So there I was, dangling Harold Lloyd-like from a boulder about 2,000 feet up Chilkoot Pass, with my backpack doing everything it could to pull me off balance and my breath ragged in the depleted oxygen of that advanced altitude, when suddenly my left knee -- which I injured during a schoolyard brawl many years ago -- decided to lock up. This had happened before, but never while I was climbing a windy rock face separating Alaska from British Columbia and the Yukon Territory, the same geological obstruction that defied prospectors bound for Canada's Klondike gold fields a century ago.
"You OK?" inquired a woman from Chicago, whom I had encountered at the base of this ascent and who was now several yards above me, still looking fresh, as if she'd merely been sashaying down a beach rather than scaling a mountain.
"Sure, no problemo," I called back, trying to sound more plucky than pained, my brain meanwhile reeling with thoughts of having to complete this famous northward path on a stretcher. "You go on ahead. I'll catch up in a moment."
But as I watched her head, then her back, then finally the woman's slender bare legs vanish into the dusky brume that concealed the crest of the pass, I could only wait behind, panting and feeling pretty darn pathetic. Amid the frenzied gold rush of 1897-99, I knew, argonauts with much heftier burdens than mine had conquered this course. A piano, a portable bowling alley and even a pot-bellied stove on a sled -- well-stoked by its owner, a middle-aged woman who kept her hands toasty at the fire -- all went through this rare glacier-free corridor in southeast Alaska's Coast Mountains.
My consolation was in recalling that numerous gold seekers shared my second thoughts about this experience. As Frank Thomas of Plymouth, Ind., remarked in an 1897 letter home: "I am undoubtedly a crazy fool for being here in this God-forsaken country."
Hiking the Chilkoot Trail had seemed like such a fine, romantic endeavor, back when I was contemplating it from my living room sofa. It would help me to better understand those 100,000 men, women and children who, after news broke that tons of riches from northwestern Canada had been shipped to San Francisco and Seattle in July 1897, promptly quit their mundane, sedentary lives for a shot at millions of dollars in easy money said to be awaiting anyone who could reach the Klondike River tributaries near Dawson City, then the Yukon's boomtown capital. I would be taking a walk back into history. Never did it occur to me that I would also rediscover why this path used to be known as "the meanest 33 miles on Earth."
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The first I ever heard of Chilkoot Pass or the Klondike or "the men who moil for gold" was from my maternal grandfather. A short but scrappy Canadian named Ewart Sprinkling, he'd lied about his age when he was 15 and been shipped to the European front during World War I, only to return home terribly saddened by the death of friends and determined from then on to find his excitement in books, instead. Among his favorites were those by Robert Service, the banker-turned-bard who -- despite the fact that he didn't reach the Yukon until 1904, well after the excitement had waned -- managed better than any other wordsmith to capture the spirit of that area's gold rush days.
I can picture my grandfather recounting Service's tales of Sam McGee, Dangerous Dan McGrew and "the lady that's known as Lou." So dramatic were his recitations that I always assumed he'd actually seen the mountains the "Klondikers" crossed, had mucked through the silt and mire of gold-bearing streams and had committed Service's rhymes to memory simply as the best way to retain a vivid sense of those places. Not until his funeral more than a decade ago did I learn Ewart Sprinkling had never gone within 800 miles of Dawson.
That realization struck me again as my prop plane banked over southeast Alaska's mountain-shaded Lynn Canal and descended toward the town of Skagway, jumping-off point to the Chilkoot Trail. I was beginning, in fact, the trek that my grandfather had so often made in his imagination.
