The longest 33 miles in the world

The hike and the history of the Chilkoot trail

Posted: Sunday, July 22, 2007

Editor's note: Earlier this month, Juneau Empire reporter Greg Skinner hiked the 33-mile-long Chilkoot Trail from Dyea to Lake Bennett in British Columbia. The following is part one of a two-part series describing his adventure up to Chilkoot Summit. Part two on July 29 will describe the Canadian leg of his adventure.

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Scrambling near the top of the famed Golden Stairs, I chip away July ice to create a foothold for myself and those beneath me. There, a few hundred feet below the summit of the Chilkoot Pass, in a whiteout and sideways rain, I can't stop wondering why on Earth would someone carry a 300-pound stove up this steep 1,000-foot section of snow-covered talus.

Desperation? Hope? Adventure? Human greed?

You can't hike the 33 miles of the Chilkoot from Dyea to Lake Bennett in British Columbia without wondering what drove throngs of men and women from around the world through the hardship of this footpath to the Klondike and its creeks of gold. If genuine curiosity doesn't get you, the artifacts and signage lining the path through the "Longest Museum in the World" will.

Related story:

Chilkoot checklist: how to get treking

Our group of Chilkoot hikers came together in Skagway. Park rules forced us together, three separate parties into one, with two people from Alaska, one from Alberta, one from Oregon and one from Washington. We were forced together because a black bear on the Canadian side of the trail had started to stalk people. Parks Canada insisted that groups be no smaller than four people.

Our origins mirrored many of the stampeders listed on Klondike entry documents. Little account was kept on the Alaska side, but the North West Mounted Police were fastidious record keepers.

Of the varied routes to the Klondike, the trail over Chilkoot Pass was dubbed "the poor man's route." It offered prospectors, adventurers and entrepreneurs the shortest, most direct approach to the gold fields. Best estimates have about 25,000 people crossing there at the height of the stampede from the summer of 1897 through the fall of 1898.

The route became the most popular of the eight known routes to Dawson City, Yukon Territory, and the gold fields.

Starting in 1898, the Canadian government required each person heading for Dawson, nearly 600 miles from the Chilkoot summit, to carry one ton of supplies, enough to live one year in the wilderness. Without money for packhorses, porters or the tramways that later sprung up, people shouldered their "kits" and carried them over the 3,600-foot pass from Dyea to Lake Bennett.

Fifty pounds at a time, they carried it up the trail to a cache before returning for the next load. Some stampeders took months to reach the lakes, turning 33 miles into 1,300. The famous photograph detailing a solid line of men trudging up the Golden Staircase taken in 1898 became the iconic image of the gold rush and inspiration for the design of Alaska license plates.

Today, hiking the trail takes three to five easy days, and 35 pounds of gear is a heavy load of supplies to carry over the summit into British Columbia. Stoves are now as light as 3 ounces.

To get started on the trail today, just as in 1897-98, a Chilkooter must avoid throngs of people in Skagway looking to separate the hiker from his or her money. During the week of July 8, 40,000 strangers poured into the famous Gateway to the Klondike. Each week enough new people enter the city to match the total population of Skagway at the height of the gold rush.

Streaming in from cruise ships, people search the boardwalks for diamonds, garnets, cheap trinkets and oriental rugs. "Today's special one-carat diamond earrings, $599."

Tappan Adney, on assignment for Harper's Weekly in 1897, recounted a well-heeled gold-man's description of Skagway, "There are more inexperienced men to the square foot than any place I have ever been to, and more double action revolvers."

Start of the trail

The modern trail starts just off Dyea Road; about eight miles from Skagway. First-timers are surprised when the trail, historically described as flat for the first six miles to Finnegan's Point, immediately climbs a steep incline called First Hill. That first mile of the trail discourages many hikers starting the journey today.

