The Meanest 33 Miles of History

The Yukon.

A place on the edge of the world, where men and women flocked in the thousands to stake their fortune. Vast wealth could be made here, and lives lost in the pursuit of it. A land of -40C winters, endless sunlight, and instant riches, it called to the reckless, the daring, the brave, and the adventurous.

In 1898, over 100,000 people undertook the gruelling, often fatal, journey to the gold fields of the Klondike in the northern Yukon. It was a stampede like no other. Only one third of them* reached their destination; the rest either gave up, or died from starvation, suicide, murder, or avalanche.

It’s known as the Meanest 33 Miles of History.**

And now, we were going to hike that trail.

But, first: a little history about the gold rush, a two year frenzy that changed the face of the Yukon and Alaska forever.

In 1896, the US was in the grips of a great depression that had begun in 1893. Although there had been periods of economic uptick in the last five years, by 1896 much of America was broke, unemployed, and desperate.

Further north, three prospectors in the Yukon found gold, and, almost a year later, on July 14th 1897, the steamer Excelsior landed in San Francisco carrying their haul – three quarters of a million dollars of Klondike gold.

And just like that, the Klondike gold rush was on.

People swarmed in from all over the world – particularly from the cash-strapped US – drawn by the promise of rivers running yellow in the far north. The only problem was that back in 1898, Alaska and the Yukon were still wild, untamed places. There were no roads to the gold fields; those going there would have to make their own route.

Most prospectors began in Seattle, boarding ships bound for south-east Alaska. This worked out great for Seattle; the city quickly discovered its entrepreneurial side and made a lot of money selling mining packages to the throngs of people who passed through the city on their way north.

Once in Alaska, the prospectors faced their first challenge. Since the entire country is mostly mountains, with a few glaciers and some bears to keep things interesting, the prospectors had to find their way over the coast mountain range to get into the interior Yukon.

Fortunately, there were two already-established native trading routes that they could take through the mountains.

The first was the White Pass. Initially this was the more popular route. It was longer, but the pass wasn’t as high, and, critically, it was advertised as suitable for pack horses.

This was a big deal, as the Canadian government had taken one look at the thousands of prospectors coming from places like California and Australia, and realised that they probably had no clue what was in store for them in a northern Canadian winter.

Since the North-West Mounted Police didn’t really feel like spending October rescuing 100,000 freezing, starving prospectors, they stipulated that those wanting to enter the Klondike needed to bring a years worth of supplies with them. The total packing list weighed in at roughly one ton (900kg). That was one ton that the prospectors needed to carry up and down over those mountain passes.

Unless they could use a pack horse.

These days, the train from the Yukon down to Skagway runs along the old White Pass route. It passes by a place called “Dead Horse Gulch” where the bones of over 3,000 horses lie.

Jack London was one of the prospectors to travel to the Klondike. He wrote about the treatment of the horses along the White Pass:

The horses died like mosquitoes in the first frost and from Skagway to Bennett they rotted in heaps; they died at the rocks, they were poisoned at the summit, and they starved at the lakes; they fell off the trail, what there was of it, and they went through it, in the river they drowned under their loads or were smashed to pieces against the boulders; they snapped their legs in the crevices and broke their backs falling backwards with their packs; in the sloughs they sank from sight and were smothered in the slime; and they were disemboweled in the bogs where corduroy logs turned end up in the mud—men shot them, worked them to death and when they were gone went back to the beach and bought more. Some did not bother to shoot them, stripping the saddles off and the shoes and leaving them where they fell. Their hearts turned to stone—those that did not break—and they became beasts, the men on the Dead Horse Trail.

The White Pass trail soon became known as the Dead Horse Trail, and by late 1897, had deteriorated so much it became impassable, and was closed down.

This left the other option, the Chilkoot Trail.

This route left from Dyea, a town a few miles to the west of Skagway that had sprung up almost overnight as a stepping off point for the trail. The Chilkoot was shorter – only 33 miles compared to 40 miles – but higher and steeper, with a final climb so steep it is impossible for pack animals to make it.

This was the trail we had decided would be fun to spend our summer vacation hiking.

Fortunately for us though, the Chilkoot is now a well-maintained historical trail, co-managed by the US and Canada, with camp-grounds, bear lockers and warming shelters. It’s actually now (hopefully) pretty hard to die on the Chilkoot.

From Whitehorse, we caught the White Pass train down to Skagway. Even though it was apparently the middle of summer, rain and fog haunted our trip through the pass, turning the high mountain landscapes into eerie alien wastelands.

White Pass Route

The view from the train near the summit of the White Pass route

Once in Skagway, we headed into the US Parks Service to pick up our trail passes and register. The ranger gave us a rundown on the trail.

“This is a challenging hike. It is not for beginners. If you get into trouble, we can helicopter you off the mountain, however that will cost $2,500.” Okay, that wasn’t too bad. A little pricey, but it wouldn’t bankrupt me.

“The helicopter will bring you back to Skagway. Now, we don’t have a hospital in Skagway, so if you need one, you will be airlifted to Juneau. That will cost $20,000.”

I made a mental note not to get hurt until we reached the Canadian part of the trail.

Once we were done being terrified by the US parks service, we caught a shuttle to Dyea. At the height of the gold rush, this was a bustling town of 9,000 people. Now, there are only a few rotting planks and a graveyard left to show where the town used to be. Everything else was abandoned as soon as the gold rush ended.

I was worried about our schedule; our train had been delayed, meaning it was already 3pm, and we still needed to hike twelve kilometres to our first campsite.

“Do you think we should make camp earlier along the trail?” I asked my boyfriend.

“I don’t know. What time does it get dark here?”

“August.”

“Yeah, we should be fine.”

On that note, we started the hike. The trail wound north through coastal rainforest, crossing streams and beaver ponds on suspension bridges and wooden planks; low-lying fog continued to hug the rivers and hills around us, giving the trail a quiet, preternatural feel.

Chilkoot trail fog along the river

Low-lying fog along the hills and rivers of the Chilkoot trail. In the distance, river rafters braved the cold waters.

_DSC1233

Crossing one sketchy looking suspension bridge. In fact, it wasn’t just sketchy looking… US Parks had a notice saying it was sketchy and to cross with care.

Our first night we camped at Canyon City campground; I had expected the campground to be full, but we were the only ones there. It’s a little unsettling trying to sleep inside a tent when you’re alone in bear country; you realise very quickly just how thin the fabric of the tent wall that’s keeping you separated from the bears is. Especially compared to how sharp the bear’s claws are.

Instead, we unrolled our sleeping mats inside the warming hut, lit a fire in the pot-bellied stove, and went to sleep. This is frowned upon by the Park Rangers, but I was a little less scared of them than I was of a grizzly.

We had completed the first day of our hike in good shape, but our hardest day, the push over the summit, was still to come.

To be continued… 

*ish. There are no exact numbers, so I went off the population size of Dawson City, which was estimated at 30,000. Either way, a lot of folks didn’t make it.

** Okay, I’m pretty sure that things like the Trail of Tears, and the Road of Bones were meaner, but this is probably one of the most fatal 33 mile treks that anyone voluntarily undertook.

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