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This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 89, no 8, September 2017

Chilkoot Trail

17th June 2017

We sat in the cooking shelter listening carefully to the ranger Annie giving the attentive walkers a talk on the next dayís walk over the Chilkoot Pass. As you leave the campground the track is a bit overgrown, then you ascend Long Hill and it is named that for a very good reason. Now you are in open country and you climb to the Scales about 500m higher than here. This is where you will hit your first snow, but it should be reasonably soft. After 15 minutes you reach the steep rock up to the Golden Stairs to the summit at 1087metres. Put your walking poles away, you need three points of contact as you climb up. Most of the snow on the US side of the pass has melted, so you can climb to the summit mostly on rock. There are three false summits before you reach the actual summit, so be patient. There is a small hikersí hut at the summit so be mindful of others coming up wanting to take shelter. Most of the route from the summit to Sheep Camp is on snow, so be careful transiting from the rock to snow. This is where most people pull muscles, strain ligaments or break bones. The snow is thawing so be careful of falling through snow bridges over water. You will have to cross one melt stream, but it should only be just above your ankle. Because of the risk of avalanches, we want all hikers to leave the summit by 11am; that means everyone leaves here by 5am. Also note that this route is a main route for bears travelling back and forth from here in Alaska to Canada; a grizzly was last seen a couple of days ago so you need to have your bear spray on the ready at all times. Weather - while it was fine today it is meant to close in tomorrow and in thick mist it is difficult to see between marker poles, so you need to be diligent in route finding. If you have an accident you need to be self sufficient as it may take a couple of days for help to come. So with that she wished us all an excellent day. Momentarily, I thought, had we taken on more than we could chew? The Canadians were doing avalanche recovery training in the corner.

We were walking the Chilkoot Walk, a 53km walk from Dyea near Skagway, Alaska, to Bennett in Canada. This was where the great Klondike gold rush happened in 1896-99, where nearly 100,000 prospectors migrated from Skagway to the Klondike region of the Yukon, many over this route. Before that it was a Tlingit trading route.

As we came up on the Alaskan Marine Highway boat from Juneau to Skagway a couple of days before, the weather turned foul with rain and a southerly wind brewing. Skagway at the end of the Lynn Canal was biting cold as we listened to the orientation video and were briefed by National Park staff. It was 3įC on the Chilkoot Pass, but in weather like this, it can only get better and the weather for the next few days was encouraging. The trail is limited to 50 people at any one time. We had booked the previous December, and since its spring opening a couple of weeks previously, there had been little traffic, but tomorrow there were 25, a French lass, 10 Canadians, ourselves and the rest were Americans.

With our packs and food sorted, we paid the $20 each for the 10 mile shuttle to Dyea the next day with four lassies from Juneau. There was not much ascent the first day, but after leaving the trailhead, we immediately started climbing just to get our backs accustomed to the loads. After nearly 2 hours we reached Beaver Ponds. The board walks were being repaired as they floated in heavy rain. Many of the new boards were still to be attached so you had to be careful to ensure you walked in the middle of the planks if you didnít want a swim. Some of the old planks were green and very slippery. A mother merganser and her three chicks swam across the swamp. There is a lot of swamp cabbage in this muskeg environment and it is used by the bears as a laxative after their winter sleep. We had lunch at Finneganís Point half an hour later. We saw fresh bear skat, we heard later that others had seen a bear near here the day before. We reached Canyon City in just over 4 hours. We put up our tent as high as possible on the river bank because the actual campsite had been flooded and was unusable. There was a canvas warming shed with a wood burner where one could cook and warm up.

We had an easy start the next day, leaving just after 8am. Just down the track and across the swingbridge was a signpost to where the old city of Canyon City existed. We went and had a look and saw the remains of the boiler which was used to power stampedersí loads up to the Golden Stairs - incredible. It was a pleasant trail climbing through Sitka spruce; it was warming up and we had to strip off. The raging glacial waters of the lower Taiya River were less ferocious the higher we climbed. We paused at Pleasant Point and then on to Sheep Camp by just after midday. The sun came out, and a chance to laze around and bask in the warm afternoon sun. We talked to the group of eight Canadian members of 435 Squadron Winnepeg, a SAR elite squad and air to air refuelling unit. We chatted to Jean Pierre senior, a SAR squad veteran of 30 years and over 600 parachute jumps who had sustained several work related injuries, but was now an instructor. The distances in northern Canada are so great and so remote for assignments: downed aircraft, boats in distress or Inuits floating on icebergs because their snowmobiles have gone through the ice. The strategies for these rescues is for a pair from the SAR tech squad to parachute in from a Hercules and sustain life and contain the situation for 3 days or longer before a chopper can make it in. They are trained advanced paramedics, divers, crack shots and survival experts Ė interesting stories such as trying to recover a body bag after a bear had dragged it away.

