By Dick Postma
So you think that you want to go for a hike do you? Well how about The Chilkoot Trail? It is only 33 miles long and has an elevation of 3700 feet. The first 100 feet is perfectly level. Then the real fun begins. Now let me explain before I get too far ahead of myself.
The Chilkoot Trail was originally used by the Tlingit Indians as a trading route from the Pacific Ocean, Skagway Ak., to the interior of the Yukon. Then in 1896 gold was found in the Klondike region of the Yukon territory and the rush was on. Thousands of would be gold miners found this to be the shortest and fastest way to the Klondike. Most of the journey was done in the winter when the river was frozen and the pass filled with snow and ice. This made it easier to carry all of their supplies to the Scales where the final ascent was made. The Scales is where the Canadians had brought in scales to weigh the miners supplies before entering into Canada which was the summit of Chilkoot Pass. A ton of supplies was required.(See note 1 ) Then it was up a steep 1000+ feet to the top. Stair steps were cut into the ice and snow, thus the term Golden Stairs was born. After 40 - 50 trips up and down the Golden Stairs the would be miners headed for Lake Bennett where they could build boats and continue down the Yukon River to the gold fields of the Klondike.
Having said all of that, keep in mind that most of the journey was done in the winter, now let me tell you about the trail in the summer, July 28 to August 2, 1997 specifically.
I'm, Dick, 58 years old and have been fairly active most of my life. I am a retired police officer and race off road motorcycles in the desert and down in Baja Mexico so as you can tell I should be in so - so shape. Now on the other hand my wife, Leona is 60 years old and is the perfect grandmother to our 5 grandkids. Her exercise was carrying groceries out to the car and normal house work. I am not saying that that is not hard work. What I am saying is that it is not the kind of activity that lends itself to back packing and hiking. Basically our camping out consisted of loading our 36 foot 5th wheel trailer with all of the conveniences of home and going further out into the desert to ride and race motorcycles.
Well in February 97 Leona heard about the trail from a friend whose wife was going to do the hike and said "that sounds like fun, letís do it"." OK" I said not wanting to dampen her spirits. I then started to do some research on the trail. A lot was found on the Internet and books were bought. I even was able to contact Parks Canada via e mail and get their literature. One of the first things that you read is that the trail is not for a beginner. I am not sure what category we fit into but if there is anything before a beginner that is where we were. We have never really let little things like that stop us from doing something, so the planning stage began.
I tried to tell Leona how difficult it was going to be and that we needed to get into shape. That was kind of an insult as she said that she takes walks all the time. We went on several walks right out of our back door. We are blessed with miles of desert that we can hike in and even have good size hills to climb.
At the same time I started researching equipment, boy this stuff is not cheap. With the help of REI and Sports Chalet I got what I later learned to be exactly what was needed for the 5 nights and 6 days on the trail. I will discuss that later.
As June progressed our training became more serious. We were now hiking with partly loaded back packs up on the Pacific Crest Tail and even camped out one night. Now no one could say we were beginners. We were seasoned veterans having spent one night out on the trail. At this point I was starting to really badger Leona about working harder because I was learning more about the trail.
Mid July rolled around and we headed north, in our home away from home, 5th wheel RV trailer. Our first stop was Belgrade Mt. to take in a family reunion. There we were met by our friends from Canada, Ekke and Magda Kok. Magda had just hiked the trail with her 66 year old sister and a friend. Magda even had video pictures of the trail. Oh what beautiful country and it did not look too bad. All Magda said was the she would not want to climb the last 1000 meters to the summit again. After all how bad can a 1000 meters be.
Itís off to Skagway Alaska via the Alaska Highway. Our plans were to park our RV in Carcross on the shores of Lake Bennett and then drive the truck to Skagway and take a shuttle to the trailhead at Dyea. Everthing was working out as we had planned. We even made arrangements with the shuttle service to pick us up at a place called Log Cabin which is on the road to Skagway from Whitehorse and 9 miles from Bennett City which was our destination.
Leona is starting to have second thoughts and I am getting a little nervous myself.
This is it. We loaded both back packs in to the truck and headed for Skagway to the offices of Chilkoot Express Shuttle Services. We got there about an hour early so itís off to a local café for breakfast, Mexican omelets, just what we needed to start a hike. Back to the shuttle service and head out to the trailhead along with three other guys from the Seattle area. The guys from Seattle had backpacks that must have weighed 75 lbs each, the driver was having a time loading them in the van. I felt good that mine was probably about 45 lbs and Leonasí about 35 this later became a matter of great discussion and consternation.
