The Meanest 33 Miles of History: Part II

We continued on the second day, as the trail wended its way further north through coastal rainforest. We began to see the occasional artifact, left over from the gold rush, rusting by the side of the trail.

Chilkoot Trail tram boiler

The boiler from an old tram line. Those who could afford it, could have their ton of goods delivered to the summit.

We stopped for the night at Sheep Camp. This was the old prospector’s base as they hauled their goods over the pass; to carry one ton of goods, they made (on average) forty trips, carrying a fifty pound (22kg) pack each time.

I was planning on making one trip, carrying a 16kg pack. Not that I was going to let that stop me from complaining about how heavy my bag was. 

In the early evening, a US Park Ranger came to the camp and talked us through what to expect on our trail summit day.

“You will be cold. You will be wet. You will be miserable. There are many river crossings, and your socks will be soaked by the time you finish tomorrow. And to make things worse, your camp tomorrow night, Happy Camp, is cold, exposed, and doesn’t have a stove in the warming hut. It’s only called Happy Camp because you’ll be happy you get to stop hiking.”

US Park Rangers really know how to lift your spirits.

She continued with more good news. “The area past the summit is prone to rock falls in the afternoon. I recommend you leave by 6am to get past that section before lunch.”

Oh, good.

So, the following morning, we awoke at the irritatingly early hour of lets-not-get-killed-in-a-rock-slide-o’clock, packed up our tent, and hit the trail.

The hike started out with the aptly named “Long Hill”. Here the ground rose slowly but steadily, finally leaving behind the boreal forest (and its many, many mosquitoes) and entering alpine tundra.

Chilkoot trail river crossing on Long Hill

The US Park Ranger wasn’t kidding about the river crossings

No longer a well-worn path through the forest, the way forward was picked out with orange poles, and the silhouette of hikers cairns appearing through the fog. Even though it was mid-summer, stretches of snow still covered the route. We made our way forward with care, the snow icy and slick from the daily freezing and thawing cycles.

Chilkoot trail hiker's cairns showing the route

Cairns showing the route through the rocks

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Across the snow

Eventually, we reached the Golden Scales. This marked the end of Long Hill, and the start of the Golden Stairs,* the most treacherous and difficult part of the trail.

Here, the North-West Mounted Police weighed the goods of every prospector heading to the Klondike, and anyone with less than the required ton was turned back. Some failed prospectors, not really wanting to carry almost-but-not-quite-a-ton of goods back down the mountain they had just carried them up, abandoned them at the scales.

These days, the area is littered with artefacts from the gold rush. And, oddly, bones. Hopefully horse bones, but I’m not an expert.

Pick axe on the Chilkoot Trail

Abandoned pickaxe on the Chilkoot trail

This was also the site of one of the deadliest accidents on the Chilkoot. On Palm Sunday, 1898, several avalanches roared down the pass, killing between sixty-five and eighty people. All trips over the pass were cancelled for the next three days as prospectors, packers, and Mounties frantically dug to recover, at first, survivors, and then bodies.

There is a cemetery in Dyea where those victims whose family couldn’t be found, or those whose family couldn’t afford to ship the bodies home, are buried. It’s haunting to walk through and see every grave with the same date of death: April 3rd, 1898.

I began the Stairs with some trepidation. Unlike most hikes that like to spread their climb out over the entire length, the Chilkoot prefers to cram it all into one short half kilometre. The trail suddenly becomes almost vertical as it climbs up and over a rock field, filled with loose scree and boulders that you have to clamber up on all fours. It’s like an easy rock climb. Except, with no rope. On wet, slippery rocks. That move and occasionally like to fall half a kilometre down the cliff below you.

I began slowly making my way up, moving cautiously, making sure of my footing before shifting my weight. Mostly, I focussed on the few metres right in front of me, but at one point, apparently deciding to taunt gravity, I looked up to where the rocks vanished into the mist above. Unfortunately, this involved tilting my head back and straightening my back, pulling my centre of gravity backwards. Immediately, I felt my heavy backpack begin to pull me off the mountain. I threw myself forward, suddenly very fond of the boulder in front of me.

My boyfriend enjoyed this part of the hike. Because apparently my boyfriend is part mountain-goat.

The Stairs – because being steep and dangerous isn’t enough – also has two false summits, sections where you crest the rise thinking you’re done, only to see more rise ahead of you.

