The Chilkoot Trail

Some of my faithful readers will notice that The Chilkoot Trail is not a recipe, a wine, a film, or a book. Well done! I have decided to branch out the old Baboonreviews into uncharted territory and give myself room to write about a wider variety of things. I have changed my ‘Wine Reviews’ section to ‘Randomness’ since I have decided that I don’t really like writing about wine.  My first non-recipe, non-book, non-film review is of a hiking trip my husband and I recently took along the Chilkoot Trail.

The Chilkoot Trail starts off in Alaska, moves briefly through BC, and ends up in the Yukon. It was one of two routes taken by gold rush stampeders in the late 1890s after gold was discovered at Dawson City. Tens of thousands of people from all over North America descended upon Alaska to make their way to the Yukon and hopefully to discover a fortune of gold. This was a treacherous journey that took many months, complicated by the Canadian law requiring that all stampeders enter Canada with a minimum of one year’s worth of supplies and food. This amounted to about a tonne in weight and was an enormous burden for these men (and some women).  Here’s a photo that I took in the Klondike Museum in Skagway, Alberta that shows the load that these men carried:

Knowing a bit about the history of the Klondike before embarking on this trip made it more meaningful for me, although I have to say that the history was almost impossible to avoid. The day before we started the hike we stayed in the town of Skagway, Alaska. Gold rush history was everywhere in this town: photos in every restaurant, vaudeville, shops made out to look like they would have back in the day. The hotel we stayed in, the very excellent Historic Skagway Inn, was originally a brothel back during gold rush days. Each room was named after a woman who used to work there. We stayed in the Ida room.

Day 1: Oddly, I find day 1 of a hiking trip the most difficult. All my bear anxiety comes out, just thinking about the amount of time I’m about to spend in the woods. I also worry about things like getting an eye infection (wearing contacts in the back country is always challenging for hygiene reasons), a stomach bug, the poops. For some reason after day 1 most of these worries subside, except the bear fear. That never really goes away. I read and re-read all the bear warnings before starting and refresh my memory on what to do if a black bear attacks you vs. a grizzly. I also keep the bear spray very close. This trip I invested a whole $3 to get a plastic horn that I wore around my neck the whole time. Silly or not, this actually gave me real comfort. That is, until we arrived at our first camp, Canyon City. There was one lone hiker there who warned us that a bear had been wandering around camp when he arrived. Needless to say, I was completely convinced that this was one of those deranged bears you always hear about and he was prowling the nearby forest waiting to attack me in my tent. The next couple hours were an exercise in holding back my panic-tears.

Near the camp is the ruins of the original Canyon City, which despite being 12km into the wilderness, was an actual city of about 1500 people, complete with electric lights, restaurants, hotels, and barber shops. The town sprung up when a tramway was built to carry freight up the Chilkoot trail but only lasted a year. It was absolutely strange being there, trying to imagine a town existing in the middle of the forest. Here’s a photo of the remains of a stove: 

Before visiting these ruins we had been told by the same lone hiker that he’d startled a bear about 20 minutes before at the ruins. So I was really not a happy camper that evening. I actually contemplated hiking back out, thinking the whole Chilkoot must be completely bear infested and there was no way I was getting home without a mauling. Luckily before I had a total break-down this guy turned up with his owners and another dog:

This is Wolf. Wolf arrived with a group of 4 women and another adorable dog. They say that dogs can attract bears but I feel way more calm when there are dogs around.  For one thing they will bark if there is danger and that warning I presume would give me enough time to grab the bear spray and hopefully avoid a tent mauling (which is really my biggest fear while camping: being attacked in my tent). We saw Wolfie at three of our 4 campsites and I enjoyed talking to his group. Poor Wolf though: he did not enjoy carrying his food on his back, nor did he enjoy the rickety suspension bridges we had to cross on Day 2. In fact his owner, Erin, had to coax him over on her hands and knees while he shuffled slowly across on his belly, a process that added several hours onto the day’s hike.

