Fabled trek inspires Yukon artist

Daphne Mennell never expected to be moved so much, so often. The Yukon artist was brought to tears on several occasions during her two-week hike of the Chilkoot Trail.

Daphne Mennell never expected to be moved so much, so often.

The Yukon artist was brought to tears on several occasions during her two-week hike of the Chilkoot Trail, overwhelmed by the beauty of her surroundings.

Mennell was one of three artists from Canada and the United States chosen to take part in the Chilkoot Trail artist residency program.

From July 28 to August 12, she trekked the 53-kilometre trail, which is physically demanding and potentially hazardous in many locations. Deep mud, standing water, unstable boulders, slick rocks and roots are among the challenges listed on Parks Canada’s preparation guide for hikers.

Established in the late 19th century, the trail allowed individuals to travel to the Klondike goldfields. It was virtually abandoned following the completion of the White Pass railroad in 1900, and later became an international historic park.

A Yukoner for close to 40 years, Mennell had made forays into the trail before but had never hiked it in its entirety.

She said she was blown away by the impact the hike had on her, even referring to the Lord of the Rings to describe one of the forests she passed through.

“This one section where the trees are very tall, and there are cascading rivers, was very akin to Lothlorien, a forest protected by elves, and that stretch really gave you that feeling,” she said.

“That day I was just so overcome. By that point, it was the third day of the hike and you’ve left all your concerns behind, discarded on the trail. Now you’re really immersed.”

Mennell shared a journal entry describing her feelings on a particular evening where she couldn’t resist writing down her thoughts:

“Each step I am overwhelmed with every sight, at every turn, I feel certain in every pore, with every psychic nerve of my being, tells me I am walking on sacred ground.

“I find myself being brought to tears having been overwhelmed by the generosity of nature’s beauty upon my soul and spirit.

The previous three days were a preparation, a casting off, a gentle cleansing to open my heart, I think, to be able to receive this overwhelming gift.”

About 170 people applied to the residency program. This was Mennell’s third attempt to take part in it, and she was allowed to bring her husband and a friend.

Using various paints and materials, she produced a dozen paintings during the hike. One shows a tumble-down log cabin, while another portrays a majestic landscape of mountains and crystal clear lakes.

More will be painted based on the many pencil sketches she brought back.

While she normally uses oil paints in her studio, Mennell decided against bringing them on the hike, as they take a long time to dry.

She said she finally settled on acrylics because they dry so quickly.

“A company just released a new line of acrylics, ones that are made for the open air, so I ordered 10 colours,” she said.

“I got myself a lightweight easel and canvas paper tapered onto a board. The problem was that acrylics don’t dry in humidity so I ended up with wet paintings.”

Mennell switched back to her pad, creating impressionistic sketches of the most beautiful spots she came across.

She plans to eventually do a major show on the Chilkoot in the fall of 2016 at the Yukon Arts Centre.

Mennell hopes to replicate the atmosphere of the trail using lights, sounds and even a backpack people can hoist onto their backs to get a better sense of the experience.

There is also discussion to take the show on the road across Canada.

The program, now in its fourth year, serves a joint purpose for both Parks Canada and the U.S. National Park Service: to promote the Chilkoot Trail, especially in major cities, and to inspire Canadians and Americans to visit and appreciate it.

Mennell said she wasn’t expecting to tell people that it was an experience of a lifetime.

“Maybe other things have brought us here, to the Yukon, but what keeps us here is how beautiful is it,” she said.

Contact Myles Dolphin at


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