Following in frozen footsteps

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"Gold! Gold! Gold! Gold! Sixty-Eight Rich Men on the Steamer Portland," screamed a July 17, 1897, headline in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

The discovery of gold near the Klondike River set off one of the last great gold rushes in North America, and within a month of the story, thousands were rushing to this tiny town nine miles north of Skagway to cross the Chilkoot Trail to the goldfields 33 miles away. The stampeders risked avalanches, the threat of famine and even death to fulfill their dream of wealth. But most of the 100,000 miners came away with little to show for their hardships.

My husband, Chris Barberich, and I came here from our Oakland home last summer to see the Chilkoot Trail's spectacular beauty and to imagine what it was like to be a stampeder, as they were called, in the winter of 1897. We followed their trail — once used by the Tlinget Indians to trade with tribes — through a lush Alaskan rain forest, over the narrow and snowy 3,246-foot Chilkoot Pass and onto the Canadian tundra. Along the way, we passed old leather boots, rusted pots and tin cans left by the bookkeepers, firemen, actors, homemakers and writers, including Jack London, who traveled the path more than 100 years ago.

We were among nearly 3,000 backpackers who annually trace the trail, jointly operated as part of the U.S. Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park and Canada's Chilkoot Trail National Historic Site. Our trip was vastly different from the life-or-death experience the gold rushers faced.

We traveled lightly — with only 30 to 40 pounds each on our backs. To prevent starvation, the stampeders were required to haul 1,000 pounds of food and supplies by foot. They braved bitter winter storms and often took more than a month, making countless trips from cache to cache to ferry their gear to Lindeman and Bennett lakes. In our journey during 4 1/2 warm days, the greatest hazards we faced were grumpy bears, tired legs and sore backs.

But I was able to envision the stampeders' ordeal, with my imagination aided by the journal of Leo Healy, then a 19-year-old Chicago bookkeeper, who left the security of his city job to join the gold rush in 1898. His diary was one of several placed in huts along the trail by rangers.

"You had better awaken for tomorrow dawn places before you your future," he noted to himself in 1898. Healy and his older brother traveled to Alaska on a ship from Seattle, disembarking in Dyea, once a Tlinget village at the base of the Chilkoot Trail and about nine miles north of Skagway. Dyea once hummed with thousands of gold rushers. "This is a tough-looking town," Healy wrote. "Every saloon runs gambling wide open."

Time has tamed Dyea. As we set out, we could scarcely discern the village from the forest that surrounded it.

On the trailOn our first day, we walked 7 1/2 miles along the beautiful Taiya River, through a rain forest in a steep glacier-lined valley, to Canyon City, a remnant of one of the massive tent cities that sprang up to serve the stampeders.

Along the way, we spotted protected artifacts — or "old junk," as one ranger described it — century-old rusted tin cans, pots and pans, wire from an aerial tram rigged to help move gear over the pass, a huge old boiler used to power the tram and a wood stove.

On our first night, we pitched our tent at Canyon City, one of nine designated campgrounds along the route. Most campgrounds have warming huts, a picnic table, outhouses and poles to hang food away from hungry bears. Backpackers, who must register and buy permits, are allowed to stay only in official campgrounds. About 50 backpackers — the maximum allowed by the Canadian and U.S. park services — can cross the summit on any given summer day. (In winter, permits are not required.)

We were a congenial bunch. I imagined that some of the camaraderie we shared with other hikers echoed that of the gold rushers. By the second day, we were tasting one another's freeze-dried dinners and sharing jokes. We gave one another nicknames, mostly based on our city, state or country of origin.

There was "North Pole," a marathon-running Alaskan couple in their 50s, outfitted in spotless Gore-Tex and new walking sticks for their first-ever backpacking trip. "Whitehorse" was a Canadian mom hiking the trail with her sturdy boys, ages 10 and 11. "Princeton," also known to us as the "Chilkoot Brady Bunch," was a New Jersey family with four boys and two girls, ages 10 to 16; a pretty, blond mom; and a friendly dad.

Our second day on the trail was easy and sunny, and we spent several hours reclining with our feet propped up by the Taiya River before reaching our campsite at Sheep Camp, where in April 1898 an avalanche killed at least 60 people.

"All hands (1,000) strong went to dig out the buried men," Healy wrote after a difficult day spent searching for victims. "Their groans and writhing was fearful to listen to…. All the freighting to the summit must be stopped…. Volunteers to dig were asked for and every one in town responded. This is the country where every one will lend a helping hand providing the needy is worthy of help."

The next day was our hardest: The 9-mile hike to our next camp included the trek over the pass, or summit. We paused at "one of the most wretched spots on the trail," the Scales, where native Tlinget packers, hired by some stampeders to help carry gear over the pass, re-weighed their loads and levied higher rates for the haul to the summit.

It was hard to believe the lonely, wind-swept perch once held six restaurants and coffeehouses, two hotels and a saloon. All had disintegrated, and now only an interpretive sign and a few rusting tram cables and tin cans testified to their existence.

As we gazed up at the 45-degree-angled slope all the way to the summit, the Tlingets' higher rates seemed a fair proposition. Stampeders faced ice and snow. They paid a toll to take the "Golden Stairs," which had been cut into the ice. Many had to climb those treacherous stairs with full loads 30 to 40 times before getting all their gear to the top. The ordeal could take two weeks or more.

