The Chilkoot Trail
Pictures included with this travelogue may be accessed by double-clicking on the blue hyperlinks.
Imagine the year 1897. An economic depression of global proportion grips the populace as the U.S.S. Portland sails into the harbor of Seattle. Within her holds lies a ton of gold, and with its arrival are delivered reports of a gold strike in the Klondike region of the Yukon Territory. Gold for the picking! Nuggets the size of your fist, lying about in every stream. The Klondike gold rush was on, and the men and women who followed the promise of fortune became known as the Stampeders. In the winter of 1897 over a hundred thousand of these stampeders made their camps on the shores of Alaska's fjords at the towns of Skagway and Dyea. Having arrived at these corners of the Earth, they found their journey had just begun: the gold fields lay over 500 miles inland. Their choices were simple: the White Pass out of Skagway, which came to be known as Dead Horse Pass for all the pack animals that were literally driven into the ground by their ruthless masters, or the Chilkoot Pass.
Two years ago, in 1995, we visited Alaska for the first time. When we visited Skagway and learned something of the history of the Klondike gold rush, we decided to retrace, in part, the journey of the Stampeders, and hike the Chilkoot Trail. The Chilkoot Pass is one of three glacier free passes leading into the northwestern interior across the Coastal Ranges of Alaska's panhandle. To our destination at Lake Bennett, the trail covers 33 miles and climbs to an elevation of 3700 feet from the shores of the inside passage. As described in The Shakedown, it has been 17 years since I did any backpacking, so I didn't take this challenge lightly, but felt Id better do it before my inactivity caused me to grow too lazy.
Six days after arriving home from our trip down the Grand Canyon, we pushed off again across the Mojave Desert. Oddly enough, the direction of our travel is east, rather than north. We stop in at State Line, Nevada and ride Wild Bill's rollercoaster, rumored to be the fastest ever. It is quite a ride and I am happy to have experienced the thrill, although I doubt I will ever do it again. The G-forces and torque tweaked my neck somewhat, indicating to me that indeed I had started getting old. (I already knew this, thank you!) We spent the night in Zion National Park, which to my continued dismay is being increasingly crushed under the burden of tourism. I am of the opinion that national parks tend to ring the death knell of regions they are designed to protect by casting light upon the unknown, but that is a subject for another diatribunal. Onward and eastward, covering my old trails, not trodden in years, towards Telluride, Colorado. I lived here many years ago in another life, and return now to see a foster daughter graduate from high school. It is good to see the old town again, almost unrecognizable beneath all the money that has covered this best of canyons in Colorado's southwest. However, the peaks still protrude, and I recognized all the best of my old haunts.
A few days in Telluride and we are off again, in a northwesterly direction, correcting our course and heading for Alaska. Four days later we pull into Bellingham, Washington where we will board the ferry for Skagway. We spend a few days in town with our friends Ross & Candy. Ross is the gentleman responsible for my interest in Geology, so I like to take advantage of him wherever, however, and whenever I have the opportunity. Not that he wants to talk rocks. Ross is retired and prefers to behave as such, but as it is his fault that I have been so busy with reentry to the scholastic environment I like to see if I can drink him under the table. Can't be done! We also take the opportunity during the sober moments to prepare our packs and duffel. We will leave the GoFort (my truck and camper) in Bellingham for our sojourn and walk on the ferry, traveling as deck passengers.
When the stampeders arrived in Alaska, not only did they discover that a 550 mile journey still lay before them, but they found that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had stationed themselves on the pass summit (location of the Canadian border) and were requiring each person to have in his possession a year's supply of goods. This amounted to 2,000 pounds, becoming known as the ton of goods, and was designed to avert widespread starvation amongst the huge incoming population. (Of the 100,000+ who camped upon the shores of Dyea that winter of 1897, approximately 30,000 crossed the pass.) As we sorted our goods and loaded our packs we strove to conserve pounds without sacrificing ounces. Unfortunately ounces turn into pounds but this can never be helped, and certain items always seem to be necessary, such as the video equipment, extra batteries, and tripod. By the time the whole affair was sorted, my pack weighed in at 47 pounds, and I anticipated that by the time I added this, that, and the next thing I would be sporting 50 pounds. Maximum recommended pack weight is 1/3 your body weight, so I felt safe enough, though did not feel compelled to make up the difference either. In addition to the packs, Carolyn and I would heft a single duffel between us as we boarded the ferry, which would contain essentials such as the laptop computer and other personal items that we would like to have on the trip, if not necessarily on the trail.
The morning of June 20 arrived, and while drinking coffee in Ross's solarium overlooking the bay, the M.V. Columbia pulled into harbor, ready to carry us northward. Ross drove us down to the ferry terminal, and as he bade us farewell expressed some concern that our pile o' stuff looked too much like the ton o' goods described in the history books.
