The rocky slope is dusted with light snow and coated with freezing rain. I take one more big step—slowly and carefully--and then another. Here, on the steepest part of this storied route, the next step is the only one that matters. These are the so called Golden Stairs leading to Chilkoot Pass, and a similar caution must have been the mantra of hardy miners who plied this cruel slope in 1898. Here, the most trying section of the long ascent climbs steeply up past the “Scales,” the historic rocky ledge where miners had to prove they carried the requisite weight of equipment and supplies to pass muster with the Mounties.
It’s a reason to come. Those familiar pictures of heavily laden miners working up to the pass somehow resonated with me, and I knew I wanted to go see for myself. But that turned out to be easier said than done. I’ve had a lot of practice at figuring out logistics for a given route, but how do you do a hike that covers two countries, two provinces, one state, and presents some serious trailhead transportation issues?
Whitehorse is the defacto capital of a unique part of North America, where the Yukon, British Columbia and Southeast Alaska all come together in a convergence of borders. The geography makes doing the Chilkoot not just a hike, but a high-octane travel experience with unreal variety. Vast expanses of wild country, and a sparse human population, give the region an out-there feel.
Situated astride the Alaska-Canada Highway, Whitehorse offers an oasis of civilization, and the best staging area not just for the Chilkoot Pass hike, but for other adventures in the Yukon, such as a canoe trip down the Yukon River, a trek into the Tombstone Range, or a climbing trip into the Cirque of the Unclimbables. Europeans have discovered Whitehorse, and now non-stop flights from Germany are making this Yukon city a hub for international wilderness adventure.
The city pays homage to its gold rush heritage with historic hotels that date from the era, and the Yukon River steamer, SS Klondike, permanently moored at the riverside. I took a couple of days in town to get organized and learn something about the place and its surroundings. I found great day hiking out by Miles Canyon, and enjoyed the surprising civility of town. Whitehorse is full of travelers and hikers and off-season mushers, and boasts an array of lodging options, good restaurants, outdoor shops and sociable saloons.
You can do the Chilkoot route entirely on your own, but I chose to work with Torsten Eder at Yukon Nature Tours. He saved me time and hassle by taking care of the hiking permits (no simple matter when your hikes goes through national parks in two different countries) as well as trailhead transportation and food and fuel. He can even provide experienced guides for those who wish. Because the trail starts in Skagway, Alaska, and ends at Bennett Lake, British Columbia, getting to the start and the finish can be a challenge. But Torsten is a master of Chilkoot logistics. He arranged for us to reach Skagway via a historic railway and for a float plane to pick us up at Bennett four days later.
“It’s the best of both worlds,” he said. “You’ll get a sense of the country going by rail to the coast. And then you’ll get what amounts to a sightseeing flight on the way back to Whitehorse, when you're tired and ready for shower—and you’ll be back in town in time for dinner.”
I’d be doing the Chilkoot with Stefan Wackerhagen, a German adventurer who has proven his mettle on a winter ski trip across Lake Baikal—the long way—and participation in the Yukon Wild dog sledding race. With us would be a British writer, Polly Evans, working on a story about Jack London. As a small, fit group, the three of us felt comfortable about shaving some time off the route. Usually done in five days and four nights, our plan was to do it with long days and just three overnight camps.
The trail can be hiked in either direction, but almost every one chooses the west to east option, and for good reason. Leaving from Skagway puts the steepest part of the trail, the Golden Stairs, on the uphill side. That may require better aerobic fitness for grinding up long slope, but for most that’s preferable to wasting your knees coming down. And since the weather on the Chilkoot can be seriously bad, by starting at the coast and working inland, most of the wind and rain rolling in off the Pacific will be at your back.
Along with bus loads of tourists from the cruise ships that ply the Inside Passage, Stefan and Polly and I board the historic coaches for the scenic three hour trip up and over the pass and down to Skagway. Glimpses of the water from Inspiration Point let us know we are getting close, and soon we were disembarking at the railway station near the harbor. Here, we are in the very shadow of five huge ships idling at the piers. Skagway, with it’s restored Gold Rush façade, is a favorite stop with cruise ships doing the standard summer run between Seattle and Alaska.
The population of town roughly quadruples during the ships’ four- or five-hour stopover, as the passengers pour down the gangplanks. Gold Rush saloons, replete with can-can girls waving from the upper balconies, give the place the feel of theater, or an amusement park, but it’s all about having fun. The streets are jammed with passengers enjoying the few hours they have in town.
