With our lunch at the Scales over, my mom, aunt, and I pulled our packs back on and faced the next half mile of trail, which would take us up and over the Chilkoot Pass. This was the challenge we had set out to do, and we had finally—after two and a half days and sixteen miles of hiking—arrived.
If you do any research on the Chikloot Trail and the gold rush, you will quickly realize that most of the stampeders took this trail in winter:
It was actually easier to climb the Pass then, because they could cut steps into the ice and snow rather than scramble over loose rocks and boulders as we would have to do. They climbed the stairs almost in lock step, each climber stepping on to the next stair as the one in front of him moved up.
There were ledges along the way where climbers could step out of line and rest, but it could take hours for them to squeeze back in to line due to how packed it was. And, with each climber needing to make 40 trips to carry their gear from the Scales over the Pass, they were not eager to let anyone else in front of them and slow down their own progress.
Fortunately, their trip back down the Pass was easier; they slid down in chutes, descending in minutes.
So in one sense, our climb was more difficult than what the stampeders faced. On the other hand, we only had to climb it once.
As we left the Scales and headed towards the Pass, fog drifted in and we lost a lot of visibility. We had been warned about this by the rangers in both Skagway and Sheep Camp, so we knew to watch for the orange trail markers:
Once you reach a trail marker, you stay there until you spot the next one. Then you move on. Fortunately for us, the fog was drifting in and out pretty quickly, so visibility did not stay poor for too long.
The “trail” also disappears here. There is no one trail up the Pass. The rangers walk the Pass daily, setting and resetting the orange route markers depending on trail conditions. The hikers make their way from marker to marker however they can.
The ground from the Scales to the Pass also changes to a small boulder field:
These boulders were large, slick, and not necessarily stable. We were picking our way slowly, and our walking sticks were as much a hindrance as a help—more than once, we saw a stick that had slipped into a hole between boulders and snapped off, and was wedged so tightly it couldn’t be retrieved and packed out.
This was perhaps the worst part of the trip for me—I was half scrambling over boulders, sometimes on my hands and knees, which was causing my pack to ride up my shoulders instead of the weight staying centered on my hips. I was constantly readjusting the pack, but let’s face it: I have a pear-shaped body and my body shape itself was not helping the pack stay in place when my own weight was shifted so far forward.
Once we started climbing the Pass itself, things actually become easier. The trail was generally near vertical, so my pack stayed centered where it needed to be. It would actually have been a really fun climb without a pack on.
Our route did zig-zag a bit, and so at times we were scrambling over and through large boulders, while at other times we were almost stepping up smaller ones. The worst footing was small, scree-like rocks, as I never felt like I was 100% secure or, if I slipped, that I had a hope of stopping a slide.
As we made our way up the Pass, E. passed us heading back down. He had split off a little earlier in the day and joined another, faster group, so he could leave his gear at the warming station on the top of the Pass and head back to help our slower group out. Much to our surprise, S.—part of the group E. had joined up with—was heading back as well to help out. Both of them had left their packs at the warming station; rather than unpack and redistribute weight, they would just take the packs of someone in the slower group completely.
I’ve heard that, when you are on the trail, you quickly get to know and support your fellow hikers, but it was still amazing to see S. jump in to help make sure everyone got over the pass safely and successfully. They let us know we were making good time and were closer to the top than we thought, and then they headed off.
Not too long after that, I was crossing a more difficult stretch and had to put my full weight on my injured leg and push off it to make the next step. As I did so, pain shot up my leg and it collapsed under me. I knew it wasn’t broken, and I knew I could put some weight on it, but the important question was how much?
There are no good resting points on the Pass, where you can really sit down and evaluate things. At best, you cling to some big boulders and take a few breaths. My mom, aunt, and I talked it over, and, while I thought I could continue on as I was, I got overruled. My aunt started ferrying my pack and hers up the trail, while I followed along without having to carry any weight on my leg.
We had not gone very far like this before S. caught up with us again, carrying the pack for someone in our group. When he saw the situation we were in, he said he’d take my aunt’s pack—she was currently carrying mine—up as far as he could get it. Before we could protest, he pulled it on over his chest and climbed up a couple hundred feet. He dropped the pack, waved at us, and continued up. By the time we made it up to her pack, I was feeling stable on my leg again—I didn’t trust it to push off of it, but we were in better ground and I wasn’t going to need to do that again. I took my pack again, my aunt grabbed hers, and we continued on.
I was lucky and I knew it. I’d taken a risk coming on this trail with a leg that was not 100%, and the fact that I got out with nothing more than a bad strain was sheer dumb luck. It could have ended very badly.
As we continued up, we realized something else—the fact that S. had passed us again meant that our slow group had made really good time that day and were not too far behind us.