It will require four days to complete the journey to Skagway aboard the ferry. The trip might best be described with the letter that I wrote to Ross and Candy over the ensuing days:
Dear Ross and Candy,
We are aboard, on way, and happy as clams aboard the flagship Colombia. Despite your concerns about the modified "ton of goods" that we appeared to be carrying aboard ship, we find that we are traveling modestly in comparison to some of our neighbors.
Our arrival at the terminal five hours before departure turned out to be quite fortuitous. We found ourselves at the end of a long line even at that early hour. Unfortunately, at 2:30, everyone was asked to compress the line so that more passengers could be fit into the waiting area, and those at the end of the line quickly beat feet to the front in compliance before many of us could pick up our luggage to move forward. As such we found ourselves once again closer to the back of the line than we would have liked. In compensation we found ourselves in good company (with neighbors we had met an hour earlier), and had plenty to talk about (those a*******s who had so rudely usurped our rightful places.)
However all works out for the best at all times, and upon loading we found ourselves in the perfect place for pitching our tent. We located ourselves upon the second deck, in a corner inside the "weather deck," as I believe it is called. This is an small area elevated above the surrounding deck, and enclosed in a small fence. We were able to pitch our tent diagonally in the corner, so that the large vestibule fits into the corner, and the railings give us excellent tie-offs. We used duct tape to secure the stake loops to the deck. Everyone thought this was an innovative idea, and I became quite popular very quickly, informing everyone that the line formed at the rear. Surprisingly I actually had some duct tape remaining when it was returned. Our neighbors are all shapes, sizes and ages, and all wonderful people. I liken it to Woodstock without the mud.
Our first night sleeping on deck was delightful. With a three person tent two people have enough room to be comfortable, especially with a vestibule to store the gear. The deck shudders below us throughout the night and reminds me of the "Magic Fingers Massage" so popular in motels across America in earlier years. I can't understand how such a wonderful idea did not survive into the later portions of the 20th century, but I will admit that I prefer not having to feed quarters into the deck all night. As such it was a pleasant experience.
To my surprise and delight we awoke to sunshine on the tent wall. We have had twelve hours of good weather to this point, which is a record for us on the Inside Passage. We hope for the best. The morning is spent sitting on deck outside the tent in the common courtyard we and our three neighbors have managed to establish between our tents. (We are planning on playing Frisbee later, after we move the chairs.) The sunshine and company of our new neighbors is warm and welcome.
We have now been on board for approximately 18 hours, and will be approaching Queen Charlotte staights within a few hours.
The trip could not be going any better! The weather continues to be mild and pleasant, affording us the views which make this passage famous. We have found that the boat tends to list from side to side upon occasion. This seems to be caused by one of two phenomena. Listing seems to be the result of either the boat encountering swells in open water, or the migration of passengers from port to starboard as reports of Orca sightings alternate from one side to the other.
We stopped in Ketchican this morning and took a quick peruse of town. Of interest is the fact that the main street in town is built upon pilings and was only recently paved. We lost quite a few of our neighbors, (kids heading for jobs in the fisheries), and are considering installing a volleyball court outside our tent now.
We sit in the port of Haines, having seen all the sights that the passage has to offer so far. The weather has been sterling! At 4:00 AM in Sitka I awoke to fog, but upon retracing our steps through the narrows, when we regained our position inside the "Inside" the fog lifted and afforded us the splendor of the countryside once again. As you can imagine, if one loves glacial geomorphology this trip is heaven. I can hardly believe we have made the entire journey in good weather! BIG surprise! We are expecting it to continue for at least a week. FAT chance!, but we hope for the best.
With every successive port, we have lost passengers and our yard is dwindling of neighbors. Now in Haines, one stop shy of the end of the line and our destination of Skagway, it feels as if we are upon a ghost ship. It is 10:30 PM and still quite light outside, thank goodness, as this tends to keep the ghosts at bay. We have made several friends who will hike the Chilkoot with us, and we will be glad for the familiar company on the trail. We leave for the trail tomorrow morning. Wish us luck!
At moments past midnight, we pull into the town of Skagway, the northern terminus of the Alaska Marine Highway System. We have made arrangements to stay at the Skagway Home Hostel, surely the town's most affordable accommodations with a roof. The Hostel's sergeant at arms and all-around man Friday, Dyea Dave is on hand at the ferry terminal to welcome us aboard and shuttle us up to the hostel, despite the fact that it is an easy walk from the pier.