Here we are at the trailhead, note that the first stop would be the restroom. Check out the nice big smile on Leona's face.
It was now 11:15 AM and the hike was on. The first 100 feet was level and then the fun began. The trail started to climb with a set of stair step rocks and roots for the next 50 or so feet. All of the literature described the first part of the hike as being in a rain forest. We were not quite sure what a rain forest was as we were a couple of desert rats from the Mojave Desert. It was absolutely beautiful, large ferns, plants with leaves the size of plates, moss on every thing , water coming out of the ground all over, and trees that blocked out the sun. The trail was well defined with the shoe prints of hikers who had gone on before us. Nothing was dry, if you brushed up against a plant you would get wet.
Our first nights camp was to be at Canyon City, the site of a gold rush boom town some 7.8 miles up the trail. 7.8 that didnít seem to bad after all we could knock off 2 - 3 miles in an hour back home in the desert. After about an hour of up hill and down hill our legs were going fast. We were told by the park ranges in Skagway that we were to encounter some flooding of a beaver pond about 2 ½ miles up the trail. Another hour or so later we were wondering where the flooding was and who had measured the mileage. We did not seem to be making much headway. Finally the trail did start to level out and sure enough we found the flooding.It was not too bad, maybe a few inches to a foot deep. There were poles, branches and high ground to walk on but still you were forced to walk in mud and water for about 300 feet. At 4.9 miles we were to come to a place called Finnegans Point. When we finally arrived we were sure that we had hiked at least 8 or 9 miles. Leona was starting to fade fast and I was no bundle of energy. I am sure if I had said letís go back she would have been walking the other way before I finished saying it.
The trail followed the Taiya River and had risen some 500 feet at Canyon City camp. The terrain next to the river was so steep that the trail had to move inland, going up and down, some times as much as 2 -3 hundred feet then back down to the river and up again to get around a cliff. At about 4:30 it started to rain so we stopped and put on our rain gear. I was kind of excited about doing that because now I could justify buying that expensive Gor-tex jacket and pants.
We arrived at Canyon City at 5:30 PM and found that there were some 15 or 20 campers there ahead of us. There was a log warm up shelter with a wood heating stove in case you were wet and needed to dry out. This is where all of the meals were to be prepared and eaten. There was to be no food at your camp site as that might attract bears. In addition to that all food and anything that smelled had to be hung from a bear pole at night. A bear pole is a horizontal pole some 12 to 15 feet in the air and you would throw a rope over it and hoist your food or pack up to the top. After resting a few minutes I started pitching the tent, no big deal we were vets now and had pitched it at least 3 other time. That only took 15 minutes, had to work fast or else Leona would have crawled into some elses tent and crashed. As soon as it was erected and the mattress and sleeping bags were in so was Leona and out like a light. I on the other hand was starving so I set out to cook the evening meal which was going to be some onion soup with rice and some freeze-dried sweet and sour pork. Just boil some water and add to the soup and freeze-dried and presto a meal fit for a king. I am not kidding it was really good, I ate the whole thing, could not wake Leona up. Now I crashed, did not realize that I could be so tired.
Destination Sheep Camp, not sure why they called it Sheep Camp. It was more of the same, up and down hill but we did climb another 500 feet. From here we would start early in the morning and go over the Chilkoot Pass then on to Happy Camp. The scenery was breathtaking and I mean that in every sense, again we were dog tired when we made it into camp. The Park Ranger gave a short talk that evening and gave us an update on the weather and trail conditions. He also told us that it would take about 12 - 14 hrs to hike to the next camping area, Happy Camp. He did not know how slow we were.
We were on the trail by 7:00 am for some serious hiking. We were at 1000 feet elevation and had to climb another 2700 feet to the summit of Chilkoot Pass in a little over 3 miles. After that there was another 4 ½ miles to go to Happy Camp. Right from the start the trail started going up and up and up. Still the forest was lush and green but before the day was over we would be above the tree line. We began encountering rock slides with boulders the size of TV sets to houses. There was no more trail but a route marked with rocks stacked one on top of another. On the other side of the river and atop the mountains were several glaciers, streams, and water falls. Quite a sight to behold.
