The Chilkoot Trail, long traveled and maintained by the coastal Tlingit, was the first real stretch of our journey to the Klondike. To stampeders who had just arrived in Dyea after a week or two of being crammed into a steamship together with all manner of goods, animals, and people, the Chilkoot loomed above them as the first real obstacle of their journey. It was (and still is) remote, the weather was cold and miserable, the trail arduous and wearisome, and for the unfortunate few it was even deadly.
For us, after our comparatively relaxing journey north in our small but comfortable Corolla (also crammed with all manner of goods, people, and maybe even a stowaway mouse or two), we viewed the trailhead of the Chilkoot and the mountains rising beyond as a beautiful welcome gate to the exciting journey that lay beyond. As we laced up our boots and shouldered our packs, the prospect of what was to be a spectacular trip over the Chilkoot filled us with a sense of joyous anticipation (and perhaps a tiny bit of apprehension) for what was to come.
Planning your hike
There are many different ways to hike the Chilkoot Trail, and it is best to give it some careful thought in advance as bookings, international borders, and a decent amount of strenuous activity and unpredictable conditions are involved. Parks Canada has a great website to help you plan your hike.
The average person does the hike over three to five nights, but we saw some trail runners doing it in one day. The trail takes hikers from the temperate coastal rainforests of the Alaskan coast up to the rocky boulders of the Chilkoot Pass, and down through alpine meadows and into the scenic but forbidding forests and mountains of the Canadian interior. We opted for five nights in order to take our time and really soak up the scenery and the history. As relatively fit hikers the pace was a bit slow but allowed for plenty of leisure time, and we got lucky with beautiful sunny weather to enjoy for the entire duration of the hike. If we did it again, we’d probably tackle it in four nights instead.
Dyea to Canyon City
The trail begins in Dyea, which was a booming port for about a year during the goldrush, but which has basically nothing left today except for a campground and a few other buildings.
The first stretch of the present-day trail doesn’t actually follow much of the historic trail, so history and artifacts are at a minimum. The trail is thick with lush vegetation and the largest devil’s club I’ve ever seen, but the trail is good and the going is relatively easy. One of the first places worth stopping is Finnegan’s Point, where Dan Finnegan built some bridges, improved the trail, and charged stampeders $1 a person to cross. We stopped there for lunch and were awarded with a great view of the Irene glacier oozing down from the mountains in the background.
The Canyon City campsite is where we spent our first night. It’s a nice campground, with a lively flowing river for campers to collect their water and an impressive log cabin that serves as a cooking shelter during bad weather.
A short walk away from the campsite is the historic site of the actual Canyon City that exited during the goldrush. There’s not much left of the town today, with the most obvious artifact being a gigantic boiler that somebody somehow transported up the trail and which was used to provide electricity to an electric tramway that hauled the goods of wealthier stampeders from there to the Chilkoot pass and beyond, depending on how much a person was willing to pay. The boiler also provided electricity to the city. Today it’s difficult to imagine how a town of about 1,500 people sprang up in a remote river valley in the middle of nowhere, offering all manner of goods and services to all manner of stampeders rushing through.
“It was a beautiful sight, believe me, when returning down the trail from the pass, to see the bright lights of Canyon City glittering in the winter dusk.”
– W. C. Wilkes, stampeder, June 1989
Canyon City to Sheep Camp
The next day we tackled the stretch between Canyon City and Sheep Camp, the last stretch of coastal rainforest before heading into the rocky lands beyond. While the scenery was more or less the same, we were slowly making our way higher and higher. The number of artifacts beside the trail started to increase as well, with an old telegraph wire accompanying us for much of the way.
While we tackled the Chilkoot Trail in the summer (and with nothing but sunny weather at that!), many of the stampeders would have come this way in the winter. Keeping that in mind, Pierre Berton does a wonderful job of describing Sheep Camp and the imposing climax of the Chilkoot Pass beyond:
[Sheep Camp] was the last point on the trail where it was possible to cut timber or firewood; everything beyond was naked rock and boulder, sheathed during the winter in a coating of ice and smothered in a blanket of snow.
