Challenging the Chilkoot Trail


Twilight gathered around the cluster of people seated by the bonfire as a Mia Maid spoke: “I’m so grateful for the priesthood. We couldn’t have finished the hike without its blessings.” The hike she spoke of was a 32-mile scramble over the famous Chilkoot Trail that straddles the American-Canadian border on the Alaskan panhandle.

In the winter of 1897 and 1898, thousands of “stampeders” had poured over Chilkoot Pass, with its 70-foot-deep snows, on their way to the Klondike goldfields. It was a brutal journey on which everyone suffered, many died, and very few brought back anything but tall tales to show for it. But they had created a legend that is still a magnet to those with the iron of adventure in them.

The romance of the trail was too much for us, the Young Women of the Fairbanks Alaska District, to resist, and so after camp clinics and careful preparation of food and gear, we felt ready to tackle it ourselves. We traveled over 700 miles by car and train through the Yukon, British Columbia, and back into Alaska again to Skagway, the infamous port town where gamblers, thieves, and con men struck it rich on the naive, tenderfoot stampeders who disembarked there to begin their quest. A short trip brought us near the one-time boom town of Dyea, now deserted. From there we began the 32-mile hike to Lake Bennett as so many gold-hungry dreamers had done before us. At Bennett they had built boats to float to the goldfields. We simply caught a train back to our cars in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory.

With the hike and the train ride behind us now, we sat around a bonfire in Whitehorse, remembering. Darcy stood with tears in her eyes. “I’ve grown so close to my Heavenly Father. The weather was so bad, we decided to offer a special prayer. And our Heavenly Father always gave us the strength to go on when we stopped and asked for help.”

Smiles, laughter, and the soft falling of tears lighted faces as testimonies took us back to the trail.

The first day of the hike the trail began—in earnest. The path led straight up and disappeared beneath a canopy of trees. We gasped for breath and looked at the Taiya River surging below.

“Is the whole trail like this? I’ll never make it!”

The sun tried weakly to penetrate the leaves and occasionally splashed light on the undergrowth. Devil’s club grew close to the trail, the broad, green leaves hiding spiney stalks. Grass and small plants held beads of rain water from the night, and the forest released an earthy smell of damp vegetation and old wood.

An immense stillness, broken now and then by the muffled roar of water, made hiking pleasant. As legs grew accustomed to the sustained rhythm of walking, a serene feeling of leaving civilization behind and entering a new world rested on us.

Sometimes the trail was easy, over soft carpets of decayed foliage, but more often it wound up a ridge over tree roots and then plunged downward again. Footbridges made crossing small streams and boggy areas easy, and packs soon began to feel like permanent appendages to the body. Mosquitoes were delighted to find 30 meals stretched along the road, and girls who had not applied “Alaska perfume” (insect repellent) soon made a stop to cover exposed areas of flesh.

At the lunch stop, packs thudded to the ground almost simultaneously.

“Ahhhh, I feel light as a feather.”

“Oh, my feet!”

“Anybody bring any moleskin? I’ve got a real record-size blister.”

After hot soup, crackers, and cheese, we had to walk through a half mile of flooded trail. The instant a foot hit the water a cold shock went through the body and was replaced with a painful ache that soon turned to numbness. High water was interspersed with drier ground (slippery mud), so just as we achieved a pleasant lack of sensation, our feet would warm up a little and the agony would begin all over again.

After the flooded area the trail again wound up and down, following the contour of the land. The intermittent rain was refreshing and discouraged the mosquitoes, so we didn’t mind the dampness.

Finally, clinging to tree roots and sliding on the rain-slick trail, we zigzagged down an almost vertical drop of a hundred feet and saw the cabin. We made pack repairs in an assembly line inside the eight-bunk cabin, which was set by a tumbling river among towering spruce.

What a pleasure to sink into sleeping bags with a hearty groan. One whiff of the fresh air was nature’s anesthetic, and the girls were soon asleep.

The second day of hiking began with another vertical climb. Alana, a small, first-year Beehive, bounded up the steep wall like a mountain goat. A half mile farther down the trail three whistle blasts pierced the air. An emergency! Rochelle was sitting, white-faced, by the side of the path. She had suffered a bad bronchitis attack.

“Let’s split up her pack.”

“What can I carry?”

Concerned girls swarmed about the pack until all the gear was gone. When the last groups reached the scene, Rochelle was shivering in her sleeping bag. Brother Woolley later recalled, “When I first saw Rochelle, I didn’t see how she could travel any farther. But she was given a blessing and immediately stood up, put on her pack, and was fine the rest of the day.”

After the steep climb, the trail entered a fairyland forest carpeted in soft, green moss. Laughing mountain streams tumbled and fell into waterfalls. With the abundance of cold, sweet mountain streams, canteens were unnecessary, and we made frequent stops to sip the sparkling water.

