The Chilkoot Trail National Historic Site is a unique International park that both Canada and the US have designated as part of the Klondike Gold Rush International Historical Park. From July 20 to July 25, 2003, Glen and Susan hiked the length of the trail. This is our story

Why the Chilkoot (and a bit of history)

During the summer of 1994, Glen learned of the Chilkoot Trail while on a family reunion. After taking the WP&YR train from Fraser BC to Skagway, Alaska through the White Pass, Glen learned all about the Chilkoot Trail. In quick summary, in 1897 the big news of the year (actually the decade) was a great goldrush in the Yukon. With a depression on, the news caused great hysteria. The day the story broke, 2000 New Yorkers tried to buy passage to the Yukon. In the first week and a half, 1500 Seattle residents left to go to the Yukon, including the Mayor. Ultimately 300,000 people began the journey North. The most common way to get to the goldfields had three legs to the trip. The first involved a 1700km sailing with gear from Seattle to Skagway (or Dyea--a gold rush town a few kilometres away from Skagway). The second leg of the trip was to get the gear over the Coast Mountains to the headwaters of the Yukon River, only about 40km as the crow flies. The final leg was an 800km sail down the Yukon River to Dawson City, the location of the Klondike gold rush. The first leg took a week or two. The third leg took a couple of weeks. The second leg, the only part of the trip over land, was where the majority of the gold seeker's time was spent in getting to the gold fields. Of the two alternative routes over the range, the White Pass and the Chilkoot Trail, the Chilkoot Trail was by far the favourite (due to better weather and shorter distance (53km vs 65km)). There were almost 30,000 people who struggled over the Chilkoot Trail during the first year of the gold rush. The picture of thousands of men struggling up through the snow on a section of the Chilkoot called the Golden Stairs is one I'm sure everyone will recognize. By the time each gold seeker had carried their ton of goods from Skagway or Dyea to Bennett Lake (the headwaters of the Yukon River), they would have hiked thousands of kilometres. The White Pass was chosen by rich British financiers to build a railway to Whitehorse. By August 1900 when the railway was finished, the gold rush was over. The train for the next 80 years carried freight between Skagway and Whitehorse. For the last 15 years, it has carried tourists between between Bennett and Skagway. Besides Glen's trip on it in 1994, this service was to be extremely important to us as you'll read later.

After learning the history of the trail, it was one of Glen's desires to some day hike it. Seven years later, for Susan and Glen's first anniversary, Susan got Glen a book about the Chilkoot Trail, and made a promise that we would hike the trail in the summer of 2003. With an anniversary committment, our direction was set.

In the year leading up to this trip, we took many warm up and training hikes. In the months leading up to it, we were walking almost every day and doing hikes at least once a week.

The trip

The time finally arrives! Saturday, July 19, 7:55 in the morning. We're on an Air Canada flight to Whitehorse. We arrived early at the airport, and thank goodness we did since the check in lines are just a zoo. Air Canada has recently laid off many of their check in staff so we check in using the automated teller. We make the flight and turbo-prop our way North. As we fly into Whitehorse we're both amazed at the many small lakes that dot the landscape around the city. We land on time in Whitehorse at 10:40am, and pick up our luggage along with many other boy scouts who were on the same plane.

We take a cab into Whitehorse, learning from the driver that he would rather be fishing :-) The weather has been dry he says, and for the first time it's rained a bit in the past week. He's appreciating the cooler weather. We're not so sure we're glad of this change in the weather, but hold our tongues... We arrive in downtown Whitehorse at the White Pass & Yukon Route Building, right at the end of Main Street. It's the old train station where the WP&YR used to arrive. Now serving as a tourist attraction and bus depot. We walk around town and do a little shopping (buy a water bottle holder and some waterproof matches). We take a tourist train ride along the waterfront. We eat in a pasta restaurant on the main street.

