One Man's Paradise

Chilkoot Trail: Day 3

In the summer of 1897, news of the Klondike gold strike turned the intermittent trickle of hardy prospectors into an uncontrollable flood of fortune seekers. More than 30,000 men, women, and children scaled the daunting Golden Stairs during the Klondike Gold Rush hauling one ton of supplies to sustain them for a year. The hardship and drama is very much unimaginable by today’s standards.

© Parks Canada

Today: the queen’s stage, or hors catégorie, as the French would say. From Sheep Camp to Happy Camp in about 8 miles and almost 3000 feet of climbing.

Another crisp morning. In the summer the ranger will kick you out of camp at 6 in the morning, because of avalanche danger. Not so today. The snow from last winter is  gone, the new accumulation is harmless, and most importantly, there is no ranger. I am slowly getting into a rhythm. It takes me an hour in the morning to stow all my belongings into my backpack and get ready. Although it’s day 3 and I have already consumed some food, there is still not enough room for all of my stuff inside the backpack. So I am stuffing socks in my pockets, the camera bag houses the gas, waterbottle, sleeping pad, and raingear go on the outside of the backpack. I am looking like a traveling salesman, but it works. I also think, all the dangling makes enough noise to keep the bears away.

I make it above the treeline. It is pretty straightforward to follow the trail. Shortly before the Scales I run into snow. Luckily I see the footprints of Sam and his dog. The scales were used to weigh once more the gear of the miners. Packers would charge by the pound. At some point there was also a tramway heading up Chilkoot Pass. Until a couple of years ago a wooden tower from the tramway was still standing nearby. Now the towers have been reduced to a pile of rotting beams. Rusty cables on the ground are great trail markers. A couple more inches of snow and the cables will disappear. Around the pass turns out to be the most challenging section of the trail this time of the year. Big granite boulders are covered with a couple inches of snow. It is impossible to see where the rock ends and where the hole begins. I don’t want to twist my ankles here.

After a number of false summits I reach the top of Chilkoot Pass. It is winter up here. Most artifacts are hidden beneath the snow, except for some massive iron wheels. The Golden Stairs… Go look up the historic images of this place with a thousand miners crawling up the pass. Like an ant hill, simply amazing. I am sitting by myself at the same place almost 120 years later. Humbling.

Chilkoot Pass

Chilkoot Pass

I spend some time in the emergency shelter, which would be a great place to spend the night. No wood stove, no wood to burn, but a nice shelter. This would be an amazing place to watch the Northern lights! It’s too early to call it a day, and it is easier to stay warm walking than sitting around in the shelter. Who knows what the weather will bring tomorrow? So, I keep going, descending to Crater Lake. What a sight. Glassy surface! How often does this happen? Frozen waterfalls and creeks make for an interesting descent.

Crater Lake

Passing a few piles lumber (Stone Crib), I finally make it to  Happy Camp, another fine warming hut. “Happy to see you!”

I don’ t expect any other visitors, so I make myself comfortable attempting to dry out socks, boots and whatnot. There is a big poster on the wall showing Happy Camp during the Gold Rush. What a miserable place it must have been compared to today. Still, the miners called it Happy Camp for a reason: They had made it over the pass! In the flickering light of a candle they were served coffee, stale bread with some butter and a piece of canned beef – happiness.

Well, it’s freeze-dried Pad Thai and the last can of beer for me tonight and I call it a day.


Not quite.

At 3 AM in the morning I hear voices outside, flash lights flickering across the room. Two ladies and a dog made it across the pass, coming from I have no clue where. They have been hiking for 12 hours straight and are to put it mildly out of their mind happy to have found this place in the last glimmer of their fading head lights. An hour later it’s all quiet again. Everybody is settled in for the night.

This time for good. When I leave the cabin in the morning the two night walkers are stlll sound asleep. Only their company, Nugget, is growling at me.

Good bye Happy Camp!

“Look, when do the really interesting things happen? Not when you’ve brushed your teeth and put on your pyjamas and are cozy in bed. They happen when you are cold and uncomfortable and hungry and don’t have a roof over your head for the night.”

Ellen Potter

One Man's Paradise

Chilkoot Trail: Day 1

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.

LeavesOn 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?

BeaverIn 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.

LeavesSigns 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!

Ambrose Bierce