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The Chilkoot Trail: A walk through history illuminates the present

September 18, 2011

Thousands of people mobbed the streets when I arrived in Skagway, Alaska in mid-September. Nearly all were nicely-dressed older folks taking pictures of the historic false-front buildings and the powerful snow-capped mountains that lined the horizon. I wanted to hike the 33-mile Chilkoot Trail then head up to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory for a night or two and back to catch a ferry out. I had less than five days, and to my dismay public transit ended service a week prior. I weighed my options as I sat observing scores of gray-haired cruise ship tourists wondering the streets of the historic gold-rush boomtown—most of whom would only walk the main street of town in search for a souvenir to take back to their luxurious ship.

A little more than a hundred years prior, tens of thousands of men and women came through this tiny outpost in Tlingit country attempting to escape high unemployment—as high as 14.5 percent—and a depressed economy brought on by a heavily indebted public, erratic monetary policy, foreclosures and the bursting of market bubbles unleashed by the wild animal spirits of Wall Street during the Panics of 1893 and 1896. No other time since then had the gap dividing the nations richest and everyone else been as large—that is until today.

I was like most stampeders, adventurous, highly indebted, educated and yet without great job prospects. I could have easily been one of those who struck mad with the prospects of quick riches outside of Dawson City, in the Canadian north. Like them I did go to the north to settle my financial problems, but instead of chasing gold I was chasing fish.

Mulling this history in my head I went to the National Park Service visitors’ center and watched the 20-minute video on the Chilkoot Trail and another 15-minute video on bear safety. For some silly reason my mind kept drifting to the thought of getting mauled by a big brown bear for a few days before I reached Skagway. Not a very good way to go. A large beautiful beast slashing skin and cracking bones with one swipe of a paw and then the imagined teeth scrapping against my skull for a few seconds before my body would turn limp and lifeless. On my prior hiking trips in Alaskan brown bear territory I went with a .45-70 rifle in hand, a chunk of lead that would take down all but the most enraged bears. Not that I would actually want to kill one of those lovely creatures, but on the off-hand chance I were to meet a hungry one, I would want a good shot at not being evacuated after digestion.
I spoke with a few rangers, who assured me there has never been a bear attack on the Chilkoot, so decided that the historic and heavily trafficked 33-mile trail would be well worth my time. I signed the paperwork, bought some bear spray (basically pepper spray on steroids), and caught a ride with town’s lone cab to the trail head in the deserted town of Dyea 13 miles outside of Skagway.

I started on the trail at about 3:30 in the afternoon. The Chilkoot starts along the swift moving Taiya River. The damp, mossy ground with glacially scattered rocks and boulders under a dense canopy of cedar, spruce, hemlock and alders is pretty much typical of the boreal forests of Southeast Alaska. Southeast Alaska is one of the rainiest places in the United States, but I was lucky to be traveling during an extended period of sunshine, great for traveling, but not so great for an ecosystem that is dependent on near daily rain.

My goal was to make it 11.75 miles to Sheep Camp before dark. The first stretch of trail rolled gently uphill before rising in elevation slightly more until the famed Golden Staircase where the ground shoots up steeply to the summit of Chilkoot Pass. The well-worn trail roughly matches the trail used some 112 years ago, with a few distinct divergences. From late-May to early-September some 3,000 hikers traverse the trail. During those peak season months hikers must pay $50 for a permit, with only 50 issued each day. I had the trail to myself and at mid-September I didn’t have to pay the $50 permit fee.

The trail, which has been called the world’s longest museum, is littered with rusted debris from the stampeders’ arduous journey. Items broken, determined too heavy or unnecessary for the journey were hastily left at the trailside. Looking at the debris I was reminded of items I had seen scattered on migrant trails in Southern Arizona; tattered clothes, water bottles and food wrappers. When one is desperately holding on life it doesn’t seem that all that bad to forgo the ‘leave no trace’ trail ethic.

The trails we blaze; trails winding through treacherous terrain, across national borders, blazing trails that tempt death for the hope of a better life. It’s the human story—movement, wondering, and the search for a place where one can exist without the constant struggle to simply exist.

The ancient Chilkoot Trail was first traversed by the Tlingit to enable trade with tribes in the subarctic interior. The pass is one of three passes over the Coast Mountains of Southeast Alaska that is not blocked by a glacier. The trail that had only known the light feet of sturdy Tlingits for centuries became one of the most heavily trafficked trails in the world after arrivals of the steamships Excelsior in San Francisco and the Portland in Seattle in July 1897 full of nouveau riche miners which started the worldwide epidemic of gold fever. Over the course of two years more than 30,000 people would traverse the trail.

