Saturday, September 12, 2015

Hiking The Chilkoot Trail

I am so happy to say that some of my children and grandchildren will be joining me in hiking the Chilkoot Trail-the trail the Klondikers took to get to the Klondike gold field at Dawson City in the Yukon. My husband and I hiked the trail in 1997, on the hundredth anniversary of the gold rush. We were in the Yukon and Alaska so I could research the state and territory for my travel book Backroads of Alaska and the Yukon.

     Many of the first men and women who went to the Klondike in the first year starved and froze because they hadn't brought along enough supplies. To combat that, the Northwest Mounted Police decreed that the prospectors had to have 907 kg (2000 lbs) of  provisions in order to cross the border from Alaska into British Columbia and then onto the Yukon. The NWMP set up a scale to weigh each person's supplies before letting them climb the Chilkoot Pass.

     My husband and I each carried about 16kg. (35 lbs) on our five day hike up to and over the pass.

     The following is what I wrote in the book about my hike. I imagine there have been many changes in the twenty years since and I am looking forward to making a comparison of the differences between my two hikes. And there have been a few changes with me. I am twenty years older and twenty pounds heavier. I'm looking forward to making a comparison of my abilities and endurance between the two hikes.


    Hiking The Chilkoot

The Chilkoot Trail was called the `poor‑man's route'. It ran from Dyea to Bennett Lake following an old native path. Because of the isolation and cold winters the NWMP decreed that each man had to have at least 907 kilograms (2000 pounds) of supplies before they would allow him to enter the Yukon and continue on his journey.

     The men had to haul those supplies up and over the summit. Some were able to hire natives to help but many had to do it themselves. They would carry as much as they could up the `Golden Stairs' (steps cut into the solid snow of the pass), then slide back down to their cache and begin again. Most made 40 trips to do so. Once a miner got onto the steps he didn't dare get off until the top. If fatigue forced him to step out he seldom managed to make it back on.

     By the spring of 1898, three trams had been built to help haul the loads up the Chilkoot. Also in the spring the people who had made it over the pass during the winter and had camped at Bennett Lake made boats from the trees around the lake. Over 7100 crafts set sail down Bennett Lake beginning the 900 kilometres (560 miles) journey to Dawson City. Records show that about 30,000 people travelled from Bennett Lake to Dawson City in 1898. By the time they got there the best claims had been staked by the prospectors who already lived in the area.

     The trail closed in 1900 when the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway was completed.

     The 53 kilometre (33 mile) long Chilkoot Trail is called the `Longest Museum in the World'. There are 10 campsites along it so when you book your time you will have to decide how many kilometres you wish to hike each day.

     Most of the people who started for the Klondike were Cheechakos, a native word for `greenhorn'. It was after a person had spent a winter in the north that he or she became known as a Sourdough.

     The trail starts out with the Taiya River to your left. You will be continually climbing and descending beside it until you reach Sheep Camp. And until Sheep camp you are walking through a rainforest with tall trees creating a nice, cool shade on hot days.                                                              You will climb over tree roots, stumps and rock and in places there is a drop so make sure your pack is secure and doesn't wobble. You cross a number of bridges, made of metal, split logs, planks or boardwalks. If you are here in June or early July there is two places where you will want to put on your sandals. One is to cross some water over the path and the other is through a mud bog.

     For about 1.6 kilometre (1 mile) you will be going through private land. There are signs up so watch for them. On the private land you will come to the remains of an old vehicle and a building. The trail is as wide as a single lane road for a short distance.

Soon after leaving the private land you reach Finnegan's Point, the first campground on the trail. It is 8 kilometres (5 miles) from the beginning. There is a shelter where you can dry out your clothes if it is raining and cook your meals. Once you have washed your dishes drain the water down the screened in pipe for gray water and scrap any food particles off the screen to be put in your garbage. Make sure you hoist your food and garbage up on the bear pole to keep it from attracting bears into the camp. Never keep any food with you in your tent.