At a little after 1:00 we head back to the "train station" to get ready to take the bus to Skagway. We meet a couple of other girls who are also taking the bus to Skagway. They're leaving on the trail the day after we are and are planning to be on the trail for a day longer than us. We're amazed at how little they're carrying compared to what we have. At 1:30 we're on the road. The driver is new to the company, and drives professionally, but doesn't have the PA system down. We know he's talking but can't make out what he's saying. I'm somewhat disappointed that when we pass one of my personal seven wonders of the world, Emerald Lake, the sky is clouded over so the Lake isn't the beautiful blue-green that I remember it from nine years before as being. As we cross the border into the US, we stop at Fraser, BC. We transfer buses onto another bus that has come from Skagway, and are told it's simpler for the company to have a bus that runs back and forth between Whitehorse and Fraser, and another between Fraser and Skagway. At Fraser, we lose everyone riding with us to the train. Even the girls who will be hiking the Chilkoot one day after us decide at the last moment to pay for the upgrade and take the train into Skagway. Knowing that the bus is quicker than the train, and the fact that we're on a tight schedule, we remain on the bus as the soul passengers. The driver is pleasant, and tells us many stories on the way into Skagway.

We arrive in Skagway a little after three o'clock Alaska Time (which is 1 hour later than BC time). We're amazed at how quiet the town is, and we're told that Saturday is the one day of the week when there isn't a cruise ship in town. The driver lets us off at the Skagway train station and we walk with our gear up the street to where we're staying, the Skagway Inn. The Skagway Inn has quite a history, it

... began as a bordello on Skagway's bawdy waterfront ... the guest rooms are named for the ladies who worked here.
We were staying in the room named Flo. The Skagway Inn turned out to be a great place to stay. They catered to hikers on the Chilkoot Trail, offering to keep any extra bags while we hiked the trail, and also offering to give us campstove fuel. We checked in with Rosemary, one of the Skagway Inn owners. Rosemary was great to talk to, she used to be a ranger working on the Chilkoot, and wished us well. After checking in, we headed down to "The Skagway Trail Centre", since we needed to pick up our hiking permits. We waited in the office while the ranger behind the desk helped another couple. The couple at the desk were speaking English, but when the ranger gave them some "fine print" brochures about hiking the trail, she took a French version, and he a German. The couple was doing a "walk in", meaning they hadn't prebooked a reservation months in advance like we had, but instead were willing to take whatever spots opened up. With the ranger they worked out that they would spend three nights on the trail, and leave the day after us. We knew we'd see them again since their first and second campspots would be the same as our second and third nights. Boy, they're aggressive we thought. I don't think you'd catch us signing up for such a fast trip. They both looked svelte and fit so we wished them luck.

We picked up our permits from the guide, and were on our way. Across the street from the Trail Centre, we went into the museum and watched a video on bears, what to do if you encounter one, etc. I (Glen) remembered being in the museum 9 years before, and remembered marvelling at the display showing what the 1 ton of goods would look like that the gold seekers at the time had to carry over the trail.

We spent the rest of the afternoon looking around the city, again amazed at how quiet it was (no cruise ships in town). We had dinner at the Corner Cafe, good food but very slow service. We got to bed about 9:30 that night and slept with our eyeshades on in order to keep out the Alaskan Summer Sun.

The Hike

Day One

We got up a little before 7 to beat the rush for showering in the shared bathrooms. About 7:20 we were downstairs eating breakfast. Boy was it good! We thouroughly enjoyed our scrambled eggs, bacon, and muffins. About 8:00 Carl (Rosemary's husband) filled our stove with fuel, with their son Marcus (about two years old), took us in their Van out to Dyea. Carl took our picture, waved goodbye, and we were on our way!

In the first hour we passed several tour groups out for a quick guided day hike. They looked admiringly at us with our 40+/60+ pound packs. When the guides asked "how far are you going tonight", we answered (so full of ourselves) "Oh, we're going to Canyon City" "Well have fun" Feeling like we were ommunicating in a secret language and were part of some elite clique that these tourists could only dream of joining.

We hiked up and down along a rocky valley side, with the Taiya River below us. An hour in, we were down at the river when we saw an Eagle flying along, looking for fish. A little further along, while in the forest, we saw an old prospector's cabin. We crossed back and forth over the river a few times. We marvelled at how well the trail was maintained, as we walked along boardwalks we kind of joked about how luxurious and easy the trail was, and how Glen's dad and brother had given some early thought to coming for the trip but had decided against it because of concerns over the hardship. We inwardly knew we'd be sleeping in our tent for the five nights to come, and that there were to be much harder sections than the section we were currently on.

