Feature Stories

A Hike into History – Along the Chilkoot Trail

Happy-Camp

Happy Camp

 

After several years of backpacking throughout Southcentral Alaska together, my closest hiking partner convinced me we were ready for the challenge of the Chilkoot Trail. So, along with our families, a group of eight, we prepared for the week long adventure that would take us 770 miles by car to Skagway, 33 miles on foot over the famous Chilkoot Pass that the prospectors followed in 1898 to Lake Bennett, and then 41 miles back to Skagway via the historic White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad, and back home to Palmer. The backpacks of each of the five adults would weigh about 35 pounds and the three teens would carry around 25 pounds each. We were ready to experience a bit of history by walking in the footsteps of miners who traversed the same trail years ago.

After a day and a half on the road, we arrived in Skagway in the late afternoon, just in time to collect our train tickets, hiking permits, and passes for the 8 a.m. shuttle to the trailhead in Dyea. Skagway was bustling with cruise ship passengers, but the town itself had the look and feel of a bygone era when gold fever created it. The town held everything from historic buildings, that still house saloons and mountaineering supply stores, to the Skagway Rail Depot, where 113 years of rail equipment and memorabilia are on display. As the day ended, we all settled in our four tents in a campground near the harbor, with growing anticipation to get on the trail and follow the path of the goldseekers.

The next four days were the experience of a lifetime, definitely worthy of a checkmark on our hiker “bucket list.” The Chilkoot Trail begins at Dyea, nine miles out of Skagway. Being late June, the weather was fairly warm and pleasant. The trail followed the Taiya River Valley through coastal forest for all of our first day. The scenery was diverse, changing from a shady rain forest canopy to cottonwood forests to boardwalks for almost a quarter mile over swampy ponds and back again. And the mosquitoes! About the time we hit the swampy area, they were a raging cloud around each of us. We stopped briefly to don our bug repellent of choice and continued quickly on at a very brisk pace, despite our overloaded packs. There was only some relief when moving and slapping.

Our lunch stop at Canyon City was our first step back in time. The old log cabin there, now used as a gear drying shelter for hikers, was filled with maps, old photographs, and most interesting, journals written by miners and their families during the Gold Rush of 1897-98 describing their arduous trip. The things we saw sitting there in the overgrown forest including giant boilers and cast iron cookstoves brought their stories to life. We were definitely experiencing at least a portion of what the strain and toil of a trip through here would feel like. Except, more than a hundred years ago, in late winter, those hardy stampeders would have carried much heavier loads than ours and worn clothing no hiker today would dream of using for a trip like this.

Our stop for the night was at Sheep Camp at the base of the Chilkoot Pass. Here, every evening, a Park Ranger gives a presentation to all present in preparation for the hardest part of the trail we would face in the morning and how to hike it safely. Rule #1: Boots on the dirt at 6 a.m! All hikers need to be on the trail by 6 a.m. and cross over the summit before noon as the avalanche danger rises significantly later in the day.

Heading up Long Hill toward Chilkoot Pass.

Heading up Long Hill toward Chilkoot Pass.

Day two came early and we headed out just before the necessary time. We left the forested valley and were on into alpine country within a mile. Our trail was no longer a dirt path but a series of rock cairns and seven foot tall plastic orange trail markers to guide us. These markers are often moved daily by the rangers as conditions change up the pass. In the four and a half miles from Sheep Camp to the summit of Chilkoot Pass, the trail rises about 3,000 feet. As we headed up Long Hill, it became apparent that we might not get our hoped for view from the summit as fog reduced the visibility to about 40 yards and the temperature to about 45 degrees. Footing on the rotting snow was slippery and we were thankful for our gloves and trekking poles.

