Climbing the trail to graduation

Story and photos by Ardyce Czuchna-Curl

Cooking, camping, hiking and journaling were the assignments for most members of the senior and junior classs from Skagway High School earlier this month.
They spent May 12-16 on the Chilkoot Trail with Josh Coughran, their social studies teacher, Reed McCluskey and John O&Mac226;Daniel, parents, and Tomoko Hashimoto, Japanese teacher intern.
The trip was the climax of their Alaska History unit. The group camped Wednesday night at Dyea, spent Thursday night at Canyon City, hiked to Sheep Camp and back to their Canyon City camp Friday and returned home Saturday afternoon.
“We’ve been planning this all semester,” Coughran said. “As far as I know we’re the first class from Skagway High School to do this. With the trail right in their backyard, I thought every student should have the opportunity to hike and understand it and the history firsthand.”
The trip was optional, however. Additional classroom projects were assigned to students who had conflicting work schedules or chose not to go.
John McCluskey was the only one in the class who had hiked the entire trail before this trek. Kyle Mulvilhill had been to Sheep Camp.
Coughran himself had hiked only three miles of the Chilkoot.
“Jaime Gagnier, school cook and former Boy Scout leader, was a big help planning the trip,” Coughran said.

Tomoko sets up her tent.

In preparation, students visited the Trail of ‘98 Museum and the Klondike National Historical Park Trail Center and read from books about the gold rush period and journals of individuals who were on the trail in 1897-98.
Students then paired off and were assigned a portion of the trail – Dyea, Saintly Hill, Finnegan’s Point, Canyon City, Pleasant Camp and Sheep Camp – to photograph, read journals, compile impressions and present a PowerPoint program when they returned. Each pair also prepared a meal for the group. Coughran with the help of Amy Labesky provided supper at Dyea the first evening.
Cory Belisle began sketching in his journal immediately after dinner. Crystal Ketterman wrote in her journal about the past: “Dyea was the Las Vegas of the Gold Rush.” About the present she wrote, feeling somewhat guilty, “We (Crystal and Savannah Ames) slept in a $300 tent.”
Park rangers Kip Wheeler and Jeremy Prater met students at Sheep Camp, pointed out artifacts and the location of the April 3, 1898 slide and reported they’d seen a bear shortly before the students arrived.
The students saw no bears but they did see a bear den, bear tracks, a porcupine, some bats and shrews.
“Shrews darted up my head,” said Ames, who counted eight shrews in her tent one night.
Several students weren’t content just to hike the trail. In addition, they trail blazed up a mountain from Canyon City and saw where the Taiya and Nourse rivers meet.
Henry Burnham and Thomas Knorr’s chicken or beef with carrots, celery, onions and potatoes packed in foil made a hit with their classmates.
Thomas also made points with hikers as he piggybacked some of them over a flooded portion of the trail.
Jason O&Mac226;Daniel later wrote in his journal: “I’m really looking forward to a shower.”
When asked for advice to future hikers, Florian Wischnat, who had carried a gallon of tomato soup to serve with grilled cheese sandwiches for one of the meals, said, “Dont take too much stuff, and try out the tent before the trip so it doesn’t take you so long to set it up.”

Cory Belisle sketches in Dyea.

Others agreed packing light is important. “Go with a lot of people so you don’t have to carry so much,” Henry Burnham said.
Max Jewell said, “I took too many clothes, too much food, too much of everything. It was overkill, but music would have been good.”
Rory Belisle, too, said another time he’d take music, “because it’s lonesome out there.” He also wished he had taken an extra pair of light shoes or slippers to wear in camp because his feet got tired of hiking boots.
Kevin Wang, exchange student from Taiwan, said camping at Canyon City was his favorite part of the trip. He mentioned he found a plant whose stems tasted like watermelon.
“Next time they should arrange to hike the whole way,” Kevin said.
Coughran said hiking the entire trail would have to be done when the snow isn’t so deep at the summit – perhaps in August; but that would require changes in class schedules. He’ll look into it. He’d like hiking at least part of the trail to become a regular part of the curriculum.