For those of us in the West, the gold rush is a big part of our history. The final big rush of western migration happened in the Yukon territory via Skagway, Alaska.
While the Chilkoot trail has a long history as a trade route for the Tlingit People, when gold was discovered in 1896, it became a highway for the stampeders. As the fastest route into the Yukon and the Klondike gold fields, this narrow trail was a mass of people from beginning to end. With many escaping an economic depression on the east coast, men (and some women) bet everything they had on the chance to discover riches. Pierre Burton wrote in his book Klondike: “At no other place in recorded history did so many people voluntarily subject themselves to so much agony and misery and death and glory than those thirty thousand who crossed the Chilkoot Pass on their way to the Klondike gold fields during that mad winter of 1897-98.”
While only 4,000 people actually found gold, many described the experience as "once in a lifetime" and an experience they "wouldn't have changed for all the gold in the world." By 1899, with train tracks built over the adjacent White Pass and most of the claims in the Yukon taken, the Chilkoot trail was deserted and all of the activity- towns, stores, hotels left abandoned to the forest and the elements.
Today, this 33 mile stretch of trail is a National Historical Park known as the "longest museum in the world" with both the US and Canada maintaining it. While 30,000 crossed the trail in hopes of gold many more built business to service the "stampeders". Towns such as Canyon City and Lindeman City sprang up full of restaurants, bars and hotels. The remnants of these townships can still be seen strewn about the forest trail. We came across a large iron stove here and a steam engine there and were reminded of human ingenuity, tenacity and grit. Although the gold rush only lasted a couple of years, it was astounding what people could build in such a short time.
The trail, while not as treacherous as it was for the early people who passed it, (thanks to the maintenance of the park services) was still a physical and exciting challenge. With all of the history along the way, it was unlike any backpacking trip we had done before.
The first two days we walked through lush rainforests. A light drizzle on our faces, cool weather and relatively flat terrain, this was the perfect way to get into the groove of walking many miles with a heavy pack. Encouraged by the rangers at our orientation meeting, we sang songs and kept up the conversation to scare away the bears. I'll be honest this was my biggest fear of the trip. However, thanks to all of our loud chatter, we didn't actually see any bears, although there were plenty of other hikers we passed who did!
Day three was the most exciting. A park ranger gave a talk the night before, letting us know exactly what to expect and how to overcome any possible challenges. He encouraged us to leave early in the morning as the 8 miles takes an average of 8-12 hours to complete. The boys woke up excited and we were all charged with a shot of adrenaline.
We hiked out of the Rainforest and into the upper terrains of the pass.
The pass itself was made famous by the iconic photos of the Golden Staircase. By summer, there are no carved ice steps just a jumble of rocks going straight up a thousand feet. With only red poles as markers there is no trail per se, only a straight scramble to the top.
I loved this part, as you can see by the look on my face!
The way down the backside of the pass however was not my favorite, I'm not comfortable on snow at all. The boys on the other hand, loved the snow fields and many river crossings. There were no complaints from them, around every bend were new terrain and new obstacles to tackle.
Remnants of an old saw mill used to make boats the stampeders used to carry their ton of goods across the lakes.
Finally at Sheep Camp we had sunshine and a beautiful alpine lake to spend the evening by. We dried off under the Canadian sun and were quite in awe of all that we had accomplished that day.
The next two days were hiking through alpine meadows past gorgeous turquoise lakes. Stunning beauty at every turn, the challenge here was just the accumulated miles and the fatigue settling into everyones legs. But honestly, for this view it was worth every ounce of sweat.
Middle of day five, we made it to Bennet Lake to take a narrow gauge train over the White Pass and back to Skagway our starting point. We were tired, a little hungry, but very happy to have accomplished this trek as a family.
While we did not find gold, what we found was just as good- a new found confidence, a better understanding of our history and a shared experience that we will never forget.