As it got close to noon, we came across a group that we found strange. Three ladies, one young girl (about twelve), and one guy with one huge pack. We chatted with them for a moment, asking how far they were going. They mentioned they were hiking the whole trail, five days, just like us. Strange. Other than the guy they were certainly not carrying very large packs. What had we done wrong? They were enjoying their sandwhiches, pretty elegant with their bottles of condiments. How were they going to do it? The fellow was named Cory and seemed quite knowledgeable about the surroundings and he told us that Irene Glacier was visible from where we were chatting. We got him to take our picture with Irene Glacier in the background, before we continued on our way. About fifteen minutes later we ran into a large group of Boy Scouts who asked if we were the Sherpa's. What?!? After a moment of confusion all became clear. They told us that the group we'd just left was a guided tour of the Chilkoot Trail. Cory was a guide, and all of their gear was carried by a couple of Sherpas. The Sherpas as we were to learn ran in and out each day to bring in fresh food, carry out the garbage, cook the food, and set up the tents so that when the group arrived in camp each night everything would be all ready to go. That explains it. This particular group of Boy Scouts (about 10 of them) were a group from Seattle. They too were planning to do the trip in five days.

We had our own lunch sitting on a log, and enjoyed ourselves (at least until the mosquitoes started to arrive). That first day was certainly some beautiful hiking, the geography classified as rain forest. We were thankful for the work that supposedly had been done in the 1960s by crews of prison inmates on making the trail. Even some steps had been made just a few minutes before Canyon City, our destination for day one.

We got into Canyon City after three, and were pleased that it had taken us five and a half hours to walk the little more than twelve kilometre segment. We noticed the Sherpas had already setup their clients tents, and were making fresh snacks for when their hungry employers came into camp. The Canyon City campsite had a cook shelter (cabin) with a few (carved) chairs on it's (rustic) deck, and a single picnic table. After snagging a campsite, setting up our tent, and putting our food up the bear pole, we took a hike down to the original Canyon City. The Canyon City of 1897 is actually across the Taiya river from where the Canyon City campground now sits. To get to the old city, there's a hanging bridge (mighty wobbly) that takes you across to the other side. A few minutes walking finds a rusty old stove, and then a big boiler. During the height of the gold rush, this boiler powered a tramway that carried (rich) gold seekers gear up and over the Chilkoot Trail pass (more than twelve kilometres away). That such an engineering feat could have been accomplished in such an out of the way place truly blows your mind, and makes you realize what a big thing this gold rush had been.

Back in camp that night, we met a few other people. We met a German couple named Kirsten and Detlef. They had come into camp late, and had chosen the tent spot next to us. We sat at a (single) picnic table with them and chatted about how they ended up on the Chilkoot. They were taking a year vacation from their jobs, and driving their RV around North America. Wow! That's a holiday. We also all got to know some boy scouts from Tennessee when one of them almost set the shelter on fire with his out of control camp stove! We also met a couple of families from Fairbanks Alaska who were doing the hike. We were impressed with the number of "youngsters" (people twelve and under) who were doing the hike. We had a good time talking with Kyle (son of one of the Fairbanks families), who was a great fan of airplanes (one of Glen's interests).

We got to bed a little before ten, and it rained all night (thank goodness the tent is waterproof).

Day Two

Although we only had eight kilometres to go this Monday, we still woke up early. Day three was to be a long one, and the recommendation is to travel early on the day you're going over the summit (our day three) so that you're over the pass before the afternoon sun causes the snow to melt and potentially have an avalanche. As well, our day five was to be another early start since we had to finish our twelve kilometre hike on that day before 1:00 in the afternoon because if we didn't make it to Bennett Lake on day five by 1:00, we would miss the train and possibly be stuck out there for another two days (when the next train was scheduled to show). So because of the necessity of our early day three and day five, we had planned that we would get up earlier and earlier each day. So we awoke at 6:00. As we were eating breakfast, we were amazed to see a guy (carrying a very light pack) run into camp, spending a few moments talking, he said he was running the length of the trail (53km) in the day. Wow! We'd read about people doing it, but we didn't think we'd actually meet somebody doing it. After he changed his socks, he ran out of camp.

