The route over Chilkoot Pass has connected the coastal and inland Tlingit since ancient times. But in 1898, the Klondike gold discovery triggered a stampede and thousands of men from across the United States and Canada sought the fastest route to the claims. Two of the most utilized routes were the Chilkoot Trail and the White Pass route. The former began in Dyea, AK (which is now a ghost town with just a few remains) and traversed the 4,000 foot Chilkoot Pass. The White Pass route began in Skagway, which is just a few miles to the southeast of Dyea and thrives to this day. Both routes converge at the settlement on Lake Bennett, British Columbia. From here the Stampeders used an extensive system of remote rivers and lakes to complete their long journey to Dawson City and the gold fields.
Today, the Chilkoot Trail serves as a trekking corridor from coastal Alaska, a dense temperate rainforest, into the Canadian Boreal. The trail is maintained by both the US and Canadian park services. Along the trail, a series of campsites supports trekkers whose journey generally terminates at Lake Bennett. In contrast, the White Pass route is serviced by a rail line dating to 1900 – the waning days of the gold rush. Trekkers can use the White Pass rail line to complete the loop back to Skagway, allowing the pilgrim to sample both routes utilized by the Stampeders.
In the stampeder’s day, Canadian Mounties enforced strict requirements stating that any party entering Canada along the route bring in 1 ton of supplies. This precaution made the journey arduous, slow, and very dangerous. Unencumbered by any such restriction in the present day, one can travel the trail much faster.
The plan is straightforward. Fly from Juneau to Skagway. Hire a shuttle to the Chilkoot Trailhead early in the morning. Complete the 33 mile Chilkoot trail on foot minding two very important timelines. First, reach and cross the Chilkoot Pass early in the day so as to minimize the avalanche risk. Second, reach Bennett by 3:10 to catch the one and only train over White Pass back into Skagway. This last time is critical. Bennett is remote. There are no options for lodging. There is no cell service. At night, temperatures fall and, as a runner, gear will be minimal (i.e., no sleeping bag).
In short, whatever happens, make the train.
Let me begin by saying that I did not make the train. Instead, I stood injured, hungry, and alone as I listened to it howl and clatter as it careened into the distance.
T – 1 day: Traveling to Skagway
I booked passage on a Cessna 208 Caravan operated by Seaport airlines out of Juneau. The flight was short (45 min). Skagway is a funny town. In the summer months, it gorges itself on cruise ship traffic. During the day, the tiny town’s streets swell with marauders who buy nuggets of gold (or printed t-shirts) and dine at Klondike-themed saloons. I took the opportunity to procure pepper spray at an exorbitant price – necessitated by the FAA’s ban on traveling with the same. By 7 PM the streets were empty. The cruise lines collect their herd and the local wildlife comes out to play. But I wasn’t of a mind to commune with the townsfolk. Tomorrow was to start very early.
5:00: Shuttle to Dyea
The shuttle was punctual. The driver was exceptionally friendly and chatty, pointing out each place along the road to Dyea where she had spotted a bear that season (the season was just a few weeks old). My feet were on the ground a few minutes before 5:30 – ahead of schedule. The trail begins in the coastal rainforest – the omnipresent setting in coastal Alaska – at a bridge over the Taiya River, which serves as companion and cuss for the first several miles.
6:00: Beaver bogs
An hour in and the Taiya River valley is asserting itself. The Beaver Bogs are the first feature of consequence. Here rangers have provided simple wooden walkways for crossing the swampy terrain. In many places the wooden slats bend just beneath the surface of the water, which nips at shoe soles as one steps across. In some areas, the marsh eclipsed man’s efforts and flooded the way forward. Off go shoes and socks; bare feet for a quarter mile is preferable to soggy shoes this early in the day.
