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The Chilkoot Trail - Reliving the Klondike Gold Rush

by Murray Lundberg
(information updated July 26, 2008)


Chilkoot Trail Links

      So you really want an adventure this year, do you? Well, from May 18-22, 1998, I made the trek across the Pass, and I can assure you that a personal re-creation of a little piece of the Klondike Gold Rush is an experience that you'll not soon forget. My son and I also hiked the trail in July 2009 - see my large Chilkoot Trail photojournal for that story.

      To some degree, you can choose the type of experience you want on the trail. A summer hike with the family will be a far cry from a solitary hike off-season, which was my choice. To start your planning, hiking the trail requires reservations and permits from Parks Canada (call 867-667-3910 in Whitehorse, or toll free 1-800-661-0486). Permits are mandatory, and although reservations are not mandatory, they are a very good idea if you're traveling from mid-June through mid-August when pressure on the trail is the heaviest. Only 50 people a day can start from Dyea, to keep damage to the trail to a minimum, and to maintain as much as possible a "wilderness" feel to it. The historical purists will note here that it certainly wasn't a wilderness experience 100 years ago, with up to 20,000 people on the 33 miles of trail - now only about 1% of that number is allowed.

      Some of the warnings that you'll read about trail preparations may seem silly or overly-cautious, but conditions can vary radically and rapidly from hour to hour, and it will be in your best interests to pack everything you possibly can in the way of clothing, equipment and food for the expected duration of your trip, plus a couple of extra days. Make sure that you check out all your equipment thoroughly - if you have a pack with a gazillion adjustments, load it up with 50 pounds or so, and head for a few hard miles of trail close to home so you're sure that everything is correct. To immerse yourself in the trail's history before you go, I highly recommend reading Chilkoot Trail by David Neufeld and Frank Norris (click on the book cover for more information).

      To varying degrees, Skagway will be your base of operations for the trip. Bus service is available to the trailhead, last-minute trail condition reports can be accessed at the Visitor Center, and you can grab a last burger before switching to various forms of glop for the duration of your trip, generally 3-5 days. Anxious to get on the trail, I even went without the burger, and reached the trailhead in mid-afternoon.

Trip Chronology

(from start of day's hike to camp, including breaks and side trips)

Map

Day 1 - 2.3 hours, 4.8 miles
    Trailhead to Finnegan's Point
Day 2 - 5.7 hours, 7.5 miles
    Finnegan's to Sheep Camp
Day 3 - 15 hours, 14.2 miles
    Sheep Camp to Lindeman
Day 4 - 4.7 hours, 7.6 miles
    Lindeman to Bennett
Day 5 - 14.7 hours, 28.8 miles
    Bennett to Carcross
 

      At any time between May and October, the variety of terrain and ecosystems that hikers experience is remarkable. From the northern limit of the coastal rain forest to barren granite with scattered arctic plants, the route will keep your brain working as you try to absorb it all. But to most people who "do the Chilkoot," the overwhelming feeling both during and after the trip is amazement that the Klondike Stampede could occur under such conditions.

      It only takes a lttle over 2 hours to reach Finnegan's Camp, a nice easy start. The trail climbs up and down over a couple of bluffs above the Taiya River, but generally is quite level. There are some huge trees (cottonwood and spruce mostly), up to nearly 6 feet in diameter, and the top leaves of the poisonous devil's club are 6-7 feet above the trail. The American side of the trail is in extremely good condition, particularly considering the very difficult terrain involved. Trail crews have already been out and all the deadfalls have been removed, and some minor maintenance (on stairs particularly) has been done.

      At 10:30 the first night, I had a close encounter of the large black kind. After setting up my camp, I had gotten busy with photography, and with soaking up the spectacular beauty of the lower valley, with the Irene Glacier towering over Finnegan's Point. When retiring for the night, I noticed that I had left my extra quart of fuel on the wooden platform that my tent was pitched on, but gave it little thought - my food was all roped up in the bear cache (provided at all camping sites), and it seemed like a safe assumption that fuel wouldn't be attractive to a bear. Some time later, the heavy "clunk" of something hitting the platform woke me up, and I listened hard to hear what the squirrels or other little critters were up to. A couple of minutes of no noise other than the wind was followed by a deep "WOOF!" and the simultaneous smell of fuel - now I was awake! Grabbing my bear-spray (which was right beside me), I peeked out the smallest opening I could get in the tentflap, to see a very large black bear shuffling away, about 10 feet away. I yelled at him, and he showed his concern at my displeasure by standing up and casually scratching his back on a nearby tree. He then strolled over to the bear cache, and spent some time examining it, stretching up the poles as far as he could, then gave up and disappeared into the forest. If you ever start feeling cocky about how technologically marvelous we people are, there's nothing like the Northern wilderness to humble you!

