Journey to the Klondike- Part One: The Road to Alaska

When we knew that Lisa would be coming back to Canada for good, our minds immediately started searching for some way to inaugurate the next phase of our lives in this big, beautiful country. We wanted to do something big, something wild, something we might not ever get the chance to do again. And so we decided on the Yukon. The Klondike. The gold rush. One of the last of the last frontiers, featuring vast wilderness and in-your-face history all rolled up into one. To Dawson City!

For months we carefully planned our journey, and even picked up a few companions who would join us along the way. The plan was to drive 3000 or so kilometres up to Alaska, follow the steps of the gold stampeders up the Chilkoot Trail and over the Chilkoot pass into Canada, make our way to Whitehorse, Yukon by more modern means of transportation, paddle ourselves some 730 kilometres down the Yukon River to Dawson, and then make our way back home to Victoria, B.C. We had one month, one car, one canoe, and everything else we needed for what would be a roughly 8000 kilometre round trip.

We made it out alive, and now it is our pleasure to share some of our trip with you in a series of three blog posts. Read on to find out more!

A Brief History of the Klondike Gold Rush

(For history buffs only. Skip this section if you’re more interested in the here and now!)

The Klondike gold rush, the events of which played out roughly between 1896 and 1899, was a remarkable and unparalleled phenomenon in the history of North America. There are a vast number of books that have been written on the topic (with Pierre Berton’s Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush, 1896-1899 standing out as one of the seminal works), but at least a rough overview of the history of “The Last Great Gold Rush” is in order here to provide a little bit of context on the historic route to the Klondike.

In the summer of 1896, gold was found in tributary creeks of the Klondike River, which flows into the Yukon River at the point which is now known as Dawson. Skookum Jim Mason, member of the Tagish First Nation, made the discovery along with his American brother-in-law George Carmack, with some lingering uncertainty as to who actually made the initial discovery. In those days the Yukon was mostly home to its original inhabitants plus a handful of white traders, settlers, and gold prospectors. It didn’t take long for word of the discovery to spread, and soon treasure seekers in the area had abandoned their cabins and made their way to stake claims on the Klondike creeks.

Given that the Yukon River is covered in ice for most of the year, it took some time for the news of the Klondike discovery to reach the rest of the world. About one year after the initial strike, two steamers from the Yukon arrived in San Francisco and Seattle. The papers caught wind of the strike and heralded “a ton of gold” arriving from the Klondike (it was more like two tons in one boat alone). Countless onlookers swarmed the docks of San Francisco and Seattle to watch a handful of weary gold miners disembark, still wearing their tattered and dirty clothing, and dragging heavy sacks and suitcases stuffed with the gold from their labours of the previous year in the Klondike.

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Excerpt from the Seattle Post Intelligencer Klondike Edition, July 17, 1897

North America and Europe were caught in the throes of a depression throughout the late 1800s, while the endless American frontier had finally found its limit at the Pacific coast. The rags to riches tale of a gold strike in the far north, beyond the edge of one of the last “unexplored” frontiers, carried an irresistible allure to the atrophied and hope-seeking masses. In a flash, the Klondike gold stampede had begun.

While there were many ways to the Klondike, the majority of the stampeders (about 90% of which were Americans) made their way up the Pacific coast on crowded steamships and disembarked in Alaska at either Skagway or Dyea. From there, they had to make their way over the mountains into the Canadian interior (though there was quite some confusion in those days about where the U.S. ended and where Canada began) over either the Chilkoot Trail or the White Pass. This included dragging a full ton of goods with them, otherwise the R.C.M.P wouldn’t allow them them into the country (many people nearly starved to death in Dawson during the previous winter, and the ton of goods provision is credited with having helped to prevent the same thing happening again).

The Chilkoot Trail, used as a trade route by Tlingit First Nations for generations, was rather arduous, particularly in the steep section going over the Chilkoot pass. The White Pass, longer though apparently more gradual and suitable for pack animals, had its share of difficulties as well, and eventually came to be known as “The Trail of Dead Horses” from the 5,000 or so animals that met their demise at the hands of a brutal trail and even more brutal handlers.

Once a person made their way over the mountains with their ton of goods, it was time to build a boat over the winter at Lindeman or Bennett Lake. The sorrounding forests were razed, trees were sawed into rough lumber, and when the ice finally went out a flotilla of roughly 7,000 shoddy boats of all shapes and sizes made its way from the headwater lakes of the Yukon River all the way down to Dawson to strike it rich.

