Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Jen Dulz, of Wasilla, stands on a ledge just below the summit of Chilkoot Pass on July 8, looking back at the twisting valley she just climbed.
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.
A view from the Canadian side of the pass looking down at Crater Lake in a volcanic caldera. Smoke from wildfires obscures the mountains in the distance.
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”