High Adventure on the Chilkoot Trail
“GOLD…GOLD!” echoed through the Klondike River valley. It was August 17, 1896 when Skookum Jim, Dawson Charlie and George Washington Carmack found gold in Rabbit Creek, a tributary of the Klondike River in Canada’s Yukon.
The prospectors had no idea that they would set off one of the greatest gold rushes in history. Most of the stampeders would opt to use the Chilkoot Pass to reach the goldfields near Dawson City, but it was by no means an easy route without risk.
“The Chilkoot Trail is difficult, even dangerous to those not possessed of a steady nerve,” I told my fourteen-year-old daughter, quoting Henry De Windt’s famous words of1897.
“Those words remain true even today. The Chilkoot Trail is a grueling hike that you need to be prepared for—physically and emotionally,” I added, while gathering hiking gear scattered chaotically throughout our home in Kimberley, BC.
“Dad, maybe you have steady nerve, but if you think you’re in shape, you had better look in the mirror,” Patti said with an all-knowing smirk.
Unfortunately, the mirror didn’t lie.
Like the Stampeders one hundred years before me, I was determined to prepare as best I could for the challenge of the Chilkoot. My athletic daughter was ready, but I needed work. After a month of hiking up and down our local ski hill, my leg and back muscles were slowly transformed—from Jell-O-like objects with constant cramps, to Jell-O without cramps. But ready or not, we were heading to the Chilkoot!
The Chilkoot Trail was the most famous route taken by gold seekers who made their way to the Klondike gold fields in the Yukon. As Pierre Burton wrote in his book Klondike: “At no other place in recorded history did so many people voluntarily subject themselves to so much agony and misery and death and glory than those thirty thousand who crossed the Chilkoot Pass on their way to the Klondike gold fields during that mad winter of 1897-98.” The author’s words didn’t boost my confidence, but I remained determined to complete the hike.
The trail has been called “The meanest 32 miles in history,” and today some refer to the trail as “the most beautiful 32 miles in Alaska and BC.” It is also referred to as “the world’s longest museum.”
The Chilkoot is one of only three glacier-free corridors through the Coast Range between Juneau and Yakutat, Alaska, making the trail a vital link within the trading network of aboriginal people long before the gold rush began. The Tlingit people made annual trips through the pass carrying various seafood products—mostly dried fish. They traded with the Tutchone, Tagish and other tribes of the interior for fur and hides. The Tlingits jealously guarded access to the pass: they prevented natives and non-natives alike from using it until the late 1800s, when the human tide of the stampede swept in.
Patti and I hit the long road north, from Kimberley BC to Skagway, Alaska, by motorcycle. We traveled for days through the unimaginable beauty of the northern Rocky Mountains, and eventually cruised over the White Pass into spectacular Skagway, Alaska. We were now only a few kilometres from our goal: the famous Chilkoot Trail.
I wasn’t sure how much pain I was about to endure, but I was certainly convinced of one thing—life was speeding by at an alarming rate. I needed to give the Chilkoot challenge my best shot.
Many friends asked why we wanted to take on the challenge of this hike. To me, it’s simply a matter of choosing life. I admit to being too rooted to home and career. Unwisely, I use the future to justify everything: I am spending the best part of my life earning money to enjoy a questionable liberty during a time of life usually fraught with health issues. I’d love to drop everything and explore the world outside, I tell myself, but the time never seems right. Given unlimited choices, I make none. Time was flying by and the Chilkoot adventure was calling. I needed to go.
After storing our motorcycle at a local campground, Patti and I hitched a ride 15 kilometres to the Chilkoot Trailhead at Dyea. We were blessed with a glorious sunny day, and even the bear alert warnings and forecast of an approaching cold front could not dampen our spirits.
“Bears are feeding on salmon in the Taiya River at this time of year,” I explained to Patti. “We need to cook well away from our tent.”
With packs cinched tight and bear spray hooked on our chest straps, Patti and I scrambled up the first steep incline while chatting with a couple from New Zealand. Soon I could hear the conversation between Patti and the New Zealanders start to fade as they slowly pulled ahead of me. I puffed and groaned in my own private, sweaty world as I climbed up the valley. I didn’t feel too bad though, considering I was wearing a 25-kilogram pack.