The Skagway Home Hostel is a pleasant environment in which travelers may find the comforts of good company and shelter from the usually whimsical weather of the region at a price that is within easy reach. This hostel is somewhat unique in that it is in a private home owned by a Park ranger who works on the Chilkoot Trail, and guests are afforded a level of hospitality that is often missing in many hostels. In addition to kitchen privileges, guests may sign up to join in the family dinner for an extremely nominal contribution. During our stay something good (like fresh bread or cookies) was always coming out of the oven! Guests are free to come and go at whatever hours they choose, and bicycles are made available at no extra cost. If you want to take advantage of the hostel's hospitality I highly recommend making advance reservations. Details about the hostel may be found through the link to Skagway, and subsequently under the Accommodations heading.
Dyea (pronounced dye-ee) Dave deserves special mention himself. This good and gentle man is a well source for the traveler. He is often the master of ceremonies about the hostel, and with the patience of a sage, dispenses all types of vital and interesting information in response to questions he must hear everyday, without the slightest indication of having just answered the same question the last 100 days in a row. Not only will he pick you up at the ferry and shuttle you to the hostel, he will shuttle you to any destination you desire. While other services shuttle backpackers up to the trailhead in Dyea (some 8 miles away) at 7:00 and 9:00 AM promptly, Dave will ask when you would like to go. If you want to take a motor tour to the summit of White Pass he will take you for less, and in contrast to other companies, won't take you at all should the weather not allow you the view for which you desire.
Dave's offer to shuttle us to the trailhead at an hour that suits us is a blessing, as this affords us a little time to arrange our things, grab our last "civilized" breakfast downtown, and pick up our trail passes from Parks Canada. Parks Canada has a location in downtown Skagway for the purpose of issuing passes and trail information. As of this year, the Canadians are limiting the number of people they will allow to cross the border, (in other words, access along the trail) to 50 people per day. As such this also entails the new permit requirement and the new fees, which amount to $35 (plus on optional $10 registration fee) per person in Canadian currency. It turns out to be fortuitous that I have made advance reservations, even for this early in the season. Though our place in line is guaranteed, and we receive our permits without problem, I am surprised to find that the trail is full, and those who have arrived without reservations must wait for another day when "walk-in" passes become available. I inquire of George, the young and reserved Park Warden who issues our permits, why the trail is so full at this early stage of the season. I am informed, to my great delight, that in five days the White Pass Yukon Railroad has scheduled a run to their station at Lake Bennett, which means we will be able to catch the train back down into Skagway from our trail terminus. This is a rare occurrence, and will only take place seven times over the upcoming months. In addition we find that the train will be pulled by one of their old steam engines, and not the modern diesel engines that normally run the daily tour up to the top of White Pass summit. What great luck! We beat feet over to the train station and make our reservations for our return trip to town.
We meet Dave back at the hostel around noon-ish for the ride out to the trailhead in Dyea. Dave is a man who obviously loves what he is doing, and he enthusiastically fills us in on all the obscure facts about the old town of Dyea, which has long since fallen into the ground and been assimilated by forests which have reasserted their rightful place along the banks where the Taiya River empties into the Taiya Inlet and ultimately the Lynn Channel. The day's early threat of rain has been mitigated somewhat by a rising cloud ceiling, but enough clouds remain to guarantee us a comfortable first day on the trail. By the time I finish fooling with the video camera and taping the introduction of our Chilkoot videologue it is almost 2:00. I reckon I have used every reasonable piece of avoidance behavior, so with a sense of mixed excitement, anticipation, resignation, and shoulders still stiff from rowing the Trilobite down the Colorado River, I wrestle my 50 pound pack up onto my back and we set off on the first leg of our trudge.
The trail is 33 miles long, and we have planned to accomplish the traverse in five days. This first day will entail a hike of 7.8 miles along what appears to be relatively flat terrain, according to the cross-sectional diagram of the trail supplied by the Park Service. In fact I expect the first two days to be relatively flat going, gaining approximately 1000 feet in elevation along the length of 13 miles. The third day should be the "hump day," as we must pack 8 miles, and cross the Chilkoot pass which will entail a climb of 2700 feet. Subsequent days in Canada should be essentially gentle downhill travel to the lakes that form the headwaters of the Yukon River.