The greatest irony of the Klondike gold rush is that after all of the hardship of the trail, most of the gold-bearing creeks were already fully claimed once the real rush of stampeders finally arrived. While there were still plenty of ways to make money in Dawson and along the way, often by “mining the miners,” many of those who completed the journey simply booked passage home again as soon as they had arrived, or simply reveled in booming Dawson and the gold rush phenomenon for some time before heading home a short time later, poorer in money but richer in experience.

The Grand Plan and the Monster Pile

After collecting a few friends to join us on the way, it was going to be Elliott, Lisa, and her brother Philipp driving up from Victoria to Alaska and hiking the Chilkoot Trail, joined later on by friends Michael, Rebecca, and Laura arriving in Whitehorse and joining us to paddle together to Dawson. Elliott worked hard nailing down all the logistics and enlisting the help of many friendly Yukoners, and by the time we were ready to leave there was a complex master plan of routes, shuttles, and helpful strangers to guide us along our way.

With a bit of creativity, logistics can be fun (and cheap)!

Nowadays there are plenty of ways to get to and around the common staging points for a journey to the Klondike. Much like in the old days, however, the more money you’re willing to spend, the simpler and easier it can be. That’s not how we roll, however, and we managed to put together a fairly cost-effective though somewhat complicated logistical plan to get us, our car, our friends, and all of our gear exactly when and where we needed it over the month we spent in the Yukon.

For those of you who might be thinking of planning your own trip, our major transport and logistical steps were as follows:

  • Drive our Corolla from Victoria to the Yukon, with our canoe on top and our trunk and backseat  crammed with food and gear. We chose the Alaska-Canada highway because there appeared to be fewer forest fires on that route when we departed, and we were assured it was a reliable way north.
  • Drop off our canoe and the canoe trip food in Tagish at the parents’ house of a friendly stranger. We didn’t want to leave our canoe alone in Alaska for a week, and wouldn’t have been able to get some our 2 weeks of canoe food across customs.
  • Spend a couple days in Skagway while camping at Dyea. The two towns are several kilometers apart, so a car is recommended (though hitch-hiking can work too).
  • Leave our car at the Dyea campground (there is a special parking area that seems safe).
  • Hike the trail!
  • Take the passenger train from the end of the trail back to Skagway (plane, train, or boat are the only options as there is no road connection).
  • Hitch-hike from Skagway back to Dyea to pick up the car. Lisa ended up getting picked up by the train conductor and arrived back in Dyea before anybody else who was headed that way!
  • Drive from Skagway to Whitehorse, stopping in Tagish on the way to pick up the canoe.
  • Pick up our friends at the Whitehorse airport, and stay in the backyard of a friendly stranger in our own little tent city.
  • Rent two additional canoes from Kanoe People (great service!) and leave the car in front of the house of the friendly stranger.
  • Start paddling down the Yukon River!
  • While paddling, another friendly stranger (found through a Yukon rideshare Facebook group) picks up our car and drives it to Dawson, leaving it in the Dawson airport parking lot. We filled up the tank and gave him some wine, so he got a free trip and helped us out too!
  • Arrive two weeks later in Dawson by canoe.
  • Hitchhike to Dawson airport to pick up the car (this time Lisa hitched a ride with an actual gold miner), while paying a bit extra to have our Kanoe People rentals shuttled back to Whitehorse.
  • Camp in the Yukon government campground across the river from Dawson.
  • Drive back to Whitehorse, with some of us taking the Husky Bus.
  • Our friends fly away, and we drive back to Victoria via the Cassiar route.
  • Narrowly miss highway closures from forest fires, but make it home after a month away!

Before heading off on our own Klondike journey, we had to first get our own ton of goods ready. While it wasn’t actually a ton, it was still a considerable amount of food, gear, and supplies to keep six people happy and healthy for a month long journey… and we fit it all into our tiny Toyota Corolla! It’s amazing what you can do with a little ingenuity and a relaxed attitude, and in the end the amount of gas our little Corolla used was far less than what we would have had to pay in a larger vehicle. Fuel efficiency really adds up over 7000+ kilometres!

lisa wool
Lisa in wool from head to toe!

The sub-arctic: not as cold as you’d think!

We deliberated for a while about what to pack in terms of clothing. After all, we were living out in the open for several weeks, and away from home for an entire month. We normally bring along quite a lot of wool for cold, wet conditions, and even when we’re hiking in warm conditions we’re usually wearing wool socks. We thought wool would be a safe bet for our journey and even packed along a pair of olive green military surplus pants made of wool for each of us.

