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Chilkoot Trail

The Chilkoot Trail is a 33 mile (53 kilometer) trail through the Coast Mountains that leads from Dyea, Alaska, to Bennett, British Columbia. The trail, which leads over Chilkoot Pass, is a National Historic Site in British Columbia, and part of Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in the United States. It was a major access route from the coast to Yukon goldfields in the late 1890s. The Chilkoot Tail and Dyea Site was designated a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 1978. In 1998, the centennial of the gold rush, Chilkoot Trail National Historic Site, in BC, joined the U.S. Park to form the Klondike Gold Rush International Historical Park.

History

The Chilkoot Trail has three distinct periods of use: the indigenous Tlingit Indians who used the trail as a trading route up until the Klondike Gold Rush, the stampeders who used the trail during the gold rush, and the modern day historical park. The Chilkoot Trail is 33 mile (53 kilometer) trail through the Coast Mountains.

Indigenous use

Tlingit Indians used the trail as a vital trade route to trade for resources available in the interior. As pressures from American settlers and the Hudson's Bay Company weakened the Tlingit trading system, the Chilkoot Trail slowly became utilized by explorers and prospectors.

Klondike era

The event that pushed the Chilkoot Trail into a mainstream transportation route was the Klondike Gold Rush. The gold rush was primarily focused in the area around Dawson City in the Yukon Territory and on the Yukon River. There were several routes to get there, but as history proved, the Chilkoot Trail became far and away the most direct, most popular, and least expensive of all routes. The other primary route to the Chilkoot, however, was also based out of Skagway: the White Pass route. The White Pass route was slightly longer but less rigorous and steep, while the Chilkoot was shorter and more difficult. Skagway was the principal port for both routes due to its deepwater harbour (nearby Dyea, the beginning of the Chilkoot Trail, was built on the extensive and very shallow Taiya River delta). Those prospectors who chose the Chilkoot were ferried to Dyea by small boat or ferry. Soon, both Skagway and Dyea were bustling tent cities as bombastic headlines of the gold rush in the contiguous United States spurred men around the country to leave their jobs and family and gain passage up the Inside Passage to Skagway. However, soon it became apparent that many of the prospectors who chose the Chilkoot simply weren't going to survive the arduous terrain and demanding weather, so Canada's North West Mounted Police (now the Royal Canadian Mounted Police) required one ton of gear (enough to supply a prospector for one year) as a requisite for entrance to the B.C. side of the trail. A suggested list of gear from an era-publication is below:

  • 150 lb. bacon
  • 400 lb. flour
  • 25 lb. rolled oats
  • 125 lb. beans
  • 10 lb. tea
  • 10 lb. coffee
  • 25 lb. sugar
  • 25 lb. dried potatoes
  • 2 lb. dried onions
  • 15 lb. salt
  • 1 lb. pepper
  • 75 lb. dried fruits
  • 8 lb. baking powder
  • 2 lb. soda
  • 1/2 lb. evaporated vinegar
  • 12 oz. compressed soup
  • 1 can mustard
  • 1 tin matches (for four men)
  • Stove for four men
  • Gold pan for each
  • Set granite buckets
  • Large bucket
  • Knife, fork, spoon, cup, and plate
  • Frying pan
  • Coffee and teapot
  • Scythe stone
  • Two picks and one shovel
  • One whipsaw
  • Pack strap
  • Two axes for four men and one extra handle
  • Six 8 inch files and two taper files for the party
  • Draw knife, brace and bits, jack plane, and hammer for party
  • 200 feet three-eights-inch rope
  • 8 lb. of pitch and 5 lb. of oakum for four men
  • Nails, five lbs. each of 6,8,10 and 12 penny, for four men
  • Tent, 10 x 12 feet for four men
  • Canvas for wrapping
  • Two oil blankets to each boat
  • 5 yards of mosquito netting for each man
  • 3 suits of heavy underwear
  • 1 heavy mackinaw coat
  • 2 pairs heavy machinaw trousers
  • 1 heavy rubber-lined coat
  • 1 doz heavy wool socks
  • 1/2 doz heavy wool mittens
  • 2 heavy overshirts
  • 2 pairs heavy snagproof rubber boots
  • 2 pairs shoes
  • 4 pairs blankets (for two men)
  • 4 towels
  • 2 pairs overalls
  • 1 suit oil clothing
  • Several changes of summer clothing
  • Small assortment of medicines