Another history lesson was strewn about in an area known as The Scales. In the past, tram operators here would weigh each load to make sure that the miners had their required one ton of goods (one year’s supply). If one was a bit better off, they could have their loads hoisted over the pass by tram, but most could not. Seeing tram parts, other machinery and lost or discarded pieces of personal gear again made us realize how crazy these stampeders were to find gold. Once rested and replenished with trail snacks, we faced the last quarter mile to Chilkoot Pass, the Golden Stairs, a hellish climb of 1,000 vertical feet. It was a very strenuous “hand over foot” boulder hop straight up! None of us could imagine having to haul a ton of supplies up these “stairs,” which for most miners required 20 to 40 trips! The summit was a welcome sight, though the fog was even tighter around us. Just a few more steps and we were in Canada; it was only 9:45 in the morning. The small warming cabin nearby was crowded to capacity with fellow trekkers swapping stories over an early lunch. We had four miles to go to the next overnight camp, so back out we went to let others warm up.

CraterLake-Basin

Crater Lake Basin

In the next half hour or so, the fog lifted like a curtain and the Crater Lake basin and beyond came into view. The rest of the hike into Happy Camp was downhill, leisurely and beautiful. Camp was set up by 2:30 p.m. which left plenty of time to explore the area, take a nap in the sun on our tent platform, and rest up from the early morning’s endeavors. Meals on this trail are prepared in cook shelters (versus at your tent site), and all food and extra gear is stored in a community gear shed or provided bear lockers. This camp is still on the edge of the alpine zone and the night was a chilly 38° F, but we had no problem sleeping that night!

Day three was endless sunshine, scenery and artifacts as our journey through the longest outdoor museum in the world continued. We didn’t see much wildlife except for small mammals and birds, but the scenery made up for it. Our lunch stop was at mile 26, Lake Lindeman. This was where many of the stampeders chose to wait out the winter months building boats until breakup allowed them to float down two lakes and on down the Yukon to the gold fields over 550 miles away. As many as 4,000 people were camped there in the spring of 1898. We visited the Gold Rush Cemetery on the hill and the interpretive tent and received our “Certificate of Completion” from the Canadian Warden who resides there in the summer. A short three mile afternoon brought us to Bare Loon Lake Camp, for our last night on the trail. After putting in nine miles in the warm sun, half of our group braved the cool lake waters and leeches for a pre-dinner swim! Ducks, squirrels, mosquitoes and Gray Jays (camp robbers) were great company for dinner, card games and hot cocoa. Very peaceful.

Deep Lake overlook

Deep Lake overlook

We were out on the trail by 8 a.m. on our last day; we had a train to catch! The last four miles of trail to Lake Bennett were soft and sandy, very different than the granite ridges of the previous two days. The ubiquitous trail of forgotten belongings continued: pots, pans, cans, and broken glass. We stopped briefly to visit a partially sunken miner’s cabin and more gravesites with barely readable markers. We arrived at the shores of our destination with about an hour to spare before the hikers’ lunch at the rail depot and two hours before the White Pass Railroad train would depart for Skagway. The train was already in and the passengers exploring the area gave our tired, sweaty, scruffy crew a few curious glances. We had pre-purchased tickets to the hot lunch available to hikers before boarding the train assuming that it would be a worthwhile finish to our journey. And it was! Bottomless bowls of beef stew, homemade bread and apple pie with hot coffee never tasted better. We felt sorry for those who had not purchased tickets to this event. The train designates a special car for hikers to ride in. The reason became apparent soon after we all loaded up; this group was a bit too aromatic to be mingling with cruise ship passengers out for the day. The train ride down from Lake Bennett and White Pass is a story to be saved for another day. Skagway souvenirs, a hearty dinner, and a visit to Soapy Smith’s grave was a fine finish to our adventure and we headed for Palmer with great spirits and a feeling of having traveled through time.

 

Story by Diane Rose

Diane Rose owns and operates Rose Ridge B&B just a few miles from the entrance of the Matanuska Valley’s playground, Hatcher Pass. Visit her website at
www.alaskavacationchalet.com

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