The Chilkoot Trail is a popular recreational trail following the footsteps of Tlingit traders and Yukon prospectors for 33 miles crossing the Coastal Mountain Range. Almost 3000 hikers attempt this historic and scenic hike every year, mostly between May and September. In the off-season you may have the trail all to yourself for a number of reasons. First, the weather can be treacherous around Chilkoot Pass with high winds, low visibility, and avalanche risk. Second, the rangers have left the park, so you are on your own. And finally, the White Pass & Yukon Railroad does not run any more, which adds another 10 miles of hiking along railroad tracks to your adventure, unless you were smart and have made arrangements in advance.
On October 1st, a rainy day, I set out from Dyea with a backpack that felt way too heavy, anticipating a great experience. During the summer I had hiked the first 7.5 miles several times solo, with friends and clients. I knew what to expect. A steep hill right out of the gates, then a mellow walk along the Taiya river, passing through beaver country, surrounded by a lush temperate rainforest.
Before I reach the trailhead a concerned local asks I wanted a coffee as a last treat. Isn’t that nice?
In the summer this is a lovely stretch with lots of wild flowers, berries, and waterfalls. Tender ferns border the trail, lichen in all colors and shapes everywhere. For a while you walk on boards through beaver habitat just an inch above water level. Sometimes the trail follows an old wagon road, flat and wide. Then it climbs through the forest over knotty roots and slippery rocks. A few days ago, the trail was under water, so that the rangers had to wear hip waders in the first three miles. Now the water has receded, just leaving some muddy patches, great places to look for animal tracks. I don’t see any fresh bear tracks, fine with me.
My backpack feels heavy, but I am sure it’s nothing compared to what the miners and the packers were carrying. At Finnegan’s point I take a break to get out of the rain in one of the more than welcome shelters. My goal for today is Canyon City. I take my time, averaging about 2 miles per hour…
Canyon City was once one of those boom towns along the trail. Today not much is left, except a gigantic steam engine boiler, a dilapidated cabin, a forlorn stove in the woods. Miners with money would have their load transported to the next camp by a cable tramway. Imagine the determination it took to install the heavy machinery here in this wilderness over 100 years ago.
I settle in into the sturdy log cabin at Canyon City campground content with today’s work. My backpack seemed work. I lighten the load cooking dinner and enjoying a cold one.
Signs of fall are everywhere. Fallen leaves on the ground, in the water, and on the cabin roof. Daylight fades around 8 PM, leaving 12 hours for hiking and 12 for rest, so I thought.
Around 10 PM I hear noise outside the cabin. No, it’s not a bear. It’s Sam with his dog hiking in the dark, trying to catch up with a friend at Sheep Camp, another 5 miles away. This is the third time Sam is hiking the Chilkoot trail. He did it once in 18 hours! The fastest recorded time is under 5:30! Now, that’s not hiking, that’s racing. I would not want to run in bear country.
Well, now it’s time to sleep, and rest up for an easy day tomorrow: Sheep Camp, the last camp before Chilkoot pass.
He to whom the portentous conspiracy of night and solitude and silence in the heart of a great forest is not an unknown experience needs not to be told what another world it all is – how even the most commonplace and familiar objects take on another character. The trees group themselves differently; they draw closer together, as if in fear. The very silence has another quality than the silence of the day. And it is full of half-heard whispers, whispers that startle – ghosts of sounds long dead. There are living sounds, too, such as are never heard under other conditions: notes of strange night birds, the cries of small animals in sudden encounters with stealthy foes, or in their dreams, a rustling in the dead leaves – it may be the leap of a wood rat, it may be the footstep of a panther. What caused the breaking of that twig? What the low, alarmed twittering in that bush full of birds? There are sounds without a name, forms without substance, translations in space of objects which have not been seen to move, movements wherein nothing is observed to change its place. Ah, children of the sunlight and the gaslight, how little you know of the world in which you live!