Day 2 I remember as being the easiest day; a mere 8km to Sheep Camp. This was the day where we got to traverse some slightly rickety suspension bridges (the ones that Wolfie did not enjoy). Here’s a photo of one of them: Sheep Camp was a pretty large campsite (3 cooking huts!) and it was bustling when we got there.  A group of 13-year-olds was doing volunteer work, helping the ranger with some trail maintenance. Again it was fun to imagine the small city that used to stand at this camp: 14 restaurants, 16 hotels, etc. serving between 6,000-8,000 people. That evening everyone in camp was brought together by the US Parks ranger and the Parks Canada ranger to discuss going over the pass the following day. Basically we were given a run-down on the weather (rain and 30km/h winds), conditions at the pass (75% snow covered with icy sections), and approximate time to get to the next camp (10-12 hours).  We were told to leave by 7am at the latest.  There would be a 2000-ft elevation gain and it was expected to be very intense. We’d also be crossing the border back into Canada. I was a bit anxious about this next portion of our hike and we went to bed quite early that night.

Day 3: we had left our packs in one of the cooking huts for the night, as the vestibule on our tent is on the small side and we wanted to ensure they stayed dry. This ended up posing problems for us as the group of 4 women took over this very hut that morning in order to organize themselves for the day’s hike. Dogs were not allowed in the huts so we were greeted by the anguished cries of Wolfie, who was tied up behind the hut. I tried to comfort him, but to no avail. Once the women started out we got our stuff together and were on the trail by 7:45. About 30 minutes into the hike we ran into one of the women from the group of four heading back to camp. She told us that she had started getting chest pains and was really stressed out about the day and decided she wasn’t in any shape to do the pass. We found out later that the ranger had offered her at that point to helicopter out but she had refused (only to accept the offer later in the day). We continued on our way, passing the group of now 3 women, with Wolf, and another group of 3 Quebeckers. It was pretty steep uphill but it was also really beautiful hiking, with lots of wildflowers. It only took us about 2 hours to reach the scales. Back in the day, the scales were the last point before the extremely steep climb over the pass and it was where packers re-weighed their loads in order to charge higher rates for this portion of the trail. As a result, many stampeders began to discard their goods and this area was strewn with pots, kettles, tin cans, and random tools all over the place:

We rested here briefly but decided we were feeling pretty energetic so decided to continue on right away. This was the tough part and the part I liked least about the entire trail: the intensely steep 45 degree hill, with 1000 ft of elevation gain between the scales and the pass (just less than 1 km). As someone who does not enjoy heights, this was very challenging for me. Almost the whole way was climbing with hands over boulders and I couldn’t help but think that one loose rock or one wrong move and I would be plummeting to my death.  At one point Philip, who was ahead of me, told me to stop so he could take a photo. I wanted to do nothing but get myself as quickly as possible to the top and I think the expression on my face captures nicely my discontent:

We were told to expect to take 2-3 hours to get over this section of the pass; thanks to my state of panic-terror we were over in under an hour. Because the stampeders had to bring so many goods over the pass they had to make between 30-40 trips to get it all up. This to me was unfathomable.

The sight of the warming hut at the top of the pass made us very happy, until we noticed that there were at least 15 packs on the porch….yep, the group of teenagers were inside. They were polite kids though and they shifted around, miraculously freeing up 2 chairs for us. The ranger came by to bring us some hot water in a thermos so we were able to make some miso soup. Very welcome! At this point we were deluded into thinking that we were just about to our next camp – Happy Camp – but oh, how wrong we were.  There was another 3 hours of hiking to go, most of it on icy snow. Emerging from the hut we were confronted with a long downhill, snow-ice slope that looked like it fell away into an abyss. After our eyes adjusted, we realized that the abyss was in fact a very beautiful lake! This is what Philip thought of that lake:

Can’t help putting in a photo of the icebergs that were in said lake. Really stunning:

So we finally reached Happy Camp (so-called because the stampeders were so relieved to get over the pass) and rewarded ourselves with a 3 hour nap. It was awesome. What was less awesome was the sight and smell that greeted us when we opened the door of the cooking hut to make our dinner.  The teenagers had arrived, along with a couple other groups, and everyone had hung their socks, tent bits, and other clothing on the lines along the ceiling. This delightful odour combined with the particular smell that can only come from ramen noodles was unbearable. It was the most humid, wretched air I think I’ve ever breathed. I managed to stand it long enough to grab our cooking supplies. We were in luck though: a piece of plywood perched on the railing of the porch served as a perfect cooking platform. The weather was good and we were happy to be outside! A photo of the hut as viewed from our tent. You can see Philip there cooking our dinner:

