One of the unexpected treasures on our Alaskan journey wasn’t in Alaska at all. This is quite ironic, as it turns out. The majority of prospectors rushing to mine their fortunes in 1898 were unaware that Klondike gold fields were in the Yukon Territory! More than a century after the “Alaskan” gold rush, we discovered another kind of treasure there.
On this day, we were traveling in comfort northeast from Skagway on the Klondike Highway. Partially mimicking the White Pass route, it is the primary commercial highway and bikeway inland from the coast. It is relatively well traveled during tourist season. Otherwise, it is lonely and treacherous, sometimes impassable. It is the 150-mile artery from Skagway, Alaska, to Whitehorse, British Columbia.
From Whitehorse, you must continue on another 550 miles to reach Dawson City in the Yukon Territory. No wonder so few prospectors made it back in the day. By foot or on horseback, then by boat, hauling 1,000 pounds of required gear and supplies 700 miles inland was a daunting task and harrowing journey.
As we progressed inland, the lush coastal landscape gave way to something more like a moonscape. The terrain became harder and darker, brooding and mysterious. An overcast day added to the effect. Smoky clouds hovered over stark peaks with tell-tale stripes of avalanche. Exposed rock was often reddened by the oxidation of iron-bearing minerals. The place had a barrenness about it, seemingly devoid of life. This was the Tormented Valley on the long trek to gold.
There is plenty of life here, if you know where to look. “Look for the moving patches of snow,” our guide, Luke, advised. “Dall sheep love the high rocky terrain.” Mountain goats, too. The region is also home to caribou, moose, and bears. We saw only rock and more rock midst the ever-thinning forests, silty streams, and mesmerizing lakes rich with minerals and fish.
Scrappy trees and scrubby brush root in thin soil. Some cling to steeply sloping rock face stretching around and above us. In early September, it was a breathtaking panorama, a rising cloak of blue-green, gray-brown, yellow-gold and red-orange; rich hues befitting a royal gown. Interspersed for dramatic effect were sharply stunted coniferous trees with thin, twisted trunks and spare, tiny needles. The krummholz are the old-timers of mountain flora. In this harsh terrain with severe cold and howling winds they grow a mere quarter-inch per year — but for hundreds of years.
Along the way we pulled off at the edge of long lake where an inukshut village has sprung up from the loose rock and boulders at the base of the mountains. Native peoples have assembled inuksuit for ages, purportedly to bring good fortune to the builder and those who come behind. This inukshut village is under continual development by virtue of tourists passing through on the Klondike Highway.
The Hubs and I spent a few moments selecting stray rocks to create our own inukshut. It was a simple act to mark a fleeting presence in a vast place; a reality check. How small we are, hardly more substantive than a speck of dust on this planet. How great is our God, creator of this amazing place we call home.
Most of us are desperate to make a mark here, to note our presence, to validate our existence. I guess that is what we were doing just then, piling a few rocks into a pillar. For a time, at least until the next big storm, our paltry pile will stand as a testimony that we were there. Right there.
I was intrigued by the custom and honored to participate but I know our small effort doesn’t amount to much. The next person to pass by will never know our names or learn our stories. We will remain unknown, insignificant. In that regard, it is not much of a marker. The stones are silent. We might as well be invisible.
How incredible then to consider that we are visible every moment in God’s frame of view. Only He is big enough to always see us! Better yet, in the path we choose, the lives we live, we co-author with our creator. God is not a distant deity but here, among us. He journeys with us.
Sometimes God calls us to mark a place as a testimony of what he has done. He instructed Joshua and the Israelites to do just that with twelve stones gathered at the Jordan River. This became a pointed reminder of God’s power and provision for his people. Sometimes we need a memorial, a touch point, to maintain perspective.
Most often we mark our way with less tangible but even more telling artifacts. Travelers coming behind find piles of evidence and footprints between them. I hope I am building signposts of faith and perseverance, integrity and trustworthiness, generosity and kindness, as I find my way along. I may not leave but a dollar or two behind, but I hope there is grace enough to puddle in my footprints and love enough to muddy the ground. May those who come behind find abundant evidence that God was with me in this journey, loving and living through the dust of his creation.
~ René Morley