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Better not to put off what probably won't kill you today

Posted: Sunday, July 21, 2002

It's early evening, the office cleared out over an hour ago. You're tired, but feel good about getting a rash of odds and ends cleaned up. You hoist your swollen ankles up onto the corner of your desk and reach for your day planner.

Nita Nettleton can be reached at nitan@alaska.com.

"Let's see what torture tomorrow has in store for me," you say, letting out a big sigh. As you flip to the page assigned to the next day, your big sigh becomes an adrenaline-charged gasp. The small notation filling your bifocals says, "Hey, you forgot to hike the Chilkoot Trail!"

After some frenzied, page-flipping denial, you realize that you put off the local rite of passage more years than you intended and now must get your butt in gear. The nagging question for some people planning an out-of-the-blue multi-day hike over rough ground is, "will it kill me?" The sad truth is, you put it off and whatever it might do to you today will only hurt worse tomorrow. Trust your insurance and get packing.

Can a middle-aged, weekend hiker expect a reasonably successful trip over Chilkoot Pass? Let's start with that basic question you had: Will it kill me? I called the Park Service in Skagway and found that the chances are very poor. No recreational hiker fatalities, to date. And only about three medevacs a year, on the U.S. side.

The reason I bring this whole thing up is because I got a call from a day-planner page-flipper who knows me as a middle-aged weekend hiker with some Chilkoot Trail history. She said, "I don't want to wake up 20 years from now wishing I had done it," and asked if we could go over a few things.

Everyone has his or her own list of essentials for this trail, but mine is more about attitude than equipment. It's important to have your mind right before, during and after. Don't let the imagery of struggle, brutal hardship, loss and heartbreak associated with the trail get you down. That was a hundred years and an incredibly effective media campaign ago. You have space-age fibers, good food, awesome footgear, reliable information and no competition. You are not clawing your way to a financial crapshoot (you do that at the office), but taking a walk. The trip is recreation now, and that means fun!

Before you even consider gear, choose you hiking buddies wisely. If you go with someone who's been over the route before, they will rattle on about their previous experience and ruin your discovery. If you learn this too late, use your duct tape wisely. You've waited years for this and deserve to be awed. Screen out whiners and ninnies, of course, and anyone who wants to take Alaska Bear Tales, Volumes One through Six, along for reading aloud in the evenings. Everyone else should be OK.

Gear is important, yet can easily get out of hand. Be brutal in culling your outfit, but think twice about the hot water bottle. Your tent mates will shiver with envy as you snuggle down to sleep with warm feet. Scoff if you want, but the burden of trail comfort really comes down to your feet. Warm at night, coddled in good boots and socks all day, they will last the whole trip and maybe even the rest of your life. The only other tips I have on gear are a cushy pad is worth the weight, M&Ms are the international standard for trade stock and "weather resistant" is not the same as "waterproof."

People have been taking pictures of the Chilkoot Trail for over a hundred years, so don't feel you need to take a camera. You'll need at least one shot of you to prove you took the trip, so get someone you meet on the trail to take a picture and send it to you when they get home. They'll do it for M&Ms.

That's about it, get out there and have a great time. Even if it takes a few days to regain your office stamina, you'll feel like a million dollars when you get home. Just like you did after you paddled around Admiralty Island and skied the Iditarod Trail. What, you haven't done those yet?

Nita Nettleton can be reached at nitan@alaska.com.



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