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Chilkoot Trail More than a nature hike

Posted: Sunday, July 29, 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 two of a two-part series describing his trip to and from Chilkoot Summit. This part describes the Canadian leg of his adventure.

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From the whiteout on the summit of the Chilkoot Pass, it is easier for our group to look back 110 years than down the Canadian side of the trail to the chain of lakes beginning the water route to the Klondike gold fields.

Enveloped in clouds, 3,600 feet above Skagway's tidewater, hikers on the Chilkoot Trail can imagine anything they like about one of the greatest stampedes of all time. Over the course of 18 months in 1897-98, tens of thousands of people flooded into the Klondike after word got out that tons of gold was lying in creek beds ready to be scooped up.

To some degree, the five of us on the trail together agree, history is why we are hiking the 33-mile trail through the Chilkoot Trail National Historic Site.

Hidden in the snow atop the famed Golden Stairs are the remnants left by the great rush of people who poured over the Coast Mountains and into the creeks of the Klondike. The stairs became an iconic symbol of Alaska immortalized in photos of men lined head to toe carrying loads up the 1,000-foot face.

There, a few thousand feet above sea level, if you take the time to poke around, you will find 300 neatly folded canvas boats that never made it to the lakes on the other side, the front plate of cast iron stove, cables from the old tramway, a shovel, animal bones and a century-old lone shoe.

The boats were left behind by an entrepreneur looking to make a buck. Unable to pay the taxes required by Canadian collectors on the summit, the merchant dropped the boats and kept going.

Historians think that in 1898 a person could have made a phone call from the summit to Skagway via lines run by the Sunset Telephone Co. in Dyea. Today you need a satellite phone.

This international border atop the divide was once guarded by a North West Mounted Police machine-gun encampment. The gun kept order, and prospectors paid their entry tariffs. The Canadians provided the only law once a prospector left Dyea.

From the old checkpoint called the "Scales" to the summit notch 1,10 feet higher, we know for certain that we walk the path of thousands of people who hauled their thousands and thousands of tons of supplies over the pass. The higher section of the trail is somewhat more invigorating because of that knowledge.

The Chilkoot Trail is more than a nature hike. Unlike so many of the great hikes in the Western Hemisphere, the Chilkoot is traversed more to see the things of man than to escape them.

With evidence of the stampede spread trailside through what has been called the "Longest Museum in the world," a reporter can't help but ask why?

Why did stampeders drag 2,000 pounds of food and shelter and tools up and over this pass and head into an interior wilderness and unknown possibilities?

Worldwide economic depression followed a run on America's gold supply that precipitated the Panic of 1893. Considered the nation's worst economic crisis up to that time, 15 million Americans were without income.

Prospectors had been working the Klondike for years, but in July of 1897, the first word of the bonanza got out to the world. "Gold! Gold! Gold!" read the front page of the Seattle Post-Intellengencer. "Sixty-Eight Rich men on the Steamer Portland."

A few days later the San Francisco Chronicle carried a story that said, "Two million dollars taken from the Klondike region in less that five months, and a hundred times that amount awaiting those who can handle a pick and shovel."

The rush was on.

In Seattle "Half the street car motormen left their jobs, even Mayor W.D. Wood resigned and headed for the gold fields," wrote William Bronson in his book "The Last Great Adventure."

Norm Breslow, part of our small crew of hikers, shared a story about his great-grandfather Richard Sutton, who left a wife and seven children behind in Tulare, Calif., to chase the dream of gold in the summer of 1898.

"Father still had the rolling stone in his system and was now looking towards (sic) Alaska," Myrtle Sutton-Pickerill, Breslow's grandmother, wrote in a family memoir.

Sutton-Pickerill wrote that her father planned to make them all rich.

Sitting in a trail-side warming hut 109 years later, Breslow summed up why so many came as he explained his own great-grandfather's motives: "He was going broke in the San Joaquine Valley like everyone else."

Sutton made it to the gold fields. And, even though the gold-producing creeks were long gone, he staked a claim.

Several months later Sutton stumbled home to Tulare and fell through the door unannounced. Two weeks later he died of spinal meningitis, broken and exhausted.

A graying university professor with a bent for trekking and skiing, Breslow has traveled the world adventuring. He represents the staggering difference a century makes.

