Alaska’s Chilkoot Trail

Gold! Gold! Gold! the headline goaded. A listless nation heeded, trading its financial doldrums for its well-worn frontier spirit. From all corners of North America, ordinary people turned toward the cold, dark, remote land that held the stuff of their dreams. Flatlanders mostly, they were in for a surprise when they reached the snowy granitic rampart called Chilkoot Pass.

By Camille Cusumano

It was the Gay Nineties. Scott Joplin coaxed ragtime tunes from pianos, Carry Nation preached Sierra Mule Pack 2011 copytemperance as Little Egypt rolled her hips, Mark Twain penned satire, and the Gibson Girl smiled fashionably. But the working class was not smiling. A financial crisis erupted on May 4, 1893. The New York Stock Exchange went into convulsions. Stocks plummeted, foreign trade declined, and 18 percent of the workforce got its walking papers.

The Panic of ’93 was just over three years old on August 17, 1896, when deep in the Yukon, American-born George Washington Carmack went fishing on Rabbit Creek. With him were his Tagish Indian wife Kate and her relatives, Skookum Jim and Tagish Charley. Instead of catching salmon, the party pulled about $4 worth of coarse gold from between rock slabs. With all the irony of people who never meant to, they went down in history for jump-starting the “last great gold rush,” the stampede to the Klondike-or Thron-diuck, the river’s native name.

“Up and down the Yukon the news spread like a great stage whisper,” wrote Pierre Berton in Klondike. By the end of August all of the creek, renamed Bonanza, was staked. But prospectors continued to arrive and pan the gravel and sandbars of nearby streams, sifting up to $800 of dust or nuggets from one shovelful of pay dirt. For 5 million years, the mighty Yukon had been grinding down the golden core of mountains in the Far North. Deposits of dust, flour, and nuggets lay in a place still cloaked in a primal silence that hordes were about to shatter.

In 1897 word of the precious mineral discovery penetrated to “the outside.” The Seattle Post-Intelligencer set an impoverished citizenry afire with gold fever when it reported on the steamer Portland returning from Canada’s. Passengers carried a ton of gold wrapped in clothing, paper, boxes, jars, the news said. Gold! Gold! Gold! the headline goaded. A listless nation heeded, trading its doldrums for its well-worn frontier spirit. From all corners of North America, ordinary people turned toward the cold, dark, remote land that held the stuff of their dreams. Flatlanders mostly, they would do some reckoning when they reached the snowy granite rampart called Chilkoot Pass.

Several routes led to the Yukon’s gold, but for those with little change in their pockets, the 33-mile Chilkoot Trail, out of Skagway, Alaska, was the quickest and cheapest glacier-free pass. Its steep rocky slot above timberline accounted for less than 1 percent of the distance to the gold fields, but caused the lion’s share of the heartbreak in getting to them.

The coastal-dwelling Chilkat Indians must have been vexed by the sudden groundswell of chechakos-tenderfeet-choking their centuries-old trade route. Then a light went on. Longtime packers, the natives turned a tidy profit working for the frenzied gold seekers, who came from desks and counters and had no wilderness experience.

One hundred years later I’m backpacking in the path of the stampeders with my brother, his sons, and my friend. We start steeply up the Chilkoot from the tidal flats of Dyea, 8 miles from Skagway. I find it hard to imagine the tent cities flung from one end of the trail to the other. The Alaskan rainforest is serene and dense with ferns, devils club, brambles, birch, alder, and spruce. The hotels, restaurants, and saloons have gone to weed. Instead of gamblers and painted ladies, reindeer moss and shaggy mane mushrooms now infest the trail.

Arrayed in our medley of Gore-Tex, Polartech, polypropylene, and rip-stop nylon, we labor with 40-pound packs up and down, over knots of tree roots, with a reversed purpose of the stampeders. The three adults at least want to escape the softness of life today, to enrich ourselves by doing something hard.

Of course, we are spared the real hardships that the stampeders endured, from extreme weather to the weight of their grubstake. To minimize the prospect of starvation and lawlessness, the North West Mounted Police required all those entering the Yukon to bring one year’s worth (or 2,000 pounds) of food and equipment. Hauling a ton of goods meant each argonaut had to climb the grueling pass about fifty times. Slogging through wilderness in winter’s brutal, numbing cold, a number of them would perish from hypothermia, malnutrition, meningitis, typhoid, suicide, and murder.

The trail is quiet without the 20,000 fortune seekers that trudged and mushed back and forth in 1897. Today only about 4,000 backpackers, from June through August, hike the trail. But echoes of the historic migration call out to us in the shape of protected artifacts strewn along the trail-a rusting miner’s shovel, a decaying stove colonized by lichens, a flattened leather shoe, laces gone but eyelets intact.