The 33-miles of the Chilkoot was the only overland section of the stampeders’ rush to Dawson City in the Yukon via Dyea. From the end of the trail the Argonauts would build boats and navigate the headwaters of the mighty Yukon River. There were at least seven other routes to the Klondike. From Skagway many prospectors hiked up to White Pass which was less steep and lower in elevation than the Chilkoot. It became known as the Dead Horse Trail after heavy traffic and hard winter conditions so deteriorated the trail that packhorses collapsed from exhaustion and died by the thousands. Most affluent stampeders took the all water route to Dawson City, 3,000 miles from Seattle to the mouth of the Yukon River on the Bering Sea then east 1,700 miles to the Klondike. The various other routes—overland through Canada, up un-navigable rivers, over impassable mountain ranges and glaciers—were exercises in masochism and ignorance. Very few of the thousands who attempted the other routes ever made it two their destination alive.

As I walked down the trail I admired nature’s healing ability. The second growth forest seemed as primeval as any old growth forest I have seen. The metal artifacts that remained would rust to dust or be swallowed up by the moist earth and slowly digested. In time the earth will heal itself of all damage created by our shortsighted and thoroughly misguided species, but our species may not live long enough to see it.

I would call out every hundred yards or so to alert any nearby bears of my presence. Unless they are looking for a meal they would rather not see me, or for the ones that have grown accustom to human trespassers are usually ambivalent to a bipod’s presence.

First rule of bear safety it seems is to make yourself known, talk and sing to yourself, for the most part bears don’t want to see people. If you see a bear, brown or black, talk to it and back away slowly while giving it an escape route. If it’s a black bear, never play dead, experts say that you want to make a lot of noise, look big and if need be, fight it. If one is charged by a brown (grizzly) bear and bear spray does not deter it, play dead, but if the bear starts to eat you, fight like hell. Fight like hell? What the hell? If I play dead and then realize the bear is eating my left shoulder I don’t think fighting like hell, even with my little pocketknife, will do much good.

I have never had much fear of floating on a surfboard in the cold sharky waters of Northern California, even after seeing a dorsal fin of a great white (wo)man eater pop out of the water not fifty yards from where I paddled, so why should I fear a bear that would give me much more warning than a shark ever would?

I then started to singing loudly as a I walked, for the more I walked the more I thought of bears and the more I thought of bears the more nervous I became of them. I started out singing random songs, then from nowhere came “Rah, rah, ah, ah, ah, roma, roma, ma.” Was it the bar in Juneau the night prior where I heard Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance?” Lady Gaga, the carefully crafted character, who even on a backpacking trip I couldn’t escape. But “Rah, rah, ah, ah, ah…” carried well and was easy to sing, albeit pushing my range in tenor, while tromping down the trail with a 35-pound pack on my pack. But then I began to think about the possibility of facing a bear. A ranger told me she had filled out an incident report where I man saw a bear on the trail, so the he started singing “American Pie.” The bear looked at him curiously for 30 seconds and then turned around and sauntered off into the woods.

Alone, with the trail all to myself, I found an absurd enjoyment singing random pop songs to the bears. There was lots bear shit full of berries and grass along the trail with a few paw prints quite a bit larger than my foot. Shortly after Finnegan’s Point, the first camp on the Chilkoot 4.81 miles from the trailhead, I stopped singing and was lost in my fantasyland of singing Lady Gaga to a grizzly. I turned a corner with my mind on autopilot when—holy shit—in the middle of the trail not 20 yards from where I stood was a large brown bear. My heart jumped, I took a few quick steps back but then remembered it was best not to run. To my relief the lumbering beast was just as surprised as me and it bolted into the woods before I even realized that the bear spray was in my hand and ready to fire.

It was anticlimactic, something exciting but left me with metaphorical blueballs. For a little more than an hour and a half I had allowed myself the absurdly pleasurable fantasy of singing and dancing with an animal that deep down causes me a healthy dose of fear only to come face to face with the most common of bear-human interactions, bear and human run away from each other. As I turned around I belted out, “Oh oh, oh oh oooh, Caught in a bad romance, Oh, ohhh, oh oh oooh, Caught in a bad romance.” Then the break,  “Rah, rah, ah, ah, ah…” just so I’d know that, yes, I have sung Lady Gaga to a bear.