The camp lay in a deep basin which seemed to have been scooped by a giant paw out of the encircling mountains. In one of these a small notch could be glimpsed; this was the Chilkoot. Sheep Camp was so named because it had once served as headquarters for hunters seeking mountain sheep, and the stampeders, gazing up at the barrier of encircling white, might well feel that these were the only creatures who could cling to the slippery precipice… The summit was only four miles distant, but it was a long way up- thirty-five hundred feet above the town of Dyea.
– from Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush, 1896-1899
We arrived in Sheep Camp fairly early, and with the knowledge of what we had in store for us the next day, we spent the afternoon relaxing and bathing in a cold but refreshing creek and saving our energy for the next day.
Our experience from Dyea to Sheep Camp was quite comfortable, and considerably different from that of Emma Kelly, who tackled the trail in 1897 to report to the Kansas City Star:
“The trail from Dyea to Sheep Camp, always terrible, was in wretched condition, the entire distance being through snow, slush, and muck, up sharp elevations, down precipitous cañons, and overrocks and bowlders covered with snow and ice. Up to the winding cañon the trail crosses one stream sixty-one times, and when the water was too deep for me to wade, I would have a packer carry me over on his back.
– From Women of the Klondike by Frances Backhouse
The Chilkoot Pass
Sheep Camp to Deep Lake
Most hikers start their Chilkoot Pass day early in the morning from Sheep Camp, and if they’re lucky, arrive on the other side at Happy Camp about 12 hours later depending on how much the weather has cooperated.
The reason heading over the pass can take so long is largely due to the extreme elevation gain between Sheep Camp and the Pass, followed by quite some distance over difficult, rocky terrain to Happy Camp. Add some miserable, unpredictable weather into the equation and you have the makings for what can for some be a very long day.
We were told that Happy Camp is not actually so happy- it can be cold, exposed, and crowded with both mosquitoes and people. So we took a gamble and booked a campsite at Deep Lake instead, effectively adding another 4 kilometers to what was already by far our longest and most arduous day on the trail.
We started off early form Sheep Camp with beautiful weather to accompany us. The trees started thinning out soon after Sheep Camp, and we were rapidly treated to wonderful views of snow capped mountains as we looked back, the views improving with each step we took. Yet this was only a first taste of the beauty that awaited us!
The number of artifacts we encountered along the way rapidly increased as well. Bits and pieces of old, heavy iron could be found all along the trail. We could only guess at the intended purpose of some of these heavy hunks of metal that some poor soul had dragged this far, only to be discarded when the going got too tough.
All the while, spectacular scenery continued to open up all around us. Looking up from the mysterious artifacts littering the trail, a look behind to the coastal mountains took our breath away with a magnificent view, one that few people are able to enjoy in clear and sunny weather.
Before we knew it we were at the Scales, where stampeders weighed their goods one last time before going over the pass. This was in part to make sure that each person had the ton of goods that the R.C.M.P would diligently check at the pass before letting anybody into Canada. Hired packers would also use the Scales as an opportunity to demand higher prices of up to a dollar per pound. For those that had enough money to hire packers, this increase in price caused them to rethink the necessity of bringing some of the items they had already paid to have packed this far. For those that were packing their outfit over on their own backs and had reached this point after weeks of toil, the forbidding spectre of the pass looming above was likewise enough to make the rethink what they actually wanted to continue carrying upwards.
Today, the result is a rocky alpine slope strewn with the highest concentration of artifacts one can find along the trail. Boot soles, giant metal gears, cables, glass bottles, all manner of metal rods, cables, and bands, countless rusty food cans flaking away into nothingness, rope, cloth, scraps of leather, and more littered the surfaces of boulders and the nooks and crannies in between.
Upon our first glimpse of the summit we were skeptical- could that really be it? During the gold rush this final stretch was known as the ‘golden stairs,’ made up of countless steps carved into the ice and one of the most arduous stretches of the Chilkoot Trail.