      Day 2 started with clear indications that rain was likely, and by 9:00 it had started. The trail past Finnegan's gets a fair bit rougher - lots of up-and-down, fairly high above the river in most places. At one point, the trail was flooded, with no way around it, so I took off my boots and just waded through the slop for about 200 feet. The muck reminded me of the second of the two greatest pleasures of off-season hiking - no bugs! (the first benefit being no people) - some areas on the lower part of the trail must be really buggy in July. There are lots of creek crossings, with some very impressive bridges, including a suspension bridge that takes a side-trail across the Taiya River to the ruins of Canyon City.

      Canyon City was a disappointment - I had expected something Klondike. Beyond a cookstove and a huge boiler from one of the aerial tramways, there's not much to see. Without reading lots of history before hitting the trail, the significance of places like Canyon City won't be obvious, and you'll miss a lot of the magic of the trail.

      The trail continues to get more impressive as you travel up the valley - many more steep climbs, and places where the trail is on bare granite that clearly shows glacial scouring. Far below, sometimes almost straight below, the river can be heard thundering its way to the sea. In the winter, the historic trail went up the frozen surface of the river, but in the summer it was described as "the worst piece of trail on the road, fairly muddy with many boulders and with some short, steep ascents and descents in and out of small gulches."

      Sheep Camp is an extremely pleasant campsite - there were birds singing in the light evening rain, a large waterfall tumbling down a distant cliff, and the smell - well, after a Yukon winter, I could get drunk on the smell of a wet coastal forest! And with friendly neighbours even - as I stepped out of the warming tent in the morning, a small brown-coated black bear sauntered by about 50 feet away, with only a casual glance at me. It took me almost an hour to get my gear together and waterproofed against what was almost certain to be a nasty day, weather-wise. With about a 4,000-foot ragged ceiling and patches of mist much lower, the upper end of the valley looked very impressive.

      Sheep Camp was historically the last camp before treeline was reached. Although overgrown now, this was the first place where I was able to feel the aura of the stampede. It's hard to believe now that Sheep Camp was a city, 2 streets wide and a mile long, with an aerial tramway clattering over the saloons, hotels, laundries and restaurants. It struck me that 100 years ago to the day, the most common feeling on the trail would probably have been despair. As spring progressed, the flowers and the birds would reinforce the rumours that were spreading that everyone on the trail was too late, that there was no ground left to stake in the Klondike. Artifacts become more and more common as the stampeders continually re-evaluated what was absolutely necessary to carry across the ever-steeper trail.

      Just above Sheep Camp, the trees were left behind, and with snow starting to appear in the rain, the real drama of the Chilkoot Trail began...

      After hiking in heavy forest since leaving Dyea, it's quite a shock to get above Sheep Camp and suddenly find yourself in a tight valley that appears to be just one huge avalanche zone. But once above the trees, the aura of the Klondike strengthens rapidly, and that aura is enhanced by the avalanche devastation - ragged clouds hide the peaks and are dropping snow as well as rain, all signs of spring are gone, and artifacts from the stampede become increasingly obvious - a stove lid here, a tramway wheel there, and wire and cable in many places alongside the trail. It reminds me of the stunts that the Engineers at the University of British Columbia used to pull every spring, like suspending a Volkswagen from the Lions Gate Bridge, prompting "how in hell did they do that?" head-shaking from passers-by.

      "The Scales" became a notorious location over the winter of 1897-98, a place where packers would re-weigh their loads and increase their rates for the final climb to the summit. It's easy to see why this was a very effective negotiating position - the route ahead is awesome. Many stampeders gave up here, and either sold their outfits cheaply, or abandoned everything. The Scales supported 6 restaurants, 2 hotels, a saloon and many freighting offices and warehouses - when I arrived, the remains were all buried under about 4 feet of snow.

      There is a "false summit" just past The Scales that many modern hikers find discouraging when they realize that the real climb, the Golden Stairs, is still ahead, so be ready for it.

      Regardless of how many photographs of the Golden Stairs you've seen, the first view of it is truly shocking - if there is still snow on it, it looks impossible to climb. A raging blizzard was blowing as I approached (heavy snow, with winds of about 40mph) - with the knowledge that if anything went wrong, help could be days away, my first view could better be described as terrifying! But I knew that there could be no better way to relive the Stampede, and the situation was exciting in the extreme.

      There were perhaps 5 sets of footprints ahead of me, and they were filling rapidly with fresh snow. For some reason that I couldn't fathom, the hikers over the past few days had all taken somewhat different routes up the Golden Stairs, instead of using the steps kicked in the snow by the first one across. A couple of times, I tried to look back to see where I had come from, but looking down into the swirling mist and snow was quite disorienting, so I turned to just concentrating on getting over the top.

