Alaska: hiking the Chilkoot Trail

The gold’s gone but you can still get a rush on the spectacular Chilkoot Trail, the arduous route from Alaska to the Yukon that fortune hunters famously trudged in the 1890s.
By Justin Walker July 31, 2014 Reading Time: 11 Minutes Print this page

THEY CALLED THEM ‘stampeders’ – desperate men and women of the late 1890s who abandoned their everyday lives and rushed to the Yukon, in Canada’s far north, in search of riches. It was the Klondike Gold Rush and the fastest way for these fortune-hunters to chase their dreams was by traversing the Chilkoot Trail, an old, indigenous trade route (used by the Tlingit First Nations people).

At the time, it was the best-known and shortest way from the north-west coast across the mountains to the Yukon River and then to Dawson City and the gold fields.

It wasn’t easy; Canada’s North West Mounted Police (today’s Mounties) strictly enforced a “ton of goods” rule, ensuring prospectors had enough supplies to prevent starvation during the region’s unforgiving winter.

This ruling meant desperate adventurers had to drag, slide or carry their supplies, tied to sleds and on their backs, through the north-west coast’s dense rainforest, before slogging through snow on the way to – and then up – the steep Chilkoot Pass (1074m).

It was an impressive feat – rammed home to me as I take yet another break, well out of breath, midway up the Golden Staircase, the steep, rocky scramble to the pass summit, on this windy, cold summer’s day. And I am carrying a hell of a lot less weight than the stampeders’ old imperial tonne…

History of the Chilkoot Trail

Skagway is the gold rush town. Even now, more than a century later, the town retains that sense of adventure. Its location helps. In south-east Alaska, on the coast of the Alaskan Panhandle (named for its pan-like shape on a map), with deep-sea access, Skagway was the staging point for prospectors from all around the world.

Usually, they sailed via the Inside Passage, then stepped off the ship and – heeding the siren call of the far-off Klondike gold fields – pointed themselves straight at the Chilkoot Trail.

They were exciting times then, as they are now, for me, Ruby Range guide Niall, and my two fellow trekkers: Rob, a Canadian, and Birgitte, a super-fit, 60-plus adventurer from Germany.

We’ve just lobbed in town, having driven from Whitehorse, the Yukon Territory’s capital, across the US/Canada border into Alaska to reach the 53km Chilkoot Trail’s starting point, not far from the now-abandoned town of Dyea.

There is little left of Dyea today, but well before the gold rush, it was a Tlingit settlement and fur trading post. Its location, right beside the convergence of the Taiya River and Taiya Inlet, allowed boat and canoe access to trappers and traders plying the region’s other natural riches.

The township’s heyday, however, was during the gold rush, when it expanded to a transient population of about 10,000 – before the completion of the White Pass and Yukon Route railroad, which connected Skagway and Bennett.

This railroad effectively killed Dyea as a town and it also meant prospectors no longer had to risk their lives on the Chilkoot Trail and its high pass to get to Bennett. Still, there are far less beautiful spots to start a trek.

Fittingly, as we disembark and load up our backpacks at the trailhead – beside the Taiya’s rushing waters – we spot two canoes, laden with camping gear, coming down the river. The meeting of travellers on land and water is an unintended – but amusingly apt – nod to the adventurers who explored this region in the past.

Heading out on Alaska’s Chilkoot Trail

The Chilkoot Trail crosses an international border and, as a result, straddles two different park systems. In the USA, it’s in the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park; in Canada, it is part of the Chilkoot Trail National Historic Site.

Both names are a mouthful but fitting when you consider the size of the surrounding landscape and the heights reached over what is a relatively short distance.

The first 25.5km takes trekkers from sea level up to the alpine tundra around the Chilkoot Pass itself – an altitude gain of almost 1100m.

On our first day, however, we are taking it easy – our destination, Finnegan’s Point, is only 7.7km from the trailhead.

