Saturday, July 31, 2010

Introduction to the Chilkoot Trail

There were a host of reasons Nola and I wanted to visit Alaska this summer of 2010. For me they not only involved the opportunities to fish, kayak, hike, and explore, but to learn more about the colorful history of Alaska. By hiking the Chilkoot Trail, we could retrace the journey of the 1898 prospectors firsthand. Another big one, however, involved investigating the history of my grandfather who ran off to Alaska from Waterville, Maine sometime in the late 1920s. He left his family of five young sons and a wife behind to fend for themselves during the Great Depression and eventually returned many years later in a pine box.  I assumed that he ran off to make a fortune in the goldfields, but by then the gold had played out and it turns out that he worked on the railroad somewhere between Anchorage and Fairbanks according to family history. I found that the railroads were just as important as gold in establishing the early fortunes of Alaska. Indeed, the city of Dyea died out rather quickly in the early 1900s when Skagway was chosen as the main starting point for the railroad to Whitehorse and beyond.

The Beginning of the Chilkoot Trail at Dyea Campground

In the days of the actual gold rush, prospectors were normally ferried from Skagway to Dyea where they would start preparations for hiking the Chilkoot Trail to eventually reach the goldfields around Dawson City some 600 miles away. This was the most popular access route from the coast to the Yukon goldfields, the shortest and least expensive.  In 1898, Dyea had 150 businesses, 48 hotels, and 2 hospitals. By 1903, all were abandoned leaving just three people as the resident population. Today, the combination of this historic American and Canadian route is celebrated and preserved as part of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park (USA) and Chilkoot Trail National Historic Site (of Canada). For the early prospectors, it was necessary to haul one ton (2000 pounds) of gear over the Pass to the Canadian side which included such things as 150 pounds of bacon, 400 pounds of flour, 125 pounds of beans, 75 pounds of dried fruits, and other assorted foodstuffs including coffee, tea, sugar, etc. In short, enough provisions to last one full year.

Nola on the way up Saintly Hill in the first mile of the Chilkoot Trail

For us? Well...forget the one ton of goods. We decided to bring our day packs, take a lunch, pack our rain gear, wear bear bells, and make an exploratory trip of one day to Finnegan's Point, about 7 miles round trip from our campsite. We wanted to test it out to see if we were really interested in completing the entire hike of 33 miles to Bennett Lake in B.C. at a later date. But it became apparent after completing the first leg of the journey up Saintly Hill that Nola's ankles and feet would not survive the whole trek without a lot of pain. In my case, I was surprised at my huffing and puffing at the beginning, but felt a lot better by time we reached the top. I attributed my own slow pace to being out of shape from too much driving instead of biking or hiking up demanding hills and mountains. So, this hill was just enough challenge to start the trip off. It felt great when we reached the top and a relief to find out that the trail was not all straight up for the entire day. Saintly Hill deserves its name from the fact that anyone is a saint if they do not curse on their way up. Despite the initial challenge, I ended up loving the trip and I found out quickly that I am no saint.

 Love those well built bridges that make the trail flat, dry and scenic.

Zen views of Face Mountain 

The initial hills gave way to well worn trails that often bordered the Taiya River offering a variety of zen views. We eventually walked across swampland aided by parallel walking boards. That made it easy and exciting at the same time looking for beaver, muskrats, and birdlife along the way. Can't imagine what the trail looked like in 1898.

Crossing the swampland looking for beaver, muskrats and birdlife.

Eventually we penetrated a dark, brooding forest with zillions of mosquitoes droning around our heads...among our first in Alaska. As long as we kept walking it wasn't so bad, but we rested a few minutes for a quick lunch and they attacked us like the Mongol warriors of Genghis Khan. That was the quickest lunch ever as we had forgotten our head nets thinking we had somehow escaped mosquito season. Big mistake!

The dark forest beckons the unwary hiker.

It was tough for me to turn around at only 3.3 miles and retrace our steps. I really wanted to see what was up ahead and go through the more challenging parts of the trail experiencing Canyon City, Pleasant Camp, Sheep Camp, The Scales, The Golden Stairs, the Chilkoot Pass, and the trails to Lindeman and Bennett Lakes. So I decided to do it later in the summer by myself and join another 50 or so hikers who would sign the register, pay $50 in fees, and join the tens of thousands of others who have made this trek in the past. This appeared to be a challenging hike offering a variety of scenery with remnants of items along the trail left by earlier hikers and prospectors, and a good feeling for what it must have been like during those earlier days.  Of course, the first day was the easy part. looks like a great adventure!

 A documentary in the making with Canadian actor volunteers and Canadian Public Television of Quebec.

As we made our way back along the path, we started meeting more day trekkers. Most were part of small tour groups offered by Princess Cruise Lines who practically owned the nearby port of Skagway. But the biggest surprise was to meet a television production crew and volunteer actors from Canadian Television making a film for Public Television in Quebec. With a group of about 20 people selected from all over Canada, they were involved in the reenactment and filming of the early French voyagers and prospectors who had climbed the Chilkoot Trail and went on to Dawson City.  Dressed in typical dress of the time, using similar tools, camping and cooking like those of 1898, the film would document what it was like for today's adventurers to spend three months slowly making their way with all of their struggles and  triumphs to Dawson City. With any luck, we would meet them once again on their entrance to Dawson City in August.

        One of the Canadian actors with blisters becomes the cook.

Two actors had blisters from the old style boots used on the trek and spent their days in camp as cooks and camp helpers. Note the use of flip flops for the day as their feet healed.  The documentary required that all actors wear clothing of the time for the entire length of the film (three months), and eat similar food from their 500 pounds of gear they were required to transport for this journey (rather than the full 2000 pounds per person for a year).

Home Sweet Home on the Chilkoot Trail


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