Backpacking the Chilkoot Trail

Important Stuff:

  • Trail is 54 kilometres in length
  • Challenging day to hike/scramble over the Pass
  • Varied interesting terrain (rocks, rainforest, sand)
  • Be bear aware (stop at the airport, lots of unused canisters available instead of spending $$$ in town)
  • Typical time on the trail is between 3-5 days

After watching an Alaskan based reality television show one night in January, my husband said to me: “let’s go north this summer for our vacation”. I loved the idea, and he left me in charge of planning.

The Chilkoot Trail is an old native trail that was used for trading and became one of the critical pathways the gold stampeders used to make their way between the south-east areas of Alaska to Dawson City, Yukon, the epicentre of the Klondike Gold Rush. Today, the trail is almost 54 kilometres in length and starts near Skagway, Alaska and ends in Bennett Lake, British Columbia.

Book early if you would like to hike this trail. A certain number of people are allowed on each day, but it can be busy depending on the year. Calling Parks Canada in April, I registered my husband and me to hike the trail in four days during the middle of August.

Arriving in Skagway, Alaska, we sauntered along the main street and found ourselves at the National Park Service Office to pick up trail permits and watch a mandatory video on bears which was unsettling but quite informative. As well, the Park Rangers shared information about the conditions of the trail. Wet and waterlogged – two keywords the Rangers repeated, there had been flooding a few weeks previous due to the recent rainfall. The Rangers recommended we carry bear spray given the four-legged activity along the trail. The area is populated by both brown and black bears, and on rare occasions, a grizzly may wander through. Bear spray was immediately purchased in Skagway.

Important Information
Start of the Trail

After taking the shuttle to Dyea, the start of the trail, the first day started damp and drizzly. “Saintly Hill” managed to get our hearts pumping in the first 500 metres of the footpath. The sound of the swollen Taiya River rushing by helped us leave all thoughts of the city life we normally inhabit behind. The first few kilometres of the trail are rocky, with lots of roots and alternates between flat and hilly. Boardwalks, sitting on the water like lily pads allowed the path to continue over swollen ponds and swampy wetlands. The landscape at closer to the start of the trail is part of the coastal rainforest which explained the misty and saturated damp feel. We arrived at our camp and perched ourselves in the warming shelter to boil soup for lunch and eat some nuts and chocolate. Most of the camps have a warming shelter constructed of a wood frame with a thick canvas covering the roof and sides and sometimes they contain a small woodstove which is wonderful to dry out wet clothing or souls.

Cooking Tent

As we sat and enjoyed lunch, the skies opened up, and it started to rain quite heavily. Many other hikers stopped by to warm up in the shelter including a 77-year-old mountaineer who had completed the trail numerous times. We also met a Russian man who had immigrated to the United States and planned to solo hike the path and after a lively chat, he decided to join us for the next two days.

Camping

After a night in the tent listening to the rain, we packed up our gear carefully so that the sopping wet fly did not touch the sleeping bags or clothing in our packs. Rocks, roots, and numerous bridges dotted the footpath as we steadily trekked our way upwards towards the camp at the base of the Chilkoot Pass. Raging and silty, the Taiya River kept us company for most of the second day. The sun tried to poke through the thick clouds that hid the surrounding mountains from view, somewhat unsuccessfully.

Arriving at a narrow channel surrounded by mountains of majestic slabs of grey rock, we pitched our tent on one of the wood platforms — this the main base where most hikers stay the night before going over the pass. Park Service Rangers hold a mandatory briefing for hikers the night before sharing information about conditions on the Pass, what to expect, and time you should leave (6:00 am). We cooked up a dehydrated meal of curry vegetable rice and had a lively chat with fellow hikers about other great hikes and American politics.