      I had brought my heavy 300mm telephoto lens so that I could get some good photos from the Summit. But the visibility on top was only about 100 feet, and after a climb like that, getting into the warming hut, out of the wind, seemed much more important than photography.

      Just as I was taking a photo out the door of the warming hut before continuing on, 2 Parks Canada rangers appeared out of the storm. They had been dropped off by a helicopter a couple of miles away, and had hiked in to start preparing their quarters for the summer. Their first job was to find the cabin! Actually, their first job was to ask if I had my $35 trail permit - keeping the trail historically accurate, I guess, as collecting money was one of the primary functions of the Mounties who were posted at the Summit in 1898.

      Once you're over the Summit, it feels like it takes forever to get to the next campsite, at Happy Camp - the rangers advise that you should figure on 10 hours to hike the 7.5 miles from Sheep Camp to Happy Camp, and it's very good advice. The country you pass through is spectacular, with many lakes - for me, as for the stampeders, the frozen lakes provided a beautifully level trail, although the exact route was very hard to discern for long stretches. The snow conditions were awful for hiking, and I cursed the ranger at the Visitor Center who said that snowshoes were not necessary! Postholing up to my knees, and occasionally deeper, was exhausting, and a small set of bear-paws would have made life much easier. Short stretches of trail that had been blown clear of snow provided only momentary relief.

      Approaching Deep Lake at 9:15, the view of the sun setting on the distant mountains, visible through a broken layer in the clouds, was glorious. After checking out the Deep Lake campground, I decided to continue on to Lindeman, mostly to get out of the snow. It wasn't until passing the bottom end of Deep Lake, at about 10:00 PM, that the trail finally cleared. From Happy Camp to Lindeman is in some ways the best part of the trail, with expansive views, gentle grades (except for a bit of ridge-work above Long Lake), and a great feeling of accomplishment tucked away safely in your vest pocket.

The Dyea Trail
February 25, 1898:

"Homer Rambo won $1,850 last night on a wager that he could go from Dyea to Lake Linderman in ten hours. He accomplished the journey in 8 1/2 hours."

 

      At Lindeman Lake, there are signs of the gold rush everywhere, but only if you watch closely. Most evident are terraces built into the sidehills to hold the tents of some of the thousands of people who were building boats in which to continue their journey to the Klondike.

      After spending 15 hours on the trail from Sheep Camp to Lindeman, I probably could have slept curled up in the boughs of a pine tree! But, the next morning I was refreshed, and spent about 3 hours exploring the area. The only substantial reminder of the gold rush is a cemetery, located on a terrace above the site of Lindeman City - 11 graves, with the names on the wooden crosses no longer visible. Who were these people whose dreams ended here? To a large degree, The Klondike Gold Rush has become a vision, not of people with names and families and dreams and fears, but of tens of thousands of people moving as if they were chained together, and the individuals who created that spectacle have become as lost in history as they were in the faceless crowds of the stampede.

      During my explorations at Lindeman, I met a couple from California who, between heavy packs and 'punchy' snow, were having a rather difficult trip. When they stopped at Happy Camp, they had met a young Czechoslovakian man who was traveling light and fast, carrying only a sleeping bag (which was soaking wet), and beer and Mars bars for nourishment!! The Chilkoot has an enviable safety record, but it certainly isn't because everybody is well prepared!

      Although the net elevation gain from Lindeman to Lake Bennett is a negative figure, the trail has other plans for you - it climbs high onto a ridge overlooking Lindeman. Thankfully, trail crews have set up boards on rocks as resting spots on each of the hills. The character of the trail has changed dramatically now, and it's not just the lack of snow. You are now in the rain shadow of the coastal mountains, and the forests of the Yukon (OK, it's technically BC!) look so, so ... peaceful compared to the lush chaos of the coast. Many hikers now take a side-trail just past Bare Loon Lake (about half-way down Lindeman Lake) which cuts off almost 8 miles from the trail, with Log Cabin figuring as most people's finishing point. From Log Cabin, the buses of Yukon Alaska Tourist Tours offer rides back to Skagway or on to Whitehorse twice each day (check their schedules before leaving Skagway, and please tell them that Murray sent you). If you continue on to Bennett, the only option is to ride the White Pass & Yukon back to Fraser, where you connect with buses.

      I'm sorry to hear of so many people bypassing Bennett - as well as being one of the most significant towns in Northern history, the church, railway station and plentiful artifacts give Bennett a very special place in the journals of most personal explorations of the Klondike rush...

To Part 2

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