History competes with beauty. A welcome flat stretch along the willow-lined Taiya River offers views of rugged mountains crusted in hanging glaciers, the glass-blue ice that is the monopoly of Southeast Alaska.

Suspension bridges save us the fording of braided rivers, including one at Canyon City, our lunch stop. This overgrown wide spot on the trail once thrived with 1,500 inhabitants, including the barber, tavernkeeper, doctor, and realtor who knew where to “mine” the real profit in a gold boom.

At Sheep Camp, 13 miles from the start and our first night’s layover, gold rush commerce ran from drug merchants and dance halls to laundries, a hospital, and a bathhouse for 8,000 would-be miners. A century later, moss, meadow, and forest triumph at this last flat spot before the barren pass.

At Sheep Camp, just as we are preparing hot water to add to freeze-dried turkey Tetrazzini and beef burgundy, a freak explosion takes out both our camp stoves. For the balance of our trip we are reduced to an uninspired diet of energy bars, sesame sticks, dried fruit, and nuts. Still, it’s easier on digestion than the bacon and beans the stampeders had to eat.

This unplanned hardship pales the next day when we get to the pass, a very strenuous 3.5 miles from Sheep Camp. The rain begins before sunup. We break camp and are on our way by 7 a.m., wearing a moisture-wicking layer closest to our skin, but still alternately wet and cold or wet and hot. The trail climbs through dwarf spruce, then steadily above treeline, and is very rocky, with freshets gushing everywhere. Visibility drops drastically. We are inside a cloud.

Near the Scales, where packers re-weighed their outfit before border patrol Mounties collected duties, a moonscape prevails. A half-mile-high tower of boulders stands between us and the Canadian border. Here at “the most wretched spot on the trail,” the stampeders bottlenecked, their caches often buried in snow. Perhaps inside the burgeoning coffeehouses, restaurants, and bars they contemplated the farm or family store back home, with the screech of tramways, the howl of wind, and the distant cry of a timber wolf drilling their brains.

Then they stood up and bent over, creating an unforgettable image-the chain-link of humans persisting up the Golden Stairs, carved daily in the snow. “It is a spectacle that at one glance mirrors all the terror, all the hardships, and all the yearning of ’98,” wrote Pierre Berton.

On April 3, 1898, an avalanche let loose and buried over 200 hapless stampeders. Most survived, but 68 didn’t. They are buried in a cemetery graced by tall Sitka spruce at the start of the trail in Dyea.

Through the viscous haze I see why so many stampeders dropped their grubstake and turned back. The bold tongue of talus licks its mocking way straight up to the sky that we can’t see. This is the Pass.

I’ve hiked my share of backcountry, but no words or photos have prepared me for this. No switchbacks soften the 1,000 feet of elevation we’ll gain in half-a-mile at a 35-45 percent grade. Any steeper and this Class III scramble would be a technical climb. No pack animals could make this 3,500-foot pass.

I stow my hickory walking stick in my backpack to climb cautiously on all fours up the wall of sharp, slippery boulders. My companions all melt away in the whiteout of rain and fog. I’m thankful for the frequent fluorescent orange sticks marking the trail but curse the two false summits. Twisted coils of cable and flattened canvas boats litter the rocks, but my interest in history is at an ebb.

Today, hikers can stop at the summit’s warming house for a rest and some hot tea from a ranger. But we are eager to get to lower ground with less wind and rain. Crater Lake begins to emerge through the heavy mist when at last we are descending. No longer cursing the pass, we cross tundra in British Columbia dotted with purple wildflowers. Rock ptarmigan flutter in patches of snow.

The Canadian stretch of the trail is beautiful, with several long, slender glacial lakes and boreal forest of spruce, mountain ash, lodgepole, and balsam fir. Unfortunately, the stampeders rode roughshod over the land, butchering trees for shelter, firewood, and boats (damage that will require a hundred years more to heal). Those who made it over the pass were still looking at a challenge when the spring thaw broke up the ice: They had 550 miles to raft down the Yukon River to arrive at the gold fields at Dawson City. Needless to say, the white water-Whitehorse Rapids in particular-further deteriorated their numbers and ambition.

At Happy Camp, second night’s layover, all the hikers have that bonded feeling of having survived the worst. (Some unnerved hikers had turned back at the pass. And Willie, a lone white-haired senior in his seventies, who hiked in rubber galoshes and looked like a real sourdough, got special permission to spend the night at the pass’s warming hut.) A father-and-son team kindly lends us their stove so we can have a restorative hot meal-so much for the hard life.

The next day is beautiful, with blue sky and tufts of high clouds. The trail continues into the Yukon. It twists through a basalt gorge past Deep Lake, on craggy, rock-terraced shoreline above the mountain lakes feeding the headwaters of the Yukon. It offers a late crop of wild crowberries on which to forage.

