Painfully, slowly, we clawed our way up the 40-degree, boulder-strewn slope leading to 3,680-foot Chilkoot Pass. Straining under heavy packs, none of us were really sure we could make it. I looked behind me at the youngest Scout in our group—12-year-old Bob Keefe—and his beaming smile gave me the answer. He was not giving up.
But we could feel something else pushing us up the mountain. One hundred years earlier thousands of pioneers followed this trail in search of a dream in the Klondike gold fields. Leaning into the mountain, fighting to catch our breath, we could almost hear them saying: “Come on…you can make it!”
Our 13-member group, comprised of four adults (one of whom was photographer Mark Kelley) and nine scouts of Eagle River’s Troop 230, began its five-day journey July 27, 1998 from Dyea, near Skagway. It was the centennial of the famed Klondike Gold Rush. The Troop had planned the trip for about a year, acquiring the necessary permits, making travel arrangements, organizing equipment, food menus and conducting special conditioning hikes.
“There are no bailout points on the 33-mile route,” said the then Troop 230 Scoutmaster John Dieffenderfer. “We had to be absolutely sure every member of the group was ready for a strenuous hike over some of Alaska and Canada’s most difficult terrain. We had to be self sufficient.”
The nine scouts in the group, ages 12-17, as well as the adults, wore packs averaging 35-40 lbs., and camped each night in tents they carried on their backs. Food, mostly dehydrated, was prepared over portable, cook stoves. A rule of the trail: those complaining about the food got to cook it.
Following the footsteps of pioneers:
The journey took the group through varying terrain; from rain forests, with towering Douglas Firs and Sitka Spruce, to alpine meadows and finally, sub-alpine steppe, with pine trees and scrub bushes. Mid-summer temperatures in the 60s and 70s were quite pleasant.
Park Rangers instructed us on how to handle bear encounters, but the only evidence was some sign on the trail. At night we placed our food in bags and hoisted them high into the air over specially-built poles. While wildlife wasn’t abundant along the heavily travelled trail, bald eagles were sighted, and goats were seen on the mountainsides.
Mile after mile the trail was strewn with rusted remains of the gold rush. Old stoves, a boiler, rusted tools and tin cans and other refuse were evidence of the great surge of humanity—some 20,000 souls– who swept through this area in a two-year period. Protected as a National Historic Trail, removal of these items is strictly prohibited.
After the winter of 1897, in which thousands of gold-seekers nearly starved in the Yukon Territories, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police began requiring people on the Chilkoot to carry an outfit of at least 2,000 lbs.
“I can’t believe those pioneers carried 2,000 lbs. over this trail,” said Jesse Seguin, Troop 230’s senior patrol leader. “They relayed their supplies over the pass in about 40 trips. They must have had amazing determination.”
After 1897, a tramway was built so that wealthy travelers could ease their grubstake the last 600 feet up the Pass. The tramway was powered by two horses, and it cost 1 ½ cents a pound to hire. (By today’s standards 1-1/2 cents doesn’t sound like much, but it was more than most gold seekers could afford).
Climbing the Golden Staircase:
While the first two days of the hike were strenuous, covering about 13 miles, we knew the third day— when we would actually cross the pass, would be our biggest challenge. We arose at 5:30 a.m. so that we could be on the trail by 6:30. After a few hours of hiking uphill we broke out of the trees and caught our first glimpse of the rocky pass called the “Golden Staircase,” scene of the famous photo showing the long line of pioneers stretching to the heights.
After a rest stop at an historical place called “The Scales,” where the pioneers’ loads were re-weighed to assure they had the mandatory 2,000 lbs., we began our slow ascent. “Wait, let’s do this in style,” suggested the Scoutmaster. “Let’s put on our class-A uniforms.”
The weather was warm, with sun dodging in and out of white, puffy clouds that clung to the mountain tops. We finally made it to the top by early afternoon and enjoyed a leisurely two hours wandering amidst the ruins of bygone days. It was humbling to think of the human effort and hardships—all of the stories and dramas that unfolded at this very spot.
While some members of the group took photos and explored the ruins, a couple of the Scouts—Kevin Vik and David Baker (my son), took an invigorating swim in a glacial pool. We shivered just looking at them!
Resuming our journey, we crested over the pass to the north and bade farewell to the U.S., entering Canada’s Yukon Territories. We still had four miles to get to our next camp, aptly named Happy Camp.
Good weather graced us for the remainder of the hike, with the exception of a thunder and lightening storm on the last night that we camped out.
Our stride quickened during the last five miles, most likely because of a pancake breakfast awaiting us that morning at Lake Bennett, the end of the trail. This is the spot (as well as Lake Lindeman) where gold seekers built and launched their wooden boats to begin their 600-plus mile trip to the Klondike gold fields
We chatted with fellow travelers as we wolfed down the best pancakes we’d ever tasted. We were told they were made from an original batch of sourdough starter, circa 1898!
That afternoon we boarded the famous White Pass railroad for Skagway, trail weary but with a deep sense of accomplishment.
“Everyone in the group had to reach deep within themselves for something they didn’t know they had,” reflected Scoutmaster Dieffenderfer. “This trip taught us a lot about teamwork and pulling together. Without it, the pioneers would never have made it… and neither would we.”
Editor’s Note: Next year, 2018, will mark the 120th anniversary of the Klondike Gold Rush. Following last week’s column about famed poet Robert W. Service, Frank Baker reflects upon a 1998 hike over the Chilkoot Pass with Eagle River Boy Scout Troop 230 – a trip that came on the 100th anniversary of the storied gold rush.
The following summer Troop 230 was featured on the cover of Boy’s Life magazine—a once in a lifetime event on the heels of a once-in-a-lifetime hike into history. One night in my tent on the Chilkoot Trail, I composed this poem:
On the Chilkoot Trail
You’ve looked at the photographs
all your life…
the thin, dark procession of pathetic souls
struggling in the snow
under heavy burdens
up the steep
ascending the Golden Staircase,
a portal to a dream
of golden riches
far north in the Klondike.
detached from the world
like museum artifacts,
until you walked
in their footsteps,
touched their rusted remnants,
beheld their views
of the mountains and valleys,
touched the land
that took more from them
than it ever gave.
At the end of a day
on the trail,
wrapped in sleeping bag,
you began dreaming
of places like El Dorado Creek, Bonanza,
the gold-rich tributaries of the Klondike…
…but now, for the first time,
your picture of the gold rush
and its thousands of human players
is in color.
Author’s Note: Hiking the Chilkoot Pass requires a permit. To obtain the necessary permits and reservations, go to: https://www.nps.gov/klgo/planyourvisit/permits.htm