Book Review: The Floor of Heaven

Most people who know me know that I spent three summers in Skagway, AK, driving tour buses. During that time, I gained a lot of knowledge about the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush, during which Skagway became a boomtown. Even now, many signs in Skagway contain the word “Klondike,” even though the actual Klondike is another 400 miles north (a fact which some tourists in Skagway are quite disappointed to learn).

So when I saw Howard Blum’s The Floor of Heaven: A True Tale of the Last Frontier and the Yukon Gold Rush this spring, I decided I had to read it. It tells the stories of three men before, during, and after the gold rush: George Carmack, the man who (along with Skookum Jim and Tagish Charley) discovered gold in the Klondike; Soapy Smith, the con man who was the most powerful man in Skagway during the gold rush; and Charlie Siringo, a cowboy who became a Pinkerton detective. Before reading this book, I knew a lot about the first two, but had never heard of the third.

The story starts well before the gold rush, with each chapter focusing on one of the three men. There are chapters on Carmack’s journey from an AWOL marine to a member of the Tagish Nation, Soapy’s growth from a grifter to the head of an organized crime syndicate in several Colorado towns, and Siringo’s various cases as a “cowboy detective.” As the book progresses, the three men’s lives overlap more and more, as when Siringo meets Carmack in Juneau and Smith tries to steal Carmack’s gold.

Blum has clearly done his research, and has invested a lot of effort in telling a tale that sustains interest, even for someone who has heard part of the story before. There was only one point, late in the book, where it seemed Blum made a mistake. He writes that when Carmack brought his gold out of the Klondike, he and Siringo “crossed the Chilkoot summit and began their descent into American territory.” Two sentences later, he writes that they had left Bonanza Creek (in the Klondike) “earlier on that June morning.” There is no way they could have traveled 400 miles in less than a day. Also, Blum writes that they took a string of packhorses over the Chilkoot. But in all that I have read about the gold rush, the Chilkoot was too steep for pack animals. Something about how Blum tells this part of the story doesn’t make sense.

Aside from that, I’d recommend this book to anyone who wants to read an engaging book about an exciting period in US and Canadian history.

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Under Pressure

This entry has been sitting around over at my Myspace blog for over a year. I decided to re-post it so other people could see it, because it’s such a fun story. It comes from a typical day working as a bus driver in Skagway, Alaska (as a side note, I’ve re-posted all of the blogs that I posted on Myspace here, but instead of posting them here in October 2007, I’ve post-dated them to when they were originally posted in 2006):

Yesterday was so eventful, I just had to write something. We have been short one mechanic for the past week or so, and I think the buses can tell, because they have been having problems left and right. Bridget’s brakes caught fire last week (though no passengers were on board). Jake and Sarah both had flat tires this week. And yesterday, this is what happened to me:

I was taking a group of passengers to the Yukon, and they rode part of the way up on the train in the morning. So I dropped them off at the depot in Skagway, then drove up the pass to pick them up at Canadian Customs in Fraser, B.C., by myself. I arrived at Fraser, read for a little bit, then the train arrived and we were on our way. I noticed when I pulled out of the parking lot that the air pressure gauge in the bus was reading a little low, but I didn’t think that it was a problem, since the bus had passed its brake tests that morning. Normal air pressure operating range for these buses is 90-120 p.s.i. (pounds per square inch), and my gauge was reading about 60. There was a low air warning signal buzzing, but it was faint, and I thought that it would turn off any second.

It didn’t. And the bus wasn’t building any air pressure. So, instead of launching into the tour, I was quiet for a moment, deciding what to do. I knew that I was one of the last buses, if not the last bus, on its way up to Carcross, where we would eat lunch. If I stopped the bus, I would have had to call other buses back down and figure out how to split my passengers among several buses. All of us would have been late for lunch, and it would have been a logistical nightmare (if not an impossibility) to figure out everything over the radio. I had only an hour or so to get to lunch, and it takes about an hour to get from Fraser up to Carcross, so I knew that I would not have to slow the bus down to take any picture stops.

So, I decided to keep going with my 60 p.s.i. or so. I knew that there were not any steep, prolonged hills on the way that I couldn’t handle by downshifting and turning on the engine brake. And I only had to stop once one the way, when I crossed railroad tracks at Log Cabin. When I left Log Cabin, I still had about 45 minutes to go, and the bus was down around 30 p.s.i. From then on, I stepped on the brakes less than 5 times, just kept my speed down and downshifted going into turns or down any kind of hill at all. Since lots of things on these buses work on air pressure, various things stopped working, like the air conditioning and the windshield wipers (thankfully, it only sprinkled briefly).