This amounted to the fabled "ton of gear" and prospectors ferried the gear from campsites along the trail, slowly moving closer to the headwaters of the Yukon. With all the equipment and supplies being transported, alternative methods, especially those with a little supplemental income, sprouted up. Many purchased pack animals, although that method was more commonly used on the rival White Pass, but a primary and very profitable enterprise came from the Tlingit Indians, the formerly exclusive users of the trail. They hired gear on a per pound rate from campsite to campsite however even their packing service grew antiquated.

Tramways

Aerial tramway companies soon were hauling tons of gear over the head of the prospectors every day. By the end of the Chilkoot Trail's heyday, there were no less than five distinct operations on different parts of the trail competing for the influx of gear and money in the region. Many of trams were world-class engineering feats at the time.

Post-Klondike

After the Klondike Gold Rush the trail became more or less deserted. Tardy prospectors now made their way into the Yukon by the new White Pass and Yukon Route narrow gauge railroad which took them all the way to Whitehorse, Yukon in the Yukon Territory.

In 1969, the U.S. and Canadian governments jointly declared their intention to make Chilkoot Trail a component of a Klondike Gold Rush International Historic Park. The US portion was eventually established in 1976 as Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, comprising part of Pioneer Square in downtown Seattle, Washington, various sites throughout Skagway, Alaska, the abandoned townsite of Dyea, Alaska, and the U.S. portion of the Chilkoot Trail. The Canadian portion of the trail became Chilkoot Trail National Historic Site, one of several sites in the national park system associated with the Klondike. But it wasn't until the centennial of the gold rush, in 1998, that the dream of an international park was realized, when Klondike Gold Rush NHP and Chilkoot Trail NHS joined to form Klondike Gold Rush International Historical Park. Their previous legal names were retained, while the new name reflected co-operative management between the two park services.

Current status

Currently the Chilkoot Trail is a popular recreational trail among residents of Southeast Alaska and Yukon Territory. The trail is also attracting many tourists from abroad. To manage this new-found demand for the route, to prevent overuse, and maintain the remoteness of trail, the National Park Service and Parks Canada have agreed upon a limit of 50 backpackers entering the trail a day. Because of this and the high demand, many reserve early to ensure they snag a spot. There is also an assortment of fees for both the U.S. and Canadian sides. Both charge flat rates and there is also a fee on nights spent in the park.

In return for these fees, both countries have full-time trail maintenance crews, ranger/warden stations, well-designed campgrounds, and have placed numerous interpretive signs adjacent to notable historical sites and objects.

The "official" hiking season (when rangers are on duty and trail crew is on-site) varies, but usually begins around late May and ends in early September. However, the days of highest demand and peak operations by park staff are from June through August. Often, late May still possesses some avalanche danger as well as large snowfields that slow progress and September brings rain and colder weather which discourages would-be hikers.

Route and attractions

The route begins in Dyea, which is a 15-minute ride away from Skagway. Dyea no longer exists as a town; it is now merely an historical site with a campground and a few residents. One must take a taxi or shuttle service to get to Dyea, or, if one is ambitious, trek over to Dyea on the road. From the trailhead the trail is hilly and winds through the coastal rainforest next to the Taiya River. It can be very muggy with little breeze and mosquitos can be bad. The trail runs on or near former logging roads for some of the early part of its route. After 4.8 miles (7.7 kilometers) the first campsite, Finnegan's Point, is achieved. This stretch of the trail passes through some of the flattest terrain on the trail with no substantial obstacles.

