Back in 2004, I drove down to Skagway to hike the historic Chilkoot Trail. A buddy of mine was suppose to join me, but the day before we were to hit the road, he backed out due to romantic issues of some sort. I was somewhat disgusted, but I loaded my backpack into the truck anyway, and drove to Skagway. It’s a 700 mile trip from Fairbanks, and I still had the 1974 Bronco at the time. I’m sure this was its last long trip. The Bronco was a great truck, but by ’04 the Interior Winters had taken its toll: The original doors had disintegrated by then, and I was running with a set of canvas doors by this point.
2004 was a record year for wildfires in Alaska. Over 6.6 million acres had burned that summer, and the woods were tinder dry. I don’t think Fairbanks had more than a handful of clear days that summer, as we were surrounded by fires.
The Chilkoot Trail starts near the old Ghost Town of Dyea, which sat less than 10 miles from Skagway. Dyea had a very shallow port, so the wharfs stretched well out into the inlet. Some of the pilings are still visible today, protruding up from the water.
There is very little left of the gold rush town today. A few old store fronts are propped up, the lumber from an old warehouse is well on its way to returning to the Earth, and one can still see the outlines of the town layout among the trees.
Prior to hiking the Chilkoot, I spent a couple of days exploring the area. One of the more fascinating things was the Slide Cemetery. On 3 April 1898, five snow slides took place between Sheep Camp and The Scales on the trail. At least 65 stampeders died in the avalanches, although many believe the number was closer to 100.
The Slide Cemetery, with the same date, “April 3 1898” etched into all of the grave markers, is an eerie place. Many of the markers have no name, only an “Unknown” and the date. I remember one that said something like: “He Was From Minnesota, April 3 1898”. I was taking photos of the cemetery with an old Kodak Autographic camera, that was loaded with 120 B&W. Even the camera came a good 20-25 years after the disaster, but I felt it was somehow appropriate. After going through a roll, and loading up a second, I was looking down into the viewfinder, when a massive gust of wind swept through the stand of trees, and a large branch creaked from above and then fell to the ground. I jumped out of the way, and the branch landed right where I had been standing.
I decided to take the hint and left the cemetery.