     This point was named after Pat Finnegan and his two sons who set up a ferry service here in 1897. Later they built a road through the damp, boggy areas and charged a toll. This worked only in the summer because the prospectors pulled their goods on sleds on the frozen ice in the winter. This point was also used as a cache where the stampeders left their first bundles of supplies while they went back to Dyea for the rest.

     There is a spot on the Taiya River here for you to relax, take off your boots and soak your feet if you wish.

     4.8 kilometres (3 miles) from Finnegan's Point you come to Canyon City campsite. The shelter here is log and it has a verandah with a table for you to eat outside on a pleasant day.

To reach the actual site of Canyon City, continue down the trail 0.8 kilometre (0.5 mile) past the camp until you reach a sign with the distances to places: Canyon City Shelter 0.5 mile; Dyea 8 miles: Sheep Camp Shelter 5 miles; Chilkoot Pass 8.5 miles.

     Follow the path to the left, cross over the wooden bridge and then the suspension bridge and you will reach a sign that states: Canyon City Historical Site. You are now walking where Canyon City stood over 100 years ago. You will pass an old, rusted, cook stove and come to a huge, rusted boiler. This 50 horsepower steam boiler was used to operate an aerial tramway between here and the Chilkoot Pass. It cost 16.5 cents per kilogram (7.5 cents per pound) to send goods over this tram and not everyone could afford it.

     Stamped on the boiler is: Union Iron Works SF 1886.

     Pleasant Camp is 4.5 kilometres (2.7 miles) from Canyon City. The climb out of the canyon between the two camps was thought to be the worst part of the trail by some stampeders.

A little ways past the camp you cross a suspension bridge over a series of cascades. And in 2 kilometres (1.2 miles) you reach Sheep Camp beside the Taiya River. At this camp, the last stop before the Chilkoot Pass, a ranger gives a talk about the conditions of the pass at 7:00pm Alaska time. Other words of advice are to leave by at least 7am, drink 2 litres of water on the trail and expect to take 10 hours to reach Happy Camp.

     When you leave Sheep Camp the ground is level for the first ways and you come across a building that looks almost like a train station. After you begin climbing there is an old log building with glass windows, little patio and cooking utensils hanging on the wall. You are climbing mainly on a path but sometimes over boulders and you start to come out of the trees and into alpine meadows.

     When crossing the boulders watch for the piles of rocks on them that mark the trail. If you keep your head down and don't watch you could get off the trail and become lost.


SIDEBAR Helpful Hints

You can expect snow, rain, wind, sun, mist and cloud no matter what time of year you hike the trail. When travelling over snow bridges undo the belt on your pack so that if you fall through you can get out of your pack easily. Do not walk close to the boulders sticking out of the snow. The sun heats the rock and the snow beneath the top layer melts leaving an overhang near the boulder. This overhang will collapse if you get too close. Stop near a boulder and listen. You will hear the water gurgling around it.

     When a group is walking through an avalanche area spread out.

     Bring sandals to wear around camp and also to put on when crossing wet areas or streams to keep your boots dry. Have a rope for hanging your food and garbage out of reach of bears. Carry an extra set of clothing in case you get wet or cold. Never wear blue jeans as they will chafe your legs and prevent freedom of movement.

     The bears like to use the trail so if you see one on it get far off into the trees and let him have the right of way.

     Some who have hiked the Chilkoot Trail and climbed the Chilkoot Pass have loved it, while others stated that it was the worst trail they had ever been on. You will have to decide for yourself.



     Up until mid‑July and beginning in September, you could be walking on snow the higher you go. It is a 6.8 kilometre (4.2 mile) climb to the Scales. This is where the prospectors who had hired professional native packers had to reweigh their goods. The packers wanted more money, up to $2.20 per kilogram (1 dollar per pound) to carry the supplies up and over the pass. Consequently, many items were left behind and some still can be seen today.