This first section is a more than pleasant introduction, as we travel through lush temperate coastal rainforest for most of the way, with the sound of the river for company.

The only interruption to the forest comes when we skirt along some boardwalk, over the tranquil Beaver Ponds, which belies its name with its impressive size. Drowned trees and large expanses of dark-tinged water break up the forest’s green in this section.

Finnegan’s Point once hosted an enterprising Pat Finnegan and his sons, who charged prospectors a toll for use of a bridge and small road. At one point during the height of the gold rush, there was a saloon/bar, restaurant and blacksmith on-site. Like the gold, though, the camp was short-lived, lasting not much more than 12 months before being abandoned.

For us, it is a welcome sight; even though we’ve only walked about 8km, the long drive from Whitehorse to Skagway, then getting all our supplies sorted, has made it seem a bloody long day.

We quickly deposit our food and other odorous items in the bear boxes (both black bears and grizzlies are found in this region), set up our tents as the rain descends, then kick back as Niall conjures up some nosh in the camp site’s permanent kitchen tent. Tomorrow, we go higher. After, that is, one small diversion…

Crossing the Taiya River to Canyon City

It is overcast the next morning as we step back on the track. The gloomy light adds a certain atmosphere to our visit to the remains of Canyon City, reached after crossing a suspension bridge over the Taiya River. The walk to the former settlement is a quick diversion – much like the story of Canyon City itself.

For years, aboriginal people had used the location – in the mouth of a canyon – as a camp site, but with the rush for gold it was transformed into a bustling settlement, thanks to the various freight companies who set up tramway powerhouses here.

The tramways operated between The Scales and the summit, with the transport companies running stampeders’ goods and equipment all the way over the mountains to Lindeman, where they could be loaded onto boats for the trip across Long Lake and beyond.

This resulted in a brief, but impressive township of 1500 people, with taverns, restaurants, doctors and even electric lighting being installed throughout Canyon City. Like Finnegan’s Point, Canyon City was short-lived; once the Skagway to Bennett train line was completed (and the railroad bought up the various tramways), the township, like the Chilkoot Trail itself, was rendered largely redundant.

We wander through a lush, green forest that has largely reclaimed the settlement site. The only remnants of its brief glory days are a large boiler, stamped “Dyea Klondike and Transportation Company”, and some discarded, rusted-out tools scattered about the forest, here and there.

Like the many people who converged here in the hope of fortune and glory, Canyon City’s moment in the sun lasted no time at all. It’s a sobering thought.

Hiking the Chilkoot Trail to Sheep’s Camp

Today is a middling day, distance- and effort-wise, says Niall. The news is greeted with gratitude. Although, as we start ascending more rugged, steeper terrain, I wonder if his comments weren’t laced with a wee bit of coercion.

Sheep’s Camp is the target – the name is unimaginative (sheep hunters used to base themselves at this spot before forays into the hills) but the walk is anything but. The landscape soon makes us forget we’re slowly rising in altitude.

We are still in the grips of the Pacific Northwest Coastal Forest and its thick clumps of cottonwood, alder and spruce trees. The clouded light adds a subtle, warm glow to these trees, giving the day’s walk a sublime atmosphere.

We encounter a few short, steep, rock-strewn pinches, but the day passes in near-silence as each of us soaks up the atmosphere. It is the calm before the storm.

The long haul through the Chilkoot Pass

The third day of the Chilkoot Trail is by far the biggest – not only in terms of elevation gained and effort required, but also because of the dramatic change in landscape and terrain. This 12.5km section, between Sheep Camp and Happy Camp, takes a long time (Canada Parks Service reports some trekkers take up to 12 hours) and is – as we move above the tree line to the alpine section – the most dangerous, due to the ever-present avalanche risk.

It was on 3 April 1898 (Palm Sunday) when that danger became a sad reality for the men and women seeking their fortunes: an avalanche, between Sheep Camp and the Scales, killed an estimated 70 people. The cause was attributed to a combination of warm southerly winds and heavy snow; hard to believe when you think how cold winter is in this part of the world.