We kept climbing, and we were starting to reach the false summits on the Pass. We knew to expect a few of them, but it seemed like they just. kept. coming.
Later, we talked to someone else who had climbed the trail a few times, and he told us that usually the smaller gulches were filled in with snow, making them much easier to cross—instead of climbing in and out of them as we had to do this year, he’d walked straight over them. This explained why we were running into so many more false summits than we expected. He also mentioned that this was the hardest climb up the Pass that he’d ever done, because of the lack of snow.
This may have been the first time I regretted a lack of snow in my life.
However, we were making definite progress, and the false summits/gulches did typically give us a place to stop and rest for a minute or two. When we looked back, we could see definite (and inspiring) progress:
Eventually, we reached one of the best-known artifacts on the entire trail, a piece of the tram system that had been left near the summit:
And then, with barely any warning, we were at the summit.
We had done it: we’d conquered Chilkoot Pass.
It took us about 3 hours to reach the summit from the Scales, which is on the slower end of the average ascent time. All told, we had been hiking for about 7 hours since leaving Sheep Camp that morning.
But we had done it!
One of the other well-known artifacts on the trail is a cache of canvas boats at the summit:
Someone had gone to all the effort to slog them up the Pass—no doubt planning to carry them down to the lakes below and sell them for huge profit—and then, for reasons no one has been able to discover, left them behind. Did the owner of the boats decide to go on down the trail without the boats? Did they get this far and look over into Canada and just give up, heading back down the trail and towards Dyea and Skagway? Was it one of the many people who lost their lives on the trail?
Whoever they were, whatever their reason—they are gone, but the boats are still on the Pass, slowly rotting away.
After taking a few pictures, we made a beeline for the warming shelter. There was no stove or fire in the shelter—there’s no wood to fuel one—so it was only warm in the sense that it was out of the elements. But it had real chairs and benches to sit on, and we appreciated the break.
As we rested, we realized we were now in Canada. We knew the Canadian ranger was headed down the Pass, as she had passed us earlier in the day. It seemed somewhat anticlimactic to have climbed all this way and to be entering Canada without any sort of passport check, but… there we were.
Once we were rested, we debated staying in the shelter until our second group arrived—we knew they weren’t too far behind—or heading on without them. We decided to just head on as planned; if nothing else, we could get our gear set up at camp and help them set up when they arrived.
We were also eager to get going again—we’d been on the trail for about 7 hours now, and only come four of the eight miles we needed to cover. We knew the next four miles would be easier, but it was still a long walk ahead of us.
And anyway, you don’t know what you think you know until you’re in the middle of it.
The next four miles was not, in the event, necessarily any easier.
All too soon, alarms were going off in tents on the morning of Day 3, and we were sluggishly dressing, eating, and breaking camp.
Our initial itinerary for Day 3 had read “Up early and on the trail. This is ‘Elevation Day’! We will camp at Deep Lake Campground. It is smaller than Happy Camp and more rustic but it will be more protected from the weather for all of our ‘hot weather’ hikers!”
This would have meant a 10.5 mile hike or so, with about 3,000 feet of elevation gain, including the Pass. However, back in Skagway the Ranger had given us the opportunity to switch our campsite to Happy Camp, cutting about 2.5 miles off our hike. We’d jumped at the opportunity.
So going in to Day 3, we still had about 3,000 feet of elevation gain, but only 8 miles to hike: about 3.5 to get to the Scales (a little over 1,500’ elevation gain), about half a mile up the Pass (a little under 1,500’ elevation gain), and 4 miles to the campground (maybe 7-800’ elevation loss).
We were divided in three groups: the group I was in would hit the trail first and, once we got up the Pass, we’d split E’s gear so he could carry an empty pack back and go help the next group. The second group we expected to be the slowest, and they would probably be the second group out of camp. The third group liked to break camp a little slower, and they would come behind and help the slowest group if/when they caught up.
None of this changes the fact that I was in the group being dragged up and out of bed at some unholy hour of the morning.
I have a difficult time with breakfast in the morning—I just can’t eat until I’ve really woken up—so I didn’t each much. I had my beef jerky and trail mix, and that would keep me going until we stopped for lunch. I was also adamant that we would be stopping for lunch today, unlike the day before.
It was a foggy, misty kind of morning, but somewhat less damp than the previous two days had been. We were also high enough up now that the vegetation was starting to change: less moss, more… other plants. What can I say? I have a brown thumb, so what I know about plants is limited to the fact that you actually can kill a cactus if you try hard enough.
Shortly after setting out, we hit some stairs:
This was only surprising because, while the trail is excellently maintained, this was the first time we’d really hit, you know, stairs. We appreciated them; the people with longer legs appreciated them more than I did, since they were set at an awkward height for me. But regular stairs beat boulder scrambling, so I certainly wasn’t complaining.