The trail got so steep that I thought that we were on the Golden Stairs but we had not yet come to the Scales. The Scales was right at the base of the Golden Stairs and was used by the Canadian Mounties to make sure that the miners had the "ton of supplies" before entering into Canada. The summit is the border between U S of A and Canada. Finally around 4 p.m. we got to the Scales, we were really running behind schedule. This was such a small area that it was hard to imagine the small tent city that sprung up here in the 1897 /98 / 99 gold rush.
From here we could see the so called Golden Stairs, a rock slide some 1000 feet high and at an angle of 45 degrees. No turning back at this point, it was do or die and the die part was a possibility. No trail but only poles stuck in the rocks to mark the route, from here it was take the path of least resistance.
We got to what I thought was the summit but wait this is not it. It just levels out for a few feet, crosses some snow patches and more rocks to climb. Again another summit, nope the same thing, more snow pack and gnarly rocks to climb. This occurred one or two times more before we finally got to the top and each time the trail or route became more treacherous. Large crevices to jump over and slippery ice and snow packs to hike up. Near the summit we came across an old two cylinder gas powered winch that had been used on the tram that was built in 1899. It was now resting between two large rocks and would remain there until it rusted away probably hundreds of years in the future.
At this point I was amazed at how well Leona was doing. I knew that she was hurting and very tired but she kept climbing. My greatest fear was that she would twist an ankle or maybe a rock would break loose from me and hit her.
5:30 p.m. , we made it. By this time a storm was coming in and it was drizzling and very foggy We could see a small warm up shelter and the rangers cabin. I walked up to the rangers cabin to let him know that we had made it and that we were probably the last ones over the top today. The ranger, a very nice young man, looked at his watch and said " it will be late, close to 10:30 before you get to Happy Camp. You can stay in the warm up shelter if you like". That was music to our ears as we could not have gone another mile. We spread our sleeping bags out on the floor then started cooking. Freeze-dried beef stew, boy was that good and a little hot chocolate to drink. After we ate the ranger invited us up to his cabin for tea before we turned in. We had a very nice visit, I am sorry that I did not get his name so it could be include in this story. He told us that he spent his summers down south. I ask him where he lived the rest of the time. He replied "Inuvik". I had seen Inuvik on the map before and knew that it was several hundred miles north of Dawson City near the Beauford Sea in the Arctic Ocean, what a life style.
We woke up tired but anxious to get under way. We knew that it was going to be a long day because we did not make it to Happy Camp. We would have to press on to Lindemen City camp some 9 ½ miles in order to stay on schedule. It was still foggy and drizzling out side so we donned our foul weather gear and set out. Going down was kind of eerie, we could not see far as the fog was quite thick and we were crossing a glacier. It was not as steep as the other side but still was a bit treacherous because of the slippery conditions. As the fog lifted we could start to see many magnificent sites.
Crater Lake was the first in a series of lakes that we encountered then came Morrow Lake. The terrain had changed to a boreal forest with fewer trees. We were able to see for miles. About half way to Happy Camp we came across a mountain sheep grazing on a lush grassy hillside. He did not seem to be very interested in our presence. We continued on down the trail and made it down to Happy Camp around noon. It was at this point that I thought the water filter was beginning to clog up so I began taking it apart and wouldnít you know it, I dropped the filter element on a rock and it broke into a million pieces. Talk about panic, I could see us dying of thirst for the rest of the trip. After getting over the initial shock I remembered that I had brought some iodine pills for purifying water and we could also boil the water if need be, but still I felt very stupid. Leona encountered some small furry animals a bit larger than mice that appeared to be on the verge of attacking her. Now Leonaís worst fear is mice, but at this point nobody or nothing was going to give her any crap. She held her ground and after making threats that she would apply great bodily harm on them if they came any closer, they ran in the other direction. I have never seen Leona stand up to these little beast before, hooray! We rested for a short while then continued on to Lindemen City camp. The next lake was Long Lake, again we had to climb up and around. There seemed to be no end to the climbing but at least the up hills were a bit shorter than the downhills. The trail dropped down between Long Lake and Deep Lake. Parks Canada is building a new camp site there that should be ready by the end of the hiking season.
From here the trail became more to our liking, even though we were descending we did not have to climb any more hills for the rest of the day. We saw many more old artifacts from the gold rush. One was the metal frame of a small canvas boat and several pieces of an old sled.
