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Lessons From Alaska’s Chilkoot Trail

Posted on July 12th, 2011

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You’ll learn a lot hiking the Chilkoot Trail. You get a history lesson on the Chilkoot and a sense of the feverous attraction gold can have on men. You learn a little about personal perseverance as you struggle over the Chilkoot Pass on a rainy morning when the clouds are so low and so thick you have to peer hard to see the next trail marker.

And if you’re my son, you learn how to backpack comfortably…or as comfortable as your father can make it.

Jim DuFresne

Jim DuFresne

The Chilkoot Trail is a 33-mile trail through the Coast Mountains that leads from Dyea, Alaska, just outside Skagway, to Lake Bennett in British Columbia. The trail, which crosses the historic Chilkoot Pass, was the major access route from Alaska to the Yukon goldfields during the Klondike Gold Rush that hit its peak in 1897-1899. The news that there was gold outside Dawson City hit the U.S. during a deep recession, prompting thousands of otherwise sane men and a few women to quit their jobs, sell their homes and leave their families for the opportunity to “get rich quick.”

Very few did of course. It’s estimated that of the more than 100,000 people who started out for the Klondike gold fields, less than 30,000 even made it to Dawson City. And once there those who did quickly realized that most of the streams had already been staked and claimed.

Today the Chilkoot is unquestionably the most famous trail in Alaska and probably the most popular as more than 3,000 people spend three to five days following the historic route every summer. It is a well-developed trail and not so much a wilderness adventure as a history lesson. For many, the highlight of the hike is riding the historic White Pass & Yukon Railroad from Lake Bennett back to Skagway. Experiencing the Chilkoot and returning on the WP&YR is probably the ultimate Alaska trek, combining great scenery, a connection to the past and an incredible sense of adventure.

What my son learned:

When the Weather Is Nice Push On Because You Never Will Know What Tomorrow Will Bring

Chilkoot Campsite

A tent pad campsite in Sheep Camp along the Chilkoot Trail.

Michael flew into Juneau where I met him at the airport and a day and half later we were on an Alaska Marine Highway ferry headed for Skagway. Many hikers will overnight in this former gold rush town and get an early start the next day.

But the skies were clear, deep blue and without a trace of rain, an unusual occurrence in the Southeast Alaska, basically a rainforest that’s wetter than Seattle. We hustled off the state ferry, stopped by the National Park Trail Center to pick up our permits, hopped across the street to purchase our train tickets and then called a friend of mine to give us a ride the 8 miles out the road to the Taiya River bridge where the Chilkoot Trail begins.

There was still nothing but blue above us when we shouldered our packs at 3:30 p.m. and took to the trail. The Chilkoot begins immediately with a 100-foot climb above the banks of the Taiya River then settles down into a fairly level walk. We had enthusiasm, dry footing and that 20-hour Alaskan day, when in June the sun rises before 4 a.m. and doesn’t set until after 11 p.m. When we reached our intended stop, Finnegan’s Point, a 5-mile walk from the trailhead, that midnight sun was still high in the sky. We pushed on through the lush forest of Sitka spruce and western hemlock.

At 7:30 p.m. we pulled into Canyon City Campground. In 1898, Canyon City was indeed a bustling tent city of more than 4,000 residents and included restaurants, hotels, saloons (of course), a steam-driven power plant and waves of stampeders moving their loads up the trail.

For the first time we could poke around and see what the miners left behind a century ago. This is truly the most amazing part of the Chilkoot, its history is lying in the woods; rusty tin cans, tools, a lone boot and rotting building foundations. We crossed a suspension bridge over the Taiya River to view a huge steam boiler on the other side that at one time powered the aerial tramways carrying gear to the pass at 7.2 cents a pound . You can not help but soak in the history of this incredible period of gold-rush madness if for no other reason than the trail is lined with interpretive plaques featuring grainy black-and-white photos from that era.

 Do Whatever It Takes to Keep Your Pack Light

Miners climb the Chilkoot Trail

Stampeders climb the Golden Stairs along the Chilkoot Trail in 1898.

Our second day was short which was good because our shoulders were burning. Our packs weighed around 40 pounds each when we departed Skagway and somehow my son convinced me that when it comes to the group gear I should take the tent, stove and water filter. He packed the food. Smart kid. His load decreased steadily with every meal on the trail, mine stayed stubbornly at around 40 pounds.

The climbing begins after Canyon City. The trail ascends up the valley wall as the river disappears into a small canyon and soon we were hiking through a sub-alpine forest. Prospectors called this section “the worst piece of trail of the route” and with a light rain falling we found it fairly muddy with many boulders to scramble over and short steep sections to climb.

We reached Sheep Camp just before lunch, a crucial destination along the Chilkoot. As the last campground on the U.S. side, Sheep Camp serves as the staging area for the climb to the summit the following day. For most hikers that’s a 9-mile, 8 to 10-hour trek to the next campground in which they ascend more than 2,500 feet in the first half. A National Park Service ranger met with the 30 of us in camp that evening to detail the route and inform us we had to be on the trail by 6 a.m. due to increased avalanche danger in the afternoon.

Let me tell you, that grabs your attention and gets your adrenalin flowing.

