The call came during a February blizzard when Ian Oostinde was hunkered down in front of his fireplace, nursing a mug of coffee, going over some paperwork.
“Hey Ian,” his friend, Hugh Carruthers said, “do you want to hike the Chilkoot Trail?”
Oostinde took a gulp of coffee.
Hiking the 33-mile (53 km) trail through the Coast Mountains that leads from Dyea, Alaska, in the United States to Bennett, British Columbia had always been a someday project for him. And for Oostinde, someday meant when he had more time, when he wasn’t soft from a desk job, when his daughter Tianna was grown, when he retired, when he was in better shape.
But, Oostinde knew someday could end up being nothing more than a ‘bucket list’ thing that may never happen and so he decided someday would be now.
“Sure,” he said, mustering up more confidence than he really felt. “If I can get in shape by July.”
And, with the hike several months away, Oostinde struggled to get himself in shape for the trek which would take him and his companion through the somewhat treacherous trail once used by miners on their way to the Klondike Gold Rush.
He walked. He biked. He even did some cross-country skiing.
And then 10 days before the pair were about to leave, he crashed his bike, jumping a curb on Taylor Drive in Red Deer.
“I went down pretty hard,” he said. “Luckily I was wearing a helmet, but my whole body suffered from whip lash.”
The fall left him nervous about his physical ability to complete the hike and his resolve wavered somewhat.
However, even though he suffered some misgivings after the unfortunate spill, Oostinde and Carruthers armed with hiking gear and a plus 30-pound back pack took off from Dyea, an abandoned townsite, 15 minutes from Skagway, Alaska July 25 at 7:30 p.m. just as they had planned.
The pair hiked for two-hours over relatively flat terrain before arriving at the trail’s first campsite, Finnegan’s Point.
The short hike proved to be a gentle training session for what lay ahead.
The pair set out early the next morning, noticing the trail had become noticeably cooler after Finnegan’s Point.
“The trail was relatively flat, but never smooth,” said Oostinde.
“And at some places it was very narrow. We found we could always expect the unexpected. It was well worn, but rough.”
Hikers on the Chilkoot Trail needed to be cognizant at all times of the possibility of bears showing up.
While on the trail, Oostinde kept bear spray close at hand and made use of a bear bell. Campsites had bear boxes and tents were erected on small wooden platforms to discourage the unwelcome visitors.
“You never want to be surprised by a bear,” said Oostinde.
“We were very careful and there was never any garbage left around on the trail or at the campsites.”
The second day of hiking took the pair near the Canyon City ruins, which was a tent city during the gold rush. Building foundations, a large restaurant stove and a large boiler are still visible.
After the Canyon City ruins, the hikers noticed the trail diverged from the Taiya River, going through a muddy section with jagged boulders and short steep ascents in and out of small gulches.
It was tough going and when the men arrived at Sheep Camp, the last campground on the American side, they were more than ready for a break.
“We were very tired,” said Oostinde. “My body felt like jelly. The second day was a warm up for the third day. We knew we had to leave early to get to our destination. The next leg is known for rock and snow avalanches but these are less likely to happen in the earlier part of the day.”
The hikers left their campsite at around 6:30 a.m. and began the six-hour up-hill hike which would take them to the top of the summit which is the Canada/US border.
“It was not all that far, but we were scrambling over boulders and going through tons of snow. The last kilometer took us an hour and a half.” However, when Oostinde finally reached the summit and looked around at the vast wilderness that stretched before him, he was struck by a feeling of awe.
“It was an amazing feeling. The beauty around me was incredible. It made all of it worthwhile. It was a wilderness that was devoid of people.”
The pair continued into Canada without going through customs as there was no border officials around to check out their credentials.
They hiked another seven kilometers into Happy Camp aptly named because hikers are “so happy to get there,” said Oostinde.
From Happy Camp they continued onto Deep Lake Camp, pushing on through rough terrain and jumping over boulders to cross creeks.
“At this point it seemed psychologically tougher because you just want to get it done,” said Oostinde.
At 1:15 p.m. Yukon time, Oostinde and his traveling companion arrived at Bennett, B.C. Here they caught a train to Carcross, Yukon, just west of Bennett Lake, where Carruther’s wife was waiting to take them back to civilization, and all the amenities that includes like long showers and hot coffee.
A few weeks later, Oostinde, back home in Sylvan Lake, received another call from his friend asking him if he wanted to hike the West Coast Trail.
“I told him it wasn’t a bad idea and I meant it. I will, for sure, hike again, I’m not exactly sure when.”
But hiking the Chilkoot Trail was a wonderful experience.
“It’s great to be reminded of how fragile the wilderness and our ecological system is and how the sustenance of the wilderness is not just about the wilderness, but about ourselves, as well.”
Oostinde is the vice principal at Alternative School Programs with Red Deer Public School District and was Sylvan Lake’s 2011 citizen of the year.