The pass itself is a collection of large boulders with artifacts crammed between them all along the way. The boulders make up a roughly 45 degree slope which is best approached using both hands and feet to keep balance, especially with a heavy backpack trying to drag a hiker back down to join the artifacts lost in chasms below.
To us it didn’t look so bad, and it really wasn’t, though our experience was far different to that of the stampeders. The worst part were the swarms of mosquitoes that followed us up, hitchhiking on our backpacks and helping themselves to free meals along the way. The ordeal of the stampeders was something else entirely, and Pierre Berton captures the experience of the golden stairs beautifully:
All winter long, from Sheep Camp to the summit, for four weary miles the endless line of men stretched up the slippery slope, a human garland from the summit and draped across the expanse of the mountainside. From first light to last, the line was never broken as the men who formed it inched slowly upward, climbing in that odd rhythmic motion that cam to be called the Chilkoot Lock-Step…
Up the golden stairs they went, the men from the farms and the offices, climbing into the heavens, struggling to maintain the balance of the weight upon their shoulders, occasionally sinking to their hands and knees but always rising up again, sometimes breaking down in near-collapse, sometimes weeping in rage and frustration, yet always striving higher and higher, their faces black with strain, their breath hissing between their gritted teeth, unable to curse for want of wind yet unwilling to pause for respite, clambering upwards from step to step, hour after hour, as if the mountain peaks themselves were made of solid gold…
Whiskey and silk, steamboats and pianos, live chickens and stuffed turkeys, timber and glassware, bacon and beans, all went over on men’s backs. If a man was too poor to hire a packer, he climbed the pass forty times before he got his outfit across.
– From Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush, 1896-1899
We made our way upward and onward, our lightweight, modern hiking gear imposing a light weight upon us compared to the burdens carried by those who struggled over the very same trail in years past. First one false summit, then another, and finally the third and final summit. From the top, the views into Alaska and to the coast had been all but swallowed up by the rocky pass, while the spectacular alpine scenery of British Columbia opened up before us. During the gold rush the R.C.M.P kept a post at the summit to keep order, check to make sure every person had a ton of goods with them, collect a goldmine of customs duties, and assert Canadian sovereignty on what was then a disputed border. Their small detachment was even complemented by two maxim machine guns, while the brutal weather of the pass would sometimes bury their post multiple times a winter in meters upon meters of snow.
The weather at the summit is usually quite terrible, but we lucked out with clear, sunny weather. A U.S. customs agent described the weather at the summit in August 1898 as such:
“The weather here has been so [foul] that a person could not be seen twenty feet away on account of the rain and the fog which has prevailed for nineteen days without any exception, until yesterday afternoon when the fog lifted for a couple of hours when it again began to storm and up to this evening it has been almost impossible to be out as the fog is so thick and the wind has been blowing at a sixty mile an hour gait.”
– From Chilkoot Trail by David Neufeld & Frank Norris
After taking a short lunch break at the summit shelter we continued on, knowing we still had a long day ahead of us. The terrain on the Canadian side was much different than the terrain before the pass. We found ourselves in a bare alpine environment with scant vegetation, snow, rock, and azure waters that betrayed their frigidity by the ice bergs floating on top of them.
On and on we went, over wobbly rocks, slippery snow, and through freshly melted glacial streams making their way to the lakes below. Though we grew tired, and the trail demanded careful footing, it was one of the most beautiful stretches of the entire hike and some of the best alpine scenery we’ve ever seen.
Eventually we finally staggered into Happy Camp, where we met several of the other hikers we had been meeting along the way. We were hot, thirsty, tired, and needed a generous second lunch to keep us going. Though our feet ached and the sun beat mercilessly down on us in the long, hot afternoon of the arctic summer, we had to rouse ourselves to get up from where we collapsed and continue on another four kilometers to Deep Lake.
Happy Camp was never very happy, even in 1898.
