By Jenny Neyman
9:30 a.m. Wednesday, July 8, 2009 — The view looking back from the summit of the Chilkoot Pass is one of accomplishment.
Rimmed by glacier-strewn mountain tops, the rapidly descending trail used in the Klondike gold rush stampede of 1897-98 picks its way through the twisting valley floor below, over the boulders climbed, the snowfields traversed, the slippery streams forded and the aptly-named Long Hill ascended.
I admit it, I was feeling pretty pleased. I’d just lugged myself 16 miles and 3,700 feet up the trail since the day before, with three miles and 2,500 feet just since that morning. All the while oppressed by extra gravity from a pack that was inexplicably eight pounds heavier than the maximum, 30-percent-of-body-weight load I intended to take on the trip, and the foot blisters oozing to life inside my hiking boots.
I’d made decent time, even with my I-hate-mornings tendency of being the last hiker to the trailhead the day before and out of camp that morning. And I’d done it on my own, without anyone to rescue me from the turtle position I found myself in after failing to counterbalance my backpack while scrambling up an embankment, or anyone to pass the tent, cooking gear and other weighty items off to when I decided, at about Mile 8 the day before, that it was seriously somebody else’s turn to carry the dang things.
But just as the Chilkoot excels at instilling awe from the grandeur of the scenery and history of the trail, it is apt at squashing ego into perspective. Think you’re tough hauling 30 or 40 pounds 3,700 feet up the trail? Try lugging 100 pounds, like the Native Tlingit packers used to do for hire.
Think you made it to the top with energy to spare? Then hike back down, strap on another pack and do it again — 40 to 50 more times — like the prospectors had to do to haul up the year’s worth of food, gear and supplies that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police required them to have before they allowed passage across the border.
Feel like you made a sacrifice to be there, spending the time and money it takes to fly, ferry or drive to Skagway in Southeast Alaska, the jumping-off point for the trail? That’s nothing compared to the stampeders, who spent every cent they had in an already depressed economy, and left their jobs, homes, friends and loved ones behind just for the shot-in-the-dark, no-rational-chance-of-success dream of striking it rich in the Klondike.
For the stampeders, the 32-mile Chilkoot was a necessary evil, and a grueling and often lethal one, at that. It was the quickest and cheapest way to get to the Klondike gold fields in the Yukon. Once over the 16.5 miles and 3,700 feet of the pass, it was downhill another nine miles to Lake Lindeman, or 15.5 miles to Lake Bennett, where prospective prospectors built boats to travel the rest of the 500-plus miles to the gold fields by water.
If and when they made it to the Yukon, stampeders discovered the most lucrative claims had already been staked, and the vast majority left without the riches they had dreamed of and gambled on.
But judging from the journals, letters and other records of the gold rush, they took with them the wealth of memories that came from participating in what is now regarded as the most challenging, emblematic and exciting chapter of that era. Even if they didn’t have gold in their pockets, the images of the land and the trail still sparkled in their mind’s eye.
“There’s a land where the mountains are nameless,
And the rivers all run God knows where;
There are lives that are erring and aimless,
And deaths that just hang by a hair;
There are hardships that nobody reckons;
There are valleys unpeopled and still;
There’s a land — oh, it beckons and beckons,
And I want to go back — and I will.”
— Robert Service, “Spell of the Yukon”
Magic by the mile
The trail still offers a sense of the gold rush’s excitement and mystique.
“It just has a magic about it,” said Judy Morley, a hiker from Juneau.
Two thousand to 3,000 people come from all over the world each summer to experience it, said Christine Hedgecock, a resource management and public safety specialist for Parks Canada. The trail is one way, from Skagway to Bennett, B.C., with train ($95 for adults) and shuttle options for getting back to the trailhead. Hikers need a passport and trail permit to hike it, which are $53 for adults, and $11.70 to reserve campsites and a slot amongst the limited number of hikers allowed across the border each day.
That money doesn’t come close to covering the costs of maintaining the trail. Especially on the U.S. side, there’s quite a bit of trail maintenance work that goes on, Hedgecock said. On the Canadian side, the single biggest expense is maintaining the outhouses at all the campsites. Since the Canadian sites are above treeline, often in rocky areas, composting toilets aren’t feasible, so buckets are flown in and out by helicopter. If hikers were to foot the bill, that service alone would equal about $38 per day, per hiker, Hedgecock said.