It is no wonder, then, that the parks service requires a very early start for people starting from Sheep Camp then crossing the pass to Happy Camp; we’re up at 5am and on the track not long after.

The terrain changes quickly during the morning. The trees become less dense and there is a lot more rock both on the track and surrounding us as the valley walls – and the track itself – steepen. We follow a winding path up, with small, steep pinches along the way, and the rushing waters of myriad small creeks beside us.

It is mid-summer and there is still plenty of snow about, hence the fast-flowing waterways sprinkled along the valley’s walls. But thankfully, when we reach the Scales, after crossing a few small snow fields, there is none of the white stuff on the Golden Staircase itself – just an immense wall of large, near human-sized boulders that we now have to scramble up.

Most historical photos of the Chilkoot Pass show a long line of ant-sized stampeders attempting the pass in winter, and it is only when we arrive at the Scales that we really appreciate how hard it must have been.

Each stampeder had to have their goods and equipment re-weighed at the Scales to ensure they complied with the “ton of goods” requirement that allowed them to continue.

It is daunting enough for me, as I look up at the huge jumble of boulders we’re about to climb, with a not-so-nice 45-degree gradient to also overcome. It must have been heartbreaking for the already-exhausted prospectors who had to climb this pass – in freezing winter conditions – before dropping off their goods and then returning to the bottom to bring the next load up. Gold fever, indeed…

Reaching the Golden Staircase

The wind is intense as we near the top of the Golden Staircase. It’s taken a few pauses for me to get over the rock section, which has involved plenty of dragging myself (and my pack) up and over larger rocks, while skirting around smaller ones via faint paths.

I then curse my way past the invariable false summits – and plenty of gold-rush artefacts, left where stampeders discarded them – before we reach the true top of the pass. There’s a cairn here dedicated to the stampeders and we take the chance to pause and reflect on their efforts (and grab a few welcome breaths).

We then divert off the main track briefly to scramble even further up and then across a lofty cliff to look back down the valley (and the other minuscule trekkers below) we’ve just spent two and a half days travelling up. It’s a gobsmackingly beautiful view, which we savour for 10 minutes then retreat before the risk of hypothermia increases any more – or we get blown off the top by the screaming wind.

The stampeders had to weigh their gear at the bottom; we have the luxury of weighing ours up the top, at the nearby Chilkoot Pass parks hut, and it’s a sobering experience. Niall, being the guide, has the heaviest pack, at 32kg.

Mine weighs a relatively diminutive 21kg. Even with Rob and Birgitte’s packs added to the tally, we’re the proverbial million miles away from what the stampeders carried.

The hut’s welcome heat (it is bloody freezing outside) is hard to leave but we still have a long way to go until Happy Camp – and a totally different landscape awaits us.

Sliding onto Crater Lake

There’s nothing like acting like a 10-year-old again, when nothing matters except having fun on a new adventure. It’s something I try to do, whenever a chance presents itself.

Thankfully, that chance arrives while we stand on the edge of a vast snowfield, contemplating the expansive alpine tundra landscape below what is a steep, snowy, bowl-shaped descent. I think it, but Niall beats me to the punch, saying it out loud: “Let’s slide down.” They are all the words I need to hear.

We pull off our outer shell jackets, lay them underneath our posteriors and push off. There’s more than ample gradient to gather serious speed as we slide down to the flat terrain – and frozen Crater Lake.

It is epic fun – confirmed by our whoops of enjoyment – and that 10-year-old JW is revisited, albeit only briefly, once again.

The weather on this side of the pass is a huge contrast to where we’ve come from. Blue skies dominate, combining with the snow’s bright glare to provide a surreal counterbalance to the overcast conditions and incredibly cold and powerful wind we’ve experienced up until roughly two hours ago.