Following park orders, we check in at Lindeman City toward the end of the trail, where Parks Canada has a tent exhibit with old photographs and books on native peoples, flora, fauna, and the Klondike. A rogue black bear has been intimidating hikers until they give him food, so parties of no fewer than six are to hike past Bare Loon Lake. Sadly, we learn that the bear, cocky with power, took his wily tactics to the highway and was struck and killed by a car. The only predators at Bare Loon are pesky mosquitoes. But we do see bear paw prints, plenty of moose droppings, and a doe munching aquatic plants.

Lake Bennett, where many stampeders launched their watercraft, is the end of the trail for us. It’s rich with period feel-a barn-red train station and an 1899 steepled church with the bark still on its split logs. But we are the sole humans there to hear a loon call and the lake gorge resound with a cascade of echoes and laughter from my nephews. They’re pretty effervescent for kids who have just been fed raw Ramen to quell their hunger.Next morning, a tiny speck on the silty emerald lake turns into a 250-horsepower motorboat, our Chilkoot Water Charters ride to Carcross, where we’ll meet our shuttle back to Skagway.

The 45-minute ride through the formidable wild gorge begs for a recap of the numbers. Of the 100,000 people who set out for the Yukon, 40,000 made it to the gold fields; 4,000 found gold; 400 actually got rich. But non-natives began to take up permanent residence in the Great Land, laying the groundwork for Alaska’s statehood. Back in Skagway this doesn’t seem such a bad turn of history. In the Gay Nineties barroom of the Golden North we order a round of amber ales for the adults. The kids form a search party for the perfect “I survived the Chilkoot Trail” T-shirt.

Where men turned back,
women pushed on

“If you have an aversion for the ‘new woman’ a week on the (Chilkoot) Trail would change that aversion to admiration,” wrote a journalist in the Klondike News in 1898. In addition to dance hall girls and prostitutes, many women climbed over the rugged Chilkoot Pass for the sake of socially acceptable enterprise and sheer adventure. Belinda Mulrooney was among the first to cross the Chilkoot in 1897. She hooked up with miners and “kept the party supplied with fish and meat by the aid of gun and rod.” Selling silk, hot water bottles, and cotton goods made Mulrooney rich enough to build one of Dawson City’s finest hotels, the Fair View on Front Street. Melanie J. Mayer’s Klondike Women (Ohio University Press) puts a face on many of the women, such as Martha Munger Purdy, who started out with her husband Will. But in Seattle Will got chilly, so he headed for Hawaii and Martha pushed on without him. She climbed the pass, cursing “my hot high buckram collar, my tight heavily boned corset, my full bloomers.” She didn’t know she was two months pregnant. Mayer writes of Ella Hall from Massachusetts who couldn’t convince her husband to go for the gold. So she and her sister Lizzie went. Ella recounted how their “sides ached with laughter” as they encountered the amusing tumbling possibilities on the slippery far side of the pass. Nellie Cashman, a 55-year-old Arizona miner, hiked over the Chilkoot in ’98 and opened the Can-Can restaurant in Dawson. Louella Day, a physician from Chicago made it over, later writing the Tragedy of the Klondike. Inga Sjolseth of Norway traveled with friends from Seattle. Emma Kelley from Kansas challenged her packers to keep up on the Chilkoot. Rafting the Yukon to the gold fields, she liked shooting the rapids so much she shot them twice. In 1899 Kate Rockwell dressed in men’s overalls and cap, risking a $100 fine if found to be a female going through the rapids.

This article was first published in March 1998. Some facts
may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

If you’re going…

June through August is the most popular time to hike the Chilkoot Trail, which is jointly administered by the U.S. National Park Service and Parks Canada. With hiker limits set at 50 per day, reservations are recommended. Contact Parks Canada at 205-300 Main St., Whitehorse, Yukon Y1A2B5; (800) 661-0486. Reservation credit-card charge is $C10/person; plus $C35/person for the mandatory permit, payable when you pick it up at the Trail Center on 2nd and Broadway in Skagway. Information on shuttles to and from the trail and maps of the Chilkoot are available through Parks Canada or Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, P.O. Box 517, Skagway, AK 99840; (907) 983-2921. Allow at least three days to hike the Chilkoot—you must camp in designated areas. Most sites have pit toilets and warming huts (for cooking, not sleeping). If you’re hiking as far as Lake Bennett, call Chilkoot Water Charters at (403) 821-3209 to arrange a boat lift to Carcross ($C65/person) Recommended shuttle service: Frontier Excursion, (907) 983-2512, $35/person. Remember to carry photo ID—you must pass through customs in Fraser (on the way back to U.S.). Another way to return to Skagway is via the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad. The 40-mile route climbs along a chain of scenic alpine lakes and over the rugged White Pass that hordes of stampeders failed to conquer. For fares, schedule, reservations: (800) 343-7373.