Trail crews maintain bridges and campsites, shore up soggy spots in the trail, cut brush, restore cabins and mark paths through snow and rock fields. John Smarch, trail crew leader for Parks Canada, said he really enjoys the job.
He’s the great-great nephew of Skookum Jim, a Native of the Dakleiwedie Clan, who was one of the three prospectors of the first major gold strike in the Yukon, which started the rush.
“It’s been, to me, a very spiritual part in my life. I feel like I’m the caretaker of my ancestors’ trail,” he said.
Up for history
The trail begins in the lush, mossy, Southeast rainforest, winding along the silty blue, glacial-fed Taiya River. About 13.5 miles along, the trail starts a three-mile, 2,500-foot-plus climb above treeline to the summit at about 3,700 feet, where sweeping views of the twisting green valley below are framed by mountains crusted with talus fields and streaked with snow, which drips into waterfalls and streams along the trail.
Once over the summit, the first view is of the still ice-laden Crater Lake, cradled in a volcanic caldera. On the Canadian side, the trail winds 15.5 miles along the valley’s drainage, studded with deep blue alpine lakes and streams that tumble over waterfalls and slice through rocky canyons. This one trail presents hikers with vastly different topography and climate zones, and a chance to see the different flora and fauna that inhabit them.
The trail is also a walk through history. Though most of the remnants of the gold rush have been dismantled, disintegrated or carted off, some signs of the trail’s history remain. Most of it — discarded shoes, cans, broken bottles, twisted cable, rusty bedsprings — is old junk that has been there long enough to earn the title “artifacts,” instead of just litter. But it’s fun to look at, along with bigger items, like the restored log cabins, the elaborate yet abandoned wooden shell of a church at Lake Bennett, remnants from old boats,
machinery from the tramway that was built to transport goods over the pass, and rusty old cookstoves, washing machines and other items that someone, somewhere along the trail got tired of hauling. Hikers can look but not touch. It’s illegal to take any artifacts from the trail, and it’s extremely bad form to add any modern litter.
For Morley, her July trip was her fifth trek across the Chilkoot, this time introducing her friend Laura Doogan, of Juneau, to the trail. Morley said that each time she does it, she tells herself it’ll be her last, since the strenuous nature of the hike gets more and more challenging for her. But she hasn’t made good on that statement yet. The beauty of the trail, and the idea of sharing in history, keeps bringing her back.
“I think some of it is because of my dad, who’s been gone 22 years. He recited Robert Service. It seems like an odd bedtime story, I suppose, but my parents met in Alaska, on the Aleutian Islands. Alaska has been in our blood, I guess,” she said.
For Stan Crooke, of New Jersey, and David Greenockle, of Philadelphia, the Chilkoot was part of an Alaska trip meant to commemorate new stages in life, and just being alive to begin with. The trip was in celebration of Greenockle’s upcoming winter wedding, and of Crooke recovering from severe injuries sustained when he was run over by a truck the year before.
The second week in July also saw a troop of Boy Scouts from Evansville, Ind., on the trail. Of all the places they could have gone, the Scouts were set on Alaska. And of everything they could have done in Alaska, the Chilkoot was their top choice.
“They said they wanted to go to Alaska,” said Randy Boyer, troop leader. “We looked at tours, but they are so expensive. This is, too, but what you get out of it, the challenge and the beauty, you can’t get out of a tour bus.”
Jay Potter, a retired pilot, from Palmer, said he had always wanted to hike the trail, but it took surviving a bout of cancer two years ago to motivate him to actually do it. While in California for treatment, he and his wife, Fran, watched the movie “The Bucket List,” where two terminally ill cancer patients escape from the hospital and embark on a journey to fulfill their life dreams before they kick the bucket.
Fran asked what Jay thought of the movie.
“I said, ‘If I didn’t have cancer, it would be a really cool movie.’ But I did have cancer, so I wanted to do a bucket list,” he said.
At the top of his list was the Chilkoot Trail. An Alaska resident for 30 years, Jay said he’s always been interested in the state’s history. The history of the Chilkoot was particularly intriguing.
“The dedication and hard work it took for the people back then who endured it,” he said.