We skirt Crater Lake and then Morrow Lake, revelling in the warmer conditions and the glacial-blue waterways that have formed along the way as the snow has melted. Happy Camp looms in the early afternoon and is a welcome sight – made even more so when Rob and I nab what must be one of the planet’s best camp sites, overlooking the clear alpine water below us, with snow-capped hills all around.

Soaking in the Chilkoot at Happy Camp

When you’re in the middle of an adventure, you never want it to end. Sure, you know it has to, but before it does you savour every epic second. And so we do.

Over the next two days on the Chilkoot we don’t exactly amble, but we take our time and soak up every step, kicking off with an extended stay in the Happy Camp area after Niall suggests a bit of scrambling up the mountains behind camp.

We’re soon scrabbling through overgrown vegetation, following faint tracks up to first one false summit, then another, before we reach our highest point, way above High Camp. There we strike gold not only with epic views (including wild goats perched higher again on an adjacent mountainside) but an encounter with a sun dog.

This atmospheric phenomenon is best described as a bright halo around the sun, formed by ice crystals that drift low down in the sky, creating a prism-like effect for any light passing through, and sometimes producing a halo. It was a brilliant sign-off from Happy Camp.

As we drop altitude, we leave the alpine terrain behind and start moving through the still rocky, but drier terrain of a sub-alpine forest. This north-eastern side is drier because of the immensity of the Coastal Mountains – they create a rain shadow, which results in less precipitation.

The lakes  – Long, Deep and Lindeman – compensate for this lack of moisture and boggle this Antipodean’s mind with their sheer volume and size.

During the winter months of the gold rush, stampeders would walk or ride over the frozen lakes; during summer, boats and wagons were the preferred method for transporting supplies and people to Bennett.

At the time, Lindeman was full of canvas tents, with no permanent buildings, and the surrounding forests were cleared of timber; the wood used for building boats and as fuel for fires. We spot plenty of stumps along the track – and in the distance – but the forest has bounced back impressively since then.

Lindeman campsite is another ripper – again we’re right on the lake – and we score a bonus when Rob spots a young male moose grazing on the far shore on our last morning. You really cannot get more Yukon than that.

Ending the Chilkoot in Bennett

Today’s beautifully located, but quiet Bennett is far removed from the crazy gold rush town that hosted a population of more than 15,000 at its peak, but is a fantastic end-point for our journey. It was here the stampeders’ next adventure started – the epic journey down the Yukon River to Dawson and then on to the goldfields.

More than a century later, Bennett is a tiny shadow of its former self, with only a church and railway line hinting at its past – but the town seems to retain a small, but elusive sense of the adventure and optimism that must have been pervading back then, when the stampeders flooded along the Chilkoot.

It is harder to experience that same feeling of abandonment in the pursuit of adventure today, but – sitting beside Bennett Lake, waiting for our floatplane, looking back across the history-soaked mountains and high pass of the Chilkoot Trail – it is not impossible. This trek proves my point.

Essential info on Trekking the Chilkoot Trail

The adventure: Ruby Range offers a fully guided, seven-day trekking adventure on the Chilkoot Trail,  from late June until the end of July. Cost is $1995 Canadian (about A$1875 at time of publication). For dates and more info on the many other Ruby Range adventures (summer and winter), see
www.rubyrange.com.

Getting there: Air Canada flies direct from Sydney to Vancouver. From Vancouver, you can fly to Whitehorse, the Yukon Territory’s capital, with Air North or Air Canada. See www.aircanada.com and www.flyairnorth.com.

Staying there: Whitehorse has a range of accommodation, including hotels, lodges and campgrounds. For info on all things Whitehorse, see www.visitwhitehorse.com. The city has numerous cafes and restaurants, but a must-visit is the famous Klondike Rib and Salmon (www.klondikerib.com). You cannot book, you have to line up – and often wait a while – but the food and service are brilliant.

More info: The Yukon Territory is massive – and full of adventure. To plan an epic far north trip, check out www.travelyukon.com. For all Canadian adventure travel options, see http://au.canada.travel.