"In going to the summit you have to fall in line," Healy wrote. "Broken legs and arms are an everyday occurrence. Heavy boxes break loose and go tumbling down the hill into the midst of the crowd."

At the top was an icy chute the stampeders slid down to get to the bottom of the hill for their next trip up. "This is a slide [with] just room enough for a man to fit in," Healy noted. "It is worn down two feet deep from the constant stream of people sliding down. You have to slide down right on the ice without anything under you, give yourself a start and away you go. It takes one minute to down the three-fourths of a mile."

Chris and I made our way to the summit on all fours, using our hands to help pull our ungainly backpack-laden bodies up large boulders. We climbed it in 45 minutes, but some hikers took up to two hours. The weather at the top of the pass can range from warm sun to hypothermia-inducing gales, and even in early summer, the route can be waist-deep in snow and can be a potential avalanche danger.

It drizzled on us that morning, but the sun was shining by the time we reached the ankle-deep snow at the top, the official border with Canada, where we looked out over spectacular peaks, snowfields, slopes of alpine tundra and sparkling lakes.

We lunched under a Canadian flag at the warming hut, and I imagined the Canadian Mounties who met the stampeders at the summit to ensure they had their required ton of gear. Then we followed their footsteps into Canada and to our next night's site, Happy Camp.

The fourth day, we hiked past Lindeman City, a onetime tent city on the shores of Lindeman Lake, where many of the stampeders made boats. Parks Canada has an interpretive tent near the lake, with books and exhibits on the historic trail.

About 4,000 stampeders wintered at Lindeman Lake in 1898, struggling to build boats that would survive the treacherous mile of rapids to nearby Bennett, Canada, and 560 miles more to the interior mining district.

Many had little or no experience in boat-building, which involved sawing straight planks out of scarce logs with a long whipsaw. One man stood on top of a platform above the log and another below, pulling the saw back and forth. When Leo Healy set his hand to the task, he remarked, "This work tires me nearly as much as it did when we packed our outfit over the pass."

We camped nearby, and on our last day had an easy 4-mile hike to Bennett, where we had one of the highlights of our Chilkoot Trail adventure: the train ride to Skagway.

In July 1899, a narrow-gauge railroad was completed over the neighboring White Pass connecting Skagway to Bennett. The next summer, the railway reached all the way to Whitehorse on the Yukon River.

A boom gone bustWith the railway, would-be gold miners no longer needed to travel over the Chilkoot Trail or through the towns of Dyea, Lindeman City or Bennett. Within a year, the boomtowns and tent cities were almost deserted.

But the train travelers came too late for most to make their fortunes: By the time most of the stampeders had arrived in the Yukon, most of the gold claims had been staked. At best, they found wage work helping those who had arrived there earlier.

Healy met a similar fate when he arrived in the Yukon town of Dawson City.

"You never saw a more disgusted lot of people in your life," he wrote in his journal in July 1898. "There is work for no one. Claims are all staked, and the streets are packed with idlers. Nearly everyone is selling out and going back."

The next month, Healy did the same, retracing his steps on the Chilkoot Trail.

Not us. Our group joined cruise-ship passengers who had taken the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad from Skagway for the afternoon. The tracks cling to the edge of mountains, with Skagway and the Lynn Canal peeking through at the end of the narrow valley.

As we rolled homeward, I was glad we had taken the time to trace the route on our own two feet.


Elizabeth Bell is a former reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle.*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Mining history

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, Alaska and United offer connecting service (change of planes) to Juneau. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $492.

Several shuttles offer transportation from Skagway to the trailhead in Dyea.

Dyea Dave's, (907) 983-2731. Tours. One-way shuttle to Dyea, $10.

Frontier Excursions, (907) 983-2512, http://www.frontierexcursions.com . Tours. One-way shuttle, $10; round-trip, $20.

Skagway Float Tours, (907) 983-3688, http://www.skag wayfloat.com. Tours. Shuttle one-way, $10.

By boat: The Alaska Marine Highway, (800) 642-0066, http://www.alaska.gov/ferry , ferries cars and people between Skagway and Juneau. Fares $48 per person, one-way.

The White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad offers the Chilkoot Hikers special from Bennett to Skagway; (800) 343-7373, http://www.wpyr.com . Operates June to mid-September. Tickets $65. Reservations required.

ON THE CHILKOOT TRAIL:

Hikers planning to cross the Chilkoot Pass in the summer must make reservations and obtain a backcountry permit, which costs $36.71 for adults, $18.80 for children 5 to 16 years old. For reservations, which cost $7.52 per hiker, and to purchase permits in advance, contact Parks Canada, 300 Main St., Suite 205, Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada Y1A 2B5; (800) 661-0486, http://www.pc.gc.ca/chilkoot . All hikers must carry a driver's license, passport or other valid I.D. to pass through Canadian customs.

Chilkoot Trail Center, Second and Broadway, Skagway; (907) 983-9234, http://www.nps.gov/klgo , handles walk-in permits; eight each day are set aside at 1 p.m. the day before departure.

TO LEARN MORE:

Skagway Visitor Information Center, P.O. Box 1029, Skagway, AK 99840; (907) 983-2854, http://www.skagway.com .

Alaska Travel Industry Assn., Visitor Information Center, 2600 Cordova St., Anchorage, AK 99503; (800) 862-5275, http://www.travelalaska.com .

-- Elizabeth Bell

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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