During the winter of 1897-98 an estimated 30,000 gold seekers spent an average of three months packing their outfits up the trail and over the pass. The distance from tidewater to the lakes (where the stampeders would construct boats to continue their journey) was only 53 kilometres one way, but each individual ended up trudging hundreds of kilometres back and forth along the trail, inching their ton of gear ever forward.
After several trailside breaks, Patti and I were getting into the hiking groove, and enjoying ourselves. I was relieved that, even though I was working hard, I was staying hydrated and felt pretty good. It helped to be surrounded by the distractions of the coastal rainforest and a constant barrage of intriguing artifacts.
After almost 13 kilometres we stopped at Canyon City for the night. What a relief to shed the heavy pack and walk around feeling as light as a feather! Other hikers were trickling into the campsite as well, and eventually it took on the flavor of a United Nations event, with people from Canada, USA, England, New Zealand, and Germany swapping tales of adventure on the Chilkoot.
We set up our tent near the edge of the river, then joined some Americans on a short hike to the ruins of the original Canyon City. The mouth of the Taiya River Canyon had long been a natural camping spot for natives and early prospectors both.
During the stampede a more permanent settlement emerged after the Dyea-Klondike Transportation Company began construction of a tramway powerhouse in Canyon City. We were amazed with the sheer size of the boiler, still intact after more than 100 years. I had to wonder how people managed to get it to this location, but certainly understood why they never attempted to remove the massive piece of metal once the stampede was over.
In 1898, Canyon City was a prosperous village and freight transfer station of over 1500 people. Surveyed into streets and lots, it boasted all the amenities of a small town including hotels, restaurants, saloons, real estate offices, a bakery, and a doctor’s clinic. However, within a year it was abandoned.
Sleep eluded me for most of the night as the forecasted cold front moved in and heavy rain pounded our tiny tent. I was thankful for our choice of a sturdy mountaineering tent that could withstand the storm, but now had to question how smart it was of me to pitch it just a few scant metres from the now raging Taiya River.
After sleeping late, Patti and I crawled out of the warm confines of our cocoon to be faced with the wet and frigid world of the Chilkoot.
We ate breakfast dressed in our storm gear, then packed up camp and hit the trail. Our goal for the day was to hike nine kilometres to Sheep Camp, the staging area for an early morning push over the Chilkoot Pass the next day.
Unfortunately I now had to subsist on a constant diet of humble pie. Not only was I in constant agony from blistered feet, I simply could not keep up to Patti’s youthful pace. She was truly enjoying reciting my pre-hike lecture to me (“…the Chilkoot is a grueling hike that you need to be prepared for,” and so on) as I clambered up and over boulders, gasping for breath.
Slowly—ever so slowly—we trudged toward Sheep Camp, out from under the constant damp and darkness of the rainforest. As the trail snaked its way through boulder fields I could see more and more light filtering through the trees—hinting that we would soon be nearing the sparse vegetation of tree-line. Suddenly, tent platforms came into view and I knew I had survived my second day on the Chilkoot. Patti, as usual, was waiting for me.
As the name implies, Sheep Camp began as a hunting camp, but quickly grew during the gold rush when winter storms slowed or halted stampeder traffic over the pass. At its peak, Sheep Camp boasted 16 hotels, 14 restaurants, 13 stores, three saloons, two dancehalls, two laundries and even a hospital. The settlement had a transient population of around 6000 people, but by May 1898 it was deserted.
The rain had been intermittent all day, but stopped just before we reached Sheep Camp—a welcome reprieve which also gave us a chance to hang our wet clothing to dry. During the evening interpretive lecture by a US Park ranger we were warned of potential avalanche danger near the summit and advised to depart from Sheep Camp no later than 4:30 am. Patti and I both cringed at the thought of getting up so early, but we were also acutely aware of the avalanche danger.