Finnegan's Point often takes in very few hikers because of its proximity to the trailhead, and most parties make it to Finnegan's Point within a few hours. However, for slower parties and those getting a late start on the trail, Finnegan's Point is often the campground of choice. The campground receives its name from Pat Finnegan who tried to collect bridge-crossing tolls from stampeders. Finnegan's Point consisted of a "huddle of tents surrounding a hard core of blacksmith shop, saloon, and a restaurant.

After Finnegan's Point the trail becomes noticeably cooler because of cool air swooping from the snow and icefields in the adjacent mountains. There are also numerous streams cascading down the mountain sides. The trail again becomes an actual hiking trail (and not the remnants of a logging road), and the elevation change along the Taiya River valley is gradual. This stretch of the trail contains the least amount of artifacts visible to the hiker but makes up for it with beautiful views of mountainous forest and run-off streams. At mile 7.5 (kilometer 12.1), or a quick 2.6 mile (4.4 kilometer) hike from Finnegan's Point, is the Canyon City campground. Many hikers, especially those who are aiming for a more modest pace on the trail or those who have a late start on the trail, stop here for their first night. The shelter located here houses many gold rush-era artifacts placed here by hikers.

About .3 miles (.4 kilometers) after the Canyon City campsite are the Canyon City ruins. Canyon City used to be a Tent city during the gold rush and the ruins are still visible. To get to the ruins one must cross the river on a suspension footbridge. This leads to the foundations of many buildings, a restaurant stove, and a large boiler.

After the Canyon City ruins, the trail diverges from the river for the first time as the river disappears into a small canyon (Canyon City's namesake). The trail climbs up the side of the valley and traverses some very nice sub-alpine forest, although the thunder of the river below is still audible. For many sections of the trail, old telegraph and tram wires are exposed adjacent to the trail and stunning views of the mountains on the opposite side of the valley are plentiful. For the gold rush prospectors, this section of the trail was one of the most difficult. In winter, when the Taiya River was frozen, the gold rush stampeders could easily travel; however, in the summer it was described as "the worst piece of trail on the road, fairly muddy with many boulders and with some short, steep ascents and descents in and out of small gulches."

The next landmark is Pleasant Camp at mile 10.5 (kilometer 16.5), 2.7 miles (4.4 kilometers) from the Canyon City ruins. There is an informational trail sign at the original site of Pleasant Camp, 1/4 mile before the present Pleasant Camp campground. Pleasant Camp marks the reunion of the trail and the Taiya River and serves as a lightly used and small campground. From Pleasant Camp the trail is fairly flat and weaves through trees and over small creeks.

Soon the trail arrives in Sheep Camp, the last campground on the American side of the trail as well as the final resting stop before the long trek up to the Chilkoot Pass. Sheep Camp is 11.8 miles (18.9 kilometers) from the trailhead and 1.3 miles (2 kilometers) from Pleasant Camp and is without doubt the largest of the campsites on the American side of the trail. Here hikers can get ready for the push up to summit over the pass and into Canada.

Many leave early in the morning — even as early as 4 a.m. — to make the summit push into Canada. During the official hiking season the park ranger stationed just above Sheep Camp will come down and give a quick presentation about the pass, what to expect, and forecast weather and snow conditions. Rangers will recommend seven and a half to ten hours for a group to travel from Sheep Camp to Happy Camp barring any complications.

Just after leaving Sheep Camp and before the U.S. ranger station, the trail passes through a large avalanche chute. The slide has wiped out all previously existing forest and leaves a young brushy and alder-dominated landscape. Just a little distance after the ranger station there is a small museum of gold rush-era artifacts in an old cabin. Soon after leaving the cabin the sub-alpine forest slowly gives way to a treeless alpine landscape revealing a grand view of the narrowing Taiya River valley. The higher the trail ventures the more informal it becomes although there are yellow markers in snowfields for pathfinding. In the early hiking season there can be danger of breaking through snow bridges when the snowfields are plentiful and runoff streams are hidden beneath.