We knew the trail for the next 3.5 miles would be a pretty steady climb, and for quite a while our trail looked a lot like this:
This was actually easier than Day 1 and 2, because the grade was pretty consistent and we almost never had to climb down into gulches. We could get into a rhythm and keep going. The grade was also not too steep, so it was challenging without being taxing.
The vegetation continued to change as we climbed, and eventually we moved out of anything resembling “lush” and into low bushes, sparse vegetation, and lots of rocks:
It was about this point when I began to feel ill. The smell of my trail mix—actually, I think it was the dried cranberries—made my stomach churn. I was choking down beef jerky because I knew I needed to eat something, but I was having to chew it only as much as required to swallow it, and I was gagging the entire time.
I think my body simply could not handle the physical effort on just the trial mix/jerky, and it had reached the point where just the thought of them was making me nauseous. Trying to eat them was a special kind of torture. For the record, I still cannot smell cranberries without feeling ill, and it’s been three months.
Eventually we came to the ruins of one of the tram towers, now little more than a heap of wood on the mountainside:
We stopped here for a short break and to change clothes (mostly removing some layers). Before long we were on our way again, and it was not too long after that when we got our first glimpse of the Pass:
The Chilkoot Pass is the first rocky ascent on the left, not the one straight ahead. The pass going straight ahead, while it was used by some people during the Gold Rush, is longer and apparently more difficult.
Around this time, we were passed by another hiking group that included a young and very fit guy, S. After some discussion, E. split off and joined S’s group; this would get E up the Pass more quickly, so he could head back to help our second group out sooner. We knew there was a warming station at the top of the Pass, and we figured E. could unload some of his gear there and it would be safe enough until we could pick it up. That may be E. and S. in the picture above, actually.
The rest of my group made it to the Scales in pretty short order. The Scales was the official weighing point for the Gold Rushers before they ascended the Pass; it’s where the Canadian government verified they had their one ton of goods. There was a constantly shifting tent city here, as it was another major caching and regrouping spot.
It is also one of the most artifact-rich areas on the trail, because so many people stopped here and so many goods and junk were left behind for one reason or another; buckets, stakes, cable from the tramways, and old leather shoes were pretty common sights:
I was in very rough shape at this point, mostly due to my inability to really eat anything. We stopped and refilled our water, and I found the blandest meal I had packed and cooked that. Fortunately I had no problems eating it—my body seemed to be rebelling against the jerky and trail mix, but I was not actually sick and was able to eat—and keep down—lunch. I began feeling better very quickly.
While we were eating, we were visited by a very adventurous little squirrel, who volunteered to eat anything we didn’t want and possibly anything we did want. We had to set someone on guard at our packs, because the squirrel was determined to raid our stores. And he had absolutely no fear of humans.
Once we were done eating and had everything packed back up, we turned to face the half mile of trail that this entire trip centered upon: the climb up Chilkoot Pass.
On Day 2 of the Chilkoot Hike, we had just under eight miles to go, from Finnegan’s Point to Sheep Camp. We had to be at Sheep Camp by 7 pm for a Ranger lecture, and we wanted to stop at the ruins of Canyon City along the way, so we planned to leave at a decent but early hour of the morning.
After our pretty uneventful start the day before, most of us were relaxed and in pretty good spirits as we packed up the last of our gear and prepared to head out on the trail:
I was not exactly thrilled, because I am not a morning person, but I was as ready to hit the trail as anyone was.
Two of our group opted to split off; they wanted to take a little more time breaking camp. Since they were also the two fastest hikers, we figured they would still beat us to Sheep Camp. The rest of us headed out on the trail.
I ended up as pace setter, and I set a much more moderate pace than we had taken the previous day.
Our hike for the day would gain about 1,000 feet of elevation over the nearly 8 miles, but—if you looked at the terrain map—it looked like there were areas of relatively flat stretches and a few steeper ascents.
The terrain map LIES.
One: there was no flat. It did not exist.
Two: It seemed like we spent half our time going down.
This was cute at the beginning, in a sort of… ok, it wasn’t even cute at the beginning. It seemed like we went down one foot for every two feet we gained. The trail parallels the Dyea River, and every time we gained significant height above the river, we’d turn a corner and be right back at the bank again. At one point, I was so despondent at our apparent lack of elevation progress that someone had to remind me the river started high in the mountains and was running downhill, so even though we kept hitting the bank, we were hitting it higher up the mountain each time. Intellectually, I could appreciate that. My gut, however, refused to believe it.
We went up, we went down, and there was the river. Repeatedly.
Since we were still relatively low down in the mountains, there were plenty of side streams and waterfalls as well:
When we had started out the day before, some of the group had decided they wanted to count the number of water crossings. There had been a brief but spirited debate about how to count dry stream beds, before they decided they would count crossings that contained moving water. By the end of the trip, they were up around 175, give or take.