     From the Scales you can see the Chilkoot Pass down the valley and you cross alpine tundra to reach the base. On the other side of the Chilkoot is Peterson Pass, a longer but easier alternative to the Chilkoot which was used by some Klondikers.

     Those who travelled the trail in the winter climbed the 'Golden Stairs' cut in the ice and snow up the side of the pass. Those who came in the summer, when the snow was melted, had to traverse over the huge boulders and loose rock left from a slide. This is what you will be climbing on.

     The climb is steep and you must lean forward. If you straightened up the weight of your pack could pull you over backwards. Some people go slowly working their way from solid rock to solid rock, while others hike up it like they would stairs.

     Watch for mountain goat either across the valley or beside the slide and for the Rufous hummingbird flitting about. It is attracted to red clothing. If you are not afraid of heights, stop and look down to see how far you have come.

     Near the top you reach a plateau, then you climb a bit more to the top. On the plateau look up to your right and you will see a cairn marking the border between Alaska and BC.

     When you reach the summit you have climbed 823 metres (2700 feet) from Sheep Camp. At the summit is a shelter and outhouse. Stay only long enough to warm up and eat because it is still a 6.4 kilometre (4 mile) hike to Happy Camp and storms can come up suddenly at the top.

     As you hike down the Canadian side of the summit you have the most magnificent view of Crater Lake, alpine tundra and mountains. The wind blows almost constantly here and there are a lot of streams to cross. Some have rocks to hop on while at others you just have to look for the shallowest spot. Again, depending on the time of year you could be walking on snow in places.

     Watch for the short colorful flowers‑‑purple, white, red, yellow, pink‑‑and the grasses of the alpine tundra. Don't walk on the tundra; it is not easy for the flowers and grass to grow here.

At Stone Crib there is a pile of rocks that anchored the cables for an aerial tramway on this side of the summit. Here also is a large saw blade from a sawmill that someone decided he didn't need any more.

     If it was cloudy on the Alaska side of the summit look back as you are walking and you will see the gray cloud hanging over the summit as if it was stuck there. It doesn't get any closer but sometimes mist rolls this way from the summit.

     Happy Camp is on a river between Crater Lake and Long Lake. The food cache here is inside a section of the shelter. For a short distance after Happy Camp you will be walking on loose gravel. When you reach a sign pointing for Deep Lake turn in that direction. You will climb and soon be up above Long Lake. There were ferries on Crater, Long and Deep lakes for those who could afford the price.

     You hike up and down hills then suddenly you'll come over a rise and see a lovely lake, a bridge over a river, trees, and a camp in the centre of the mountains. You cross that bridge and reach Deep Lake Camp. A wagon road ran from here to Lindeman City and you can see some old sleigh runners.

     When you leave Deep Lake Camp as you walk beside the lakeshore watch for a metal boat frame. After you leave the lakeshore you follow along Deep Lake Gorge.

     The further you go the more trees there are. It is very beautiful and peaceful in here as you walk through the tall pine trees and reach Lake Lindeman Camp (4.8 kilometres (3 miles) from Deep Lake Camp. There are two campgrounds‑one close to the lake and one further away. You might want to take the one further away because the wind coming off the lake can be strong and cool.

     The Klondikers set up a tent city here and some built boats during the winter for sailing across Lake Lindeman. At the other end they portaged around the rapids between Lindeman and Bennett lakes. Others carried their supplies along Lindeman Lake and built their boats at Bennett Lake.

     Do not disturb the historic sites at Lindeman and plan to visit the tent museum near the river. As you are leaving Lindeman Camp, there is a small, roof‑covered panel with a drawer. Inside the drawer is a book for you to record your name, the date, the number in your party, the number of tents and where you are going from here. This is so the wardens can keep track of who has passed through in case of an emergency.

