History hunting on the Chilkoot Trail
Goetzman photo /MIchael Gates Collection
(This is the second of a two-part series)
It was at the summit of the Chilkoot Pass that Clifford Sifton, who was Canadian Minister of the Interior during the gold rush, instructed the Mounted Police to establish a station early in 1898 as a statement of sovereignty. When the boundary dispute between Canada and the United States was resolved a few years later, it was Sifton’s action that defined the line separating the two nations at this point.
Today, hiking to the summit of the Chilkoot Pass is a rite of passage. In fact, there are some who make their Chilkoot adventure an annual event.
Bruce, my traveling companion, and I stopped briefly in the warm-up cabin at the summit in 2001. This was the only point on the otherwise solitary hike where we were in the presence of other hikers. There was a group of 13 high school students, noisily chatting away, while simultaneously complaining about the hardship of the hike.
In addition, there was a succession of runners clad only in tank tops, jogging shorts, and tiny fanny packs with water bottles. Their intention was to complete the trail in a 12-hour sprint. They didn’t realize the peril they placed themselves in by traveling over the trail without adequate preparation. Park rangers on the American side observed that when these scantily clad runners injured themselves, they quickly become hypothermic.
After three days of grey overcast and drizzle, we were buoyed up by the sunny conditions before us. The ice on Crater Lake, the first lake below the summit, was just breaking up. The water was crustal clear, intensely blue and bitterly cold. The downhill grade of the trail from this point also meant easier hiking. Our heavy packs seemed lighter.
Despite it being midsummer, with the sun warming us thoroughly, we hiked on snow from the summit to Happy Camp, relying on markers placed by Parks Canada wardens to guide us.
At one point we passed a tremendous snow bank looming over us that was perhaps 20 metres high. Snowfall in the summit region is extreme, and proved a constant obstacle to the stampeders trekking over the trail in the early months of 1898. Even on the Canadian side of the Chilkoot Pass there was danger from avalanches, and several men fell victim to them during the winter.
We relished a drink of water out of a stream cascading down from the melting snow on the mountainside. At another place the warm sun on the heather created a rich thick sweet perfume that permeated the air. At Happy Camp, we met the American couple who had examined the relics at Canyon City with us two days before.
An occasional artifact could be seen along the trail as a reminder of the thousands of stampeders, each hauling a ton of goods, who came this way more than a century ago.
We arrived at Deep Lake campground after a 14-hour hike from Sheep Camp and slept soundly.
On day four of our Chilkoot odyssey, the air warmed quickly under the sun rising high in the clear blue sky. The path from Deep Lake skirted the shore, then sloped down toward Lindeman Lake with a roaring creek far below.
At a point hidden some distance from a beaver pond beside the trail were two lonely graves on a rocky promontory overlooking Lindeman Lake. There, during the early days, two infants died and were buried by their parents. A short distance beyond this point, the trail levels off and passes through Lindeman City where, at the height of the stampede, 4,000 wintered while building the boats that were to take them to the Klondike.
We were greeted at Lindeman by Christine Hedgecock, Parks Canada’s trail ambassador, who filled in and signed our Chilkoot Trail certificates. Beyond Lindeman, the trail divided into two different branches. We decided to continue on to Bennett; to do otherwise would later have led to regret for not completing the journey. At Bare Loon Lake, we met our American trail-mates for a third time, but they were following the other branch of the trail to Log Cabin.
The heat, the weight of the packs, and the yielding nature of the loose sandy path for the last two kilometres before Bennett took the last of our energy, yet we were able to stop long enough to contemplate the cemetery where those who died here in the early days guard the trail. Nearby, a solitary grave was hidden in the trees. After losing a second outfit in the raging waters that joined Lindeman Lake to Bennett Lake, J.W. Mathes shot himself in despair and forever rests overlooking the site of his folly.
Bennett became a substantial short-lived townsite with more than 1,000 tents and several dozen wooden buildings. It was the preferred place for gold seekers to camp and build their boats for the trip to Dawson City while waiting for spring break-up. St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, keeping vigil on a stony viewpoint overlooking the lake, is the only building that survives to remind us of this once-bustling little town.
The hike out to Log Cabin on day five of our expedition was anticlimactic after the grueling trek over the mountains. We found it odd to see automobiles again after our days on the trail. We ran into our American friends one last time at Log Cabin, and posed for a picture together.
The Chilkoot Trail was the perfect hike. It combined several days of physical challenge over a wilderness trail, with some of the most spectacular scenery to be seen anywhere in the world, along the route of one of the most compelling events in Canadian history. Though tired and footsore I would never forget this journey through past and present.