Story by Katie Marti
CHILKOOT TRAIL, BRITISH COLUMBIA — I’m breathless as I stand outside a Parks Canada ranger station in the midday sun — partly because the scene that is before me is so stunning I can barely stand it, and partly because we’ve just climbed 1,000 feet straight up the notorious Golden Stairs to the summit of the Chilkoot Pass in Klondike Gold Rush National Park. With one foot still in Alaska and the other crossing the border into British Columbia, I’m sure I’ve never felt true, patriot love quite like this.
Hiking the Chilkoot Trail is more than a 53-kilometre walk in the woods. It’s a trek so steeped in historical reference and artifacts that it’s been recognized as a National Historic Site in Canada and a National Historic Landmark in the United States. The bulk of the actual stampede took place between 1897-98, after an American named George Carmack and his brother-in-law Skookum Jim struck gold in Bonanza Creek, just south of Dawson City, Yukon.
Within months, the Chilkoot Pass became a conga line of fortune seekers heading north into Canada by the tens of thousands. In response, border patrol services demanded that those who wished to enter the country had enough provisions to last a year — a load that was expected to weigh no less than one ton. Small towns and outposts sprung up along the trail to support the heavy traffic, evidence of which can be seen in the remains of a tramway built to facilitate creek and river crossings and a massive old boiler rusting into the foliage in what was once and briefly known as Canyon City. Old shoes and antique tools litter the route and strategically placed signposts have photographs and explanations on display to add context to the ruins and highlight points of interest. It’s basically like taking a really long, difficult stroll through a giant, beautiful open-air museum.
The trail begins in Skagway, Alaska, 175 km south of our original starting point in Whitehorse, capital city to Canada’s Yukon Territory. The first order of business once we’d crossed the border had been to check in at the National Parks office downtown: This is the one and only place to acquire permits for the designated campsites and it’s a great source of information in terms of weather reports, route conditions, and recent bear activity. (This last point was of particular interest to us, I will admit.) The ranger who met with us had been helpful and hilarious — a winning combination — and we left the office 30 minutes later, stoked and ready for a northern adventure.
Now, not to toot my own horn, but I fancy myself a bit of an outdoorswoman and am certainly no stranger to the feeling of extreme humility that can sneak up on a person in the wild. But I’ll be honest — this one caught me off guard. I had heard stories of the Chilkoot Trail, many of which led me to believe we’d be hiking amid throngs of tourists, marching along well-trodden trails on an excursion that might risk feeling staged or contrived. Wrong. While the route is well indicated, it’s far more remote and subtle than I had anticipated and, despite the fact that we were sharing the park with several dozen other backpackers, we only ran into a few on the trail. In fact, we actually came to really enjoy meeting up with fellow hikers during the evening at the various campsites. My 8-year-old golden retriever, Beans, had clearly become the star of the show as fellow hikers would hear her approaching camp with her little bear bell ringing around her neck and flock to her with treats and cameras at the ready.
Find Travel Gold in the Yukon
Naturally, the high point for many is the Chilkoot Pass itself. Right smack in the middle of the trail is a summit that sees climbers gain more than 800 metres of elevation in a single day’s hike. The climb takes anywhere from 6 to 12 hours and is made even more impressive when one considers the fact that stampeders would have done the trek in the middle of winter with all their worldly belongings strapped to their backs. Many of them took up to 40 trips over the pass in order to get their supplies from one side to the other if they couldn’t afford to hire porters or pay for the tram. It made our backpacks seem insignificant, although our aching muscles and sweaty brows begged to differ. Beans, ever the champion, had scrambled her way up the rocky climb with minimal assistance, save for one gap where I’d laid down my pack like a bridge and she happily bounded across, tail wagging all the way.
But as stunning and enjoyable as the hike had been the last couple of days, to stand atop the Chilkoot Pass and gaze upon Canada’s frozen landscape is something I know I will never forget. As I look out on the scene, all of it is pristine — even the outhouse perched above Crater Lake. While Beans rolls around in the soft snow, we all share a round of hugs and high fives, and begin to unpack what is sure to be one of the hardest-earned and most celebratory picnic lunches of our lives.
Of course, we know we’re only halfway there: We’ve still got a couple days of hiking to reach the finish line in Bennett, BC, where we’ll cap off our trip with homemade beef stew at the station before catching a train back down to Skagway along the White Pass and Yukon Route. It’s certainly bound to be a close second on the highlight reel, and we’ve heard the next night’s camp at Lindeman’s is really something to look forward to as well. But for now, we’re just about as thrilled in this particular moment as old George Carmack and Skookum Jim must have been standing in Bonanza Creek, staring in awe at their pans full of gold.
What can I say? It’s a rush.
More About the Chilkoot Trail
Hiking fees: Trail permits cost $50 for adults or $25 for youths (camping included), and can be purchased at the Parks Canada office in Whitehorse, Yukon, or the Trail Centre in Skagway, Alaska.
Websites: Parks Canada or National Park Service
White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad: One-way trips back to Skagway leave the trailhead at Bennett, BC, Tuesdays and Fridays only. The trip takes about two hours and costs $90 per person, with an option to pre-purchase a hot lunch prior to departure for an extra $15 (highly recommended).
Contact: website: wpyr.com; phone: 1-800-343-7373 (toll free); email: firstname.lastname@example.org