Then, finally it happened. The fluorescent orange hiking poles that the US Park Rangers use to mark the trail changed to silver poles with an orange flag – the markers used by Parks Canada. We were in Canada. The summit was mere metres ahead.

Thank god. We were back in the land of free health care.

Chilkoot trail summit

Arriving at the summit pass, rocking the dorkiest hat ever.

We stopped at the summit for a quick bite to eat before pushing onwards. We’d been hiking for five hours, and still had another three to cover before reaching camp.

Hiking down one snow-covered slope, too lazy to get my hiking poles off my backpack, I slipped and fell on my butt. I reached out a hand to stop myself from sliding to the bottom of the hill on the slick snow before deciding eh, what the heck and just went with it.

At the base of the hill, I picked myself up with nothing more than a wet behind, checked no one had seen my unique approach to descending, and continued on to Happy Camp.

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My boyfriend, taking the boring “walk carefully” style of descending

Happy Camp was everything the Park Ranger had said it would be, but I didn’t care. I was cold, wet, and my feet were definitely not loving anything in life any more. I staggered into the warming hut, kicked my boots off, and made dinner.

Rehydrated pasta never tasted so good.

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Hiking across alpine tundra in the fog

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Refilling our water bottles by Lake Lindeman

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Nearing Bennett Lake

From Happy Camp, we continued on to Bennett Lake, the end of the Chilkoot trail. Here, those prospectors who had made it over the pass spent the remainder of the winter building boats** while they waited for the ice to thaw. Once spring arrived, over seven thousand boats launched from Lindemann and Bennett Lakes, ready to undertake the remaining 800km trip to the Yukon by river.

But… if the prospectors thought it would be all plain sailing from there, they were wrong.  Between them and the Klondike goldfields lay several incredibly dangerous rapids. And, given that most of the prospectors were farmers, clerks, and factory workers, boat building and sailing were not exactly their strong points.

Several hundred people drowned before the North-West Mounted Police decided fine, they should probably do something about this as well, and introduced a number of safety rules, including vetting the boats before they could travel, and only allowing skilled captains to take boats through some of the most dangerous rapids. They also wrote a number on each boat, and carefully recorded the list of passengers in each, in order to more easily notify the next of kin if the boat sank.

Eventually, after almost a year of travel, the prospectors found themselves at Dawson City, ready to make their fortune from the rivers running with gold… only to find, by now, all of the good claims had been staked, and many of the reports of big strikes had been exaggerated.

The Klondike gold rush was over.

As news made its way back to Skagway, Bennett Lake and Dyea, prospectors abandoned the new towns overnight.

Most of those that reached Dawson City never made a penny from gold mining. On average, they had spent $1000 – a small fortune in those days – on the trip, only to turn around and head straight back home.

But even though the gold rush only lasted two years, it changed the face of the north forever. It opened up routes into the interior, and painted Alaska and the Yukon as the land of daring and adventure, where the brave go to seek their fortune.

We reached Bennett Lake in the evening of our own adventure. Tired, footsore, and hungry, we lit a fire in the warming hut and watched the calm waters of the lake as the mid summer sun considered setting.*** It was hard to imagine this quiet, remote place as a bustling town, complete with saloons, hotels, and a population in the thousands.

Chilkoot trail bennet lake

Evening at Bennett Lake

Today, Bennett Lake is not connected to any road system – this is, after all, still the wild, untamed North. The White Pass train from Skagway comes through on some days, but not all, which left us with the interesting question: how do we get home from here?

Fortunately, being still the wild, untamed, mostly-roadless-North, they’re pretty used to getting people out into the middle of nowhere and back again: they use float planes.

As I stepped onto the pontoon of the plane, ready to say goodbye to the Chilkoot trail, I understood that call of the wild that had brought so many people north.

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Best way to end a hike. Ever.

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Bennett Lake from the air, looking back at the mountains we’d come through

*Prospectors may not have been terribly imaginative when it came to naming things.

**And completely deforesting the surrounding area. By the end of the gold rush, there were no trees left for kilometres around Bennett Lake. As these are northern, slow-growing trees, it’ll take approximately another hundred years for all the forest to grow back. Hiking through the area, the soil suddenly becomes sand, and you see first hand the results of deforestation on an environment.

*** It ultimately decided against it.

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2 comments so far

  1. mustafa on

    can I get your email address.
    would like to ask you of something about moving and working in Canada.

  2. V on

    Good read and good pictures


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