Had I undertaken this journey 100 years ago, I'd have arrived at Skagway not by air, but probably aboard a steamship from Seattle or Vancouver, British Columbia. With me would have been barbers, tailors, reporters, policemen and maybe even a few British lords and Maori tribesmen -- all bound for one of two trails that led to the headwaters of the Yukon River and thence to Klondike country: the White Pass route, from Skagway, a 45-mile series of switchbacks and fathomless mudholes that proved perilous to overburdened pack horses; or the steeper but more frequented Chilkoot Trail, which in those days started at a raw hamlet called Dyea. Especially in the opening months of the Klondike stampede, demand for transport up Canada's west coast to these trail heads was so high that ships were often double- and triple-booked at top dollar, pushing their ticket holders to the brink of homicide. Yet that didn't deter many people from going north. "The man who had a family to support who could not go was looked on with a sort of pity," wrote J.E. Fraser, a miner from San Francisco. "The man who didn't care to leave his business or for other trivial reasons, was looked on with contempt as a man without ambition who did not know enough to take advantage of a good thing when placed in his reach."
During its gold rush heyday, Skagway was attuned to the discordant rhythms of saws, honky-tonk music and gunshots. Its short main street, Broadway, was bordered by campsites, blacksmiths' shops and restaurants so fly-by-night that one advertised its existence with a pair of pants hung from a line and "Meals" painted on the seat. There were up to 80 local saloons where a cheechako (Alaska newcomer) could gargle down strong spirits before embarking for Dawson. And among the sidewalk throngs could be counted bogus preachers, circus performers and enough card sharps, con men and harlots to lend the settlement a distinctly anarchical repute. As one visitor put it, Skagway was "little better than hell on earth." No wonder most folks who passed through seemed to do so as quickly as possible.
Even today, the town caters to more transients than residents. From late spring through early fall (the usual Alaskan tourist months), as many as five Brobdingnagian cruise ships may tie up every day at Skagway's docks, disgorging 8,000 or so travelers to flood the gift shops along Broadway, sample brews and burgers at the raucous Red Onion Saloon (once a prominent bordello) and point their video cameras in wonder at the restored landmarks that crowd Broadway just as they did back in the Gilded Age.
Furthering the illusion that time has failed to elapse here are the hikers, like me, who on any given summer morning can be spotted tromping through town on our way over the Coast Mountains, just as the Klondikers did. The difference is, in the late 1890s, we'd have taken the White Pass Trail. That has since been substantially buried beneath the narrow-gauge tracks of the White Pass & Yukon Route scenic railway, and people are discouraged from using what remains of it. Instead, they walk or hitch a ride nine miles west to the abandoned town site of Dyea and the foot of the Chilkoot Trail.
"On your left!" The shout came from behind me, and almost before I could wheel around, a pair of skinny guys with fanny packs darted by on the path.
"How far are you headed?" I called after them.
"All the way to the end," answered one of the marathoners. "Should get there tonight."
"Yeah," agreed his partner, though he sounded somewhat less
sure -- and more winded. "Wish us luck."
Hey, wish me luck, I thought. I had gone about six miles -- less than halfway to my earliest scheduled campsite -- and already I was cursing my packful of cooking utensils and century-old gold rush journals. The Chilkoot Trail, which introduces itself in a long, steep ascent through dense timber and over slippery rocks, has scant patience with dilettante hikers. Stories are common of feckless urbanites who don't get more than a few miles in before retreating to Skagway.
It's amazing that approximately 22,000 people -- most of them out of shape and excessively dressed -- struggled over this same terrain from the fall of 1897 through the spring of '99, lugging (in barely reasonable portions of 50 or 60 pounds) a ton of food and other provisions that Canada's North-West Mounted Police required them to bring into the Yukon for their own safety. With that burden, it "took the average man three months or more to shuttle his ton of goods across the pass," Canadian Pierre Berton explains in his seminal history "The Klondike Fever." Modern hikers usually complete the crossing in three to five days. I had allowed three. That would make the 33-mile trip challenging, I figured, but still leave me time to launch a few detours and enjoy views along the way.
The majority of stampeders came through these parts during the winter months, when snow hid most of the wildlife and plant species. Traveling in summer, I could see what they didn't -- myriad butterflies weaving drunkenly overhead, Stellar's jays yapping insistently from tree branches, blueberry bushes adroop with fruit and fields of fiddle ferns reeling in the breeze. Not to mention relics. Sprinkled the length of this route are rotting wagon wheels, rough-hewn logs and even shreds of boot leather -- all discarded beside the trail by gold seekers who'd deemed them superfluous or just too damn heavy to carry farther. While souvenir hunters have since filched many interesting artifacts, enough remain for the Chilkoot to have been labeled "the world's longest museum."