Contrary to expectations, we have not hiked far before the trail begins a steep ascent. Work is defined as a force applied along some distance. Force is loosely defined as a push of a pull, acting upon an object's inertia. As I lumber along from step up to step up I review my physical science in qualitatively estimating the amount of work I am doing moving that #@&! 50 pounds on my back against the force of gravity which is working in the opposite direction. Now, I know I had better get used to the idea, but doggone it, I had not anticipated such a break in so soon. Ah well, as I had gotten such a great upper body workout rowing the Trilobite down the Grand Canyon, it is probably a good thing to subject my lower body to the same rigors. With happy resignation I make the climb one step at a time, and appreciate the duckbill tube which is clipped to my shoulder strap, and allows me to suck on some sweet Gatorade delivered from the platypus bottle stored in my pack, (marvelous innovation!), thus replenishing the sweat that is pouring off me. After some amount of climbing my worst fears are realized: the trail now descends steeply to return us to our former elevation at 10 feet above sea level. Typical trailway insult to injury! We decide to stop and take some Advil, which will become part of the daily diet, as this acts as an anti-inflammatory and helps to save the knees. Most "mature" backpackers swear by this dietary regimen, as we will come to find. While the packs are off and PowerBars consumed I check the cross-sectional profile of the trail provided with my map. Low and behold, there are a few little bumps along the stretch of trail that will lead us to our first night's destination of Canyon City campground. That hill we just climbed was a little bump? In compensation for the toil that we must endure the trail is beautiful and well maintained and cuts through a boreal forest of alder, hemlock and spruce carpeted in mosses, ferns, devils clubs and mushrooms. Feeling pleasantly refreshed, we heist the packs once again and carry on down the trail. Anticipating the "bumps" to come helps to prepare us mentally for the physical challenges. A large part of overcoming physical challenge is accomplished in the mind with the proper attitude. It has often surprised my how much I am capable of doing if I believe that I can do so. A hundred years ago, only 30% of those who came to migrate to the Canadian interior accomplished the feat. We will find over the next few days that even 100 years later, the Chilkoot Pass is as much a mental challenge as a physical challenge, and not everyone is fit to the task. We find the first evidence of such resignation just shortly up the trail. As we climb one of those infamous "bumps," we run across a fellow who had stayed at the hostel the previous night, coming down the trail. He is a man of approximately 50 years, with a pack the size of a house under a red rain cover, which gives it the appearance of a barn. He had traveled up north from Sitka, Alaska on the ferry, and when he got off with us I had asked him if he was heading up the Chilkoot Trail. "Maybe only half way," he replied reticently, as Dyea Dave requested that he walk his pack up to the hostel, since its size precluded it being loaded into the back of the truck. Now, on the trail, I say jokingly, "You're going the wrong way, the pass is that-a-way!" as I point back up the trail in the direction from which he had come. "Doesn't look like I'm gonna make it. Got my feet wet in the beaver bog up the trail, and I don't do well with wet feet. Feel like I have some blisters already." He made his excuses and carried on down the trail hidden under the barn he carried. I think to myself, and comment to Carolyn, "There's a fellow who just didn't really want to do this in the first place. I think he started off with wet feet!" All hikers had been warned when receiving their permits that beaver had been building dams in the side streams about four miles up the trail, and the trail was flooded by the water that had ponded behind those dams. We had received numerous reports as to how deep the water was, and how long the flooding occurred along the trail, and it did not sound like an insurmountable obstacle. When we arrive at the bog, the majority of the crossing can be made on plank platforms that have been erected above the water. The last 500 feet of flooded trail is easily accomplished in bare feet. The standing water and mud is quite cold, and with a sense of safe amusement I empathize with the early travelers and the hardships that must have had to endure. Easy for me on the first day and with dry ground and a high trail within sight. I am glad to get my soles back on where they belong! The trail gentles beyond the bog. The mosquitoes are ubiquitous but not bothersome. Along the trail I notice many small boulders have been recently pryed up and rolled out of the ground that has held them for ages. I can only imagine that a neighborhood bear has been looking for grubs. That, or some masochistic hiker with too much time and energy on his hands is pulling some prank on us. We come upon the Canyon City campground sooner than we had expected at about 6:30. The camp is located next to a stream that delivers clear water to the silt laden Taiya River. A cozy log warm up hut is nestled under the cottonwood and hemlock, serving as a shelter from the usually damp weather and as a kitchen for food preparation. Food is routinely prepared in such communal centers and away from the tents so as to reduce the risk that otherwise sweet dreams might be punctuated and perforated by roving bears. There are perhaps thirty people in camp who have made themselves comfortable, and we are quick to follow suit by removing our loads, and pitching the tent. While it feels wonderful to be out from under the packs, it is not long before the muscles start to stiffen up, making any movement something of a chore. Undaunted we set about to prepare the evening meal: chicken a la king and blueberry cheesecake, by virtue of the fact that these items rank as the heaviest food stuffs by an amount of a few ounces. True to form the Svea 123 stove fires right up with half the fuss being applied to newer high-tech stoves that seem to be in vogue. In fact, watching everyones stove experiences provides for much of the evenings entertainment. Campers continue to drift in, and some have reported spotting the black bear who had presumably been responsible for the misplaced rocks back on the trail. The remainder of the evenings entertainment consists of watching people toss lines over a bear pole so that we can suspend our food about 20 feet off the ground and out of bears way. I find it interesting that (according to Ranger Mary) the bears have not yet figured out that they could easily cut the chords, which are tied off below and get all the food their hearts might desire. Apparently, they have not been in communication with their cousins in Yosemite or Yellowstone, which may be a blessing, as bear malling is a problem of growing proportons in the southern parks.
