I woke up the next morning feeling somewhat better. The two guys still looked pretty rough, but we were all happy to have reached the end of the trail. We might not have processed it completely yet, but we were happy.
There’s a train that comes in to Bennett a few times a week. Some tourists will take it in so they can see the lake, visit the church and the trapper’s cabin, and get a taste of the Chilkoot Trail. And many of the hikers on the trail take the train back to Skagway.
We had a few hours before the train would arrive, so we packed up our bags and people decided to do some sightseeing. Most of the group went back to take a closer look at the church, but I was limping around camp and no longer able to put my full weight on my leg. I passed on the church and spent some time walking up and down the lake just taking pictures.
There was a bald eagle in a tree:
And the remains of some old boat docks/piers:
For the stampeders, Bennett was the end of the walking trail. From here on, they were able to journey by boat. There was a massive tent city at Bennett over the winter, as the stampeders built their boats and waited for the spring thaw-and thousands of boats sailed out when the ice finally broke up.
The left behind all sorts of artifacts—junk, in many cases. Empty cans. Empty tins. Stoves they no longer wanted to carry. More bones. Bottles.
It’s not entirely hard to understand why. After five days of hiking and just carrying 30 pounds or so each, some of our group felt like the walking dead. And we had only made the trip once. The stampeders, thanks to having to port a ton of good with them, would have covered many, many more miles just to reach Bennett—and most of them went in the winter, where they battled the elements as well as the distance and terrain.
To finally reach Bennett, to secure a boat, and to see the ice break up and the freedom of the lake stretch before you, with the promise of gold at the end…
Small wonder that they would leave behind their trash and junk and sail off without worrying about what would become of it.
What is a water canister compared to the call of an open river and gold?
Perhaps the most heartbreaking part of the entire trail is that, for all the hardship the stampeders endured, for the most part it was wasted effort. By the time they heard about the gold rush from their homes in the northwest of the United States, secured passage up to Alaska, and crossed the Pass with their ton of goods… after sitting out the rest of the winter at Bennett and finally sailing off in a boat… most of the claims had already been staked.
There was gold to be found, but most of the stampeders crossing the Chilkoot Pass came too late.
It’s a maudlin ending to the trail, to be certain.
We, however, had a much better ending to look forward to. Not only were we going to be picked up by the train—no more hiking!—there was a hot lunch waiting at the station for most of us. I had opted out of it because it was stew and I’m not fond of stew; I figured I would live until we got back to Skagway, and then I was going to find the biggest steak available anywhere in Skagway and make short, short work of it.
But when we got down to the train station, we realized that we were, well, we were hiker trash.
If you’re not familiar with the term, it apparently means that you’ve been out on the trail so long that civilized people no longer want anything to do with you.
I mentioned that tourists would take the train in to Bennett and spend a couple hours checking Bennett out. They also had the option to eat some stew. But while the tourists were given access to a dining room with big windows looking out at the lake, hikers were welcomed into a back and entirely separate room.
In all fairness, we did stink.
Since I wasn’t eating the stew, I hung out with the packs and asked them to bring me some bread. In the meantime, I watched the tracks and waited for the train.
The most beautiful sound on earth may be a train whistle when you are at the end of your rope and just want to see civilization again. Or not even civilization. Hot, running water will do.
But if the “Welcome Hikers” sign on the back door of the train station hadn’t alerted us to our hiker trash status, the train rolling in certainly did. All the passengers were standing, pressed up against the window as it came in. Not the windows looking out at the lake: the windows looking down at the hikers.
We had become part of the tourist attraction. We were the brave, adventurous souls who had hiked the trail. We were freaks on display.
Everyone unloaded from the train, heading off to their nice dining room or to the sights in Bennett itself. Eventually we were allowed to load our bags on to the baggage car, and then we were told which two of the train cars we could board.
I think we were all kind of enjoying our hiker trash status, because it took about 30 seconds of everyone being on board before we began to joke about the pine-fresh scent blasting through the train car. And at our surprise that the seats were carpeted—that seemed so much harder to clean than if they had been wood or metal and the whole car could just be hosed out.
The train ride back to Skagway was pretty and relaxing, not the least because it involved no walking whatsoever.
When we reached Skagway, we were told to remain on the train until customs cleared us, and then we could go to one of the buses waiting nearby and we’d be taken in to Skagway proper.
I wondered how clearing customs would work, given that we’d never gotten an entry stamp in to Canada. But that turned out not to matter, since the agents simply asked us all to hold up our passports and then they breezed through the car, glancing quickly at them as they went.
Officially, if you look at my passport, this trip never happened.
We got off the train and went to get our luggage, which was being unloaded quickly and without much ceremony with the train. That is, they were being dropped and people were sorting through them as they could. Unfortunately, the rough handling knocked a can of bear spray off one of the packs, setting it off on the waiting hikers, and hitting a couple people pretty much straight on. They were pulled aside for first aid while the rest of us gathered up bags, boarded a bus, and were driven a short five minutes into Skagway.
Our trip was over—there was nothing left to do but celebrate and head home. How hard could that possibly be?
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