Daily Archives: 26 January 2014

Hiking The Chilkoot

Flashback Episode Part II

The Chilkoot Trail – Miles and elevation

I had already booked my trip, but I went into the Park Service office in Skagway to pick up my permit the day before I was to start the hike. The ranger looked at my itinerary and agreed to make some changes since I was now doing the hike solo. I changed it so that I would be doing the 33 mile hike in 4 days instead of the original five. In the Park Service office, there was a group of four guys who were waiting to get their permits. I had run into them earlier in the day at the Red Onion Saloon. The Red Onion was a gold rush era brothel that is now a restaurant/bar/brothel museum.

After setting up the new intinerary, I went over to the White Pass Railway office to get my rail pass. The plan was to hike the trail, then catch the train at Lake Bennett in the Yukon, and ride the White Pass back to Skagway. If one plans the hike right, you can catch a ride on the old White Pass 73 steam engine, which runs one day a week. The remainder of the week the train is pulled by diesel engines.

Golden Staircase
Stampeders climbing the “Golden Staircase” – 1898

The discovery of gold in the Klondike converted the Tlingit Indian trade route into a major thoroughfare that would be known throughout the world, as stampeders rushed into the Klondike to find their fortune. The Chilkoot Trail, out of Dyea, was the most direct and shortest route to the gold fields, but it was also the more difficult. The White Pass route out of Skagway was longer, but less strenuous.

Chilkoot Pass 1898
Packing gear up the Chilkoot Pass – 1898

The Canadian Mounties would not allow any prospector to enter Canada with less than 1 Ton of supplies. “The Scales” were set up near the summit, and the prospectors had to ferry the gear up and over the pass, usually in 100 pound loads.

On The Chilkoot
Crossing beaver ponds on the Chilkoot. Photo courtesy of NPS

My pack weighed slightly less than 50 pounds at the start, and I had to only hike the trail once, instead of returning again and again for another load. The trail starts in a rain forest, and the vegetation is thick. Bear sign was evident early and throughout the hike, although I only saw one bruin over the four days. The first day was in this forest, and it was a relatively easy day of hiking in preparation of the summit climb. The first day was also the only day it rained, but I reached Sheep Camp thrilled to be on the trail.

On the hike to Sheep Camp, I met a couple at Canyon City who were on their honeymoon. They had taken on a different kind of Klondike Fever. In order to commemorate the Trail properly, they had kayaked all the way from Seattle to Skagway. When I met them, they were “portaging” kayaks and gear over the pass. Like the old prospectors, they were ferrying gear and caching it, then going back for the next load. Upon reaching Lake Bennett, the plan was to return to the kayaks, and float their way down the entire Yukon River. They expected to hit its mouth by October. I was impressed, and wished them the best of luck. I have often wondered how the rest of their honeymoon went, and if they survived it as a couple.

At camp, I picked my tent site, then went off somewhere away from the other campers to write a bit in the journal. By the time I returned, everyone else had eaten, which was sort of the plan. I was off by myself, not feeling any need to join a group, and feeling quite content to be the observer off on the edge. As luck would have it, the four guys I ran into several times in Skagway would have nothing to do with my observer status. Three of them were from Ohio, and the fourth was from Michigan. They called themselves the Crazy Eights, since they were aged 78, 48, 38 and 18. They quickly adopted the token Alaskan on the trail, and we have been friends ever since. But I am getting ahead of myself.

The ranger had warned us to start the hike up the summit very early in the morning, in order to be across the snow fields that await after the pass, before the day’s heat made the trekking more difficult and possibly dangerous. I was the last one to leave the camp, and I was on the trail by 5am or so. I must have been in great shape in 2004, because I passed everyone long before we hit The Scales, and it was a trend that would annoy at least one other hiker.
The climb up the summit was a challenge. Unlike the prospectors in all the historic photos, we didn’t have any snow at this elevation, and the hike was more like bouldering. Almost three miles of verticle clamboring over huge rocks, slick from thousands of boot soles. And it was a beautiful climb.
There are a lot of artifacts scattered about, as prospectors abandoned items in order not to pack them. From coffee pots, to a cache of leather boots, or several prefabricated canvas boats rotting away in the high alpine. At one point I spotted a cast iron cookstove.
There was a little ranger hut just past the summit, but no one was home to weigh our gear, so I ventured on across a quickly decaying snow field. In a lot of ways, the trek across the snow was more tiring, since the sun’s heat was softening the snow, and my boots seemed to sink deeper with every step. I was quite warm by now, even though I was in shorts and a t-shirt.

The Chilkoot - YT
After the Pass – Yukon Territory

I was the first to arrive at Happy Camp, and I picked out the best campsite, which sat a little higher up, and had a beautiful view of the valley and flowing stream. After resting for a bit, I went out to explore the area, and by the time I returned the rest of my hiking party had arrived. Almost everyone ate right away and turned in for the night by 5pm. I was too wound up to do that, as was Eliot, the 18 year old Crazy Eighter, so we stayed up shooting the breeze until well past sunset. I’m not exactly shy when it comes to telling tales of Alaska, especially when I have a willing audience. Unfortunately, it often doesn’t occur to me that bear stories have a different effect on different people, until it is too late. Since Eliot seemed to enjoy them, I kept telling more. I found out later that the next day, he expected a bear to be around every corner of the trail, and he no longer wanted to be the lead dog in their group.

The next day was beautiful, as the trail dips down into a boreal forest. It was also a hot day, and it finally dawned on me that I had not felt, seen, or heard a mosquito since Sheep Camp, due to the tinder dry conditions. It was also on this stretch of trail that we started to catch the scent of wildfires that were raging throughout Interior Alaska and the Yukon. Once again, I was the last to leave camp, but the first to arrive at Bare Loon Lake. The first thing I did when I dropped my backpack, and tried to shake the lingering “pack-walk”, was to jump in the lake and go swimming. I grabbed the best site, looking out over the lake, with a rock ledge running parallel to the lake shore. It was the perfect back rest as I relaxed, wrote, and welcomed the incoming hikers. Two girls who also had the same itinerary stopped by my camp to swim and then share a flask of some liquid gold. As more hikers went swimming, I noticed the lake had the largest leeches I have ever seen in my life. At one point, we could see several of them in the clear water following a fellow hiker as he swam out deeper. Oddly enough, no one went swimming after that.

It was the final day, and I had absolutely no need to rush. The end was coming too quickly, and the hike from Bare Loon to Lake Bennett would be an easy one. I left camp last, once again, and passed Eliot and the rest of the Crazy Eighters an hour or so later. Within 15 minutes, I heard someone behind me, and there was Eliot pushing to catch up to me. I guess he had had enough of me passing him on the Trail, so he was going to show the “older Alaskan” what a young buck from Michigan could do. We hiked the rest of the way to Bennett together, and I eventually apologized for all the bear stories. Eliot shrugged it off, saying that he barely remembered them.

Boat building along Lake Bennett – Klondike Gold Rush

During the gold rush, Lake Bennett was the staging point for the final push to the gold fields. Here the stampeders waited for the ice to go out, camped along its shore, building boats that would take them down the lake and eventually onto the Yukon River and fame and fortune.

I poked around Lake Bennett and the station there waiting for the train to pull in. When it arrived, we hikers were all put on the last rail car. Eventually, I had to ask why we were limited to the one car, and the conductor bluntly told me that it was, “because of the smell”. My confused look brought an even blunter response: “After days on the Trail, you hikers smell terrible. We don’t want you mixing with the ‘other’ tourists”. I had to admit, it was sound logic.

White Pass 73
The White Pass 73 Locomotive