Ranger Annie followed her talk on the next dayís trail with a quick history of the Chilkoot Trail. We got to bed by 8:30pm, not much time to ponder her words as the alarm was set for 3:15am. Several groups had left before we headed out at 4:45am. It was a bit overgrown at first, travelling through Devilís Club and being careful to avoid the prickles (when they get into your skin, it is impossible to get them out) and then up Long Hill - appropriately named - and out into open vegetation. At the Scales we caught up with the Canadians. This was where the stampeders had their loads weighed; if they didnít have 2000 pounds of supplies they werenít allowed over the pass. This was to prevent them from starving in the Yukon winter. Our packs were considerably lighter. Here we hit our first snow, but it was soft and easy to kick steps, then up a rock climb, a bit like going up the steep rock part of Taranaki. We found it relatively easy; the packs were getting a little lighter from the food we had eaten, and apart from the French girl who had left half an hour before us, we were the next at the summit pass and the border with Canada. The Canadians werenít far behind and got their flag out as they crossed in true patriot fervour. There were no immigration officials here.

From here to Happy Camp we were on snow but crossing onto dry land more as we got lower, but it was soft, so apart from falling through a few times it was fine. There was a steep slope on our right just as we crossed the pass, but soon we had crossed the avalanche-prone area. As we hiked, there was beautiful scenery of the frozen lakes and expansive views of the snow capped mountain vistas. Snow carved off and fell into the lake due to the warming and we came across a couple of Harlequin ducks swimming on one of the waterways. There was also bear skat on the trails, but a few days old, but bear spray was at the ready. As we came over the pass, the mist rolled in, but cleared as we got lower. A lot of the snow up there has a reddish tinge, apparently a red algae precipitated by global warming. By the time we reached Happy Camp it was midday and it had started to rain - such good timing. We were told to allow 10 hours and we did it in just over 7. There were two women and their adolescent boys who were behind us; both boys freaked out carrying their packs to the summit. One of the women told them to go on but leave their packs behind, she then ascended the summit three times with each pack. There was a warming shed at Happy Camp but no heating as we were above the bushline, but with all the primuses going, the place soon warmed up.

It was 5.3įC in the tent when we woke up next morning; it was raining and the cold southerly wind had got up again, so no doubt colder outside. We put on our sodden socks and boots and got the day going. We had to climb high to skirt around the lakeside cliffs. There was a lot of snow melt and we had to manoeuvre our way between the snow and rock. It rained on and off as we came down to Deep Cove campsite; someone was brave enough to go for a swim - a bit cold for me. The track levelled off and we were getting into vegetation again, small spruce trees and flowers awoken now by their melting crust of snow and ice and bursting into flower. We were above a gorge between Deep Lake and Lindermann Lake. We came across a native toad. We had lunch at a log cabin by the lake but we had to shut the door because of the cold wind coming off the lake. We later chatted to Stephanie, the park ranger, for about an hour and she was telling us all about the fauna & flora of the area, playing bird calls using an app on her cellphone. Many people in Alaska with little cellphone coverage use Inreach, a 2-way satellite communicator which can be paired with a cellphone for communications in the wilderness. We continued on to Bare Loon Lake, a delightful rocky area where all the campsites, like many we stayed at on the trail, were on platforms - no fear of flooding or mud and in fact a great nightís sleep

Next day we basked in the morning sun and saw the Loon and heard its haunting call. The loons are very territorial, mate for life and usually there are only one pair for each lake. They can only take off from water, so if it ices over they are trapped and die. We then went on to Bennett and the end of the trail. We read up on the historical displays about the stampeders before catching the train to Skagway. We were all on the hikerís carriage (well, they donít want to put all those smelly trampers in with those well heeled clients on their dayís outing from the cruise ships in Skagway in the same carriage). After we had a shower we met up with most of the others at the Skagway Brewing Co, the in place to be in Skagway, for some craft beer and food. It had been a great few days, great company and we had made new friends and enjoyed fantastic scenery along the way. Even the ranger Stephanie came in with her husband and chatted to us.

Party members
Trish Gardiner Smith and Peter Smith (scribe).

Page last modified on 2017 Oct 30 20:44

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