Many of these were crossed on Day 2.
We reached Canyon City in pretty good time. There is a campground at Canyon City, on the same side of the river as the trail. The ruins of the city itself are across the river.
Canyon City was the first major stop for the Gold Rushers. Because they had to carry a ton of supplies (literally) over the pass, they would set up a cache, ferry the goods from their previous cache to the new cache, and then repeat the process for the next leg of their trip. Canyon City was one of the major cache spots—at least until a tram was set up and people could pay to have their goods hauled instead.
To get to Canyon City, we crossed a suspension bridge that has seen better days:
Only one person crosses at a time, so it took us a few minutes to get our entire group across. You’ll notice my lack of pack—one of the guys volunteered to stay and watch the backpacks so the rest of us could pop over and back unencumbered.
Canyon City had some of the most impressive artifacts we’d seen yet, including an old stove:
And a boiler that was part of the tram system:
After our side trip, we crossed the bridge again. We hauled our packs back on, without much enthusiasm to be carrying the weight again, and headed back out on the trail. We’d come about three miles and had five to go, so we decided not to eat lunch just yet.
However, we all had some sort of power food to snack on as we walked. Mine was trail mix with some dried cranberries mixed in. On Day 2, this was still appetizing.
The hike became more strenuous as the day came on, and the trail… well, the trail started to look like this:
The one thing I will say about this trial, on both sides of the border, is that they have done a fantastic job creating and maintaining it. It’s not overly engineered—wait until you see what passes for a “trail” on Day 3—but it’s very well marked and they do have areas where they have shored it up to help prevent erosion or made sure there were good steps to get up and down certain places in the trail. They spend a lot of time managing the trail, and it shows.
Along the way we passed a tree with a little sign nailed to it that said “US Boundary NPS.” This was still several miles from the Pass, which we thought was the official border between the US and Canada, so we were (and are) confused by what that sign meant.
Still, we waved at it as we passed by. Boundaries should be respected, generally.
The more the day went on, the more we grew to hate the trail. Each of the National Park Service campgrounds had a sign giving some history about that part of the trail, and when we reached Pleasant Camp, the sign included this gem:
The trail from Canyon City to Pleasant Camp was described by one stampeder as “...the worst piece of trail on the route, fairly muddy, with many boulders and with some short, steep ascents and descents in and out of small gulches.”
That about sums it up. I called it “Disillusionment Day.”
On Day 1, we were all bright and chipper and the trail, while no stroll through the woods, had been pretty decent. Our biggest problem had been a too-fast pace and not difficulty with the trail itself.
On Day 2, we hit much rougher ground than I think any of us had anticipated. We were scrambling up and down some of the ascents/descents, and there were a lot of them. We weren’t in to the rhythm of the trail yet, so our bodies were still adjusting to the demands we were placing on them and we weren’t very efficient when we were scrambling. Or I wasn’t, anyway. I shouldn’t speak for everyone.
I had been preparing for the rigors of Day 3 for months; Day 2 kind of just snuck up and smacked me in the ass and laughed at me when I fell down. I’d rather climb the Pass itself again than go through another day like Day 2 (although Day 2 is sort of a requirement to get to the Pass, so how that would work I have no idea).
In addition, all of us were a little wet. Some more than others—it turned out one of the tents was not waterproof at all, and that couple had passed a miserable night and was now packing soaked gear. The tent my mom and I was sharing was letting moisture in through the floor; we were a little damp around the edges, but our sleeping mats had prevented our sleeping bags from becoming soaked. However, the tent—which I was packing—was wet and we couldn’t dry it out fully. My gear was heavier on Day 2 than on Day 1, although you’d think it would get lighter as the trip went on and we ate our food.
In other words: we were out hiking in the wilderness, doing wilderness sort of things. But it was a little more wilderness than we had, perhaps, bargained for, and, as I said: Disillusionment.
My issues on Day 2 were compounded by the decision not to stop for lunch. We had made pretty good time to Canyon City, so we didn’t eat there. When we reached Pleasant Camp, we knew we only had about two miles to go to reach Sheep Camp, our destination, and we opted to press on. We had jerky and trial mix and such, after all.
Unfortunately for me, this decision has serious repercussions for the rest of the trip. But at the time, I didn’t speak up loudly enough—the group wanted to continue on, and I pulled out my trail mix and resolved to continue on.
Disillusioned or not, we made it into Sheep Camp at last. During the Stampede, Sheep Camp was the last major camp before the climbers would ascend the Pass. Now, it is the last camp on the US side of the border.
We set up camp and ate dinner. I was feeling pretty rough around the edges—even at the more moderate pace I had set, my leg was starting to concern me again. The steep ascents and descents had been rough on me, and while I had tried to rely on the other leg more, I hadn’t been able to do so completely without risking injuring it as well. But I still felt ok to continue on, and dinner—the first really filling food I had had all day—helped me perk back up.