The alarm bleated very early the next morning with rainy and cold weather predicted. We inhaled quinoa, dehydrated blueberries, beef jerky and oatmeal. Immense billowy clouds passed above us quickly, obscuring the tops of the mountains. Hiking up a few kilometres through the trees and past numerous creeks, we arrived at an open alpine area known as the “Scales”. Grand boulders towered around us, and many gold rush artefacts were strewn on the ground including old shoes, bones from horses or ox, wood and broken white china plates. The Scales is known as the place where the Klondike stampeders gathered to weigh their “ton of goods” before going over the pass. Many stampeders were focused on the reaching the Klondike and not prepared for the cold, harsh winter conditions; the Canadian Mounties insisted that they could not cross into Canada without enough supplies to keep them going until reaching Dawson City in the Yukon.

Remnants of the Gold Rush

With the fog thickening and enveloping us, we knew we would not view the summit of the pass today. Slowly, we scrambled upwards using our arms and legs to propel us over the slippery rocks. Underneath the boulders, you could hear water running, creating a hollow sound, breaking the silence of the Pass. As our eyes kept searching for the orange flags, we realised we reached the start of the area known as the “Golden Staircase”, which gains 1000 feet in one mile – and became progressively steeper closer to the summit.

Up and over the Pass

 

Mitts and hats replaced bare hands and heads, and we carefully picked our route forward using all limbs at times, gaining elevation. After what felt like hours, a dark shape appeared through the fog, and the monument built of rock with a plaque commemorating the gold stampeders burst into view. Just past this point is the actual summit, which is the boundary between Canada and the United States. We stopped here for at least 20 minutes and shook off the intense focus we had been living and enjoyed the moment, thinking about the Gold Rush and what it must have been like for the men and women climbing over the Pass. It was humbling and thought-provoking at the same time.

Summit of the Chilkoot Pass

The orange flag, barely visible guided us onto a snowfield just after the peak, and we continued hiking until a voice pierced through the thick fog, a Canadian Parks employee in a small cabin perched on the side of the rocks. After saying hello, we concentrated on our descent, putting one foot in front of the other. Snowy patches, stark alpine landscape and glacial creeks marked the next two hours of our adventure. At one point, we looked up from staring at our feet and saw a brilliant blue coloured lake as the fog cleared.

We traipsed into the next group of campsites, appropriately named Happy Camp. Being famished at this point, we settled into the warming shelter and cooked up a heaping bowl of dehydrated Pad Thai which filled our hungry bellies. A quick discussion and we decided to continue to the next camp which would be a little quieter later once everyone had summited the Pass. Our American friend chose to stay at Happy Camp, so we bid him farewell and continued along the trail.

Happy Camp

Our packs felt heavy at this point, but the aqua blue coloured lakes surrounded by barren mountains kept our attention on the scenery. We hadn’t read the profile of the terrain for the remaining 4 kilometres, and we quickly realised it was not all downhill. Arriving at the next camp nestled in the trees, we relaxed in the tent stretching our toes and giving our feet a chance to recover from the heavy boots. We met several Parks employees hiking in to replace staff who regaled us with funny stories of their adventures working on the Chilkoot trail.

Our last day hiking dawned sunny, a first for us. With an early start, we hiked quickly through the first part of the trail and visited the Canadian Parks Cabin at Lindeman Lake and paused to read about the history of the Gold Rush.

Anticipating a steaming hot shower and real cooked food helped us through the last few kilometres as we rambled through the sand. All that remains in Bennett Lake at the end of the trail is the church and train station – no road access exists. We met up with other hikers waiting for the train and propped our packs against the train station wall and rested our weary bodies. Taking the train back to Skagway on the White Pass and Yukon Route railway was a trip through more gold rush history. Thank goodness the train has two cars specially designated for the hikers given none of us had had a shower in a few days. The train staff offered lunch boxes for sale which we devoured as if we hadn’t seen food in days.

Arriving back in Skagway, we had a steamy shower and met some other hikers at the local brewpub, toasting the end of a great hike!

Things to Consider:

  • There are several spots along the trail to stop and view remnants of the past
  • Snowpacks remain on the Pass, even in August
  • Bennett Lake Train Station at the end of the trail is decorated with old photos, check them out!

Lesley – Summer 2016

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