6:20: Finnegan’s Point
Finnegan’s point is the first designated camp along the trail. The park provided this spot so that the mosquitoes would have something to eat. The site is swampy and conjures images of its namesake – old Finnegan himself – an entrepreneur who charged Stampeders for use of the bridges on the Taiya. This was the site of many desperate acts by would-be prospectors who lost their heads. Busted caches and hangings are its legacy. There’s something else too… Ursus. Everywhere. I’ve been dodging scat since the beginning of the trail and the bear sign has only grown harder to ignore. I’m glad to have the pepper spray strapped to my chest – though the comfort it offers is almost certainly irrational.
7:06: Canyon City
The modern day Canyon City is just as well planned and orderly as the other camps along the Chilkoot Trail. The original Canyon City, a tent city riddled with miners’ supply caches and equipment for the tram line that once scaled the pass, lay on the other side of a rickety old bridge. While I was tempted to take the spur to the abandoned site, I kept moving. I wanted to make my time to the pass before the mid-day sun had a chance to soften-up the avalanche slopes.
7:50: Pleasant Camp
Pleasant Camp is another original Stampeder site that is now much improved and managed by the park service. At this point, a word about the trail itself is in order. Other than the boggier areas (which presented their own challenges) the trail has been exceptionally rutty and rocky. At speed, the runner must pay exceptionally careful mind to avoid tripping – injuries here could be disastrous. After all, we know the length of the trail. We know the elevation profile. The day is planned out, split by split, and the times are conservative. Even in the event of drastically underestimating the trail, the obvious plan, should I hit the halfway point too late in the day, is to simply turn around. No, the major risk is injury. An injury during the middle miles of the trail, when both the origin and the terminus are 10+ miles away, is a worrisome prospect. I have no protection from cold or wet. And, this is a rainforest.
For the Stampeders too, the trail up until this point commanded their respect and fear. The leagues of boggy, rutty rainforest were widely known among them as the worst piece of trail on the route. And for that reason, seeing as how it marked the end of this stretch, Pleasant Camp got its name.
8:21: Sheep Camp
Sheep Camp is the last camp before the pass. Generally, the rangers advise an early departure – 5 or 6 in the morning – to avoid soft snow and avalanche risk at the pass. Sheep Camp marks the end of the first phase of the Chilkoot journey. Behind me lay a temperate rainforest. The vegetation is dense, the bears abundant, and raw life stands ascendant. The air is thick and freshly made. Ahead the trail climbs nearly 3,000 vertical feet in less than a mile. The air becomes thin and steely. The trees fall away and the terrain sheds its soil and vegetation in favor of the rocky detritus of glacial wake. Here the run will slow to a scramble up the scree and snow.
9:30: Golden Stairs
By 9:30 I stood at the base of the Golden Stairs. Rusted cable and mechanical parts marks the path up to Chilkoot Pass. My time was great; I was starting the split 30 minutes ahead of schedule. The High Alpine cometh…
What must be a contender for the loneliest boarder station in the world stands at the pass. The US – Canada border lay exactly on the halfway point of the trail. The Maple Leaf flies high and proud, and many hikers stop here to take advantage of the warming hut. A final glance at my phone before crossing the pass provided the assurance I needed… I was right on time. From here I needed to finish traversing the expansive snow fields – on the other side was the Canadian Boreal. The view was magnificent, and the grade was decidedly downhill. This was the high point of the trail and also my optimism – both would descend dramatically over the next hour.
12:00/11:00: On the Edge of the Boreal
Disaster. Without realizing it, I had lost an hour. The snowfields had slowed me down. The snow wasn’t overly soft – the post-holing was minimal – but a bad step could be disastrous. Still, in spite of the slower pace I should not have lost a full hour. Had I been hallucinating up there in the snow fields? I was worried. There was no way I was going back over that pass – I wanted to press on. But I would need to crank it up if I was going to make the train – I had 3 hours to run 16 miles over rough terrain. And there were still large stretches of snow ahead.
1:17/12:17: Canadian Glory
An hour later the snowfield finally broke and I was able to resume my speed. But not before a nasty fall tweaked my knee. This was my worst case scenario – an injury on the trail. Luckily, so far the knee was holding up. Something wasn’t right. A tell-tale clicking feeling worried me, but there wasn’t much to be done besides carry on.