If I was not feeling great, two of the guys in the group were in even worse shape. My pace, slower than Day 1 as it had been, was still a little too fast for them, and they were really starting to feel the effects of the trail. Part of the issue is that neither one of them had really looked in to the trail before we went on the trip, so they had not realized how difficult it would be—or prepared as much as they needed to. And I say that as someone who had looked at how difficult the trail was and also failed to prepare as much as I needed to.
This started friendly bantering that would continue for the rest of the trip: as they had married into the family, and they were the two struggling the most on the trail, they concluded that the problem was clearly that everyone in my family lies. The Day 2 trail (and 3 and 4 and 5…), they maintained, was not in the brochures they had read.
Bantering aside, however, right now, at the end of Day 2, our group had to make a decision. The hardest part of the trail was still ahead of us; did the guys feel they could make it over the Pass, or did they want to turn around? We pulled the Ranger aside to discuss our situation with her, and ultimately the guys decided they would continue on.
We decided we needed to change our approach to the trail, however, especially with the hardest day ahead of us.
The two who had split off that morning would split off again the next day. They liked being able to take a little more time breaking camp in the morning, and they set a good enough pace that we were sure they’d catch up by evening. Our biggest concern was that we didn’t like them being a group of 2—if one was injured, they would have to be left alone while the other went for help. But ultimately they set a good pace together and it worked for them, so that was one group.
My mom, the Hawaii contingent (my aunt and her fiancé E.), and I would make up the second group. We would be the first out of camp in the morning and would go as quickly as we could on the trail. Once we got up the Pass, we’d find a way to distribute the gear in E’s backpack between the rest of us; he would take his empty pack and go back down to help the third group, while we continued on towards camp.
The third group would consist of the two guys who had really struggled on Day 2, with their wives/my mom’s cousins. One of the cousins was a doctor, which made us all feel a little better about that group, too, if they really got to struggling.
We made sure all the pairs were self sufficient (food, water filter, stove, tent, etc), and we headed off to bed.
During avalanche season, the Ranger kicks everyone out of camp by some ungodly hour of the morning, like 6 a.m. This is to ensure everyone is up and over the Pass early in the day, since the greatest risk of avalanches is in the afternoon. And the danger is not so much going up the Pass as descending on the other side.
There was zero avalanche danger for us, but the Ranger still strongly recommended we get out of camp early. Fortunately, we were far enough north and this was in early August—so there was no question of having to hike in the dark. It would be light; just early.
We wanted to make sure we were ready for that early start. We’d gone eight miles today, and it had been a rough eight miles, but we knew that it was going to be even tougher the next day. We were going to need all the energy we could get to make it.
But there was excitement, too: in a very real sense, the next day was what we had been planning and working towards for a couple years.
We were going to climb the Chilkoot Pass. Finally.
This grand adventure was something of a family reunion, so we spent the ferry ride from Juneau to Skagway catching up.
Some members of the group were flying in to Skagway instead, including my mom. It turned out we would arrive before her, so we decided to meet her at the airport with some sort of sign—after all, this was her trip. We spent much of the ferry ride trying to figure out the sign, with help from the bartender. I forget exactly what terribly clever sign we made, but each of us got one word in a phrase so we could all line up waiting for her to exit her plane.
When we finally docked, we had planned to walk to the B&B where we were staying, but another group on the ferry was also going to the B&B and they apparently had arranged for a van to meet them. Happily, we were able to load quite a few of our bags, and I got a ride out of it as someone needed to go unload/watch the bags until everyone else arrived.
Once we were all checked in, we headed to the airport. Mom’s plane was early, but I convinced her to wait for us so we could still surprise her with the sign. You probably had to be there. We thought we were hilarious.
We spent the afternoon doing more catch up and checking out Skagway.
The Chilkoot Trail actually starts across the inlet, where the town of Dyea used to exist (all that remains now are some dock pylons). Skagway had a better (i.e. deeper) waterway, though, so it was the primary port.
They have done a pretty good job of creating something of a gold rush town “feel”—the buildings are modern, but they have wooden walkways instead of sidewalks and the architecture is a bit like you would expect from a late 1800s boom town. They also have a nice museum focused on the history of the Gold Rush and the Chilkoot Trail.
For example, this is a photo showing the (literal) ton of goods that a Gold Rusher was required to carry into Canada with them:
For some comparison, I think my pack weighed around 30 pounds, give or take 5.
The next morning, we all did our last-minute run around and then met up for a mandatory orientation at the Park Service.
We were lectured about leaving all artifacts we saw on the trail, given an overview of trail conditions, alerted to the locations of rangers along the trail and where they might be patrolling—and where satellite phones were located.