Purple monkshood, broomrape, fireweed, wild geranium, dogwood, and a host of other delicate flowers decked the trail, their fragile appearance disguising the toughness required to survive in such harsh surroundings.

At one rest stop, Alma let out a blood curdling yell: “Hornets! I sat on a hornets’ nest!”

In the scurry to outdistance the insects, one girl’s pack was caught between two trees.

“Hurry up! Move! The hornets are going to get us!”

“I can’t—help me. I’m stuck!” Help was offered quickly, and the escape was made.

It felt good to relax and have lunch at Sheep Camp. It had been the temporary home of thousands during the stampede. Now we were alone.

“I felt good today,” Yvette commented with a cheery grin. “After my pack broke yesterday, I didn’t think I could make it. But I said a prayer; and do you know, I could actually feel the strength flow into my legs! It’s wonderful!”

After lunch the trail wound up above the tree line and followed a glacial river.

“Gee, the park rangers wouldn’t make a trail this hard! Oh, there’s the trail marker. We’ve got to go back across,” wailed an adviser as her group forded a swift stream unnecessarily.

“There’s a plaque ahead. Let’s read it.”

When we saw an old photo of a woman packing a tin stove up the rugged trail we were following, our packs felt much lighter.

Hanging high on a mountain, a glacier peeked down through the clouds as the line of girls crawled along the glacial moraine. Walking was strenuous, so it was a relief to cross a snowfield and clamber up a slope to a wide shelf to camp. Shallow soil posed a problem in setting up tents, as Mary and Jeanie discovered. They arose in the dark of night, amid rain and wind, to repeg their collapsed tent. Brrrrr!

Spirits were high as we went to sleep, wondering if the pass was as steep as it looked in the pictures we’d seen. The next morning we ate breakfast in fog and wind. As we started to take tents down, rain descended. Standing in the wind, shivering and wet, we were eager to be on the move.

“I wonder how bad the pass is? We have a mile to go before we’re over. Let’s hit it!”

The mile took over three hours of hard climbing over rocks and across snowfields. The wind became a cold river of air pushing rain up the pass. The uncompromising trail went straight up into a world of swirling gray clouds and immobile black granite. It was impossible to stay warm during rest stops and impossible to climb steadily without resting.

Colleen pushed herself so hard she finally collapsed just before the summit. Sweating had caused her to become chilled from the wind. Brother Otte carried her pack, and, dressed in down clothing for warmth, she went on.

“I don’t think I’ll ever make it. Just as it seems we must be at the top, there’s another ridge to climb!”

“I wish there were some trees to break the wind. I’m so cold.”

Finally the vertical became horizontal, and we were at the summit. Everyone was cold, wet, and tired as we stopped for lunch just over the top of the pass in Canada. We rested at a stone crib that was used as a support for the old aerial tram cables that had lifted supplies over the pass during gold rush days. Girls took turns holding up a poncho, forming a windbreak for those who most needed to rest.

“I’m so cold. The wind blows right into my bones.”

After a much-needed cup of hot soup, the girls trudged on, moving as fast as possible in an effort to stay warm. Fog and rain made following trail markings risky and prayer a necessity.

“Where’s the trail? I can’t see the markings.”

“I don’t know. Just try to follow boot tracks.”

Descending slowly, the trail covered masses of ice, mini-glaciers of bright blue with frigid streams of melted water running beneath the caps of white. We didn’t take time in the punishing wind to fully appreciate the beauty of the high country, but it was too overwhelming to miss entirely.

“Look at those tiny bell flowers. They are such a delicate, waxy white; it’s incredible they survive!”

Alive with flowers and small plants, the high country was dotted with basins of water that would exist a few short weeks or a month until the winter snows began again.

Gazing miles and miles down the treeless trail of rock and tundra, we had the exhilarating impression of being at the very top of the world. We followed the river past a series of crystal-clear lakes until the tree line began again a few miles before Lindeman Camp. We walked along the brim of a deep gorge and looked far down to the violently boiling water, scarcely able to imagine the quiet of winter when the land would be ice-locked. The gorge had been used as a highway during winter by the gold rush stampeders.

Lindeman, now the site of a four-bunk cabin built by the Canadians, was once a sprawling city of tents. Eager to push on to the goldfields, many people lost their lives falling through the lake ice in spring. Men suffering from gold fever would rather risk their lives on rotten ice than take the extra time and effort to go overland.

The last group reached camp at 10:30 P.M. after stopping on the trail to rest and cook dinner. A mile from camp an “emergency squad” met the stragglers and helped carry their packs. Somehow 18 people were squeezed into the four-bunk cabin.

The last day of hiking was a forced march as we pushed hard to make our train reservations at Bennett. Stopping for a brief rest, Colleen, with tears in her eyes, called for her counselor.

“I just can’t go on. I can’t make it. My ankle hurts so bad.” “Would you like a blessing?”

