Hiking the Chilkoot Trail
June 21 - 23, 1987
In the winter of 1899, thousands of men and a few women packed 1000 pounds of gear each over the Chilkoot Pass in a mad rush to the Yukon gold fields. The stories, legends and adventures of the times fill books, and the gold rush town of Skagway draws cruise ships filled with tourists to wander the streets of this historic town, where Soapy Smith's hangout still stands. But not many hikers braved the steep 39-mile trail in the late 1980s.
We walked in peace, stopping at infrequent forest service cabins to read copies of journals and letters written by the original 99ers in the last great gold rush of its kind the world will ever know.
The first day, we walked through tall trees and lush vegetation up a river valley. Above timberline, the trail steepens, and the last rise to the pass we negotiated with hands and feet. The 99ers carved steps into the ice on this portion, and had to wait their turn to join the procession of human ants struggling to the summit.
We were certainly glad to reach the top, and we didn't have to contend with winter weather and 1000 pounds of gear like the prospectors did. On the Canadian side, an unbroken snowfield stretched down to the headwaters of the Yukon River in the valley below. We slipped and slid down it, giggling.
We'd seen only one couple from Montreal and an American park ranger on the trail, so we were a bit surprised to hear a dog barking and see three figures emerge from a tiny hut buried in snow. They were Canadian park wardens and they expected us. The American ranger had radioed that we were coming. They ushered us into a warming hut and brought out a thermos of hot lemonade. Never was a gesture of hospitality so unexpected, or so welcome.
We made good time going downhill in the snow, and got to Lindeman Lake by bedtime. Not by dark—it never really gets dark in June! The 99ers camped by this lake and built rafts, setting out by the thousands in a race across the water as soon as the ice broke up in the spring.
The wind was cold and sharp, laced with driving rain. We were glad to take shelter in a tiny log cabin and build a cozy wood fire. Soon our clothes were hung to dry and tea was brewing.
The cabins are not for sleeping, but as there were no other hikers who needed shelter and the weather was bitter, we spread our sleeping bags on the floor. As I was dropping off to sleep, I saw a big mouse dart in through a crack beneath the ill-fitted door.
"Dennis," I said. "There's a mouse. I'm not sure it's a good idea to sleep on the floor here."
"Don't worry. He's probably afraid of us. I don't think we'll be bothered," he said. With misgivings, I drifted off to sleep.
About an hour later, I heard a shout! Dennis had awakened to a movement on his hand and opened his eyes to see the furry form of Mr. Mouse clambering up his arm.
We got up, pushed together four picnic benches and moved our sleeping gear up off the floor. I slept well. But Dennis kept listening to the mouse, which seemed to be fascinated by a candy wrapper on the floor just below us. Dennis would hear a rustle and slowly open one eye. The mouse would freeze, then scurry full-speed into the shadows. All night long he kept coming back. We could hardly protest. After all, it was his house. We were the uninvited visitors.
The last day was a long walk out the railroad tracks, and a hitchhike back to Skagway. Our year of adventure was launched!
Go on to Glacier Bay
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