Stampeders did the trek in the winter, which made hauling gear in sleds over frozen streams feasible, and the snow made for easier travel over the rocky sections above treeline, especially the fabled, boulder-and-talus-field climb just below the summit, called the Golden Staircase. But it also meant increased danger of frostbite, hypothermia and avalanches. And that was on top of the already high risk of injury and death from all manner of other hazards, including accidents and falls, scurvy, an outbreak of spinal meningitis and the occasional violence from fellow stampeders.
While backpacking the well-maintained and patrolled trail today, in the summer, is nothing like the experience of the stampeders over 100 years ago, there is still an element of dedication and endurance to the trail. At age 63, Fran Potter, who vowed to hike the trail with her husband, knows that well.
“She said, ‘Well, we’re in this together, so I’ll walk it with you,’” Jay Potter said.
“That was a mistake,” Fran said. “About the second day of the hike, to me it became a matter of survival. Really, I was so concentrating on not stumbling or falling on the rocks,” she said.
There is a pronounced emphasis on safety today. Hikers get a briefing in trail conditions and safety when picking up their trail permits in Skagway, and there’s a list of recommended safety gear, including a first-aid kit and trekking poles to help in crossing streams and snowfields. Park rangers regularly patrol and are stationed along the trail, in the spirit of the gold rush-era Mounties who maintained a presence on the Chilkoot, in part to mark Canada’s border with the U.S., but mainly to enforce some sort of law and order along the trail.
As one ranger put it in an orientation session: “The Mounties had a motto: ‘No one dies in Canada.’”
Still, the Chilkoot, as with all backcountry trails, can be hazardous. Of the 40 or so people making the summit July 8, one had to be removed from the trail due to extreme fatigue and at least four people ended up sporting taped-up knees and ankles, mostly owing to the rocky and tree-root riddled footing on parts of the trail. Many more had layers of moleskin and duct tape cushioning blisters beneath their boots, and scrapes and bruises from banging shins and elbows against the rocks.
They also had developed a sense of camaraderie along the way, with hikers sharing first-aid supplies, checking on each other at campsites, keeping tabs on other groups’ whereabouts and doing whatever it took to get each other up the trail.
Boyer injured a knee the day before his Scout troop attempted the summit.
“I didn’t think I’d make it. I told them I’d go back, and they could go on ahead (with the other chaperone),” he said. “They wouldn’t have it. They said, ‘If you stay back, we stay back.’ So I said, ‘All right, let’s go.’ They wouldn’t let me quit. It’s been neat watching them come together so well.”
Hedgecock said it’s common for hikers to form bonds on the trail, since groups starting out at the same time tend to stay in the same campsites.
“People form lifelong friendships,” she said.
Hedgecock was credited as being a lifesaving friend to Fran Potter. She helped Fran make it up the Golden Staircase, set her and Jay up in the Parks Canada cabin at the summit, put them up in another cabin at Lake Lindeman, and took them by boat from Lake Lindeman to Bennett, so they wouldn’t miss their train ride back to Skagway.
“Christine was my guardian angel,” Fran said. “Without God and my guardian angel, I would never have made that rock wall. A lot of people were praying for me, I know that.”
Trail conditions, snowpack and weather have varied widely each of the five times Morley has done the trail, but she said the social element of it has been a constant.
“The people who hike it, everyone is very supportive of everyone else,” she said. “You hear all about how awful some of the people were on the stampede, but when you read some of the journals (written by stampeders available in campsites along the trail), they had a really Christian attitude. They were helpful. If you didn’t have help out here, you could be in real trouble.”
For Morley, feeling that link with fellow hikers today helps her feel even more connected to those who walked the route more than 100 years before, along the same deep-blue waters, the same towering mountains, the same delicate alpine shores. While not bankable in the literal sense, that experience is as good as gold.
“… I wanted the gold, and I sought it;
I scrabbled and mucked like a slave.
Was it famine or scurvy, I fought it;
I hurled my youth into a grave.
I wanted the gold, and I got it —
Came out with a fortune last fall —
Yet somehow life’s not what I thought it,
And somehow the gold isn’t all.
“No! There’s the land. (Have you seen it?)
It’s the cussedest land that I know,
From the big, dizzy mountains that screen it
To the deep, deathlike valleys below.
Some say God was tired when He made it;
Some say it’s a fine land to shun;
Maybe; but there’s some as would trade it
For no land on earth — and I’m one.”
— Robert Service, “Spell of the Yukon”