It also made me ponder the weight of my pack – still close to 40 pounds. So after my son retreated to the tent for the night I hid some gear in the bottom of his food bag. The next morning you would have thought I cut off his left foot. He noticed it right away and accused me of trying to sneak extra weigh into his pack. I immediately denied it of course, there was manly pride involved, but had to claim I inadvertently put the gear in the wrong bag.

Even worse I had to take it back.

 Always Pack a Stove 

We were up by 4:15 a.m. and the second party out of Sheep Camp at 5:30 a.m., quickly passing the first group. In the beginning the trail was rocky and times we were boulder hopping. But after gaining a1000 feet or so, the climb became easier as snowfields covered the trail. We pulled out our trekking poles and advanced up the gentle slopes, keeping a weary eye on those avalanche chutes we passed. By 8 a.m. we had reached the Scales, where an interpretive plaque displayed the most famous photo of the gold rush, stampeders with heavy packs lined up one-by-one as they climbed to the top of the pass along the Golden Stairs, named from the steps that they painstakingly carved into the snow and ice.  

Climbing The Golden Stairs

Michael DuFresne climbs the Golden Stairs of the Chilkoot Trail in 2011.

And there in front of us we could see their route which was our route. Suddenly it was 1898 again as we ascended the steep, boulder-filled slope to the Chilkoot Pass, lugging our own packs. For the next hour we never stood up, rather scaled the 45-degree chute by climbing from one large boulder to the next on all fours. It was cold, drizzly and so cloudy that we had to peer through the mist to see the next marker.

It’s the kind of adventure you come to Alaska looking for and when we reached the top there was an exaltation of summiting that you can’t get in Michigan.

By 9:30 a.m. we had reached the emergency shelter just across the Canadian border. We stepped inside, stripped off our raingear and I pulled out my MSR stove. There was a time during the planning of this trek that my son said we could leave the stove at home and just eat cold food. No way I replied.

In the shelter my fingers were so cold I struggled to lit my trusty MSR. When the white gas finally ignited there was a burst of flames and the first thing we both did was warm our hands. The next thing we did was make a pot of orange-spiced tea.

No cup of tea ever tasted so fine. At first we simply wrap our fingers around the warm metal cups. Then we slowly sipped the hot tea, feeling its warmth spread through our chilled bodies. At that point Michael realized a backpacker’s stove is required equipment.

  Always Sign Up For the Optional Lunch

 We reached the next campground, Happy Camp, by mid-afternoon and we pondered pushing on. But the sun broke out and blue sky appeared so we laid out our wet gear on a wooden tent pad and inflated our Therm-a-Rests. There were mountains all around us but no bugs. The warmth of the sun and the early morning departure lulled us into taking a nap. We slept for over an hour and by then I knew I wasn’t going to be shouldering my pack again that day.

The Chilkoot Trail stayed above the treeline the next morning until we reached Deep Lake and then skirted the edge of the incredible gorge Moose Creek flows through on its way north to Lindeman Lake. The mountain scenery remained impressive, the gold rush artifacts numerous for the rest of the day and by mid-afternoon we reached Bare Loon Lake Campground, where we planned to pitch the tent for the night.  

Our final day, the fifth on the Chilkoot, was short and easy as we hiked only 4 miles before arriving at Lake Bennett, the end of the trail. Here the stampeders built crude rafts, loaded them with their supplies and floated the lake into the Yukon River for Dawson City.

Descending Chilkoot Trail

Descending towards Carter Lake from the Chilkoot Pass.

What put the Chilkoot Trail out of business was the construction of the White Pass and Yukon Railroad (WP&YR), which was completed from Skagway to Whitehorse in 1900 via Lake Bennett. On the shores of Lake Bennett, in seemingly the middle of nowhere, is a classic train deport that today serves as a huge dining room for the cruise ship passengers on WP&YR tours out of Skagway.

But when you book a seat on the train as a backpacker you’re offered the option to have lunch at the depot for an additional $12. Every hiker I saw on the Chilkoot was there for the end-of-the-trail meal.

 They put us all in a backroom, well away from the cruise-ship passengers, and who could blame them? None of us have had a shower in four or five days. But they feed us well. A crew of waitresses bought out cast-iron pots of beef stew, baskets of fresh bread, thermoses of hot coffee and big slices of apple pie.

We feasted as if we hadn’t eaten in five days.  Then everybody went outside and laid out in the sun to soak in the view of the mountains one more time before boarding the train, the first step in our long journey from mountain adventures in the wilderness to our daily routines back home.

Editor’s Note: This is Jim DuFresne’s final blog from his summer in Alaska. Beginning next week he will be back in Michigan researching trails for MichiganTrailMaps.com.

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3 thoughts on “Lessons From Alaska’s Chilkoot Trail”

  1. Lindsay says:

    Excellent story, Jim. I really enjoyed it.

  2. Tyler says:

    Fantastic story. I’m moving to AK next month and while I’ll miss prime hiking season, stories like this make excited just to move there. Thanks

  3. Ron says:

    Great account Jim of your hike. I plan on driving to Alaska next year and use the Alaska.Marine Highway (Ferry) on my return. Skagway and this hike is on my radar. I’m retired and at 71 years old I have all the time in the world to see that part of the country. May I suggest a hike I did in Glacier National Park for you and your son.Take the Gunsight Pass Trail to Sperry Chalet. Trails in this park that go to up to either Chalet (Glacier or Sperry) are on the top of my list of favorte trails. Keep enjoying the time with your son and our great National Park Systems.


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