By TOBEY SCHMIDT
During the Klondike Gold Rush, the Chilkoot Trail was used by stampeders to travel from Skagway to Lake Bennett, British Columbia.
In those days, men, women and children carried their “ton of goods” for 33 grueling miles, taking them up more than 3,000 feet in elevation gain.
It was quite the journey, and stampeders made it multiple times – some even had to carry all those goods up the trail by backpack.
Today, I thought people just hike the trail for fun, carrying maybe 50-60 pounds on their backs.
However, when I made the trip myself a few weeks ago, I learned how different this 33-mile hike can be to people, and more importantly, what it can mean. It may be a fun, casual backpacking trip to some, but to others it’s the hardest thing they’ve ever accomplished.
When my three girlfriends and I trekked along the trail for three days, we met many other hikers who each had different plans, intentions and reasons for being on the Chilkoot.
The first group of people we ran into were four women, all in their late 50s or early 60s. It was their first day on the trail and they were planning to take another five days to complete it. The four of them were all from different parts of western Canada. They said they’d always wanted to hike the Chilkoot.
After sitting at the first camp to eat lunch, the women packed up to leave and said, “we’ll probably see you in 10 minutes when you pass us.”
For them, I think the trip was more about spending quality time together than it was accomplishing a physical goal of theirs.
My group spent the night at Sheep Camp after the first 13 miles. We didn’t interact with any of the other campers, because we knew the next day would be long and we needed our sleep. After a 5 a.m. wake-up call – utilizing my iPhone’s most annoying alarm – we set off for the Golden Staircase, where we’d have to hike up a scree field and gain about 1,000 feet of elevation in only a mile.
We passed a Canadian ranger and his mother who were hiking the trail together before they’d end at Lake Bennett, where the ranger would then get married to his fiancé. Getting rid of cold feet has never been more difficult.
My friends and I had great weather during our trip. As we climbed up the big boulders to the summit, the lack of clouds made the exposure a bit more intense.
One of my friends started to get vertigo as we got close to the pass. She’s from Florida and that was literally the highest she’d ever been before. This was also the longest she’d ever hiked and the first backpacking trip she’d ever done. It was cool to see her easily accomplish the first trip of probably many more. We made it to the summit and over to the Canadian side.
It felt like we’d already done a whole day of hiking, but by then we still had about 10 miles before Lindeman City, where we’d planned to camp that night. Again, we started on our way.
Before Happy Camp we ran into a party of three that we’d met earlier, two women and one man who were all in their late 20’s. They were taking a smoke break when we caught up to them. They asked us for fuel and hard alcohol because apparently, they’d ran out.
We gave them an extra can of our fuel and they offered us cigarettes and wine. I’m just making an assumption here, but I think they fall under the “for fun” category of why people hike the Chilkoot.
From Happy Camp to Lindeman City we didn’t see anyone. That was the hardest stretch of the trail for us because it had already been such a long day.
According to my medically-trained friends back in Skagway, “deflated hiker’s toe” isn’t a real thing, even though I swear I had it during this section. It was painful.
We were pretty pathetic when we made it to Lindeman City, but thankfully we met a nice, older couple from New Zealand who started up the wood stove for the six of us in one of the cabins. The woman drank some of our honey whiskey and said she’ll tell her husband that she was going to “hang with the girls tonight.”
The couple had been traveling through America and Canada for a while and the Chilkoot just happened to be one of the trails they decided to spend some days on. They were planning on catching the same train as us out of Bennett the next day.
The third day was only seven miles, which felt significantly shorter than the other two 13-mile days. After trudging through the final mile – which of course had to be deep sand – we finally made it to Lake Bennett and the train station.
We ran into the New Zealand couple again and they named us, “The Blister Sisters.” The name stuck, and so have my blisters.
On the train, we met six women behind us who had just ran parts of the trail, finishing the whole thing in about 12 hours. They were training for a marathon, and thought the trail would be a good place to start.
People choose to hike the Chilkoot for a reason, whatever it may be.
For me, I did it to spend time with a few great friends and to check another local hike off of my list. Unlike a gold rush stampeder, I don’t have to go back and take another trip for the rest of my supplies.
But I would definitely hike it again.