Saturday, July 12, 2008

Chilkoot Trail

Here we all are, ready to begin our first leg (4.9 miles to Finnegan Camp) at 3:30 p.m. We were nervous and excited and very ready to finally begin the journey we'd planned since February. Actually, we're missing Angela & Klaus in this picture. They were the ones who planned this whole thing, then invited the rest of us. Their car broke down in Tok, Alaska, and it took 2 days to get a part there and fix it so they started late and did not catch us until Day 4 at Lindeman City. We are a mixed group: from Denver who is 8, to John who is 71. Aurora ended up being the speediest hiker, out front most of the time though trading the lead with Denver ocassionally.

Our first day hiking started with some rough, rocky climbs, but then flattened out. Here was a boardwalk where the trail goes over an area flooded by beaver dams. There was dam after dam, and this was an interesting area to walk through. The challenge was we met another party coming from the opposite direction, so we had to scootch around each other with our packs on.

The bear avoidance tactics were extensive: in 3 of the 5 campsites we stayed at we hung our food, fuel and smellies. In Sheep Camp we used bear boxes (as seen to the right of the cooking hut in the next picture), and at Happy Camp there was a building to put foodstuffs in.
In every site there was a cooking area. No food was to go near the tents. Earlier this year a bear entered a tent in Sheep Camp where they cooked in their tent, despite all warnings not to do so!
We did not see much bear scat on the trail, though in one area many rocks were overturned and the moss ground up, which may or may not have been bear.

Every camp on the US side (there were 3) had a cabin like this to warm up in. We didn't need them on the US side since the weather was great, but we sure would have appreciated them on the Canadian side. Happy Camp (first camp over the pass) had a cabin, but no stove, a couple others had no cabin, but luckily Lindeman City had a cabin with a stove so we stoked it up and got all of our clothes, tents, pads and sleeping bags dried off from the heavy rain the night before.

This was taken on Day 2 of our hike, from Finnegan to Sheep Camps. It was by far our most difficult day hiking. While the overall elevation change for the day was less than 1000 feet, we probably went much more than that as we went up and down, up and down, up and down hill after hill through the rain forest pictured here. It was incredibly beautiful, with trees and rocks and everything covered with thick moss, but the trail was rocky and rough, and while it was only 8.1 miles, it took us 8 hours to hike it. In retrospect, we should have stopped to eat lunch before 3:00 in the afternoon, and perhaps take more breaks as well.

When I first saw the pass, I thought to myself, "We're going up THAT????!!!!" In the picture here, the Chilkoot Pass is the snow going up on the left, also known as the Golden Stairs because in Gold Rush days, steps were cut out of the ice and snow for the men to climb with their required ton of goods that they had to have to pass into Canada (at the top of the pass). The pass to the right is Petterson's Pass, and it is longer and less steep than the Chilkoot. This is the pass that 70 people were killed in an avalanche April 4, 1898.
Shortly after we entered this bowl below the pass, a grizzly bear walked across the path in front of us. We were wondering what we were going to do, thinking he was trapped in the bowl and that would not be a good thing for us, who were at the entrance of it! However, he headed up a chute to the left of the Golden Stairs, not looking at us once. He seemed to be ambling so slowly, yet he cruised over the snow and up the rough rocks like they were nothing, and within 10 minutes was out of sight. This was once of the more exciting moments on this hike for the kids. It was very cool.

Here you see the bowl that we just came from and we're leaving snow and now have a climbing job ahead of us over the jumble of rocks. I was much more comfortable climbing these rocks than on the snow. In one spot on the snow Denver slipped and fell, and there was a steep snow slope that lead to a dropoff and cliff. It was the only area I roped him to me, though if the weather had been worse, I probably would have roped up in other areas as well, since the risk was definately there. As we told the kids later, we would never let them play in an area like where we hiked.
The trail was well marked with orange poles on the US side, and orange flags on the Canadian side. As they say, it is more a route than a trail. In some areas lower down we were actually hiking on snow over rivers. I can't imagine all this snow melting every year, but apparently it does.

Here we are further up the Golden Stairs (the gold seekers did this in winter since transportation over snow is much easier than over rocks). When we look at this picture we just shake our heads and say, "We did that??!!" It didn't seem that bad when we were on it, and in fact I had more fun climbing those rocks than any other part of the whole 33 miles.
In gold rush days they had a cable on a pulley system that horses hauled goods up the mountain. We saw a picture of the horses going up the pass. They were going up so steeply it looked like they must surely fall over backwards!

Once we climbed the rocks, we still had a ways to go over snow to get to the pass. Once again, we didn't quite realize what we were getting into before we did this. I don't think of myself as doing this type of backpacking, especially not with an 8 and 10 year old! But when you are there, you just have to keep going. We just kept putting one foot in front of the next till we got to Happy Camp, 8 miles from Sheep Camp, 9 hours later. It was a nearly 2700 foot climb from Sheep Camp to the top of the pass. We started at 6 am (they recommend an early start to avoid soft or melting snow) and reached the top of the pass at 10:30.

This picture reminds me of The VonTrapp Family in The Sound of Music--up on the top of the mountain with packs on their backs. See the valley down there? That's where we came from just that morning.
When we reached the Canadian border the park ranger there said we had the first nice weather of the entire season. Two days later when the late members of our party crossed the pass, it was raining and cloudy, and they were shivering with cold nearly the entire day.
Only 50 people a day are allowed over the pass. The day we crossed less than 15 people went over. Two days later, in the rain, nearly the maximum crossed over. Our experience was much better because we had most camps all to ourselves, so we didn't have to share the warming huts, cooking huts, bear poles, etc.