In addition, we were told in no uncertain terms to be certain, if we split into smaller groups, that each group was aware of the plan and that each group was self sustaining, i.e. had a tent, food, stove, water filter, sleeping bags for everyone, etc. We were also specifically told that while there was not much snow on the trail, there were a few small fields we would have to cross—and we needed to walk, not slide, down them. A week or so before, a group had tried sliding down one of the fields, got going too fast to stop, and slid right off into the rocks, resulting in serious injury.
We then hit on a stroke of luck—the camping requirements on the trail are strict. You can only camp in designated campgrounds, and you have to camp in the campground on your itinerary. When we got our permits, we set Day 3 so that we would go from Sheep Camp, over the pass, past Happy Camp, and to Deep Lake. Our reasoning was that Deep Lake was lower down and might be a little warmer. I had it in my head that this was 12 miles, so I was ecstatic when I found out it was only about 10.5. But during our talk with the ranger, we found out that there was room at Happy Camp for our entire group if we wanted to change our plans. This would make Day 3 about 8 miles. We jumped on the opportunity, which turned out to be a very, very good thing.
Then we put our tags on our backpacks, which made us trail legal and had the date we were allowed to go up the Pass on them, and we were ready to go.
Well, we had one last hot, filling meal and then we were ready to go.
We’d hired someone to drive us to Dyea and the trail head. Somehow we missed the Dyea cemetery, which contains the remains (among others) of Gold Rushers who were caught and killed in the disastrous Palm Sunday Avalanche in 1898. I think we were all just excited to get on the trail; I know I thought the cemetery was an offshot partway up the trail, so others may have been under the same impression.
Our van driver was kind enough to take a picture of us all at the trailhead. I’m the one in the purple bandana; I may look goofy, but that thing had mosquito repelling magic in it, and it stayed on my bite-free head for the entire trip:
The most striking thing about this photo is how clean we all are.
Now, we had an itinary planned for this trip
This is how my mom optimistically described Day 1:
- August 7th – Check in with the parks service for our permits/passes. Check in with the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad for our train tickets. Have a beer at a local restaurant and maybe a meal as well. Taxi to Dyea and the trail head. The graveyard is a must to see. Hike to Finnegan’s Point – 5 miles from the trailhead.
“Hike to Finnegan’s Point - 5 miles from the trailhead.”
No big deal, right?
Here’s a very, very loose version of what the ranger told us about that section of the trail: Very soon after we hit the trail, we would go up Saint Hill. It’s called Saint Hill because if you can make it up without cursing, you’re a Saint. If you think that hill is a problem, you need to turn around and go back, because you won’t make the rest of the trail.
So, not quite a jaunt in the park.
We set out on the trail, and somehow the youngest person in the group ended up as the leader. The pace up Saint Hill was not too bad, but once we came down off the hill, she picked up speed and nearly walked several of us off our feet. I am the tortoise, never the hare.
Down at the base of the trail, the climate is much like what I saw in Juneau: coastal rainforest. This makes for a lot of lush (and damp) foilage (photo by CCW):
One of the most notable features of the first leg of the trail are the beaver ponds, which you cross on long planks of wood:
These planks were just wide enough that I had to keep a slightly wider stride than normal, and they were very flexible—you can see the ripples in the water from the boards hitting it as people crossed. We stayed spread out so only one person was crossing any given section at a time. The water was not very deep; if we had fallen off, we could have stood up just fine and gotten out without a problem. But it was stagnant and not the sort of thing you really wanted to go swimming in.
We weren’t on the trail for too long before we started seeing artifacts:
The trail is a living museum—it’s pretty obvious that the artifacts have been gathered together in some instances, and sometimes places to show them off best, but they are more or less left where they were, to rust or rot and eventually disappear.
Unlike Glass Beach at Fort Bragg, it appears that people really are leaving the artifacts in place. It’s a great, but somewhat sobering experience, especially as the trail goes on—the trail existed prior to the Gold Rush, used primarily by the Tlingit Indians, but when the Gold Rush happened, it became the primary way into Canada for a couple years. Some of the artifacts left behind were probably simply trashed—dead weight that the Gold Rushers weren’t going to carry forward with them. Some were abandoned when the Gold Rush ended and the people who carried them up decided it wasn’t worth the effort of carrying them back out (e.g. people who made a living off selling food and supplies and other services to Gold Rushers along the trail). And others were left behind when people died, especially if they were cached somewhere.
We made good time to Finnegan’s Point, our first campground. I think we arrived in under 3 hours, which was certainly the fastest we went on the entire trip; generally we averaged about 1 mph.
Only two other people joined us at Finnegan’s Point that night. I think most people press on to Canyon City, making their first day of hiking a full day instead of our half day.
