Hiking the Chilkoot Trail
During the late 1800's, miners discovered massive amounts of gold in SE Alaska . Without a thought in their mind, people from all over the United States immediately flocked to the area to help uncover this buried treasure and get their hands on a piece of the wealth. The Klondike Gold Rush lasted for about 10 years while every inch of land was scanned for gold and other precious metals. In order to reach the land where the majority of gold was preserved, miners were forced to walk over 33 miles with their equipment and living necessities. Unfortunately, the majority of individuals who traveled to Alaska were extremely unprepared for the treacherous terrain and frigid cold they were about to face. Additionally, because the trail was easiest to travel during the winter when large rocks and other obstacles were buried, many were subsequently caught in massive blizzards and hundreds perished. The trail is now preserved as a historic landmark and is traveled by many backpackers every year. Some enjoy being a part of the history while others view it as a personal challenge, as the trail is very difficult and potentially dangerous in areas.
Armed with this knowledge and prepared for the conditions, my six YMCA girls, Jodi the counselor, and I took the ferry to Skagway , AK on June 30th. Although we had divided gear and food between 8 individuals, each backpack weighed 30-35lbs.
Getting to the trail head took more time than anticipated and we ended up getting a late start at about 5pm. Luckily, we only needed to travel 4 miles to get to our first campsite, which was a relief to the girls who had been awake since 3:30am. The trail leading to our first stop, Finnegan's Point, was relatively easy with only a steep incline to start with. As soon as we reached the campsite, we were delighted to see platformed areas for the tents. Not only did this mean less impact on the vegetation and our gear, but it also meant a flat sleeping surface, something we had not encountered during our prior seven-day kayaking trip. We set up our tents and ventured into a cooking hut. Because of the large amount of bears in the area, the Parks Service had designated cooking areas far away from the tent sites. Although my group was well aware of bear safety, many hikers that had come through in the past were not familiar with the practices and trouble with bears had occurred. The Parks Service then constructed canvas cooking huts to prevent the temptation of cooking or eating in tents, thus bringing bears into sleeping areas. Now, the bears were lured to the cooking huts and there were muddy bear prints smeared along the canvas walls. It was not very reasurring!
While preparing our food, four men came into the cooking shelter. They asked if we were staying for the night and we told them we had already set up and that any vacant tent site was available. As we chatted further, we learned that the men were planning to hike the Chilkoot with the same camping points as us. We decided to get to know each other since we'd be spending the next 4 nights in the same places. They were all from Arizona and had decided to travel the Chilkoot on a whim. Considering many people prepare for months, it was quite impressive that hiking the trail had been a spontaneous decision. After a long conversation and dinner, we crashed into bed after the 18-hour day.
We awoke to pouring rain the next morning, a very unwelcome sight. We rolled up our soaked tents, put on our rain gear, and threw on our packs. Our next camp was about 7 miles away and the terrain was much more steep than the day prior. The rocks and tree roots were slick with wet moss and every girl lost their footing at one point or another. With the next day being Summit Day and containing the most difficult portion of the trail, Jodi and I were constantly coaching the girls on where to step so that no injuries occurred. We reached Canyon City , which was once a bustling town during the Gold Rush. It was eventually turned into a campsite for hikers and we stopped to chat with a few who were enjoying their breakfast. Apparently the boys' camp, who had 10 miles to travel on their first day, had passed through Canyon City at 9pm the night before- still 2 miles from their campsite. One of the hikers spoke of their guide, referring to him as the "Slave Driver" pushing everyone to get to camp before dark. I laughed and told them, "Yeah, that's my boyfriend!"
We continued on and the terrain was getting steeper while the rain was not letting up. We eventually came to our second campsite, Sheep Camp, where we would rest before our summit day. As we prepared our meals, people were slowly making their way to the camp, searching for an open tent site. It was obviously going to be a popular place for the evening and we were glad to have made such good timing to secure a site. In the evening, a park ranger came by to give us a lecture regarding the summit trail conditions, weather forecast, and informed us more about the history of the trail. I wasn't too interested in anything more than the conditions and was glad when he ended his 45-minute speech. We all went to bed, anticipating an early morning.
I was told that in order to make it to the summit during the proper conditions, we needed to leave Sheep Camp by 6am. My group decided it would be even better to leave earlier than the rest of the campers, so we decided to wake up at 4:00am. Unfortunately, I slept with earplugs in that night so not to be disturbed by other campers and slept through my alarm. I awoke to Jodi shaking me saying, "It's 5:30!" We packed our tents faster than we had since the trip started and headed out at about 5:45am!
Our first obstacle was the Scales, a steep, rocky section that promised to twist even the most experienced hiker's ankle. Our second obstacle was the infamous Golden Staircase. During the Gold Rush, the 45-degree accent was not looked favorably upon, and many people abandoned their gear. Stoves, pots, wheelbarrows, anything that would not help them during the accent was discarded. I don't blame them. If I could have gotten rid of my pack right then and there, I would have! During the summer, the snow is melted and only rock remains. One brilliant gentleman decided to cut large stairs into the rock, hence the name. On our trip, however, there was still too much snow to see anything resembling a staircase, so up the snow and rock we went. The Golden Staircase is relatively short, only half a mile or so, but the incline slows you enough so it feels like an eternity. Couple that with two false summits (tricky little bastards!) and it makes for one heck of a climb. At the summit, we were officially in Canada and sounded off with the Canadian National Anthem to commemorate the accomplishment. There, we stopped for lunch and enjoyed what was our first sunny day in a week. The view wasn't bad either, with the Alaskan rain forest on one side, and the boreal forest of the Yukon on the other.
We reluctantly started hiking in the snow after our lunch, across an avalanche zone. As instructed, we walked as fast as we could, 20 feet apart so if an avalanche were to occur, it would only take out one or two of us. It was an interesting thought, to say the least! At one point, the trail meandered up a hill. I came to the top and watched the footprints go down the steep snow. I looked at the girl behind me and matter-of-factly said, "I'm not walking down this." I sat down in my rain pants and glissaded down the 60-foot hill, using my feet to steer. The girls laughed and followed, losing their balance and spinning around, almost in hysterics! It was the highlight of the day for them. It was a much needed laugh all around!
We crossed the zone safely and after 4 more miles, we found ourselves at our next resting point: Happy Camp. Appropriately named, we were among the other hikers in very high spirits, feeling empowered and confident after the most difficult portion of the trail. Best of all, the sun was out in full force and we pulled out our sleeping pads and laid in the sun for nearly an hour. For me, it was the best moment of the trip. I knew the summit would be difficult and seeing that everyone got through safely was my goal. We had accomplished something amazing and saw breathtaking scenery every step of the way.
The next day we hiked through boreal forest to get to Bare Loon Lake , our final campsite. The lake was gorgeous and we had sunny weather again. After that, we were on to Bennett in the Yukon Territory . From there, we hopped on a train and it took us back to our starting point, Skagway , AK . All of the girls were very excited to have accomplished the 21-day trip, yet they were sad to see it end. I felt the same, as I had gotten to know the girls, and especially my counselor. They flew back to Michigan , and I still try to keep in touch with them the best I can.
It was an adventure I will never forget. I reflect on our experience daily, and enjoyed it so much more than I ever thought I would. Not only that, but I was lucky enough to have 6 amazing teenage girls by my side, and Jodi, who I couldn't have done without and consider to be a very good friend. I wouldn't have had it any other way!