The most prominent ruins are at Canyon City, located across the Taiya River from the main trail and reached via a footbridge about eight miles in. This used to be a prosperous pocket-edition town with stores and saloons -- and a tramway that, in the spring of 1898, started hauling carloads of goods aerially all the way to the summit of Chilkoot Pass for a price. It was a promising innovation, but it came so late in the gold rush that it never made as much money as its backers had hoped. Left behind, and looking rather like a Victorian notion of a submarine, is a giant, rusted boiler from the tram's steam plant.
Both the American and Canadian park services have excelled in
maintaining the Chilkoot pathway. Wooden steps lead up steep embankments. Footbridges leap across streams. Heritage markers stand where Klondikers once erected mini-settlements of hotels, restaurants and, of course, taverns. Those sites, now the sole spots where hikers are permitted to stay overnight, are usually identified by the presence of a crude cabin, where you can retreat
from rain and the blitzkrieg campaigns of crepuscular insects.
One such site was my initial night's stop: Sheep Camp (13 miles). An early headquarters for mountain sheep hunters, in the late 1890s it grew into a real village, surrounded by tents "so thickly set," according to an old account, "as to prevent one passing between them." There I found the park service cabin already occupied by some of the 30 or so other people hiking this trail. I was forced to try to set up a fancy tent I'd borrowed in Skagway, only to realize I hadn't the faintest idea how it fit together. After I'd at least used up all the component parts, I called it done and trotted down to the Taiya for a good foot soaking. Word was that it might take 10 hours to travel from here to the next campsite, across Chilkoot Pass, so any time spent recuperating appeared worthwhile.
Eventually, I hung my pack over a tree branch, safe from voracious varmints, and curled up in my sleeping bag with my grandfather's well-thumbed copy of Service's verses. I was snoring before the end of "The Spell of the Yukon."
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Early the next morning, I reached the base of Chilkoot Pass. Gazing upward, I remembered black-and-white gold rush-era photos of a seemingly endless human chain trudging to the top over crude stairs hacked into the snow and ice, each encumbered miner groaning in lockstep with whomever preceded him, nobody daring to step aside and rest, for it might take hours to find another space in that chain. No images better represent the hope and hardships of the Klondike rush than those do. Now it was my turn to make
the same ascent, a century later.
Almost immediately I realized why, despite threats of frostbite and avalanches, stampeders had willingly ventured this way in winter. From Sheep Camp, the trail gains almost 2,800 vertical feet in 3.6 miles. With the snow melted away, surmounting this pass promised to be less a climb than a crawl over a 45-degree slope of scree and boulders not quite as big as Kansas. I was glad to hook up with a trio of friendly strangers, two women and a man, who were also bound over this mountain, for then I might have someone to tumble into if I stumbled.
Up we went, jamming our boots into narrow rock notches and grabbing hold of rusted wires that might once have carried telegraph messages over the pass. And whenever I thought our labors were ending, fog revealed another grim, gray peak. By the time my knee went bum and a cold drizzle began, compounding my misery, I still couldn't tell where on the mountain I stood.
Klondikers inevitably described this stage of the trail in their journals. "It is about as fatiguing a climb as could well be imagined," observed Julius Price. "I must plead guilty to being nervous, and was afraid to look back for fear I would fall to the bottom," wrote Lillian Oliver, who in 1898 left her ailing husband in the Midwest to brave this trail. A like fear gripped me each time my fingers slipped, or my toes seemed wedged permanently between rocks. Veteran alpiners might consider this a moderate-level climb. But I'm no veteran -- and neither were most of the
19th century prospectors who somehow completed 30 or 40 trips over this ground with their ton of supplies. More than a few couldn't do it, so they spun around and went home. Or shot themselves in despair.