During the night I dream of bears. Bears playing guitars. I can only assume that there was some connection between rock & roll and bears rolling rocks. Upon rising I find that the muscles having stiffened considerably from the previous days bondage. Nothing to do but rise and shine and walk the stiffness away. A brief jaunt up the trail seems to do the trick. The day promises to treat us kindly as to weather, and the blue skies quickly overpower the drizzle that falls upon our camp. Much of the camp is enjoying "rib-paste" for breakfast. We have the luxury of cheese omelet powder, which we can either snort, or add water and cook. Choosing the later, we are pleasantly surprised by the results. Of course everything tastes better outdoors, especially with the realization that there are five ounces less to carry! Before we get onto the serious business of moving our loads up the trail, we make a side excursion to the site of the original Canyon City. This is the first large collection of artifacts along the trail. Amongst other items we find an iron cook stove complete with kitchen accoutrements, and a large boiler. Canyon City was the terminus site of a tramway that transported goods over the Chilkoot Pass for those lucky enough to afford the 7 ½ cents per pound. (Of course that was when $150 was worth something!) After our sojourn we get off to another late start out of camp at about noon. The pack feels more like an old friend on the second day, surely in large part to the lessened load we carry now. Once again we find comfort in the beauty of the forest, the carpet of moss, and the canopy of ferns. We wonder if the stampeders appreciated the pastoral beauty as we do. Probably not, as we are sitting in a second growth forest, and when the stampeders ran herd over the pass in the winter season the forest was completely denuded so as to provide building materials and the trail was little more than a track of mud and snow. They were indeed in search of other rewards. Being satisfied with our lot, we maintain a leisurely pace making many stops for photos and video. The 5.2 miles to Sheep Camp is a little rougher than anticipated, and takes a bit longer than we had reckoned, but the weather is delightful, and the views splendiferous. When at last we arrive the camp is quite full of people, but there is plenty of room for everyone. Many of our "old" friends from Canyon City are in residence, in addition to parties who had stayed in other camps the night before. From Sheep Camp we can almost see the pass we will have to cross in the morning. We are at an elevation of 1000 feet, and will have to climb to 3400 feet in a distance of 3.5 miles. We will have to travel a total distance of 8 miles to Happy Camp which is the first allowable campsite from Sheep Camp. The ranger in residence warns us that this trip can take up to 10 hours, due to the arduous grade we must climb, and the conditions on the other side of the pass in Canada. The snow fields still loom in the higher elevations, and there is an avalanche warning for the Canadian side, so it is recommended that everyone leave as early as they can so as to avoid crossing the fields in the afternoon when the avalanche danger is greatest. We attempt to heed the advice by thinking we are going to bed early, while it is still quite light out. In fact it turns out to be 10:00 PM. I set the alarm on my watch for 4:00 AM: sunrise in this part of the world.
