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The Chilkoot Trail: A walk through history

I live in a town full of history. Aptly dubbed “The Gateway to the Klondike,” Skagway was once a bustling community filled with nearly 30,000 stampeders readying themselves to unearth gold.

The gold lay in Dawson City, hundreds of miles away, but Skagway was a place of outfitters, restaurants, bars and brothels.

It was here that stampeders would embark on their journey to riches by hiking on either The White Pass or Chilkoot Trail.

The White Pass trail was advertised as easy. They said it could be traversed by horse or wagon and would be a simple passage to the gold fields.

In fact, the trail was a swamp-like nightmare, and so narrow, that men and women had to hike in a single-file line.
Stampeders would have to make between 40 and 60 trips, carrying 60 to 70 pound loads each time.

Most would walk almost 2,000 miles on a trail that was only 45 miles long.

Miners tired of the long walk, and turned their efforts toward a trading route in the neighboring town of Dyea, nine miles away.

The Chilkoot Trail, though still extremely treacherous, was only 33 miles long and was wider than The White Pass.

In the miner’s opinions, the Chilkoot was easier.

Eventually, an avalanche would claim over 60 lives, making people fear the Chilkoot.

Around this time, The White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad would replace The White Pass trail, enabling miners to get to the gold without getting their boots dirty.

Dyea became a ghost town, and The Chilkoot Trail became a memory.

Today, the WP&YR railroad is a popular tourist destination, carrying people through the Alaskan wilderness and highlighting waterfalls, graves and even sections of the old White Pass trail.

But for those wanting to get closer to history, there is the Chilkoot, still beckoning those who seek adventure.

Though there is no gold waiting at the end of the trail, backpackers from around the world travel each year to hike the Chilkoot.

The trail is called the longest museum in the world, its 33 miles stretching over a vast array of wilderness and containing artifacts such as shoes, boats, rope, pots and more.

The most difficult, and perhaps most dangerous, part of the trail is the summit- the Chilkoot pass.

When the miners hiked the pass in the winter, it was covered in snow and ice. They carved steps out of the ice and walked over the pass in a single file line, while holding on to a rope.

The stampeders hiked so closely together, the walk was called “The Chilkoot Lockstep.”

When backpackers hike the pass today, it is a mountain of loose boulders, threatening to break loose with every step.

It is not for those with a fear of heights.

I should take my own advice.

I first hiked the trail with my friend Katie last summer. We were graced with beautiful blue skies every day, which I am told is a rarity.

We summited the pass successfully, though I held my breath during those terrifying heights, and had an excellent trip.

With that in mind, I decided it would be something exciting for the boyfriend and I to try together.

Well, this was not the year to hike the Chilkoot.

Skagway had an unusually wet summer, with rain coating the valley almost daily.

So when Sam and I set out on the trail, our packs loaded with treats and rain gear, we knew we might get a bit damp, but we didn’t ever think that we would have to turn around.

Two guesses what happened.

It didn’t rain the first day.

We considered ourselves pretty lucky.

Until we reached the water.

In front of us lay an endless pool of calf-deep water. We figured we would take off our boots to keep them dry.

But when we stepped into the water, we realized that the glacially-fed pool was a bit colder than we had anticipated.

It had rained so much over the past weeks, that waterfalls were overflowing and flooding the trail.

We cursed like sailors as the water turned our feet bright red from the cold. We probably walked through the water for five minutes, but it felt like five hours.

Though the deep, never-ending puddle eventually did end, the wetness did not.

We were constantly walking through puddles and deep mud. By the end of the day, our boots were soaked.

We reached Canyon City, a stop along the trail, where we were greeted by another backpacker who was drying himself out in a small cabin.

He said that rivers near the pass were flooded from all of the rain, and a park ranger had warned him to not cross.

He said if it didn’t rain that night, we might have a chance of getting over the pass.

We decided to walk on and make it to Sheep Camp, the last stop before the summit, and set ourselves up in a food shelter.

To those of you who have ever backpacked in bear country, you know that camping in a food shelter is a big no-no.

But when you are soaked, and it’s raining outside, setting up a tent is the last thing you want to do.

So we camped out and prayed for the rain to stop.

But it didn’t.

So instead of completing the trail, we slept in, packed up our things and headed back.

We stopped at Canyon City and camped out at the little cabin at the site. We dried out our clothes, made something of a fire out of wet wood, and cuddled in for the night.

No, the photo below is not the cabin we stayed in. It’s just some historic building along the trail.

While I didn’t revel in the idea of turning around, I had to tell myself that safety comes first, a fact that Sam reminded me of with each step.

And although the trip didn’t turn out like I had expected, we got a taste of what the stampeders encountered on a daily basis, and we enjoyed a cozy cabin in the woods.

I summited the pass once before, and perhaps next year, if blue skies permit, I will summit it once again.

Until the Chilkoot and I meet again, here are some photos from my hike last summer.

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