I made it to Sheep Camp an hour after the sun had set. I had chosen not to bring my backpacking gear with me to Alaska when I had left California in early June, thinking there wouldn’t be much opportunity to use it while living and working on a salmon seiner for three months. So while I had I backpack, sleeping bag, and proper clothing, I was without a sleeping pad, a tent or a stove. None of them were essential; I was only planning on being on the trail for two nights.

The Chilkoot, for all its reputation, is a rather cushy trail in its modern form. There are camps with warming shelters and outhouses every five to ten miles. There’s no need to dig a hole to crap in, or be forced to pack it out, one just has to wait for the next outhouse.

One hundred thirteen years earlier I could have found a cot and a hot meal at one of the handful of tent hotels found at Sheep Camp—during the first year of the gold rush 7,000 people could be found there at any given time. What I found instead was a warming hut—which was basically a small wood cabin with a window and a few benches and a woodstove inside. I made a fire and feasted on energy bars and trail mix then made myself comfortable on the floor in front of the wood stove.

I woke up at sunrise the next morning. If I wanted to push it I could hike 21.25 miles to Lake Bennett the end of the Chilkoot Trail, but then I would be left with a twelve mile hike down train tracks to the Klondike Highway, where I would then have to hitch hike either south to Skagway or north to Whitehorse. Train and shuttle services are open only during peak season months—I was a week late. A more leisurely 14.25 mile hike to the Lindeman City camp seemed more agreeable, where I could start hitch hiking with hours of sunshine the following day.

From Sheep Camp the trail became steeper and the vegetation smaller, the coastal temperate rainforest quickly changed into rocky alpine tundra. Sitka spruce and hemlock gave way to dwarf shrubs and gnarly stunted willows and the moist sponge-like ground turned hard and rocky.  Halfway to The Scales I began to see the rocky summits, the ever-retreating glaciers and patches of snow on the high ridges.

The Scales, named after the weighing stations where stampeders would put loads from their ton of gear on scales and often pay mainly Tlingit men to haul their gear up the fabled “Golden Staircase” for 15 to 25 cents a pound—the price depended on the perceived affluence of the customer. For a literal ton of gear to be lugged up to the summit at 25 cents a pound would be more than $10,000 in 2011 dollars.

The gold rush wasn’t for poor people, but for the broke and the greedy, the desperate and the restless. Sure there were penniless people who made it to the Klondike hustling and working hard at every layover along the way, but most arrived in Skagway with pockets full of cash. The typical price for the ton of gear ranged from $250 to $500, the further north a stampeder purchased an outfit, the more expensive it would be. That ton of gear would be valued anywhere from $6,670 to $13,300 in 2011. Far too expensive for the nation’s poorest, but many tempted financial ruin by liquidating their meager assets and borrowing from family for the chance to strike it rich outside Dawson City. Many truly believed that if only they reached the “gold fields” of Dawson, they would be make it all back.  Gold was literally, “everywhere.”

I started up the Golden Staircase before the sun had risen above the surrounding summits. It was steep, but not all that bad. The relatively low elevation at 3,525 feet didn’t bother the lungs. Just a long scramble up a 30-degree boulder covered slope of a quarter mile and 1000 feet of elevation. It was up this slope the now immortal image of a long line of stampeders marched single file up the icy face of the Chilkoot Pass.

In a different time, I would have been one who lacked the funds of pay packers would have to haul my “ton of gear” up the Chilkoot one load at a time making 30 for 40 trips, often taking more than three months. The typically stampeder would walk hike over 1,000 miles trying to haul the ton of gear from Dyea to Lake Bennitt. Horses, mules and other pack animals made the trip, lighting the load for those who could afford them. A year after the rush started a tramway was put in place from the scales to the top of the pass. In February 1899 the White Pass and Yukon Railway reached the summit of White Pass, by July of the same year it reached Lake Bennett, making the Chilkoot obsolete. Yet, by that time the Gold Rush was two years old and the profitable mining sites were had all been gobbled up by the first wave of Argonauts more than two years prior. Entrepreneurs who catered to the stampeders’ needs seemed to fair the best by most accounts.

The march up the pass left me sweaty and winded, and the false summits along the way left me fooled every time. If I was there a hundred and thirteen years earlier with nuggets of gold in my eyes, hauling the more than thousands pounds of gear up the trail would have been more than doable. Or has the comfort of modern backpacking gear has made me too soft?