Managing to sleep through the alarm, we arise at 7:00 AM, and enjoy a breakfast of coffee, potatoes OBrien and three packs of scrambled eggs. The large breakfast is in large part an attempt (once again) to lighten the load in our packs. In this spirit I also down a full measure of ibuprofen, Tagamet, vitamins, and use an extra large glob of toothpaste. Every little bit counts, I assure myself. By 7:30 we are on the trail. There is an interesting collection of folks on the trail. Two pair of newlyweds on honeymoon who are obviously enjoying themselves despite their unusual choice of vacation modes, and elderly couple from Fairbanks named Dick (age 70) and Jeri (his younger wife), and a girl scout troop from Whitehorse, to name a few. It seems that most everyone has gotten an earlier start than us, but it is not long before we start catching up to folks. The first bunch we pass is half of the girl scout troop. They are enjoying the trail with all the resigned enthusiasm typical of adolescence. Its okay: I remember being there myself, and we are happy to be out in front of such a trail jam. It is not long before we run into Dick and Jeri. For all their years they are in great shape and it always heartens me to see senior citizens in the wilderness tackling physical challenges that are often the province of younger generations. We keep company with them, enjoying the conversation and camaraderie as we leapfrog our positions between hiking and video and photography work. At about noon, we reach the Scales, an alpine terrace where the stampeders re-weighed their goods before making the final arduous ascent up the Golden Stairs to the top of the pass. The Scales were known as "one of the most wretched spots on the trail." Many stampeders became discouraged at this spot, discarding their equipment and turning back for the coast. Artifacts of rusted memories lie everywhere like shreds of abandoned dreams. The six restaurants, two hotels, saloon, and tramway offices and warehouses that once resided at the Scales have long since perished. The weather is perfect for us, being only slightly overcast. I strain my eyes toward the pass and see a line of hikers slowly making their way toward the top, mere specks against the snowfield leading to the summit. The Golden Stairs is a 45 degree climb from the Scales to the summit of the pass. During the stampede, two entrepreneurs carved steps into the snow and charged a toll for their use. It took the stampeders from one to six hours per trip. We have a snowfield to cross from the Scales to the base of the stairs, then a rockfall of boulders to scramble over before we find ourselves in snow again. With the great excitement of being able to retrace the footsteps of history, we head out over boulders and up the first snowfield towards the final ascent. The snow is soft, and care must be taken to avoid the edges around protruding boulders where the snow is thin and will not support the weight of a hiker and pack. The sun breaks loose of the clouds and the day becomes brilliant and warm as it is reflected off the snow pack. I am about half way up the first field when I encounter a woman stumbling down the field. She is dressed in tennis sneakers and shorts, and her leg is bleeding from several minor scrapes. She is close to tears, and requests that I call for a helicopter rescue once I reach the Canadian Wardens cabin at the summit. She plans to descend to the Scales and await her rescue their. She requests that I also inform her Girl Scout Troop that she cannot make the trip, and to wait at Happy Camp for the rest of the girls and the remaining leaders. "Im not sure I will find anyone at the Wardens cabin, and I am not sure what their policy is on helicopters," I try to inform her, having my doubts as to the feasibility of her request and her staying at high elevation in the hopes of rescue. I suggest that she might continue her descent to Sheep Camp where a Park Ranger is in residence. She will hear none of it. She has been defeated and is incapable of taking any further personal responsibility for her own well being, to mention nothing of the Girl Scouts who have hiked ahead of her on the trail. As she attempts to continue her descent through the field, she breaks through the snow with about every fourth stride. I can see she is indeed at the end of her physical and emotional capabilities. Laying my pack aside, I offer to carry her pack and guide her back down to the scales. I request that Carolyn proceed and meet me at the base of the rockfall above. As soon as I tote the Scout leaders pack I can further understand her problem. This leader has no idea how to arrange a pack! The weight is centered on the rear of the pack, and pulls me back while I attempt to move forward. I cannot believe she has fought this arrangement for two days and gotten this far! In addition to the pack, and reviewing her dress and footgear I find myself wondering how someone so ill prepared could be allowed to lead a troop of adolescents into the wilderness. I come to find that the one leader of four who had any wilderness experience dropped out of the expedition after the first day with a twisted ankle. Successfully returning her to the scales, I briefly try to console her wounded spirit (rather than voicing what I am really thinking), and assure her I will contact the Canadian Warden on her behalf. Resuming my ascent is an enjoyable experience without my pack! However it is not long before my old friend and I are reunited, and I soon catch up with Carolyn, who is sitting on a boulder enjoying a powerbar. Our task is now to scramble up the rockfall, picking our way up and over boulders the size of large trucks. Nothing to it but to do it, but after some period of concerted effort we are quite happy to find ourselves upon the upper snowfield. In contrast to the rockfall, the snowfield is a relatively easy climb. Offset steps have been carved into the snow, similar to the fashion the stampeders enjoyed on the toll-trail of old. It is not long before we turn giddy with our spirits elevated to the height of the pass, and can look over one shoulder to Alaska, and the