Des­ti­na­tions

Daunt­ing trek brings history to life.

Canada's History - - CONTENTS - by Kaitlin Vitt

A hike along the Chilkoot Trail fol­lows a route used by traders and gold rush prospec­tors.

The misty moun­tain air is de­ceiv­ing. Look­ing back, you can’t check if any­one is catch­ing up to you. Look­ing ahead, you can’t see how far you have left to climb. Plus, you can’t tell what time of day it is — it could be 1:00 a.m., it could be 1:00 p.m. — and there­fore you have no in­di­ca­tion of how long ago you started your day.

But none of that mat­ters. While on a ma­jor trek like the Chilkoot Trail, which runs fifty-three kilo­me­tres from Dyea, Alaska, to Ben­nett, B.C., you’re re­minded to stay in the mo­ment. The time of day, how long some­thing will take, and so­cial­iz­ing with others aren’t pri­or­i­ties. In­stead, you have only one task for the en­tire day: to hike. Or to climb while on the “golden stairs,” which lead you to the sum­mit of the trail. Less stairs and more like gi­ant loose boul­ders, the golden stairs — only two kilo­me­tres long, yet per­haps the most dif­fi­cult part of the hike — are both phys­i­cally chal­leng­ing and a men­tal test. As I crawled up the path, I would place my hand on a rock, about to pull my­self up, and it would come crash­ing

down, start­ing a wa­ter­fall ef­fect with the scree next to it and forc­ing me to choose a new route.

The Tlin­git (Indige­nous peo­ple of the Pa­cific North­west) used the Chilkoot Trail as one of five trade routes to the in­land, where they traded goods with in­te­rior First Na­tions and, later, with Euro­pean and Amer­i­can traders. In the late 1890s, Klondike prospec­tors used the Chilkoot to make their way to the heart of the gold rush in Daw­son City, Yukon, con­tract­ing many Tlin­git — who knew the area well — to move their gear.

As I hiked along with a four­teen-kilo­gram pack on my back, I thought about the gold rush prospec­tors who once car­ried be­tween twenty-two and thirty-six kilo­grams along this same route — mul­ti­ple times. Wait­ing for them at the sum­mit were the North West Mounted Po­lice, who would only al­low prospec­tors to cross into Canada if they had enough sup­plies to sur­vive a year. About 521 kilo­grams of food per per­son was re­quired. This meant prospec­tors made mul­ti­ple trips, hired lo­cal pack­ers, and used tramways to trans­port all nec­es­sary gear.

Prospec­tors, and their pack­ers, risked their lives for good for­tune, and many didn’t sur­vive. The sin­gle dead­li­est event of the Klondike Gold Rush hap­pened on the Chilkoot Trail. On April 3, 1898, an avalanche oc­curred, and about sixty-five peo­ple died. Though the Tlin­git knew the path and po­ten­tial risks well, as the route be­came more pop­u­lar with gold rush­ers, fewer Tlin­git worked along the trail, mean­ing lo­cal knowl­edge of the trail was lost.

Seek­ing a sense of per­sonal ac­com­plish­ment, rather than gold, I hiked the Chilkoot with five others from July 28 to July 31 of 2019. We started the hike in the ghost town of Dyea, Alaska, and ended in Ben­nett, B.C., where we caught a train to take us back to Sk­ag­way, thirty min­utes from Dyea.

From the trail­head, the path goes straight up, a good in­di­ca­tor of what is ahead — the hike is dif­fi­cult, and though some peo­ple will say, “It gets eas­ier,” it’s best not to get into that mind­set –– be­cause it doesn’t re­ally get eas­ier, es­pe­cially as your body be­comes more and more ex­hausted.

The first day we hiked 20.9 kilo­me­tres, stay­ing overnight at Sheep Camp. The sec­ond day we hiked 12.1 kilo­me­tres to Happy Camp. The third day we hiked 13.7 kilo­me­tres to Bare Loon Lake, and on the fourth day 6.4 kilo­me­tres to Ben­nett, the end of the trail. There are eight camp­site op­tions on the trail, plus one at the end in Ben­nett. At each camp­ground are des­ig­nated tent plat­forms, which are lo­cated away from the bear-proof bins where you must keep all food, cook­ing tools, and toi­letries.

The trail is a liv­ing mu­seum with gold rush ar­ti­facts lin­ing the way. You’ll see cen­tury-old shoes, ca­bles, and trans­port in­fra­struc­ture, like boat and tram ru­ins. Plus, the land­scape con­stantly changes — from rain­for­est, to moun­tain range, to desert — in­tro­duc­ing you to dif­fer­ent flora along the way.

It’s hard to imag­ine that points along this trail were once bustling spots. Dur­ing the gold rush prospec­tors set up camps that even­tu­ally grew into small set­tle­ments. For ex­am­ple, Sheep Camp, where, along with twenty to forty other hik­ers we set up our tents and gath­ered in the com­mu­nal cook­ing area to make small talk, was once filled with restau­rants, ho­tels, doc­tor’s of­fices, sa­loons, and dance halls.

It’s also hard to imag­ine com­plet­ing this hike with­out mod­ern con­ve­niences — hik­ing boots for wa­ter, snow, and sand — ibupro­fen for your sore mus­cles, and the op­tion to hike the trail for plea­sure, rather than for ne­ces­sity.

Hik­ers nav­i­gate the scree-filled ter­rain of the Chilkoot Trail.

Tent plat­forms are lo­cated away from the bear-proof bins where campers keep food.

Top: Prospec­tors climb the Chilkoot Pass in 1898. Above: Ar­ti­facts from the gold rush, in­clud­ing tools and shoes are strewn along the trail.

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