It stopped raining about 8:30, and we left camp about 9:00. Susan said that her throat felt a little bit sore. Flying up the day before we were to start our hike had been somewhat of a concern, but since we didn't have much choice, there hadn't been much we could do about it. Hopefully it wouldn't get worse. The geography was again rain forest, but thankfully it stayed dry for the day. Throughout the day we leapfrogged back and forth with people we had got to know during our first night. During our lunch break though, we were passed by a couple we chatted with for a while. Jen and John, from North Vancouver. They were on a driving trip to the Yukon (only two weeks unlike Kirsten and Detlef). They seemed a bit rushed and they said they had a rough start to their trip. They had stayed in a camp further back than Canyon City, and were now looking forward to getting to Sheep Camp to rest so we bade them farewell and they continued on their way.

We arrived ourselves in Sheep Camp at about 2:00. Taking us 4 hours and 45 minutes to make the 8 kilometre hike (1 hour for lunch). Jen and John were just going to bed as we came into camp. We met the couple who we had seen two days before in the Trail Centre, learned their names were Andy and Corinne, and that they were from Switzerland. They were on a three month vacation driving a (rented) RV around Alaska, BC, and the Yukon. We also spent more time chatting with Kirsten and Detlef. That night we listened to Ranger Kip tell us stories about the history and the local wildlife, and gave us tips on what we would expect on our next day (the BIG day). The campsite had the largest crowd yet (almost everyone sleeps in Sheep Camp the night before the summit), and there was probably at least fourty people comprising approximately fifteen distinct groups. We got to bed again a little before ten.

Day Three (the BIG day)

We awoke at 5:00 in the morning. It had rained some more overnight but thankfully had seemed to stop. Susan's throat seemed a little worse, but we certainly had no choice but to push on. Our intention was to be out of camp by 6:30. Things looked good since we were one of the first groups awake in the camp. Three hours later when we finally left (and were the second to last group to leave) we knew that our pace at getting out of camp was definitely leaving something to be desired. As we hiked, we left the rain forest. We got into some real rocky areas with short greenery. The trail continued on and we went higher and higher. As we hiked, we ran into the Canadian Warden hiking down to "chat with Kip" as he told us.

As we got into the section of the trail called the scales, we decided we'd have lunch before we pushed on. We could see people above us in the Golden Staircase. As we ate lunch, a couple of girls came along wearing light shoes and very light packs. A moment (and just a moment) of chatting indicated they too were hiking the length of the trail in one day! During lunch it rained a little causing us to move into the shelter of a rock. Susan's voice seemed to be going.

Once we finished lunch we pushed on into the Golden Stairs. The Golden Stairs were certainly steep! As we ascended the Golden Stairs we could see the Tennesse Scouts behind us. We also noticed the Canadian Warden coming back. Boy he was quick. I was about half way up the Stairs when I first saw him, and took it as a bit of a challenge to keep ahead of him. No contest... By the time we reached the top, he had passed us.

At the summit, we stopped for a moment on the American (Alaskan) side at a monument dedicated to the gold seekers. We were certainly happy to get to the border, which meant the hardest part was behind us. As we arrived at the warming shelter at the border, Cory the guide was just packing up gear and leading the ladies away. He gave us some warm gatorade (drink it like tea he said). We spent a while in the shelter, chatting with a belgian couple who were hiking the trail, and with the Tennessee Scouts when they showed up a few minutes later. We certainly felt good. Much better than we had expected to feel now that the hard part was over. We had made it here in six hours. Now all that was left on our "hard day" was to go a few more kilometres down the hill, easy!