The campsites all have bear poles on them, for stringing up back packs. We’d heard mixed reviews on using them—they might keep the bears away from the packs, but the squirrels apparently had them figured out.
All of our food and smelly items (bug spray, etc) went into bear-proof food lockers. My mom and I decided to try stringing up our packs, but we were not having luck throwing the rope high enough.
One of the guys, much taller than either of us, stepped in to help—and succeed in getting our rope hung up on the top of the bear pole instead. We then spent an entertaining fifteen minutes or so trying to figure out how to get it down, ultimately resorting to my mom sitting on his shoulders and holding a rake up (found in the warming cabin) to lift the rope. I thought there were pictures of this, but I haven’t seen them surface yet.
We then made dinner, and I discovered that those freeze-dried backpacking meals are REALLY good after a day of hiking.
I could feel that my leg was not 100%, but it had held up well. I was feeling confident that as long as I was careful, I would be fine for the rest of the hike.
In fact, everyone seemed to make it through the day pretty well. The pace had told a little more on those of us who were not in as good of shape as others in the group, but no one was falling too far behind or having too much trouble with the terrain.
We set up our tents on raised platforms—not as comfortable as a dirt floor but they had the benefit of being the only flat surfaces in an otherwise very sloped campground.
The next day would be one of the longest hikes on the trip according to our itinerary—8 miles—and there was a side trip were interested in doing. And we had to be at Sheep Camp by 7 pm for a Ranger talk, so we could get updated information on the Pass/plan for Day 3. We needed to be up and moving at a decent hour if we were going to get everything in.
With my camp set up in record time, I made it to the bus stop in time to catch one of the first buses in to Juneau proper.
My original plan for Juneau, before I tweaked my leg, had been to spend the day climbing Mount Roberts and maybe strolling through touristy downtown Juneau.
At the time, I was figuring Mount Roberts was fairly similar to the Chilkoot Pass in height, if not steepness, and making it up that would be a good test of my fitness. And then I could take the tram down, to celebrate.
While my leg was feeling better after the few days of rest on the ferry, I decided I needed to be cautious. I would take the tram up and hike down.
But after I picked up my pass and headed to the tram station, I discovered it was closed. I was confused for a moment—by this point in my vacation, I wasn’t sure what month it was, much less what day of the week. Eventually I figured out that the tram would open sometime after noon.
And, you know, impulse.
I decided my leg felt good enough that I’d hike up Mount Roberts and that would be fun. Or something.
On the way to the trail head, a local saw me heading out and pulled over to point out some places where she had seen mountain goats earlier. Or maybe it was sheep. I forget which live where. I had a little monocular and was able to see some distant spots moving on the mountain, so that was cool. I mean, it’s better than not seeing little white spots moving on the mountain.
As I headed up the trail, there was an note about a missing hiker in the area. I picked up a long stick and made a point of whacking trees as I went, just in case there were bears. I also kept an eye on the trail—I didn’t have a good trail map, and if things started branching I was going to turn back.
But there was only one trail, and it went up. And up. And up some more. I grew tired of going up. Then, for good measure, it rained Alaska style. In other words: it drizzled incessantly. Enough to get you wet, not enough to make you feel like at least you are in a proper storm and earning your misery. I pulled my rainjacket on and continued up. After all, I wouldn’t get to pick the weather on the Chilkoot Trail. I was practicing, darn it!
Eventually I hit the tram station, which is about 1,800 feet, or a little under halfway up the mountain. By now, being cold and wet had lost its fun, and I decided that was enough for the day. My leg was feeling good, and other than being cold and wet I was feeling good. I was feeling better about my chances on the Trail than I had since Crater Lake, and I decided not to push it.
I took the tram down the mountain. It was, you know, a tram. One more mode of transportation on the trip, I guess, but everything was pretty socked in and I was not terribly impressed by the view.
Or by the crowds when we disembarked. The cruise ships had unleashed their masses of tourists on the town, and they were mobbing touristy downtown Juneau like good tourists do. I went in and out of a few shops, but I was feeling less enthusiastic by the minute.
I needed a beer. And wouldn’t you know it, there was the biggest tourist trap of them all: the Red Dog Saloon. I popped in and ordered a beer, and then I ordered some food to chase it down. Then some more beer. And more beer. And later some more food. It was decent Alaskan beer and better food than I expected, but, mostly, it was something to do that didn’t require any interaction from me. And was warm and dry.
I finally decided that was enough feeding the tourist industry and headed off to catch a bus back to my campground.
The next morning, I woke early and contemplated my planned trip to Mendenhall.
I forget exactly how the milage broke down, but I figured that if I walked to Mendenhall, hiked the trails I was interested in, and walked back, it would be about 12 miles. Most of that would be flat, but there would be a little elevation. This seemed like a good idea.
Because I was insane.