other shoulder to Canada. We spend some time enjoying our accomplishment with hugs and taking advantage of the video-ops. To be on the summit of this pass with any visibility at all is to find oneself in abnormal weather, and the weather now appears to be approaching normal once again. The sun has disappeared and the clouds are rolling in from the Canadian mountains. The contrast between the two countries on either side of the summit is striking. The sun is still shining upon the lush valley of boreal forests which rise to the summit on the Alaskan side of the pass. Looking north to Canada, not a single tree is to be seen. The Canadian flag flying above a locked and empty Wardens cabin is the only immediate movement we see. The vista is a stark and bleak landscape of alpine tundra covered in snow. Crater Lake is still covered with ice, and can only be discerned by the chilly blue intermittently exposed at the lakes edges. The weather looks ominous, as dense clouds skip and roll along the peaks of the Canadian interior. Rain can be seen falling upon distant peaks. I can see the snowy carapace along a ridgeline at the top of a snowfield we must cross where the avalanche danger exists. Signs are posted warning hikers not to stop due to that danger. The cold wind cuts through us, and we pause to put on some warmer clothing. Dont want to survive avalanche danger just to succumb to hypothermia! I am a little concerned about the avalanche danger. It is late in the day (around 1:30), and despite the chilly conditions on the Canadian side, the snow is wet and heavy. Despite the fact that the trail is downhill now, the walking is actually more difficult with the slippery conditions. I am close to the bottom of the hill which frames Crater Lake when I hear a shout behind me. Lo and behold, our friend Warden George (from Skagway) is running up beyond me to deliver news. He has hiked in from the Alaskan side, and has requested the helicopter rescue for the Girl Scout leader, and would I please assure the other girls up at Happy Camp to wait for the rest of their party. (I bet they could have figured that out for themselves!) I am happy to hear that the situation has resolved itself (at least in part), and carry on as George turns around to hike the pass for the second time in a day. A little further down the trail, I hear another voice behind me. A womans voice speaking directly behind me, though I could not quite discern what was said. I turn around to see who is coming up from behind, and to my surprise the landscape is the same bleak tundra that I have been watching for the last mile. A chill not borne by the wind cuts through me and I wonder how many lost and lonely souls still roam the high reaches of the Chilkoot. By the time we reach Happy Camp at 4:30, I am thoroughly exhausted from walking miles in soft snow. I am also a major happy camper to be here! There is a smallish but well built warm up cabin with no wood stove. The lack of stove is most likely in response to the scant vegetation to be found in the rain shadow of the Coastal Range. Tent sites are nicely terraced into the slope, and exposed by the receding snow. Our tent looks like an advertisement for North Face, pitched upon its terrace with Canada as a backdrop. I wonder (as I have thought on several occasions so far) why it is that I am packing such a large tent. The outhouse is quite new, and built upon rollers so that it can be moved over a succession of 55 gallon honey pots that will need to be helicoptered out when the time comes. We are not the last people to walk into camp. Everyone is waiting for Craig (a pilot hiking the trail in the rubber boots common to Alaskan residents), Dick and Jeri, and the remaining Girl Scouts. I have informed the girls in residence as to the fate of their leader, and indeed we have seen a helicopter fly by. As it was not carrying a 55 gallon drum, we assumed it must be carrying their leader. Craig finally hobbles in around 7:00, and informs us that Dick and Jeri are having some problems getting in. Some of the better rested members of camp head off to help them bring their packs in. Eventually, half of the remaining Scouts come in accompanied by one of the remaining leaders. The other half have remained at the Wardens cabin with George, who I can only assume was making the best of a crowded situation, (he was rather young himself.) Looking back towards the pass and Georges fate we could see that the weather had returned to normal, and the pass was completely engulfed in low clouds. Dinner that night consists of lasagna and raspberry crumble in good company. Being happy campers we celebrate with an ABC (alive beyond Chilkoot) party consisting of an extra measure of Yukon Jack in our coffee.
Next morning I awake at 6:00 AM to use the loo. The camp is completed socked in by fog. By the time I emerge from the shed (thank goodness the emergency brakes seemed to be in good working order.....never had seen a rolling outhouse before!), the fog is lifting and blue skies can be seen. I go back to bed for another hour anyway. The day is glorious - not a cloud in the sky! We share breakfast with folks in the warm up shack. There we meet a delightful, older English couple from Seattle who had attempted kayaking in the Grand Canyon during the flood of 1983. Small world, big rapids! The Girl Scouts look very long in the face. They take turns trying to light a dry match. Finally it is time to pack up the huge tent, arrange our gear upon our backs and head out towards our next scheduled camp at Lindeman City. As I am walking out of camp I notice one of the Girl Scouts is reading a Cosmopolitan magazine, and think to myself that it seems like a frivolous thing to pack, but then it is funny what is important to different people. Who am I to pass judgment, with a camera tripod lashed to the top of my pack! The trip to Lindeman is relatively easy. The whole trip should only be 5.5 miles. We cross a few snow fields, and cross a few minor hills. The country is still quite open in comparison to the boreal forest on the maritime side of the pass. A large portion of the trail runs along the ridge