Easy? My shoe! We started down the hill, and felt pretty good for the first couple of kilometres. We met up with a couple from the Northwest Territories who were strolling along. Another couple doing the whole thing in one day! This time in reverse. Unlike the other "one dayers" that we had encountered so far, this couple was relaxed and seemed in no rush. They said they had done it a few times before. Familiarity breeds confidence I guess? Another kilometre and time for another snack. The Tennessee Scouts passed us. A while further and we caught the Scouts on their own break. We stopped for a snack and they continued on. We were now the last people on this segment of the trail. A bit further on, "I need some food". Another break. Push on. Where is this Happy Camp? "I need another break. I need more food". Stop again.

Finally! We can see the camp. We're walking to it. We make it to within a hundred meters and suddenly I know something is wrong (some diabetics can't tell when a reaction hits. Thank goodness I'm not one of them). I throw down my bag and collapse to the ground. I drink down a whole liter of gatorade. Eat another chocolate bar (I'm sure it must be the third or fourth of the day). Eat some raisins. We're sitting just outside of camp, we can see people walking around in camp. After consuming what must be at least 100g of carbohydrates (that's a heck of a lot in case you don't know -- about double a meal), I'm able to test my bloodsugar. Turns out to be OK, I guess it's bouncing back after such a sugar consumption. We put our packs back on and push into camp.

In camp we take one of the last camp spots (sure am glad we booked our campsites months in advance). It has taken us eleven hours and fourty five minutes to hike the little bit over fourteen kilometres. Most of the people have already gone to bed after such a hard day. Andy shows up with a relieved look on his face, saying that they had been getting concerned about us. They're going to bed. Detlef also shows up, and asks how our day went, "glad to see we made it", after seeing that we're OK and setting up, he too is off to bed. Sure felt good to be looked after.

After setting our camp up, we went down to the cook shelter to have our meal. We were sharing the shelter with the scouts. Our "boil in a bag" mashed potatoes and turkey with chocolate mousse for desert never tasted so good! After dinner it was off to bed. Two ways to sleep in the summer Alaska Sun? Either 1. wear eyepatches, or 2. hike 14+km, up and over a 1.2km high summit wearing a heavy pack. We slept well!

Day Four (Glen's birthday)

Unlike the plan, which called for us to up and eating breakfast at 6:00am, we slept in until 10:00. The sleep did Susan's cold well since it seemed to be better. It also was my birthday, and it sure felt good to be in no rush for this particular day. You couldn't ask for a better day. Unlike the rainy rain forest on the American side, the Canadian side had just beautiful weather! Susan gave me a cupcake with single candle to celebrate my birthday. Gift was a diet chocolote bar (not that I needed it to be diet), and a card. I was wished (and sung) Happy Birthday by various people including John and Jen, and Detlef and Kirsten. As we lazed around camp eating breakfast, we had some excitement in that there was a helicopter that came and went several times (dropping off and picking up garbage and other stuff). We were the last people to leave camp at about 12:20.

Leaving Happy Camp which is beside the river connecting Crater Lake to Long Lake, we went up the hill and were soon above Long Lake. We saw some fresh bear prints, but thankfully didn't see a bear (Kirsten and Detlef had supposedly seen one on day two). We were impressed by the beauty of the Deep Lake camp, which is just a few (four) kilometres past Happy Camp. It would have been nice to have stayed in the camp, but know that for most people (us included) the trip to Happy Camp is more than enough. We leapfrogged back and forth with Kirsten and Detlef throughout the day. We were impressed with the beauty of some of the canyons that had been cut by the raging river far below. Througout this day we probably saw the most historical items of any of the days on the trail. Every day we would see certain things like old cables, boots, etc. On this particular day we saw all the standard stuff, plus the remnants of a boat obviously left behind by a gold seeker, the remnants of a few shelters, quite a bit of interesting stuff. It's obvious why they call it the world's largest outdoor museum.

We reached Lindemann City Campground at about 4:45. Lindemann City actually has two campgrounds, while we were at the junction pondering which one to stay in, Kirsten and Detlef came up. Knowing that tomorrow we would have to be away early in order to make the train in time, we chose "Lower Lindemann" which would be five minutes closer to Bennett Lake. Kirsten and Detlef joined us at the Lower Lindemann site.

