Case study: on the Klondike trail

7th January 2005 at 00:00
The Goldmiths' mid-career refreshment break gave me the chance to be a bit selfish and do something I would never usually take the time to do. For three years in succession, I cut out the advertisement, intending to apply but, as usual, school work took over and I never quite got round to it. But 2002 was different. My daughter sat me down, and made sure that, despite having the school play to produce, reports to write and impending school inspections, I completed and posted the application.

Since reading the novels of Jack London as a child, I've had an enduring fascination with the Klondike gold rush of 1897, and, over the years, have read about the exploits of the stampeders who made the journey north to the Yukon with dreams of striking it rich. I was particularly interested in the contribution women made and, for years, I'd hoped to travel there for myself and find out more about the part they played. The application process was easy and Goldsmiths' made the selection straightforward; it wasn't daunting and I felt they were personally interested in what I was doing.

I was thrilled when my project was accepted. I spent evenings after school in fitness training in the hills around my home in Northumberland, contacting museums and libraries where I would concentrate my research, and preparing resources for the supply teacher who would take over from me.

Then, in summer 2003, I was off. I had a month. I flew to Seattle, the start of the Klondike trail, then made my way up the northwest coast by boat to Skagway, Alaska. From there I hiked over the coastal mountains and followed the stampeders' trail to Whitehorse and on to Dawson City and the gold fields, a journey of about 2,000 miles.

Tourists often go to Dawson City, but they don't usually go over the mountains. Only a certain number of people are allowed on the historic trail each year, so I had to apply in advance for a pass from the national park. I wanted to trace the experiences of English women there in the 1890s. I talked to many of their descendants who still live there and discovered the tragic implications of the gold rush on the Native Americans, the impact of which is still unhappily visible. I searched through mountains of archive information in local libraries, and the letters and diaries opened a fascinating window on these women, who challenged the Victorian conventions of the day with their spirit of independence and adventure.

One of the highlights was canoeing along the Teslin and Yukon rivers, following in the path of women from the Victorian Order of Nurses who made the trip to Dawson in 1898 to look after typhoid victims. I spent heady days paddling through this vast wilderness: the silence and immense feeling of solitude as I passed skeletal hulks of sternwheelers that had plied these once busy waters, their derelict cabins fast disappearing into the undergrowth, gave a sense of history that was almost tangible.

I hadn't travelled on my own for years. It felt odd for the first few days; then it was fantastic. Staying in hostels, I wasn't treated like a middle-aged lady but like any of the young travellers. It did my self-esteem a lot of good.

And although the break had nothing to do with my teaching, it did make a difference when I got back to school. Not only was I refreshed and enthusiastic, but the children could see it was possible to do something adventurous; it led to a pupil here going off on an adventure trip to New Zealand.

Few people get the chance to indulge themselves in a passion like this. It offered me the opportunity of a lifetime and I would encourage anyone to apply. The rewards are tremendous.

Gillian Dalby teaches English and drama at Nunnykirk centre for dyslexia, Northumberland

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