Friday, February 21, 2014


We landed in wind-swept Skagway.
     We joined the weltering mass,
Clamoring over their outfits,
     waiting to climb the pass.
We tightened our girths and our pack-straps;
     we linked on the Human Chain,
Struggling up to the summit,
     where every step was a pain.
                              ~The Trail of 'Ninety-Eight ,
                              by Robert Service, "The Poet of the Yukon"
Up the Chilkoot Pass, Winter, 1898

I am oddly proud of the fact that I have hiked the Chilkoot Trail—and traversed the Alaska-to-Canada Chilkoot Pass—four times. I say “oddly” because “proud” really isn’t the right word. I mean it in the modestly boastful sense that “Not many people can say this!”

Looking back, my memory produces dozens of Chilkoot vignettes. (I just might share many of them with you, dear reader.) Here’s one:

The last time I made this trip, our daughter Beret (then a fifteen-year-old member of the youth group I was guiding) and my wife Caryl came along. We boarded the Alaska Marine Highway ferry in Prince Rupert, B.C., for the two day voyage to Skagway, now a tourist town but a wonderful relic of the 1898 gold rush, and—then and now—the jumping off point for the Chilkoot Trail.

The ferry journey—through the normally spectacular glacier-studded Inside Passage, with stops at Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, and Juneau—was two days of fog and rain. We disembarked at Skagway, in the rain, and hitched a ride to Dyea (“rural Skagway”), the first of the many multi-thousand-population Gold Rush town sites—now barely discernible as clearings in the forest—that we would pass through or camp in. In Dyea we set up our tents in the rain, we slept, fitfully, through the night in the rain, we packed up our tents the next morning—in the rain—and had a hurried, damp breakfast. Then we set off on the Trail, and hiked all day in the rain. We made camp the second night in the rain, slept all night through the rain, and packed up our tents the next morning—in the rain. (By this time Caryl had developed a migraine, a malady that had plagued her from six weeks into our marriage [hmmm…] until the development of the miraculous Imatrix.)

Now the trail, already rugged, became… really rugged, and an uphill trudge (in the rain). We ascended quite steeply, and suddenly, on the third day out, the rain turned to white-out snow. We were at the base of the famous Chilkoot Pass. This is the one illustrated by the iconic black-and-white photo of the long line of single-file gold-rushers trudging steeply upward through the snow.  We were there in August, so, instead of snow-pack, we looked up—through a white haze—
Chilkoot Pass, Summer, today
at a seemingly endless ascent of Volkswagen-sized 
boulders.  (I had discovered in my earlier adventures that what appeared to be the summit of the Pass was a “false summit,” and the trail continued up toward another false summit until reaching the top.)

At this point Caryl began to tremble with what might have been the beginnings of hypothermia. (As will be seen, this is no indictment of Caryl’s abilities as a hiker—but she was wet through. Every time I’ve done this hike, we've had to stop at about this point to warm someone up.) We halted, ignited our Primus stove, and made a pot of hot Tang. Caryl (and
One of many glacial streams on the trail
others) drank it gratefully, and it seemed to do the trick. We put our backpacks back on and started up the pass, at which point Caryl slipped on a wet rock and fell into a glacial creek.

The salvific North Face Polar Fleece pants

My memory is fuzzy here (I recall that Beret was near tears with concern for her mother), but the situation was well-in-hand enough that I sent the rest of the party (with leaders) on ahead and said that Caryl and I would bring up the rear. We probably did this so that Caryl could get out of her wet clothes. In my backpack I had a pair of North Face Polar Fleece pants (then a fairly recent invention). She put these on, along with a dry sweatshirt under her mostly-dry parka, and we started up again. (I still have these pants; they are still the height of comfort and we think of them as a holy object.)

We did indeed bring up the rear. The crisis had passed, but those boulders—and that false summit—presented obstacle after obstacle, and we were dragging. (I think the indefatigable Chad Winsell dropped back to lend us moral and physical support.) Our group up ahead was almost out of foggy sight when we heard a bright voice behind us: “The sun’s a-coming!” I recall that I turned slowly around and, slack-jawed, actually uttered a weak, “Whaaa…?”  We heard again the announcement, “The sun’s a coming,” as we saw, emerging into view, a lone hiker, a man of about fifty-five, stepping along quite jauntily and carrying (compared to our 25-50 pound backpacks) a small teardrop-shaped rucksack. More to the point, we looked beyond him, back down into the valley we had been climbing out of for the last two days, to see that… the sun was coming! My descriptive abilities fail me here, but the sunlight was almost racing up the valley—a wide and deep expanse bounded by rocks and glaciers 
The valley behind us. "The sun's a-coming!"
—racing up and chasing the snowy haze and gloomy fog out of its way. We watched its approach until it overtook us and bathed us in light.

Chad matched our new companion hearty step-for hearty step, conversing as if they were strolling along a city sidewalk. And Caryl and I, too, began to walk with refreshed spirits, up and up, until we were met with another wonder. At what appeared to be (and, as it turned out, actually was) the summit of the pass we saw a golden-haired woman—an angel—beckoning to us. We followed her to a simple but well-built hut. Upon entering, we found the rest of our party, wet socks hanging from the rafters, a wood stove with the largest teapot I’ve ever seen—filled with hot
The Canadian Ranger's hut appearing in
the fog. (You have to imagine the angel
in a ranger's uniform beckoning to us.)

lemonade—bubbling upon it, and steam, and laughter, and relief. Our angel was a Canadian Ranger, the hut was a travelers’ wayside that had only recently been constructed (it wasn’t there for my first three hikes). In the raucous conversation we learned that our other new friend was John, an experienced hiker and, in fact, veteran Himalayan climber. He hiked with us for the next day or so; he regaled us with tales of Everest, and we introduced him to hot Tang, which he’d never experienced.

In addition to the steaming lemonade, the Ranger handed out plastic gaiters to put inside our boots against the watery hike ahead. Now over the summit and above the tree-line, the trail was indeed a watery maze, but it was sunny, and (mostly) downhill. We still had three days to Lake Bennet and the end of the trail, but, emerging from the respite of that friendly hut, Caryl was a new woman. I couldn’t keep up with her.
Caryl's boots, Raichle "Bambinos,"
at the end of  the trail.


Anonymous said...

It makes me long to hit the Chilkoot trail with you again. I think I was on trip #1. Early in the hike we had the hand pulled tram across the river -- two or three at a time for a group of almost 30. It was a great trip with lots of stories of flame (Gil and the fuel bottle in Skagway) and cold (tent in the puddle at the summit). Brings back memories of the trail, movies in the church at Skagway, and camping in the church at Lake Bennet.

It was a memorable trip. Was that 1971?

Nephew Bob

Anonymous said...

You two are INTREPID. I can't imagine doing this, especially at our age. Congratulations. I've only done a number of day hikes on the AT here in the Mt. Rogers area of SW Virginia. Real tame stuff. You have my admiration. Bill G