It was a great relief when I caught sight of the Canadian parks service cabin marking the summit as well as the boundary between Alaska and British Columbia. There, gold seekers had paid Mounties a customs duty on their outfits -- all the crates of evaporated apples, cans of coffee and condensed milk, winter clothing, mining equipment and everything else they were packing north. It was a busy place a century ago. No longer. Catching up to my acquaintances, I discovered we were all too weary even to cheer our triumph, although the other male member of our group did find energy enough to fire up a celebratory cigarette. The rest of us just sat for a while, respecting the quietude, breathing in the damp edges of the dissipating fog.
With half the Chilkoot Trail left to cover, and my knee complaining relentlessly, I sympathized with those Klondikers who'd decided they could go no farther. I might have been tempted to screw a pistol barrel into my ear, as well.
Instead, I told my temporary companions to take off at their own pace, while I limped far behind, feeling rather cheated. The countryside north of the summit was so striking, filled with pellucid lakes, the mammoth bleak shoulders of mountains and broad canyons licked by great tongues of snow and ice. Yet every time I started to feel joyous or just a wee bit carefree, a wave of pain threatened to slap me to the ground. I tried to think of anything except my leg. I recited as many international capitals as I could remember. I plumbed my memory for the names of the 41 U.S.
presidents, followed by the names of their vice presidents. When that last task became too frustrating (who the hell was Martin Van Buren's VP, anyway, or Rutherford B. Hayes'?), I sought to dredge up the names of the Seven Wonders of the World and as many Native American tribes as I could. Hungry from all that ruminating, I downed enough cashews from my bag to constipate me onto my deathbed. I sang every TV theme song that came to mind, at one point belting out a glorious rendition of the "Gilligan's Island" tune to some bewildered deer grazing a nearby hillside. When that
got old, I read aloud from my grandfather's Service collection, finding that I could relate to the author's words as I never had back home in the city:
It's the great, big, broad land 'way up yonder,
It's the forests where silence has lease;
It's the beauty that thrills me with wonder,
It's the stillness that fills me with peace.
And so, employing this desperate combination of diligence and denial, I made it past Crater Lake, where the shoreline still shows the indentations of Klondikers' wagon wheels; past Happy Camp (20.5 miles), where a fellow wayfarer, watching me change the bandages on my blistered feet, joked, "You don't really need shoes over all of that, do you?"; past Deep Lake (23
miles), where I was forced to assemble my tent in a downpour and go to bed hungry because I was too drained to do so much as boil water; past Lindemann City, once a bustling tent community of 4,000 people, now best known for its excellent Chilkoot Trail interpretive center; and last, through spruce forest and over chortling streams to the southern end of Lake Bennett. There once rose the log town of Bennett, where gold rushers built boats they hoped would carry them another 550 miles north over the wide Yukon River to Dawson City -- and prosperity. Today, Bennett offers little more than a shuttered-up White Pass & Yukon railway station and a wooden Gothic Revival church that hasn't hosted a service since 1902.
"Hey, you made it," cried the Chicago woman with whom I had scaled Chilkoot Pass the day before. "We were taking bets on how long it would be before we'd have to send out a search party."
"You really know how to boost a guy's ego," I said, trying not to sound (too) bitter as I collapsed onto the steps of the depot, wishing that Bennett still boasted at least one of the myriad bars it had opened to stampeders. At that moment, I might have sacrificed moderately essential body parts for an ice-cold ale, something I could sip while awaiting the infrequent train from Skagway to pick me up and take me south again to Fraser and my bus connection to Whitehorse, present-day capital of Yukon Territory. The next day, I was set to fly from Whitehorse to Dawson City.
Lying there in the sun, my ears pricked for the wail of a train whistle, my nose filled with the dense scent of unwashed flesh all around me, I tried to imagine what my grandfather would have thought of this northern escapade. He'd probably have told me I should have been better prepared. He undoubtedly would have confirmed that I was a crazy fool for taking on Chilkoot Pass. But he would have been one envious SOB all the same, because
I had done what he never could. Knowing that made my knee hurt just a little less.