“Brother Otte, we need your priesthood.”

After the blessing the pain persisted, but Colleen was blessed with strength and a new determination and was able to continue hiking.

Rest stops became more and more frequent as we tried to keep the line together. Finally the counselors decided to send the faster girls ahead to catch the train. We had 20 confirmed reservations and ten standby seats. If we missed the train, it might take a week to get all the girls back to Whitehorse, and we were almost out of food.

The trail bounced up, then down, up, then down, crossing boggy areas and following low ridges along Lake Lindeman, which could be seen a mile away through the primeval pine trees. Unfortunately we were concentrating so hard on putting one foot in front of the other that we missed much of the beauty. The last few miles were sprinkled with sandy patches that made hiking especially tiring.

Toward the end of the seven weary miles, a train whistle blew. Tired girls almost broke into a run, and it was hard restraining them to the pace.

“There’s the old church! We’re here!”

We were in time for a good meal at the station before the train left for Whitehorse.

Now, around the fire in Whitehorse after a Sunday of worship and a delicious meal with the Whitehorse Saints, we were reliving the experience one more time before starting home the next morning. As the fire died away, the chill went unnoticed in the warmth of the Spirit. A theme of priesthood and prayer threaded the testimonies.

“The last day as we were rushing to meet the train, we stopped at a rock outcropping to rest, and Brother Woolley asked me to say a prayer. As I knelt upon the earth, tears streamed down my face and an overwhelming feeling of sweet humility filled my being. I felt an overpowering desire to always be close to my Heavenly Father and live so I would please him. The words poured from my mouth and I prayed publicly for the first time in my life by the Spirit. I was prompted to ask for strength and that we might make the train on time. We did. I also asked for a special blessing upon the girls behind us. It was incredible, but they reached the station only 15 minutes to a half hour behind us. I’m so very thankful I had this camping experience and the opportunity to rely so heavily on the Lord.”

“The Lord’s blessing was upon us all through the trip,” began another testimony. “Although the weather was bad, it made us depend upon the Lord. They asked us if we felt we could hike to Jackson County, Missouri, and several girls said yes. This hike has been a proving ground and will be a source of strength for all of us the rest of our lives. As we look back on the Chilkoot Trail, we’ll know that with the Lord’s help, we can do anything.”

[photo] Photos by Nancy Kendall and Ed Woolley

[photo] About half of the group poses by a stampeder cabin. The girls were practically alone on the trail, but during that insane winter of ’97–’98 one participant reported that the trail was as busy as a city street. Life was tremendously hard on the trail during that winter, and death came frequently from such causes as murder, suicide, avalanches, pneumonia, spinal meningitis, malaria, smallpox, and even scurvy. Stampeders probably didn’t help the state of their health any by going for weeks without changing their clothes. In addition to the deep snows, temperatures that dropped to 40 below in the teeth of tent-leveling winds made frostbite an everyday fact of life, and snow blindness was common

[photo] The famous Chilkoot Pass lies to the left of the hikers in the background. In the deep snows of winter the stampeders dug out some 1,500 steps up the nearly vertical face of the mountain. These steps became known as the “Golden Stairs” as thousands of gold seekers scrambled up them whenever the weather permitted. During the height of the stampede the pass looked like a crowded escalator during the Christmas rush. At the top of the pass the stampeders were met by Canadian Mounties who charged tariff on their supplies and made sure they had enough provisions. Although the prospectors grumbled about the tariff, the Mounties saved many lives

[photo] Just over the summit lies a motorized “whim” that was used in stampede days to draw loaded sleighs up the slope. The Canadian Northwest Mounted Police required each person crossing into Canada to bring in 1,150 pounds of food, in addition to camping supplies, mining gear, tools for boat building, and other essential supplies. Each man thus had to transport at least a ton of supplies from the harbor at Skagway over the pass to Lake Bennett. Those who could afford it sent their supplies over the pass by a tramway, but most had to make several trips, caching their goods at the top where snowfall up to six feet a day often buried everything

[photo] The blue waters of Lake Bennett were frozen solid when stampeders arrived at its shores during the winter of 1897–98. Here they felled trees, sawed lumber, and built boats, waiting for the spring thaw. When the ice finally broke, thousands of boats followed it down the Yukon River toward Dawson City, the “City of Gold.” On the day after the ice broke up, 7,124 boats were launched, containing some 30,000 stampeders and 30 million pounds of supplies and gear. Almost a thousand men and women had gone before them the day of the break-up, and some were to come later as the spring lengthened into summer

[photo] The frame of a canvas boat and the runners of a sled lie beside Deep Lake where they were abandoned over three quarters of a century ago. During the stampede, supplies were often ferried across Long Lake to the shores of Deep Lake and then carried by wagon to Lake Lindeman. The whole Chilkoot Trail is littered with the cast-off artifacts of gold-mad stampeders