After travelling through deep snow, Julius Price arrived at Happy Camp “to find only a tent lighted dimly by a candle. Inside was a long sort of counter spread with iron cups and plates, and behind it a man was standing over a wretched little stove making coffee. The aspect was wretced in the extreme, the thin tent merely serving to keep out the wind, not the cold. We were, however, glad to get even a cup of so-called coffee, for it was at any rate hot, and to a certain extent comforting. This and a slice or two of coarse bread and butter, and a plate of tinned beef, made up a supper that was perhaps more filling than satisfying, but as this was more than we had expected to find on the way, we could not grumble… One wondered at the strange fascination of gold that it could reconcile a man, and, for the matter of that, his wife also, to come out and eke out a miserable existence in such an awful place as this.”
– From Chilkoot Trail by David Neufeld & Frank Norris
Somehow the trail managed to once again gain elevation as we plodded our weary way along. Our water was low, the sun was hot, and all we could think about was cooling off in some cool water, stuffing our faces with some variation of our dried hiking foods (starch, dried vegetables, protein, and some sort of spice, yum!), and going to sleep at the soonest opportunity.
In our fatigue our eyes were mostly directed downward, carefully watching each endless step follow the other to prevent a loss of footing, which also rewarded us with spotting a number of interesting artifacts along the way.
No words were spoken during the last 2km as we each simply focused on putting one foot in front of the other. Finally we made it to Deep Lake, staggering into the campsite to find that we were one of only two groups to come this far. To think that Tlingit packers would have left Sheep Camp and come this far or further in a single day with much heavier loads left us feeling a bit soft and pathetic. Nonetheless, we felt accomplished knowing our most difficult day was behind us, and we spent the rest of the sunny afternoon and evening swimming, laying in the sun, and relaxing. We were stiff, sore, and hardly able to keep our eyes open. Elliott went to sleep at 8pm and slept a full 12 hours and still felt exhausted afterwards!
The Headwater Lakes
Deep Lake to Lindeman City
After a long, relaxed morning at Deep Lake, we slowly packed our things and plodded off to begin the five short kilometres to our next camp, Lindeman City. The scenery was a nice mix of rocky mountain slopes and small, scraggly forest, with a healthy dose of artifacts mixed in for interest.
The remnants of an old boat could be seen, along with the remains of some old wagons and what used to be a rough wagon road. During the gold rush, more affluent stampeders could pay to have their goods shipped nearly all the way from the sea to the summit and beyond. Over this stretch of the trail, goods coming over the summit either on a person’s back or by the aerial tramway could be loaded from one boat to the next to make their way over the alpine lakes, including stretches on horse-drawn wagons to cover the distance between each of the lakes.
From the point we reached the Golden Stairs, it was as if a calm silence had descended on the entire trail. After Deep Lake, the silence was especially peaceful as we entered the more closed-in subalpine boreal forest. This is the type of forest that Elliott is more familiar with, and it was hard not to be reminded of Canada’s Rocky Mountains while hiking through such similar terrain.
We made it to Lindeman City in what seemed like no time at all. It was one of our favourite campsites, with a beautiful log cooking shelter, and some super-fresh black bear scat only 10 metres or so from our tents! Aside from the scat, the sun was shining all day, we were sorrounded by dry, fragrant forest, beautiful blues in Lindeman Lake, and colourful mountains were spread all around us. The lake was even warm enough for a quick swim! It was a beautiful end to our easiest day on the Chilkoot, made all the more relaxing as we eased back in our little campsite reading books about wolves and bears (there is an interpretive tent with a small library) and watching the sun set in our fly-less tent, its soft pinks descending behind a row of pines.
Lindeman City to Bennett
The next morning we hit the trail for our last day on the Chilkoot, which was another relatively short and easy hike from Lindeman City to Bennett. On the way is Bare Loon Lake, which is a very nice little spot with great water for swimming. The terrain along the stretch between Lindeman to Bennett was more of the same big blue lakes and colourful mountains of the day before, with a bit of sandy pine forests for an unexpected change. With the intense heat, it almost felt like we were walking along a beach in Mallorca!