If I switched my moisture-wicking polypropelene t-shirt, underwear and socks for sweat-holding cotton longjohns and wool socks, would the chaffing alone make me want to stop? If I had to give up my lightweight, highly cushioned, yet ridgid, Gore-Tex trailrunners with sticky treads for leather soled leather boots would I have to turn around for lack of arch support? Or what about trading my pricy feather-light internal framed backpack with foam padding for a hundred pound wooden box of butter strapped to my back with hemp rope? Or could I trade my high-protein energy bars with the perfect balance of quick and slow burning carbs fort immediate and sustained energy for biscuits and bacon? Actually, after a day of energy bars, biscuits and bacon sounded delicious. Nevertheless, it seems the hyper-innovations of consumer market products has made us a bunch of softies.

The ton of gear included cookware, hardware, dried foods, butter and bacon, outerwear, underwear, boat-making equipment and medicines. Enough supplies to last a year and enough clothing to keep most alive. At the summit of the Chilkoot, Canadian customs officials—backed by Mounted Police in possession of a large Maxim machine gun—would turn back anyone who lacked the required supplies or the cash to pay the duty.

At the summit I looked down at Canada—a nice reversal since geography usually forces Canada to look down at the U.S. But we’re former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s elephant in a shared bed, our fits and tantrums, panics and depressions cause our northerly neighbor frustrated, sleepless nights. Facetiousness aside, the view into Canada was amazing. The U.S.-side of the trail—no less breathtaking—is steep and severe with snow-capped mountains rising abruptly from the sea, while the Canadian side has a gentle decline, in a valley surrounded by ever-higher peaks, to Lake Bennett, the end of the Chilkoot Trail.

Walking north from the summit I could tell I was in another country, like the arbitrary political border was actually a tangible line of demarcation. The visible terrain was still within the alpine tundra, but the topography change was the trump card in the vista. A boulder field with intermittent patches of crusty snow led to Crater Lake. Although the lake was only 17 miles from Lynn Canal the water in it would make a more than 2,000 mile journey to the Bering Sea via the mighty Yukon River. The air was still and the water was like an unblemished glass mirror, the pictures I took along its shores were models of symmetry, indistinguishable when flipped 180 degrees.

Crater Lake marked the point where travel became relatively less difficult for those making the trek in the winter of 1897-87. With the lake frozen for more than half the year, stampeders found stretches of flat ground to traverse, with many building sleds to haul their load. But fierce winds from the Arctic, blizzards and deep snowdrifts were a constant menace, and many were ill prepared for the ravages of snow blindness.

Crater Lake feeds a stream that leads to Long Lake, between which is Happy Camp, the only camp on the trail above the treeline at about 3,000 feet above sea level. I made my way down the trail and saw a patch of hardened snow about 50 yards long. It was much flatter than the rocky path constantly dipping up and down the undulations of the terrain, so I ignored the little ribbon held up by two sticks shoved into the ground and made my way across it. Towards the end of the patch I notice the snow dropped straight down into a pool of water 15 feet below. I jumped off the snow and onto the trail. When I made my way to the pool I noticed the stretch of snow I had just crossed was actually the roof of a large snow cave—hence the ribbon.

The water was as clear as the air, pure snowmelt, about ten feet deep. If it weren’t for the water’s large magnifying effect on its rocky bottom it seemed as if it were not there at all. I filled up my water bottle and greedily drank gulped it down giving me brain freeze. I slowed down and savored the flavor, not at all musty like snow.

At Happy Camp I had a snack, sat down and took a nap. I was in no rush, it was just after 10 a.m. and from that point I only had another five and a half miles until I reached Lindeman City where I would camp that night. After I woke up in the pleasant mix of warm sun and cool air, I continued on and found myself crossing the tree line. Small scrubby alpine fir sprouted up as I entered the beginning of the subalpine boreal forest. Before long I was at Long Lake and then Deep Lake where the vegetation was denser.

The trail on the northern shore of Deep Lake went through what seemed like an endless blueberries patch. A ranger in Skagway told me the bears liked to loiter in the area munching on delicious blueberries. I wish I were a bear, sleeping half the year, feasting on berries and salmon for the other half. Top of the food chain, no rent, no bills, no heart attack inducing stress of modern living, a life in a pristine landscape. If reincarnation were real, we all have had to do something real bad in a past life to be reborn a human. The most saintly creatures would be reborn as a bear in the wilds of the North, in protected land that is, where one wouldn’t become some rich man’s stuffed trophy.