Had the hill route existed in 1897 many cheechakos might have saved themselves a ton of suffering and returned home at the beginning, said Karl Gurcke, Klondike Gold Rush National Park historian.

The current trail rambles up the eastern shore of the Taiya River through old-growth black cottonwood trees staying high in the second-growth spruce forest until reaching Canyon City. The trail is like any other in Southeast Alaska and, beyond the overwhelming beauty, unremarkable.

Gurcke explained there was no standard original trail below Finnegan's point, 4.8 miles into the trip.

"There were a number of trails depending on the season," he said.

In the summer, stampeders used canoes to ferry supplies up the river. Horses and wagons did the same at times of low water. In Adney's 1900 account, "The Klondike Stampede," he described two trails, a "road" that crossed the river eight or nine times and a foot trail that only crossed the river twice. Frank Norris, national park historian, said that most people used the latter trail during the first summer of the stampede.

When winter came, the hordes simply used the frozen river, traveling in a "go-as-you-please zig-zag way" to Canyon City, Norris said.

Today, all that's visible of the once bustling boomtown called Canyon City is an old stove and a boiler so huge it's nearly impossible to image how it arrived so far up the river. Piece by piece it was assembled on site.

Sheep Camp

From Canyon City to the current Sheep Camp, the trail climbs back up the east side of the river to nearly 1,000 feet above sea level forgoing Dyea Canyon. Steep drops allow hikers to watch the river as it flows through a mile of canyon, meeting the trail just before camp.

It's the first piece of trail that matches the historic route. I begin to feel the presence of those thousands of souls who covered the same ground. With careful notice and imagination, I can hear a phone ring through time back to the winter of 1898 when the Sunset Telephone Co. ran a line from Skagway to Bennett. They advertised communications at "all points along the Dyea Trail." Today, the line is still there, lying along the trail with the occasional telephone pole.

In the late 1980s, a pay phone sign was found on the Chilkoot Summit. Had the line gone all the way to Dawson as promised, would word have spread that all the claims were gone long before the stampede even started? Would that knowledge have caused thousands to drop their kits and return to Skagway?

Sheep Camp, four miles from the summit, is in the process of moving. The current site is prone to flooding. The gold rush site was huge compared to the 16-tent platforms and two warming huts there today. Trail ranger Brian Hays said sheep camp reached a population of 10,000 that spanned both sides of the river.

Adney described stores, hotels, and two kinds of people at the last stop before the top. "Those who have packed their own stuff and are wavering, discouraged; those moving their goods right through, with horses or on their backs, a great swarm of men heading over the summit."

Heading for the summit

With more than a third of the Chilkoot Trail behind them at Sheep Camp, today as in the past, hikers begin to grumble about the trail and the hike as they settle for the night.

A steep climb is coming and packs are heavy and feet are tired.

Knowing we are in roughly the same area as the stampede, the remnants are noticeably missing. Once an immense pile of horseshoes sat next to the trail. Gurcke said the pile would have filled a room from floor to ceiling. It sat for 60 years untouched. Then one shoe at a time, hikers began to take them as souvenirs.

"It's difficult to get a handle on the looting," Gurcke said. "We don't know what was left."

The trail never fully fell out of use after the White Pass & Yukon Rail Road became the main travel route to and from the gold fields at the turn of the century. But hiking the trail for fun did not become popular until the state opened the trail in the 1960s.

Of the tons of gear and artifacts left behind, it's probable that very few were taken before then, Gurcke said.

"There were hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of artifacts," he said.

Nearing the summit, I wait for my ad hoc partners to catch up. Of the five of us, four are curiosity seekers - simple hikers on an adventure. Norm Breslow is walking with his ancestors. His great-grandfather crossed the Chilkoot in 1897 to reach the gold fields.

It's here that the real pressure to imagine builds. What drove 100,000 people to leave their farms and families behind for an unknown reality?

• Contact Greg Skinner at 523-2258 or greg.skinner@juneauempire.com.



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