I walked to Mendenhall easily enough. It was sunnier but not too bright, a nice walking temperature, and I was fresh and feeling good.
The glacier was pretty enough:
It’s not the most impressive glacier I’ve ever seen, but it’s certainly conveniently located.
There were chunks of ice floating around in the lake, though, and that was cool. For some sense of scale, that black dot in the center is a guy on some sort of stand-up kayak:
I took a short hike out to the base of Nugget Falls, but because it was a short and flat hike it was thronged with people. The waterfall was impressive, but I wasn’t feeling the abundance of tourists:
Since I was feeling good, I decided to take the East Glacier Trail, which was about 3.5 miles long and had a few hundred feet elevation gain.
As I expected, there were very few people on this trail. I took my time, just enjoying the silence and sort of Ewoky- feeling of the trail:
By the time I reached the bottom of the trail, I was feeling pretty tired and was trying to decided what I wanted to do next. I was standing next to a stream watching salmon spawn when another group passed me by and I heard there had been a bear catching salmon not too far away maybe half an hour ago.
I knew the odds were that the bear was long gone, but I also knew the area they were talking about had specially constructed boardwalks to people could watch the salmon spawn and bears fish safely. I meandered over, but there was no bear. Just lots of people like me, who were optimistically late to the party.
I spent a little time watching the salmon. The water they were in was pretty shallow—so shallow that in some points they were practically crossing bare rock to keep moving in the stream:
I believe that’s a sockeye and, from its color, if it hadn’t mated already it needed to do so pretty quick before it croaked.
And this is when I got stupid.
By this point, I had walked about nine miles. I was tired and sore, and I was trying to decide how to get back to my campground. My options were to call a cab ($$$) or walk a mile or a mile and a half or so to the nearest bus stop and take the bus for the last mile and a half or so.
I still thought I had to hike 12 miles on day 3 of the Chilkoot, so I decided that at the very least I needed to walk to the bus stop.
By the time I got to the bus stop, the leg I had hurt in California was starting to hurt again. Not too badly, but enough that I knew I needed to take the bus.
The only problem was that I was about 10 minutes late to catch the bus, and the next one wouldn’t arrive for an hour or so.
Even sore and tired, I knew I could walk a mile and a half in less than an hour.
It seemed… silly… to twiddle my thumbs at the bus stop. Especially since I didn’t have my Kindle with me, and I would have been bored out of my skull.
So I walked. And rested. And walked. And my feet fell off. And that was awful.
I finally made it back to camp, and I about collapsed in my tent.
However, it wasn’t too long before I was feeling good enough to take stock again. I was sore and tired, and my leg was definitely sore, but I was bouncing back fairly quickly. I chalked a lot of my soreness up to the amount of time I spent walking on sidewalks/pavement more than anything.
Reluctantly, I left the comfort of my tent and hauled my clothes to the rec area at the campground. I needed to wash clothes so that I could at least start the Trail out with clean stuff.
While I was oh-so-excitedly doing laundry, some of the other Chilkoot hikers were arriving in Juneau. I’d checked in with one group earlier in the day, and we were planning to get together for dinner. I finished laundry, dropped my stuff back at my tent, and called a cab. I was done walking for the day.
Someone in the group had sussed out a local dive, which was rumored to have good fish and chips, so we headed over there. The fish and chips were as good as they were claimed. We hung out for a little talking and catching up, and then I caught a cab back to my campsite. Everyone else, older and wiser as they were, was staying at a hotel.
The ferry up to Skagway left early in the morning, so I took a few minutes to prepack everything I could. Mostly, I wanted the opportunity to sleep in every extra minute I could squeeze out of the morning. Unfortunately, I had locked my rolling luggage back and I had lost the keys.
And not just the luggage keys. My house key too.
I grabbed my flashlight and started walking the path between the rec area and my tent, sure I must have dropped the keys along the way, but no dice.
Eventually, I gave up. It was a cheap luggage lock, and I could break it off with a pair of pliers after I got to Skagway. My friend was watching my cats while I was on this trip, and she had my spare key; I’d be able to get back into my apartment.
The next morning, I woke up early and begin tossing everything into my backpack. Except my fleece vest, which I had been wearing the night before and wanted again in the chilly morning. As I pulled it on, I heard the welcome jangle of keys in the pocket.
Happy that something had gone right, I finished packing, met my cab, and headed off to the ferry port.
This would be our last leisurely little jaunt before the real adventure began. As the sun came up and the fog started burning away, we boarded the ferry, Skagway bound.
Jane Clancy on All the pretty ponies (11 April 2015).
Rachel Harman on How to make a ribbon quilt (3 March 2015).
Sarah on How to make a ribbon quilt (18 January 2015).
Donna Melton on How to make a ribbon quilt (17 January 2015).
Sarah on A different sort of trail adventure (27 October 2014).
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