Skagway & the Chilcoot Trail

We finished the Glacier Bay kayaking trip with an amazing flight from Gustavus back to Juneau. We flew in a twin propeller 5 seater, our pilot was about as casual as might be allowed. It was super clear, we flew so close to the mountains we could practically count the hikers. Needless to say, when we got back to Juneau, Cathal and I were in need of a few celebratory beers! We checked into our hostel – a very old school An Oige style hostel where you stay in single sex dorms and have to do a chore (no comments thanks Mick!) – and promptly made our way to the harbourside Hangar Bar for some real food and a pitcher or two.

Alan arrived the following day. Unfortunately the good weather spell had broken, and he arrived into the Hangar Bar dripping wet and freezing! Not quite what he was expecting. Now we were 3 – for the last 10 days of the trip. We used Al as an excuse to crack into a few more pitchers of Alaskan Pale Ale, as we discussed tactics and made plans for our impending trip to Skagway and the Chilkoot Trail.

The following day, after doing some damage in the fantastic Foggy Mountain outdoor store (Great Outdoors eat your heart out – this place was stocked with lots of rain in mind!), we boarded our ferry for Skagway. This was a 6 hour journey, much of it taken up organising our bags for the trek. Consensus was finally reached on food quantities – we have to reckon for a 6’3″ guy in his twenties this time around! The rain followed us to Skagway, the promised rainshadow did not make itself known. “Dyea Dave” was our shuttle/unofficial tour guide for that evening and the next morning.

The morning of the 23rd dawned with torrential rain. The prospect of starting a 4 day trip over the Chilkoot Trail was not appealing in the least! We had to do some running around, getting permits, train tickets for the way back, some essential whiskey and last but not least bogroll. In the midst of all this I lost my purse and spilt my coffee, not a good start! All this provided great amusement for a rather more organised Canadian hiker, Peter. He gave in in the end and got an americano to pass the time!

And so the trail. The Chilkoot trail is a 33 mile hike over the Chilkoot Pass. It was a First Nations trade route for centuries. This was one of the routes into the Klondike and Dawson City during the gold rush of 1898-99. The pass was used by countless stampeding prosectors during the winter of 1898. The trip over the pass marked the first of two stages, the second being a boat trip up the Yukon river to Dawson City. The top of the pass marks the US/Canadian border. Back in the gold rush days, customs guys would only let you through if you could prove you had a years worth of supplies to sustain you through the harsh realities of the gold fields. Many passed this way, carrying very heavy loads. Large towns sprang up on the route to provide services for the stampeders. Aerial tramways were built to get loads over the very steep pass, roads were built, telegraph wires erected – all within a year. The rush passed very quickly – by the time the 1898 stampeders reached Dawson City, most stakes had been claimed already.

What remains today is the route, many discarded items and broken down huts. We came across countless rusting stoves, tin cans, parts of engines, telegraph wires and fallen poles. Some huts remain, with rusting bed frames and stoves inside. Right before the final steep push to the Summit, there is huge piles of discarded stuff – many people stripped down their gear when faced with the steep golden steps.

So, we put our bags on our backs and followed this historic trail. It was Alan’s first multiday hike. We didn’t appreciate beforehand how tough it would be! Our first day started at the ghost town of Dyea, and wound its way through forest, climbing gently up. We saw a beautiful hanging glacier, old growth forest, waterfalls and the ever present river. Relatively fresh bear scat had us making lots of noise going around corners, so as not to surprise a large furry animal. Alan’s favourite was “we are not your lunch!”. We stayed at Sheep Camp the first night. It was a hilly spot, but the parks service had erected raised wooden platforms to allow for a flat and dry night’s sleep. Excellent. Here we met Kiwis Steve & Angela, Canadian siblings Heidi and Scott, and caught up with Canadian Peter again. The ranger gave an excellent talk on historic and current issues of the trail.

 Hiking madness!

The second day proved the toughest. We continued climbing, and got above the tree line within a couple of hours. We were in cloud for the next few cold hours! We scrambled over large rocks, cairns showing the way. We couldn’t see very far, but this added to the ethereal nature of the place. Signs detailed sites of historic significance. The one we waited for was the Scales, the area before the final push where goods were weighed, and porters often raised their prices back in 1898. The climb to the summit was insane. We scrambled over rocks at at 45 degree angle, up, up and up! It was misty and cold wind was at our backs. We trekked over patches of snow. We were very happy to see the warming shelter at the summit! We were now officially in Canada. We made ourselves hot soup and coffee, and steamed the place up as we warmed up!

 

It was a cold run down to Happy Camp. Scott had promised sunshine, but the day failed to clear. The scenery on this side reminded me very much of Connemara, particulary around Lough Inagh and the Sky Road.

Alan unfortunately fell into a river 500m before camp, to our amusement and his dismay – his tent took the brunt as was soaked through. The hut at the camp was lovely and warm thanks to recently departed rangers who had a stove. Body heat and cooking kept it warm for the rest of the evening! It was a cold night’s camping, despite trying to get inner warmth from hot chocolate laced with whiskey!

 

Day 3 dawned a little rainy, but much improved. We hiked down past lovely lakes, and Deep Water Camp. The lakes provided respite for the stempeders – they could float their loads downstream for 3 of the 9 miles of this section. We were very glad to get to Lake Lindeman, where Peter had a roaring fire going in the stove. The room was hung with wet gear which quickly dried out.. Lake Lindeman was the site of a city of 4000 people back in 1898. It was the site that stampeders built their boats for the trip along the Yukon river. It was amazing to think of all that business, in such a remote location! The lake itself was beautiful – the glacial silt lent it a very special blue hue. We spent the whole afternoon soaking up the heat before making the final 3 miles to Bare Loon, our camp for the night. It was a lovely campsite on Bare Loon Lake, again with the lovely raised flat platforms!

The final day dawned clear, and dry. We had a final breakfast of oatmeal and starbucks espresso blend before hiking 3 miles to Bennett. Here we had the “hot lunch” and boarded the tourist train back to Skagway. It was a fun trip, nice to be warm and dry and watch the scenery of the White Pass go by.

That night was definitely got a dose of “hiking madness” and consumed rather too much local IPA beer! We had a great night with Peter & the rest of the gang with whom we had shared the hiking experience.

We spent the following day in Skagway – well I spent most of it in my bed! Skagway is a weird sort of place – again it was a big town back in the gold rush days. Now it exists solely for the cruise ship passengers, who come ashore in their thousands every day. I’ve never seen a town with so many pedestrians and hardly any cars – people still kept to the sidewalk. Our ferry the next morning was changed from an unearthly 7am to 11.15am, so we boarded happily and settled in for the trip back to Juneau.

 

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