Turns out we were a bit ambitious when it came to keeping warm! The summers can actually be quite hot in Yukon and Alaska, and we found that it was usually more of a challenge to keep cool rather than warm. We were also there during a heat wave, and with the sun only setting from about 11pm to 3am, there was lots of sun and lots of heat to contend with.

While we’re not saying don’t pack warm clothes, just perhaps don’t expect a freezing, snowy wasteland when in fact you’re more likely to find a bright, warmish land bursting with life during its short but rapid growing season. Wool is still great to have along too, especially if you end up getting weeks of rain (which is also possible), but make sure you’ve got a little flexibility in the clothing you pack too!

The Drive

There are two main routes if you’re driving to Alaska from southern British Columbia. Each route requires getting first to Prince George, and then choosing from there. The first option is to head east through Fort St. John and Fort Nelson, taking the Alaska-Canada highway. This route has a number of services along the way and is a reliable, if not slightly less scenic option. One of the main highlights is the Liard River Hotsprings. The second option is to head west through Smithers and Dease Lake along the highway 37. This route is on a smaller and windier highway with fewer services, but it is quite scenic and worth the drive. Both options are paved all the way, and we would recommend taking both if you get the chance. Depending on how many side trips and detours you make, you’re looking at somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 km between Victoria and Whitehorse, which makes for a very long drive indeed!

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Camping at a typical B.C. rec site along the way.

We opted for the Alaska-Canada highway. We would drive, switch drivers, drive some more, eat lunch in the car, switch drivers, drive even more, and then take out our trusty Camp Free in B.C. book to find a free recreation site to camp for the night.  It’s surprising just how little there is in terms of settlements and services along the highway once you get further and further north. We saw some truly beautiful areas along the way that we would love to visit again, ideally with some time for hiking and exploring, but given the sheer distance involved it’s hard to know when we’ll ever be up in that unique area of Canada again. As we watched things get wilder and wilder, the excitement built with each passing kilometre!

For the first two days of the drive we hardly saw a single animal, but on the third day nature came to us! We saw more black bears than we could count, plus a few wood bison as well, all from the side of the highway!

One of the most scenic stretches of the drive was between Carcross and Skagway. The highway somewhat follows the general route of the historic White Pass, and there is some stunning alpine scenery that one can enjoy from the comfort of their own vehicle.

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The road to Skagway, Alaska

While we made our way by car, the main way to the Klondike during the gold rush almost inevitably included a journey by ship. Stampeders heading up the coast to Alaska were crammed onto any sort of floating vessel that entrepreneurs could get their hands on, including ships that had already been given up for dead but which were hastily patched together and rushed into service upon news of the strike. All sorts of people scrambled on board the ships, from the destitute searching for a miracle, to the rich who were seeking adventure (and who were offended about having to share cabins with the destitute). Goods of all manner, from bicycles to bacon and everything in between, were labelled, packed, lost, and sometimes never found in the commotion of the loading and unloading. Animals, including horses, sheep, donkeys, and chickens, were forced into loud and smoky engine rooms and any other crack they could be squeezed- a dark foreshadowing of the brutality many of them would face at the hands of the gold-crazed masses later on.

In the end we made it to Skagway after four days of fairly dedicated driving, but with plenty of stops along the way too. Thinking back on it, the sheer distance that we were able to travel in such a short amount of time is nothing short of amazing, making us realize that it’s easy to take our modern road transportation for granted.

Skagway, Alaska

We were excited to get to Skagway, as it is the only goldrush town that has escaped having a large number of its buildings burn down. When we got there, we were, well… a little disappointed. It turns out while the buildings are there, they’re mostly filled with tourist junk shops and expensive jewelry stores for the hordes of cruise ship guests to stroll through for a few hours before heading back to their ship for the night. Aside from that the town is simply a bit bizarre, though the locals seemed rather friendly. We ended up spending most of our time in Skagway at the public library (free wifi) and the local medical centre to get a quick exam and antibiotic prescription (free/cheap healthcare- in America, of all places!).

Although it is a bit strange, Skagway is still worth the visit. It turns out we didn’t take many photos while in Skagway, so we will leave you with this sunset image of the Lynn Canal to whet your appetite for some of the beautiful scenery that you can expect in the next blog installment of our Journey to the Klondike.

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