At mile 16 (kilometer 25.7), within sight of the pass, and at the base of "the Golden Stairs" (the long difficult hill before the pass), are "The Scales." The Scales was an area where loads would be reweighed before the trek up to the pass. Often, higher packing rates would be charged by hired native packers. The Scales was also a Tent city sporting six restaurants, two hotels, a saloon, and many freighting offices and warehouses. The Golden Stairs didn't just serve as a cause for higher packing rates, but they also caused many people to turn around, often leaving their required ton of equipment to sit and decay. Because of this, and the snow's preserving properties, artifacts are prevalent at this altitude, including many remnants of wooden structures.

After The Scales is the final push up to the pass — the fabled Golden Stairs. The Golden Stairs garnered its name from the steps that prospectors painstakingly carved into the snow and ice of the pass and has retained the name ever since. For hikers, especially in the main hiking season, the Golden Stairs are often completely snow free so climbing up the 45-degree angle jumble of boulders is the only option. One still gets an inkling of what the prospectors endured, however. There are several false summits after the Golden Stairs but are all quite small in comparison. At the top there is a warming cabin, the U.S.-Canadian border, and a part-time Parks Canada warden station. Occasionally if a party is not making time quick enough the warden or U.S. ranger will offer the warming cabin at the peak as an overnight shelter as to not risk the group being caught somewhere in the barren and exposed alpine landscape between the pass and Happy Camp. There are also many artifacts on the Golden Stairs and ridges surrounding the pass including a cache of still intact (canvas, wood, etc.) prefabricated boats on the southeastern side of the pass. The pass sits at mile 16.5 (kilometer 26.6), just half a mile (.9 kilometers) after The Scales.

Just after the pass is Stone Crib at mile 17 (kilometer 27.4). Stone Crib was the terminus of the Chilkoot Railroad and Transport Company's aerial tramway and consisted as a huge rock repository to counterbalance the tram. It is still readily apparent today with even the wooden structure still well preserved by the snow. After Stone Crib is a long stretch of alpine trail passing by a series of deep blue lakes.

First is Crater Lake, then Morrow Lake, and then Happy Camp at mile 20.5 (kilometer 33), which is 3.5 miles (4.6 kilometers) after Stone Crib. Happy Camp gets its name from the relief prospectors (and hikers) experience when coming across the first outpost after the pass. It's still entirely in the alpine zone and rather small, but receives heavy use because of its location.

After Happy Camp the trail continues down the run-off stream that drains Crater and Morrow Lakes to circumnavigate the very majestic Long Lake. After Long Lake the trail crosses the run-off stream from Long Lake and finds itself on the northern side of a Chilkoot-area watershed for the first time. The Deep Lake campground is located just after this unique landmark and also sits right in the midst of the returning tree line.

Outside of the Deep Lake campground the trees return and the trail skirts around Deep Lake (although when melt-off is high, the trail may be flooded) and the environment is noticeably different. The Canadian side of the trail is much dryer, as it is located in the rain shadow of the Coast Mountains, and the forest primarily consists of pine trees as opposed to the more lush temperate rain forest on the U.S. side. Once the trail passes Deep Lake, the outlet river runs parallel to the trail for a short distance before entering a small canyon. Many boat and boat-related artifacts are visible in this area as well. The trail continues to lose elevation until the turquoise-colored Lake Lindeman comes into view and soon the trail concludes its descent to the Lake Lindeman campground, the base of Canadian trail operations.

Lake Lindeman is 26 miles (41.8 kilometers) from the trailhead and 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) from Deep Lake. Lake Lindeman plays host to a small tent museum containing photographic displays and a small library of books on the Chilkoot, the outdoors, and other Canadian parks. The campsite sits next to confluence of Lake Lindeman and the outlet river from Deep Lake. The campsite is located on the site of what used to be Lindeman City during the gold rush. Campers can visit a period cemetery occupied by unfortunate prospectors who lost their lives during the gold rush era. A quick walk through the surrounding woods also reveals numerous foundations of now nonexistent buildings, former fire rings, old latrine holes, the former main drag of Lindeman City and a plethora of artifacts ranging from broken wine and beer bottles to tin cans.

