The Chilkoot trail starts in Dyea, Alaska (just outside of Skagway) and ends 33 miles later in Bennett, British Columbia, which is currently only a train depot. The route travels between the Inside Passage to the headwaters of the Yukon River, going over a pass that isn’t easy, but is the most passable route in the area.
Prior to the 1880’s it served as an important trade route to the local Tlingit people. It then became a popular route used by people looking for gold. Between 1897-98 an estimated 20,000-30,000 people passed through the area heading into the Yukon territory to search for gold. To be successful, each individual had to travel with hundreds of pounds of gear and they went back and forth across the trail bringing loads with them each time. It took most of them months just to gather the supplies necessary to start the journey.
It has now been turned into a well-traveled trail known for adventure, as well as historical significance. Throughout the trail, the park has provided interpretive signs and left behind trash left from the gold rush days (ie artifacts). It’s like a long trek in a museaum.
You must have a permit to hike on the trail, even if you are just out for the day. If you spend the night, then you must stay at the designated campsites – of which there are 9. 50 people are allowed to cross the pass each day and many people book their spot well in advance though I doubt it was quite full the day I crossed over and 8 spots are reserved for people walking in looking to start that day or the following day.
I had heard about the trail since first moving to Juneau but had not yet taken time to do it. Finally this year I did, taking advantage of the flexibility of working for myself.
Day 0 of my trip was Wednesday, August 14, 2019.
I awoke, excited to be on vacation! I had most of my stuff laid out to pack, but got to work actually packing into my pack. Between the ages of 2 and 22, I did quite a lot of backpacking, but I have done little in the 15 years since. I was rusty! I used to have packing down; including the odds and ends that can make a huge difference when out in the woods surviving on the things in my back. Now, I had to think hard to remember them.
I ended up packing my pack 3 times as I changed my mind about items to bring or not to bring. I was preparing for bugs, warmth, cold, wind, and rain. As well as potential injury, gear breakage, blisters, etc. There is a balance between comfort and annoyance. Bringing extra things can be really annoying – it isn’t just the added weight, but having to re-pack them every day or having them get in the way when looking for something.
For example, last year I bought my husband an inflatable camping pillow. It is small and light and I decided to bring it. My first night I realized that I’d been dumb. I have always used clothes and had packed plenty of good pillow clothing. This was just one more thing to float around in my pack all trip! To be honest, it was pretty nice and comfortable, but unnecessary.
On the other hand, I brought a bug shirt that I never wore, and warm clothes that I didn’t wear until the very end. These items I was happy to have even if I hadn’t used any of them because if I needed them and didn’t have them, I would have been miserable.
I took a short flight from Juneau to Skagway, arriving at 2pm. Many people from Juneau run the trail each summer, and when I had booked my flight the kind woman on the other end of the phone assumed I wanted a return flight the same day. Ha! I can’t imagine that. I thought I would take my time and do it in 3 days. (I didn’t realize it at the time, but many people take 4, 5, or even longer to do the trail).
All hikers are required to attend a trail briefing at the Park Service office before heading out. I had to wait until 4pm for the next briefing, where I was introduced to trail etiquette – largely focused on making sure we keep food away from bears for our safety and those of future travelers. They also require that we watch a bear safety video.
Afterward, I had time for a nice dinner before meeting my ride to the Dyea campground. This is about 9 miles outside of Skagway, and just 1/2 mile from the trailhead.
Once settled at my camping spot, I set up my tent for the first time this trip, establishing my routine for the next few days. It looked like it would rain, but did not that night. The area is phenomenally dry this summer, as I would find apparent on the trail. The ferns were starting to turn brown, and even the moss looked bleak.
I had 13 miles to travel the following day, but didn’t feel the need to get up any earlier than I would naturally. Still, I went to bed early, drifting into a relatively restful sleep given the tossing and turning that is inevitable when sleeping on my little mattress on the ground.
I was excited, and also apprehensive – not knowing what awaited me on the trail that I would be traveling alone (or with the 50 people I hadn’t met yet??).