Day 4: we had originally planned on hiking to Bare Loon Lake camp, a roughly 14 km trip. However upon learning that the group of teenagers were planning to stay there we decided to hike all the way to Lake Bennett, the final camp of the trip. We had heard that it was a fairly easy, mostly downhill hike and we were feeling pretty good so thought we could handle the 20km. Well….it wasn’t exactly the stroll we were anticipating. The first part of the trip was gorgeous, walking along a gorge with a fierce river flowing through (class 6 rapids we reckoned). The sun came out and we were feeling great. And then came Lindeman camp. I had wanted to stop here to eat lunch because there is a very small museum on site with photos from the gold rush. However the mosquitos and black flies practically enveloped us and we only managed to inhale a power bar each, quickly browse the photos, and move on. Photo of the ‘museum’:

After hiking 9km we had both wanted a break, so we were pretty disappointed. Hiking out of Lindeman was the second least fun of the whole trip (after the pass of course). It was steep, hot, buggy, and in forest that I can only describe as ‘eerie’. I did not enjoy these few kms. Oh, and we came across a bear on this portion of the trail as well. He wandered nonchalantly in front of us, about 20-30m away. Philip grabbed my hand and we stood still, letting him pass. He looked back over his shoulder a few times and when he was a good distance away we continued on. I used my horn a lot after that.

Bare Loon Lake was the next stop for a break. It was stunning and I was a bit sad we weren’t going to stay there that night (plus I’d heard that the loons sing at night!). We rested a bit here and then continued on the last 6km to Bennett Lake. Unfortunately the last 2km to Bennett were on sand. As it turns out walking on sand is hard work and my feet had about had it by then. Both of us were miserable. The trail just went on and on and on.  Here is a photo of me giving the finger to the trail. Somehow this made me feel better:

Eventually though we did reach our final destination and we were not disappointed. This was one of the nicest campsites I have ever stayed at, with a picture-perfect mountain view. As a bonus, the lake was not completely frozen so it was bearable to give ourselves a badly-needed sponge bath (you may have noticed throughout these photos that I am wearing the same clothes everyday…). There were artifacts strewn everywhere here, mostly tin cans. Bennett used to be a city of 20,000 people but aside from the artifacts there was no evidence of the buildings that once stood here.

We got to camp on sand at Bennett, which was really welcome news for my ailing body. I was getting shooting pain up and down my hips at night along with throbbing shoulders and an aching back. Apparently I am getting old.  Here’s a photo of the view from our tent:

Day 5: Glorious. We woke up to a DRY! tent, warm air, and the knowledge that we didn’t have to hike that day! All we had to do was drag our sorry bodies to the train station, just a few hundred metres away, where the train would pick us up and take us to Carcross, the next closest town. We had a very leisurely morning, enjoying the sun, and nursing our sore bodies. All the hikers coming off the trail gathered around 11am at the train station for a hot meal, provided by the train company. As welcome as this might sound after days of camping food, I really didn’t enjoy a hot vegetable soup at 11am and I only ate about half my bowl. I was also rather full of oatmeal from our leisurely breakfast. So that’s the end of the story! A final photo of the train station:

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3 thoughts on “The Chilkoot Trail

  1. Linds says:

    What a great recap of your trip! The photo of you giving the finger to the trail is priceless.

  2. Erin says:

    Hi Freya, I just learned about your blog from local Chilkoot expert David Neufeld and love the photo of Wolfie! I can send you one of him above Bennett Lake if you email me at: erinlinn.mcmullan@gmail.com
    Erin, Wolf and Owl (who stayed home)

  3. […] boring but kinda irritating. Generally I prefer a bit of excitement in the form of hiking (see my Chilkoot Trail post) or the culture of a new city. However after spending a week on the Hawai’ian island […]

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