The trail continues on after Lindeman crossing the Deep Lake outlet river and up a steep bluff running on the southeastern side of Lake Lindeman to reveal an expansive view of the lake and surrounding forest. The trail crews wisely have installed several benches that are superb resting spots for lunch, contemplation, and taking in the scenery. The trail continues on this route with Lindeman on the left and a number of small lakes on the right.

Three miles (4.9 kilometers) after Lake Lindeman and 29 miles (46.7 kilometers) from Dyea the trail meets Bare Loon Lake and the Bare Loon Lake campground. True to its name, one can often hear loon calls from the campground. The campsite is often sparsely populated with backpackers and the quiet and beautiful location offers a great location to reflect on the trail.

After Bare Loon Lake the trail diverges. One branch splits off to meet the White Pass and Yukon Route railroad and then follows its tracks south to Log Cabin where the railroad meets the Klondike Highway and where hikers can arrange pick-ups with either a scheduled bus or an acquaintance with a car. The other branch slowly descends, passes a trapper's cabin and begins running parallel to the now-defunct railbed of the White Pass and Yukon Route. Soon the trail arrives at its terminus: Bennett, British Columbia.

Bennett is 4 miles (6.8 kilometers) downtrail from Bare Loon Lake and 33 miles (53.1 kilometers) from Dyea. Bennett consists of a campground, the White Pass and Yukon Route depot, several houses (all private property) belonging to White Pass employees or First Nations citizens, the only gold rush-era buildings still standing today: the renovated St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, and numerous artifacts. Pilings from piers on the lake are still apparent as is the usual assortment of cans and other metal remains.

From Bennett, if in the official hiking season, most hikers take the White Pass and Yukon Route railroad back to Skagway with a one-way fare.

Campgrounds

There are a total of nine designated and maintained campgrounds on the Chilkoot Trail:

Finnegan's Point

Finnegan's Point is located right next to the Taiya River while the valley is still relatively flat. The mosquitoes are very bad at Finnegan's Point partly due to its location and the abundance of standing water. The campsite itself features a canvas warming and cooking shelter complete with mosquito screens, a bear pole and a bear-proof food storage locker for safekeeping of food overnight, an outhouse, and ample tent sites.

Canyon City

Canyon City is the second-largest campground on the American side of the trail. It too is conveniently located right next to small tributary of the Taiya River. It features a spacious log cabin complete with a wood stove, numerous shelves full of artifacts, several bunks (although sleeping is not permitted inside park shelters), and several shelves for cooking. It also has a small porch ideal for hanging up gear to air out or dry and some wooden chairs to sit in. Canyon City features over 30 campsites and two outhouses as well as food lockers and bear poles.

Pleasant Camp

Pleasant Camp is the smallest of the campgrounds on the American side of the trail. It is located next to a sandbar in the Taiya River and features a canvas warming and cooking shelter, a spattering of campsites, and a bear pole. Pleasant Camp usually serves as a back-up campground in case Sheep Camp is full. There is a sign near the cooking shelter notifying backpackers whether Sheep Camp is at capacity or can still take backpackers.

Sheep Camp

Sheep Camp is the largest of the American campsites. It is located in between a crick of meltwater from the adjacent mountains and some branches of the Taiya River. Occasionally after disruptions upstream such as avalanches, rockslides, or exceptional rains, portions of Sheep Camp next to the Taiya become flooded. Sheep Camp has three separate canvas shelters, a small cache used by the trail crew, outhouses, and over 40 campsites. The only U.S. Ranger Station on the trail is located just a few hundred meters north of Sheep Camp and the ranger during the official season comes down to give a presentation on the history and current conditions of the pass.

