Bucket List – Hike the Chilkoot

This is the second in a series of “bucket list” posts. I want to share some of the goals I have for my life, a lot of which involve travel. Some are for just me, some are meant to be shared with my family, and some are meant to be crazy endeavours with the right friends.

I want to hear your stories and dreams too, so share them! And if you have done any of the things I talk about, tell me what it was like! ♥

Bucket List Item – Hike the Chilkoot Trail

One of the eras in Canadian history that has grabbed my heart is the Klondike Gold Rush. I have always been a sucker for the parts of history where people overcame such astounding odds to do something incredible, like populate wilderness and scrape out a living in forbidding conditions. Something about human triumph over nature awes and interests me.

Men (and women!) came from all over the world to try their luck in the Klondike, strike it rich with GOLD roughly from the years 1896 to 1899. A good summary of the Klondike Gold Rush can be found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Klondike_Gold_Rush.

When I travelled to the Yukon, I got to follow a bit of the history when we visited Dawson City. As we drove in, we passed tailing piles, which are gravel mounds, equally spaced, spread from the back of dredges, the leftovers from the dig to find gold in the permafrost (did you know they unearthed fossils and Mammoth tusks from the depths as they dug? Crazy!). We visited one of those huge gold dredges, we panned for gold at a tourist site on Bonanza Creek, learning about Discovery Claim. I was completely geeking out, trying to see and soak in as much as possible in such a short time.

Dawson City was the end goal for stampeders and fortune seekers. The town, preserved as best as it can be, was full of history about the rush and the influx of 30,000 people in such a very short time (Diamond Tooth Gertie’s is a must visit, if you ever go – http://www.dawsoncity.ca/klondikeattractions/diamondtoothgerties/). The highlight, for me, was visiting the Boneyard, where paddle steamers, such as the Seattle No. 3 (among others) is laid to rest. That these boats were just shoved up onto shore and left to rot is astounding to me. Such a waste. It was spooky visiting this place, knowing these majestic vessels once navigated the rivers, bringing hopeful and determined people back and forth to a wilderness city, to a reality most were not ready for. But… The Gold Rush can be an example of fervor and excess, with no regard to economy or ability. When the rush was over, all the remnants had to go somewhere, right? I am still struck dumb at the sheer amount of supplies that was bought, ferried, and carried by Stampeders up through the Chilkoot into Canada, then along the unforgiving Yukon river to Dawson.

The massive amount of money that was thrown towards such a daunting, often impossible journey seems, today, like foolishness. Then, it was considered noble, exciting, and romantic, in a way. People with nothing to lose left their circumstances behind and travelled North, sometimes to their doom, others to a new life, some few to riches.

I love that. But… To witness the heartache, misery, and tragedy would have been overwhelming. Watching a show on the Stampeders, one of the cast members swore that she was not alone on the trail, that ghosts followed her. Indeed, many people died on the trek up to the Yukon. They say of the 100,000 that started out, only 30,000 or so made it to Dawson City, and of those who made it, very few found gold.

The Golden Stairs, during the Gold Rush. I’m going to climb that exact spot someday!

One part of this rich history I wanted to visit, but never got the chance, was the Chilkoot trail. The Chilkoot was part of the trail the Stampeders used to get to the gold fields, and was treacherous, oftentimes deadly. I know many of you have seen pictures of the ant-like trail up the steep, snowy Golden Stairs, the last ascent. Spooky photos of ghost-like men, weather-beaten and thin from the effort, humping boxes and tools up through the dirty, well-worn snow, then sliding down to do it over, and over, and over are legendary for the rawness and danger they expressed (at least, they are for me).

There are stories of an entire Paddle Wheeler boat that was dragged over the summit, then assembled at Bennett Lake. Scows, sewing machines, implements to make a living got humped up on the backs of men. Other things, such as pianos, bicycles, and gramophone players made the trek. Why? Genteel folks, not knowing any better, stubbornly refusing to let go of modern society, I suppose. What good would a bicycle do in the dense bush of the Yukon?

Literally tonnes and tonnes of foodstuffs and supplies was carried, by man, up that 1,500 stair, 45 degree slope.

But the Pass itself is only part of the journey. The trail traditionally starts in Skagway, (I want to go from Skagway to the abandoned townsite of Dyea, then up the trail itself) and the turnaround is at Bennett Lake, on the Canada side. Then, I want to head back along the White Pass side, if possible, to follow (backwards) the longer, easier, less popular route folks used to get to the start of the Yukon river. This trail was also called Dead Horse Trail, which, yes, is named for the sheer number of horses who died as folks pushed their emaciated, horribly abused horses through impossible terrain all in the name of making their fortune. There were so many, that the bones and carcasses of the horses became part of the path, stepped on by folks as they made their way.

Guh, I can’t even imagine.

More likely we will take the train back to Skagway, once at Bennett Lake, it will take several days to get to just there, and you have to book well in advance. To ensure campsites, and so that not too many folks are on the trail at one time, only 50 hikers/campers are allowed on the route each day, depending on their itinerary and routes planned. The combined efforts of the US and Canadian Governments have helped to preserve the area’s history and both sides are considered National Parks and monuments. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chilkoot_Trail – Wikipedia on Chilkoot is a great summary of the area. Good job! You can see many artifacts and info panels along the route.

A detailed map of the trail can be found here: http://www.pc.gc.ca/eng/lhn-nhs/yt/chilkoot/activ/activ1/activ1a1.aspx

The idea of tracing the footsteps of the Stampeders, understanding just what they did to get up the mountain into Canada, sounds like an incredible experience. I want to share it with my kids, but the hike is not for beginners, especially the hike through the pass. If I go, it will be to rough it for a few days, hike some challenging terrain, and come out the other side. I don’t plan on going in and being not ready for the hike, so training for it will be a must (and saving, to travel there and back).

Map of the Chilkoot Trail

Info on hiking the Chilkoot: http://www.pc.gc.ca/eng/lhn-nhs/yt/chilkoot/activ/activ1/a_1.aspx

Some further info can be found here:

http://www.pc.gc.ca/eng/lhn-nhs/yt/chilkoot/index.aspx – Chilkoot Trail National Historic Site of Canada

http://www.nps.gov/klgo/index.htm – US National Park Service – Klondike Gold Rush information

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0398501/ – The IMDB Listing for a most wonderful miniseries on the trek of the Stampeders – Klondike: The Quest for Gold, that aired on History TV. (The full series can be found on YouTube too)

I don’t know when or with who I’ll do this with, hopefully my husband, maybe a group of friends who want the challenge will come with me. Maybe my kids, when they are grown enough to handle the hike, if I am still able.

I will get there though, and when I stand at the top of the Golden Stairs to catch my breath and look back down towards the Scales and the trek through the rainforest to that point… I will remember the thousands of skookum  men and women who scrabbled their way to that point, and waited in the snow and cold for their turn to climb to their fortunes.

* Pictures courtesy http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/articles/chilkoot-trail, Parks Canada (http://www.pc.gc.ca/eng/lhn-nhs/yt/chilkoot/index.aspx), and the Public Archives of Canada


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