In the predawn mist we stumbled toward the pass, over and around boulder fields and past stunted trees. Relics from the stampede were everywhere to be seen: old boots, suitcases, pieces of tattered clothing, tools, cable, pots, and remnants of the tramway towers. Apparently many stampeders became discouraged at this point on the trail and turned back, discarding their equipment. We decided to take a break at The Scales, which once supported at least 6 restaurants, a couple of hotels, a saloon and the offices of various tramway companies.
Finally we stood at the base of the pass looking up at the boulder slope—known as “the Golden Stairs” during the winter of 1897-98—which we would soon be climbing to reach the summit. With my heavy pack cinched tight I started climbing the 45-degree slope. Patti was already well ahead of me. My shoulders turned raw as I climbed—sometimes on my hands and knees—my face purple with strain and my breath hissing through gritted teeth. Beside me a female British hiker commented in her strong accent: “My goodness, look at that young girl fly up the Golden Stairs!”
“That’ll be my daughter!” I groaned, becoming resigned to my battered middle-aged body.
After a climb that seemed to last forever I dragged myself over the last rise and joined Patti at the top. We had made it…the summit of the Chilkoot Pass! What an accomplishment! Sitting outside the summit hut my mind and body were swimming in a sea of euphoria as we celebrated the moment with a dozen other backpackers.
Hours later, after crossing several icy streams, we arrived at Happy Camp, situated between Long and Crater Lakes in a beautiful alpine setting. The sun even came out and welcomed us. With a crystal-clear alpine stream slicing through winter snowdrifts and colorful alpine wildflowers dancing in the wind, it was a magical scene to behold. After our most grueling day yet, Patti climbed into the tent and snuggled into her sleeping bag for a quick nap—only to wake up fourteen hours later!
It was hard to leave Happy Camp the next day, not only because it is such a beautiful place, but because it was raining hard and we were cold before we even started hiking. As we slogged through the muck beside Long Lake we could see remnants of wagon tracks used to haul gear from the summit to Bennett Lake. I was amazed that the ruts were still there given that it had been over a century since they were formed.
Wet and cold as we approached Lindeman Lake, we were hugely relieved to find a Parks Canada log house with a wood heater. While warming up, we read about the gold rush history of Lindeman and Bennett Lakes.
In the spring of 1898 Lindeman was a very busy place. With a population of 4000—most building boats for the journey to Dawson City—there was not a tree left standing in the area. Sawpits were humming with activity as stampeders converted trees to planks for boat-building. The same activity was occurring just downstream at Bennett where stampeders from both the Chilkoot and White Pass trails gathered. The town swelled to 20,000 as they built boats and waited for break-up. On May 29, 1898 the ice broke and within a week 7000 boats left for the goldfields near Dawson City.
A day later, Patti and I were alone with our thoughts as we hiked in the brilliant sunshine toward Bennett Lake. It would be a few weeks before we could share our thoughts and, as it turned out, we both wondered what kind of experience the gold seekers must have had so long ago. Like the stampeders before us, the journey was grueling. I had many blisters and a very sore body—and I had only hiked the trail once, where the stampeders did it an average of fifty times! What unimaginable levels of heroism by ordinary people over one hundred years ago.
Finally I could see the towering spire of Lake Bennett’s St. Andrews Presbyterian Church. We had reached our goal; what a glorious feeling! We sat on the beach with other hikers and stared, exhausted, at the placid dark blue water of the lake while we waited for the rumbling diesel of the White Pass train that would take us back to Skagway. Although relieved that the demanding hike was over, I could not help but be amazed at the intense experience that Patti and I had shared—the adversity, triumphs and tribulations. Hiking the Chilkoot Trail had been an unbelievable experience, full of adventure and history.
One thing is certain: my daughter and I found riches far exceeding any fortune in gold. We had the opportunity to relive the magical Chilkoot adventure together—an experience we will both cherish forever.
1. U.S. National Parks Service Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park Box 517, Skagway, Alaska 99840 (907) 983-2921 Web: www.nps.gov
2. Parks Canada—Yukon Suite 205—Main Street Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada Y1A 2B5 Toll free: 1-800-667-3910 Web: www.parkscanada.ca
Backcountry permit fees:
$65.00 per adult; $37.50 per youth (includes reservation cost)