On the trail again – literally
In late April when my friend Kathy Hosford announced she was organizing a 5-day Chilkoot Trail backpacking trip, I knew it was time to pull the pack out of the attic, break in some boots and train for the trek. Kathy and her husband Fred run the Chilkoot Trail Outpost in Dyea – seven miles outside Skagway and just half a mile from the trailhead. Fred was born in Skagway yet Kathy had never gotten around to hiking the famous route. Knowing there were others in her orbit who might be interested, she dreamt up “Chicks over the Chilkoot” for women of similar age ready to hit the trail.
And so it was that a week ago today, with four companions ages 53-62, I reached the summit of the Chilkoot Pass. The last time I’d strapped on a pack was in 1972 and my most recent tent camping experience was the two month excursion that took us to Alaska in 1976. Living in Juneau had somehow dampened my desire for camping and backpacking – between the mud, mosquitoes and mere thought of bears lurking in the shadows, it seemed sensible to transition to a cabin or boat to acquire the wilderness experience. But the story of the miners’ 1896-99 rush to the Klondike goldfields was legend and hiking the historic 33-mile trail was something I had always expected to do.
What made Kathy’s offer hard to resist was the fact we’d be accompanied by a “Sherpa” to carry the cooking equipment, fuel, food and first aid kit. This left the ladies laden with only their tents, sleeping bags and personal gear – between 25-30 lbs. each. Tim Bourcy’s Packer Expeditions in Skagway provided the guide service, every element customized to our needs and desires. Our Sherpa/guide, Kip, even cooked dinner for us every night and had the hot water ready every morning.
Everything about the trip was diverse – the weather, scenery, terrain and hikers on the trail. The first two days brought basic Southeast summer weather – dry but cool and turning to drizzle by the end of the second day. Heavy rain set in that evening and continued through the night. We managed – because as Kathy reminded us – when you are outdoors in Alaska, there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.
We pulled on our rainpants, struck our tents in the downpour and were trudging along the muddy trail by 7:00 am. Rain and snow melt had swollen the creeks and streams, only a few of which had rudimentary bridges. We rock-hopped across several more, some deeper and scarier than others. By noon of that third and longest day the rain cleared.
About the time we had climbed above the tree line we were met by two additional “thunder bucks” from Packer who took our tents to lighten our loads before the really hard part began. Soon we arrived at the “Scales” where in 1898 at the base of the pass the Canadian Mounties brought scales to weigh the supplies of those heading for the goldfields. To enter Canada, each person was required to have 2,000 lbs. of provisions, clothing and equipment. From the Scales we began the climb up the “Golden Stairs” to gain the final 1,000 feet of elevation. It’s an all-fours, half-mile scramble up big boulders at a 45 percent grade. There’s no trail – just orange plastic poles to guide you up to the foggy, misty, magnificent summit.
Just a few feet before reaching the 3,700 foot summit (the border of the U.S and Canada) is a commemorative plaque erected at the site in 1968. It reads: “In 1897 Klondike stampeders by the thousands funneled over this ancient Indian trail enduring incredible deprivations and hardships. Their tenacious spirit dominating all obstacles continues to inspire pioneers venturing north to the future.”
It was close to 4:00 pm when we were greeted by the Canadian warden, Christine, who welcomed us into her cozy cabin at the summit, her kettles brimming with boiling water for our tea, broth or hot chocolate. There were toasts, snacks, photographs and the necessary visits to the outhouse before beginning our descent across the barren Alpine landscape. Crossing a glacier, and more snow than I expected in early July, we hiked along the shores of beautiful blue lakes before arriving at aptly named “Happy Camp” around 9:00 pm. The “thunder bucks” had charged ahead to pitch the tents so by the time we ate dinner, the rain-soaked tents had dried out.
Day 4 was a dry and leisurely 8.5 mile trek to Bare Loon Lake while the final four-mile stretch on Day 5 to Bennett Lake was reminiscent of hiking in sunny southern California.
Parks Canada allows only 50 people per day to traverse the summit and we met many of them in campground warm-up shelters along the way – families, groups, couples, and even a few solitary hikers – from Whitehorse, Australia, Switzerland, Germany, Michigan, Manitoba, Anchorage, Juneau and Skagway – sharing snacks, bandaids, stories and finally at Bennett the satisfaction and exhilaration of success.
While there is no shortage of spectacular scenery in Alaska, the Chilkoot Trail provides one of the best opportunities to see it all – meadows, forests, lakes, glaciers, gold rush artifacts, wildflowers and alpine terrain. For those who need or enjoy an excuse to get in shape, the Chilkoot is a wonderful motivator. My six week investment in serious uphill hikes prior to the trip provided a payoff that included no blisters, sore muscles or stiff joints. (Okay, we took plenty of Advil…)
Our final few hours in Bennett were spent exploring the abandoned town and dining on beef stew and apple pie in the White Pass & Yukon Route depot. Shortly after the train arrived, we loaded our backpacks in the box car and climbed aboard to return to Skagway on the same narrow gauge railroad that rendered the Chilkoot Trail obsolete in 1899.