The three of us make our way through the throngs to pick up our permit at the National Park Service ranger station, which represents Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park on the U.S. side, and Chilkoot Trail National Historic Site on the Canadian side. The rangers tell us that a dangerous bear has been harassing hikers on the British Columbia side of the hike, and advise us to hook up with other hikers to make a larger group size. Duly noted. And, one more thing, the ranger says: high water from recent heavy rain and snowmelt has submerged several bridges on the Alaska side of the pass, so be prepared to wade.
With our permits in hand, and our expectations of an easy trek somewhat dashed, we join the crowds along Skagway’s main drag for a beer and a look around. But, as if by magic, we suddenly have the town to ourselves; by dinner time, it’s just us and the locals. With a blast of the mighty whistles, the cruise ships pull out, and the town becomes a sleepy village once again. Torsten has arranged a five a.m. shuttle from town out to the trailhead for tomorrow morning, so Stefan and Polly and I grab an early dinner at a Thai place and head back to the Westmark hotel to prepare.
Less than two miles down the trail we change into sandals as the river comes up over a low, boardwalked section of trail. But the way soon climbs higher on the bank and we make good time in sunny weather on the dry trail, passing Finnegan’s Point camp before lunch. Most hikers camp here, or at Canyon City camp (at seven miles) for the first night. We’re shaving a day off this 33 mile route, and so we press on toward Sheep Camp (at 12 miles), doing two of the traditional stages in the first day. The miles go pretty quickly down by the river, but the final three miles up to Sheep Camp gain a thousand feet in short order, putting us high enough to see the peaks and glaciers of the Coast Range for the first time.
Sheep Camp is a scene. It’s the final legal campsite before Chilkoot Pass, so everyone doing the trail camps here before the big elevation-gain day. A surprising number of international hikers are about, from Europe, New Zealand, and Japan, adding a cosmopolitan atmosphere to the Alaskan arboreal forest. Clearly, the secret of the Chilkoot Trail as a hidden gem of North American backcountry is getting out. The rangers here tell us the weather tomorrow will be miserable to dangerous, and reiterate their concern over the “bad bear” harassing hikers on the Canadian side. It’s a reminder we’re in a wild place, and despite the fact we’re hiking through national parks, we’re on our own going over the pass.
Stefan, who has done the route many times, rouses us for a pre-dawn start. After a quick breakfast, we face our first hurdle not 10 minutes from camp. A tributary of the Taiya is roaring over the footbridge, so we have to feel our way across the knee deep torrent and start working up the steep switchbacks toward the pass. The weather worsens as we go, gradually ascending into a dense white-out as we climb on to the rocks and scree slopes and icy snowfields that make up the storied “Golden Stairs.” Here the route is marked by six-foot high orange pylons, which would seem like overkill on a sunny day but are barely adequate in these conditions. A light snow starts to fall. I can barely see Polly, who is not 10 feet away.
Of three possible camps east of Happy Camp, Stefan suggests Lindeman City, at the site of a once sizable settlement of miners. Here we find a quiet camp stretched along the shore of expansive Lindeman Lake, by far the biggest on the route so far. The "city" of course is long gone, only a ranger station and small historical exhibit remain. The warden based here is gone, somewhere out on patrol, but dire warnings of the delinquent bear posted in camp keep us vigilant (bear spray at the ready) as we prepare dinner.
Our final day on the Chilkoot dawns sunny and bright, a welcome change from the gray and gloom we’ve been traveling through the past two days. We drop down from the alpine zone and into the boreal forest once again, trudging along now on sandy trails past Bare Loon Lake and on down to the terminus of the route at Bennett Lake. What was once the signficant community of Bennett has dwindled to one amazing 100 year old church, and a recently restored train station used by the White Pass & Yukon line. The elaborate church, built of local timber, serves as a reminder that, even way out here, the miners did not neglect their spiritual impulses.
No hiker finishing this impressive route will go home without a high Richter Scale memory of the experience. This is a special hike, one that delivers both on spectacular terrain and on the more intangible factors of mood and vibe, all enhanced by its rich history. This is a route any hiker with a genuine bent to adventure will love.
Most of the backpackers finishing the route will settle in for a lunch, served banquet style inside the rebuilt station, and board trains for the ride back to Carcross or Whitehorse. Thanks to Torsten however, we’ll be traveling in style. Shortly after we arrive, we become the objects of envy as the bright red float plane from Whitehorse's Alpine Aviation appears over the horizon, as if on cue, and splashes down on the lake. We load up the gear, clamber in, and take off over the mountains. On the way back we get a glimpse of the expansive wilderness of the southern Yukon to Whitehorse. A look down at the alpine regions of the Chilkoot leaves us all with a nagging desire to come back. But we're also thinking that beer on the deck of the High Country Inn in Whitehorse is going to taste mighty good.