above Long Lake, and then the trail drops down to Deep Lake, where there is a nice little camp for those who have had the energy to bypass Happy Camp. Here there are many artifacts including sled tracks and boat frames. (From the summit, the stampeders continued on over the frozen lakes and creeks towards Lake Lindeman.) The trail runs along the north side of Deep Lake and affords a dramatic approach to the gorge connecting Deep Lake to Lake Lindeman. In the gorge we run into Dick and Jeri, and it is generally agreed that we would all like to carry on past Lindeman to Bare Loon Lake, (which is only 3 miles past Lindeman) so that we can shorten the next days hike out to Lake Bennett, where we will meet the train. A hundred years ago, Lindeman had a population of 4,000, sawmills, boat-builders, hotels, a bakery, and thousands of tents clustered on the lakeshore. Almost every tree within hauling distance was converted into boats, shelter or firewood. In summer a small steamer and several barges carried freight and passengers across the lake. In winter the lake became a frozen highway to Lake Bennett. Today the stampeders have gone, the trees have returned, and the lake shore is used by backpackers. Here there is a sizable Wardens camp which includes an exhibit tent containing great displays, a library, guest log, and certificates of completion for the Chilkoot Trail, which hikers are free to fill in themselves, (calligraphy pens are provided.) Lo and behold while awaiting Dick and Jeris arrival, our friend Warden George appeared, no worse for wear. (The lad does get around.) We are cautioned by the Wardens that we might encounter a "teen age" bear along the way to Bare Loon Lake. This bear has had a tendency to be curious about people, (presumably having been recently kicked out of his mothers den) and appeared to be more inclined to approach individuals and small groups. He had been known to chase people who ran and climb up after those who climbed trees. Larger groups stood a better chance of shouting him off, so we joined up with Craig, and Dick and Jeri and sloughed off around 4:30 out of Lindeman. I soon acquired a large walking stick and took point, promising to pace myself to Dick and Jeris speed. We saw lots of bear sign, but no bear. At the slower pace it took a while to make camp, but we arrived at the lake at around 7:00 PM and made a wonderful campsite right on the lake. The lake was indeed warm enough to swim in, but it was too late in the day for such behavior, and besides, I was starting to get used to the way I smelled. Why they call it Bare Loon is beyond me: we saw only gulls, including one nesting with two hatchlings on the island nearest to us.
Next morning I arise at 3:00 AM for my usual early morning call. I am surprised at how light it is outside. I am also surprised at the weather. A few sprinkles of rain are falling on the tent, and the sky is half overcast. Having a false sense of security as a result of the crackin weather to date, I assume the weather will just pass over us, but decide to err on the side of caution and drape the tent with our rainfly and cover the packs. This maneuver turns out to be well placed, as a few hours later it is raining steadily. We decide to forego breakfast, and just pack up and get ready to haul. Looks like we are finally going to get some use out of the GoreTex rainsuits we had bought for the occasion. Oh happy day! Always trying to look on the bright side, we are happy to have the opportunity to experience at least part of the Chilkoot Trail under normal weather conditions. The first thing I noticed was that the tree roots covering the trail become very slippery. The rocks become slippery as well, (not to mention the mud between the roots and the rocks) and as such I am very happy to have my walking stick from the day before. The rain lasts only less than an hour however. Hiding our disappointment, we agree that the brief rain gave us sufficient flavor of adverse trail conditions to be interesting, and we shed our GoreTex in favor of Cutters insect repellent, as the mosquitoes have apparently responded very well to the brief precipitation. Carrying on, we soon encounter the southern reaches of the Carcross Desert: the final challenge: walking uphill through sand! Now we can see the method in the madness, and find ourselves truly appreciative that the recent rains have served to firm up the sand dunes that lie between Lindeman and Lake Bennett. Stampeders from both the Chilkoot and White Pass trails gathered at Bennett. The town swelled to 20,000 as they built boats on the shore of the lake and waited for the ice to go out. On May 29, 1998 the ice broke and within a week 7,000 boats had departed for Dawson. While the stampeders departed, many remained and Bennett became a large and busy town. In 1899 the White Pass & Yukon Railroad reached Bennett from Skagway. This spelled the end to the Chilkoot trail as a means of passage to the Canadian interior. A year later, the rail line was completed to Whitehorse, thus spelling the end of Bennett. It is our good fortune that the railway still maintains a station at Bennett, and within hours of our arrival we can hear the steam whistle and see the billowing clouds issued from the locomotive's boiler rising above the trees in the distance. While the stampeders headed north to their fortunes or disappointments, we will now turn back south with our dreams fulfilled and a sense of satisfied accomplishment.
Travel on with us to: Southeast Alaska
Return to: Roman's Ranch
Klondike Special Report from the Seattle Times : This article deserves a special note, as it is written by our friend Ross Anderson, a columnist for the Times. He travelled north with us and hiked the trail one day behind us. He carried on the journey all the way to Dawson, travelling the Yukon River by kayak. In addition to his own account, he gives historical perspective to the journey by retracing the steps of stampeder Mont Hawthorne.
Chilkoot Trail National Historic Site, Canada (inactive link)
Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park
Virtual Visitor Center
Alaska Marine Highway System