Besides Kirsten and Detlef it seems we were the only Chilkoot Trail hikers to pick Lower Lindemann to stay in. We had our pick of spots and set up out in the open in a wind blown spot, just a few feet away from Lindemann Lake. With it being a beautiful sunny day, I decided a good thing to do for my birthday would be to go for a bath in the lake. Always game for a challenge, Susan said she would too. Seeing us both going for it, Kirsten and Detlef also decided to join in. So we changed into our RAD shorts and quick dry t-shirts and in we went. Boy was it cold! No surprise... this high up... in the Yukon... swimming in a glacier fed lake... What were we thinking? -- Carrying a heavy pack... sleeping in a tent... climbing over the mountains for four days... no running water... It felt great!

At Lindemann there is also a Canadian Warden station and a tent museum. We toured the tent museum, looking at books and posters on the history of the trail. We signed a hikers log book, and when it asked for comments I made mention that one of my ancestors was Martha Louise Black, a famous lady who hiked the trail pregnant in 1897, and later became an MP for the Yukon Territory. We had dinner with Kirsten in Detlef in the cook shelter. With the rest of the hikers being up at the Upper Lindemann shelter, it was kind of nice for a change to have a more private dinner. We chatted about similarities and differences between Germany and Canada before ultimately going to bed about ten.

Day Five

No sleeping in today. We had a little over twelve kilometres to go (one of the longer days), and we had to be finished by one in the afternoon or we'd be stuck out here for another two days. We got up at 4:30 (BC Time), since we had to make it to Bennett Lake by 2:00 (BC Time) when the train left. We left camp at about 7:00 (BC Time) so things were looking good. The hike was rocky and had it's ups and downs. We travelled through forested areas, we passed several lakes (Dan Johnson Lake, Bare Loon Lake -- another campspot potential). We met some summer students working doing trail maintenance. We thanked them for keeping the trail in such good shape. The one thing we didn't expect was encountered just after our last view of Lake Lindemann, and that was to be hiking through the desert. The last few kilometres before Lake Bennett had us going through the sand. When we got to Lake Bennett, it was beautiful. After taking in the beauty, we hiked down the last kilometre to lake side where the train station was. Besides the train station there is also a church that has we understand been boarded up for the last 100 years. The church was built and finished by 1899, when the train arrived from Skagway in the summer of 1899 it breathed life into the town of Bennett. But by 1902 when the train tracks went all the way to Whitehorse, the town's "reason to be" vanished and the church is the one prominent artifact left indicating that this once was a bustling place.

We eat lunch, and a while before the train is due to depart we call together a good number of people we have been hiking with for the last five days in order to get a picture of the crowd. Ironically we see the Canadian Warden we had seen two days earlier when hiking the Golden Staircase (the "I'm going to visit Kip" one). We ask if he's coming with us on the train, and he says "no", he's "going back to the summit" and he strides off.

At two o'clock BC Time (1:00 Alaska Time), we throw our gear onto the train and head off down the tracks. There are two cars behind the engine. One an enclosed car, the other an open air car. We were on the open car. The scenery back through the White Pass was beautiful, but nothing could compare to our memories of the Chilkoot. At Fraser BC we have to get off the train and onto another train along with many other cruise ship/bus tourist passengers and were then on our way to Skagway. The hikers were put into the last two cars on the train, to segregate the smell I am sure. But we were all beaming. It was comical to see the difference between the cars. The first cars with all the "tourists" would be up and out on their train deck taking pictures of everything. I bet 80% of the people on the last two cars were asleep.

We arrived back in Skagway at about 4:30. We checked back into the Skagway Inn and both took hot showers. We met Kirsten and Detlef for dinner at a seafood restaurant at about 7:00 and had a great time recounting our stories on the ups and downs of the Chilkoot.

Time to Go Home

The next day we bumped into Andy and Corinne, and Detlef (Kirsten was napping), said our goodbyes, and took the bus back to Whitehorse. Surprisingly we saw our first bear right in the middle of the Highway. We spent one more night touring around Whitehorse before flying back home. Amazingly the flight had on it the Canadian Warden (the "I'm going to visit Kip" one). How he got into Whitehorse that quick we'll never know. The hike was a trip I know we'll remember forever, and I highly recommend you do it if you have the opportunity.

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