Tourists were rare, but known to be in the gold fields during the Klondike rush. Most were either chasing after "the colors," or looking to turn a buck on those caught up in the chase.

Instead of desperation, our group of five hiked the trail for leisure, the joy of a healthy lifestyle. Like Breslow, we've been all over the world in pursuit of beautiful places. Now, in a well-financed society, we hike the Chilkoot Trail simply because we can. No one expects to make it rich. We were just looking for a great time and, after centuries of use by Tlingit traders and then stampeders, the trail still yields a return.

From the summit to Crater Lake the route is all snow, which actually makes for easier travel over the boulders and talus below. During our trip the glaciers and peaks above remained hidden as we follow a series of trail markers set on the snow by rangers from Parks Canada.

Four days before we crossed the summit, a group crossed under clear skies. Those Chilkooters had a rare view all the way to Lake Bennett. More often than not, the higher section of the trail is obscured in the white of clouds. On our summit crossing day, five groups follow behind us, including two children under the age of 10.

In early July, Crater Lake had just begun to shed its icy coverings to reveal the cobalt blue water. The bulk of the two-mile-long lake is hidden, still frozen.Walking along the eastern shore, it's tempting to just sit down and marvel at the color contrast. In the past, men used this lake year-round, traveling by sled in the winter and canoe in the summer.

Merchants sold $60 million in supplies that were carried into the Klondike, yet only $30 million in gold came out. It begs the next question, was it all a scam to bilk the overly hopeful mass of humanity looking to change its fortune?

Fortunes were made in Seattle by selling wares and services to gold seekers.

"By the time the big strike came along in 1897 we had the business of mining the miners honed to a fine edge, we got them coming and going," wrote Seattle Merchant Daniel Pratt in the August 1905 issue of the Atlantic Monthly.

All along the Chilkoot Trail hotels, restaurants, laundries and stores sprang up to sell comforts to those with money to spare. On the trail, a stationary man with a bottle of whiskey became a bar; a guy with a plank across two stumps and 10 cans of beans was a restaurateur.

One of the more absurd Chilkoot stories came from trail ranger Brian Hays. At Sheep Camp he told modern day Chilkoot hikers of a man that carried a load of kittens over the trail past the lakes and down river to Dawson City. He hoped to sell the kittens to the many gruff and solo men, Hays said.

"The men there needed something to love and to love them back."

Passing through an alpine wonderland, we drop further into the headwaters of the Yukon River and the much different boreal forest of British Columbia. Four miles from the summit we find Happy Camp, the only place free of mosquitoes on the entire trip.

Above the east shore of the creek flowing from Crater Lake into Long Lake, the camp hosts the finest views of the three camps we use along the trail. There for an hour we enjoy the only real sunshine of the trek.

Waterfalls and rock walls surround alpine tundra and pockets of snow It inspires sitting still and listening to nothing. The scene is perfect for contemplation.

Walking along the rim of Moose Creek Canyon between Deep and Lindeman Lakes, I get a sense of the river journey that stampeders faced once the trail ended. Dropping 600 feet in less than a mile, the river was impassible. Just like the trail through the pass, men packed gear and boats around the canyon to the next lake.

The remains of Lindeman City, situated on its namesake lake 26 miles into the hike, are long gone except for the cemetery. There rests former Douglas resident Michael Bernard McKanna. Records show that McKanna could have been on his way home from the bonanza when he died of a common kidney disease at age 50 in June of 1899.

Out of the roughly 50,000 people to cross the Chilkoot, only hundreds seem to have died, and mostly in mundane ways.

As we near the end of the trail at Bennett Lake, it's hardly recognizable from the old photographs. Photos from 1897-98 show the lake's now timbered shores completely decimated by those building boats. More than a century later, the trees are back, a minor miracle in the arid climate of the interior.

From Bennett the journey to the gold creeks around Dawson City was a 500-mile boat trip.

More than 20,000 boats carried miners down river before the rush abruptly ended in the Klondike and shifted to the "golden beaches" of Nome.

Today the trees have returned to the valley surrounding Bennett Lake nearly concealing St. Andrews Church, the only building left from turn-of-the century Bennett.

At Bennett, with a lunch of hot stew, we wait for the special "hiker car" of the White Pass & Yukon Railway to return us to Skagway along the narrow gauge of the historic rail that ended the Chilkoot's reign as the favorite route to the Yukon.



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