Even though it was late in the season there were still loads on blueberries on the blushes. I gorged myself and then ate a few chunks of smoked salmon I had brought with me. I wanted to do something more bearlike, but I had already taken a nap and I had also used the outhouse at Happy Camp so I couldn’t even shit in the woods. I was left lamenting my humanity as I continued on through a thicker forest of lodgepole pine and alder to accompany the fir and berry bushes.

The treacherous Moose Creek connects Deep Lake to Lindeman Lake as it passes through a narrow gorge. I could here the thunderous rapids from the trail some 200 feet above. Some would lug boats from Dyea and would end there land bound journey at Long Lake, tempting fate through Moose Creek, one of the three dangerous sections of rapids en route to Dawson City—the other two being Miles Canyon and further north the Whitehorse rapids, from which the city of Whitehorse gets its name.

I made it to Lindeman City at about four. During the winter of 1897-98 more than 20,000 people lived in tents and ramshackle shacks building more than 7,000 boats, mostly by inexperienced hands. Some hauled their lumber from Dyea, but most used trees from the surrounding forests, leaving a scar that would take decades for heal. Using a whipsaw the Argonauts made planks for the haul, and would caulk the seams with oakum and pitch. The green wood would often shrink before the boat met water, causing most boats to be rather leaky. The boats were overloaded with tons of gear and more than a handful of men and women. When the lake finally thawed on June 3, 1898 a large armada of rough-hewn boats set out to continue their journey north.

I settled in a warming hut and admired the stellar view of the long and narrow Lindeman Lake with mountains rising steeply from its western shore. There was no firewood’s left in the hut, but there were a number of logs, saws, axes and a sawhorse outside. I busied myself cutting wood until the sun set leaving plenty of wood behind for the Swiss mother and daughter who would come through Lindeman City in a night or two.

I hardly slept that night on the uncomfortable woods floor, but at about dawn I fell into a deep sleep and didn’t get up until 9:00 a.m. I didn’t go to Bennett, the official end of the Chilkoot, instead I took the Cut-Off Trail that shortened my hike out to the Klondike Highway by about eight miles. It was a warm sunny day so I took off my clothes and jumped into the frigid Bare Loon Lake and air-dried on a warm rock.

Coincidentally the Klondike Gold Rush marked the end of the depression and heralded a short period of general economic stability. The same month, July 1897, the newly rich miners stepped onto the docks of San Francisco and Seattle the United States officially emerge from the recession. But, as it is with most economic downturns, those most hurt are often the last to feel the recovery.  The depression forced many working Americans in to action; it was the dawn of the Progressive Era and an energized labor movement.

As much as things change they stay the same—so the saying goes. The booms and busts of the American business cycle are about as predictable as a lunar eclipse, yet for those dependent on steady wages the economic downturns can be life-changing experiences. A year after the economy nearly collapsed in 2008 I headed north to find a way out of the stagnant wages offered by the few available jobs, just as many did a year after the Panic of 1896.

The Cut-Off Trail is found on a few maps and I was also informed of its existence by an American park ranger, but Parks Canada is not fond of it, for it promotes the illegal activity of walking along a train track. Damn Canadians love their rules. The Canadian authorities removed a bridge that crossed a small stream, but vigilante outlaw backpackers—probably from the U.S.—erected a rudimentary bridge in its stead, which was dismantled, only to be constructed again. I, luckily, did not have to wade through the water, I only had to cross a dangerous looking bridge made of trees and salvaged lumber.

I made it to the tracks well before noon, and eight miles out to the highway by two. I had to catch a ferry out of Skagway in two days, I looked over the highway mulling it over in my head which direction I wanted to go. I turned north and stuck out my thumb, but there were no cars for quite some time. Eventually a car pulled over with two rather attractive ladies inside. They were passing through Whitehorse on their way to Fairbanks. I made it to my destination and thumbed back in time to catch my ferry. Yet, the Chilkoot stayed with me. Unlike many of my previous—and often more vigorous—outdoor adventures, it was not solely the natural beauty that lingered, but the history.

The end of the 19th century marked the completion of the idealized “manifest destiny.” America was contiguous from sea to shining sea. The Klondike is called the last great gold rush, largely because it marked the end of an era. There is no longer any place to run for workers in America, only the ability to move from place to place within the borders, yet the opportunity—or lack thereof—remains the nearly same. As a fisherman I am technically a migrant worker, on the move from season to season far from friends and family, chasing the financial security a college degree no longer guarantees.

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