Mid-June to mid-July are considered "early season" on the Chilkoot, and mid-July and August are peak season.
One of the biggest disappointments for me on this hike is that we did not see more relics along the trail. We'd heard over and over that there were lots of cast-offs from gold rushers, who as they climbed the pass would cast off things to lighten their load. I suspect most items were under the snow. There were more relics in Lindeman City than in the pass.
We met a couple archeologists on the trail our second day out who were doing some searching and researching. Metal detectors are not allowed on the trail, but for their job, they were allowed to have one.
Pass rules say not to touch any items on the trail, or if you do touch, to put it back exactly as you found it. In Bennett, the end of the trail where we got on the train back to Skagway, the shore of Lake Bennett was littered with broken glass. I thought it ironic that what we would normally call "litter" is considered "historic relic" in this situation. So no one picks up all that glass because it is "historic".

Over the pass! Now we're heading down to Happy Camp. They told us it was 80% snow over the pass, and I couldn't quite picture it. They were not kidding. The snow was deep, and there were places where if you slipped, it would be down a slope into a snow crevass, lake or cliff. At this level, the lakes were just beginning to thaw.
The snow was actually much easier to hike on than the alternative: rough rocks. It was also more direct. There was no need to follow the contours of the land. It was a gorgeous day. We all got a little sunburned, and I was thrilled to wear shorts for the first time this year to counter my "Alaskan white" legs.
I sprained my ankle near the end of the day hiking over the pass, and my uncle fell through the snow and twisted his knee, so we were in need of rest when we got to Happy Camp. There was plenty of snow around to pop into a ziplock bag (I tried putting my ankle in a creek, but it started hurting within seconds from the cold!), and I iced my ankle for at least 3 hours that evening.
The sad note is that my camera stopped working along the hike this day, so this is the end of my pictures from this trip. The next day was rainy and foggy, so there wouldn't have been any pictures, though I wanted to take one to show how nervewracking it can be to cross steep snowfields in the fog and not be able to see how far you would slide if you fell, or what you might hit at the bottom. That was the most stressful morning of hiking for me, between the rain (slick rocks with a sprained ankle) and fog (no visibility; took some searching to find the trail at times). Luckily the fog lifted and the rain let up to sprinkles and by time we reached Lindeman City it was sunshiny.
The final day hiking we were exhausted by the heat. We were lower, out of the snow, hiking through terrain that reminded me of Arizona: pines, rocks, and sand. At Bare Loon Lake Camp we pumped more water, and I soaked my feet as the kids waded in the lake.
No trains run from Bennett to Skagway on Wednesday, so we had to spend a night at the campground in Bennett. It was anticlimatic, and the end did not seem real. We were nearly out of food, nearly out of fuel, completely out of snack foods, and while we were ready to be done packing, we weren't quite ready to be back in civilization. This picture is of a sunrise over Lake Bennett at about 3-4 a.m. (from my uncle's camera.)
By the next day the people who had crossed the pass behind us were pouring in, and the train station was overflowing with backpacks and tired people. Mingled amongst the backpackers were the genteel folks who were taking a scenic train tour up to Whitehorse. It was an interesting mix. The backpacks get loaded up in an open car, and as you can see in the picture, there were a lot of packs! The train ride back to Skagway went through 2 tunnels and wound around the mountains through the White Pass down to town. There were some dramatic dropoffs, stunning waterfalls and tidbits of history scattered along the tracks.
I'm looking forward to doing the Chilkoot again, and Denver says he is too. Douglas and Aurora are still out on that count, but I'll bet they could be convinced!!


Christy said...

Wow. It sounds like you really enjoyed the hike. From your descriptions I would have loved to have seen those photos that you weren't able to take. I do have to say the trip sounds a bit daunting to me though. Glad to hear you enjoyed it sprained ankle and all. I sympathize with you on that. I've done that a few times in my life. That and my knee.

Claudio said...

Thanks for your kind comment! Was nice to hear from you again ;) We finished our roundtrip through Yukon and Alaska recently and are now staying at Skagway. Yesterday we hiked to two beautiful lakes and camped up there, was great!
Send our regards to your family!
Annina & Claudio

burrmsp said...

Wonderful pictures and an excellent commentary of the hike. Your group encountered considerable snow pack compared to my wife and I when we hiked it in 1978 and 2003. The hike is very inspirational, especially the trek going up the "Golden Staircase" and reaching the summit. The view towards Skagway is breathtaking. Thanks for the Blog.

Michelle Waclawski said...

You are welcome! I'm glad you enjoyed. I want to do this hike again just to see it in a slightly different season--less snow perhaps??!! (;

Unknown said...

Dear Michelle,
We would like to use one of the pictures from you Chilkoot trail hike in our forthcoming educational publication. I would be very grateful if you could grant us permission to use this picture. Please get in touch with us so we can let you know which picture we'd like to use and further details of our publication.
Many thanks.
Yours sincerely,
Jenny Dames
ELT Editor
Cornelsen Verlag
Berlin, Germany

Scott O said...

Very nice description and pictures. I did this hike in the '70s and the memories just flooded back. It was really an epic hike, but I don't know if I would do it again! We had very little snow (you are right, the hike is worse without snow)and great weather all the way. You will never forget this experience...

Michelle Waclawski said...

My kids both consider this the event they are most proud of in their lives. The pictures and blog will remind them of it if they ever forget!
I am itching to do it again, but it will probably be awhile since there are so many incredible hikes to try in Alaska!