In spite of the growing seriousness of my situation, my overriding impressions at this point in the journey were of the grandeur of the Canadian Boreal. Spread before me, it gradually surrendered elevation after the pass and so I was able to see for miles and miles. The land is glorious. Pristine lakes and waterways compliment the pine forest and warm summer colors. With the alpine snow fields a fresh memory, behind which lay the dreary miles of the rainforest, the boreal seemed like a northern paradise.
1:30/12:30: Moose Creek Gorge
The Moose Creek Gorge is perfect – seemingly freshly sculpted. The canyon walls are sharp, defined, young. The creek is rowdy and pristine. Deep in the boreal, I realized that this is the most stunning stretch of the trail. The far north feels like an Eden – abundant, inviting, and comfortable – as though original sin doesn’t exist. But, my time was not good. Over 10 miles of trail lay between me and Bennett. I had less than two hours to cover that distance – and it was rough, rocky, root-strewn ground. Worse, my knee was definite a concern at this point – it hurt. And the hurt was rapidly escalating.
I was relieved to reach Lindeman by 2 PM. There were 7 miles between me and the train station. I had an hour and change to cover it. In my gut I knew that wasn’t realistic but there was nothing left but to try. Stuck in my internal calculus, I nearly missed the greeting party. A corpulent porcupine stared down at me from the rafters of the camp kiosk. According to the ranger, this little guy is fond of treated wood and makes a snack of the kiosk there on a regular basis. In spite of my time table, I took a moment to pay my respects.
3:00/2:00: Bear Loon (A New Hope)
I reached Bear Loon at 3:00. My mood was certainly dour, as there was no chance I could cover the remaining 3 miles in 10 minutes. There I met three rangers who quickly identified me as “the day runner”. They wanted to know how I was doing and I explained that I would make it out just fine but that my knee had really slowed me down – there was no chance I would make the train. Their response blew my mind. British Columbia was an hour behind Alaska. My phone had automatically adjusted to the new time zone at the pass without my knowledge. I didn’t have a mere 10 minutes to reach the train – I had an hour and ten minutes! I tore off blowing kisses.
4:20/3:20: Defeat at the Trapper’s Cabin
Alas, my newfound hope was mere vanity. Just a mile on my run from Bear Loon my foot landed and a searing pain immediately engulfed my knee and shot up my leg. I stumbled and fell. For the remainder of the trail I stumbled onward with a makeshift staff in hand. I could hardly walk much less run. It was very near an old trapper’s cabin that I heard the train whistle and rumble by. It sounded like something dreadful, unnatural, and out of place. And I wanted so desperately to be on it. That train was my passage to a warm bed, a hot dinner, and beer. For the final thirty minutes of the trail, my main adversaries were simply the thoughts inside my head. What if? What if I had simply left at 4:30 like I had considered doing? What if I had just been more careful on the snow fields? What now? What am I going to do for bedding tonight? How bad? How bad will it be when I don’t show up as expected back in civilization tomorrow? And of course the simple castigation of, “You really should have made that train.”
4:50/3:50: Ghost Town (aka Bennett)
Once in Bennett my spirits were low. I had no sleeping bag. No shelter. No food. And there was nothing here. And why should there be? It’s a self-declared ghost town. All I could do was hope there was some option at the station and I hobbled down the hill to bang on the door.
Surviving the Night
I managed to find the staff at the Bennett Train Station. They were not helpful. (Although, they did give me a couple Pecan cookies which where very much appreciated.) There was no way out of Bennett. Carcross was 24 miles up the train track to the north. Log Cabin, little more than a gas station along the highway was 9 miles south. If I could get there, arguably I could try to hitch. But what if that didn’t work? I’d really have no options for shelter then. Also, how long would it take me to move 9 miles with my jacked knee? The outlook was not bright. The station staff did point me towards the park’s warming hut. I could sleep there. But it was little more than an oversized tent. An unheated shelter with nothing but my running gear and the tinsel-thin emergency space blanket I had brought – it all added up to a bleak night. Secretly, I planned to return to the train station, put a rock through the window, and sleep there if my situation became very grim. But, on my way to find the warming hut I unknowingly walked through a saint’s front yard.