We arrived in Carcross right on time, and I pulled into our lunch stop to drop off passengers. Pulling into the parking lot, I had about 20 p.s.i. left. When I dropped off the passengers (who I decided not to tell that there was a problem with the bus that might affect the brakes — I thought that it would agitate them unduly), even the step that sticks out under the door would not work any more. Then I pulled off to park the bus, and when I had it parked, there were 12 p.s.i. left. That is not even enough air to hit the shut-off switch, and so it ran for a little while until I went to the back and turned off the emergency switch. I talked to the home office and the mechanic, Brett, on the phone. He told me to try a few things, like listening for air leaks, checking out the air compressor, trying to put it in gear (it would not go into gear again), and we decided to switch into another bus. Severin and Melissa were on the same tour, and they both had about half-full buses. so they combined into Severin’s bus, and I took Melissa’s. When the passengers came back from lunch, I told them that the bus was having some problems, and that we were going to switch buses. They were a great group: nobody was upset, everyone just walked calmly over to the new bus. A couple of people asked me more specific questions about what was wrong, and I told them some of what was wrong. But again, I didn’t tell them that we had driven for about an hour with low air pressure. That would have upset them unnecessarily, I thought.

Now it’s the next day, and the bus is still parked up in the Yukon. The mechanic will probably go get it today, blow up the air bellows manually, and take it back to Skagway. I hope, for his sake, that nothing else goes wrong mechanically for at least a week.

Chilkoot – August 2007

Just before I left Alaska to come back to Vancouver, I hiked the Chilkoot Trail with seven friends. It was a great time, though rather grueling. We hiked about 36 miles in 46 hours, and this included a 3000+ foot elevation gain. The trail itself is 33 miles, but our 36 included 3 miles spent on the railroad tracks at the end, walking to Log Cabin rather than being picked up by the train. I highly recommend being picked up by the train, if you can time it right.

We started after work on Thursday evening, August 30. We hiked 7.5 miles that first night and stayed at Canyon City. The last couple of miles we hiked was after the sun went down, so we kept on making loud noises periodically to alert bears and other animals to our presence. The next day, Friday, we hiked from Canyon City to Deep Camp – 16 miles of hiking. The hike from Canyon City to Sheep Camp was pretty pleasant, but then we started going up Long Hill, which is… long. When you get close to the top of Long Hill, you have to scramble over some boulders. I cut my hand on one, and I think someone else was injured too. There was a park ranger at the Scales who checked that we had permits and that we were feeling well enough to make it up the Golden Stairs and over the top of the pass. After stopping for a rest and some more water at the Scales, we headed up the Golden Stairs.

All the pictures I’ve ever seen of the stairs are in the winter, when it is a steep hill of snow and ice. It was called “stairs” because miners cut steps into the snow and ice, and “golden” because they had to name it something to keep their minds off how grueling it was to carry their supplies to the top over and over. Since this was the end of August, though, there was no snow on the Golden Stairs; it was just a steep hill of boulders that took us about 30 minutes (if I remember right) to climb. Andy, who was hiking the Chilkoot for the third time that summer, told us about an elderly man who was hiking the Chilkoot with his son earlier that year. He stood up to take a look at the top, lost his balance and fell over backward, but he survived.

It had not been foggy all day, but when we got to the top, we were in the low-lying clouds. We had a rest at the Canadian ranger station (since we were now in Canada), and then continued on. We started to go down in elevation, but it was not as steep as the climb up. For about a mile it was mostly boulders and patches of snow. I’ve never been to the north of Scotland, but the part after that reminded me of pictures that I’ve seen of the north of Scotland: rocky and grassy hills, with mountains on either side. We arrived at Happy Camp at about 5 p.m., and met some people who were stopping there for the night, but we had to keep on pushing to get to Deep Lake. We got there at around 7-7:30, exhausted. In all, we hiked 16 miles that day, with a 3000-foot elevation gain in the first half of the day.

The following day we hiked from Deep Lake past Lake Lindeman and Bare Loon Lake, and the last 3 miles or so of hiking were on the railroad tracks to Log Cabin, where our friend Julie picked us up in a van – and she brought us pizza!

Here are some pictures from the ol’ Killchoot, and some from the rest of summer 2007 in Skagway.

(first East, and then) North to Alaska!

Spring is in the air, and you know what that means: time to move.  I’ve moved pretty much every spring since I was 18 years old.  Now that I’m getting to be an old codger at 27, you would think that I would slow down and stay in one place for longer, but perish the thought, my friends, perish the thought.  Here’s the plan for the next few weeks:

Tomorrow, Friday, I move all my stuff out of my house and put it in storage.

Saturday, I go to Seattle with Ryan, Peter, Tony and Bob to see a Mariners game, and then stay with Tanya.

Sunday, I fly to Budapest.

Wednesday, May 17, I go to Prague for a few days.

Sunday, May 21, I return to Budapest.

Tuesday, May 23, I fly back to Seattle.

Wednesday, May 24, I relax.

Thursday, May 25, I fly to Skagway.  I will be there until September.

I don’t know my phone number yet, since I don’t know which house I’ll be living in.  But I’ll let you know later.  If you’ll be in any of the places I will be this summer, I look forward to seeing you.  If you’re not sure about taking that trip to Alaska, do it.  It’s beautiful.  And I’ll give you a free tour.

If I will not see you this summer, I hope to see you sometime soon after that. God bless you.