After a short but pleasant day, we finally made it to the shores of Lake Bennett, 53 kilometres and 5 days later! We sat ourselves down in some shade beside the lake, trying to keep cool from the hot sun and warm breeze. Elliott finished his last sip of carefully rationed whisky, and after a brief swim we were all feeling relaxed and fantastic.
There aren’t any structures left at Bennett except for the old church, which was under construction while we were there. There is plenty of debris though, including some stoves, tons of old rusty cans, a tricycle or unicycle, and countless shards of broken glass, which aren’t very pleasant, but at least they’re historic! Aside from that, even the ground and landscape bear little signs that Bennett was once a city of 20,000 complete with houses, businesses, and just about anything else a person needed.
The only reasonable way out of Bennett is by train, and the train only comes every second day, so we had a night and a day to pass the time in and around Bennett. We spent the day reading and relaxing, as well as taking the short walk back up the trail to check out the rapids between lakes Lindeman and Bennett. When stampeders finally reached the headwater lakes after the ardour of the trail, they had to choose to start making a boat at Lindeman or Bennett. Lindeman was closer, but they would have to wait longer for the ice to go out, and there was a nasty section of rapids between the lakes that ruined many boats and even took some lives. Bennett was further, but the ice went out sooner and there wasn’t the first set of rapids to contend with.
“Our neighbour who is going alone had built a boat that was more like a floating coffin… [He] loaded his stuff in and pushed it out to see how it would float. It turned bottom up and spilled his goods into about four feet of water.”
– The diary of Harley Tuck, 1898. From Chilkoot Trail by David Neufel & Frank Norris
Finally, our Chilkoot journey nearing an end, we gathered ourselves and our packs at the little train station along with the rest of the hikers and daytrip tourists from Skagway and waited for the White Pass & Yukon Route train to arrive.
The trip by train wasn’t particularly interesting after the intense scenery and history of the trail, but it was still not a bad (and not inexpensive) experience. The most interesting part about the train is that it follows much of the White Pass trail, or “Trail of Dead Horses”, and still travels along the same stretch that drastically changed the way people got to the Klondike in only a few years after the initial gold strike. While it is definitely more of the classic tourist experience, it’s still possible to sense a bit of the history as you slowly sway, bump, and rattle along the narrow gauge track, contemplating the lives and stories of all those who passed along these same routes so many years ago.
Clare Boyntan, who travelled up the White Pass, recalls the barbarity that was shown to animals on the route:
“There was a dreadful suffering of the poor men and animals trying to get their outfits over the hill. My heart just ached for… the poor patient horses, burros, oxen, and dogs that were bruised and bleeding till the trail was simply a trail of blood… The strain and hardships told on the men and many of them were cruel almost beyond description. Numbers of poor beasts gave up the struggle and on both sides of the trail we could count their bodies by the dozens.”
– From Women of the Klondike by Frances Backhouse
For many of the stampeders, the Chilkoot, with all of its toil and misery juxtaposed with rugged beauty, was one of the most memorable experiences of not only their journey to the Klondike, but of their entire lives. It was a marvel of human will and ingenuity with a healthy dose of insanity, a spectacle of depravity, conflict, cooperation, and conviction all rolled into one. In the space of one short year there was enough human drama playing out on the Chilkoot to last a lifetime, and even 120 years later that drama is still playing out today.
Our Chilkoot experience, which featured only some toil, hardly any misery, and plenty of beauty, was also one of the most striking parts of our own journey to the Klondike, and one which we will never forget. Never before have we been on a hike with such consistent beauty, such a constant immersion in history, and with the special but indescribable sensation that comes with being in the wilderness so far north.
While we have tried to describe and portray our experience here, it is impossible to fully understand the experience without doing it yourself. At the very least, we hope that this blog post imparted some of the beauty and history we took in ourselves. At best, we hope that it has inspired you to take the plunge, head up north, and tackle the Chilkoot for yourself!