Hiking Back Through History
One hundred years ago thousands of gold-crazed prospectors struggled over this former Tlingit tribe trade route. With them, they brought a ton of supplies as required by the Canadian Mounted Police. Signs of their struggle remain: broken teapots, wagon wheels, shoes, horse bones, graves, and the unfortunate, broken dreams of men who sought a better life.
We flew out of Juneau on tiny Skagway air, which is just a Piper Archer four seat aircraft. I was the co-pilot as we flew up the fjords and channels toward Skagway (pop. 1500). My pilot was a 21-year-old girl from South Dakota and when she told me her age, I felt like wrenching the controls from her. The landing in Skagway would have made even the most gnarly world traveler cringe major pucker factor as we skimmed a ridge and then stood the plane on its right wing as we banked into the deep corner of the mountains that Skagway is built into.
Galit, my good friend from New York, and I checked into the cute little Skagway Home Hostel. Then we went out for pizza and a beer, and some great conversation with a drunken Alaskan Ferry Captain.
In the morning, the eccentric owner of the only hostel in town dropped us at the trail head and we immediately hosed down with bug spray as thousands of Alaska's finest were soaking us dry with their hypodermic needles. The beginning of the trail was very surprisingly Appalachian Trail-like, very deep and woodsy, and also boggy at times. Coming over the first big hill, the trail became a quagmire of boot grabbin' mud.
The trail was not the push-over that I thought it might be since so many people do it every year; it was a rough trail, with lots of rocks, especially on the Canadian side. We took a break at Canyon City, which actually used to be a city of 5000, the only sign of which now was a rusty boiler which marked the spot and a warming cabin for hikers.
Along the trail there are pictures mounted on big iron frames which show what the trail looked like a hundred years ago. It's just weird coming over a huge rock fall and snow field and finding a picture and story to read. We made it to Sheep Camp the first night, which is about 11 miles in. That night we got a talk from the Rangers about the usual bear danger, avalanche danger, and some history on the trail.
We got up early so we wouldn't miss the good views going over the pass. The trail went up for about five miles, getting steeper as we went. It was just beautiful lots of hanging glaciers, snow fields, some huge raging streams, and lots of old gear as we reached the base of the pass. It was hot going over, as the sun was blasting off all the snow and we weren't getting any wind in the deep ravine.
The last bit of the pass is called the Golden Stairs because in 1897 some guys carved steps in the snow for the Gold prospectors and charged the poor adventurers to go over them! They were all melted for us so we had to scramble over steep, loose rocks. Finally I stumbled over and took in the magnificent view all the way back to Skagway. The day was unbelievably clear.
We then headed down through all the hanging snow fields where all the avalanches have happened. It was way too warm for that snow to slide today. We climbed down and down, over many rivers and frozen lakes. I took a break at Happy Camp and waited for Galit. She showed up and we decided to push on for Deep Camp which was another 2.5 miles. She had to get back the next day and we didn't want to push our luck with the weather. I ate like a madman after all those hard fought miles!
Hiking on the snow fields really takes it out of you, and the sun baked us good too. All tired out, we crashed early after washing up with water from the head waters of the Yukon river. We got going early the next day for Bennett. The trail next to the river gorge was breathtaking, and became a real up-down-up-down slog in hot temps. I was dying as I finally rounded a small hill that overlooked Bennett and the lake in front of it. I shuffled into the train depot, threw my pack down and fell on top of it. It was another beautiful day, and we just sat there and watched the clouds dance over the lake and mountains well into the Yukon as we waited for the train to take us back to Skagway.
Paul Nickodem, Mountain Zone Correspondent