the pain of the pack the ecstasy of the trail

I shouldered my pack and started north, alone, from Champagne. I had tried to keep the weight of my load down, but in my younger days, this seemed not to be possible, and the straps bit deep into my bony shoulders.

I shouldered my pack and started north, alone, from Champagne. I had tried to keep the weight of my load down, but in my younger days, this seemed not to be possible, and the straps bit deep into my bony shoulders.

It was May, 1974, and my goal was to hike 55 kilometres to Hutchi Lakes to see if I could locate a place depicted in a photograph dating back to 1898.

There was, of course, more to the trip than taking a photo of the same place nearly a century later. I was to learn that there were also many uncertainties about my plans and, in the end, the journey became as important to me as the objective.

I always followed a careful plan. Maps were consulted and my list of what should be taken was checked and double checked. I needed to include everything that was essential and not a gram more, yet I still had 34 kilograms in my load.

I experimented to see what I could leave behind and finally decided that my insulated sleeping mat was essential for the sake of warmth. One night trying to sleep without a layer of insulation between me and the ground was enough to convince me of that.

After being dropped off at my starting point, I began hiking. Backpacking is many steps, one after another, and after the first hour or so, it becomes tedious, then boring. Yet thousands of footsteps bring you to your destination; you get into a rhythm on the trail, and learn how to adjust the load to shift the discomfort of the heavy pack from the shoulders to the waist, then back again.

The first evening, I found an ideal place to set up my first camp. I erected my nylon fly cover and cooked a meal before retiring early. The sound of the racing water in a nearby stream was both soothing and relaxing.

I woke up in the morning with a weight on my chest. Overnight, it had snowed, and the fly cover sagged under the load. I had to put on my hiking boots, which were wet because I had left them outside the protection of my simple shelter, but after hiking for a while that morning, they warmed up and were not too uncomfortable.

When I got down below the snow level some time later, I stopped, started a small fire and, in Boy Scout fashion, dried the boots by filling them with small pebbles that had been heated by the hot coals of the fire. That proved to be a big mistake.

I hiked on, across the valley, cautiously crossing a beaver dam without falling in or getting my feet wet again. It was a long day and I hiked a considerable distance before arriving at the Hutchi Lakes, where I camped for the evening.

It was only then that I surveyed the damage to my feet. What I had dismissed as merely the discomfort of hiking all day proved to be much worse: my feet were covered with blisters. The toes were blistered. The edges of my feet were blistered. Even the pads on the bottom of my feet were blistered.

I walked all day on these blistered feet, but once I stopped for the evening, the pain set in. In the days that followed, I had to hike slowly, wearing loosely laced cotton sneakers, and using two crudely improvised walking sticks, the way a cross-country skier would with ski poles.

The place I had chosen to camp was next to a stream near the lakes. On the opposite bank of the stream was a high prominent terrace from the top of which the view commanded the country, both to the north and to the south.

Standing atop this terrace I imagined that, from there, early hunters could look in all directions for game. When I shared this observation with Lawrence Joe a couple of years ago, he noted that it would also, and perhaps more likely, have been a good place from which to look for signs of other humans crossing the prehistoric landscape.

That evening, I slept in a brush shelter that I found where I was camped, reasoning that it would be a good experience. The shelter was constructed below the branches of a couple of large spruce trees. I presumed that if it rained, I would not get wet under the broad sweeping boughs.

I also reasoned that setting a fire in front of the three-sided shelter would provide me with additional heat, contained to some extent, by the woven spruce boughs that made up the back and two sides. I climbed into my down sleeping bag and quickly fell asleep.

It was fortunate for me that the shell of my down sleeping bag was made from canvas, rather than nylon, because in the morning, I discovered that an ember from the fire had landed on the bag and burned a hole in it. If the bag had been made of nylon, containing a synthetic fill, would I have been badly burned?

I hiked all morning and eventually arrived at the site portrayed in the old photograph. The original picture showed a row of Southern Tutchone grave houses and fences. They were still there, decades later, though the small structures that had been raised off the ground on log posts had collapsed, and some of the surrounding fences had fallen down.

I took my photo from the same vantage point as the original had been taken in 1898, and then hiked a short distance further to take photographs of other remains in the area. The following morning, I prepared to retrace my trip. Overnight a bear had walked down the trail, and for two days, I walked along mindful of the potential hazard of catching up with my bruin travelling companion.

My concerns were justified. When I arrived at the lower end of Tay Lake, I encountered three sisters, Sue Van Bibber, Grace Chambers and Belle Desrosiers, camped there. The bear had entered their camp, walked past a team of tethered dogs, right up to the front of their camp tent. They were much better equipped with such a situation than I was.

Finding the place and getting the photo, or discovering historical remains may be the objective, but the journey is also a major element of being a history hunter. As an impressionable young man at the time of this adventure, I learned a number of lessons that have stayed with me all my life.

I learned how to prepare and then travel on my own under bush conditions. I learned that travelling alone in the wilderness requires self-reliance. I learned that one’s self-confidence is enhanced by successfully completing a journey such as this.

I learned that you don’t dry your wet boots using hot stones.

I also learned that I loved the Yukon and its history more than anything else.

Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based

in Whitehorse.