     Watch for the Rufous hummingbird along this part of the trail. If you are wearing red, one might come and hover over you then dart off to sit in a tree. Keep your camera handy.

     If you like the haunting call of the loon plan to stay at Bear Loon Camp 5.1 kilometres (3 mile) from Lindeman Lake Camp. Shortly after Bear Loon is the cut‑off to the tracks of the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway. Many hikers only go this far along the trail and hike along the tracks to Log Cabin. Although this is a popular way of getting off the trail, the railroad warns that you should not walk on or beside their tracks. If you do decide to walk to Log Cabin find out the schedule of the train. And even if there is no train scheduled, watch for speeders carrying the maintenance crews.

     Bennett Lake campground is 6.4 kilometres (4 miles) from Bare Loon. This was where the two long, tired columns of Klondikers met and spent the winter. And an instant tent town was established. In the spring the stampeders built boats for the sail across the lake and down the Yukon. Bennett grew after the railway reached it from Skagway in 1899 and it had warehouses, shipping offices and steamer docks.

     The St. Andrews Presbyterian Church was built in 1898 by volunteer workers and it is the only gold rush building still standing in Bennett. There is also a train station here.


SIDEBAR  907 Kilograms (2000 Pounds)

     There was a list of items, deemed necessary by the NWMP, that the Klondiker needed before being allowed into Canada to continue his journey to the gold rush. Depending on what you read the lists vary as does the amount of each food item. The following is an inventory without the weights.

     Clothing: flannel over shirts, pants, sweater, stockings, wool socks, underwear, overalls, mitts, leather gloves, coats, vest, mackinaw, moccasins, rubber boots, high land boots and stiff brim cowboy hat.

     Sleeping accommodations: sleeping bag, wool blankets, waterproof blanket, rubber sheet and tent.

     Food: beans or split peas, flour, bacon, rolled oats, butter, rice, sugar, cornmeal, condensed milk, coffee, tea, salt, pepper, baking powder, baking soda, yeast cakes, mustard, vinegar, beef extract, ground ginger, hard tack, Jamaica ginger, citric acid and evaporated peaches, apricots, apples, onions and potatoes.

     Cooking Utensils: coffee pot, pie plate (for eating off, not for baking), cutlery including large spoon, fry pan, cup, saucepan, pail and sheet iron stove.

     Toiletries: wash basin, soap, towels, toothbrush, medicine chest, handkerchiefs, mirror and comb.

     Panning Equipment: pick and extra handle, shovel and gold pan.

     Building Equipment: axe and extra handle, axe stone, nails, pitch, chisel, tape measure, rope, single block, rivets, saws, plane, files and hatchet.

     Miscellaneous: canvas sacks, matches, buttons, needles, thread, pack straps, knife, compass, candles, candlewick, dunnage bag and mosquito netting.



Making Arrangements

The Canadian government has a policy of limiting the number of people to cross the border into Canada via the Chilkoot Trail to 50. This was done to preserve the fragile tundra on the Canadian side. When you register you will be charged a reservation fee and be told where you can pick up and pay for your back country permits which you will need before starting the trail.

There are many options for getting to the trailhead and getting back to your vehicle once you have completed your trek.

1. You can leave your vehicle at the Dyea campground and at the end of the trail take the charter boat across Bennett Lake to Carcross. From there you can catch the highway bus to Skagway and take the shuttle bus back to Dyea campground.

2. You can leave your vehicle at the Dyea campground, make your hike and then follow the railway tracks out to Log Cabin where the shuttle bus will take you back to your vehicle at the campground.

3. You can leave your vehicle at Log Cabin and ride the shuttle bus to the Dyea campground. When you hike out to Log Cabin, your vehicle is waiting for you. (Remember that hiking the tracks is not recommended by the railway.)

4. A fourth option is to find out when the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway train is making a scheduled trip to Bennett Lake and arrange your hike so that you will be at Bennett Lake when the train arrives.

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