Happy Camp

Happy Camp is the only campground on the trail entirely out of the treeline although small shrubs are prevalent. A very small wooden warming cabin and a food closet as well as an outhouse (with refuse deposited into a container that is heli-lifted out as to protect the fragile alpine environment) are all located at this campsite. There are a decent amount of campsites but the number is limited due to the rather steady slope the campground is located on. However, in the spring, watching the melt-off streams pour into the small river in front of Happy Camp can be a spectacular sight.

Deep Lake

Deep Lake is the only one of two campgrounds on the trail to be devoid of some kind of protective shelter and is one of the smallest on the trail. Deep Lake has an outside cooking area, bear poles, and a small number of campsites. However, views from here are spectacular. It is situated between the end of Long Lake and the beginning of Deep Lake, both of which hold a most mysterious indigo hue.

Lake Lindeman

This is the largest campground on the Canadian side, and possibly the entire trail. Featuring separate north and south campsites, a small cluster of buildings for the wardens and trail crew, a makeshift dock and boat for transportation of the wardens (unlike the Americans, the Canadian wardens cannot just hike out to Skagway), a canvas shelter containing a museum of photographs and small library on the outdoors and Klondike history, and a web of trails leading through the remains of the old town. The north and south campsites each feature a large wooden cabin that serves as a cooking and warming shelter, numerous bear poles, and several picnic tables. The campsites are located throughout the surrounding sparse pine forest and are never far from the lake.

Bare Loon Lake

Bare Loon Lake is the other campground on the trail without a warming shelter, though it now sports a pavilion-style cooking shelter. Located on a small ridge above Lake Lindeman in spacious pine forest and overlooking the small Bare Loon Lake, the campground is one of the most beautiful on the trail. There is an outhouse, a helicopter pad, and bear poles. One can also swim in the lake. Unlike almost every other water source encountered on the trail thus far, Bare Loon Lake is not glacially-fed, and so, while it may be cold, it does not compare with the newly-melted water that feeds the Taiya River, Deep Lake, or Lake Lindeman.

Bennett

Bennett is the end of the trail and the first step back into civilization. There are several structures built and maintained by the White Pass and Yukon Route including a museum for tourists, a depot, and housing for employees. There is also a private First Nations residence which is off limits and private property. While Bennett doesn't have a shelter specific for cooking, there is shelter to be found easily among the structures scattered throughout Bennett. The campground is relatively small and has bear poles, picnic tables, and an outhouse. Also at Bennett is the still-standing St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church. It is a remnant from the gold rush and has since been renovated.

Safety

While in the summer there are full-time rangers and wardens on both the U.S. and Canadian sides, the Chilkoot Trail is still by no means without its risks.

Bears

Bears are the primary concern in the park. It is very common for hikers to encounter them. Firearms are not permitted. Almost all parties take bear spray and/or bear bangers as repellents (bear bells are now considered an attractant), but more importantly both sides of the park mandate smart bear practices. It is required to safely stow your food in a bear-safe location whether that be provided lockers or bear poles as to prevents bears from associating humans with food and thus creating "problem bears." There are constant notices and reminders of how to react if one sees or encounters a bear. Because of the well-coordinated bear education campaign by park officials, bears remain just a potential for problems and have yet to actually become a problem.

Weather and terrain

Weather and terrain also pose challenges to hikers. While there are very few risks in the forest regions of the trail, once hikers start hiking in the alpine problems become prevalent. Snow bridges in the Taiya River valley before the pass don't really have potential to create serious injuries or situations but are a hazard hikers should look out for to prevent unnecessary bruises and wet gear. A larger problem is lack of preparation, poor weather, or a combination of both of the above. These factors often result in groups not making the jump from Sheep Camp to Happy Camp. Often the ranger from Sheep Camp sweeps late in the day up to the pass to check for straggling groups and suggests that those who don't look like they'll be able to make it to Happy Camp stay in the warming shelter at the summit for the night instead of risking it on the barren alpine between the summit and Happy Camp.

Another danger in the winter or spring is that of avalanches. While those hikers in the mainstream season don't need worry about this, early-season hikers are often briefed of potential chutes and suggestions of navigating them.

See also

External links

References

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