She was an Inland Tlingit and an elder of the Frog Clan. From behind I could feel her eyes. I turned around and saw her standing at the door of a rustic log cabin (which I had mistaken for an abandoned ghost town remnant). Like saints do, she asked if I needed help. I was a little startled but quickly assured her that I was just as lost, forlorn, and wretched as I appeared. She invited me in. She lives with her husband an Austrian who immigrated to Canada in the 1950s and slowly migrated north. For her part, she had grown up in Bennett and later raised a family in Carcross. Now, she lives with her husband at the lake during the summer months where they trap, sell crafts to the train tourists, and simply exist. She revealed that they had just arrived that day – and in fact had originally planned to arrive later in the week. Such timing… she made a point of my luck!
I spent the evening with the couple. She fed me a snack. She used the radio to communicate with the nearby ranger station and inquire about a float plane (while the cost was reasonable, I dismissed the option as the Canadian service wasn’t able to land on the US side of the boarder). Eventually, she cooked dinner on her wood fired stove and invited me to eat with her and her husband. But mostly, we talked. The hours were long. There would be no train until the late morning the following day. At first we shared the basic fasts of our lives. Later, we talked about family and the strangeness of urban life. “You can spot the people who are used to walking on pavement,” she observed. Finally, she showed me to her tiny guest “cottage” – really a small shed equipped with the most comfortable sleeping cot in the world. I slept like the dead.
In the morning, the saint gave me coffee and breakfast: fresh out of the oven pop-overs. We talked some more and when I heard the train howl I thanked her profusely, said goodbye to her husband, and hobbled toward the station.
But my hopes for an early extraction that morning ended in vein. The trouble was this: The train begins its day in Skagway and makes its way north. By late morning, it reaches Bennett and deposits tourists. Then it continues to Carcross where it stops briefly before reversing and making its way back to Bennett and, ultimately Skagway. My plan was to catch the train north, get off in Carcross, and take the bus for an early return back to Skagway. Alas, the conductor’s conversation with the Carcross office via satellite phone revealed there was no free room on the bus that day. (Is the bus traffic from Carcross, BC to Skagway, AK really that heavy?) I was stuck in Bennett for another 4 hours.
During that time, I met two other wonderful souls – backpackers from Oklahoma who had just finished a 5 day Chilkoot trek themselves. They had pre-ordered meal service at the train station and invited me to join them for coffee. Soon, one of the rangers from Bear Loon arrived with an ice pack, medical tape, and Advil. The four of us talked for quite some time and I gave the ranger an account of my trip that might be useful for other runners. They were all delightful company.
Eventually, we said farewell to the ranger and the three of us boarded the train. And, while I had waited long and with some frustration for the privilege, the train journey itself was stunning. White Pass is an entirely different experience than that of the Chilkoot – and not simply due to the conveyance. The terrain is just as varied but of a different character. Most of the route was marked by (relatively) clear skies and abundant greenery. But an eerie mist permeates the high country. The ground is largely granite and the vegetation thin. Supposing the absence of the train’s clatter, one could imagine straining to hear what was impossible to see through the thick, grey shroud. It was very atmospheric. But the highlights of the trip were the bears. We saw a total of 8 black bears – 3 adults and 5 cubs. During one such sighting, the cubs had scrambled up a fir tree for safety while the mother stood at its base and eyed us wearily. My only regret is that my electronics were long dead and I failed to capture any of the train passage on camera.
We arrived in Skagway sometime after 6. After sorting a busted travel plans and paying a few penalties, I joined my new Oklahoman friends first at Northern Lights Pizza. After our meal, we progressed to the Skagway Brewery and imbibed (further). For travelers to Skagway, I greatly encourage a trip up the Chilkoot or, depending on the nature of your trip, a ride up White Pass to visit Lake Bennett. But should you regrettably have no time for either, you should at least stop at the Skagway Brewery and try a pint of their Spruce Tip Blonde. It’s the shit.