We made it into Lindemen City relatively early considering the 9 ½ miles that we had gone. After finding a camp site near the warm up shelter, the lake, and the out house we began to set up house keeping. By now the tent was going up in just a few minutes. The backpacks were unloaded, and the food was on the stove.
Lindemen City was also an outpost for Parks Canada. They had several tent shelters for park rangers and even a small museum with some very interesting pictures and stories about the gold rush days here at Lindemen City. This is where several thousand miners would wait out the winter till the ice broke and then continue on to Bennett Lake. There was a small cemetery on the side of a hill with graves of 14 or 15 miners that died during the gold rush.
Todayís hike would take us to our destination, Lake Bennett and Bennett City. But first we had another 500 ft climb to do.
This took us along a ridge that ran along the east side of Lindeman Lake. From that elevation we had an excellent view of Lindeman City and Lindeman Lake. Three miles down the trail we came to Bare Loon Lake, a small lake with lush marshy coves. I fully expected to see moose here but no luck. About ½ mile past Bare Loon Lake was the cut off trail that extended east to the narrow gage railroad tracks that went to Lake Bennett and beyond. From there you could hike back out to the highway at Log Cabin. Leona and I had discussed taking the cut off but that would mean that we would not see Bennett City. No way! It was off to Lake Bennett. The trail seemed to be a more gradual down hill which ran into what appeared to be a discontinued rail spur with no tracks . Hey what is this, sand, are we back in the desert? For the next mile or so we were hiking across a sandy area like you would find in my Mojave desert.
As I emerged out of a grove of trees I observed a large wood building with a tall pointed steeple. The building was covered with strips from logs that ran in a diagonal direction. I then realized that this was the church that I had seen pictures of at Bennett City. Leona came along a few minutes later and saw the same building and asked " what is this building doing out here" I said " honey we made it, this is Bennett City". She began to cry in disbelief, she could not believe that she had completed the Chilkoot Trail.
After setting up camp down near the edge of Lake Bennett, we scouted out the area. Old artifacts dotted the area, broken bottles, old stoves and washing machines, a small shed like building with a sign that read " Bennettsí leading department store". The railroad station that was built in 1899 / 1900 was just down the hill from the church. During the gold rush the forest had been completely decimated by the miners who used the lumber to build the flotilla of boats, barges, and rafts that were used to transport them to Dawson City. Now 100 years later nature had taken over and a new forest stood in itís place with little evidence of the deforestation that had taken place.
After the grand tour we made our supper, sweet and sour pork and hot chocolate. We would sleep well that night knowing that we had done what we had set out to do. Tomorrow we would hike down the railroad tracks to Log Cabin and meet the van that was to take us back to Skagway.
It was up early, 5:30 am, as we knew that we had to make good time going down the tracks 9 miles to Log Cabin. Log Cabin was once a small town that sprung up while building the railroad to Lake Bennett and now is a Parks Canada information point along highway 2 between Whitehorse and Skagway. I had told the van driver that we would make the 11:00 am pick up. We did not think that walking down a set of railroad tracks would be very tough. It was not in the sense that we had to hike up an down hills but it was up grade and the spacing on the railroad ties did not conform to our walking gait.
About a mile down the track we encountered our first bear sighting, a large black bear sow and two cubs playing on the railroad tracks. Now Leona had been blowing her whistle the entire hike to warn bears that we were in the neighborhood but now when she needed the whistle it could not be found. I was trying to get to higher ground along side of the tracks to get a better picture of the bears and Leona was looking for her whistle. After a minute or so the bears ambled off into the brush. I saw another bear about 3 miles down the track. This one appeared to be a young adult, black and brown in color, it could be either a black bear or brown bear, so take your pick.
The tracks seemed to go on and on. There were signs every mile giving the mileage to the Bennett railway station and with every sign the distance between them appeared to get longer. The rest of the hike was quite uneventful except that we were falling behind schedule. I had to go out ahead and get to Log Cabin before 11:00 am. We arrived at Log Cabin at 11:05 and the van was no where to be seen. It started to rain and we were wondering if we had missed the van but 20 minutes later it showed up. It was now truly overÖ or was it? How about a journey down the Yukon River from Lake Bennett to the Klondike and beyond to the Bering Sea?
Chilkoot Trail 1898 Supplies: McDougall and Secord Klondike Outfit List (clothing & food):