchorage; and the Chickaloon, Nabesna and Valdez areas. A list of additional resources is thoughtfully included, complete with contact information.

And "leave no trace" principles are encouraged.


"We hike to find wilderness, but in hiking we leave tracks that diminish wilderness," the authors write. "We all have heard about 'minimum-impact camping,' but it means more than carrying out litter. It is a state of constant awareness."

"Chilkoot: An Adventure in Ecotourism"

By Allan Ingelson, Michael Mahony and Robert Scace

University of Calgary Press and University of Alaska Press

An almost equal balance of photographs and text make this book about the 53-mile trail that historically links Alaska to British Columbia visually enjoyable, as well as informative.

Beginning with a definition of ecotourism -- "an enlightening nature travel experience that contributes to conservation of the ecosystem while respecting the integrity of host communities" -- the authors create a context by listing the reasons people give for hiking the Chilkoot. According to information gathered by Parks Canada in 1998, the most important reason was the scenic beauty, followed by adventure, enjoying the sights and smells of nature, experiencing peace and tranquility and to walk in the footsteps of the gold-hungry stampeders that flooded the trail in the late 1800s.

"In sum, we view the Chilkoot Trail to be one of those rare places on Earth that can successfully incubate ecotourism and peace for humankind," the authors write. "It is therefore a model to be appropriately used and studied in the new millennium."

As with Alaska's Iditarod Trail, the Chilkoot was originally a travel and trade route for First Nations people. The Tlinget called the Chilkoot Pass "A Shaki." The Tagish called it "Kwatese." Translated, both mean "over it," a perfect description for this trail from Lynn Canal, over the Coast Mountains to the Yukon River's headwaters.

After gold was discovered near Dawson in 1896, thousands came from all over the world to go "over it." The authors insert excerpts from records and diaries to colorfully describe the challenges of the trail.

"... It is seven miles to what is called the foot of the pass and it seems like 40 when you walk it; but after so much has been accomplished, one's troubles have just begun. The ascent is say 500 feet almost straight up."

Once grounding the reader in history, the text and photos lead over the trail of today. With bridges across rivers, signs marking the trail and camping spots designated, it is a different experience and the prize something other than the nuggets hoped for by those early travelers.

The book includes information on obtaining reservations and the permits needed to hike the Canadian portion of the trail. Tips for planning and reaching the area are offered, as is a caution to "not over-estimate your abilities on this challenging hike. Test your strength and endurance on shorter, less demanding backpacking trails prior to hiking the Chilkoot Trail."

What better encouragement to try one of those 55 ways into the wilderness in southcentral Alaska?

McKibben Jackinsky is a free-lance writer who lives in Ninilchik.

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